My friend and guide, Iqbal Qaiser, and I walked aimlessly around a section of the Miani Sahib graveyard in Lahore looking for one particular burial spot. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. Spread over an area of 1,000 kanals (125 acres), this graveyard, the oldest in the city of Lahore, is estimated to contain more than three lakh graves.
We drove within the graveyard, negotiating early Sunday morning traffic and family members who had come to pay homage to their deceased ancestors. Vendors sitting at corners sprinkled fresh water on their rose petals. Fragrant tendrils of smoke from burning incense sticks scattered in the air. Life moves at its own leisurely pace at Miani Sahib, while Lahore, encroaching upon it from all sides, bursts with energy.
The entire history of the city of Lahore can be narrated through the graves at Miani Sahib. At one end of the graveyard, in an empty plot cut off from the rest, is the mausoleum of Gul Begum, a concubine of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Just at a little distance from there is the grave of Dullah Bhatti, the rebel zamindar of Pindi Bhattian, who revolted against Emperor Akbar. Driving on we found ourselves facing the entrance to the shrine of Ghazi Ilmuddin, a vigilante who murdered the Hindu publisher Mahashe Rajpal in 1929 for publishing a blasphemous book on the Prophet of Islam.
Qaiser remembered that the grave we were looking for was somewhere behind this shrine. We stepped around numerous mud graves, most of them unmarked, trying to look for any signs. We walked over to a middle-aged man fixing a mud grave. “Do you know where Jamil Ahmad is buried?” asked Qaiser. When the man expressed his ignorance, Qaiser added: “He is also known by the name of Boota Singh.”
Boota Singh was a resident of the district of Ludhiana in East Punjab, now in India. During the riots of Partition, when Muslim families were being murdered and chased out of East Punjab, he saved the life of a young girl called Zainab, who had been separated from her family. He married her and they soon had two daughters – Tanveer and Dilveer Kaur.
Almost a decade after Partition, the Indian and Pakistani governments decided to return the women separated from their families at the time of Partition, who now lived across the border from them. It was around this time that state authorities picked up Zainab along with her younger daughter, Dilveer, to be returned to Pakistan. Her family had settled at a small village called Nurpur, near the border, on the outskirts of Lahore. This is where Zainab was repatriated.
Taking his older daughter with him, Boota Singh went to Delhi where he tried to get the authorities to bring back his wife and child. When he was unsuccessful, and without many other options, he decided to convert to Islam and enter Pakistan to get his wife and daughter back. That is how he became Jamil Ahmad. Crossing the border illegally, he reached Nurpur. Here, however, Zainab’s family members beat him up and handed him over to the state authorities. Legal hearings followed in which Boota Singh claimed that he had come for his wife and if she could appear in court once, she would testify in his favour. Eventually the Lahore High Court summoned Zainab.
The case had caught the attention of the public by now. There was much interest about what Zainab was going to say. Zainab arrived at the High Court, surrounded by her family members, and wearing a burqa. Not only did she refuse to go back to Boota Singh, she also requested the court to take away her younger daughter who had been living with her. There is much speculation as to why Zainab testified the way she did, the most popular one being that she was under pressure from her family members. The romantics who later made movies and wrote books about their love story simply could not imagine any other option.
Before my visit to Boota Singh’s grave, I had decided to visit the village of Nurpur and see if anyone there remembered the story. On a hot sunny afternoon, Qaiser and I walked into a barber’s shop. A ceiling fan creaked as it rotated. An old man sat next to us reading the newspaper, while the barber was busy trimming the beard of a younger man.
“Have you heard about the incident of Zainab and Boota Singh?” asked Iqbal Qaiser. The barber stopped his work. The old man put down his newspaper, while the man sitting on the barber’s chair turned around to see us.
“Why are you asking?” asked the barber.
“We are journalists,” said Qaiser. “We were hoping to meet someone from Zainab’s family and find out about their side of the story. Much has been said about them especially in Indian Punjab. We want to find out if they have anything to say about the whole episode.”
The barber said: “You are our guests so we cannot be rude to you but I have to warn you. Please don’t repeat this story in front of anyone from the village. Zainab’s family still lives here and is sensitive about the issue. If they find out that both of you are sniffing around God knows what they will do to you. It is my suggestion that you kindly leave the village without asking any more questions.”
We listened to his advice.
However, I did not give up the attempt to connect with someone from Zainab’s village. For months I looked for someone from Nurpur. I did find a few, some who even agreed to help me contact someone from Zainab’s family. However all of them eventually backed out after getting in touch with her family. The family was completely averse to talking about the matter even almost seven decades after the incident.
Dejected, Boota Singh jumped in front of a train and killed himself. His last wish was to be buried in Nurpur, the village of his beloved, but that was not to be. Zainab’s family would not allow such a breach of their honour. Boota Singh was buried at Miani Sahib. His legend however was only beginning to grow.
His grave became a shrine for young lovers. He was called Shaheed-e-Mohabbat. Fresh flowers were brought to his grave every day. His followers wanted to solidify his mud grave and construct a brick shrine around it. However there were others who were vehemently opposed to any such glorification of a Sikh. They would come in the night and destroy his grave. Boota Singh’s supporters would construct the grave again in the morning. For many days after Boota Singh’s death this tussle continued before it eventually died a natural death. Boota Singh’s grave remained a mud grave and no shrine was constructed over it.
“Perhaps the grave has been razed to make way for new graves,” said the custodian of the graves at Miani Sahib. “As you can see there is a dearth of space here.”
Qaiser asked, “What is the average life of a grave here?”
The custodian replied: “For a mud grave about 50 years to 60 years. It really depends. Graves only remain alive till the point visitors come to it. They die when the visitors stop coming.”
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.