Chapter 6:  Visitors And Settlers


Daska situated at the cross-roads from four prominent towns - Gujranwala, Wazirabad, Sialkot and Narowal - had over the ages attracted people. The town of Daska did have people who had come and settled from distant communities. Strangers became insiders, sometimes for a while and sometimes for good, even in the closed society of Daska. Jamala the hatoo, as the Kashmiri Muslims were called, worked on contract in a firewood stall near Opana's home. He was a giant of a man and wielded a fourteen-pound axe to split logs into firewood. Large groups of the hatoo community used to come down from Kashmir into the plains in winter, to escape the severe cold of the mountains and to look for work, like carrying loads or splitting wood. They were a very romantic folk. They worked hard during the day but at nightfall they cooked their typical Kashmiri broth and sat for hours around the smouldering fire singing plaintive love songs.

 Oh my faithless beloved

You have shattered my contentment

Riding a blue mare you went away

I don't know your destination or which land you came from

Oh you faithless beloved    

The local boys loved to mime and dance to this music and spent many evenings with the hatoos. Over time, Jamala and the boys grew to be great friends. Year after year, Jamala came back to the same job and the boys looked forward eagerly to his return. He always brought with him loads of walnuts and fresh juicy Ambri apples and Pattoo, the well known coarse Kashmiri wool fabric. For all his height and massive build, Jamala was quite a chicken-hearted fellow. When a little boy of five had to have a minor boil lanced on his arm, Jamala, who stood beside him, simply fainted. After that he never went near a hospital. After the Partition of the country, Jamala like so many others like him, just disappeared, sucked into the vortex of intense hate that ran its course across the land in the months that followed.

Among Opana's father's clients, was a particular clan known as Bhatras. They all hailed either from Daska or from a village called Gholotian. They were a wandering clan of Sikhs, practising as soothsayers and astrologers who used various devious means for predicting the future. They roamed the wide world, from continent to continent, as itinerant fortune-tellers. Some read the palm, others studied the forehead and still others used cards or beads or die throw of a dice. Some delved into astrology and based their forecasts on horoscopes. They were all multi-lingual and very sweet of tongue.

Good at face reading, they could tell your immediate thoughts by studying your face. Although they roamed far and wide, through some mysterious system of communication, they all returned every two or three years to gather in Daska at the same time. During the sweltering heat of the summer months when the normal Daskawallas were wearing out their skins as clothes became unbearable, these 'foreign-returned'Johnies floated about in tweed suits acquired from their sojourns through Scotland or Balaclava caps and fur-lined greatcoats acquired in Russia or in the Tundras. There was no limit to the scope and variety of their activities. Their presence was felt by all Daskawallas. The first impact was on the meat market and the prices of meat and chicken rocketed sky high, for the Bhatras were voracious meat eaters. This was followed by the widespread and obnoxious smell of drying fish. They dredged all ponds and canals of all fish ever so small and strung these up in the sun. They powdered the dried fish and made small fish cakes to be used in all the dishes that they cooked. A month or two after their return, drunken brawls and fights broke out in different parts of the town, followed by litigations and arrests. Within six months they squandered all their hard earned money, pawned their woollen clothes and other imported articles, put their wives in the family way and then, as if on a prearranged signal, took leave of their ancestral home to resume their wanderings as mendicants, sadhus or fakirs.

When away from their homes, they talked very poetically of their homeland, "Daskpuri aur Ghalotghar ke beech ek Chhamka nadi behndihai. Sher te bakri ekghat tepanipinde han. Hans motian di chog chogende han, oos nagri de asi rehn wale hain ". "We come from the land of Daska and Gholotian through which runs the serene stream Chhamkan. The tiger and lamb drink water side by side on the bank and swans feed on pearls". This colourful clan of soothsayers still roam the world telling fortunes and predicting the future, but they have no home to return to anymore

Years later, one of these men accosted Opana near Marble Arch in London, and got ready to open up his books and cast the beads to begin predictions. Opana asked him whether he hailed from Daska or Gholotian and the man covered his face and wept bitterly. At the time of Partition, he said, he was away from home, his wife and five children were burnt alive when they had torched the Bhatron ka mohalla in Daska. All through life, he had roamed alone, but, two things had kept him company hope and memory. Now he had neither.

Nidhan Singh Alam was a preacher from the break-away group of Sikhs called the Namdharis. This sect does not accept the orthodox position that after the tenth guru there is no livingguru and that the holy book of Granth Sahib be deemed the guru thereafter. Instead they believe in a succession of living gurus and the continuation of the Gaddi. They wear white clothes which in those days were of pure kliadi, and they tie their turbans differently.

The diwan or congregation of the Namdharis are held in the evenings with programmes of hymns, ballads, lectures and kirtans and narration of religious stories. The preachers have a jatha of followers attached to them who may play the harmonium, cymbals, sitar, or dholak. After the evening meal, when dusk falls, the Namdhari j diwan assembles. Opana's father was a patron of these diwansand a number of them were held in the Bhagel Singh Ki Kothi, where the Jatha would camp for days on end. Starting with some devotional songs, the diwan switches to ballads about some famous episodes like/cge di War or Quetta Tragedy. Using one of these as a theme, the preacher brings out the various do's and don'ts of conduct and the essential values of Bhakti, clean living and high thinking. Examples are quoted from various scriptures the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, Guru Granth Sahib, etc. This continues till after midnight and people, far from being impatient, sit listening with rapt attention. Nidhan Singh Alam drew large crowds and held them spell-bound for hours on end. If anybody tried to sneak away Alam turned on him with some songs like " tenu sutian kise nahinjagana tun rajh ke saun /aen" (when you are dead nobody will try to keep you awake and you can sleep to your heart's content). Such interventions proved powerful deterrents to truancy. When the Quetta earthquake of 1935 killed so many thousands in that flourishing city, Nidhan Singh Alam had earned reknown for inspiring people to render liberal assistance to victims. Quite often his powerful oratory would induce sooter, a sort of violent trance, in some over-sensitive soul: some would break into uncontrollable sobbing, some would beat their chest or burst into fits of shouting. It was rumoured that in one of the diwansthe preacher himself got so excited that he jumped off the roof-top terrace of the house where the diwan was being held and ran a distance of nearly five kohs (about seven and a half miles) in the middle of the night to the next town of Wazirabad from Kandan Sian.