We were on the train to Amritsar on a foggy December morning heading for the border to cross into Lahore. I was watching a film, Neecha Nagar, made in 1946, which had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the story of a low-lying basti into which industrialist Sarkar (Rafi Peer) was planning to divert a dirty sewer. Despite the villagers mobilising in protest, the sewer was diverted and poisonous water entered the aqueduct. People who drank the water fell sick and as disease spread, Sarkar decided to open a hospital. It is a tale of two nagars, ooncha and neecha.
The train stopped at a station. My friend Sheba said, “Look!” I saw that we had reached Ludhiana. My laptop displayed images of Neecha Nagar. Outside the train window was the squalor and deprivation of Ludhiana. There were many distraught-looking young men standing on railway platforms, just waiting. Behind were equal numbers of women, huddled in the cold, also waiting. Neecha Nagar on the screen, Neecha Nagar at the window.
The film was written by K.A. Abbas. Actually, Abbas’s story was threaded through the journey from Delhi to Lahore. We sat for hours in the aircraft in Delhi, waiting for the flight to take off for Amritsar. We were to enter Lahore via the Attari-Wagah border. The five-hour wait proved unbearable; passengers were distraught and angry. Throughout, I was trying to concentrate on what I writing, and trying not to think of the hours lost and the chain of events that this delay would trigger.
Abbas was a journalist, filmmaker and writer whose birth centenary is in 2014. The story of his life ran parallel to this journey. I was translating, from Urdu to English, an article of Abbas on the writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, best known for his story “Ek Chadar Maili Si”. Abbas had written about meeting Bedi sahib in Srinagar shortly after Partition. In the evening, they used to meet in Bedi’s room and read their short stories. Abbas decided to write a story called “Sardarji” based on personal experience, set in 1947 about a sardarji whose sacrifice washed away the communal hatred in the “I” persona of the story. While reading the story, Abbas looked at Bedi every now and then, lest he had offended him. At the end, however, he saw Bedi’s eyes bright with unshed tears.
While writing, whenever I looked up, I saw a young Sikh and his small son, sitting patiently waiting for take-off. We struck up a conversation and found they had flown in from the US that morning and were to catch the flight to Amritsar to meet elderly parents/ grandparents. The five-year-old looked tired. The father was trying to cheer him up, but the ordeal was hard on them. Five hours later, when we got off the aircraft, I felt strangely maternal towards this father and son. I worried, what would they do in a strange city? How would they reach Amritsar? Something made me speak. “Why don’t you come over for the night? We can find you a seat on the train tomorrow morning and head out together for Amritsar.” Even as I was speaking, doubt assailed me. But I wrote my address on a piece of paper should they decide to take up the offer. Half an hour after we reached, they were at my doorstep. As we sat down for a hot meal, I realised that the past and present had meshed together; I was a Muslim, they were Sikh, my friend was a Christian, but we were together as one. What impelled me to act the way I did? Was I repaying the debt of “Sardarji”?
The next morning, we were up early to head for the railway station. We managed to secure one seat for the father and son. In Amritsar, an elderly couple stood waving floral bouquets. Before they hugged their children, they handed us the flowers. The train was several hours late and the international border had closed. The next morning, we headed for the integrated checkpost and finally made it across the border. An old milestone near Delhi Gate says, “Delhi-Lahore = 300 miles”. It took us 54 hours to travel that distance.
Sixty-seven years have passed since “Sardarji” was written, since India became independent, and a little over 67 years since Neecha Nagar was made. We were Neecha Nagar then, we are Neecha Nagar today. Rural poverty was stark then, and urban poverty today hits as hard. These stories remain unchanged.
I felt I had traveled 67 years in time, back and forth, and I had not even reached the border.
The writer is member, Planning Commission.