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Bao Train and Dorian Gray

December 17, 2012

For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


But, perhaps, that was another city. The orchards that dotted the green mosaic of fields and huts appeared intermittently. Noor Bawa, a locality enroute Gondalanwala was flanked by Islamabad and Kishan Nagar on either side. The faithful of Islam and devotees of Kishan enjoyed their religious freedom and never complained about cultural invasion. Away from these colonies, Mehboob Alam High School served the educational needs of the area and Soofi Jamat Ali of this school was famous for his strictness, throughout the division.

In the city, the residents spent their lives in Kapooran Wali Gali, Gali Sheikh Ghulam Hussain and Gali Sheikh Jhandoo, silently and unceremoniously. These streets, quite the living beings, grew young and old with each human being, individually. The bond between the two can best be described by the silence that is prologue and epilogue to their mention. Motor mechanics and shoe-makers have taken over these streets now. Some images should never be seen in real.

Sheikh Jhandoo was a successful entrepreneur, who remained wary of his managers. To make up the requisite workforce, he decided to educate the poor Muslim kids for prospective employees. He picked up brilliant yet needy children across India and brought them to this street for education. The graduates of this street gave a new identity to the city and produced the likes of Justice Sheikh Deen Muhammad of Radcliffe award and Altaf Gohar.

The Municipality had seven members and four of them were Hindus. Among the Muslim members, Sheikh Ata Muhammad aka Baboo Ata, dominated the city politics for many decades. The Gujranwala Bar, at that time, had 40 members and 30 out of them were Sikhs, Khushal Singh and Rajinder Singh, to name a few. Despite this demography, Gujranwala was a calm place and the residents mastered the art of co existence.

Urdu Bazar, Khalsa College and Hindu College (established subsequently) helped enlisting the city in intellectual domain. Besides these footprints of Raj, a number of temples and Gurudwaras existed in the city. The Jain temple, located in Bairee Wala Chowk, is famous for the woodwork at the entrance. The finest carving attracts many art lovers, including the students of NCA. Devi wala Talab was another temple, which had large space around it. Kashmir Mehal, a cinema, marks this place now. Kashmir adds to the national fervour and serves the religious sentiment. Guruduwara DamDama sahib, a historical Gurudwara was located off the railway line. The office of Subash Chandar Bose’s Indian national Army on main G T Road was another dimension of Gujranwala.

It did take a while for the city to reclaim its original appearance after partition but as the trauma survivors can never be their real self again, Gujranwala remained a shade shorter. The advent of electricity saw a boom in the fan making industry. Electric fan, once a commodity for rich and the affluent, was soon a part of the dowry list and was reduced to a normal utility item. The city could then be mapped on foot. Civil lines, the arena of Zia, the wrestler, Grand Trunk Road and the labyrinth streets.

Without the mention of Bao Train, Gujranwala remains an incomplete story. The train shuttled between Lahore and Sialkot and fit in the educational and work schedules. The name Bao Train was a reference to the formally dressed students and office workers who took this train. Other than these passengers, the train ferried a large number of railway workers from Mughalpura workshop. The hearts of thousands of viewers were touched after Munno Bhai wrote a TV serial on the emotional side of passengers.

The city has hundreds of stories and thousands of references. Besides Amrita Preetam, wordsmiths like Noon Meem Rashid, Abdul-Hameed Adam, Dr Faqeer Muhammad Faqeer and Meera Ji hailed from Gujranwala. The first Melody Queen of India, Surayya was also born in Gujranwala but circumstances, however, had her interred in Bada Kabristan, Marine Lines, Mumbai.

Gujranwala has lived up to its traditions of chivalry and continues to produce men of valour like Air Commodore Mitti Masood and Captain Ahsan Malik. While Mitty was a hero outside the theatre, Ahsan’s resilience in the 1971 war won him special appreciation of Sam Bahadur. The  Indian Chief of Army Staff, Field Marshal Manekshaw, wrote to his Pakistani counterpart and requested to merit Ahsan’s bravery. The list also includes Parameshwar Narayn Haksar, the chief architect of Simla Accord and a close aide of Ms Gandhi. Religious icons such as Grand Ayatollah Bashir Najfi and Swami Ram Teerath also have a connection with the city. Gujranwala has produced some of the finest comedians for the entertainment industry. The versatility of Dildar Pervez Bhatti, wit of Sohail Ahmed, timings of Babbu Barral, slapsticks of Younus Butt and comedy of Munawar Zareef is attributed to Gujranwala.

Fewer in the city have read Oscar Wilde beyond text books but there once lived a deputy commissioner who was quite the Dorian Grey. Mustafa Zaidi was a poet par excellence and equally narcissist. The DC house at Gujranwala, during his stay, had only one neighbour – the Qazilbash family was of three daughters and their parents. They mixed well with Zaidi and his German wife. Shehnaz, one of the daughters, soon graduated to be the title of Zaidi’s poems. The sorry affair cost the poet his job, family, and eventually his life. Shahnaz managed headlines for a while and then left the country along with the family. Much to his dismay, Zaidi’s poetry was recognised posthumously, a ritual he criticised fiercely.

Donald Jeevan Mall is the scion of Dhall Rajputs. His great grandfather converted to Christianity. The story of his conversion can still be found in archives of Gujranwala Church. His age defies the social pressures that prevent people from being straight forward. Somebody asked, “Did you ever face religious discrimination?” “Never”, he replied, “Its been almost a lifetime, I have moved all the way from Bakhtay wala to Gill Road and never did it occur to me that I was different. The city and the people have been more than just neighbours, they are the family.”

I thought I never knew this place.


Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.