Thursday, February 7, 2008

Text: The Sufi Way at Malerkotla

The Sufi Way in Malerkotla
I was out in the fields to gather fodder when Gaindarh Singh came
running up to me, waving and shouting, ‘Kanjara! You’re making
merry in the fields, you pimp, while over there in Sirhind our tenth
Guru’s sons are being bricked alive!’
I heard him and my heart sank. I stubbed out my beedi and we
ran home. I asked my Bebe to pack us a few rotis and then we set
off, Gaindarh and I, racing by the side of the canal. We reached
Sirhind late in the evening—and do you know what we saw there?
Thousands of people pouring in! The city was being swept and
cleaned for a special durbar.
We spent the night somehow, our hearts pounding. The next
morning the durbar assembled and the two Sahibzadas were brought
there in chains. What can I tell you! The older one was a spitting
image of our handsome Pappu, the landlord’s son, who studies in the
English school, and the younger one looked so like that tubby Gholu.
The Sirhind-wala Nawab asked them to change their faith and then
they would live. Even before the older one could speak, the younger
Sahibzada thrust his chest out and said, ‘Enough, Nawab! We will
never change our faith!’
Puffing with rage, his face red as blood, the nawab ordered
that the two children be bricked alive.
At this the Malerkotle-wala Nawab got up and raised his
voice: ‘This is unjust!’
I too got up, raised my arm and cried out, ‘It is absolutely

This is how the famed Mast, the lead comic actor of a leftwing
theatre group of Barnala, told a story. A remnant of the
Mirasi-Bhand tradition of feudal Punjab, he pulled large crowds
at Communist rallies in the ’60. His art lay in the fact that he
gave first-person narrations of historical events, improvising to
make himself and his audience characters in the times he was
enacting. Politicians in Punjab still hire comedy stars like Navjot
Singh Sidhu and Bhagwant Maan for their rallies, but old-timers
say that none can match the standards set by the unlettered
Mast, who retained in his heart hundreds of tales and told them
with as much passion as humour. The moving story of the
Sahibzadas was a favourite. Time would stand suspended as his
listeners watched and listened, becoming part of their history.
Time indeed stood suspended as I made a journey to
Malerkotla town in the Malwa region of Punjab, where the story
of the Sahibzadas is as alive today as it was some 300 years ago.
Over the centuries, Malerkotla has earned a unique reputation as
an oasis of calm in conflict-torn Punjab. Muslims, Sikhs and
Hindus have lived here without a single act of violence during
the holocaust of Partition and the dark days of militancy. It is
the spirit, people say, of the Sufis, and the nawab who stood up
for justice.
I take an afternoon bus from Chandigarh, hoping for the best.
My only contact in Malerkotla is Azad Siddiqui, a budding
politician of Akali Dal (Badal) whom I’ve never met. I do know
another person there, but I’m reluctant to contact him. He is a
namesake of the legendary playback singer of Hindi films.
Malerkotle-wala Mohammad Rafi is a lecturer of Urdu in the
local Government College—also a maverick painter, orator and
theatre-person, and a man who can derail all your plans with
endless talk. The last time I travelled to Malerkotla, some four
years ago, the entire trip had been hijacked twice: first by my
poet-friend Manjit Tiwana, and then by Mr Rafi.
Manjit, instead of taking me directly to Malerkotla, had
driven me miles away in the opposite direction, towards a sacred
grove. We would soon be at the dera of Baba Marhu Das, she
said. ‘My mother would go to him, holding my hand, to ask for
the boon of a son. I was the fifth daughter and my mother had
to suffer many tortures for not bearing a son…’ When we
reached Marhu Das di Gufa, it became clear to me that Manjit
had imagined all the treks with her mother to the Baba’s cave.
Marhu Das had died long before the mother was born. When we
finally arrived at my intended destination, Manjit took me to a
complimentary dinner with Rafi at Coronet Restaurant, which is
part of his family business. In exchange, we became his captive
viewers and were shown painting after painting from among the
hundreds he had made, listening to him talk about them till late
into the night. Shortly after that meeting Rafi gave an interview
to a regional daily and went on record saying that he was the
richest man in Punjab because he had so much art. The story
appeared with the headline ‘Richest Man in Punjab’, and the
Income-Tax Department conducted a raid at his home. All they
found were mountains of canvases that he himself had painted,
and closed the file.
These days, I hear, Rafi heads the new Urdu Akademi in
Malerkotla. I will meet him only at the end of the trip: risking
a meeting at the beginning may mean putting off my book by
a few more years—and I’ve had quite enough of my wayward
nature. Years ago, after I brought my first love story to its
unhappy conclusion, I decided that it was ‘novel’ material. I had
barely written some fifty pages when the second real-life romance
began… and so on. This became a pattern. The dilemma always
was whether to write of the past love or to live the next one.
Now, with the storms of youth behind me, I could do without
distractions and actually finish the book I’d promised to write on
Punjab, perhaps my only enduring love.
It takes me close to an hour to begin my journey out of
Chandigarh. There is no direct bus to Malerkotla, and the
connecting one to Morinda is reluctant to leave the terminal. It
is full, with a whole lot people standing, and arguments have
erupted between passengers with seat numbers and those without.
One wise sardar tries to quash it all by saying, ‘We are not going
to Canada. Morinda is just two furlongs away, what do we need
seat numbers for?’ The driver, at least, sees the sense in this and
starts the bus. We reach Morinda early enough and I catch a
bright red semi-deluxe bus to Malerkotla. The pictures and
motifs decorating the front of the bus spell pluralism with a
capital P. Framed paintings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind
Singh, the first Guru and the tenth, have pride of place. Then
there are paintings of some saints and mendicants: Sai Baba,
Kabir, Sant Kirpal Singh. Bhagat Singh appears in a calendar-art
portrait on the toolbox, donning his famous hat and with two
peacocks flanking him on either side. In the left corner are
etchings of the Cross, the Om and Ik-Onkar. Pasted at the
bottom of the glass partition between the driver and the passengers
is a picture of Punjab’s first and greatest Sufi poet, Sheikh Farid.
And above him, a much bigger picture of the Sahibzadas, two
cherubic boys in the court of the stone-hearted nawab of Sirhind.
The TV in the bus is beaming a comedy show. Chacha, the
anchor, cracks jokes mostly at the cost of the second sex and the
accompanying starlet makes funny faces but does not laugh.
Now Chacha is taking a dig at women drivers. To prove his
point, he conjures a sleek little red car and a life-size cutout of
Sonia Gandhi. ‘Sonia Gandhi knew she could never drive this
country, so she put Sardar Manmohan Singh on the driver’s
seat!’ At this, a small cutout of a mousy Manmohan Singh pops
up on the front seat and the laughter of the passengers mixes
with the taped guffaws.
That the country now has a Sikh Prime Minister, that a bus
can carry Sikh, Hindu and Muslim religious symbols side by side
and people can travel without fear is enough to make you forget
how much violence Punjab has suffered. Just as, during the
darkest days of Partition, of militancy and state crackdown in the
1980s, it was easy to forget that Sikh history also has a strong
tradition of communal harmony and humanism. There is no
place where this is most apparent than in Malerkotla, where
Muslims—who comprise roughly seventy per cent of the
population—Hindus and Sikhs have lived in peace for centuries.
The most celebrated event in the town’s history dates back
over 300 years. Guru Gobind Singh, the founder of the Khalsa,
had earned the wrath of Mughal officials who saw him and his
creed as a threat to their empire. Constant harassment and
persecution forced the Guru and his closest followers to finally
leave Anandpur, the seat of the Khalsa, on the night of 5
December 1704. During the long trek, the Guru’s two youngest
sons, nine-year-old Sahibzada Zorawar Singh and six-year-old
Sahibzada Fateh Singh, and his mother, Mata Gujri, were
separated from him. Their own cook betrayed them and the
three were captured and taken to Sirhind. Nawab Wazir Khan,
the Mughal governor of Sirhind, ordered them walled alive
unless they embraced Islam. The Guru’s sons would not accept
conversion and the worst happened on the morning of 27
December 1704. The only protest against such a fate for the
innocent boys had come from Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan of
Malerkotla. The letter he wrote to Aurangzeb in Delhi is still in
the proud possession of his heirs. Sher Mohammad wrote: ‘The
Governor of Sirhind province, with a view to avenging the
disobedience of the Guru….has without any fault or crime of
the guiltless and innocent children, simply on the basis of their
being the scions of Guru Gobind Singh, condemned them to
execution and has proposed to wall them up till they die…. This
action appears to me to be absolutely against the dictates of
Islam and the laws propounded by the founder of Islam (May
Allah’s blessings be showered upon Him). Your Majesty’s servant
is afraid that the enactment of such an atrocity will be an ugly
blot on the face of Your Majesty’s renowned justice and
Neither Wazir Khan nor Aurangzeb heeded this voice of
sanity. When news of the tragedy reached the Guru, he was
weeding grass at Talwandi Sabu, where he had taken refuge. His
first reaction, they say, was to announce that he would tear out
the roots of his adversaries. Then he asked, ‘Did no one cry out
in protest?’ When informed of the lone resistance of the nawab
of Malerkotla, the Guru said, ‘His roots will forever be green.’
The bus passes the picturesque gurdwara at Fatehgarh Sahib,
where the Sahibzadas met their end. Retribution came when
Banda Bahadur, a disciple of the tenth Guru at Nanded in
Maharashtra, rode across half the country and razed the fort of
Sirhind and killed Wazir Khan. A memorial was built at Fatehgarh
to the two Sahibzadas and their grandmother (who died of shock
shortly after her grandsons were bricked alive). In 1746, Maharaja
Karam Singh of Patiala built Gurdwara Fatehgarh on the site.
The eastern gate of the gurdwara was dedicated to the memory
of the nawab of Malerkotla.
I have been to Fatehgarh several times before, but for other
reasons. The district of Fatehgarh Sahib along with Kurukshetra
in Haryana and Kangra in Himachal forms the triangle of
religious districts where the female to male sex ratio is the lowest
in the country. This, too, is Punjab.
We are moving into Sirhind, when the conductor informs me
that I should get off at Khanna and take another bus, since the
one we are on will now by-pass Malerkotla and head straight for
Ludhiana. It is a while before a bus for Malerkotla arrives. There
are very few passengers and I get a seat all to myself. The drive
is beautiful. The narrow road is nearly traffic-free and lined on
both sides with shisham and kikar trees. The orange ball of the
setting sun accompanies the bus, almost right through, suspended
above a fine picture of pastoral Punjab. My eyes are soothed.
But my heart is uneasy. It is getting late and there is no way
I can return to Patiala to spend the night at Manjit’s, as I had
planned. Where will I stay? I really should have got in touch
with Deepak before starting. Deepak, the nawab of my erstwhile
love life. For me many towns, villages and journeys have an
emotional quotient all in the wrong measure. Anyway, the lost
Deepak connection might just be some use….Just then, my
friend Vijaya calls—‘As soon as you reach, call Azad and he will
come and pick you up.’
It is dark when Azad comes to fetch me at the bus stand. He
is younger than I’d imagined, and quite affable, although a little
disappointed that I have not brought Rani Balbir Kaur’s telephone
number with me. He’s a great fan of the Chandigarh-based
theatre star. He drives me straight to the rancid-smelling restaurant
of a rundown hotel, where we settle down for an excellent meal
of dal makhani, mixed vegetables and hot tandoori rotis. ‘I was
hoping you’d bring me Rani Balbir Kaur’s number,’ Azad
complains, but pleasantly enough. ‘Now that our Badal Akali
Dal has come to power, we want to make her a chairperson of
one of the corporations or foundations. Something befitting her
talent and stature.’ Young Azad is the general secretary of the
party for Sangrur district. ‘The seat here has gone to Razia Sultan
of the Congress again, but at least our party will form the
ministry in Chandigarh, thanks to the BJP.’
I tell Azad that I’m happy to stay at this hotel, but he will
have none of it. He has decided to take charge of my life. He
takes me to another, recently built hotel called Maharaja Palace.
The room is passable and the attached bathroom clean. Azad
likes it more than I do and parks himself in one of the two
ornate chairs by the bed. He has asked a member of Malerkotla’s
famous Sherwani family to visit us and tell me all about the Sufi
tradition of the town. The Sherwani heir is late in coming, so
Azad narrates his own hard-luck-to-success story, at one time the
quintessential Punjabi story of resilience, hard work and pride,
before immigration became the dream narrative. ‘I am the eldest
of six children,’ Azad says. ‘My father was a poor man, he
repaired bags. He educated me up to Class X and then I set up
my own shop and worked hard repairing bags. Now I have two
shops, a school and I head a number of NGOs. I did my Plus
II privately. My brothers run the business now and I have time
to be in politics.’ He has fixed the marriage of one of his sisters
recently and is planning to marry an educated Muslim girl
himself, someone who will help him in his politics and business.
Then it is his turn to question me. When in Punjab, you
should be prepared for all kinds of invasions, including of your
privacy. It is one big village where everyone should know
everything about the other and especially about a woman who
travels alone and is not afraid of staying in a hotel all by herself.
He wants to know my age. I tell him that it is a complete pack
of cards minus the jokers and he exclaims, ‘But you don’t look
it! You look only thirty-five!’ I’m quite sure this remark isn’t
meant to be taken seriously, yet it more than makes up for the
tiring journey and his inquisitiveness. Then he wants to know
why I am not married and somehow it slips that the man I
wanted to marry would not marry me. ‘Oh! So you are the
victim of a failed love affair!’ he says brightly. ‘Just so!’ I reply,
and now I am no longer a mystery to him and before I know it
he has offered to stay the night with me in the hotel. Amazed,
I wonder what he wants but it is only his small-town politeness,
for he soon adds, ‘I want that you should not be inconvenienced
in any way.’ ‘No, no, you shouldn’t worry,’ I say. ‘I am used to
staying alone and I quite like it.’ He frowns.
At last the fifteenth-generation Shehzada of the Sherwani
family arrives with his family tree and photocopies of documents
relevant to the history of Malerkotla. Shehzada Ajmal Khan
Ajmal Sherwani is an earnest young man in his mid-thirties and
lives off the legacy of agri farms and stud farms. He writes poetry
and has just returned after reading his verses at a poetry symposium
in Jalandhar. There he recited verses in the secular tradition of
his hometown. He recites one for me: Mera watan, ke hai
phoolon ka ek guldasta/ Ham ise pyar ke guldaan mein sajaenge
(My country is a bouquet of flowers and we will adorn it in the
vase of love). Not memorable poetry, but at least the thought is
as noble as his ancestry.
With Shehzada as the narrator, we go back some 600 years to
understand the history of this unique town. Malerkotla is one of
the oldest states in Punjab. It came up almost a hundred years
before Babur established Mughal rule in India. History
authenticates that a Sherwani Afghan of Daraban, Sheikh
Saddaruddin Sardar-I-Jahan, was spiritually inclined from his
boyhood. In 1449, he reached Multan and became the disciple
of Pir Bahawal Shah. When the Pir was sure that his disciple was
well versed in spirituality, he asked him to go out and help
humanity. Sheikh Saddaruddin chose a raised mound near the
old village of Maler to build his hut, and there he spent his time
in prayer.
One night, Bahlol Lodhi camped at Maler on his way to
conquer Delhi. It was a stormy night and the only lamp aflame
was in the hut on the mound. Bahlol went to meet the man
whose lamp the harsh winds could not extinguish. Sheikh
Saddaruddin, whom we know today as Hazrat Sheikh, welcomed
Bahlol into his hut and prophesied that Delhi would indeed be
his. When Bahlol accomplished his mission, he returned to
thank this man of God. The thanksgiving included marriage to
his daughter Taj Murassa and a gift of Maler and the surrounding
villages and three lakh rupees in dowry. This was in 1454.
Some years later the Sheikh married again, this time Murtaza
‘Rajan’, daughter of Rai Behram, a ruler of Kapurthala.
Interestingly, Sheikh Saddaruddin bequeathed the Sufi tradition
to the lineage from his first wife and the dominion to the lineage
from his second. Showing me a detailed chart of the genealogy,
Shehzada says, ‘I belong to the line that inherited the Sufi
tradition. I know it all. Journalists come here and meet all the
wrong people. They go back and quote rickshaw-wallahs and
chai-wallahas. What would they know?’ I think of asking the
young Shehzada if he’s sure he has inherited the Sufi heritage
and not the dominion after all, but then let it be.
A grandson of Hazrat Sheikh founded the province of
Malerkotla, the Shehzada goes on. His name was Mohammad
Bayazid Khan. He saved the life of Emperor Aurangzeb from an
approaching tiger and rose to a high rank in the Mughal court.
He got recognition as an independent ruler and was granted the
right to build a defensive wall and a fort and thus kotla (fort) was
added to the original name, Maler. In keeping with the Sufi
traditions of his family, Bayazid Khan asked a Sufi saint, Shah
Fazl Chishti, and a Hindu sadhu, Damodar Das, to lay the
foundation stone. As the old folks say, because the foundation
was secular, religious tolerance came to be the key word, and as
long as the fort wall stands, there can be no communal discord
The last nawab of Malerkotla, Iftikhar Ali Khan, in spite of
his four wives, died childless at the age of seventy-eight in 1982.
While his first three wives were of nawabi descent, his fourth
wife Sajida Begum was a local Punjabi Pathan girl. She was big,
bold and beautiful and after the nawab died she took a couple
of more husbands. She was also linked with Giani Zail Singh,
the former President, who came to visit her many times. Rumours
abounded. The Satirist Gurnam Singh Tir even wrote a popular
mock-ballad, a la Heer-Ranjha, about the two. Our Shehzada,
however, is keen to make saints of the dead. ‘You know, Sajida
Begum was considered a sister by Gianiji. He came to meet her
every year so she could tie a rakhi on him,’ he says.
Gianiji—like the Akali leader Surjit Singh Barnala—also
had a special place in his heart for Master Jivana, a celebrated
tailor of the town, and would get all his coats and sherwanis
stitched by him. The best tailors, as someone said to me, will be
found in the gentlest, most laidback places where leisure is given
its due. The laidback nature of the Malerkotla riyasat is evident
from the fact that the last nawab refused a pre-Independence
proposal to upgrade the railway station to a junction so that the
people would not be disturbed at night. The junction came up
instead at nearby Dhuri town.
My hosts leave for the night, wishing me shabba khair. A
smattering of Urdu words in the Punjabi of Malerkotla makes
their language far sweeter than that in other parts of Malwa.
Alone, I pull the gold-and-brown tiger-stripe quilt over myself.
But sleep is elsewhere, and I get into communion with
Malerkotla’s ghosts and my own. Memories rise and glide right
through the survivor’s armour of forgetfulness. I think of my
childhood in Chandigarh. Silence was the lot of children born in
the decade after Partition. Parents did not wish to pass the
madness and horror to their children. I had never seen a Muslim
till my mother took me with her to Pakistan, to visit her sister
who had stayed on. I was surprised to see apparitions draped in
black. I pointed to one and asked my mother, ‘What is this?’ She
laughed and replied, ‘This is a lady!’
I was to see many such ladies, bearded men, young boys in
skull caps and Muslims who spoke Punjabi in Pakistan. But
through childhood I continued to believe that there were no
Punjabi Muslims in India. Perhaps because the elders always
said, ‘They all went to Pakistan.’ Years later, I learnt that while
a few million had indeed migrated, thousands of others had been
butchered, even in the villages that were grouped to form the city
of Chandigarh. Many of those who stayed on had to take Hindu
and Sikh identities. In Manimajra, a village of Chandigarh,
several Muslims returned to their original names only some fifty
years after Partition. Recently, I shared these thoughts while
reading a paper on Partition literature in Lahore, and theatre
activist Madeeha Gauhar responded that she could identify with
what I said. She too had grown up thinking that there were no
Punjabi Hindus in Lahore.
Deeper into the night, still sleepless, I think of Deepak. His
village, Mubarakpur Chungan, is just seven kilometres from
Malerkotla. I should have called him before coming here, but I’d
hesitated because the last time he called me, some years ago, I
had cursed him and banged the telephone down. On an impulse,
now, I dial his number. His sleepy voice answers and then I hear
the receiver being slammed back. I chuckle, thinking that it is
fortunate we did not marry after all. Our body clocks just did not match.
The singing mobile wakes me early the next morning. It is
Deepak, and when he learns that I am in Malerkotla, he is most
offended that I didn’t take his help. ‘What a beautiful city and
what culture!’ he exclaims. ‘Rehmat qawwal would cast a spell
with his Sufiana qalam. Anno Jaan and Zarina Jaan were the two
most famous and sought after tawaifs of the town…’ I listen to
him go on excitedly about the Sufis and qawwals and dancing
girls of Malerkotla and wonder if I’d only imagined him hanging
up on me last night.
‘You know, while I was studying there, a tall young man
with film-hero looks would come to play hockey in the college
grounds. He was a tubewell mechanic. His clothes were very
colourful and we would laugh at him. Later he went to Bombay
and became the famous film star Dharmendra. The photographs
he sent for the 1958 Filmfare talent hunt contest were taken at
John’s Studio in Sadar Bazaar. Some years ago when I went to
Bombay to invite him for a World Punjabi Conference and told
him I was from Malerkotla district, he wouldn’t let me leave and
kept talking of the old times for two hours. I could understand—
there was something magical about Malerkotla when we were
growing up. I still roam in my dreams in the lost grandeur of
Moti Bazaar…. Have you been there yet?’
Later that morning I visit the various heritage monuments
the city boasts, but it is heritage going to seed. Most well tended
is the spacious Idgah, which the residents of the town say is the
best in Asia. The famed Sheesh Mahal, which was the home of
Sajida Begum, is in shambles. After the death of the begum
many claimants turned up and the government was forced to seal
it, pending the dispute being settled, which may take decades.
The glory of the Purana Mahal is lost. Much of its land and
outhouses have been sold and new colonies of match-box
apartments surround it. Many no longer call it the palace. They
call it Tonk-wala Bangla, for it is now little more than a
bungalow. In this palace of yore lives the frail and ailing but still
beautiful Tonk-wali Begum, one of the four begums of the last
Tonk was a princely state of Rajasthan given to Amir Khan,
a freebooter of Afghan descent and a Pindari leader, after he
submitted to the British during the 1817 Pindari wars. Nawab
Iftikhar Ali Khan’s initial connection with Tonk was hunting,
his great passion. His hunting trips would take him away from
Malerkotla for long periods, to Kandaghat in Himachal Pradesh
and to Tonk. On one of his hunting expeditions he lost his heart
to Munawar-u-nissa, the comely princess of Tonk, and took her
as his second wife. Mohammad Mehmood, who along with his
family is in the service of the begum, says: ‘My father served her
and now my family and I look after her. Nawab Sahib spent the
longest part of his life with her. They also had a baby girl but
she passed away when she was but six days old. I have seen the
begum since my childhood and she is the kindest person in the
world.’ The sword and the hukamnama of gratitude gifted to
Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan by Guru Gobind Singh are in
her possession. Much else is lost, but the begum lives with
dignity in the evening of her life.
Moti Bazaar and Laal Bazaar, built on the designs of the
bazaars of Jaipur, are being eclipsed by crude contemporary
construction. Only a few of the old shops with carved balconies
still remain as slender proof of the old grandeur. Every second
shop is an embroidery shop now, because the town has a
flourishing cottage industry embroidering army and police badges.
All over the bazaar I see election posters of the recently elected
Razia Sultan flanked by Punjab Congress leader Rajinder Kaur
Bhattal and the ‘Maharani’ of Patiala, Parneet Kaur. Razia is a
local Gujjar girl, acclaimed for her beauty, who worked with
Sajida Begum in her younger days and is now married to a senior
Punjab police officer. To my joy, I discover John’s Studio in
Sadar Bazaar. Its owner who had clicked Dharam Bhaji’s pictures
is no more but his son still runs the studio.
The mazaar of Sheikh Hazrat at the entrance to the bazaars
in old Maler is a shocking sight in a town that prides itself on
its Sufi heritage. Someone had thought of renovating it but had
clearly given up long ago, and there is a great mess of refuse and
building material. Families of the old Afghans still live around
the mazaar, clearly oblivious to its slow ruin.
‘The local Muslims respect the saint but do not believe in
him because they are Islamic,’ says left-wing Punjabi writer S.
Tarsem. He has taught a lifetime in a local college and knows the
town like the back of his hand. ‘However, the mazaar has a great
following among Hindus and Sikhs all the way from Barnala to
Bathinda. They come in hundreds all year round and in thousands
at the time of the Urs.’ I’m ambivalent about the faith of these
thousands who come to the mazaar. I know that a large majority
come to seek the saint’s blessings for a male child. Some years
ago this had led to a strange phenomenon: Kade-wala Baba. He
set up shop behind the Idgah and gave couples iron kadas that
would guarantee a male child. His fame spread, and people from
all over the country started coming to him for the kada in
exchange for generous offerings in cash and kind. The one train
that passed the town began to halt at his dera. It is said he
distributed a lakh and twenty-five thousand bangles before some
wise men of the town drove him away (the cynical maintain that
they were provoked to act because the savvy sadhu’s growing
fame meant that less and less people came to Sheikh Hazrat’s
Sitting with Tarsem at his home I ask him if there has indeed
never been a single case of religious violence in his town. He
replies that I could wait another 100 years if that was what I
wanted to see and I would still be disappointed. There’s something
in the air of Malerkotla, he says, something in its soil that
changes men of hate. ‘In those days of ’46-’47, people were being
killed just two yards outside our territory, but anyone who
entered, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, was miraculously saved. There
was no violence here even after the felling of the Babri Masjid in
’92, even though nearly seventy per cent of the population is
Muslim. The people here are peace-loving and if ever there is any
attempt by any mischievous forces it is suppressed well in time.’
Sardar Balwant Singh, who was the minister of law and order in
Malerkotla during Partition, records in his account of the times:
‘About one lakh Muslims from other parts of Punjab took shelter
here. Not a single killing took place… All the Muslims who
converged at Malerkotla were safely sent to Pakistan with the
assistance of Sardar Patel. A battalion of the army was sent to
help the migrants across.’
Deepak tells me later that he went with the other boys of his
village to Dhuri, ten kilometres away, to see what was absent in
Nirupama Dutt
Malerkotla—killing and looting. ‘Wells were choked with bodies
and Muslim homes were being looted. I saw a bull in one home.
I liked it, so I brought it back to my village.’ Once a looter
always a looter, I say and have the last laugh.
The visit to Tarsem’s house proves to be a turning point in
the unfolding of the Malerkotla mystique. He gives me a short
story titled ‘Nath’ written by Chandigarh-based writer Mohan
Bhandari. Another gift is the novella Anup Kaur by late Harnam
Das Sehrai who wrote scores of novels in Punjabi, all based on
Sikh history. Bhandari’s story is a quasi-fictional account of the
unhappy lives of the glittering courtesans of Malerkotla. Bhandari
writes: ‘I visited Anno Jaan’s kotha once with my friend Shauqat,
to see the new kabootri who had been brought there. Shauqat
and the young girl lost their hearts to each other. Of course, they
could never come together because a man old enough to be her
father removed her nath (nose-ring) and deflowered her… When
we resurrect feudal times, we must not forget the ugliness.’
For me the dilemma comes with Anup Kaur, and puts me
in a predicament too, as I chronicle the history of this principality.
But that happens later, when I read the novel at night. That
evening, I am still trying to contact the missing Azad who had
promised to take me to meet the surviving heirs of the famed
Mirasi performing tradition. When I finally get him on the
phone, he says, ‘I will bring everyone to the hotel.’ I try to reason
that my going to meet them would be a better idea; I’d like to
see them in their environment. There’s a stony silence at the
other end. There goes my chance to visit old Maler at night
where, Azad has told me, stalls of tea, paan-beedi, sweets and
frothy milk that they call doodh-malai remain open till the wee
hours. I could have done with a nice hot tumbler of frothy milk
after the rounds of the day. Maybe I can ask him to take me out
after we’ve met the Mirasis.
Azad comes late in the evening with two strapping young
men for me to interview. They are local bodybuilders! The older
of the two is a dark and stocky trainer called Mohammad Sharif
Boss and the other hulk, Mumtaz Ahmad Tony, has the startling
good looks of Dharmendra. He has also been Mr Punjab. What
follows is a treatise on physical fitness, bodybuilding and the
powerful Punjabi physique. Boss tells me that once at the Lal
Qila in Delhi a police officer stopped the two of them and asked,
‘Are you from Punjab? You can’t be locals, we see only ill-fed
chhachhunders here.’ Tony adds, ‘Bodybuilders don’t have to
introduce themselves. Their bodies tell the tale.’ Together they
run the local Great Sports and Welfare Club and help young
men give up alcohol, drugs and tobacco. Besides, they are proud
advertisements of Punjabi health and well-being, and get paid for
Happily, Sardar Ali of the Mirasi village of Matoi arrives
and the conversation shifts from the body to the soul. Sardar
belongs to the lineage of Ustad Chanan Shah, his grandfather,
and Ustad Abdul Majid Khan, his father. He talks reverentially
of the late Ustad Barqat Husain of the Patiala Gharana who lived
here, and the late Rehmat Qawwal. Barqat Husain’s wife Salma
was famous in her own right as a ghazal singer, but she too is
dead, and I lose my chance of meeting a woman of substance;
the entire milieu is oppressively masculine here. Sardar says
disapprovingly, ‘Ustad Sahib should not have married her. She
was raised in the tawaif tradition. However, he lost his heart to
her when he had gone to Uttar Pradesh for a concert. He was
very young then.’ Sardar, very young himself, but utterly sure of
his heart, is an ambitious fellow. He tells me he will soon
establish the Abdul Majid Institute of Music and Art, named
after his father. The conversation meanders to this and that, and
somehow the young men start reciting a few couplets of Urdu
for my benefit in their pronounced Punjabi accent. I have said
earlier that the smattering of Urdu sweetens the Punjabi spoken
in Malerkotla. But the Punjabi lehaza does nothing for the Urdu
they speak.
Shero-o-shairi over, the moral gang of four robs me of my
tumbler of frothy milk at old Maler—I can’t be part of their
night out. ‘We cannot take you there,’ Azad says decisively. ‘It
is not proper. This is a Muslim town and women stay in
purdah.’ This is the end. Angry words gather at the tip of my
tongue. He’ll never have Rani Balbir Kaur’s telephone number;
at least not from me. I remain in my zenana of Maharaja Palace,
sipping bland chicken soup and wishing myself in Lahore, where
I would be one among many women without purdah, enjoying
the fare at Food Street on Nisbat Road past midnight. In fact,
right now I wouldn’t even mind reclining at Mocha CafĂ© in
Chandigarh, having my masala tea and able to think kindly of
This is the mood I take to my reading of Anup Kaur that
night. While the stories of the Sahibzadas, the Nawab and
Hazrat Sheikh are well known, I have never heard any mention
of Anup Kaur in all that I have been told about Malerkotla. But
women have strange ways of reaching out and this young woman
smuggles herself into my khwabgah, my refuge of dreams, in a
slim novella. She completes my journey. The novella, written
like a lascivious pamphlet, tells the story of the resistance of a
beautiful young girl called Anup Kaur, an expert warrior and a
friend of the Sahibzadas. Abducted by Nawab Sher Mohammad
Khan, the same man who stood up courageously to defend the
Sahibzadas, she chose to thrust a dagger into her breast rather
than change her faith and marry him. The novella says that
Anup’s soul haunts the palace of the nawab and does not allow
him a wink of sleep even in death, as she didn’t all the years that
he was alive. I don’t know how the nawab coped, but my sleep
is gone.
The ghost of the unborn, unfulfilled, oppressed womanhood
is to chase me all through my journey in Punjab. For the
moment, I dismiss Anup’s story, the blot on the celebrated
nawab’s reputation. This is all fiction, I tell myself. Later,
though, I find references to this girl in several Sikh texts and in
the writings of historian Ganda Singh. The historian says that
when Banda Bahadur came to avenge the murder of the
Sahibzadas, he razed Sirhind to the ground but did not destroy
Malerkotla because of that one cry of protest by the nawab.
However, he exhumed the body of Anup, cremated it according
to Sikh rites, and set her soul to rest. Few people remember her;
no one rose in her defence.
The following morning, Azad asks me to stop by his school,
and there he introduces me to the young Hindu and Muslim
teachers. As we talk, the subject of purdah comes up. Not all the
teachers support the practice. Azad intervenes to pronounce:
‘Women must remain in purdah. That is the right thing for
them. No boy will ever harass a girl wearing a burqa.’
On my way out of the town, I spot a small crowd at the
mazaar of Hazrat Sheikh. Men and women praying for a male
child—and does the saint grant their wish each time? Is Anup
Kaur’s soul really at rest?
Yet, the legend of Malerkotla lives on. Perhaps it is not for
individuals to judge. Human existence is never without its flaws;
even one act of kindness, however small, is a gift to be grateful
for. In the crowded bus that takes the route from Amargarh and
Nabha to reach Patiala, I look back with love at Malerkotla that
still shows hope for humanity, never mind its failings. There is
some charm in the remnants of decadent Nawabi honour. I can’t
deny the fondness I feel for the righteous Azad, the bodybuilders,
the sanctimonious Mirasi singer and the fifteenth-generation
Shehzada who might one day learn to love the rickshaw-wallahs
and chai-wallahs. Kind thoughts fly to Tarsem, Rafi-ul-art and
that damned Deepak, too. The turmoil of the night is over and
calm is settling in as I journey back home. Does it have
something to do with the Sufi way in Malerkotla? The rough
rustic song playing in the bus wants to know: Kehde yaar di jalebi
khaadi, Hunn bada mittha boldi (Which lover’s fed you a jalebi
that you speak so sweetly now)? All right, I’ll send Azad Rani’s
number after all. And I think I will be back for that tumbler of
milk in old Maler. And a jalebi to sweeten my tongue.


  1. Hello ! That was too long, but somehow It kept me tied , may be due to my association with Malerkotla. I was searching for one time old friend Rafi that I found this paper, Thanks
    Deepak ( not the one in the article)

  2. It's Very Gorgeous post and also image. I liked it.