Chapter 2:  Rudderless

 

Opana stayed in Nainital only till the middle of September. It was too soon to leave but he had no choice. He was to take a selection examination for the Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE) and had put down Delhi as his option for centre. He therefore came down to Delhi from Nainital to prepare for the examination. The unrest and violence across Northern India was growing worse day by day. Riots had erupted in Delhi also. It became clear that there was no chance of going to Lahore to retrieve his meager belongings, the most important being books, notes and technical literature. Without these notes how was he to prepare for the competitive examination? The situation in Delhi went on deteriorating and one day it was announced that the examination would be held in Shimla, and not in Delhi. Shimla, a hill station, was the summer capital of undivided India under the British Raj. Every summer, the whole government machinery used to move to Shimla for six months. There was still no news of Opana's father from Daska. So, with a heavy heart he left for Shimla and the test.

While still a student in Lahore, Opana had been engaged to marry Santosh. She was one of the daughters of the rather well known Bajaj family of Lahore. Since it was an arranged match he had never met his fiancee. Her whole family, including uncles, aunts and cousins, had moved out of riot-stricken Lahore and were living in a hired kothi called 'Boundary' at Chota Shimla. Opana was invited to stay there as a guest. Strange as it may sound today, Opana stayed under the same roof as his betrothed for over three weeks but never met her face to face nor ever speak to her. All her cousins - boys and girls - parents, aunts and uncles were very friendly and full of kindness. They all did their best to keep him in good cheer but the engaged couple, as were the customs of the time, neither met nor exchanged a word with each other. In fact, one of the more outspoken of the cousins took care to keep Opana informed: "There is a curfew on in the ..." referring to the part of the house in which Santosh happened to be and which was therefore out of bounds for him. Opana was, however, much too preoccupied preparing for the examination and far too worried about his father to bother about this. The situation was traditional and was acceptable enough.

The news of riots all over Punjab, of the killings and migrations was steadily pouring in from West Punjab and into Shimla, vitiating the peace of this well-ordered town. Soon enough, riots, looting and arson broke out in Shimla also. Curfew was clamped on the town to bring things under control and the Mall and the Ridge, the posh shopping centres of Shimla, wore a deserted look. All the Muslim shops had been looted ransacked and some burnt down. Sitting in the balcony in the 'Boundary', one could watch the looters wheeling away sofas and furniture, carrying away bales of cloth, readymade woollens and knitwear, crockery and such, to the suburbs of Chota Shimla and Sanjauli. On the day of the examination, curfew was relaxed during daytime and somehow the candidates reached the examination centre and sat through the papers. This over, all Opana wanted was to return to Delhi but learnt to his horror that all trains between Shimla, Kalka and Delhi had been cancelled. Buses had been burnt, or abandoned or stopped. All along the land routes, riots were raging like wild fire. His restlessness grew day by day but there was no way out.

 Then, one day someone brought the information that an escorted convoy of cars had been arranged to evacuate the British officers of the Armed Forces who were to be repatriated to UK. Permission had been obtained through an influential person for one extra car to join the convoy. This was very welcome news, for Opana was now getting worried to the point of distraction. So, one fine morning in September, the convoy set off from Shimla with Opana accommodated in a white Studebaker. After traversing fifty nine miles of hill road the convoy reached Kalka, a small town in the foothills.

 The river Ghaggar flows on the South of Kalka. In those days there was no road-bridge over the river but only a ford which could be crossed by vehicles during parts of the year. The traffic had to bestopped when the river was in flood. Usually these flash floods lasted one or two days, after which traffic would be resumed. When the convoy reached Ghaggar, the river was in flood. The convoy had to halt. There were no hotels or rest houses in Kalka. The convoy included senior British officers of the Imperial Army and accommodation was arranged for all at the railway station. A train was placed on the platform and the bogies allotted to the members of the convoy. The flash floods were expected to subside the next day, but this did not happen then nor even the day after. The swirling waters did not abate and the forecast said that the situation may not change for several days. In the meantime, the meager supply of the food fit for the burra sahibs available at the railway station or even in the town was running out. So, a train with flats was ordered from Ambala to proceed to Kalka in order to load the convoy cars and carry them across the rail-bridge over the Ghaggar and to Ambala Cantonment. A journey which would normally have taken less than an hour (Kalka and Ambala are only thirty six miles apart) thus took nearly four days.

In Ambala, the cars were refuelled at the army petrol depot with the help of jerry cans. That was the first time that Opana saw these famous jerry cans which were to become a part of his life later. At long last they resumed their journey to Delhi. All along the way lay mutilated bodies, burnt down houses and farms, and crops torched to cinders. The smell of death filled the air. The convoy made a fast transit, as the roads were deserted, though at some places they came Cross roadblocks set up by local gangs. However, the men holding those roadblocks scattered quickly as soon as they realised that it was an army convoy.

It was dusk in Delhi when the convoy arrived. Many parts of the city were already under curfew and not open to access. Opana was to go to the Tibbia College quarters where his elder brother lived. But that part of the town was under curfew and Opana spent the night somewhere in Connaught Place in an elegantly furnished flat. The next morning, when the curfew was relaxed for some hours, the owner of the Studebaker car very kindly dropped Opana at Tibbia College. His father had also arrived there a couple of days earlier, having travelled from Amritsar to Delhi on a goods train. The bogie he rode in used to carry coal once and the man who reached Delhi hardly resembled the stately Amarchand of Daska. He had lost a lot of weight and not only was he covered in dirt but was wearing the casual home wear of dhoti and kurta in place of his usual elegant clothes. Those were the clothes he had on when he climbed into the truck at Daska.

It was a family reunion of a very different kind. They were all happy to see each other alive but deep down there lurked unspoken fears and apprehensions about what was to happen next. Like plants uprooted in a storm, they looked limp and wilted. No ground stood prepared for their replanting. It was Amar Chand's abundant and deeply held faith in God that sustained them. It took many weeks for normalcy to return and for the madness of the mobs to abate. Opana's immediate family had escaped unharmed but there were millions who had not been so lucky. Entire families, even villages, had been iiped out. Millions of orphaned children, widowed wives, bereaved mothers and dazed fathers roamed the railway stations each day, scanning every face among the human cargo that the trains discharged, looking for their beloved ones. More often than not they were not there. Refugee camps were set up everywhere and millions of footsore and exhausted survivors of the largest transmigration known in history poured into these camps with whatever meager belongings that they could carry. And everyone waited patiently for news from the village of uncles, grand uncles, grand aunts, cousins and other kith and kin.

The country was coping with the shock of Partition. The Mcllagan alumni had nothing to do. They had no idea when the results of the degree examinations held months ago in Lahore would be declared and were worried that the results may be tampered with. Opana, with his dear friend Madan, aimlessly roamed through Connaught Place, Kashmere Gate, Mehrauli Road, both of them on a bicycle that Madan had just received as a wedding gift. One day, they recalled that just before college had closed in Lahore they had given in their names to a recruiting team that had visited the campus for the technical corps of Defence Services. Why not ask them if they were still interested? Opana sent off a letter to Army Headquarters, New Delhi. Within a few days a dispatch rider zoomed into Tibbia College asking for him. Everybody was very nervous, as in those unsettled days, an armyyavra/7 riding a motorcycle asking for a particular person by name could spell trouble. Thejawan handed Opana a big envelope, which as it turned out contained a call for an interview at the Services Selection Board in Meerut for a Commission in the Army. To Meerut he went, quietly confident that he was to join the army and that is exactly what happened. He was selected, medically examined and sent back to Delhi to share the news with his friends from Lahore. Some of the boys promptly put in their own applications, others were not allowed by their parents to do so until a delegation of friends visited their homes to persuade the families. Ultimately, seven of them from the 1947 batch of Macllagan College, Lahore were selected for the first Technical Graduates Course, and in February 1948 they all shook hands at Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, as Gentlemen Cadets.

At Dehradun things moved very fast. They were rounded into a squad and taken to the barber for a crew cut and hair that had been groomed and nurtured with loving care fell to the barber's scissors. Big boots were issued and in the evening Narender Singh, the Senior Under Officer (SUO) took them for a RWR (Road Walk and Run) up to the Forest Research Institute some five miles away. The routine was stiffer the next day and tightened gradually till the new boys got into shape. All extra fat melted away and the gentlemen cadets (GC's) learned the arts of marching, crawling, weapon-firing, drill, obstacle races and in between, studied some hygiene, some mess etiquette, swimming, sports etc. The normal two-year course was compressed into ten months and on December 10, 1948, these gentlemen cadets marched at the impressive passing out parade to emerge as Commissioned Officers.

Meanwhile, during the training period at the Academy, the results of the competitive examination for the Indian Railway Service of Engineers had been declared. Opana had qualified, but was not permitted to go for the interview. Results from the college at Lahore were also declared. An honours degree was conferred on Opana and three other classmates at the Military Academy. The great expectations with which some of the boys had joined the IMA "Eksajje hoegi, ekkhabe hoegi' (one girl will be on your right and one on your left) - were not realised but the IMA had hammered them into good shape. They were ready for a man's life in Independent India's defence services. Wearing Second Lieutenants' badges on their shoulders, they set off on four weeks leave with instructions to join their respective units/centres by January 7, 1949.