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CHAUDHRY UMAR SINGH GETS NOSTALGIC

CHAUDHRY UMAR SINGH GETS NOSTALGIC

by S. Mubarak Singh

We were driving on the great GT Road, which is famed to have been built by Sher Shah Suri. This road which connected Delhi with Peshawar was then known as "the Jarnaili Sarak". Thus spoke with pride one passenger to another, as we travelled by a Deluxe, bus to Delhi.
The heat in the bus was oppressive. Children Often moistened their dry lips with their tongues: a few were crying with thirst. The passengers implored the driver to halt the bus for a while, so that they might get a drink of water from a wayside hand-pump. The driver, a kindly man stopped his vehicle. Water is indeed the elixir of life in the hot weather in India. The heat at the very opening of summer of that Year was indeed scorching. Since almost all the passengers, about forty men and women, had to quench their thirst, the bus had to stop for a considerable time.
I stood under a tree, watching a harvest-combine which was harvesting and threshing wheat in a field about four hundred Yards away. This interesting machine moved forward harvesting, the crop at the far- end, while a bag full of Properly threshed grain, was delivered at the other end. ln the: meantime a cart, laden with the harvested crop and driven by a peasant came and stopped close to me . 'Look Banta Singh, 'said this farmer from his seat in the van of the cart, 'how lucky these Chaudhuries are: they need no longer harvest , garner and thresh the crops with their hands; this machine does all see things in no time.' These words reflected the farmer's regret at his inability to purchase a harvesting combine. A touch of jealousy towards the Chaudhuries and a Yearning to possess a similar machine were easily discernible in his words.
S. Mubarak Singh, who passed away last month at the age of eighty, was a muti-dimensional personality. He had harmonised in himself a host of talents and qualities and what emerged from this combination was a rare and an uncommon man, who was greatly admired and loved by all who happened to meet and know him. Even his political rivals had nothing but praise and plaudits for him because they were sooner or Iater won over by his deep humanism, his transparent honesty, his uncompromising loyalty to his ideals, his flaming patriotism and his unquenchable thirst for wisdom and knowledge. But above all, his disarming warmth and affection, which exuded naturally from him, like fragrance from a freshly-' blossomed rose, befriended him to every one. - He held various important and key positions in life being the syndic -of senator of Punjab, Punjabi and Guru Nanak Dev Universities, President of Amritsar Municipal Committee, Chairman of Ludhiana improvements Trust, a Member of the Punjab Public Service Commission etc,' and adorned them all with a new decorum and dignity by his exemplary spirit of devotion and decency. He picked  up the seeds of a wide range of experiences from every where and scattered them in different settings and situations making life all the more rich and abundant for himself and others.
 Indian politics attracted him right from the days of Indian struggle for Independence. He made  occasional jaunts into the realms of creative writing, as literature wielded a strange fascination for him, which later became his first love. This led him to start the two magazines 'Art of Lving' and Modern Practical Psychology, which were the first regular journals to be issued from Punjab, won high praise from discerning critics and writers. Pb. Monitor reproducing here a story for their readers, written by him a few Years ago. lt centres  around a home 'spun character, Chaudhry Umar Singh who plied a horse carriage, and is drawn from real life (He told me once). The language is direct, racy and lucid and the story remains etched in one's memory long after it has been read and enjoyed. ----Raj Kumar Kapoor (Consultant Editor, Modern Practical Psychology)  

The passengers were now ready to resume their journey. The driver blew the horn and' the passengers rushed to occupy their seats. ln this era of change in India, certain elements of our old way of life coexist with the new inventions of the modern age. The old gives way to the new, since the desire to acquire new modern things is strong in every heart, But after some time the novelty of the new wears off; boredom ensues and the discarded past rises once again surrounded by a new halo of charm. lt is the magic of the old that beckons us from: alar, and then excavations are undertaken 'and old mounds rifled in a search for old designs in architecture, old pottery, coins, busts and other articles of decoration and toilet, which had served men and women of bygone ages. Available history is mute why excavation are resorted to in order to gain and exact knowledge of life in centuries gone by. The bus was now nearing Delhi. Where as many people may have an overpowering Passion for Delhi, I have developed a sort of phobia for this city, A feeling of uneasiness begins to creep over me, while I am still at a distance from it. The reason for this is my aversion to noise and the hustle of Delhi. ln Delhi everybody appears to be fleeing - fleeing about in all sorts of conceivable conveyances- cycles, scooters, cars -fleeing as if before a pursuing doom. Tranquility and repose are things entirely lacking in the people's lives. The slow and relaxed gait seems to have become a thing of the past, unknown to the denizens of the modern age. The slow easy movement is shunned with a vehemence worthy of aversion to an evil. As planned I spent two days in Delhi. But even my most assiduous attempts to quit according to schedule this city of screechy din and distances for my more calm and peaceful heaven of Amritsar could not prevent an overstay of a third day. What follows happened on the third day.
I had been waiting for a bus at the Marina Hotel Bus-stop, An overloaded bus arrived and I was the flabbergasted witness of a miracle: against all apparent possibilities a few passengers did manage to push and elbow their way into the vehicle. A second bus, equally over-flowing with jam-packed humanity managed to escape, filling the long waiting gueue. Losing all patience and strength for a longer wait, I decided to hire a tonga to Subzimandi, which was then my destination. A bargain was struck at one and a half rupees. Under the force of an old habit, soon after boarding the tonga, I enquired of the tonga-driver whether he was a refugee. Whenever I traveling a tonga or rickshaw, I voluntarily enter into tete-a-tete with the driver as a pastime. And I have found from experience that the opening is almost invariably with the question of his being a refugee or otherwise. 'No sir, I am not a refugee, but a local.' What is your name? 'Umar Singh: Chaudhury Umar Singh.' The importance of the honorific 'Chaudhury' in his name was made unmistakably clear to me. Umar Singh was without long hair and beard: I guessed he might be a Jat. Are you a Jat? 'Yes sir ,l am a Jat. My forefathers have been living in Mehrauli for several generations.' Umar Singh appeared to be of a fairly ripe age. He did not pride himself with having a well-fed body: as a matter of fact. he seemed to be Wing with his pony to claim the palm for the leanness of the body and the inadequacy of the flesh to cover their bones.
ln the matter of dynamics they both appeared to favour a slow, relaxed movement as against the breathless speed of modern Delhi. The ramshackle condition of the cab notwithstanding, the company of Chaudhury Umar Singh was pleasing to me. Since his family had been associated with Delhi for several generations, I had a natural desire to know from him something of the Delhi of earlier days. I wished to know if Delhi had always been a city of robots cursed to lead a life of strain and speed. I broached the subject thus: Umar Singh, how old might you be? 'l am now over eighty, Sardar Sahib, and have been driving tongas for over fifty two year, 'replied Umar Singh with unconcealed pride.
Dropping many other questions, I put this one directly to him: 'Umar Singh, you have seen old times; what were the people like then? A sigh escaped his lips. 'Sardar Sahib, those were fine days; people were honest by and large. Some black sheep were of course there, but they were negligibly few: ah, people were wonderful then.' He continued, 'When I was eighteen years old, bajra, jowar and maize were selling at two and quarter maunds for a rupee, gram was about the same; wheat was a little dearer, selling at one and three quarters maunds a rupee. How about milk? 'Milk! that is a strange query, Sardar Sahib. Milk was then not something salable: selling milk was considered dishonourable, sinful like selling one's own children,' he said. 'This should mean, milch cattle were common in households,' I commented. 'A good cow, yielding about eight seers of milk could be bought for about twelve rupees. A buffalo costing sixty rupees was a wonder, a rarity, which made everyone admire it,' he replied.
'What was your fathers occupation?' I put another question. “He was a postman getting six rupees,' he replied. 'Six rupees!' I exclaimed in surprise. 'Sardar Sahib, one rupee's worth of grain was sufficient for all of us for a whole month; ghee was selling at three seers a rupee-the best quality dreamable, whose fragrance would travel over miles when used for cooking wedding dishes,' replied Umar Singh. I noticed that Umar Singh drew a long breath, as if he were trying to detect once again that delectable fragrance in the air. At the same time he moistened his dry lips with a slick movement of his tongue. 'lf money was so valuable, money-lending transactions must have been registered on stamped court papers.' 'Stamped papers were unknown then: transactions were made through word of mouth. People trusted one another and the pledged word was never broken.' Umar Singh no longer required the provocation of my queries, the pent up memories of the old Dyllie days sought relief in the Chaudhury's spontaneous overflow of thoughts.
'There were then no watchers; the crowing of the cock at dawn was the signal to get up and yoke the bullocks to the plough" Bidis and cigarettes were unknown -hookah as considered .....' At this moment a huge car flying almost at eighty or ninety miles per hour whizzed past us. Jokingly I said to Umar Singh, 'Cars must have been a common sight then?' He also laughed and said, 'Sardar Sahib, your queries are indeed quaint Talk of cars? Even this present type of tonga was something then unknown. There were Ekkas, like those you see in Mathura. Cars was a rarity then. The first car in Delhi was owned by the Gurwala Rai Sahib; people came to see it from long distances and they wondered to see it move without bullocks or horse. Believe me, sir, Gurwala Rai Sahib was the pride of the land: the Roshanara Gardens belonged to him.' Umar Singh's eyes glistened as he spoke. His mention of the Rai Sahib carried as of a savour of a very close relationship with that gentleman. lt is a strange vice of the poor. that, though starving, they would talk proudly of the rich in a tone of personal identity.
With a mischievous intent l said, 'Of course there was electricity in those days.' Umar Singh smiled and said, 'Even the municipality was not there, let alone electricity. Sarson oii was used for lighting; even kerosene came into vogue after many years. This area through which we are passing (it was Karol Bagh) was then a wilderness. People even in groups would hesitate to pass through it in day time.' Suddenly his face turned pale, and he said, 'Sir I am reminded of an old incident. I was then about seventeen-on the threshold of youth, full of the spirit of defiance of even the highest in the land . A pal of mine, who lived six or seven miles away from here had broken his leg by a fall from the house roof. I started from my house to enquire after his breath- a staff in my hand and a couple of rupees in the folds of my Dhoti round the waist.
Then pointing to all building he said, 'Over there used to be a high earthen mound near which grew a tall Neem tree. When I reached this place it was pretty dark. There I saw two persons armed with lathies with faces covered. I tried to turn round to avoid them when one of them said, 'Young man come up, we won't let you go, even if you tried, and with these words they strode towards me with long step, I also gripped my staff firmly. ln the meantime three other associates of those brigands appeared. Finding an encounter with the five of them futile and my escape also barred, I asked them what they wanted. One of them said, 'Lay down all that you possess including your clothes.' One of them had already relieved me of my staff. I pulled two rupees out of the folds of my Dhoti and handed them over to his companion. One of them relieved me of my Dhoti also. Then one of those standing a little away said, 'That'll do, let him go.' 'l then took to my heels so fast that I reached home all gasping. Thereafter never ventured alone in this direction. Even now I feel a shudder down my spine as I pass this way. The loss of the two rupees was most painful since they were worth two hundred rupees these days.' Umar Singh's trembling, born of fear, had merged with the shaking of the tonga. Noting a few women pass that way, and wishing to rid Umar Singh of the fear born of the horrible memories of that event, I said, 'Umar Singh, what sort of women were there then?' 'Women then were entirely different from these butterflies these days, 'replied Umar Singh.' Cinemas and hotels were unknown in those days. Women today care only for cinemas, hotel and saries. An educated man told me yesterday that cosmetics and make-up articles alone cost hundreds of thousands of rupees these days, he continued. Then with a sigh he concluded, 'Cursed is me to have been destined to see these times.
'Since we were approaching Subzimandi, I put a hurried question on a topic in which I had a psychological interest. 'Were there prostitutes in those days, Chaudhury Sahib?' Umar Singh thought for a while and said, Yes. But they lived a dignified life. They allowed themselves to be kept only by respectable persons. To- day they are so cheap without any code of conduct or morals: sincerity is something unknown now.
'Then suddenly the memory of another event gushed out of him, It is something fantastic, Sardar Sahib, but I must narrate it. My grandfather celebrated the marriage of my uncle with wonderful pomp and show. Dancing and singing girls were then greatly in demand on such occasions. Weddings were great occasions, since marriage without dance and music was not to be thought of I was quite young then, build remember vividly how Shamshaad Bai gave thrilling and superb performances of dance and music, performances which might well put to shame the fairies of Raja Inder. Those days, alas, are gone, never to return, Sardar Sahib.'
We were now close Subzimandi. I gave the fare to Singh and he deposited the coin his pocket without even counting I as they were now worth nothing than a mere pittance. He pulls reins of the horse a couple of times and the animal fell to its accustomed  slow trot soon. The receding sound of the hoofs striking against the cobbled street was heard regularly for time, and then it died away. Chaudhry  Umar Singh and his tonga were lost in the welter of the great metropolis.

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