The Whistle of a Steam Engine - Memories from Punjab
A Diary from Punjab
For a journalist revisiting Punjab is always an exhausting and a learning experience leaving one craving for more. Punjab best reflects the state of the nation politically. One can see the disillusionment and anger among the people with the political class across parties. One also comes cross living examples of the ethos of India, its plural and secular values.
The best thing about this state is that people are very vocal about what they think and feel. They mince no words in telling the politicians and party workers of how they stand cheated. They are looking for a better option that continues to elude them. A community very high on self esteem, they have their set of beliefs and convictions that no one can shake.
A visit to the Partition Museum in Amritsar on the sidelines of the elections was a very introspective and sad experience. Nobody completing the round of this museum that came up in 2017 can leave without a tinge of sadness at what had happened in that bloody August of 1947 in undivided Punjab, Kashmir, Bengal. It is a historical journey of human pain and resilience. The rendition of Amrita Pritam’s iconic poem makes one shudder as one moves around those pictures.
aj akhan Waris Shah nu ki tun kabran vichchon bol,
te aj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol.
ik roi si dhee Punjab di, tun likh likh maare vain,
aj lakhan dheean rondian tainu Waris Shah nu kahen.
uth dardmandaan dia dardiaa, uth takk apnaa Punjab,
aj bele lashan bichhian te lahu di bhari Chenab…
(I summon Waris Shah today, speak from thy grave, and find the next page in the Book of Love.
Once a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote long and long, today millions of Punjabi women are crying out to you, Waris Shah!
Rise! O sympathizer of the victims, rise and look at your own Punjab. Fields are covered with corpses today, and the river Chenab is bloodstained…)
At the same time comes the rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, making one wonder whether this man made tragedy could have been avoided.
Yeh daagh daagh ujaalaa, yeh shab gazidaa seher
Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin
Yeh woh seher to nahin, jis ki aarzoo lekar
Chale the yaar ki mil jaayegi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil
Kahin to hogaa shab-e-sust mauj ka saahil
Kahin to jaa ke rukegaa safinaa-e-gham-e-dil…
(This stained, pitted first-light,
this day-break battered by night,
this dawn that we all ached for,
this is not that one.
Sure in the belief
that we would, eventually,
reach the last station of the stars
somewhere in the sky’s arid plains,
sure that night’s sluggish wave
would eventually make beach-head,
sure that the ship of our sorrows
would find land, somewhere,
our yearnings drove us all on.)
The ultimate thing that makes the experience absolutely haunting is the whistle of a steam locomotive and sound of a train, making one remember the endless stories my generation grew up hearing of people from both “sides” leaving their homes, hearths, language, culture and friends for an unknown land. Thousands of them never made it alive either butchered on the way or falling prey to disease. My father would recall how theirs was the last train on which everyone came across the border alive. The ones after that carried corpses by the dozen. He used to tell how people threw away their belongings to make space for people fleeing for life to board the trains.
But Punjab remains a place where people continue to pine for their memories, friends and people across the border. They treasure everything they discover from before the partition and curse the politicians and media sitting in Delhi for their hawkish anti Muslim and anti Pakistani, anti people narratives.
Old residents and rickshaw pullers of places like Patti can talk endlessly about the Muslim heritage of the non-descript town and are excited to talk about the graves of influential personalities that are still being discovered.
It is a little known fact that Patti houses a gurdwara that symbolizes what this subcontinent is all about. This is a shrine right next to the railway station that is dedicated to Bibi Rajni, a daughter of a Hindu revenue collector Rai Duni Chand.
The legend (which finds reflection in Shakespeare’s King Lear) goes that the father was annoyed at the youngest of his four daughters’ response when he asked, “Who provides you with food and shelter?”
Rajni, the disciple of the fourth Guru Ram Das responded that it was God who provided everything to everyone. The arrogant father married her off to a leper. The story then goes on to relate the recovery of the leper Rajni’s visit to the Guru’s community kitchen.
What makes it intriguing for a present day visitor bombarded with communal narratives of all kinds from television, internet and the political discourse is the shrine of a Hindu lady, managed by Sikhs in a town that was Muslim dominated till 1947 and continues to have visitors from all faiths. That is Punjab for you.
Similarly Barnala is a place that reflects the fighting spirit of Punjabis. This has been a cradle of movements and agitations. Whether it was the Naxalite movement of the sixties or the more recent farmers’ movement, this place has been a cradle of people’s movements. This was the place that witnessed one of the biggest people’s agitations following the rape and murder of a school student, Kiranjeet Kaur in 1997. Those responsible for the heinous act were punished. Today there is a school dedicated to her memory. A convention is organized every year by the Kiranjeet Action Committee where people gather in large numbers to discuss women’s issues, farmers’ issues and other people centric issues.
Any place that throws up people’s movements is bound to have a literary grounding. Barnala has given us writers like Ram Sarup Ankhi. The iconic people’s poet Avtar Singh Sandhu who is popularly known as Paash also had a close connection with Barnala as he loved spending time in this town. The small town has a lot of progressive literature being published here.
In Bathinda meanwhile, any book lover here should make it a point to visit Trilok Bandhu, a college teacher in Muktsar having a very impressive personal library. From Punjabi to Russian to Latin American books, this library is a treat for those fond of reading. Bandhu himself is a landmine of information about the area and particularly the education scenario of Punjab.
Towns like Dhuri that came to light with Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial face Bhagwant Mann contesting from here make one go back in time. One can see old men carrying out the work of tailoring sitting along the roadsides. One can also find shops selling cakes of clay for one rupee per piece, which are known to be consumed by women and children having calcium deficiency.
An interesting takeaway from the short visit here was a prominently put up hoarding of a an educational institution saying ‘MODERN Secular Public School’ - a value system that India needs badly at this point of time.