The nostalgic train to Pakistan

“Not forever does the bulbul sing
In balmy shades of bowers,
Not forever lasts the spring
Nor ever blossom the flowers.
Not forever reigneth joy,
Sets the sun on days of bliss,
Friendships not forever last,
They know not life,
who know not this.”
–Train to Pakistan

My grandparents were from Amritsar, and migrated to Gujrawala in 1947. Throughout their life they have had a longing to revisit their “homes.” But they could not. It was a dream they were reluctant to realize. Not because of the visa hassle or the political turbulence but because of a latent fear that the home they were forced to abandon might not be there at all. Something similar to the overwhelming shock the Indian poet Gulzar received last year, when he visited his house in Jhelum, Punjab. He had to quit his visit because of it.
Unlike most partition survivors (sometimes described as the orphans of partition), Singh was not a child or teenager in 1947. He was a ripe old man of 32, who had spent his youth studying in the prestigious Government College, Lahore (now GCU) and practicing law at the Lahore bar. The memories of the scotch in Lahore’s gymkhana and the posh residential areas around Lahore’s eastern canal and Lawrence Gardens were vivid and deeply embedded in his mind. Unlike, the cloudy memories my grandmother has, of the well and the fields near her village home in Amritsar.
GCU declared Khushwant Singh as the oldest living Ravian (GCU alumni). Faiz Ahmed Faiz graduated the year Khushwant Singh entered the college. Singh graduated in 1934 and he was a contemporary of the renowned Urdu poet N.M.Rashid. The two probably interacted with each other sometimes, since they were both contributors for the college magazine Ravi. He contributed two articles in the magazine, titled “Mosquito” and “School Eshq Di Fees” published in 1935.
Traditionally, colleges in the sub-continent lacked the ambitious pace and aggressive drive that students have today. As one can imagine, the idleness of youth, the relaxed annual system and the intellectual ambiance of the sub-continent’s most prestigious and elite college must have left a lasting impression on the young Singh. They were slower places, with many activities that kept students engaged and catalyzed lasting friendships between students and even teachers. When a delegation of old Ravians met him last year, Singh said that the memories of Anarkali, the market next to GCU, “are still fresh” in his mind.
However, the shock of the partition also persisted because of the gory memories it evoked. In an article published in the Outlook to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Partition, Singh wrote a piece ominously titled “Last Days in Lahore.” Singh wrote about the “sporadic gunfire and mobs yelling in the streets” of Lahore, as the cultural hub of Punjab plunged into fear. “That June afternoon of 1947 remains etched in my mind. I had returned from the high court when I heard the uproar…. I did not have to make guesses; the Hindu-Sikh mohalla of Shahalmi was going up in flames.” He mentions the Sikh killings in Badami Bagh, Mozang, Taxila station and Sikh arrests in the National College. Of course, a more precise examination of the event can be discovered in his novel, The Train to Pakistan.
I wasn’t surprised when Singh described himself as a “Pakistani” in an interview. Pakistan is not just a political affiliation, but a birth-right of those born here before 1947. Why would a man, who was born, educated and worked here for almost three decades, not have a claim to it?
Like my grandparents, Singh said he didn’t want to migrate but was forced to after the riots. And more recently, when asked to visit Lahore again, he added that this time he won’t return from there.
Once these people are not among us anymore, our sense of partition might never be the same. To be born in a place, yet not being given a visa concession, let alone a passport, sounds preposterous. A child born to a Pakistani in Canada can have a dual nationality. But those born in India and Pakistan before 1947 are denied this right. They are consequently embroiled in a wistful internal conflict, often missing a home located a few kilometers away but many decades apart. Bad politics on both sides of the border only worsens this homesickness.
Khushwant Singh represented the now fast becoming extinct generation that held partition fresh in their minds, lived through the anguish of losing the place they called “home” and being forcefully displaced from there. Though a quintessential journalist and literary legend in India, Singh will always be remembered as one of the most iconic partition survivors.

The writer is an Assistant Web Editor  for The Nation.

Tweets at:@ammarawrites

Ammara Ahmad is a writer and journalist based in Lahore. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter

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