It happened nearly 65 years ago. My grandfather was in his early teens. And my great-grandfather was finally set with his new hardware store in Shimla. It took him some time to get it up and running again after partition. They had a big hardware store in Lahore, but during the partition like everyone else they left all their belongings and came to the newly independent India. But when the family is together I don’t think anyone can stop them, huh? With the help of my great-great-granduncle, they finally put all the pieces together and started this new store.
They used to live near the Shimla railway station. A really buzzing place as my grandfather recalls. Filled with people on holiday, officials on work and a lot of postal mail. Once in a while, my great grandfather used to offer a place to stay at night and food to one or the other passenger who could not find lodging coming through the last train late at night. And for free! He believed in Atithi Devo Bhava, that’s what they were taught back in the days, to be good to people and no treachery.
One night it was raining really hard and two men were stranded at the railway station. My great-grandfather saw them and invited them to stay at his place for the night. The two men agreed. As my grandfather tells me they both looked really decent men. But were they? My great-grandmother cooked food and they all ate together in the baithak or what we call today as our drawing room. It was an open room at the front of the house, with chairs and a small side table. After dinner, my great-grandfather set up foldable beds in the baithak and gave the two men blankets. Then they all went to sleep.
Early next morning, the two men packed the blankets and folded the beds, kept them aside and left without telling. My great-grandfather assumed they might have been in a hurry for some important work. But his uncle had seen them go. He lived next door. And he met my great-grandfather later that morning and asked “So son you have now even started hiring the dacoits?” and my great-grandfather was stunned because he had no clue what his uncle was talking about. Then his uncle told him who the two men were. They were dacoits! For a moment my great-grandfather was a bit worried but then nothing was stolen at the house or anywhere nearby and he had helped two strangers when they needed it the most. He let it go.
Times turn quickly you know. Soon the hardware store did not work out as great as they had expected. They had to sell it. With the money my great-grandfather made from selling the store and from what he had saved, he took a contract from the government to provide wood for fuel. Steam engines were the fad you know. He got a lot of land from the government on lease against providing the wood. He hired a lot and lot of local people and they started their work. Everything was fine again. Till one day.
My great-grandfather was going to the forest. It was the pay day. He had to give his people salaries. He was carrying with him an amount of Rs. 100. Well, you might think that’s not much! I pay for a haircut more than that (I don’t by the way). But in the 50s, you could buy more than just 10 grammes of gold with that amount. Just to do a comparison, when my grandfather joined Chandigarh Secretariat in the year 1960 his starting monthly salary was Rs. 100 per month.
So, my great-grandfather was carrying Rs. 100 with him to pay the salaries. On his way to the forest, he was stopped by a few men on horses with guns. My great-grandfather was terrified, who won’t be when you are carrying a lot of cash and they are armed men in front of you. The only thing one could think is “I am going to get robbed or at worst killed.” I bet the same was going in his mind too. As brave as one could be there is always a tipping point. I bet his exact thoughts would have been “They are going to make my keema, cook it well and eat me in one go.”
The leader of the gang ordered one of his men and who got down from the horse and walked towards my great-grandfather. Then he grabbed the arm and took my great-grandfather and made him sat on the horse behind him, still grabbing him by the arm. Without a word spoken they rode off.
Soon they reached a village and stopped in front of a house. The leader’s house. The leader got down from his horse and one by one everyone else too. The leader walked towards the horse on whom my great-grandfather was sitting. The leader removed the cloth covering his face and revealed himself. My great-grandfather recognised that face. He was one of the two men to whom months back he had invited to stay at his place.
“Months back you and your family offered me and my man your place to stay at night and cooked us dinner too. You treated us so well without knowing who we were. Let me return you the favour. I invite you to my house. My family and I would love to have you as a guest at our place.” the dacoit leader said.
My great-grandfather happily agreed. The leader gave him a welcoming hug. And they went inside the house. The leader’s wife cooked a great meal. The best of meat and rice was brought from the market and cooked. From thoughts of being cooked as a keema to getting the best keema for the meal. Well, that’s what I would call lucky. After the meal, one of the dacoit men rode my great grandfather back home. And he told this to my grandfather who told me this a few days back.This came up while we were talking about how back in 1999 the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee pushed for a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan and what India got in return was the Kargil War. And when China’s President Xi Jinping was invited back in 2014 by our current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given the best of the hospitality a visiting President could get, and still China did not agree for India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Also, the standoff on the border between India and China still continues. Though for a fact, not a single bullet has been fired by both sides on each other since the 1962 war. Now that’s nearly 55 years! And I hope this streak does not break anytime in the future.
This came up while we were talking about how back in 1999 the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee pushed for a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan and what India got in return was the Kargil War. And when China’s President Xi Jinping was invited back in 2014 by our current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given the best of the hospitality a visiting President could get, and still China did not agree for India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Also, the standoff on the border between India and China still continues. Though for a fact, not a single bullet has been fired by both sides on each other since the 1962 war. Now that’s nearly 55 years! And I hope this streak does not break anytime in the future.