Son of the soil: A posthumous return home

Published: May 6, 2014
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Khushwant Singh. PHOTO: FILE

Khushwant Singh. PHOTO: FILE

KHUSHAB: 

It didn’t matter if you were the prime minister of India: if you turned up at Khushwant Singh’s home in Delhi without a prior appointment, his family or servants would politely turn you away.

There, was, however, a loophole in this stringent rule. If you were a visitor from Hadali, a town of Khushab district, located 280 kilometres from Lahore, the doors of Singh’s house were wide open to you at any time. Singh’s home in Delhi was named Hadali House, a testament to his abiding love for the place of his birth, which fell to Pakistan upon the partition of India.

On April 22, 2014, in line with his wishes, a handful of Singh’s ashes were mixed into the material used to create a plaque, now installed at the author’s primary school in Hadali. Faqir Aijazuddin, former minister and former principal of Aitchison College was instrumental in this. His family and Singh’s family have had close ties for long. Thus, the resourceful Aijazuddin, along with his family, attended the funeral rites of Singh in India, and brought along some of his ashes to Pakistan.

Boys studying at Singh’s alma mater, where part of his ashes now rest, did not know about him. “We went to our teachers to ask about Singh, and found out who he was,” said boys of grade 10. Today, these boys wish to grow up to be like him. “It is a proud moment for us to know that a person like him has received education from this school.”

Singh, a practising lawyer in Lahore on the cusp of India’s independence in 1947, drove from Lahore to Delhi alone at the time. The journey inspired Train to Pakistan, published in 1956, a record of the disturbing stories that Singh encountered as he migrated to India.

Partition did not diminish his love for his birthplace; if anyone spoke ill of Lahore or Hadali in his presence, Singh found it difficult to forgive the person. He would say that when he would read anything published against Pakistan in Indian newspapers, he would feel hurt, as a part of him continued to consider Pakistan his home. Many thought of him as a ‘Pakistani living in India’.

Thirty-nine years after Partition, Singh was able to return to Pakistan and his hometown of Hadali. “For me, the importance of Hadali is similar to the importance of the Holy Kabah for Muslims,” he said during his visit in December 1986. He spent the day at his former home and school and with the people of Hadali at a ceremony they organised to welcome home the town’s prodigal son.

Legend has it that Hadali got its name when after a war, bones of those killed kept lying in the area. They were buried here later. Hadaan (‘bones’ in Punjabi) of those who belong here deserve to be here. Ironically, part of Singh’s remains have come back here.

Hadali is not very well known. With a population of approximately 60,000, it is the third largest town of Khushab District.

“The kind of recognition that Singh brought to his birthplace, no one else could,” said advocate Mukhtar Islam Baali, resident of Hadali. Baali recalled the time when he accompanied Singh to his ancestral home in 1986. On the way, Baali kept testing Singh’s memory, asking him about the routes they were passing through. “He remembered every street and market correctly.”

Advocate Malik Muhammad Tahir Awan, a resident of Hadali, had the honour of hosting Singh briefly in 1986. “He would converse in Punjabi sometimes. Even if people were eating while standing at dinners in his honour, he would call for a chair to sit on and eat.”

When Muhammad Ali Asad Bhatti, a resident of Hadali and a poet, discovered that Singh was born in the town, he wrote him a letter. As he did not have the author’s address, he simply wrote Khushwant Singh’s name on the envelope and sent the missive to Delhi. Exactly one month later, in 1990, Bhatti received a response to his letter.

The two men frequently corresponded, a steady stream of letters making its way back and forth across the border. In 2002, Bhatti visited Chandigarh for the Punjabi Literature Conference and expressed his wish to meet his pen pal. The conference’s organisers discovered that Singh was in Simla at the time, but passed Bhatti’s request on to the author. A few days later, Singh arrived in Chandigarh. “We embraced like old friends,” Bhatti recalled, saying Singh wept as he spoke of Hadali during their time together.

It was during that meeting that Singh told Bhatti he wished to be buried in Hadali. His remains, he said, must become part of the town’s soil. This year, Singh passed away in Delhi on March 20th, at the age of 99.

His wish partially came true last month. Journalists, locals and officials from the district administration attended these last rites. Locals requested that the school be declared a heritage site and Singh’s house – demolished now, the plot of land is owned by another family – be converted into a library or a free dispensary.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Stranger
    May 6, 2014 - 11:20AM

    His was a life well lived , indeed.

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  • Ali
    May 6, 2014 - 1:50PM

    Very we’ll done, can someone tell us what the Gurmukhi script says on the plaque?

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  • May 6, 2014 - 2:06PM

    Respect for late Khushwant Singh ji.

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  • Harjit Singh Dhanoa
    May 6, 2014 - 2:57PM

    @Ali:
    The inscription ” Sat Sri Akal” is how all Sikhs greet each other.
    It means God is True or if you like God is Great- Allan Ho Akbar- etc.

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  • Junaid
    May 6, 2014 - 3:39PM

    @Ali
    @Harjit Singh Dhanoa

    Sat Sri Akal

    Sat = Truth
    Sri Akal = God is One and Only (Akela)

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  • Shakir Lakhani
    May 6, 2014 - 3:53PM

    “Singh’s house – demolished now, the plot of land is owned by another family – be converted into a library or a free dispensary”. If the house has been demolished, and the plot on which it stood is owned by someone else, how can the “house” be converted into a library or free dispensary?

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  • Humza
    May 6, 2014 - 5:07PM

    One of the widest respected scholars and journalists from the region. I hope that an explanatory plaque is installed near by in Shahname – the Punjabi writing used in Pakistan – so that local people can also read about his legacy as a writer and advocate for peace.

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  • Vas
    May 6, 2014 - 5:45PM

    Ali: The Gurmukhi reads “Sat Sri Akal”.

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  • Azmat Khan
    May 6, 2014 - 6:00PM

    @Harjit Singh Dhanoa:
    Thank you Sardar ji.I have much regard for Khushwant ji.I have studied his two books in Urdu.
    He was a great writer.May his soul rest in eternal peace.

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  • shahid
    May 6, 2014 - 6:06PM

    Why is the plaque inscription not in Urdu? Or at least also in Urdu? He wrote a lot in Urdu and was both an Urdu writer and poet. He was never ashamed of Urdu, why are we? When will this dark cover of “westoxification” leave? May be never ….

    And remember he was one of those writers who had vociferously and courageously advised against printing of the Salman Rushdi book “The Satanic Verses”. He was asked for advice about publishing the book by the publishing company. May God bless his soul.

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  • kulwant singh
    May 6, 2014 - 6:45PM

    @Jahangir Chauhan: Dear Sir, in Gurmukhi it is written Sat Shri Akal when two Sikhs meet they greet each other.

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  • I am a Khan
    May 6, 2014 - 7:54PM

    @Harjit Singh Dhanoa:

    Its “Allah Ho Akbar” meaning “God is Great”

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  • Oats
    May 6, 2014 - 8:18PM

    May he rest in peace. He was a great writer who never forgot his roots in Punjab.

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  • Mahvish
    May 9, 2014 - 3:02AM

    if Khushwant Singh had too much luv for Hadali then I being inhabitant of Hadali dnt even knw his name before reading ths article,, its strange,,

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