Saturday, October 6, 2007

Edging on Sentiment

Khushwant Singh’s novel acts as a point of reference to undertake a trip to search and seek ‘roots’

"The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers. Even the weather had a different feel in India that year. It was hotter than usual, and drier and dustier. And the summer was longer. No one could remember when the monsoon had been so late. For weeks, sparse clouds cast only shadows. There was no rain..." (Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh)
It is the summer of 2007 and as I’m driving towards Wagah, in the distance grey clouds are swelling. An early monsoon has been predicted. Much though I enjoy the rain, the prospect of the skies opening up during my short visit to the international border isn’t such a welcoming idea. On the flip side I wryly think this might deter some among the hundreds who arrive here daily to witness the lowering of the flags ceremony.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. By the time I reached, the stands were packed to capacity, the evening retreat yet a while away. Smart soldiers of the BSF, tall and lean, strictly manned the area. I took my place among the jostling crowd. From my position I could view the Pakistan territory clearly. People were filling in there too to watch the ceremony. While driving to Wagah, in Punjab’s Amritsar district, tales of trauma and tribulation heard during family gatherings umpteen times were racing though my mind. I had then successfully managed to quell the surge of emotions. Now, they seemed on the brink of explosion.
Beside me sat a silver-grey haired, fair complexioned gentleman. He had West-Asian looks and I took him to be a tourist. I was lost in thoughts when he surprised me by asking in chaste Punjabi, “Where does your family hail from?”
Rawalpindi,” I said almost instantly, as if it were an obvious question in these environs. “That’s a distance away. Mine is from Lahore, mere miles from where we sit today,” he said.
“You’ve come to seek it seems,” he continued.
“Yes,” I said.
“Me too. I’m Ardeshir,” he smilingly introduced himself. My questioning glance must have said it all. “Yes, there used to be a number of Parsi families settled in Punjab, especially Lahore and Amritsar,” he said in response. I nodded, recalling Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man, which spoke about one such family. “The Partition partitioned everyone. It broke homes, displaced people. It saw no caste, age or gender,” he commented softly.

Split Wide Open
“The bullet is neutral. It hits the good and the bad, the important and the insignificant, without distinction.” (Character Iqbal’s musings in Train to Pakistan)
Ardeshir was the first time I had heard a non-Punjabi speak about a torment that had affected millions. Nevertheless the pain he had suffered, the poignancy in his voice had similar tenor. Partition had regrouped people. It was still grouping people. Both of us were here to peep into a territory where we had once belonged; both had a yearning to cross over to a land where some dead roots still breathed. He was born there; I had heard tales from those born across. Yet our emotions fused at a certain plane.
I wondered about the many like us who were here at Wagah to get a glimpse of a bygone land. How many of us were searching for our own Mano Majra, the fictional village in Train to Pakistan, a microcosm for any town, city during those days, which reflected the story of societal torture—the fallout of political misendeavours.
Mano Majra was modelled on Hadali (now in Pakistan) where Khushwant grew up. It is shown as an idyllic village where all is laidback and calm. Where only two trains cross daily, their morning and evening arrival signalling the start and end of village activity. That is till 1947 arrives and ghost trains full of Sikh corpses begin docking. The village becomes a battlefield of conflicting loyalties. That’s when religious identities come into focus wearing a treacherous garb.
A slim novel, with a simple plot but immensely multi-layered, it’s through his few characters—like Hukum Chand, the regional magistrate; foreign-educated Iqbal; Juggut Singh or Jugga, the village gangster; and his Muslim love Nooran, for whom he makes the ultimate sacrifice, in the act redeeming himself—that Khushwant fluently brings out the individual and human element of a social suffering, and pertinently asks the questions of right versus wrong or how bad is good and how good is bad, without touching upon the politics involved.

Country Cousins
The train got closer and closer… The man (Jugga) was still stretched on the rope…He slashed away at it in frantic haste…Somebody fired another shot…The man’s body slid off the rope but he clung to it with his hands and chin… The rope had been cut in shreds. Only a thin tough strand remained. He went at it with the knife and then with his teeth. The engine was almost on him. There was a volley of shots. The man shivered and collapsed. The rope snapped in the centre as he fell. The train went over him, and went on to Pakistan. (Closing lines of Train to Pakistan)
Wagah today is about the point of division of two nations, the Radcliff line, and whipping of jingoistic passions at the lowering of flags ceremony. I was a witness to it that evening. Patriotic songs blared. People hummed. Some sang along. Others whistled. Children squealed. As sunset approached, soldiers on both sides carried out their regular drill, showing faux animosity towards each other, much to the delight of the crowd on either end who excitedly applauded the theatrics.
Clank! The gates shut and the national anthem was played. The crowd sang along. Many wept. Profusely. Ardeshir was an unashamed pool of tears. I wasn’t too far behind. I prayed for rain. It didn’t oblige.
As the ceremony got over there was a surge for the gate. On both sides the crowd gaped at each other. Two people, two countries, once again one emotion. I felt like going forward too. But somehow it seemed as if we were two people caged in our lands. The iron grille gates accentuating our fetters. I turned away.
Ardeshir was waiting to say goodbye. All these years he hadn’t been able to make his pilgrimage across the border. In the dusk of his life, I felt, he had settled for the second best. We nodded farewell. Words felt too choked.
There is something about the call of roots. Only those displaced shall know. Ask author Alex Hailey. The quest to get acquainted with the land he belonged, lead him to tracing his origin back two centuries, the mission resulting in his brilliant magnum opus ‘Roots’.
I’ve tried going across a couple of times, the plans always getting scuttled. Each time I fill in the visa form, in the ‘mode of transport’ section I write ‘On foot’, and get an unclassified thrill in doing so. My pilgrimage too has yet to take off. Maybe next time I will book myself a ticket on the train to Pakistan. Hopefully then and in the times to come the two nations would not need a Jugga to do a heroic deed of seeing the train cross the border peacefully.

Air: Amritsar is linked by air to Delhi
Rail: Well-connected by rail with all metros and cities through Ambala cantt junction. From Delhi the Amritsar Shatabdi is a preferred mode.
Road: Distances from the city: Jammu 216 km, Chandigarh 235 km, Delhi 435 km. Luxury coaches are available from all these destinations.
Wagah border: 29 km from town. Local cabs do the up-down from town frequently.

Published in Jetwings

1 comment:

Yojana Yadav said...

Very touching. Call of roots ... and there are many with only wings, no roots.