Countdown to Beijing
Journey back home
If you are lucky enough to be visiting Beijing now or for the Olympics, you are in for an interesting trip that will whet your tourist appetite for more
By Ishrat Hyatt
Visitors going to Beijing for the Olympic Games will have more than the spectacle of the competitions to look forward to as Beijing has so many tourist attractions that it is difficult to plan which one to visit first -- starting with the Great Wall to the Forbidden City and dozens of heritage sites in between. From one well-preserved historic place to the other, exploring the city is an eye-opener to the historical and cultural splendour enjoyed by the Chinese people both in ancient times and in the present. To see the rest of China and its world heritage sites would require not one but many visits!
Driving into Beijing in the early hours of the day after a fairly comfortable flight from Islamabad, it was thrilling to be in the city we had heard so much about. On both sides of the highway rose bushes were in full bloom, providing a picturesque view before the eyes went beyond to the skyline -- wide open spaces alternating with modern structures visible in turn till we entered the main city, which was crowded and checked into our ritzy hotel. All kinds of hotels are present in the city, though language sometimes is a problem in communicating. For the Olympics, special schools to teach English have been set up to solve this problem.
Besides the historic attractions, Beijing boasts many beautiful modern structures as well and visiting some of these left us quite wide-eyed and marvelling at what could be achieved with effort and imagination -- the Foreign Office being one such building. We entered in what looked like an open, large rectangle, with a concrete structure all around. It took a few minutes to realise it was covered with a glass roof so the view was 'open to the sky'. The wall in front of us had figures of ancient Chinese artefacts in bold relief; palm trees grew in huge pots on both sides while flowers were in full bloom and gave a cheerful welcome, as did the officials who led us to a nicely decorated room for a briefing.
A visit to the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is situated in one of the palaces that were used by Chinese emperors and located adjacent to a huge lake that lies in the centre of the city, shows a different, traditional side of Beijing. The serene atmosphere; the well-preserved premises and the overall sense of peace and tranquility did much to keep us in a spiritual mood, while it was satisfying to hear from those briefing us that complete religious freedom is given to follow the tenets of Islam or other religions. The central government does not interfere in such matters and ethnic groups have the freedom to follow their faith as they desire. Outside the Bureau, men and women sat along the sides of the road and played an ancient form of mahjong with small, wooden blocks, oblivious of who was coming or going.
Visits to the television studios; radio station and other public buildings were just as pleasant and stimulating. Everywhere you go in Beijing fancy fountains play in front of buildings with imposing sculptures of animals placed in the green areas of which there are plenty everywhere you look -- the flowers and greenery are very lush and provide a soothing atmosphere amid the imposing buildings, both old and new. As for the people they had their own colour to the city -- they are well dressed and wear bright clothes -- a far cry from the uni-dress code that was imposed on men and women some years ago when everyone wore blue jackets and pants!
Trips to architectural wonders and officials were usually followed by a couple of hours of entertainment which was very enjoyable even though the dialogues of the various skits and songs were implicit. There are restaurants which provide entertainment as you dine or you can dine somewhere and go to a special theatre for a show but make sure you book in advance!
It was delightful to see the enjoyment of the people around us and it was contagious, to say the least, as the Chinese enjoy their entertainment and laugh loudly or applaud heartily during and after each performance, often interacting with the actors and the action in smaller theatres. Classical dance and music, with modern interpretations interspersed with each other, make shows enjoyable for everyone and are a good way to get to know both the genres in a pleasant way. If you are lucky enough to be visiting Beijing now or for the Olympics, you are in for an interesting trip that will whet your tourist appetite for more.
My uncle took a few days off from his assignment in the surgical ward and got to Solan. He collected his sister and together they took the train back to Jalandhar. Chan (Chacha Jan was thus abbreviated on the tongues of us four siblings), stayed overnight with the family and sometime on the eighth or ninth of August took the train back to Delhi. That was the last he was ever to see of his parents, two sisters, grandfather (nana) and the servant Eidu and his wife and five children. This was the journey I wanted to make: from Irwin Hospital to a house in Solan and thence to the home in Railway Road, Jalandhar.
Irwin Hospital, as Chan knew it, no longer exists. The old buildings have been replaced by new, multi-storeyed ones. The dream of walking the corridors where Chan walked more than 60 years ago could not be realised. All that remains from Chan's time is the administrative block with its stubby tower and two short wings. It being a Sunday, the Medical Superintendent was not available and we were told by the two clerks in the office that taking pictures of the admin block was prohibited. I said this was just like home: ask a low-ranking official permission for something and the answer will always be No. The other clerk turned on me and snapped, 'We are the same people. So how can you be any different because of the border?'
The poison lay not in his words; it was unconcealed and blatant in the way he spat out his words. My fourth day in India and this was the first evidence of cross-religious hostility.
Lying in bed that night of a sudden I was seized by a terrible uncertainty about the other monuments this pilgrimage had been undertaken to see. Would any of them, the house in Solan and, most of all, the one in Jalandhar, still be there? I had waited a quarter of a century to begin this journey, was I, after all, too late in coming?
I could not return the next day because I had still to visit the office of the Divisional Engineer (DEN), Northern Railway. Before partition, Delhi lay on the North Western Railway and in late 1946 a young man with a wife and year-old daughter had come on promotion from the Kalka-Simla narrow gauge section to take over as DEN. His name was Abdur Rashid. In July the following year with things careening madly towards the greatest holocaust ever, he was transferred to Karachi.
He was my father and it was his office I wanted to see in the hope that the incumbency board from those pre-partition days would still be intact with his name on it. The office I fetched up at was in the unattractive two-storey building adjacent to the New Delhi railway station. Bhopinder Kumar Sharma who sat in the DEN's seat greeted me with great warmth when he heard the reason of my visit. When the incumbency board was all used up, he noted with a wry smile, it was painted over and begun anew. History was not preserved as it was in Railway Headquarters, Lahore where I have seen boards with pre-partition names as well. The current one in Sharma's office went back to 1990 or thereabouts.
Some colleagues of Sharma's arrived. We were introduced, and I was completely taken by the warmth and fellow-feeling of these good people. This was in sharp contrast to the clerk in the admin office at Irwin Hospital. That specimen obviously was an aberration. These were human beings from the present who viewed the violence of partition as sinful madness. Discussions broke out if my father could possibly have held office in the building at Kashmir Gate. Or could it have been in Paharganj? No one was certain, but one thing they knew: there was no incumbency board in any office that delved 60 years into the past.
Ramneek insisted we visit the ruins of Tughlakabad and the old city. But I did not wish to go anywhere. All that remained to be done was to visit Surindra aunty. Her late husband Prem Nath Sood went to the prestigious Thompson College of Civil Engineers at Roorkee with my father. My father followed him to the railways a couple of months behind and both were posted on the North Western Railway. Back in 1944 when my father was posted at Dalbandin in Balochistan, Prem uncle was in Quetta and the old friendship flowered.
Partition drove them to different countries upon the same common land and they kept in touch, first by letters and then by telephone. Prem uncle and Surindra aunty were safely in India when the land was divided, but Gyan Nath, Prem uncle's brother, was still serving his bank in Quetta where my father was then the DEN. When law and order got out of hand, Gyan Sood came to live with my parents in No. 9 Colvin Road. It was during this time that word, amorphous and uncertain, arrived of the terrible carnage in Jalandhar.
'So that no vindictive thought for Gyan should cross your mother's mind, Bhai Rashid did not tell her that his family in Jalandhar was no more,' Surindra aunty said. The younger Gyan, whose common bond with my father was a great love for Persian and Urdu poetry, remained with my parents until sometime in October when he was finally expatriated to India.
Done in Delhi, I took the night train to Kalka. It was a few minutes before five when we pulled into the last broad gauge station on this section. Hence onward it is the toy narrow gauge train that runs all the way to Simla via Solan. When Chan went to fetch Tahira phuphi he would have taken the train, but I took a taxi instead. Surindra aunty had warned me about Solan being grotesquely bloated and having long since burst at the seams. It was huger than Abbottabad.
Rakhila Kahlon, the charming young Assistant Commissioner, said there was no Survey of India establishment in Solan anymore. But she had the right man to trace old properties. The wizened old man (whose name I never asked) came in with his files held close to his chest and took thirty minutes to come up with the location of the two bungalows that were rented by the Survey of India. They lay to the northeast of the DC's office, and shortly after partition, one of them was turned into a school. Then about 15 years ago, being private property, they were both pulled down to raise a multi-storey hotel or something.
Just a few days after her sister Tahira had left for home with their brother Habib, Zubeda phuphi and her surveyor husband Mian Sharif were alerted late one evening by the roar of the approaching mob. They left the main house and hid in the outhouses in the back; my aunt with her infant daughter in one and her husband in the other. Her blood must have all but curdled as she heard several footsteps approaching even as the rest of the mob was ransacking their home.
The door was thrown open and a burning torch held inside to light up the dark interior. A voice said: 'The muslas have fled.' And then the footsteps receded. All the while, my aunt remained in the narrow lee behind the door fearing her daughter would yet cry out and give everything away. When the coast was finally clear, my uncle left his wife and daughter to make it with great difficulty to the residence of his British officer to tell him of the dreadful fate that very nearly befell him and his family.
And so it came to pass, that they were retrieved and eventually made it to Pakistan. Phupha Sharif, a man of ruthless honesty and an acid tongue, rose to retire as the last civilian Surveyor General of Pakistan in the early 1980s. In November 1996, Zubeda phuphi, then seventy-three years old, who had escaped from right under attackers' swords in Solan was murdered in her Satellite Town home by their Kashmiri servant.
As phupha Sharif drove back from a visit to the doctor, he saw the servant walk out of the house, presumably on an errand. Inside, he found his wife of fifty years, lying on the bedroom floor. Her throat cut; she was already dead, having drowned in her own blood. The kitchen knife that the beast had used lay next to her.
After the funeral that evening as we all sat around still too stunned to talk, Chan said, 'What a strange irony. Two sisters were cut down by Hindus and Sikhs in the riots and the only one who made it to Pakistan lost her life at the hands of a Kashmiri Muslim.' I do not remember how many of us were there, and I cannot say who else felt the anguish in my uncle's voice, but I did and I almost broke into tears.
As I blinked away the tears staring at the darkness outside the window, I realised that partition was never mentioned in our family. Neither my father nor Chan, nor indeed phuphi Zubeda had ever talked of that time. That was their way of keeping the enormous grief and sense of loss at bay; that was their way of struggling to forget an abiding memory that refused to be forgotten. Now with this tragedy fresh upon us, Chan gave voice to his distress.
But back in Solan, the outhouse behind whose door my aunt had waited with bated breath was no more. I had wanted to stand behind that same door and feel for myself the horror my aunt had felt. 'Progress and development' had caused that to be denied me. As I lay awake in my hotel bed that night, I was once again seized by that same terrible uncertainty about what I may not find in Jalandhar.
The half a day's bus ride from Solan to Jalandhar was the longest I had ever taken.
Postscript: At Solan railway station where I went for no reason but to watch the narrow gauge diesel-powered train, I found the station master and his staff sitting across the lines from the building sunning themselves. I told them my father was the AEN on this line back in 1946 and we were suddenly like friends. The house in Dharampur that was my parents' residence was now a hostel for railway officers attending a training school at that station, they said. We talked railways for a bit and my mind once again went back to the clerk in Irwin Hospital.
Solan: From sub-alpine idyll to concrete jungle.
Narrow neigbhourhood lanes of Munirka, New Delhi.
Connaught Place, New Delhi's most popular shopping centre.