The Thanedar’s House

May 30, 2021

by — Posted in Personal Essays

“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 or Tote (parakeet) wala ghar. There used to be one on the balcony in a cage.”, said my old 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 after a Himalayan trek 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 felt embarrassed. This was not going to work. Then I asked a man who looked to be in his sixties. He said he knew which one it was. He offered to take me there, 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.

When he lived, the 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 whether he was a loyalist to the regime he served, proud and grateful for the power bestowed upon 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? 

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 was still thinking about the house and what little I was told about the Thanedar. I knew he 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 against her father’s wishes. Her father felt she could have done better than to marry into a family that didn’t care much for education when he was a lawyer. He was a Punjabi Hindu too. His name was Iqbal. 

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

2 thoughts on “The Thanedar’s House

  1. Asking for address by the name of a prominent person is still a popular practice in smaller towns and villages. Even today this works when we order stuff on Amazon. Also, I’m glad you could trace your roots and get there. Over time your questions will be answered

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