The Death of Shaikh Burhanuddin
Khwaja Ahmed Abbas
MY NAME IS SHAIKH Burhanuddin.
When violence and murder became the order of the day in Delhi and the blood of Muslims flowed in the streets, I cursed my fate for having a Sikh for a neighbour. Far from expecting him to come to my rescue in times of trouble, as a good neighbour should, I could not tell when he would thrust his kirpan into my belly. The truth is that till then I used to find the Sikhs somewhat laughable. But I also disliked them and was somewhat scared of them.
My hatred for the Sikhs began on the day when I first set my eyes on one. I could not have been more than six years old when I saw a Sikh sitting out in the sun combing his long hair. Look as I yelled with revulsion, "a woman with a long beard!" As I got older this dislike developed into hatred for the entire race.
It was a custom amongst old women of our household to heap all afflictions on our enemies. Thus for example if a child got pneumonia or broke its leg, they would say a long time ago a Sikh, (or an Englishman), got pneumonia: or a long time ago a Sikh, (or an Englishman), broke his leg". When I was older I discovered that this referred to the year 1857 when the Sikh princes helped the Feranghee — foreigner — to defeat the Hindus and Muslims in the war of independence. I do not wish to propound a historical thesis but to explain the obsession, the suspicion and hatred which I bore towards the English and the Sikhs. I was more frightened of the English than of the Sikhs.
When I was ten years old, I happened to be travelling from Delhi to Aligarh. I used to travel third class, or at the most in the intermediate class. That day I said to myself, "Let me for once travel second class and see what it feels like" I bought my ticket and I found an empty second class Compartment I jumped on the well-sprung seats; I went into the bathroom and leapt up to see my face in the mirror; I switched on all the fans. I played with the light switches. There were only a couple of minutes for the train to leave when four red-faced tommies burst into the compartment, mouthing obscenities: everything was either a bloody or a damn. I had one look at them and my desire to travel second class vanished.
I picked up my suitcase and ran out. I only stopped for breath when I got into a third class compartment crammed With natives, But as luck would have it it was full of Sikhs-their beards hanging down to their navels and dressed in nothing more than their underpants. I could not escape from them. but I kept my distance.
Although I feared the white man more than the Sikhs, I felt that he was more civilized. He wore the same kind of clothes as I. I also wanted to be able to say "a damn, 'bloody fool" the way he did. And like him I wanted to belong to be a ruling class. The Englishman ate his food with forks and knives I also wanted to learn to eat with forks and knives so that natives would look upon me as advanced and as civilised as the whiteman.
My Sikh-phobia was of different kind. I had contempt for the Sikh. I was amazed at the stupidity of men who imitated women and grew their hair long. I must confess I did not like my hair cut too short; despite my father's instructions to the contrary, I did not allow the barber to clip off more than a little when I went to him on Fridays. I grew a mop of hair so that when I played hockey or football it would blow about in the breeze like those of English sportsmen. My father often asked me "Why do you let your hair grow like a woman's?" My father had primitive ideas and I took no notice of his views. If he had had his way he would have had all heads razored bald, and stuck artificial beards on people's chins. That reminds me that the second reason for hating the Sikhs was their beards which made them look like savages.
There are beards and beards. There was my father's beard, neatly, trimmed in the French style, or my uncle's which went into a sharp point under his chin. But what could you do with a beard to which no scissors was ever applied and which was allowed to grow like a wild bush fed with a compost of oil, curd and goodness knows what And, after it had grown a few feet, combed like hair on a woman's head: My grandfather also had a very long beard which he combed, but then my grandfather was my grandfather and a Sikh is just a Sikh.
After I had passed my matriculation examination I was sent to the Muslim University at Aligarh. We boys who came from Delhi, or the United Provinces, looked down upon boys from the Punjab; they were crude rustics who did not know how to converse, how to behave at table, or to deport themselves in polite company. All they could do was drink large tumblers of buttermilk. Delicacies such as vermicelli with essence of kewra sprinkled on it, or the aroma of Lipton's tea was alien to them. Their language was unsophisticated to the extreme, whenever they spoke to each other it seemed as if they were quarreling. It was full of "ussi, tussi, saadey, twhaaday",—Heaven forbid" I kept my distance from the Punjabis.
But the warden of our hostel, (God forgive him), gave me a Punjabi as a room mate. When I realised that there was no escape, I decided to make the best of a bad bargain and be civil to the chap. After a few days we became quite friendly. This man was called Ghulam Rasul and he was from Rawalpindi. He was full of amusing anecdotes and was a good companion.
You might well ask how Mr. Ghulam Rasul gate-crashed into a story about the Sikhs. The fact of the matter is that Ghulam Rasul's anecdotes were usually about the Sikhs. It is through these anecdotes that I got to know the racial characteristics, the habits and customs of this strange community. According to Ghulam Rasul the chief characteristics of the Sikhs were the following:
All Sikhs were stupid and idiotic. At noon-time they lost their senses altogether. There were many instances to prove this. For example, one day at 12 o'clock noon, a Sikh was cycling along Hall Bazaar in Amritsar when a constable, also a Sikh, stopped him and demanded, Where is your light?" The cyclist replied nervously, "Jemadar sahib, I lit it when I left my home; it must have gone out just now". The constable threatened to run him in. A passer-by, yet another Sikh with a long white beard, intervened brothers, there is no point in quarrelling over little things. If the light has gone out it can be lit again".
Ghulam Rasul knew hundreds of anecdotes of this kind. When he told them in his Punjabi accent his audience was left helpless with laughter. One really enjoyed them best in Punjabi because the strange and incomprehensible behaviour of the uncouth Sikh was best told in his rustic lingo.
The Sikhs were not only stupid but incredibly filthy as well- Ghulam Rasul, who had known hundreds of them, told us how they never shaved their heads. And whereas we Muslims washed our hair thoroughly at least every Friday, the Sikhs who made a public exhibition of bathing in their under-pants poured all kinds of filth, like curd into their hair. I rub limejuice and glycerine in my scalp. Although the glycerine is white and thick like curd, it is an altogether different thing—made by a well-known firm of perfumers of Europe. My glycerine came in a lovely bottle whereas the Sikh's curd came from the shop of a dirty sweetmeat seller.
I would not have concerned myself with the manner of living of these people except that they were so haughty and ill-bred as to consider themselves as good warriors as the Muslims- It is known over the world that one Muslim can get the better of ten Hindus or Sikhs. But these Sikhs would not accept the superiority of the Muslim and would strut about like bantam cocks twirling their moustaches and stroking their beards. Ghulam Rasul used to say that one day we Muslims would teach the Sikhs a lesson that they would never forget.
Years went by.
I left college. I ceased to be a student and became a clerk; then a head clerk. I left Aligarh and came to live in New Delhi. I was allotted government quarters. I got married. I had children.
The quarters next to mine were occupied by a Sikh who had been displaced from Rawalpindi. Despite the passage of years, I remembered what Ghulam Rasul had told me. As Ghulam Rasul had prophesied, the Sikhs had been taught a bitter lesson in humility at least, in the district of Rawalpindi. The Muslims had virtually wiped them out. The Sikhs boasted that they were great heroes; they flaunted their long kirpans. But they could not withstand the brave Muslims. The Sikhs' beards were forcibly shaved. They were circumcised. They were converted to Islam. The Hindu press, as was its custom, vilified the Muslims. It reported that the Muslims had murdered Sikh woman and children. This was wholly contrary to Islamic tradition. No Muslim warrior was ever known to raise his hand against a woman or a child. The pictures of the corpses of women and children published in Hindu newspapers were obviously faked I wouldn't have put it beyond the Sikh to murder their own women and children in order to vilify the Muslims.
The Muslims were also accused of abducting Hindu and Sikh women. The truth of the matter is that such was the impact of the heroism of Muslims on the minds of Hindu and Sikh girls that they fell in love with young Muslims and insisted on going with them. These noble-minded young men had no option but to give them shelter and thus bring them to the true path of Islam. The bubble of Sikh bravery was burst. It did not matter how their leaders threatened the Muslims with their kirpans, the sight of the Sikhs who had fled from Rawalpindi filled my heart with pride in the greatness of Islam.
The Sikh who was my neighbor was about sixty years old. His beard had gone completely grew Although he had barely escaped from the jaws of death, he was always laughing, displaying his teeth in the most vulgar fashion. It was evident that he was quite stupid. In the beginning he tried to draw me into his net by professions of friendship. Whenever I passed him he insisted on talking to me. I do not remember what kind of Sikh festival it was, when he sent me some sweet butter. My wife promptly gave it away to the sweepress. I did my best to have as little to do with him as I could. I snubbed him whenever I could. I knew that if I spoke a few words to him, he would be hard to shake off. Civil talk would encourage him to become familiar. It was known to me that Sikhs drew their sustenance from foul language. Why should I soil my lips by associating with such people.
One Sunday afternoon I was telling my wife of some anecdotes about the stupidity of the Sikhs. To prove my point, exactly at 12 o'clock, I sent my servant across to my Sikh neighbor to ask him the time. He sent back the reply, two minutes after 12". I remarked to my wife "You see, they are scared of even mentioning 12 o'clock" we both had a hearty laugh. After this, many a time when I wanted to make an ass of my Sikh neighbor, I would ask him "Well, Sardarji has it struck twelve?" The shameless creature would grin, baring all his teeth and answer, "Sir, for us it is always striking twelve". He would roar with laughter as if it were a great joke.
I was concerned about the safety of my children. One could never trust a Sikh. And this man had fled from Rawalpindi. He was sure to have a grudge against Muslims and to be on the look-out for an opportunity to avenge himself. I had told my wife never to allow the children to go near the Sikh quarters. But children are children. After a few days I saw my children playing with the Sikh's little girl, Mohini, and his other grand-children. This child, who was barely ten years old, was really as beautiful as her name indicated; she was fair and beautifully formed. These wretches have beautiful women. I recall Ghulam Rasul telling me that if all the Sikh men were to leave their women behind and clear out of the Punjab, there would be no need for Muslims to go to paradise in search of houris.
The truth about the Sikhs was soon evident. After the thrashing in Rawalpindi, they fled like cowards to East Punjab. Here they found the Muslims weak and unprepared So they began to kill them. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were martyred; the blood of the faithful ran in streams- Thousands of women were stripped naked and made to parade through the streets. When Sikhs, fleeing from Western Punjab, came in large numbers to Delhi it was evident that there would be trouble in the capital. I could not leave for Pakistan immediately. Consequently I sent away my wife and children by air, with my elder brother, and entrusted my own fate to God. I could not sent much luggage by air. I booked an entire railway wagon to take my furniture and belongings. But on the day I was to load the wagon I got information that trains bound for Pakistan were being attacked by Sikh bands. Consequently my luggage stayed in my quarters in Delhi.
On the 15th of August, India celebrated its independence. What interest could I have in the independence of India! I spent the day Iying in bed reading "Dawn" and the "Pakistan Times". Both the papers had strong word to say about the manner in which India had gained its freedom and proved conclusively how the Hindus and the British had conspired to destroy the Muslims. It was only our leader, the great Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was able to thwart their evil designs and win Pakistan for the Muslims. The English had knuckled under because of Hindu and Sikh pressure and handed over Amritsar to India Amritsar, as the world knows, is a purely Muslim city. Its famous Golden Mosque or am I mixing it up with the Golden Temple!—yes of course, the Golden Mosque is in Delhi. And in Delhi besides the Golden Mosque there are the Jamma Masjid, the Red Fort, the mausolea of Nizamuddin and Emperor Humayun, the tomb and school of Safdar Jang—just everything worthwhile bears imprints of Islamic rule. Even so this Delhi (which should really be called after its Muslim builder Shahjahan as Shahjahanabad) was to suffer the indignity of having the flag of Hindu imperialism unfurled on its ramparts.
My heart seemed rent asunder. I could have shed tears of blood. My cup of sorrow was full to the brim when I realised that Delhi, which was once the footstool of the Muslim Empire, the centre of Islamic culture and civilisation, had been snatched out of our hands. Instead we were to have the desert wastes of Western Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan inhabited by an uncouth and uncultured people. We were to go to a land where people do not know how to talk in civilised Urdu; where men wear baggy salwars like their women folk, where they eat thick bread four pounds in weight instead of the delicate wafers we eat at home!
I steeled myself. I would have to make this sacrifice for my great leader, Jinnah, and for my new country, Pakistan. Nevertheless the thought of having to leave Delhi was most depressing.
When I emerged from my room in the evening, my Sikh neighbour bared his fangs and asked "brother, did you not go out to see the celebrations"? I felt like setting fire to his beard.
One morning the news spread of a general massacre in old Delhi. Muslim homes were burnt in Karol Bagh. Muslim shops in Chandini Chowk were looted. This then was a sample of Hindu rule! I said to myself 'New Delhi is really an English city; Lord Mountbatten lives here as well as the commander-in chief At least in New Delhi no hand will be raised against Muslims'. With this self assurance I started towards my office. I had to settle the business of my provident fund; I had delayed going to Pakistan in order to do so. I had only got as far as Gole Market when I ran into a Hindu colleague in the office. He said "What on earth are you up to? Go back at once and do not come out of your house- The rioters are killing Muslims in Connaught circus".
I hurried back home
I had barely got to my quarters when I ran into my Sikh neighbour. He began to reassure me. "Sheikhji, do not wrorry! As long as I am alive no one will raise a hand against you". I said to myself: 'How much fraud is hidden behind this man s bread! He is obviously pleased that the Muslims are being massacred, but expresses sympathy to win my confidence; or is he trying to taunt me?' I was the only Muslim living in the block, perhaps I was the only one on the road.
I did not want these people's kindness or sympathy. I went inside my quarter and said to myself, 'If I have to die, I will kill at least ten or twenty men before they get me'. I went to my room where beneath my bed I kept my double-barrelled gun. I had also collected quite a hoard of cartridges. I searched the house, but could not find the gun.
"What is huzoor looking for?" asked my faithful servant, Mohammed.
"What happened to my gun?"
He did not answer. But I could tell from the way he looked that he had either hidden it or stolen it.
"Why don't you answer?" I asked him angrily.
Then he came out with the truth. He had stolen my gun and given it to some of his friends who were collecting arms to defend the Muslims in Daryaganj.
"We have hundreds of guns, several machine guns, ten revolvers and a cannon. We will slaughter these infidels; we will roast them alive."
"No doubt with my gun you will roast the infidels in Daryaganj, but who will defend me here? I am the only Mussulman amongst these savages. If I am murdered, who will answer for it?"
I persuaded him to steal his way to Daryaganj to bring back my gun and couple of hundred cartridges. When he left I was convinced that I would never see him again. I was all alone. On the mantlepiece was a family photograph My wife and children stared silently at me. My eyes filled with the tears at the thought that I would never see them again I was comforted with the thought that they were safe in Pakistan. Why had I been tempted by my paltry provident fund and not gone with them? I heard the crowd yelling
"Sat Sri Akal!"
"Har Har Mahadev".
The yelling came closer and closer. They were rioters She bearers of my death warrant I was like a wounded deer running hither and. thither, with the hunters' hounds in full pursuit. There was no escape. The door was made of very thin wood and glass panes. The rioters would smash their way in.
"Sat Sri Akal!"
"Har Har Mahadev..."
They were coming closer and closer- death was coming closer and closer. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. My Sikh neighbour walked in "Sheikhji, come into my quarters at once". Without a second thought I ran into the Sikh's verandah and hid behind the columns. A shot hit the wall above my head. A truck drew up and about a dozen young men climbed down. Their leader had a list in his hand—Quarter No. "Sheikh Burhanuddin". He read my name and ordered his gang to go ahead. They invaded my quarter and under my very eyes proceeded to destroy my home. My furniture, boxes, pictures, books, druggets and carpets, even the dirty linen was carried into the truck. Robbers! Thugs! Cut-throats!
As for the Sikh, who had pretended to sympathize with me, he was no less a robber than they! He was pleading with the rioters "Gentlemen, stop! We have prior claim over our neighbor's property. We must get our share of the loot". We beckoned to his sons and daughters. All of them gathered to pick up whatever they could lay their hands on. One took my trousers; another a suitcase.
They even grabbed the family photograph. They took the loot to their quarters.
You bloody Sikh! If God grants me life I will settle my score with you. At this moment I cannot even protest. The rioters are armed and only a few yards away form me. If they get to know of my presence....
"Please come in".
My eyes fell on the unsheathed kirpan in the hands of the Sikh. He was inviting me to come in. The bearded monster looked more frightful after he had soiled his hands with my property. There was the glittering blade of his kirpan inviting me to my doom. There was no time to argue. the only choice was between the guns of the rioters and the sabre of the Sikh. I decided, rather the kirpan of the old man than ten armed gangsters. I went into the room hesitantly, silently.
"Not here, come in further", I went into the inner room like a goat following a butcher. The glint of the blade of the kirpan was almost blinding.
"There you are, take your things", said the Sikh.
He and his children put all the stuff they had pretended to loot, in front of me. His old woman said "Son, I am sorry we were not able to save more".
I was dumb-founded.
The gangsters had dragged out my steel almirah and were trying to smash it open. "it would be simpler if we could find the keys", said someone.
The keys can only be found in Pakistan. That cowardly son of a filthy Muslim has decamped", replied another.
Little Mohini answered back: "Sheikhji is not a coward. He had not run off to Pakistan".
"Then Where is he blackening his face?"
"Why should he be blackening his face? He is in...." Mohini realised her mistake and stopped in her sentence. Blood mounted in her father's face. He locked me in the inside room, gave his kirpan to his son and went out to face the mob.
I do not know what exactly took place outside. I heard the sound of blows; then Mohini crying; then the Sikh yelling full-blooded abuse in Punjabi. And then a shot and the Sikh's cry of pain "Hai".
I heard a truck engine starting up; and then there was a petrified silence.
When I was taken out of my prison my Sikh neighbour was Iying on a charpoy. Beside him lay a torn and blood- stained shirt. His new shirt also was oozing with blood. His son had gone to telephone for the doctor.
"Sardarji, what have you done?" I do not know how these words came out of my lips. The world of hate in which I had lived all these years, lay in ruins about me.
"Sardarji, why did you do this?" I asked him again.
"Son, I had a debt to pay".
"What kind of a debt?"
"In Rawalpindi there was a Muslim like you who sacrificed his life to save mine and the honour of my family".
"What was his name, Sardarji?"
Fate had played a cruel trick on me. The clock on the wall started to strike...1...2...3...4...5...The Sikh turned towards the clock and smiled. He reminded me of my grandfather with his twelve-inch beard. How closely the two resembled each other!
...6...7...8...9...We counted in silence.
He smiled again. His white beard and long white hair were like a halo, effulgent with a divine light...10...11...12... The clock stopped striking.
I could almost hear him say "For us Sikhs, it is always 12 o'clock!" But the bearded lips, still smiling, were silent. And I knew he was already in some distant world, where the striking of clocks counted for nothing, where violence and mockery were powerless to hurt him.
Translated by Khushwant Singh - from Kushwant Sing and Jaya Thadani (eds.): Land of the Five Rivers, Jaico Publishing House (Bombay) 1965, p. 54-65.