x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Memories of a peaceful past in partition-era Uttar Pradesh

An Indian town that was once a haven of tolerant co-existence is now the scene of Hindu-Muslim violence, saddening our columnist.

“Weh Pyare Lal, your sons are pelting the raw mangoes with stones, and destroying them,” screamed the old woman who lived in the temple opposite my brother-in-law’s home in Handia Mohallah, Muzaffarnagar, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The temple was in the centre of a walled compound of about one acre, as we said then (less than half a hectare).

The old woman, locally known as Dadi (grandmother), lived alone in a room behind the prayer room. She was 70, walked with a strong staff, had trouble maintaining herself and the temple, but could startle the neighbourhood with her reverberating voice. The local boys used to torment her by stealing raw fruit.

Muzaffarnagar town was established in 1633, during the reign of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who is best known for building the Taj Mahal.

His grandfather the Mughal emperor Akbar had appointed Sayyid Muzaffar Ali Khan as the Khan-i-Jahan or ruler of the region. The town had been named after him.

Centuries later, thousands of refugees from Pakistan migrated to Muzaffarnagar to begin life afresh, after the partition of British India in 1947. Many of these migrants traded in jaggery and other sugars.

Muzaffarnagar in the 1950s was a quaint little town famed for its eateries and snack kiosks, which I visited often.

It is on the road connecting Delhi with Haridwar, a religious town through which flows the Ganges, the sacred river of Hindus.

The approach road was dotted with many dabhas (eateries) selling delicious north Indian cuisine. The Punjabi mah di daal was always laced with white butter and the tandoori rotis were always crisp. Buddhu Halwai’s sweetmeat shop on Roorkee Road was famous for its samosas. There were also many other snack kiosks that became local institutions.

Muzaffarnagar was a peaceful haven, away from the crowds and frenzy of Delhi. From the railway station we travelled by tricycle rickshaws to our homes.

Hussein Ali ran a cattle farm 5km from where we lived, in Sarwart. Every morning he would cycle to our home and deliver fresh milk in clean aluminium cans. Tariq would arrive on the first Sunday of every month to give the children their haircuts.

The Hindus who had arrived as embittered refugees, and the local Muslims who had chosen to make Muzaffarnagar their home even after partition, lived in absolute communal harmony.

They had put the pains of their pasts behind them and moved on. The desire to live and the need to feed a family are powerful driving forces. They compel human beings to forget past wounds, become practical and build the future.

In a quiet town with few diversions, movies were a major attraction. Whenever a new movie was released, all roads led to the three cinemas in town. There would be a fanatical scramble at the ticket windows.

The seats in the cinema were not numbered. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket, you raced inside to occupy a decent seat. My young nephews carried a bed sheet with which they would block off the number of seats we needed.

Monkeys could be found all over and were another diversion in this quiet town. Bands of them regularly attacked street hawkers. It was a fascinating, innocent time.

But later, one time when I was visiting, I did not hear Dadi’s resonating voice admonishing the kids for stealing mangoes from her compound. My nephews told me that one quiet night, life had slipped away from her.

Now the temple was desolate. The fruits ripened, rotted and then dropped off the branches. Stray monkeys feasted on Dadi’s mangoes. Spiders wove large webs in the compound.

Some weeks ago this same town became the centre of riots between Hindus and Muslims in the region. I wondered where the charm and spirit of unity had vanished from the warm Muzaffarnagar I used to know, where temples and mosques stood next to each other.

Why was this town, once a model of communal harmony, now dismembering itself? I have no answers, and I agonise over why the land of Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa (non-violence) is becoming more intolerant and brutal by the day.

Hari Chand Aneja is a 92-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work