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AT THE HOUR OF TWILIGHT

I left Lahore at the end of the first week of August 1947. I was the last Sikh resident of an elite residential area along Lawrence Gardens to get out in time. I took the night train to Kalka and a taxi to join my family in Kasauli. I had no idea about my future. I decided to drive down to Delhi to find out. I can never forget that 200 mile drive from the Shivaliks to the capital. There was not a soul to be seen on the road or outside the villages I passed by. No buses, cars, cyclists or pedestrians. It was about 30 miles from Delhi when I saw a jeep parked right in the middle of the road, about 100 yards away from me. I pulled up to make sure who the men on the jeep were. They were Sikhs so I drove up to their jeep. It was a gang of murderous-looking sardars each carrying a rifle on his shoulder. “Sab safaaya kar ditta (We’ve wiped out all of them)”, said their leader. I understood that he meant they had killed all the Muslims around. I was chilled to the bone. I drove on to my father’s residence in New Delhi. I learnt that Muslims were being hounded out of the capital and thousands of them were in Purana Qila awaiting trains to take them to Pakistan.

Two evenings later my sister-in-law, Harji Malik, and I walked to Parliament House. A large crowd had already assembled there. Periodically it burst into cries of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” and “Inquilab Zindabad”. Then a hush spread over the throng. The voice of Sucheta Kripalani singing Vande Mataram was heard through loudspeakers, followed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny” speech.

All this came back to me as I read Glittering Decades: New Delhi in Love and War by Nayantara Pothen. She has recorded the change that preceded Independence. A new generation of Englishmen who refused to join “whites only” clubs and wanted to befriend Indians replaced that which had ruled India earlier. Indians no longer hated the English; instead, the English became their favourites above Americans.

Pothen, who has a PhD from Sydney University, has done a commendable job gathering relevant material on the two decades following Independence. I am not qualified to comment on the latter part of her thesis as I was living abroad during most of those years. Nevertheless, I found her account evocative and highly readable.

Other natures

I have been struck by the different attitudes adopted by Indian and English poets on nature. Indians have largely restricted themselves to describing the onset of the summer monsoon. After the hot days of May and June and sandstorms, black clouds appear on the horizon. There is lightning and thunder followed by torrential rain. The gale knocks down trees. People run out to be drenched. Girls ride swings. Peacocks dance in the woods. This phase is recounted by Indian poets. They have very little to say about the advent of spring when flowers come into bloom, apart from rejoicing at the sight. On the other hand, English poets go into great detail about the floral display in March and April. For them, rain is a penance while the blue skies and sunshine a blessing. Indian native poetry is celebratory; English, descriptive. Perhaps I have got it all wrong, particularly since the example I am going to quote has nothing to do with rain or sunshine or flowers or peacocks, but describes vividly the hour of twilight as the world is enveloped in the darkness of the night. The lines referred to are from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. It was in the anthology of poetry presented for the BA course in Punjab University. I learnt quite a lot of it by heart. The poem kept haunting me. I also resolved to visit the site where it was composed. And so I did.

On my first Christmas vacation in England, I went to stay in a Quaker hostel in the county of Hampshire. I learnt that Gray’s churchyard was a few minutes’ drive from there. So one evening I went there. It was a small, decrepit church surrounded by a graveyard. I sat on a grave-stone, closed my eyes and tried to recreate in my mind what Gray must have seen and heard centuries ago to compose his immortal elegy. I quote the first three verses:

The curfew tolls the knell of

parting day,

The lowing herd winds slowly

o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods

his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness,

and to me.

New fades the glimmering landscape

on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness

holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his

droning flight,

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant

folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled

tow’r

The moping owl does to the moon

complain

Of such, as wand’ring near her

secret bow’r,

Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Arresting truth

History teacher: “Students, Prithviraj Chauhan freed Mohammed Ghori, even after defeating him 17 times. Why he didn’t arrest him?”

Student: “Sir, there was no Tihar Jail in Delhi at that time.”

(Contributed by K.K. Misra, Chandigarh)