Qissa e Jorawar , A fictional tale of way back when

Jorawar Singh was quite unlike his name. As a child, he was somewhat weak and prone to falling ill, every month. Growing older, he developed a  resilience, typical of such children. The hair on his head seemed to grow much quicker than his other body parts. Soon he had a sizeable joora which he struggled to hold afloat. Howbeit emerged a strong-willed lad who would take up cudgels with more stoutly built fellow students. His portly mother admired and loved her puttar no end. Jorawar, more than made up, for the lack of girth, with abounding gumption. Jorawar’s father was mostly busy with his business of selling and repairing clocks & watches. Shri Kirpal Singh was a second-generation Watch Maker & Repairer. He ran a popular Horography shop in  Anarkali Bazar Lahore, close to the famous Bhalla Shoe Store. Scarcely having time for his family, consisting of a wife, two daughters and a son, he doggedly pursued his calling. He wanted to earn enough, for his daughters to get good suitors and son to get an education and ultimately take up the family business. 

Jorawar was fascinated with clocks and watches, from childhood. The regular tick tock, whirring and occasional chimes seemed to call out to him. When he was younger, he would often talk to them but soon outgrew the habit. He keenly observed his father, lovingly explain, the intricacies of an Ansonia or a Sett Thomas to the customers. How a Tissot wristwatch was equally good and one need not invest in an Omega. On hot summer afternoons, Mr. Kirpal Singh would order cold drinks from Kesari Aerated Water Company and endearingly tell a wealthy customer about a Ridgeway Grandfather Clock. How it was a must-have, keeping with the shaan o saukat of a Nawabzada, which the customer appeared to be. A sound investment, a family heirloom, a conversation piece, the cost of the clock personifying how time was actually money. Of course, the one on display was not for sale, as the Government College had already requisitioned it. The latter was a half-truth. The college was being pursued and had yet to confirm the purchase. Not many were actually taken in by his silky talk. That did not prohibit Mr. Singh from continuing with his endeavors. One day, he called Jorawar aside. He said that his father and Jorawar’s grandfather had once shared a closely guarded secret. Clocks & Watches had souls. Some would stalk an owner. These Clocks or Watches,  first ‘acquired’, then determined the life span and fate of the owner. The owner’s life and good fortune depended on the continued working of the clock or watch. If it stopped, the owner’s life or good times could end. Seeing  Jorawar’s scared expression, his father laughed out loud. He said , come on Jorawar,  it’s only an old watch makers tale to lure repeat customers. To ensure they came back for repairs. Jorawar found the story macabre and in bad taste.   

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A Pre-Partition era view of Regal Chowk, Lahore – Photo credits – www.nativepakistan.com

Lahore was the most happening city of Northern India in the thirties and forties. It excelled in business, education, and health and was considered the cultural capital.  Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis even a few Jews lived in relative harmony. There were stray incidents, involving religious or ethnic groups but those were few and far between. Time, as they say, flies. Jorawar passed his matriculation and somehow secured admission in Sikh National College. Jorawar was an average student. He passed his intermediate examination in year 1940 and started assisting his father at the shop. It helped that, of late, he had matured beyond his years. Jorawar was always positive, and quietly confident. It emanated from his optimism,  belief in the intrinsic goodness of people and trust in the almighty Rabb.  He slowly acquired an intricate knowledge of watches and complicated movements. Always respectful of elders, most customers preferred to be helped by Jorawar, than by his father or the sales boy, Haneef. As was customary, Jorawar got married at age twenty-two, which many considered, quite ripe. Haneef was twenty and was already a  proud father of two. The shop did well and money poured in. True to the trend of successful businessmen, Kuldip Singh, though still not able to afford Model Town, bought a residential plot in Krishan Nagar and started constructing a three-storied haveli. The year 1946  brought mixed fortunes to the family. Jorawar was blessed with an angelic daughter, fair, healthy and energetic. Kuldip Singh, unfortunately, suffered a massive stroke, became bedridden and expired by the end of the year. The burden of family and business of the Khalsa Clock & Watch Shop fell on the shoulders of Jorawar. He had been coached well by his father and the shop continued to get patronage. 

Jorawar put his heart and soul into the shop while tending to his widowed mother, wife and daughter. He started staying very busy with the shop and house construction. His biggest regret was that the couple could no longer enjoy matinee shows in Rattan Cinema or eat out at Volga and have sweets at Kundan Sweet Shop. Jorawar had taken control of his life after the initial hiccups and things were running smoothly. The shop was doing well and he had made considerable progress on building the new house. The Ridgeway Grandfather Clock had at last been bought by the Government College. Now kept under observation, at the shop,  it worked perfectly. Keeping accuracy of one minute for each month. It’s Westminster Chime rang out every quarter, half hour and hour. Jorawar wanted to deliver it as early as possible to the college and realize payment. Regardless of the humdrum of everyday activities and apparent calm, the country was undergoing radical changes. Politics had got increasingly communalized. Both Congress and Muslim League agreed to the theory of two nations. The British seemed to be determined to get out of India. 1948 was the year decided.  But suddenly, Lord Mountbatten received instructions and rescheduled it to August 1947. One British lawyer, named Radcliff, had been tasked to carve out Punjab and Bengal states. Things were moving at a whirlwind pace. There were rising incidents of violence involving the two major communities. Sikhs were a bit confused. Master Tara Singh, Baldev Singh and others put up demands for a sikh state but not much headway was made. Through ominous developments and tensions, Lahore was an oasis of peace. It was almost certain that Lahore, the erstwhile seat of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, would be a part of India. Hindus and Sikhs were in sizeable numbers here. More importantly, they drove the economy. They dominated civic institutions, businesses, intelligentsia and the culture of Lahore. Jorawar was never a keen follower of politics but had enough business acumen to keep abreast of developments. August 14 and August 15 1947, the days when the formation of Pakistan was announced and India got independence, came and passed. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister of India while Mohd. Ali Jinnah became the Governor General of Pakistan. Most in Lahore heaved a sigh of relief that the city did not witness the kind of mindless violence seen earlier in Calcutta and Noakhali. There were sporadic incidents but no wide-scale arson or killings. Sikhs of Lahore had a further sense of reassurance that the holy Nankana Sahib, one of the most prominent places of the Sikh religion was close to Sheikhupura, just 3 miles from Lahore. Thus, it would certainly go to India. Lahore was safe from all angles for Hindus and Sikhs. 

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Khanna Mansion, Lahore. Photo Credits – Flickr

On August 17, 1947, the Award of Boundary Commission for the Partition of Bengal and Punjab was announced.  In the night, there was arson and looting in several pockets of the city. Plumes of smoke could be seen rising upwards. Jorawar was very concerned. He told his mother that several of his friends had advised, like many Sikhs and Hindus of Lahore, they should move to India. When the situation calmed down they could return. But his mother simply refused! She said, “Puttar aye saddi purkha di haveli hai, aithey main biha kar ayi si. Tere daarji, ya walad kadi soch bhi nahi saktde jo tu bol riya haiga. Aye masti gate wala ilaka sadda apna ilaka hai, aithe de log sadde apne hann.”  Jorawar, right from childhood,  could never go against his mother’s will. So he decided to observe for a couple of days before taking decisive action..It was also true, despite a sense of vague foreboding, taking a decisive action like leaving Lahore was difficult and monumental. To add to difficulties, his wife was down with flu and the child cried all night, keeping everyone awake. On the morning of 19th August, Jorawar went to his shop as usual. Haneef had not come. The Grandfather clock was also worrying him. The college authorities had, after several requests, agreed to pick it up that day. But the tempo hired by the college did not shown up. Jorawar’s irritation grew since the cleaning woman was nowhere to be seen. He had to leave shortly for the construction site to make payments to the thekedar. Somewhat annoyed, he himself started sprucing up the shop. Suddenly, he  heard faint shouts of Takbir without the customary, attendant shouts of Har Har Mahadev. He was taken by complete surprise when the Muslim owner of a neighbouring shop rushed towards him and said; “Sardarji aap pagal hai kya? Charo taraf dange ho rahe hai. Maar kat machi hui hai. Wo dangai idhar ki taraf hi aa rahe hai. Aap jaldi se dukan band kare aur ghar jaye.” It took some time for the statement to sink in. Jorawar became numb with panic. His thoughts were torn between the expensive clock delivery, payment to the thekedar and several other chores lined up for the day. After what seemed an eternity, he noticed from the corner of his eyes, a crowd wielding sticks, iron rods and talwars had entered the gali. He somehow downed the shutters with shaking hands but not before noticing; a most surprising thing! The Grandfather Clock had stopped its pendulum standstill. Strange; he recollected that the winding had been done a day ago, it was supposed to work nonstop for a week. In that fleeting moment, he recalled what his father had once said. But this was no time for reflection. He ran to his bicycle and furiously peddled towards the exit of the market. It took good twenty minutes for Jorawar to reach the relative safety of the now-deserted Mall Road.  All around, not a single person was visible. Dogs and Birds also seemed to have vanished. In the distance, he could see thick columns of black smoke. Nearing a residential area, he observed,  most doors were shut. Many houses were burning with yellow flames leaping up and out of the premises. With a pounding heart, Jorawar cycled towards home. Close to Masti Gate, he parked his cycle and chose to walk stealthily, on foot. He saw burnt houses in gali after gali . His stomach churning, heart in mouth, he approached home. It was totally burnt down! Only the Chaukhat was intact, standing defiant and forlorn. With trepidation and  tears in his eyes, Jorawar entered what was left of his home. He had to beat a hasty retreat due to his sandal catching fire. There was a deathly silence all around. Only the fire made a steady crackling sound. Still in daze, Jorawar knocked on several locked doors of neighbours and friends,  to somehow get information about his family. No one opened. In desperation, he shouted “Kholo kholo, koi to kholo.” After many desperate attempts, which left the sole of his palms bleeding, one door opened a few inches. The voice of an old woman whispered – “Puttar kaiya nu maar ditta je, khooni naach hoya aithey.  Hinduya ve sikha de ghar jala ditte ne. O Sab bhaj gaye ne Lahore station valo. Tu bhi uthe station chala jaa, je jaan bachana ye” Jorawar collapsed in front of that door on the muddy floor. His brain had stopped working. He had friends and relatives in this area but no one seemed available. After an eternity, he once again knocked at the door, this time, no one responded. Jorawar’s survival instinct kicked in. With one last look at his burning home, he trudged back to his bicycle. By now it was late evening. He was almost insane from the thoughts about his family. His child, his wife his mother! It was completely normal in the morning. In a couple of hours, everything had changed. He bitterly lamented that he had not listened to the wise counsel of his friends to leave Lahore. His eyes darted to every nook and corner of the roads and buildings for a glimpse of his family members. He hurriedly moved towards the station. The familiar station could hardly be recognized. It was jam-packed with people. Suitcases and travel bags were lying around, many open and unattended. Bunched groups of travellers were in deep conversation. Jorawar searched frantically for his family members. They were nowhere to be seen. Jorawar searched the length and breadth of the station, not once, but several times. News of attacks by armed hordes was circulating.  Mass-scale looting, armed assaults and killings were reportedly taking place in the city and on trains en route to India. Passengers had been looted, women raped, children speared and men killed mercilessly. This made Jorawar tremble with fear and anguish for his family. If only his mother had agreed; the whole family could have passed over this dreadful situation. Suddenly, amidst much commotion, a passenger train arrived on its way to the Indian side of Punjab, resulting in a melee. There was not even an inch of space on the train to put a foot or hang with one’s hands. It halted for about 10 minutes and then steamed away. The train scarcely had any impact on lessening the milling crowd. Jorawar wandered aimlessly. Fraught with anxiety, pain, lamentation and despondency, he decided he should go back home, just to check, one last time, if his family had returned. He hurried to where he had parked his cycle, only to find that someone had stolen it. He sat down near the stand, tears started rolling again, down his cheeks. The world grew hazy and simmered in front of his eyes. He didn’t know how long he sat there. Then, he heard a group of people say that many Hindus and Sikhs who had left for the Indian side earlier in the day, had reached safely. This gave Jorawar, the eternal optimist, renewed hope. He reasoned that his family must have left for India by an earlier train; his mother was wise enough to ensure that.  He gathered his wits and moved to the platform of the station, once again. A late-night train had arrived. With uncharacteristic vigor, shoving the huge horde aside, he somehow entered the last bogy. Crushed by the bodies of men around him, he stood swaying till his feet grew numb. He slumped into a stupor, all the while standing and somehow held up by the men, who were packed around him. He woke up due to a severe jerk.  It was early morn. The train was entering a platform. In a daze, Jorawar got down. It was indeed Amritsar station. Hordes of people were making their way out of the station. Jorawar thought, at least he had with him the money he was to pay the construction thekedar. On Enquiry, the Railway and Red Cross authorities told, that people from Lahore, had been sent to a particular refugee camp. He noted the address and took a tanga which already had many people, all heading to the refugee camp. The word refugee stuck a sour note with Jorawar, he instantly hated it.  Mad with anxiety and grief he looked around the landscape, forlornly. How he wished he could simply lie down, head on mother’s lap, as he often did when he was a child and subsequently wake up from this horrible, horrible dream.  Jorawar,  never wanted  much from life. He just wanted his child and his family members around him. To live a simple life with the generous blessings of the Wahe Guru. He didn’t want anything more, never had! On reaching the camp, he made frantic enquiries about his family. Their name were not on any list or register. No one had yet heard of them. By now, Jorawar was almost comatose. He had lost the ability even to feel pain. 

Fifteen years passed since that fateful day when the Grandfather Clock mysteriously stopped working, at the shop in Anarkali Bazar, Lahore. Jorawar came to Delhi and tried his hands, as a watch mechanic, at several shops. Nowhere though, he could last for long. He had a strange melancholy about him. Over time, he lost his voice, developed a stoop, walked with a limp and turned deeply religious. Ultimately he died! It’s said, both Lahoris and Delhiwallas believe in ghosts. Jorawar’s eyes are astonishingly sharp, piercing and unblinking. He still searches for his family.   By Sidhartha Mukherjee

 Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to events – past or present, person(s) living or dead is purely coincidental. The author does not intend to hurt the religious or other sentiments of any person or community.

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