The story told here is without consideration of politics, bitterness or religious allegiances connected to the events that led to division of the Subcontinent in 1947. It is only a tale of how the lives of two persons, born two doors apart in two different eras, can mysteriously overlap in time and space.
In part one of this article, this author (who will use the first person from here on) had described how he received an email from Delhi, from someone who was trying to trace his place of birth in pre-Partition Lahore. This mail was from 76-year-old Kuldip Ahuja from Delhi, who had heard from his parents about the Gowalmandi area in Lahore, where he was born in 1946. He was barely a year old when Punjab was partitioned along communal lines. Millions of innocent people from the province had to leave their ancestral lands and migrate to the other side, with armed gangs scouting for easy prey belonging to the rival religion, to plunder caravans, kill men and abduct the women. Partition was a great tragedy that continues to haunt those who suffered. Many books and articles have been written on those tragic events.
Kuldip had not thought much about his roots in Lahore till the turn of new century. Going through the essential chores of life including education, business, marriage and family, he had not paid much attention to that long-lost land of his birth, of which he had no memories. After the demise of his father in 2002, he came into possession of the traditional family chest that contained elder Ahuja’s treasured memories. Sifting through the documents recently, to the surprise of Kuldip, he found his father’s wedding card.
What attracted the attention of Kuldip was the address of the family home mentioned in the card. It reads 7, Veer Gali, Near Amritdhara, Gowalmandi, Lahore; the house where he was born. Curious about his roots, he decided to explore the address through the ubiquitous internet. The search for expression “Veer Gali, Gowalmandi” led him directly to The Friday Times and Gangs of Gowalmandi as the top search result. Written in the backdrop of the socioeconomic environment of early 1950s, when the dust raised by the gory events of 1947 had not fully settled, I had described my birth and early life in house number 4 of the same Veer Gali. Having read the article, and surprised by the coincidence, Kuldip decided to send me an email.
Kuldip wrote me the email, according to him, hesitantly. One adverse fallout of the carnage of 1947 and the continuing hostile political climate between two neighbours since then, especially accentuated by lack of people-to-people contact, is that even ordinary people are suspicious of each other’s attitude and response. Perhaps one reason for Mr. Kuldip’s caution may have been due to the suffix of Group Captain of an ‘enemy’ air force, that I proudly add to my name to indicate my past association with a noble profession.
Subsequent correspondence revealed that apart from the Veer Gali connection, our lives have been linked by more than one places. It seems that our lives, as narrated below, have been overlapping repeatedly.
The invitation card that Kuldip found was from Dr. Gobind Ram Ahuja for the wedding of his son – Kuldip’s father – Mr. Prithvi Raj Ahuja. The barat (marriage party) was to leave from number 7, Veer Gali, by passenger train for Mandi Bahauddin on the morning of Thursday, the 3rd of June 1943. The main marriage function, the Milni, was to take place the same evening in Phalia, about 15 kilometers from Mandi Bahauddin. The party, with the bride, was to return to Lahore by train the next afternoon. Considering that WWII was raging at this time on all fronts, the declaration on the card that the groom was the owner of a sales company by the name of “Swastika” could have raised a few colonial eyebrows.
The married couple were blessed with two sons born in that house.
Seven years after the marriage of Kuldip’s father, in reversal of events, the marriage procession of my father came by train to number 4, Veer Gali, from Mohan Pura in Rawalpindi. Four of my maternal aunts and two uncles were married off from the same house that my maternal grandmother shared with her younger sister – both families being tailors by profession and migrants from Amritsar. It was a congested house, accommodating two large struggling families. Marriage functions, including the feast, took place by erecting tents in the street, where the food was cooked nearby in large cauldrons over wood-fire. The traffic had to be diverted through the side streets for the duration of the functions, which were mostly afternoon or early evening affairs.
Kuldip’s grandfather was a recent settler in Gowalmandi. His family hailed from Shahpur where his great grandfather Munshi Ram Narain owned some agricultural land and worked in the district courts as an Arzi-Nawees – a legal-paper scripter or a munshi, like the computerised stamp-paper vendors of today. Shahpur was a major town in those days on the southern bank of the River Jhelum, opposite Khushab; the two towns linked by a railway-road bridge.
Punjab’s vast irrigation system was initiated in the 1880s. The Lower Jhelum Canal was commissioned in 1904 and its operational headquarters was established at the nondescript village of Sargodha, 30 kilometers south-east of Shahpur. The canal offices and colony were constructed in 1902-06. Thereafter, the town grew rapidly in commerce as well as in population. Sensing better opportunities, Munshi Narain shifted to Sargodha and resided in block 20 or 24 that are located east of the Gol Market. Munshi Ji had six sons, all born in Sargodha, of whom four practiced medicine, one was an engineer and the sixth looked after family lands. Kuldip’s grandfather, like his grand-uncles, were medical-professional license-holders. The license qualified a holder to practice medicine and use the honorific Dr. with their names. Kuldip’s grandfather worked for a time in Doda district of Kashmir as a doctor, but had to return to Sargodha due to communal disturbances. Kuldip’s father was born in Sargodha in the early 1920s. My father was born about the same time in Amritsar, and he also lived for about two years in the mid-1960s in Canal Colony Sargodha.
Subsequent correspondence revealed that apart from the Veer Gali connection, our lives have been linked by more than one places. It seems that our lives, as narrated below, have been overlapping repeatedly
Incidentally, I have spent nearly twelve years of my life in Sargodha and my elder daughter and one of my granddaughters were also born in the city.
After our chance introduction, Kuldip was obviously excited when I walked him through the same places that his elders trod through nearly a hundred years ago.
Sometime in the early 1940s, after his matriculation, Kuldip’s father shifted to Lahore to work for Jankidas Kapur and Company, the pioneers of the cycle industry in the Subcontinent, in their perambulator- and tricycle-manufacturing facility. Soon, however, he left the company to start his own hardware store on Nisbet Road, a venture that was to continue to prosper in a different land after the colonial era. His company, Swastika Sales Bureau, was located at Lohari Gate, the exit that I used every day between 1962-65, walking from Gumti Bazaar to Urdu Bazaar and back, while commuting to my school.
The years since 1920 were marred by sporadic but regular communal violence in the Subcontinent. In March 1947, bloody riots broke out in Lahore and Amritsar. People became fearful and communal harmony eroded. Friendly relations between ordinary people and neighbours were affected by mistrust and suspicion. Many Muslims in Amritsar, related or known to me, sent their womenfolk and children to the safety of Muslim-majority cities of West Punjab. Similarly, Hindus in Lahore found the political environment in the city dangerous and sent their families in the reverse direction.
Kuldip’s maternal aunt had been married to an engineer employed in a sugar mill in Sri Ganganagar, northwest Rajputana, where he owned a large house. Feeling insecure in the city, Kuldip’s father sent his entire family to the safety of Sri Ganganagar; in the futile hope to call them back when peace prevailed. Conditions, however, turned worse with each passing day. On the 14th of August, with Lahore in upheaval due arson and assassinations, Kuldip’s father also left by an overcrowded refugee train for Amritsar – in an alien land into an uncertain future.
Many partition refugees followed this pattern, some unfortunately ending up in the “blood trains,” whose occupants were all slaughtered. Our two families were – if I can use the word – lucky. My paternal grandmother, too, left Amritsar in early August with my youngest uncle, for Rawalpindi, where my eldest uncle was employed in the Pakistan Railways as a guard and was living alone near the railway station. They, too, had hoped in vain to return when peace prevailed. My father left Amritsar on the 14th of August on a refugee train for Lahore – towards a similarly alien land and an uncertain future. My maternal grandfather sent his family to Lahore with other relatives on the 14th or soon after – for, what he thought, was going to be a short duration, to let matters cool down. He himself stayed back, guarding his newly built house. But he had to hitchhike his way to Lahore within the next few days.
These journeys of different families in reciprocal directions signify the pain that innocent, peaceful people endured in those calamitous times. By failing to sacrifice or compromise their political positions, the leaders of the time made their people sacrifice a great deal in material and psychological terms.
The company of Kuldip’s father, Swastika Sales Bureau, was located at Lohari Gate, the exit that I used every day between 1962-65, walking from Gumti Bazaar to Urdu Bazaar and back, while commuting to my school
From Amritsar, Kuldip’s father travelled to Sri Ganganagar. The journey took five days instead of one day in normal times. He had lost his home, business and all material possessions, but he had survived the ordeal of the partition of Punjab. He now thought about resettling his life.
A month or two before the partition, Kuldip’s father and his business partner had placed a large order, with full payment, for a consignment of Tata’s structural steel. Not sure where the consignment was, he checked with the suppliers and found, to their good fortune, that it was stuck at Mandi Gobindgarh, a steel-town midway between Ambala and Ludhiana. They moved to the place with their families and were able to locate their consignment in the local railway yard. However, the family was used to living in Lahore, the largest town of Punjab, and found life there dreary. They then moved to Sonipat, another small town north of Delhi, where they established a small trunk manufacturing unit. However, they again found the town too small to their liking and, closing down their business, moved to Delhi, where they continue to live and thrive. Their business has since expanded with their hard work and spread to Kuwait and the UAE. Kuldip, his siblings and his children are well educated and are leading productive lives.
The wanderings and struggles as narrated in the above paragraph are a common factor in the lives of immigrants of 1947. I have narrated the story of my father in various articles in this magazine. Briefly, he escaped by train from Amritsar to Lahore, travelling on top of the locomotive; a scene that forms an iconic picture of the calamity of those days. He stayed for a while in Manser Refugee Camp opposite Attock Fort, moved to Rawalpindi, attempted a business in the village of Sukho near Gujar Khan, went to Lahore looking for a job, made a forlorn trip to Multan and finally found employment in the Irrigation Department at Balloki Headworks. His determination finally paid off and all his eight sons and their offspring are well educated and have found success in life.
The purpose of writing these stories is to ensure that the migrants’ suffering is not forgotten. The generation of Kuldip’s father and my father went through a great tragedy. It was certainly known to those at the helm of affairs that there was no peaceful way of dividing the Subcontinent along religious lines. This was especially true for the partioning of Punjab and Bengal. Some leaders had voiced concern that it would descend into bloodshed and ethnic cleansing. But the people, even the common people who had lived as neighbours for decades, were in a frenzy and ultimately, all political routes led to partition. Whether this tragedy was avoidable or not is certainly not the subject of this article. Here, we only pay homage to those who were uprooted from their homes and suffered a great cataclysm that saw 10 million refugees, a million dead, a hundred thousand women abducted and millions traumatised.
This author and Kuldip belong to opposite sides of a wide schism and were born in two sharply divided eras.
But we are sons of one single street, where our first infant cries were heard, where we opened our tiny eyes to the world, where our lungs tasted their first breaths, and where we took our first sips of nourishment. Hiraeth, or a longing for one’s birthplace, is a natural human phenomenon.
We from this land wish Kuldip well, and hope that having been part of this story, his nostalgia and quest for his roots have been somewhat eased.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org