Mission Delhi - Taran Pal Singh, Ring Road

Mission Delhi – Taran Pal Singh, Ring Road

One of the one percent in 13 million.

[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The mobile beeps. He picks up the incoming call, even as his alert gaze stays focused on Ring Road, hands deftly manoeuvring the steering wheel. A chat in Punjabi follows, after which cab man Taran Pal Singh makes a fresh phone call, bursting out: “Mummy, where was your nana living in Rawalpindi?”

Past shoots out its echoes in startling ways. The unsuspecting Taran Pal is simply driving yet another customer to his destination as history gate-crashes into his humdrum routine this afternoon.

The blood-soaked tragedy of the 1947 batwara notwithstanding, you have to admit Delhi would not have its Taran Pal without the batwara. Both sets of his grandparents were from pre-partition Rawalpindi, who, like so many others, started their life in the newly independent India as refugees. Referring to the first phone call, Taran Pal says that a bereaved relative is in Haridawar to immerse a cousin’s ashes in the sacred Ganga. A priest there wanted to register the visit in his multi-generational “panda-pothi” logbook which, somewhere in its thousands of pages, also included mentions of the previous Haridwar pilgrimages of Taran Pal’s family. To find those old entries, the priest needed from the relative a specific information—Taran Pal’s great-grandfather’s address in Rawalpindi. The relative dialled Taran Pal, who dialled his mother.

“This means that for generations my ancestors travelled from Rawalpindi to visit Haridwar,” remarks Taran Pal, adding, “There must have been buses and trains linking the two places.” He marvels that Haridwar and Rawalpindi used to be so casually connected to each other, a scenario inconceivable in the context of India-Pakistan hostilities today.

“But now we are pucca Dilli wale”—Taran Pal says—“my late father was born in Dilli, my mummy was born in Dilli, and I was also born in Dilli.” Something of Rawalpindi did linger at home. During his childhood in west Delhi’s Tilak Nagar, Taran Pal’s paternal grandparents would infrequently tell him of life in Rawalpindi. “I remember dada saying that shopping then was sasti (inexpensive), fruits and veggies were tastier, and Hindu-Muslim lived in peace.”

Devoted to his “dada-dadi,” Taran Pal had this grand ambition of taking them for a “dream journey” across the border “so that they could see their old home, and meet their old friends.” That didn’t come to pass, and after the passing of the grandparents, “the thought of Rawalpindi never enters my mind.“ Or, so he believed until the relative’s phone call minutes ago. “The instant I heard the word ‘Rawalpindi,’ dada-dadi flashed in front of me.”

So, years might pass, and we might think we have finally escaped history, but it finds a way of ramming into us. Taran Pal nods at the assessment, his gaze on the road.

[This is the 574th portrait of Mission Delhi project]