Dateline Lahore —Mahmud Sipra


Had there ever been a time when some army or other had not been marching across these plains, in retreat or advance? They came; they built their forts and cities and palaces. They made laws, decreed boundaries, founded dynasties, waged wars, and imagined that their works would outlast time

The clouds had been gathering since dawn. The hari had watched it grow from an inky smudge on the western horizon to a vast black arc that blotted half the sky. Throughout the morning, the sun had travelled towards the cloud and now it was poised at the very edge of it. It was noon, but half the heaven was as dark as night and the other half was the colour of old copper. For all his years the hari had never seen a phenomena quite like it: night within day, day within night, and still a heat that gripped your throat as tightly as a thug’s scarf. Assuredly, it was a portent.

The hari rose and stepped out of the shade of the shisham tree. He flexed his wiry limbs and shook himself to loosen the muscles of his spare frame. The flock was restless, huddled together in groups, bleating plaintively. The hari cooed to them softly and clicked his tongue. He looked up at the sky: in a few minutes the cloud would swallow the sun.

A shudder seemed to run through the flock. The groups began to merge and move towards him. He had learned to trust the instinct of animals: it was surer then that of man. His animals sensed an impending event, something cataclysmic, perhaps greater than the giant storm brewing in the sky. He looked out across the plain, baked to its midsummer crust. Nothing moved except a caravan of camels; he could just make out the tinkling of the bells on their knees, the bells that registered each plodding, dogged step. In the far distance the outline of the city shimmered in the heat haze.

Something cataclysmic, yes. He had heard the talk in the bazaars. The sahib log were going. New nations were about to be born, in freedom at last, some said, in blood, whispered others.

The hari smiled to himself. Had it ever been different? Had there ever been a time when some army or other had not been marching across these plains, in retreat or advance? They came; they built their forts and cities and palaces. They made laws, decreed boundaries, founded dynasties, waged wars, and imagined that their works would outlast time.

But that was not the teaching of his ancestors, of the numberless generations who had tended their flocks on these plains. They had known that the only certainties in life were the earth, the animals, the seasons; that the only power was God’s power; that a man was a fool if he tried to be master of anyone but himself. And so they had endured, as he would endure, and his sons, and their sons.

The hari watched his shadow melt away into the brown dust as the cloud blotted out the sun. So the sahib log, the lordly people, with their white faces, their braying-ass voices, their machines, and their guns were going, vanishing as his shadow had vanished. It made no difference to anything that mattered.

The flock was huddled under the shisham tree, jostling, nudging, bleating. There was a faint sound as of thunder, but it did not come from the sky. A train was moving slowly across the plain towards the city, trailing a thin plume of black smoke, The hari watched the train for a moment, then turned away and squatted, pulling his cotton rags more tightly round him, and waited for the storm.

Lahore Railway Station

“Whose bloody silly idea is this?”

The Colonel’s voice has a whining edge, the tone is petulant, exasperated. He stands on the steps of the station and watches through narrow, slightly bloodshot eyes as the military band wheels smartly into the square, winking brass, mechanically precise rhythm, arms and legs moving crisply to the tune of Tipperary.

“I don’t really know, sir,” the Lieutenant says nervously, his voice rising above the din. “I think the idea is to, er, provide a distraction. Take the natives’ mind off things.”

“Don’t be bloody silly,” the Colonel says contemptuously. “ It’s downright fatuous and undignified!”

He looks at his watch says: “Mail train from Amritsar is running four hours late. Hope to God it doesn’t mean what I think it means.” Then, nodding his head towards the Station Master, “Find out if he has any news on it, will you.”

The Lieutenant walks over to the Station Master while the Colonel starts walking towards the platform followed by his two NCOs. Making his way through clusters of betel-chewing vendors ,tiffin-wallahs and an army of coolies in their red shirts as they expertly dodge their way in and out of the milling crowds, carrying trunks and bed rolls on their heads.

India’s railway stations are usually chaotic, colourful and teaming with people, but today this cultural kaleidoscope seems to have a palpable undercurrent of tension. The Colonel can almost feel it in the air.

He sees a figure in uniform pacing up and down. The Colonel recognises him. It is Major Walid. He’s always liked Walid. Strong military back ground. A Punjabi feudal by birth but an officer and a gentleman by training.

“Afternoon, Walid.”

Major Walid responds by saluting his senior smartly.

“Good Afternoon, Sir.”

“What brings you here?”

“My wife and little son are on the Amritsar Mail train, sir.”

“I see.” The Colonel tries to keep his voice level.

“Have you any news, sir?”

“No, no, nothing. Delayed — only to be expected. Everything’s topsy turvy.”

“Yes, of course, sir.” The Major tries to manufacture a smile but the Colonel sees the strain on the young officer’s handsome face.

“I wouldn’t worry,” the Colonel says, acutely aware of how inadequate and lame he sounds. “I’m sure everything will be alright. Come along…let us have a cup of chai.”

They both head towards the mesh door, over which hangs the sign “Refreshment Room. First Class only.” A water seller known as the mashki, carrying a huge water gourd on his back passes them shouting “Hindu Pani…Hindu Pani”, while from the opposite side another mashki appears, but with a different pitch: “Muslim Pani…Muslim Pani”.

The Colonel pauses near the door of the Refreshment Room and then, turning to Walid, observes:

“You know Walid, in a few hours from now both these men are going to be history. For centuries Hindus and Muslims have lived together and yet they won’t even drink the same water.” The Colonel shakes his head.

“I suppose this is what it is all about…this division…this transmigration, sir.”

“Yes! I am no ethno-historian but it is only after one observes this kind of ethnic and religious bigotry that I begin to think that your Mr Jinnah may have been right in asking for what will now be Pakistan.”

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at sipraindubai@yahoo.com. The above is the first part of an excerpt from the author’s best-selling novel Pawn to King Three (Michael Joseph/Penguin, ISBN: 0-7181-2697-1). The final part will appear next Thursday

Source: Daily times, 14/8/2008

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