A sudden burst of wind revealed the silhouette of a man lying huddled and hidden under the silver desert sand. Visible by the light of a million dotted stars and the enchanting midnight moon magnified in the backdrop of the nomadic night sky painted in hues of lilac, turquoise and electric blue. A night in the desert can be mesmerisingly beautiful while being cold, deathly, and merciless too.
It was somewhere deep in the bowels of the two hundred thousand square kilometres of the ‘Great Indian Desert,’ covering the states of Gujrat, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in India, continuing to become the Cholistan Desert in the Punjab province of the Republic of Pakistan.
Abrupt gusts of wind made the loose desert sands dance on his grey trenchcoat, the man’s only covering from the elements. The weathered brown leather boots that peeped from the bottom of his coat indicated that he must be an officer of the British Indian Army.
Oh wait, he could not be an officer of the British Indian Army. The year was 1958, and the month was January. The 2.5 million-strong British Indian Army had been dissolved ten years ago when India gained its independence from nearly a century of tyrannous rule by the British empire on the 15th of August in 1947.
When the British left the empire of India, as a parting blow of vengeance, they tore the country into two. The province of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East was mercilessly divided on the basis of religion. While the majority of Hindus were now a part of India, the minority Muslims occupied the newly formed Republic of Pakistan, physically divided into two regions, one in the East (now Bangladesh) and the other in the West of the subcontinent.
In a mass exodus, around twelve million people were displaced, and about two million lives were lost in a senseless holocaust of communal violence. While Hindus tried to reach India, Muslims tried to make it to Pakistan, both leaving behind their ancestral homes, lands and even families, fleeing for their lives, afraid that their age-old loving neighbours of the other faith would turn on them.
While the common man, Hindu, or Muslim or of any other faith irrespective of all the difficulty and pain had the choice to relocate, the average soldier of the British Indian Army had no say. He was not given the opportunity to choose the country he wanted to defend.
The army was mercilessly divided. The regiments that were present in the lands now called Pakistan were handed over to the Pakistan army, while those on the Indian soil became a part of the Indian armed forces. This was done without any consideration and irrespective of the soldier’s religion or preference.
So, the man in the desert could either be an officer of the Indian army or the Pakistan army. The question, however, was, what was he doing in the middle of the Thar? What was he doing in the middle of a desolate desert? What was he doing in a no-mans-land between these two countries hellbent towards mutual intolerance?
Was he a spy on a secret mission? Since he was travelling towards India, was he defecting from the Pakistan army? Was he carrying some valuable espionage material in his weathered brown leather satchel? Whatever his reason, his being in the middle of the desert was a testimony of unbelievable human endurance.
The thirty-eight-year-old army captain Harry Nelson Robson shrugged off the sand covering his body and crouched a sniper’s gaze towards the faint floating din that broke his alert slumber and the night’s silence. It sounded like a mulled Pashto dialect, reaching his ears carried by the wind from not that far a distance.
Born on the 12th of July 1920 in Gujranwala in the province of undivided Punjab, now in Pakistan, and moulded out of the mud of Multan, captain Harry fluently spoke the local languages of Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Saraiki and Pashto and knew the cultures well. On hearing Pashto in the middle of Thar, he became dead alert, as it could only mean one thing – desert bandits, nothing else.
The year was 1944, a brilliant young Bengali mathematician, professor J. K. Pyne, from Calcutta had just taken up a teaching position at the Forman Christian College in the culturally rich city of Lahore, in Pakistan today. Captain Harry was an alumnus of this college and used to frequent its premises, meeting with friends, professors and socialising whenever he was in the region.
Back in those days, Lahore used to be a sea of learning, with students and educationists from various parts of the world thronging to its colleges and universities to receive and impart premiere education and perhaps seek fortune and even fame.
The city’s origin reached into antiquity, ruled by various empires such as the Hindu Shahis from 800 CE, to Ghaznavids, to Ghurids, to the five dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate from 1206 to 1526, to the Mughal Empire between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. Followed by a period of decay while being contested between the Afghans and the Sikhs in the 1700s. Eventually becoming the capital of the Sikh Empire in 1802. Later to be annexed by the Britishers in 1846.
Gradually over a thousand years, the city evolved into a boiling pot of mixed cultures, and education, a happening place by the 1900s in the eastern global region.
Young professor Pyne, the larger-than-life semi-eccentric mathematician was more than happy to have arrived in this city among educationists and like-minded learned men and women. Within a few months of his stay, his young and beautiful sister Dipti came to visit him from Calcutta in this vibrant city for a few days.
At this moment in history, the strong and handsome Punjabi from Multan met the electrifying and intelligent Bengali lady from Calcutta, and the two worlds met, only to be tested very soon in blood and tears of communal violence and the holocaust of Indian independence.
Young captain Harry happened to meet beautiful Dipti through common friends and fell in love with the enigmatic and talented young Bengali girl. She was not only an equally brilliant mathematician as her brother, but was also a gifted singer and musician, playing the very difficult stringed instrument, Esraj, with the perfection of a maestro, mesmerising her listeners to phonic eloquence.
Their love brewed in the streets and ancient gardens of Lahore, till both the families formally met, and Harry came to Calcutta for the first time and got married to Dipti at the Duff Church on the 25th of April in 1945 amidst much celebrations and a fusion of two families, much different from each other, with the only common factors of being Christians and that of valuing knowledge and education systems.
As the minutes passed by, Captain Harry could now clearly see a small caravan of camels. He counted five mounted men and two additional load-bearing desert mammals. They were headed straight towards him. It was too late he could not outrun them. The desert-trained eyes of the Beduin bandits would easily spot him, especially on such a dazzling moonlit night. He had no escape.
These desert wandering nomadic looting clans were known to be merciless. They survived on killing and salvaging whatever they could get from travellers who got lost in this boundless ocean of sand and desolate hopelessness.
Captain Harry had joined the army in the year 1942 at the age of twenty-two. He was trained and forged as part of the chivalrous 16th Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army. Though being an experienced paratrooper, a skilled marksman and a daft hand-to-hand combater, he doubted whether he could single-handedly take on the five seasoned desert warriors, men who were used to killing for a pint of water or a mere trinket.
After her marriage in 1945, Dipti left Calcutta and came to live at handsome Harry’s traditional home on the banks of the Chenab river in the ancient city of Multan. This city, like Lahore, too was meshed in thousands of years of rich culture and heritage. It was even besieged by Alexander the Great during the Mallian Campaign in 325 BCE.
Some even say the city got its name from the Sanskrit name Mulasthana for the Sun idol and Sun temple, believed to be built in the city by Samba the son of Lord Krishna and his second consort Jambavati in the ancient days. Even the great Chinese scholar Hsuen Tsang is said to have visited the temple in 641 AD, however, sadly it was destroyed and does not exist today.
Multan was one of the most important trading centres of medieval Islamic India. The city attracted a multitude of Sufi mystics in the 11th and 12th centuries, earning the nickname ‘City of Saints,’ and Dipti was elated to be living amidst this fusion of education, music, and cultural brilliance.
Her father in Law, a minister in the local Baptist Church and mother-in-law originally from Kashmir, a lady health officer equivalent to a gynaecologist in those days were very forward-thinking and supported and encouraged their young Bengali daughter-in-law in every possible way. Dipti soon picked up speaking fluent Urdu and looked more like a daughter of Multan than a girl from the Bengal region.
Time passed, and within the next ten years from 1945 to 1955, the world around Harry and Dipti much changed. They were blessed with four children. Shipra, their eldest daughter, was born on the 30th of December in 1946, followed by their second daughter Ira on 3rd June 1949, then their only son Dipak was born on the 27th of July in 1951, followed by their youngest daughter Reba on 17th November 1953.
Harry had been in the desert for forty-five days now. At the start of his journey, he was in a dilemma about what to carry for the crossing. After much self-debate, had decided to take along only a map, a compass, a single blade foldable Swiss army knife, an army canteen of water, and few bajra rotis (Millet flat-bread) on this journey of uncertain ends.
About to face the bandits, now he regretted having decided not to bring along his Mark VI Webley top-break service revolver, the trusted sidearm of the army captain of the British armed forces in those days. He did not want to carry the weapon, as it would only make his case worst if he were to be caught by any of the two countries armies in the desert. Though at that moment, it could mean a difference between life and death. A chamber full of Six large .455 cartridges would have given him a good chance against the five camel riding ruffians and their homemade muzzle-loading muskets.
With the outbreak of the holocaust and violence during the independence in 1947, the entire culture, fabric and atmosphere of the country changed. Harry’s beloved province of Punjab and Diptis loving Bengal both were being scarred over and over again with death and senseless violence.
Professor Pyne had returned to Calcutta, he and his other Bengali family members wrote telegram after telegrams and many letters begging Dipti to come back to Calcutta with the children. They thought that how could a Bengali girl continue living in a land engulfed in communal sacrilege?
As time passed, the violence escalated. Harry started losing it, having to witness the senseless mutilations and carnage. He started drinking heavily to numb and forget the scenes of massacre and human vehemence. He started neglecting the two things dearest to him in the whole wide world, Dipti and the children. He was most of the time either lost in his army duty or alcohol bottle. Unable to bear this discontented uncertain life any more, finally, in the summer of 1955, Dipti decided to leave the land, the culture, the family, and the man she had come to love so much and return to Calcutta with her four children.
Amidst unimaginable violence, while burning trains, full of mutilated bodies reached railways stations in both the newly formed countries, overcoming every hurdle, Dipti and her four children reached Calcutta and gained safe heaven. She took refuge in her ancestral home at 70A Raja Dinendra Street in the Maniktala region. Professor Pyne was over-elated to have his loving sister and her four beautiful children back from the bowels of death.
The past forty-five days in the desert had been harsh. Harry’s army training had helped him survive. Sounds of dogs and tinker of cattle bells had alerted him of the occasional and isolated micro desert settlement, which he most of the times avoided or rarely ventured into only to salvage food.
Sleeping at nights buried under the cold sand, bearing the furnace-like heat of the day Harry moved on crossing the latitudes slowly but with much confidence, driven by the desire to unite with Dipti and the children.
Now within moments of facing the bandits, his whole life flashed before his eyes, and he regretted having neglected his only priceless treasures – his smiling children and loving wife. To meet and rejoin with whom, he had embarked on this unfathomable journey of human endurance, to cross the Thar on foot with only a compass, a single blade foldable Swiss army knife, a map, a canteen of water, and a few pieces of millet bread, to walk from Multan to Kolkata to hug and kiss his wife and children once again.
As the bandits were a few meters away, Harry gently spoke in Pashto and slowly raised from the sand with both of his hands above his head. “Don’t be alarmed oh desert warriors, I mean you no harm, just a man desperate to cross this sea of sand to meet with his wife and children,” were the first words that he told them.
Nearly three years had passed since Dipti and the children had left Multan and come to Calcutta. She had not heard from Harry all this time. While her parents told her that she should forget about this man, deep in her heart she knew that their love was too strong and one day they would be back in each other’s arms again.
The Beduin bandits were quite startled to see this tall man rise from the desert sand and speak in their dialect. It took them a while to realise that this was not a supernatural Djinn but just a desperate man trying to reach his family somewhere far away. For a moment maybe they were as afraid of him and he was of them.
Back in Calcutta Dipti took up a teaching job as a senior Mathematics teacher at the St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ Higher Secondary School established in 1876 by British missionary Angelina Margaret Hoare from Kent, England who devoted her life to the advancement of women’s education in British India. Dipti kept herself busy with schoolwork and by taking care of her four children. On top, though she maintained a stone demeanour, however, she spent sleepless nights thinking about the uncertain future, about Harry, who she did not know whether was, alive or dead.
Harry’s things though might seem worthless at any other place, in the desert, however, they were priceless commodities. One could kill him just for his boots and coat, and that would be justified too. At first, though the bandits wanted to do just that, later they, however, somehow felt sorry for him and did something unexpected.
On hearing his story of separation from his wife and children, how he had not seen them in three years, how he had taken a huge risk by deserting the Pakistan army and embarking on this enduring journey, the bandits decided not to kill but to help. After all, they were human too, and though the desert had parched their skins their hearts were still moist with droplets of humanity, and that day kindness triumphed over hatred.
The bandits struck a deal with Harry, in exchange of his coat, they gave him a ride on the back of one of their camels along an invisible ancient desert trail taking him closer to his goal. Harry being an expert camel rider was relieved to mount the beast and carry on with the bandits towards a destination unknown. For a moment he doubted the bandit’s intentions, did they really want to help, or would they kill him somewhere else in the desert more convenient to them.
After journeying with the bandits for three nights and days, and on reaching an ancient watering hole, secretly hidden under the sand covered by a corrugated tin sheet, the time had come for Harry and the bandits to say farewell. They told Harry to take the camel and keep on riding southeast till he reached the white dunes of Jaisalmer. They told him to leave the camel at the edge of the desert, from where the trained beast would find its way back to them.
Saying adieu in not many words, but with a sense of deep mutual respect, Harry and the bandits headed towards opposite directions on their camels, never to meet again.
Harry reached Jaisalmer and let go of the camel as he was instructed. It took him another fourteen days of tireless trek to cover a distance of seven hundred and fifty-five kilometres from ‘The Golden City’ of Jaisalmer to capital of India, Delhi, a city inhabited from before the second millennium BCE. During this leg of his iconic journey through suburbs and rural areas, he could better shelter and sustain himself.
Seven-year-old Dipak was playing at the 1st-floor windowsill of his mother’s ancestral home at 70A Raja Dinendra Street. Three years had passed since he had come to Kolkata along with his mother and three sisters. He was still in the transition phase between the two worlds of Multan and Kolkata. Speaking a funny and mixed dialect of Urdu and Bengali, he would run amock in the palatial house teasing servants and causing much innocent trouble.
Ajmeri Gate built in the year 1644 near the old Delhi railways station, is among the five surviving gates of the original fourteen gates, through which people entered Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan’s fortified capital city Shahjahanabad, now known as Delhi. Harry stood in front of this massive sandstone structure. He was at the last leg of his epic journey. He still had to cover a distance of over one thousand five hundred kilometres. He wondered, could he not do it by train, but he had no money with him. The question was, how could he buy a ticket to do the same.
Harry was a devout Christian, a God-fearing man. His faith in the Almighty was his ultimate strength that had helped him so far. At this moment, without thinking much, Harry sat on a wrought iron bench outside the railway station, with palms folded in deep prayer he sought divine guidance.
At that moment a stout and dark Sikh gentleman, a turban clad Kripan carrying Sardarji came and sat beside Harry on the wrought iron bench. He saw beyond Harry’s shabby and ragged desert-worn wretched attire. Though at this point, Harry could easily pass as a beggar, the Sardar identified the finer and nobler man that Harry was.
After a good conversation, the Sardarji took out some money from his bag and gave it to Harry to buy a train ticket from Delhi to Kolkata, so that he could unite with his family again. That was the first, and the last time Harry would ever see that man again.
That day Harry realised that angles do exist, they come to help us in the most unexpected of guises, sometimes as bandits in the middle of the desert and sometimes as a Sardar at a railway station.
Playing on the windowsill, Dipak suddenly started jumping with joy. He ran from the window to the main door shouting “daddy’s come… daddy’s come…” Of course, no one heeded to what the little prankster said. Unable to reach the old brass bolt that kept the door closed, he rushed to the kitchen to pull on and madly drag his nanny, Nondo Rani to open the heavy mahogany main door.
Hearing the child’s ruckus, Dipti and other members of the house came to the door, on opening which they could not believe what they saw. It was a bearded beggar in shabby and torn clothes, in whose open arms ran young Dipak shouting “daddy’s come… daddy’s come…”
It was the month of February in the year 1958 when Harry was finally reunited with his wife Dipti and his four children. At first, he had to be kept hidden, as however noble his quest might have been, he was a Pakistani army officer and could be put in jail if discovered on Indian soil. Since Dipti’s family were rich and influential, over time they managed to make identification papers that made Harry an Indian Citizen.
Over the years handsome Harry, the chivalrous Punjabi-Kashmiri-(by blood)-Pathan-(by spirit) from Multan, Captain of the 16th Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army, paratrooper, marksman, combater, the legendary desert crosser, went on to become a renowned English teacher at the Calcutta Boys School, where he taught and groomed young minds for more than thirty years, many of whom have become renowned and successful men today.
Harry and Dipti’s legacy continues, through his four children and eight grandchildren settled in various corners of the world. The couple’s tale of love triumphing over the holocaust of communal violence is just another story amidst millions of other sagas of people and families affected by the ‘Partition of India’ of 1947.
About the Story
This is a fictionised version of the real-life story of my maternal grandfather Captain Harry Nelson Robson and grandmother Dipti Robson. It has been written from memory, remembering the many stories told by my grandfather to me during the many afternoons at our ancestral home at 70A Raja Dinendra Street, in Maniktala, Kolkata. I thank my mother Shipra Dasgupta and maternal uncle Dipak Robson for providing certain dates and events. This is the first of the many stories I plan to write on the adventurous life of my grandparents and maybe a novel someday.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fictionised real life story, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.