A Defender of Humanity by Mohinder Singh Sarna

Today I thought of you again. I always remember you this way, all of a sudden. And I remember you often. Always when the sun is shining brightly on my life, chasing away the shadows. When the valley of my life is wreathed in smiles, when sunflowers are blooming, when my son comes back victorious from some debate competition, when my daughter makes a new design of Japanese ikebana, when my wife puts a plate of my favourite peas pulao in front of me, wipes her hands on the end of her sari and smiles at me, I remember you all of a sudden, with all my heart.


That was how it happened today too. My daughter was telling jokes and we were all doubling up with laughter. She’s got an endless store of jokes. Doctor jokes, lawyer jokes, husband-wife jokes, priest jokes, truck-driver jokes. Today she was cracking truck-driver jokes when without warning my eyes filled up with tears and I left the lawn and withdrew to my room. I could hear my daughter’s voice coming after me.


‘I bet that Papa has gone to write a story.’


I hadn’t gotten up from the lawn to write a story. But my daughter’s words woke your story up inside me. Why not write your story today? The story that has been stoking your memory in my mind for these last thirty-six years.




That cloudy morning of September 1947 is fresh in my mind, the morning when all of us climbed into your lorry. You were in the driver’s seat, intently looking into the mirror to straighten the Pathan turban that you had tied over the little black cap on your head.


Outside the lorry it was all mist and cloud. Inside there was utter terror. The passengers sat, huddled into themselves, their hearts in their mouths. Even in this atmosphere of fear I was transfixed by your fine features, your handsome face. The mingling of Pathani, Pothohari, Greek and Afghani beauty that had been taking place for centuries in northwestern India seemed to have reached its apogee in your face.


Suddenly someone exclaimed, ‘Look, the earlier lorry has returned.’


We all turned to look. The lorry that had left at six in the morning from Rawalpindi for Srinagar had indeed returned. Its passengers were frozen with fear, unable to speak. But its Muslim driver was relating, with extravagant gestures, how the tribals had reached the road that ran from Rawalpindi to Srinagar, how they had fired upon the lorry near Ghorhagalli and tried to puncture its tyres, how he had not lost his nerve but had brought the passengers back to safety by driving the lorry in reverse gear for nearly six furlongs.


There was no joy on the faces of the passengers who had been rescued. They knew that the death they had escaped now awaited them here. All the routes for getting out of Rawalpindi to India had been cut off. Trainloads of passengers were being massacred even before they got to Jhelum or Wazirabad. In the last ten days not a single train had managed to pass Lahore and reach Amritsar safely, and now there were no trains running at all. There had been some hope of escaping by road towards Srinagar. Now this hope, too, had been strangled by the tribal raiders. The stabbing incidents in Rawalpindi itself were on the rise and one by one they would all be killed. They hadn’t a shred of hope left. At that moment you turned back and looked at your passengers, saw their distress, read the intense hopelessness in their eyes and took measure of the terror that gripped their souls. I saw a dark glint appear in your fearless eyes. Thumping your chest you said, ‘I will take you to Srinagar, even if I have to stake my life on it. Are your ready to go?’ Such courage coming from a Muslim driver couldn’t but touch the hearts of the Hindu and Sikh passengers. They were ready to go; in any case, they had no other choice.


The driver of the first lorry pleaded, ‘Don’t go, Hussain. Think of yourself: you have an old mother, an unwed sister.’


But you paid him no heed and put your foot down on the accelerator.


Nurpur, Kohmurree, Nathiagali, Ghorhagalli passed without incident. Kohalla was twenty-five miles from Ghorhagalli. At Kohalla there was a bridge across the Jhelum River. On this side of the bridge the new country of Pakistan ended, and on the other side the territory of Kashmir state began. It was downhill all the way from Ghorhagalli to Kohalla and the lorry had picked up speed. But the passengers were still afraid. Would they ever cross that bridge to breathe free in the India of Gandhi and Nehru, or would their bodies be picked to the bone by vultures on these rough hilly slopes under a merciless sky? Holding their breath, they watched each passing milestone. Now Kohalla was seventeen miles away.


Then suddenly we heard gunfire and saw blood spurting from your left arm. Behind me sat Pritam Singh Sodhi, a compounder who used to volunteer his services at the Rawalpindi Singh Sabha’s charitable hospital. He jumped to his feet. Your wound wasn’t deep. The bullet had gouged a gash through your muscle and gone out of the lorry’s window. Pritam Singh Sodhi took out the first-aid kit from his suitcase and bandaged you. Even as he was ministering to you, you didn’t let the lorry’s speed slacken one bit. You had lost a lot of blood but your face was still flushed with determination and the black glint in your fearless eyes had not dimmed a whit.
We heard the sound of gunshots again when we were only twelve miles from Kohalla. We looked in all directions. Twenty yards behind us stood four young tribal men, their rifles aimed at the lorry’s tyres.


‘Is there a driver among you?’ you asked, without taking your eyes off the road. ‘If so, then he should come up here fast.’


Jodh Singh spoke up, ‘I’ve been driving buses for the Nanda Bus Service from ’Pindi to Lahore. But I don’t have any experience on hilly roads.’


‘Hold the steering wheel,’ you said. ‘It’s downhill all the way to Kohalla. Keep your foot on the brake. And for the sake of your Guru, don’t stop the lorry this side of Kohalla.’


And you stepped up to Sardar Shamsher Singh and requested, ‘Sardar ji, please give me your sword.’


Uncomprehending but without a minute’s hesitation, Sardar Shamsher Singh handed you his three-foot-long sword. You unsheathed it and jumped off the moving lorry, saying, ‘God be with you.’ We saw you roll into the bushes and then swerve off into a bunch of trees. In your hand was the gleaming sword that Guru Gobind Singh had put into the hands of the Khalsa to protect the weak. It looked beautiful in your hand because it was the sword of humanity and you were the defender of humanity.


Three more bullets were fired but they didn’t touch the tyres. Then the bullets stopped. We could see that your gleaming sword had caused pandemonium among those young tribals. I don’t know what happened to you. You were one against four. And who knows how many more were hiding in the trees. And they had rifles.


When you jumped out of the moving lorry, I sent up a prayer, ‘May Allah protect you, Hussain. May he grant you the remaining lifespan of cowards like me.’


I do not know if He heard my prayer or whether they finished you off. What happened to your mother, what became of your sister, that too I do not know.


But I remember you often, and always in the happy moments of my life. This life and its joys are your gift to me. That is why when your memory knocks at my door, a hundred prayers burst forth from my heart. I hope to God that you are still alive. But if you’re not, I hope that Allah has given you a place in heaven. Wherever you may be, through this story today I send you my salutation, the salutation of my wife, son, daughter and of all humanity.




Translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna.



Mohinder Singh Sarna (1923-2001) moved to Delhi from Rawalpindi after the partition of India, and joined the Indian Audit and Accounts Service in 1950. In a writing career spanning six decades, Sarna produced several volumes of poetry, short stories and novels, many of which have been translated into other Indian languages and made into telefilms. Sarna's work has received critical acclaim. He was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for his writing, including the Sahitya Akademi Award. He was recognised as the Shiromani Punjabi Sahitkar by the Government of Punjab in 1989.

He was married to noted Punjabi translator and poet Surjit Sarna.


Navtej Sarna is an Indian diplomat. He is the author of the novels The Exile and We Weren't Lovers Like That, the short story collection Winter Evenings, the non-fiction works The Book of Nanak and Folk Tales of Poland and a translation of Guru Gobind Singh's Zafarnama.