The Indian Subcontinent has imploded. A rash, impulsive and disorganised Partition of the country, based on communal and religious grounds, without thinking or any planning has left the whole country in turmoil. It has been rushed through by an egoistic, nonchalant and vain Viceroy, anxious to extricate himself and the British from a political quagmire. The very disastrous unforeseen aftereffects of this disastrous decision, unforeseen by him as well as the leaders of the two newly formed and forged nations are a ‘holi’ of blood. Mass slaughter on a scale seldom seen before in the civilised world, bloodletting, genocide, burning, loot and rape are rampant in the North West of India, specially the Punjab. Mobs of bloodthirsty animals – humans having lost all vestiges of humanity – roam the streets of towns and villages, seeking out and hunting down any one of the opposite religion. They enjoy and indulge in an orgy of killing, arson and rape. Ethnic cleansing, a term yet to be coined, is the order of the day.
Mayhem rules. Neighbours who lived for centuries in peace now attack, kill and loot their next door neighbour if he belongs to the opposite religion. Villages do the same to neighbouring villages, burning and razing them to the ground – killing men, women and children without discrimination, and taking away the young women.
Yet, another gives refuge to his neighbour and harbours him at the risk of his own life and safety. But such instances are rare in comparison. Otherwise, it is as if a collective psychopathic madness had engulfed the whole of North West India.
Oblivious of all this mayhem, two young boys are enjoying being turned into brown sahibs in one of India’s finest English boarding schools high up in the pristine hills of Simla, untouched by all the insanity below. The Bishop Cotton Boys School, Simla, is copied entirely and run on English standards of Harrow and Eaton, by a Scotsman, Col. Robert Bruce (what else would a true Scotsman be called!). He was a veteran of the recently ended Second World War. An ex-army man having lost his legs in the war and walking on crutches – which helped his arm to become stronger when wielding a cane on the boys’ backsides.
The Deputy Commissioner had said he could send policemen, but he was afraid they would join the miscreants once they found out who Abba was
The first indication that these two boys – myself snd my elder brother, eight and ten years old respectively – get of the crisis and dangerous situation below in the plains is when they are summoned into the Principal’s office at midday. And without having done anything to merit a caning!
The two brothers enter Col. Bruce’s office to find their youngest maternal uncle, who manages their father’s vast estate, sitting there. Both men are silent and look very serious and dismayed. We are told to go pack up our essential personal effects and come back quickly, as our uncle had come to take us away. All we can get out of him on the rickshaw ride home is that we have to return to Karnal at once. Karnal is the the ancestral town of the nawabs of Karnal, our father being one of them.
When we reach Maudeville, our mother’s summer home in Simla, gifted to her by our father, there is pandemonium all around. Whatever can be packed is hurriedly being packed. The furniture being covered and stored. Maudeville is being stripped as if never to be used again. A heartbreaking sight for us, who loved the place. Situated between the centre of town and the ‘heart’ of Simla, the Annadale ground below, Maudeville was on the main road which ended at the large circular ground tucked away between mountains, as if carved there by nature’s vast hand. A completely flat surface large enough for horse races held there every weekend, surrounded by mountains on all sides. A wonder of nature. There were fetes and fairs held there every weekend in one corner, which we liked to attend.
The trip to Karnal was uneventful, but the utter silence and seriousness of everyone around us conveyed to us the somberness of some pending calamity. In Karnal, we did not go to the ancestral red stone building in the centre of town where we were brought up, but to the new large house recently constructed by our father on the outskirts of the city, with over 4 acres of land, in some of which he had kept deer and peacocks. The old red stone building was on the main road leading to the mazar (shrine) of Bu-Ali Shah Qalandar, the counterpart and supposedly senior of Shahbaz Qalandar. Sufis claim that only three qalandars have ever been born. But people often count them as two and a half – the reason being that the third was a woman, Rabia Basri. The other two, of course, are Bu-Ali and Shahbaz.
The red stone construction was frontal with the street, with no garden but the main gate leading into a courtyard, with stables and servants rooms on the ground floor. The nawabs lived on the first floor. The building ran the whole length of the street, on both sides of the street, with bridges spanning it for access to the other side. The whole clan of nawabs lived in this massive structure, which had been divided into big units, but with doors leading from one to the other. I could just walk across from house to house on the first level. I could, thus, go from our house, which was on one corner, to our elder uncle’s house at the other corner and end of the street. This could all be done without once having to step onto the street. Appropriately enough, the townsfolk had named the building “nawabon ka chhatta”. After we all migrated to Pakistan, the Indian Government took over the building and created a Civil Hospital on one side and a School and College on the other. The building was that huge.
The only Nawab not to live in the beehive (“chhatta”) was uncle Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan. He had bought (or taken over) the “Gernaily kothi” which also belonged to the nawabs. It used to be the residence of General “Loony”, (real name Osterlooney) the Army Chief in Punjab at one time, before the 1857 War of Independence. A very colourful and mad Englishman, it would take a full chapter to describe him and his antics. This was a large, palatial sort of building, in which coaches could be driven in and guests deposited under a grand archway, and where uncle Liaquat could entertain in style as his political status and the situation at that time demanded.
Following in the footsteps of his elder brother (who he always admired) my father also opted to move out of the nawab beehive and built this house in the outskirts of Karnal, where we landed from Simla. We children could see a dramatic change in the atmosphere. No parties, no visitors, people always talking in solemn tones.
One evening, we were suddenly told to assemble in Amma’s room, where panicked packing was taking place. A few changes of clothes for the five children were being packed into one suitcase. At about 2 a.m. we were ushered out. Two cars were waiting there. The one in front was flying a Congress flag. Two armed people, one being Abba’s shikari and the other a havildar were standing by with rifles. The other servants were also armed with Abba’s shotguns. We were all crammed into the backseat of the second car, with Amma. One of the armed men got into the front seat. Abba emerged wearing a Nehru cap, the driver also the same. He was giving orders and instructions all around. Then he looked around wistfully, as if for the last time – as he knew he would never be able to come back. He then got into the front car with two or three armed servants and we drove off. As we came out of the gate, two open trucks crowded with standing men – villagers, most of them with lathis or sticks but the ones in front with shotguns – fell into place behind us and the convoy took off silently.
He shouted “I am going to count to three and shoot him. If he is dead it will not hurt him.” He had counted to two when the “dead man” jumped up and ran for his life into the bushes!
When we grew up we learnt that the Deputy Commissioner had called or sent a message to Abba that the neighbouring villages were gathering to attack our house in the morning as they had discovered Abba was the younger brother of the Prime Minister of Pakistan and right hand man of Mr. Jinnah – i.e. Liaquat Ali Khan. The Deputy Commissioner had said he could send policemen, but he was afraid they would join the miscreants once they found out who Abba was. So he advised us to leave immediately.
We raced in complete silence through the night. There was just one incident. Abba’s car pulled up suddenly, and the convoy came to a halt. My mother inquired from the armed guard as to what was wrong. He did not know and was instructed to find out what the trouble was. He came back and said that there was a dead man lying in the middle of the road in a small huddle. Everyone was told to be on the alert with guns raised. Then Abba’s shikari walked up to the corpse and as he came near, he shouted “I am going to count to three and shoot him. If he is dead it will not hurt him.” He had counted to two when the “dead man” jumped up and ran for his life into the bushes! Everyone scrambled into their respective cars and we took off at speed with the armed men firing into the bushes on either side. It was a ruse to get the cars to stop so that they could be attacked!
We reached Delhi safely, without further incident.