Jhelum. Melting snows of the Himalayas gave birth to the river. Down the mountain slope, past the pine forests, the river meanders its way to the plains. The petite name is clear and sweet. Golden rays of the morning sun splatter on its bosom. The image of the starry sky shimmers in the evening. The Jhelum sparkles night and day.
This is an excerpt from JHELUM NODIR TIREY- written in Bengali by Binoy Mukhopadhyay (1909-2002) – who wrote under the pen name JAJABOR (a wanderer in Bengali). It is set against the backdrop of invasion by Pakistan supported troops in 1947 and the signing of the instrument of accession by the Maharaja. The book when published first in 1954 received wide acclaim.
Now we are presented with its English translation ‘QUIET FLOWS THE RIVER JHELUM’. Sujit Kumar Das, senior civil servant, has done an excellent job in translating this book. To Sujit it was a ‘labour of love’ and he wanted it to be available to a wider audience- particularly the new generation.
Written in the form of a politico-historical narrative, the author vividly describes the mood prevailing in the royal household as it was getting ready to celebrate Dusshra in October,1947:
“….the absolute monarch of Kashmir was sitting on the brocaded ivory throne underneath the bejewelled canopy. His bodyguard was standing below, holding an unsheathed sword. Eight servants stood on either side of the throne, swaying the fans. A golden oil lamp was glowing on the silver stand; perfumed incense was burning in the stone incense burner from Jaipur. The royal entourage in their finery occupied the front row. Behind them were seated other notables according to their rank. The durbar hall was dazzling with flowers and zari decorations and multi-coloured lights. But amidst such grandeur, the Maharaja appeared downcast. Why was a smile missing from his face?”
The Maharaj remained speechless on hearing that his Chief Commander Rajendra Singh had been killed while confronting the enemy in Uri. The armed raiders had launched a surprise attack and captured Mahura power station- descending the entire valley into darkness.
With magical skills, the author narrates the conversation of Maharaja with his Diwan: ‘Hari Singh let out a deep sigh and asked his Diwan, ‘what’s the way out?’
The Diwan replied with folded hands, ‘Maharaj, only the Indian government can save us. Ask for their help.’
Conscious that he did not enjoy cordial relations with Pandit Nehru, Maharaja asked: ‘Will they respond?
‘The Diwan replied, ‘My Lord, to protect the afflicted is the dharma of a human; if they do not do so, then what makes them virtuous?’
Binoy’s draws readers into the story: ‘Then in the darkened palace, in his personal chamber, Hari Singh, the last Maharaja of Kashmir, sat down and wrote the letter himself in the light of a lamp. It was a fervent appeal to the new government of India. For God’s sake, save its four million inhabitants’. The date was 25 October 1947.’
On receipt of the request from the Maharaja, the Union Cabinet wanted troops to be sent to Kashmir to stop the intruders. But the Governor General Lord Mountbatten was reluctant. Kashmir had to yet to accede to India. When the word got around to the Maharaja, he promptly signed the Instrument of Accession. Thereafter, the Indian government ordered the troops to save Kashmir.
Binoy manages to create an element of suspense when describing the airlifting of Indian troops to Srinagar. What if Srinagar airport had already been captured by the invaders?
In Delhi, top brass was enquiring every half hour whether any news had arrived.
“It was past nine. No news yet. Nine-thirty, ten …. No news yet. Quarter past ten, twenty, twenty five… the clock kept on ticking past the minutes, each of which felt like an age. None spoke; the silence in the room became oppressive. Everybody was almost choking with tension. Had the worst happened? It’s is ten thirty… suddenly, the light glowed on the wireless board. ‘Hello, hello, Delhi, hello… this is Srinagar calling? The news had arrived. The three Dakotas had landed safely. The Indian army had reached Kashmir for the first time. Hurray!”
On hearing that Indian troops had landed in Srinagar, Jinnah complained to Mountbatten ‘how dare India send troops to another country.’
‘In exercise of the powers conferred by the Instrument of Accession,’ replied Mountbatten.
Jinnah countered, ‘Maharaja? Who was he to sign? The people of the princely state are the sole arbiter on the question of accession to India or Pakistan?
Mountbatten smirked silently, as if saying to himself, “Mr.Jinnah, how come, in the case of Junagarh, you people had said that the will of the Nawab was the last word in law with regard to accession?’
The Sikh contingent that flew into Srinagar was headed by Lt.Col Dewan Ranjit Rai. The surname may sound Bengali- it isn’t. Actually, he was a Punjabi- almost six feet tall, thirty six inch chest, square wrists hewn out of steel. After inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy in Baramulla, Col Rai and many of his Sikh soldier attained martyrdom.
Lest we forget their sacrifices, Binoy reminds us of a stone memorial plaque placed on the side of a hill on way to Baramulla: ‘In eternal remembrance of the brave Sikh soldiers of India who laid down their lives while fighting the invaders on 27th October, 1947 and secured the independence of Kashmir.’
However, it was the Bengali officer, Brig. Lionel Pratip Sen who secured the Srinagar airport. The victory at Budgam was a signal achievement for the Garhwal regiment. However, the joy of victory paled in grief when the news came that their commander Major Somnath Sharma had died in the battle.
Meanwhile, more soldiers were airlifted to Srinagar and they chased the enemy on foot and captured Uri. Three weeks before on 11 November, at the very spot where Brigadier Rajendra Singh had laid down his life fighting the enemy, Brigadier L.P. Sen raised the tricoloured national flag of independent India for the first time. All joined their voices to shout ‘Jai Hind’. The army band played, ‘Jana Gana Mana.
Everything Binoy has done is so well researched to the point that sometimes it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. True, there is nothing knew that he tells us but it is his style of presentation that distinguishes it from other books in this genre; one feels as if one is watching a movie.
He provides bone chilling details of the rape and torture inflicted on those who either opposed them or did not side with them. He showers praise on Maqbool Sherwani and provides graphic details of his torture and the way he was shacked and tied with a rope and dragged to the town square. “In a thin voice he uttered, ‘Long live my beloved Kashmir!’ The next moment three gun shots cracked from three sides, targeting his head. He attained martyrdom for both Kashmir and India.”
Incidentally, Jinnah who had appealed to Muslims of the valley to unite and side with Pakistan was rebuked by Maqool in these words: ‘Let the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain Parsi and the Christians unite too. Let all the people of Kashmir unite.’
Christian missionaries who had nothing to do with the dispute between India and Pakistan were not spared either.
‘They brought nine foreign sisters of the covenant at gun point and lined them up in courtyard. Nine of the invaders aimed their rifle at their forehead, ready to press the trigger. Certain of the impending death, the sisters closed their eyes in silent prayer to God. But who can harm the one whom Christ protects? The nine sisters were saved by God, apparently over a trifling thing.’
However, Sister Teresalina and many others working in a local hospital were not fortunate enough and were raped and killed.
‘That day in Baramulla, a delicate sapling was vandalised by the raiders,’ Binoy laments.
The author provides telling details of the 1931 rebellion against the autocratic, misrule of the Maharaja, and the emergence of Sheikh Abdullah onto the political stage. The uprising led to wide spread protest in the valley and in the unfortunate death of ten protestors.
Binoy writes in a straightforward language that makes Kashmir’s complexities not only comprehensible but also engrossing. He has been successful in packing so much history, tragedy and drama in just 100 pages. It is published by Niyogi Books.
However, one wonders why the author is silent on the differences within the Union Cabinet on how to deal with the crisis and what role did Nehru allow Patel to play during that time.
Writing historical fiction is a permanent balancing act. Historical facts gift an author with compelling events, but the challenge lies in the way it restricts narrative options as one has to stay as close as possible to what really happened.
In ‘Quiet Flows The River Jhelum’ Binoy is simply brilliant in using his imagination and weaving it with the framework of real events to fill the gaps, dramatize the relationships and move the story forward.
Binoy writes that Abdullah wrote to the government of India that the people of the state do not want Hari Singh, so he would have to abdicate.
The book ends on a poignant note: with his kingdom lost, Hari Singh went to Bombay and led a lonely existence there. Time and again, his mind would drift off to faraway lands, in spite of himself. There, on the mountaintop, golden sunlight glistened on silvery snow, leaves of the maple trees shimmered in the gentle breeze, and boatmen in their colourfully festooned shikaras sailed down the Jhelum, rowing with oars shaped like the ace of spade; on the edge of the Amirikadal bridge, beggars begged for alms mustering, ‘Miskin, miskin’.
Hari Singh had become the king even without being a prince. Now that land was lost to him for ever. In the end, he had but to abdicate his throne against a pension.
(The author is a noted management and media professional, and currently works for the reputed Apeejay Education Society)