Somewhere in time...

People die only when we forget them

Sitting under the November sun in the peaceful park here in our neighborhood a few days back, aimlessly staring at the leaves that had fallen off the trees adorning the park, a sudden wave of thought catapulted me to a tour in a hidden and abandoned corner of the Lahore Cantonment. I had undertaken this bizarre tour on the insistence of an old friend and mentor, late Col Adnan Janjua of Guides Cavalry. Col Bunty, as he was fondly known, despite being adequately senior to me, was more of a friend—the company of whom I still profusely miss. This was a visit to a place, casted away in an obscure, no-go corner of the Lahore Cantonment, now morphed into a thicket that served as a sanctuary for pie dogs. The resurfacing of the thought and the desire to visit the place had more to do with the weather of Lahore which plays a pivotal role in bringing out one’s aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. The Lahori community celebrates winter and spring the way summer is celebrated in the West. From October to March, Lahore becomes a kaleidoscope of all the activities much awaited throughout summer. The sultry months from April to September mark the struggle for survival in the scorching heat, dust and humidity. So it was the cool breeze under the bright sun of November, which rekindled in me a desire to revisit the place that I had explored with Col Bunty eight years earlier, and perhaps this time grab a few photographs as well.

Before I tread forward, for the sake of clarity, I wish to make a small preamble in the form of the following assertion:-

I had once in one of my writings mentioned that for any society, its historicity is the bedrock of civilization. These should not be viewed under the lens of prejudice, disdain and preconceived ideas based on myopic religious reasoning.  Therefore I would once again, for the cost of repeating myself pick out that historical realities are the truths that can neither be expunged from the pages of history nor brushed into oblivion by merely suppressing and sweeping under the carpet. Some people defy and deny as to why should we talk about the colonial era or the days of the British and the Raj as the two symbolize a coarse and painful past, a past that is fraught with shame reflecting the period where we as people vanquished as a free nation. So they take it as a cardinal sin to talk about the bygone British era or the remnants of the Raj or anything connected to it. To them it was a chapter which marks our subjugation and downright abolition of rights by the British masters who are viewed more of captors and tormentors rather anything else. So it was. Born in the late 60s, I am not qualified to comment as to the predicaments of our elder generations nor do I ever doubt how hard they weathered the storm that paved way to our freedom.  As for my part I think this is a matter more of being furtive and cagey.  And therefore maintain that history should be viewed setting aside all itches, all vagaries of the past. It is neither good nor bad; it’s not about love and hate also. It is the truth that should be preserved with all its reality as it exists whether in the form of document or infrastructure. Doubtless to say that it may sometimes get excruciatingly painful to learn many events taking place sporadically on the time line of our chequered history of the subcontinent when viewed with certain reference to context. Whether we term it the war of independence or someone calls it the great mutiny this however to me our mere choice of words and which I think except for the purpose of serving different schools of thoughts/mindsets are but at the end of the day would remain a patent truth. Whatever we say there could be no un-ringing of the bell.

Coming back to Col Bunty, in 2013 despite his failing health (following the kidney transplant which probably didn’t go well) he never snapped the umbilical cord formed between us which dated back to 2003 when he was  commanding Guides Cavalry and I was a Staff Officer in the same Brigade in Kharian. The 2 years spent in Kharian brought us very close as he also had an inquisitive and exploring leanings. He cradled an exceptional interest in military history especially of the six armour regiments Pakistan inherited from the British India. In 2013 his condition was precarious to the extent that he could not walk on his feet. But he would drop by my house almost every week in his jeep which he despite his worsening condition drove himself. I and my wife used to shoulder support him to our living room. He was expert on trees, horses and dogs. I remember if my dogs had some problem, before going to the vet I first used to call him to get the first opinion. Most of the times his advice obviated the necessity to visit the vet. On one of the visit to my house one evening he told me that he had something very unique to show me,   an absolute hidden archive nearing total obliteration. I knew he was a gregarious man with an extremely exploring mind and that there must be something worth attention. So without delving further I promised him to accompany him the next morning.

On the far edge of the present day Lahore Cantonment lies the area of RA Bazar. This area used to house the Royal Artillery Regiments and therefore is still known by its initial referring name ‘RA’. Perhaps one notices that all the major Cantonments in the country Rawalpindi, Peshawar Karachi etc have at least two places in common with the same name; the RA Bazar and the Lal Kurti (Lal Kurti referring to the red coats which was the old uniform of the British soldiers). Tucked behind the RA Bazar Lahore, on the eastern side of a water drain is a small place which once similarly was known as the RI (Royal Infantry area). On a corner of this lays a big chunk of land completely camouflaged by its own ruins and shrubbery from the outer world and which once was a British cemetery. Inside the cemetery it was a grotesque scene of dilapidation and destruction. Among the clover, wild grasses and thorny bushes lay scattered innumerable pieces of tombstones and epitaphs and graves reduced to sodden piles of debris. Owing to the precarious condition of Col Bunty we, despite having a craving to read the epitaphs could not however spend much time exploring the graves mostly British officers and their families and had to return. I however made a mental note of the area so that I could visit it some other time as I picked up a few very interesting inscriptions and epitaphs among the wreckage of tombstones.

That did not happen until the next year when a British naval Officer, an Admiral visited Lahore in connection with delivering a lecture in the Naval Staff College. Since I was a staff Officer in the Station Headquarters Lahore and nearing my retirement days I was nominated to conduct the Admiral to some of the historical places in Lahore. Finding the opportunity I passed a word about the forgotten British Cemetery and the Admiral showed his consent to visit the place. However, during the two days’ brief stay at Lahore the Admiral remained under enormous pressure from his father in England who also happened to be a Colonel in the British Indian Army to visit his birth place in CMH Lahore. The old man was pretty fidgety and kept calling him to visit his birth place at CMH (even indicating the maternity block meant exclusively for the British officers) and his old house near Saint Joseph’s church. The Admiral had no choice left but to postpone the visit to the cemetery. Luckily the age old block at CMH was still intact but housing now patients undergoing rehabilitation. The Admiral took some boxes of Mithai with him for the sick soldiers. During his tour of the ward he kept announcing “you know my father was born here”. Next we went to the ancient Bhawanis on the Sarfaraz Rafiki road near the Saint Joseph’s Church. We found the house vacant being declared dangerous and was awaiting demolition. The Admiral made a huge number of photographs to be shown to his father. The Admiral owing to the paucity of time could not visit the cemetery but sent his ADC with me to take a note of the place. He assured me that he would apprise the authorities in England about this. Time passed and I got busy in my pre retirement formalities.

My second visit to the cemetery was in 2014 with a retired British Cavalry officer Brigadier John Wright (10/5 The Queen’s Royal Lancers) who was Chairman Hurlingham Polo Association and visiting Lahore as Chief Guest to witness the  National Open Polo championship at the Lahore Polo Club. At that point in time I was doing my post retirement job as Secretary of the Club. This officer was born in Lahore and had stayed here till his 6th or seventh year before moving to England following the partition. Apart from accompanying him to various historical places at Lahore I sought special permission from GHQ to take him to the Guide’s Cavalry which was stationed at Lahore. He was overwhelmed looking at the objects and photographs displayed in the mess and spent a long time with the archives. He was excited to visit the cemetery as according to him he still had had the memories of the place. We did visit and this time,   spent half a day reading the inscriptions. He was too grieved to see the appalling state of the place. Standing on the twin graves of the six years old twin brothers who died of Cholera his eyes welled. The epitaph read “They loved each other so much that the one left behind decided to follow the other”. “you see, one of those boys could’ve been me” he said in a choking voice. He was determined to move the concerned authorities once returned to England, but ironically nothing heard of ever after.

When I visited the place last week it was telling the same story of age old deterioration and decay.  Wet spongy ground, clover, wild grasses, thorny bushes, debris of tombstones scattered all around, graves ravaged and gored by grazing animals – a spectacle of mundane reality. As I walked among the people memorialized there, dry branches crepitating under my feet my feelings were as tempestuous as the worn out inscriptions on the tombstones. There were graves of officers, soldiers, civilians, both young and elderly, women who were daughters, sisters and wives, children and infants. Among the many graves I have been able to find but a few here of special interest. This included one Assistant Hospital Steward Alfred Fitzherbert Marshall of the 3rd Light Cavalry. There was a large stone memorial erected by his lamenting parents on top of the epitaph tablet. Since the inscription was barely legible I made an effort to carry out a desultory research. After some deliberation I came across a book by the name of ‘God’s Acre in North-West India by Colonel R.H. Firth which is a compilation of British men and women buried at various places in the then British India. Those buried in the Cantonment of Lahore are referred to under the head of Mian Mir. But strangely out of hundreds only a few are mentioned in the book. In order to find other prominent people buried there I had to go through the various editions of the London Gazette. The epitaph on the memorial of Alfred Fitzherbert Marshall goes like this:-











While sauntering around I came across a memorial in relatively good condition with a stone crucifix bearing a typical cavalry insignia. It was of:

Major Basil Fitzherbert Randall

Skinners Horse

Born Nov 2nd  1890   -    Died Feb 5th 1930

Since I wanted to know a bit of history of this officer I started looking for him in the Gazettes of London, however except for the dates of his promotions from 2nd Lieutenant to Lieutenant and to Captain, I couldn’t find any worthwhile information. While rummaging through various web sites I stumbled across one  ‘’ where I learnt that his name is the first name on the  grave monument erected in St George Church burial ground, Bicknoller, Somerset England. Except for the GPR grave number, data base record number which was allotted post humously no worthwhile details were available. Even the actual dates of birth and death were not available whereas the same are very clearly legible as Nov 2nd 1890 and Feb 5th 1930. No image of the grave was available which means the data was sought from some already existing document.

 One of the grave and its inscription that caught my attention put me in a sullen state of mind that persisted for a long time. The grief, anguish and sorrow radiating out of each word engraved all along the length of the grave can only be felt with the heart.  This was:-

Staff Sergt

Joseph Walter (Wally) Turner

Died on the 28th June 1931

Age 45 years 2 months and 2 days

Daddy Darling your words have come true

That when you were gone we would miss you

Sleep on Daddy Darling and take your rest

God saw you suffering and thought it best

(Erected by his sorrowing wife and daughters)

I have had periods of emotional turmoil too, at times quite bad, perhaps that is why I empathize with others’ feelings a notch over and above what is normal. Human emotions cannot be compartmentalized on the basis of caste, creed, race or religion. People die only when we forget them. 

The author is a retired Cavalry officer. He has spent 27 years in uniform and has a published collection of short stories 'By the Autumn Trees' to his name. He is an avid traveler and also has ample of well-researched travelogues published in the leading newspapers of the country.

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