Narrow Escapes

By on Apr 13, 2010 in Essays

India's Partition and capsized trolley

Sixty years ago, I narrowly escaped a tortured death. Time, the great healer, has failed to eradicate its memory from my heart. Many times during the night, while I’m sleeping, my dreams flash back to the visions of that horrible scene, and I feel the scorching heat from the tongues of the flames which dance around me. The yells and screams of the Muslim mobs and the cries of our women and children pierce my heart. Drenched in sweat and shivering, I get up from my bed and try to divert my mind to pleasant thoughts and forget the past. However, this scene, etched in my subconscious mind, sprouts up again. On such occasions, instead of being tortured in the bed, I pick up an interesting book and bury my thoughts in it.    

In 1947, the British decided to free India. For centuries, the British had used the powerful tool of “divide and rule” to govern India. They directly controlled less than half of India, and the rest of India was ruled by Indian maharajahs. The British made sure the maharajah kept himself busy with wine, women, mujra (whores dancing and singing), and was loyal to the British. Any maharajah who took interest in his subjects was sent by the British to a medical board which declared the maharajah insane and ordered him to be placed in a mental sanitarium, where the poor fellow met his tormented death. Thus the maharajahs were powerful tools to crush the Indian freedom movement. After World War II, forced by global pressure, the British were compelled to free India. Nevertheless, they wanted to play their trump card and show the world that the Indians were unfit to rule themselves. So they ignited religious fires through paid spies who influenced the religious organizations.

At that time, when the Muslims wanted to partition India, religious tensions were running very high. The British started field hockey and soccer matches between the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh teams. If they had sympathy for poor Indians, they would have tried to help Mahatma Gandhi to extinguish the fires of religious hatred. But instead, they did the opposite. I was twenty and watched the matches. The Muslim team was led by their green flags and mullahs. The Sikh team carried their triangular saffron flag and followed a Sikh priest. Hindus did similar things. The mullahs and priests blessed the team. With fanatic slogans, the team members yelled to destroy their opponents. The crowds shouted profanities, insults, and taunts at the opponents’ religion. After the match between the Muslim and Sikh teams, riots spread from the playground into the towns. This clever move by the British succeeded in destroying the tenuous thread uniting the different religions. People became blood-thirsty devils and wanted to murder, rape, and kill their own friends and neighbors.    

India was partitioned. We lived in an enclave of six Sikh and Hindu homes in Lahore Cantonment, which now became part of Pakistan. We were surrounded by thousands of Muslim families. At this time we lost all contacts with our Muslim neighbors. They refused to return our greetings, and we saw burning hatred in their eyes. Riots, burning, looting, and killing erupted all over India. We felt safe in the military cantonment and didn’t leave Pakistan. One evening, Muslim mobs gathered near our homes. We saw the approaching catastrophe.

As rehearsed previously, all the members of our six families moved into the largest house. Fifteen men flashed their swords, and women carried butcher knives to defend themselves, and if needed, thrust the knives in their hearts to avoid gang-raping and torture. Soon the Muslim mobs grew larger, and their shouting became more vociferous. We saw spears, swords, and torches in their hands. The men in our group decided to leave our houses, form a protected formation, and move to Dharampura, a Sikh Colony 2,000 yards away from us. I’d taken training in Gatka (sword fighting) and joined the men with my four-foot sword. Our leader flashed his light from the top of the house, thus giving the signal to the gurdwara (Sikh temple) at Dharampura that we were in trouble and needed help. In ten minutes, we were on the road in front of our homes. Here, men formed a circle around thirty-five women and children, and all of us shouted at the top of our lungs: “Victory belongs to the Lord; we’ll fight to death.”    

We saw burning torches being thrown at our homes. Then we noticed flames and smoke shooting toward the sky with crackling sounds and sparks. The place looked like a burning Hell with Yammas (carriers of the dead) staring at us. When the Muslim mobs saw our flashing swords and heard our slogans of fighting to death, they paused their advance toward us. Then they saw a large crowd of Sikh men with their swords and spears rushing towards us. This approaching Sikh group was yelling, “Hold on, Sikh brothers. Five hundred of us, fully armed, are coming to help you. We’ll be with you in ten minutes to finish the bastard Muslims.”    

Most of the rioters were cowards and looters. When they heard our slogans, they retraced their steps and started looting our burning homes. I saw flames and smoke eating the things we had accumulated over many years. We didn’t run but continued moving in the proper formation. I saw the faces of two small children. Their eyes were frozen with fear, and they couldn’t shriek. Our 2,000-yard march looked like many miles, but we were determined to defend our women and children with our lives. Soon the Sikhs from Dharampura joined us, and we were taken to their gurdwara. Next day, we all joined the caravan which was leaving for India under military protection. We stayed in the refugee camp at Amritsar for two days and then went to my father’s cousin’s house.                     


The second narrow escape from death happened in my life, while I was working as a district engineer with the Indian railways. In my district, I had to maintain 200 miles of the railway track; 50 miles of this was located at the foot of the Himalayan Hills. During the monsoon season frequent slips of the embankment caused serious problems. There was no method available for us to locate the future slides, and they occurred suddenly without any warning.

In 1952, during the rainy season, I was inspecting the track with my motor trolley. The trolley was running at a speed of 15 miles per hour, and my eyes were riveted on the rails, checking the wear of the rails and the condition of the joints. The heavy downpour had stopped, and bright sun was shining in the deep blue sky. The air, loaded with the fragrance of the wild flowers, was flirting with our olfactory senses. The thumping sounds of the trolley wheels hitting the rail joints muted the singing of the birds in the trees surrounding us.

Suddenly, I heard the roaring sound. I raised my head and found a portion of the mountain had landed on the track and the rest was slipping down. I applied the brakes with both hands. With loud screeches, the trolley hit the boulders, toppling over, and we were thrown off the tracks. My five trolleymen scrambled up, put the trolley back on the track, and I shot at full speed to the nearest railway station. There I ordered all the trains to freeze at the railway stations. Then I called my inspectors to bring their gangs in special trains to the site of the slip. After completing my instructions, I travelled to the site of the slip in my trolley. In thirty minutes, two trains, one from the station below the breach and one from above, loaded with men and their tools, arrived at the site. It took us five hours to clear the tracks and allow the trains to move.

Then I finally went to the railway hospital at Hardwar. In the heat of the moment we had forgotten our injuries. My head-trolleyman had a broken arm, my legs had deep cuts, and the other trolleymen had minor injuries. We were patched, and all of us thanked God, since if we had started a few seconds earlier, we would have been buried under tons of earth and boulder. On my future inspections, I always stopped my trolley at this site of the accident and thanked God.

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Born in Punjab India, Raghbir Dhillon's father was an English professor and famous writer. He excelled academically, graduating first in his class in college with a B.A. and topping the university when he earned a BSCE in 1947. For 11 years he was a railroad engineer in India before immigrating to America, where he earned his MSCE from Purdue University. He served with several consulting firms in America, retiring in 1987 as chief engineer with Campbell & Associates. Together with his wife, he has written 90 stories and had a few of them published in Indian papers and American magazines. They have also completed four novels.