Pakistan's leading travelogue writer finally makes it to his grandparents' place in Jalandhar
By Salman Rahid
It took me half a day by bus from Solan to Jalandhar. The first part to Chandigarh was by a rickety local bus whose rattling windows made me deaf until an hour after I alighted. Chandigarh, an ordered, new-fangled city, is the same sort of a nightmare as Islamabad. As we drove along its long and straight double-carriage ways, I resolved to one day return to discover its raison d'etre.
The bus depot where the journey ended was not the one from where the journey to Jalandhar would begin; that terminal lay on the other side of the town. The air conditioned bus left at noon and past the order of Chandigarh, we were in countryside that could have been anywhere in Punjab west of Lahore. The only two differences being the jeans and tee-shirt-clad girls driving their motor scooters and no one staring and the 'English Wine and Beer' shops on the main street of even the dumpiest little village. Strangely, from Delhi to Amritsar, it is always an 'English' store that sells Indian produce.
Alighting from the bus, I was setting foot for the first time in my life on the soil of my hometown. If the past had shaped any differently, I would have been a Jalandhari instead of a Lahori. In Delhi and Solan it had been Urdu, now at home it was Punjabi all the way -- even with the rickshaw-pullers who were mostly Bihar or UP men. Dr Parminder Singh had called from Amritsar to say I should head for Desh Bhagat Hall and ask for Gurmeet Singh, who would have accommodation ready for me.
Comprising a couple of auditoriums and a hostel of a few dozen rooms, the Desh Bhagat complex commemorates martyrs of the 1857 Mutiny for the British and War of Independence for the people of the subcontinent. It is a non-governmental set-up run on donations and is home to jogis of the 20th century. Like old-time jogis, these men and a few women have given up everything worldly to keep the memory of the martyrs alive. Gurmeet was one and so was Amolak Singh. The latter had completed his engineering in 1975, but did not care to follow the usual life of a good job, ease and worldly wealth. Instead, he travels around with a drama group doing patriotic Punjabi plays.
I found Gurmeet in the front office with three other older Sikh gentlemen. The welcome was heartfelt and warm. Tea was called for and we talked of the partition: only two of the three older men remembered the time; the third, being too young then, knew only what he had heard. Gurmeet and I were the post-partition generation. Someone asked if I knew where my grandparents' home was and I pulled out the photocopy of the only photograph the family owns of the exterior of the house.
Taken in 1985 by my mother's cousin, our mamoon Haque, it shows a two-storey house with shops on the ground floor and stylish windows in a cantilevered overhang on the first. Opposite and across the road from its stands a building with a curving facade and a sign saying 'Lyallpur Sweets' -- which, I believed, would make a noticeable landmark. Other than that, I knew the house was on Railway Road.
This was Bhagat Singh Chowk, Gurmeet said, and Lyallpur Sweets was no more. He was not sure if the house would still be there, because of the way people were pulling down old properties to raise new multi-storey buildings. Earlier, in Delhi I had shown the same picture to my friend Ramneek and had mentioned the confectionary shop as a landmark. The hope was that Ramneek having spent 15 years in Jalandhar would know the place or have friends there who could tell me something about it. Somehow he lost the thread; the house faded out of focus, and Ramneek thought my family had something to do with Lyallpur Sweets.
Asking the rickshaw-puller to tell me when we turned onto Railway Road, I sat in the topless back with the photo in my hand. Back in Lahore, my mother had no idea how far the house was from the railway station, but she had guessed it would be about a "couple of kilometres". Once on Railway Road, every passing house seemed to be my grandfather's until we got to Bhagat Singh Chowk.
There it stood across from the chowk, still recognisable from the 1985 photo, still unchanged from that dreadful moment in August 1947 when its owner, Dr Badruddin, my grandfather, violently passed away from this life. I got off the rickshaw and stood looking at the facade, taking in the detail of the cantilever of the overhang and the fine woodwork of the windows. The mock pilasters separating the windows were worked with flutes springing from a fountain-shaped device and rose to capitals that I am at a loss to liken with any style. There were floral and rhomboid shapes on bases and capitals.
The windows had multi-cusped arches above whose spandrels were worked with curvilinear vines. My grandfather must have spent a pretty penny for this woodwork. Above the windows were the glass and timber panels to permit light into the room when the windows were closed; at the bottom were wrought iron grills. The top floor terrace was hidden behind a cement screen embellished with bracket shapes and stylised esses. In the centre of this was a whitewashed panel that once bore the words 'Habib Manzil' after my uncle Habibur Rahman. The name my grandfather had given his home was obliterated by whitewash.
If history had not taken the course it took in August 1947, if Master Tara Singh had not carried out his dreadful promise of a massacre of Muslims in the event of the partition, and if the trains carrying Hindu and Sikh refugees from what was to be Pakistan had not been attacked, Habib Manzil could have been the home where I would have spent my childhood. Standing across the road from Habib Manzil, I almost saw myself looking down from the windows watching the world go by in the street below.
I must have stood there for a good few minutes because the day after when I was introduced to Kailash Sehgal, who runs a bottled gas agency opposite my grandfather's home, he said he had noticed me. The house was so tastefully constructed, he said, that he had rarely seen anyone pass by without looking up at it. A casual glance was one thing, but the way I just stood there and gazed, he knew I was no passer-by. He said he had almost invited me in for a chat.
Habib Manzil fronts Railway Road with a narrow lane running down one side. This alley is now called Krishna Street. Across the street was the house of Lala Bheek Chand, who was the same age as my grandfather and good friends with him. That house was also still there and I knew this was my passport to the past because Lala Ji's family was certain to still be living there. Like my grandfather's home, this too had stores at street level.
I walked into Krishna Street and paused at the main entrance of Habib Manzil. If the front was ornate, the side of the brick and mortar home looked pretty solid: my grandfather had made this home to be lived in by many generations. But I did not enter; I walked on with my diary in my hand, because in it I carried instructions from my mother to get from Habib Manzil to her father's home in Mohallah Punj Pir.
Krishna Street ended about 30 yards behind the home and turned left. From there a short walk in the direction of Chahar Bagh brought me to a small crossing where, so my mother had said, I was to climb an incline that was known as dhiki. In the intervening 60 years, things had changed somewhat. Now there was a greater maze of alleys and more houses. But once on the dhiki, I turned right per instructions and saw the small crossing beyond which stood a house with lanes on three sides.
That was the distinguishing feature, my mother had said to me in Lahore, because there was no other house with lanes running down three sides. There was also a marble plate above the main entrance saying 'Munshi Qutubuddin, Naqsha Navees'. That was my mother's grandfather, who had retired as a draughtsman in a government department. Because my parents were cousins, he was also my paternal grandmother's father.
But the plate was no longer there. I back-tracked looking for another house with lanes on three sides. There being no other I came back. My knock brought out a man in his late twenties. This was Sanjeev Malhotra. I introduced myself and told him the purpose of my visit. Immediately I was invited in. With some excitement, he announced to the family that I had come from Lahore to see my mother's ancestral home. As he showed me around, I felt a pang of uncertainty: my mother had said the home was 17 marlas and this one seemed much too small.
Sanjeev said their home was only about 10 marlas. This, then, was not where my mother was born and had spent her early life. Normally I would have bolted at this stage, but something kept me there and as I was being escorted around upstairs, Sanjeev called Ram Saroop, his elder brother, and told him about the visitor from Lahore. I was put on the phone and this good man said the house that his father was allotted after the partition was indeed 17 marlas. Over time they had cut up the house, retained nine marlas and sold off the rest.
The Malhotras were natives of Pakki Thatti in Lahore, where they were a rather well-to-do family with agricultural land across the Ravi river in the Sheikhupura district. They had lost all that and received my maternal family's home in compensation. Even on the phone, it was easy to make out that Ram Saroop was beside himself with excitement. I was to stay in their home, he said, until he got back at about eight in the evening.
I did not stay that long, but long enough to relive what had happened in this home back in August 1947. This being the home of Mian Qutubuddin, the patriarch of the family, they all gathered here probably on the 13th day of the month, just when the noise began to grow. Here were my grandmother Fatima, my two aunts Jamila and Tahira, my mother's grandmother -- the matriarch, maan to everyone -- and her husband, Mian Qutubuddin. Besides, there were also my mother's brother, Abdus Salam, and an older sister, Sakina. My maternal grandfather was away at work in Jabalpur.
Grandfather Badruddin was in Habib Manzil, because he believed nothing untoward was ever likely to befall him and his family. For more than 30 years he had served the ailing humanity and was well-known in the city. How could those who had regained good health by his ministrations ever think of harming him? How could one-time friends and well-wishers turn against each other? Based on what she heard from our Khala Sakina, my elder sister tells me that he even believed there would be no need to leave hearth and home and go to the new country. And then the good Lala Bheek Chand, my grandfather's friend of more years than they cared to count, had assured him the safety of his own home.
At some point in time, so I hear from my mother whose source was her sister, my grandmother said she could not leave her husband alone at a time when tensions were riding so high and that she had to be with him. Shortly after she left, my aunt Jamila followed and with her the youngest of the family, Tahira. No amount of pleading could persuade them to remain when their dear parents were in the home that overlooked Railway Road.
My grandmother was Mian Qutubuddin's only and much loved daughter. "If Fatima and the girls wish to be with Badruddin, then I too shall be with them," are his words passed down to us by Khala Sakina. As he walked out of the home, he had built nearly 30 years earlier, Mian Qutubuddin might have turned around to cast one last long look at the family he was leaving behind. But then again, he might not have because like his son-in-law, he too, even in the face of madly rising tension, may not have felt unduly threatened. But that was the last the family was ever to see of these people.
From the Mohallah Punj Pir home, I walked the same way back to Habib Manzil -- the way my grandmother, two aunts and my great-grandfather did on that dreadful day in August 1947. The first time I had ever heard anything about the partition was from Khala Sakina back in the 1960s or thereabouts, when I was not yet 10. Here on the streets between my two grandparents' homes, I became aware that the demons that had tormented me for nearly 30 years, had been nurtured in my soul since that time. As I walked down the dhiki and took the left turn at the small wayside temple that was not there as the family of Dr Badruddin had walked past on their way home for the last time, the thought in my mind was to somehow find out what fate befell the family in Habib Manzil.
By Ali Sultan
If perfect utopias are imaginary wastelands of the mind then mine would be the longest, road you would ever have to travel.
A strange one, where the whole scenery changes when the mind floats and the eyes close. A photo album with endless snapshots, a very thin line -- imagine a single hair- between reality and imagination.
There is no sense of happiness without sorrow; my dreams of utopian bliss are always filled with nightmarish imagery, somehow these dreams in rem sleep always start with the end-of-the-world science fiction story scenarios I have read since God know when.
The road begins and the eye focuses on an Industrial landscape, painted in dim orange light, filled with tall ugly machines that seem to never end, are rusted beyond recognition and donít work, built by architects who claimed to be insane and whose shrill laughter echoes in the interior of the machines when the sun goes down and the purple lizards come out.
The eye closes and the road changes.
It is night and the road is washed with yesterday's rain. A scene out of an Edward Hooper painting, the air smells of burnt chocolate and cornflakes. Littered with small dirty rest houses that look like petrol pump stations at night, painted bright blue form the outside and dull red from the inside, illuminated by tube-lights -- in this world there are no tube lights thank you --filled with dead souls of lost poets and forgotten musicians, over-filled ashtrays and yellow stained piano keys. A sense of melancholy and of wonder wrap themselves tight around these dirty houses where words flow like wine and music feels like an embrace by a best friend you lost in third grade, yeah that kind of feeling...
There is a place here too, where money doesn't decide what life youíre going to live -- everything is free -- where there is no grief and no feeling of regret, where there is no fear and where you can eat French fries for the rest of your life, morning, day and night with a never ending supply of ketchup.
A library made out of paper and bamboo sticks with all the books that were ever written and even the ones that will be --you just have to be extra nice to the librarian to get those ones.
A lonely arcade where I could play all the videogames I ever wanted to and a museum that never closes, its walls covered with all the paintings my eyes ever wanted to see and a cinema where the popcorn never ends and shows only my favourite movies.
Again eyes close, there is blue fog that shimmers gently as you go through it, and an old building appears out of nowhere, its yellow paint fading away. It smells of dust mixed with rain and of old memories. On its rooftop, there is a sense of stillness and thoughts of things lost and recovered, a feeling of closure and a tiny spot on its very edge where the skies and the stars and your tears melt and make a pond.
There comes a place then on this road, at its very end, a garden I heard about once in a lullaby, in its centre stands an old tree, its seems it has stood there since time began for me, its leaves withered, its branches tangled and dark behind the sun, where the skies are blue and I can hear the sweet strands of children laughing. Beneath this tree is where I lay my head, here the dreams that I dare to dream really do come true. The clouds are far behind me and all my troubles melt like lemon drops