I am not sure how I met Bunty. It was perhaps through a reference from the office during one of my early work-related visits. Bunty Singh, brother of Sunny Singh and Goldie Singh, became my guide and companion. Sunny and Bunty have set up a mini empire of rental cars through investments made by Goldie who lives in Germany and is married to a “good” German girl. Bunty, a boisterous, internet-savvy young Sardar, found me to be somewhat like him. We spoke in Punjabi, often using lines that would quite miss those outside the ‘Punju’ realm. And we both were equally fascinated by each other-the thirty-something grandchildren of Partition.
So after an hour of awkward client-service interaction, Bunty decided to befriend me. It was just the right thing to have happened I guess. How else would I know a real Sardar? Most of my interactions with Sikhs took place when I was a student in the UK decades ago.
However, as soon as there was mention of Partition, there was a palpable unease. It was only after a day or two that he confided how half his family was butchered at a railway station.
To use Amrita Pritam’s words:
Who can guess
How difficult it is
To nurse barbarity in one’s belly
To consume the body and burn the bones?
I am the fruit of that season
When the berries of Independence came into blossom. (Translated from the Punjabi by Harbans Singh)
Quintessential to the Delhi experience, this site mixes time and memory. From 1450 BCE to the present day, the monument tells various stories. The standing walls that we see today are most likely the work of the unfortunate Emperor Humayun, who chose this as a residence in Delhi and added many structures to the ruins. Proximity to the Jamuna must have played a part-in hot Hindustan, water and breeze were essential for survival.
In 1555, Humayun regained control of Delhi and he returned to his Din Panah. In a year’s time, he tumbled down the stairs of Sher Mandal with books in his hand, thereby ending his tumbling life. Not far away from this place lies his magnificent tomb, reflecting the grandeur of Gur-e-Amir of Tamarlane in Samarkand. He was succeeded by the greatest of emperors, Akbar. Little did Humayun know that three centuries later, his descendent, Bahadur Shah Zafar, would escape from the Red Fort to take a boat down the Jamuna and reach Purana Qila to go to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s shrine. Also, Humayun would have never imagined as he was dying that the last Mughal emperor would be captured by the British at his tomb.
The events of 1947 added another life to this monument. Purana Qila was used as a vast refugee camp. Violence on the streets of Delhi had forced thousands of Muslim families to leave their homes and prepare for a long journey to Pakistan. The conditions of this refugee camp, where up to 100,000 people may have taken shelter, were appalling. Dr Zakir Hussain, later the president of India, bemoaned that those who had escaped sudden death came here to be “buried in a living grave.”
I am completely confused… shall I appreciate the beauty of the ruins or the syncretic architecture of Sher Shah or its prehistoric significance? Or shall I search for traces of the blood of those who must have died here? Accidents of history can be deaf and dumb. Like Ajeet Caur’s interpretation of the elements, history is alive yet indifferent to individual tales and personal suffering. I still have to probe these difficult questions.
In September 1947, Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Delhi to take stock of the violence and ease communal tensions. A shaken, non-violent Gandhi visited Purana Qila to witness the conditions of dispossessed Muslim exiles-refugees in their own city. I can hear him making his appeal to Hindus by comparing the predicament of the Muslims to that of the five Pandava brothers who were exiles in their own kingdom for twelve years: “It is said that in the Mahabharata period the Pandavas used to stay in this Purana Qila.” Thus Muslims “are under your protection and under my protection.” Gandhi’s tireless efforts in Delhi that included visits to the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi, as well as his rounds of fasting, brought a tenuous peace back to the city. But what a price he paid for attempting to clear the poison in the air!
The same day we visit Gandhi’s cenotaphs at Raj Ghat. We park the car under the keekar trees and walk. The monsoon breeze has cooled the air. There are a few flower-sellers with heaps of marigolds. Bunty and I walk to the shrine and, passing through well-kept lawns, we reach the unostentatious marble platform. Not many visitors are around. This is a peaceful afternoon. As we return, I see an exquisite structure at some distance and find out that it is Zeenatul Masjid, the beauty of the mosques, built by Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter.
A Mughal mosque overlooks Gandhi’s cenotaphs and the silent Jamuna flows, or rather trickles through most of the year, at a close distance. It is a shrunken river that has been filled with the blood and corpses of past sufferers but now it is choking with sewage and pollution. From Indraprastha to the Sultanate and the Mughal takht of Dilli, the Jamuna has witnessed centuries of violence and has changed its course several times but has been faithful to Delhi.
I hold a mustard flower in my hand and put it inside the copy of Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi that I have with me. In Delhi, time and again, I think of Ahmed Ali who could never return to the city he loved…
Raza Rumi’s ‘Delhi by Heart’ is published by Harper Collins