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The Thanedar’s House: A Personal Essay

The Thanedar’s House

By Ayush Khanna

“The main door was so large that a man sitting on an elephant could pass through. Just go there and ask for Thanedar wala ghar (jailer’s house) or tote (parakeet) wala ghar. There used to be one on the balcony in a cage.”, said my aunt when I asked her for directions to our ancestral home in Old Amritsar’s Gali Dhab Khatikan.

I had never been given such an unusual address before, one that made me dependent on strangers. I wanted to be self-sufficient, and I wanted an exact, impersonal address, the kind I am familiar with. 

“Are you sure that will be enough?” I asked.

“It will.”

“What if I don’t see anyone?”

“You will.”

“Don’t you have an exact address?”

“No.”

“But it has been years.”

“People there still remember.”

I had decided to go to Amritsar for a day and visit the house with a friend. After visiting the Golden Temple and Jallianwalla Bagh, we got off the rickshaw in Dhab Khatikan and started walking. The first person I asked did not know. I was embarrassed, this was not going to work. Then I asked a man who looked like he was in his sixties. He said he knew which house it was and offered to take me there. He turned around and started walking in the direction from which he came. After a couple of minutes, he stood in front of a large door. “This is it. You know, even during the worst of the Partition violence, this house remained unscathed. Everyone knew that the Thanedar had guns,” he said. I thanked him, and the stranger for whom my family history was local lore, disappeared into the gullies. 

We were left standing there, looking at the door that a man sitting on an elephant could pass through. It held aloft a foliated arch, which betrayed its age. Below the arch were three European style windows as though the house could not decide whether it wanted to be Indian or European. The family that lived there invited us in, telling us that they were on the verge of selling it. “It would most likely be destroyed once we sell it so you came just in time,” they said. Like most houses in gullies it was tall rather than broad, with high ceilings. A long, winding staircase snaked its way up from the basement to the terrace. Cupboards looked like small caves dug into the walls. I tried to take pictures of every nook and cranny hoping to reassemble the house again for myself, away from the present owners. This was the Thanedar’s house after all, where my grandfather was born.

When he lived, Thanedar, my great-great-grandfather, was a part of the Amritsar constabulary during its worst phase–the Rowlatt agitations and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I know little else about him. My grandparents moved away from the family and passed away early, so I am left with more questions than answers. Having just seen the bullet holes in Jallianwala, I wondered if he was a loyalist to the regime he served, proud and grateful for the power granted to him. Was being a policeman only a job to provide for his family? Or was he conflicted about the role he played in repressing his people? Were they his people?

The Thanedar was a Punjabi Hindu whose name was Gurbaksh. This wasn’t unusual then, but today Gurbaksh is a Sikh name, uncommon among Punjabi Hindus. Gurbaksh’s grandson married my grandmother from Gurdaspur. She was a twelve year old girl when Punjab was partitioned. While families across Punjab learnt of the side of the border their homes would fall in, the fate of Gurdaspur district remained undecided for many days. It had a slender Muslim majority and was expected to go to Pakistan. Muslim halwais (confectioners) were distributing sweets in anticipation of the announcement, while Hindu and Sikh households were wracked with indecision and fear. An elder in the family showed my twelve-year-old grandmother and her younger sister the bottle of poison meant for them if that were to happen. Her father, who doted on her, didn’t have the heart to do it. My grandmother lived, because Cyril Radcliffe decided that the Gurdaspur district itself would be partitioned. Only the Shakargarh tehsil would go to Pakistan.

 A decade later, when my grandmother was married, her father felt she could have done better than to marry into a family that didn’t care much for education when his daughter was a graduate and the boy himself was a lawyer. He was a Punjabi Hindu too. His name was Iqbal.

Later that day, we did the other touristy thing anyone who visits Amritsar does, and made our way to the Wagah border. As we watched the pantomime of nationalism play out, I realised that I had no right to be cynical about the ceremony. I was born because this border and the nationalisms that created and upheld it, took a precise shape and no other. Countless, nameless people don’t exist today because of it. I was among the ones it spared. As a powerful entity that played an important role in my fate, I should be paying it homage. From the nameless consumed, I thought of the names spared. All of Gurbaksh and Iqbal’s children and grandchildren had standard Hindu names. Somewhere in the early 20th century, something had changed in the way Punjabi Hindus named their children. No longer did they have names that cut across faiths. What’s in a name? As I watched the Wagah ceremony, I thought the change may have been an indicator of growing social forces. Those that swept the Thanedar’s house from the middle of Punjab, and deposited it in a border city in 1947.

Wondering why podcasts are so popular? Here are 6 reasons why they are trending in India!

The Hindu refugees who poured into West Bengal in waves after partition, usually did not bring anything with them. As they lost their home, sense of identity,

“The main door was so large that a man sitting on an elephant could pass through. Just go there and ask for Thanedar wala ghar (jailer’s house) or tote (parakeet) wala ghar. There used to be one on the balcony in a cage.”, said my aunt when I asked her for directions to our ancestral home in Old Amritsar’s Gali Dhab Khatikan.

I had never been given such an unusual address before, one that made me dependent on strangers. I wanted to be self-sufficient, and I wanted an exact, impersonal address, the kind I am familiar with. 

“Are you sure that will be enough?” I asked.

“It will.”

“What if I don’t see anyone?”

“You will.”

“Don’t you have an exact address?”

“No.”

“But it has been years.”

“People there still remember.”

I had decided to go to Amritsar for a day and visit the house with a friend. After visiting the Golden Temple and Jallianwalla Bagh, we got off the rickshaw in Dhab Khatikan and started walking. The first person I asked did not know. I was embarrassed, this was not going to work. Then I asked a man who looked like he was in his sixties. He said he knew which house it was and offered to take me there. He turned around and started walking in the direction from which he came. After a couple of minutes, he stood in front of a large door. “This is it. You know, even during the worst of the Partition violence, this house remained unscathed. Everyone knew that the Thanedar had guns,” he said. I thanked him, and the stranger for whom my family history was local lore, disappeared into the gullies. 

We were left standing there, looking at the door that a man sitting on an elephant could pass through. It held aloft a foliated arch, which betrayed its age. Below the arch were three European style windows as though the house could not decide whether it wanted to be Indian or European. The family that lived there invited us in, telling us that they were on the verge of selling it. “It would most likely be destroyed once we sell it so you came just in time,” they said. Like most houses in gullies it was tall rather than broad, with high ceilings. A long, winding staircase snaked its way up from the basement to the terrace. Cupboards looked like small caves dug into the walls. I tried to take pictures of every nook and cranny hoping to reassemble the house again for myself, away from the present owners. This was the Thanedar’s house after all, where my grandfather was born.

Wondering why podcasts are so popular? Here are 6 reasons why they are trending in India!

When he lived, Thanedar, my great-great-grandfather, was a part of the Amritsar constabulary during its worst phase–the Rowlatt agitations and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I know little else about him. My grandparents moved away from the family and passed away early, so I am left with more questions than answers. Having just seen the bullet holes in Jallianwala, I wondered if he was a loyalist to the regime he served, proud and grateful for the power granted to him. Was being a policeman only a job to provide for his family? Or was he conflicted about the role he played in repressing his people? Were they his people?

The Thanedar was a Punjabi Hindu whose name was Gurbaksh. This wasn’t unusual then, but today Gurbaksh is a Sikh name, uncommon among Punjabi Hindus. Gurbaksh’s grandson married my grandmother from Gurdaspur. She was a twelve year old girl when Punjab was partitioned. While families across Punjab learnt of the side of the border their homes would fall in, the fate of Gurdaspur district remained undecided for many days. It had a slender Muslim majority and was expected to go to Pakistan. Muslim halwais (confectioners) were distributing sweets in anticipation of the announcement, while Hindu and Sikh households were wracked with indecision and fear. An elder in the family showed my twelve-year-old grandmother and her younger sister the bottle of poison meant for them if that were to happen. Her father, who doted on her, didn’t have the heart to do it. My grandmother lived, because Cyril Radcliffe decided that the Gurdaspur district itself would be partitioned. Only the Shakargarh tehsil would go to Pakistan.

 A decade later, when my grandmother was married, her father felt she could have done better than to marry into a family that didn’t care much for education when his daughter was a graduate and the boy himself was a lawyer. He was a Punjabi Hindu too. His name was Iqbal.

Later that day, we did the other touristy thing anyone who visits Amritsar does, and made our way to the Wagah border. As we watched the pantomime of nationalism play out, I realised that I had no right to be cynical about the ceremony. I was born because this border and the nationalisms that created and upheld it, took a precise shape and no other. Countless, nameless people don’t exist today because of it. I was among the ones it spared. As a powerful entity that played an important role in my fate, I should be paying it homage. From the nameless consumed, I thought of the names spared. 

All of Gurbaksh and Iqbal’s children and grandchildren had standard Hindu names. Somewhere in the early 20th century, something had changed in the way Punjabi Hindus named their children. No longer did they have names that cut across faiths. What’s in a name? As I watched the Wagah ceremony, I thought the change may have been an indicator of growing social forces. Those that swept the Thanedar’s house from the middle of Punjab, and deposited it in a border city in 1947.

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About the authors

Ayush Khanna is a writer, winner of our short story competition.

The author of this essay contributed to our Essay Writing Contest, the theme for which was Partition. Theirs was one of the winning entries, selected by Aanchal Malhotra, author of ‘Remnants of a Separation’.

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