The Pride of Hind —Mahmud Sipra


The narrow alleys of the old city of Lahore become fast running streams; beggars gather in ancient archways; the people keep to their houses. Still, rumour and terror spreads through the city, faster than the water tumbling along the gutters

They enter the Refreshment Room. The scene that greets them could have been straight from the dining room of one of the Gymkhanas. British officers lunching on mulligatawny soup, chicken cutlets, and trifles, being served by native waiters dressed in brass buttoned tunics and turbans carrying salvers of rice, curry and jugs of iced water.

The Colonel and Walid sit down at a table near an elderly Englishman dressed in an immaculately cut white suit reading the day’s Civil & Military Gazette. Above his head hangs a fuzzy portrait of Lord Clive. British India in microcosm, the Colonel thinks to himself. The headline of the news paper is stark: Riots. The Brtish Raj still had 24 hours of life left and already India was erupting. The Colonel spies the Lieutenant entering the dining hall. The Lieutenant spots the Colonel and Walid and briskly winds his way towards them.

“Well?”

“The train passed Wagah half an hour ago, should be here any moment, sir.”

“I see. Very well then. Let’s go, gentlemen.”

The Colonel, followed by the two officers, steps out into the frenzy of the platform. He notices the crowd stirring as the coolies begin to scramble, craning to peer down the line. There is still no sign of the train. The Colonel turns to the Lieutenant: “Get on the horn to Major Harris. I want a couple of platoons up here on the double.”

Then, turning to the Sergeant accompanying him with his platoon: “Jemadar Sahib, pick a detail. Six men, and stand by.”

“Sar.”

He feels a vibration in the permanent way, the crowds part to give him and his men way. He peers down the line and sees the train finally appear. It is moving slowly. He wills it to keep moving, to pull into the station. But no. It is slowing.

“C’mon on, come on, you bastard,” he mutters to himself.

The train halts with a huge sigh, just about five hundred yards from the station, steam billowing from its giant wheels. The excited jabbering of the crowd slowly turns into tense silence. Seconds crawl by. Very faintly, the Colonel can hear the chirpy music of the military band. Then come three harsh shrieks from the train engine’s whistle. A murmur runs through the crowd. The Colonel jumps off the platform on to the tracks. He looks up at the Jemadar sahib.

“Jemadar Sahib, follow me with your men. Jaldi.” Then turning to Major Harris, who has just arrived, he orders:

“Bring your men up. Nobody is to approach the train. You hear? Nobody. Major Walid, you are to stay here with Major Harris. That is an order.”

An eerie silence descends. The only sound that can be heard comes from the Colonel’s boots as he steps from one railway sleeper to the other and the crunching noise the jawan’s boots make as they follow him.

The Colonel sees the rotund figure of the engine driver, a white man, step down from the footplate of the engine. The man sees the Colonel approaching him and takes off the red bandanna handkerchief he has wrapped around his head and starts to shake it out. The Colonel and the Engineer face each other. The engineer’s eyes have a bloodshot vacant look, as if he has been on bhang.

The Colonel looks at him and, trying to keep his voice even, asks: “What’s happened? How bad is it?”

The engineer is mute. Then, turning to face the metal flank of his engine, he does one of the strangest things he has done in the twenty-eight years of his service with the North Western Railway: he takes his bandanna and covers the polished brass name plate on the side of his engine, which reads: The Pride of Hind.

The Colonel brushes past him, quickening his pace. He places one polished boot on the step up to the interclass compartment and freezes. There is a buzzing sound, a sound he has heard before, a high-pitched droning buzz, frantic and incessant, but for a second he cannot seem to place it. Then he remembers a village in the Burmese jungle; huts still smouldering hours after the Japanese raid; bodies heaped in the ruins. And flies. Thousands, millions of flies.

Taking a deep breath he hauls himself inside the compartment.

For the first few seconds, the horror of what he sees completely paralyses him. He can neither move nor think. The compartment is a reeking charnel house of human flesh, ankle deep in blood.

Mutilated bodies of men, women and children, decapitated, throats slashed, eyes gouged, here a hand, there a leg; butchery beyond anything the Colonel has ever witnessed in his long career or had ever imagined possible.

Absurdly, he finds himself wondering how the engineer had escaped. The answer dawns on him. Of course, the man is a half-caste, an Anglo-Indian- a chee-chee. Neither the Hindus nor the Muslims nor the Sikhs would have attacked him; their cruelty, their knives and their hatchets were meant only for each other. In this particular case the hapless victims had all been Muslims.

And then, above the relentless drone of the flies, he hears a human sound. The unmistakable cry of an infant. A trembling, exhausted mournful cry. It seems to come from below the heaped corpse of a woman.

Gulping the bile that burned his throat, the Colonel moves forward, stepping over the dead and mutilated bodies of some women, trying his best to avoid contact with dead flesh. Gritting his teeth, he clumsily moves the body of the woman, a confused mass of stab wounds, aside. The infant is curled up in a bundle behind a trunk under the seat. The infant, the Colonel, guesses is no more then six or seven months old. His tiny frame trembles as if with fever.

“It’s alright, it’s going to be alright, little one,” the Colonel tries to say but his voice comes out as a dry croak. He lifts the child and notices that the infant is clutching a small chained gold medallion with an Arabic inscription. One glance at the name painted on the trunk confirms his fears. The mother, who in some moment of desperation and hope before she was killed hid her infant son behind the trunk, had been none other then Major Walid’s young wife. And the infant who has miraculously survived the unspeakable slaughter is his son and the sole survivor on the mail train from Amritsar that afternoon.

The Colonel steps out of the train holding the tiny bundle and nods towards Major Walid.

“My God! Its my son! He’s alive!” He looks up ashen faced at the Colonel. He doesn’t have to ask what has happened to his wife. He can read her fate in the Colonel’s face. The Colonel merely shakes his head, and says in a hoarse voice:

“Get him away from here, Major. Just take him away.”

The Jemadar Sahib gently put his arm around Major Walid’s shoulder and leads him away.

Major Harris comes up to the Colonel and sombrely asks: “Sir. The Deputy Commissioner is here and wants to know if his people can join the rescue effort?”

The Colonel stares at him and says, his words coming out as a hoarse whisper: “Tell him there is nothing to rescue — they are all dead.”

Then Major Harris, the Lieutenant , the Engineer and the jawans stand transfixed, astonished and appalled as they watch Lieutenant Colonel Douglas G Weatherall of the Frontier Force Rifles, veteran of the Burma Wars, DSO and Bar, subside on to his knees against The Pride of Hind and silently, uncontrollably weep at man’s inhumanity to man.

The military police cordon off the area as army medical teams arrive with a convoy of ambulances to do their grisly work.

An hour later, the storm erupts with a thunderbolt and the rain comes down in torrents. The rain lashes at the medical orderlies as they carry the bodies from the train and lay them out in rows under tarpaulins for the civil administration to take over the job of identifying them.

The narrow alleys of the old city of Lahore become fast running streams; beggars gather in ancient archways; the people keep to their houses. Still, rumour and terror spreads through the city, faster than the water tumbling along the gutters.

Two hours later, at the height of the storm, in his trim little bungalow in the Mianmir cantonment on the other side of the “Hump” Bridge, the Colonel wraps two of his paintings — a Chugtai and a Kangra, the only things of any value he possesses — in the Union Jack, summons his orderly and dispatches the package with a note to Major Walid.

Then, in full regimental regalia, with a last look at himself in the mirror, the Colonel puts the barrel of his service revolver into his mouth and squeezes the trigger.

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

 

Source: Daily Times, 21/8/2008

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