Rail ki Seeti (The Train Whistle) : Book Review
(Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed)
Rail Ki Seeti (The Train Whistle), Urdu language book
Author: Muhammad Hassan Miraj
Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2016
Sooner or later a story teller emerges on the public scene whose breadth of vision and depth of knowledge distinguishes them from all others. Muhammad Hassan Miraj is truly a dedicated collector of folklore, legend and fact which he weaves into a highly readable narrative about the origins and peculiarities of scores of towns and cities which constitute the Pakistani Punjab.
He has chosen to do that figuratively through the railway train whistling its arrival and departure at big and small, even obscure stations. At each station, the story of the local community is collected and then the train continues to the next stop. The journey begins from Rawalpindi station in northern Punjab and terminates at the last station virtually, Uchh Sharif, in the south.
However, the journey is not a straight passage from north to south. On the way, there are many detours and deviations into the eastern and western towns and hamlets. Hardly any place where the train stops is omitted in the commentary. That is an amazing achievement.
In a way, it is indirectly a compliment to the British contribution to the development of this region. We have heard about all the wars they waged on the local people and in that process the harm they caused to indigenous customs and traditions, but as Karl Marx so perceptibly observed they not only destroyed but also laid the foundations of a new society, a society in which an economy of growth, dynamism, social and spatial mobility came into being.
Quite simply the railways connected the Indian subcontinent in a way which was never possible before. British rule in the Punjab was particularly benevolent notwithstanding the force at their disposal to crush all rebellion, which they did whenever a threat arose to their rule.
The author contextualized the story of the Pakistani Punjab against the wider cultural and historical canvas of Partition – that singularly traumatic moment in history when in one stroke an impassable line was drawn in the province severing the western Pakistani part from the eastern Indian part presumably irreversibly forever.
Against such a background the story of the Punjab can be told which is informative and entertaining, but simultaneously casts a pale of sadness over it when one is reminded of a Punjab of a bygone era, a Punjab in which not only communal harmony, but also genuine empathy and solidarity was a rule rather than the exception notwithstanding the differences of religion, sect and caste, a Punjab which is no more.
Since I have spent a life time researching the partition of the Punjab I can testify that the author is making reliable and accurate claims. However, the author can look back into history and pre-history and trace the layers of cultures and civilizations upon which the more familiar history of this region from the last 500 or so years is usually told.
Today Rawalpindi is known for being a garrison town but once a Buddhist civilization flourished in the northern Punjab and it was followed by later dynasties with the revival of Hinduism. Relics such as Buddhist stupas and coins from even the Umayyad period of Arab imperialism were found by British and Sikh generals.
Suddenly the story of that region gallops fast forward by many centuries to include the story of a Sampuran Singh Kalra, born in Dina, who has later gained great fame as Gulzar in the Bombay film industry as a leading Urdu-language poet, song and script writer, director and filmmaker.
Jhelum, Gujrat, Wazirabad, Guranwala, Sialkot, Narrowal, Gujranwala, some smaller hamlets all are portrayed with great skill historically and their evolution during the modern period. We learn about the rulers and tribes who played an important part in their origin and evolution, the romances and legends that unfolded over the centuries.
What stands out clearly and vividly is the fact of communal harmony that characterized the communities who lived in these places. I was particularly struck by this story for which we can all be very proud. It refers to Badomali a small town in the Sialkot-Shakargarh region.
In 1947, when the Punjab was going through unprecedented violence which spared neither children, nor women, elderly nor physically and mentally challenged individuals and when according to Saadat Hasan Manto it was a matter of arbitrary opinion as to whether those sitting inside the Mental Hospital were insane or those outside.
The great Indian story writer and filmmaker Ramanand Sagar described those horrid scenes in a novel aptly titled, Aur Insaan Marr Gya (And Humanity Died) one of the most extra-ordinary fatwas (ruling in accordance with Islamic principles) was given by Kazmi sahib the custodian of a shrine in Badomali. The fatwa ruled that ‘Any Muslim who killed an innocent Hindu will not remain a Muslim.’
Indeed such a fatwa was an amazing act of humanism which captured the best spirit of Sufism. Unfortunately, the heads of the bigger shrines were part of the Muslim League juggernaut that swept the Punjab with communal slogans and was responsible for creating that great hype which burst out in the violence of 1947, but the best spirit of Sufism was Wahdat-ul-Wajud or Unity of Being, Kazmi sahib was most certainly a shining example of that spirit.
Of course, examples of human kindness are not confined only to some extraordinary Muslims. The favours of Hindus and Sikhs to the old Punjab were by no means lesser in importance. The Hussaini Brahmins whose origins Miraj traces to Multan (though the more familiar impression is that they were of northern Punjab origin), were Hindus but were also devotees of Imam Hussain (R.A).
The Sikh Gurus were men of great piety and great humanity. The heroic struggle of local chiefs such as Dulla Bhatti against Emperor Akbar, of Rai Ahmed Kharal against the British and of Maharaja Ranjit Singh rise to power all are presented with sympathy. He pays great homage to that Sikh who would stand out in the summer sun and offer water to all and in whose name the town of Toba Tek Singh gets its name and which Manto chose as the title of his most telling indictment of the partition violence.
The author showers praise on Sir Ganga Ram who favours on Lahore and the Punjab are by far the greatest that any native ever rendered in the two thousand and longer history of this region.
While accounting for the resistance to British rule given by Punjabis including of course Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Miraj has the integrity to give ample examples of the developments such as the great canal and irrigation system laid down by the colonial power, the universities and colleges and hospitals they opened here.
However, the book also takes into account the turn of events since the partition and Pakistan coming into being. For the Muslims of this region who lagged behind the Hindus and Sikhs, the exit of these non-Muslims provided them with an opportunity to find employment and businesses but the idea of faith being the sole criterion for qualifying for equal rights inevitably brought forth the conflict of faith among the Muslims themselves: first Ahmadis being declared non-Muslims and then Shia-Sunni sectarianism claiming innocent lives.
The vicious attacks on Christian communities in villages close to Gojra and Khanewal break the heart of any thinking and feeling person. At the same time, he pays tributes to the brave soldiers and officers who laid down their lives in the 1965 war and other conflicts.
One can go on and on and bring forth gems of human kindness from many other places and the author describes so many that no review of his book can ever fully capture the vast data he provides. What impresses the reader most is his sense of fairness and his large-heartedness to praise the good and his courage to condemn the evil.
The only problem I had with the book was that the author blends legend and myths with historical and contemporary facts freely. To the uninformed reader – and that unfortunately includes most Pakistanis, even those who have gone to college and university – this mixing may not be clear and obvious.
Stories of miracles and charisma and the legends of tribal chiefs and warrior tribes are always entertaining, but they obscure and obfuscate objective reality. Some were defenders of privileges and hierarchy while others were tyrants and bandits. It is therefore important not to romanticize the past too much.
Overall, for me Muhammad Hassan Miraj has done a great service by bringing forth a very rich and variegated Punjab. The story of Lahore is missing from the book, which is not a major miss because a lot has been written about it.
Since this is not a book of fiction it would have been useful to get a list of the people who told him the stories he has reported and the books and articles he read to compile the narrative of the Train Whistle.