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.
The city carries the signature of Khalsa Durbar all over. The two generals – Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Hari Singh, who planned the city of Haripur and Mahan Singh, known for establishing Mansehra – were born in Gujranwala. The haveli of Hari Singh is now known as the mosque of the blind. During a game, Mahan Singh strangulated the lion, unarmed, and was named as Bagh Mar (the Lion hunter). The Maharajah was impressed by his performance and placed him under command of Hari Singh, where he excelled. As the apple always falls away from the tree, so the general’s third generation could not uphold the legacy of brave Mohials. In the independence war of 1857, they sided with British in exchange of land around Gujranwala.
Ranjit Singh’s father Maha Singh had built a Baradari, which sits in Sheranwala Bagh now. The platform was used by orators like Ataullah Shah Bukhari, leaders like Jinnah and politicians like Nehru. A few years ago, the structure started crumbling but then the concerned citizens stepped ahead and preserved this monument for their children.
After Sikhs, when Punjab passed to British, they had other plans for the transformation.
The city existed on one side of the railway line so the Raj chose the other side to settle. The track served as the boundary between the two aspects of life in India. One side of the line lived royalty and the other side was meant for servility. It was strongly rumoured that this area would eventually be developed into a garrison and a Lal Kurti or R A (Royal Artillery) bazaar. Hitler, however, had some other plans so the Union Jack was rolled up fairly earlier. The revenue record, to-date lists this area as Garrison land. Hospital, Church, Collector and Superintendent House established the air of authority on this side of line. It was illegal for any local to own a land here.
Somewhere in these streets, lived Kartar Singh Hatkari, an instructor of Burj Bhasha, the oriental language. He and his wife, Raj Kaur, served as teachers at the local school established by Teja Singh Bassaur. In1918, while the prayers were in progress, the twin daughters of Teja Singh stood up and started reciting a prayer loudly, “O Lord,” they said, “give our teacher, Kartar Singh, a daughter like us.” Raj Kaur was stunned and so was Kartar Singh. Once back, he was upset with his wife for this impatience. The girls later explained that they had done it out of their own will.
The prayer did come true in 1919. Born to the teacher parents, the young girl picked up writing soon and under the religious influence at her home, she started writing religious poetry like, ode to the Gurus. At the age of 11, she lost her mother. The father and the daughter then decided to move to Lahore and left Gujranwala.
Jagat Singh, a friend of her father and owner of a large hosiery shop in Anarkali, was one of the admirers of her religious vocations. He deemed the girl suitable for his son, Preetam, who also had a knack for writing. Kartar Singh did not take long to decide and the marriage came at the age of 16. That was also the year when her first collection of poems was published. Besides household, she would care for her country men who suffered the plight of colonialism.
Her time was claimed by the radio station and politics. They say that best of the art is created in worst of the times. So when almost a million people gave up their homes for their ideology, her words struck many chords. For her, partition was not all about politics but carried tears, pain, refusal and vengeance.
Ajj aakha’n waris shah nu, kito’n kabra’n vicho’n bol, Te ajj Kitab-e ishq da koi agla varqa khol. Ikk roi si dhee Punjab di, too’n likh likh mare vain, Ajj lakha’n dheea’n rondia’n, tainu’n Waris Shah nu Kehen. Ve dardmanda’n dia dardia, Uth takk apna Punjab Ajj bailey lasha’n vichhia’n te lahua’n bhari Chenab Aj sabbhe Qaido ban gaye, husan, ishq de chor, Aj kittho’n liayiye labbh ke Waris Shah ikk hor.