The story of an illustrious man

September 3, 2017

The fascinating autobiographical account of Ruchi Ram Sahni, a forgotten hero of Lehnda Punjab

The story of an illustrious man

In 1863 a boy was born to a family of rich traders in Dera Ismail Khan. However, due to a change of fortune, in 1879, in order to seek an education, the boy had to walk over 100 miles to the nearest high school located in Adhiwala, Jhang District.  His family had been bankrupt, and so he decided to save the camel fare of one rupee and eight annas. This is an episode in the story of Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni, as told in his autobiography.

A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab, Ruchi Ram Sahni, 1863-1948 has been edited by Neera Burra, his great granddaughter, and published by Oxford University Press India, 2017. There are in fact two stories in the book; one is the autobiography, and the other, as interesting as any treasure hunt, depicts the dedication and singleness of purpose in pursuit of the autobiography. With its twists of fate and with lady luck smiling on the brave Burra as she chased missing clues and succeeds in compiling a coherent account; an achievement as compelling as her progenitor’s autobiography.

Dera Ismail Khan, on the right bank of river Indus, is as removed and remote from the centres of power and privilege today as it was in Sahni’s time. Then it was an outpost of trade of India with Afghanistan and beyond. A part of the British colonial province of the Punjab, it was a flourishing trade centre with caravans linking India to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Gomal Pass. The Powindahs, nomadic tribesmen, annually came down the mountains in winter generating a series of markets around the city. Further linkage with the Punjab and onwards with rest of India was through the rivers and the great highways of trade and communication.

The autobiography portrays the cultural, social and the economic conditions of the period of consolidation of the colonial administration, education and political control. The discourteous discrimination against the natives comes through strongly.

It is useful to recollect that in 1831 Alexander Burnes made his famous trip to survey and assess the possibility of trade along the rivers of Indus Valley, under the pretext of bringing gifts to the Maharaja of Punjab. With the advent of the colonial period the riverine trading system was changed with railways, which concentrated on carrying the produce of the Punjab to Karachi for onward transmittal to the Empire.

The Sahni family was a part of the network of trading posts on the banks of the rivers of the Punjab. For generations, their place of business had been Bhera on the left banks of river Jhelum. Ruchi Ram’s father, Lala Karam Chan Sahni, moved to Dera Ismail Khan to expand the family business. In time, he became one of the town’s leading businessmen.

Like all sons of merchants, Ruchi Ram was put under training to become a part of the family business and, one day, to lead it. He was taught arithmetic and learnt to calculate loans, interests and other trade related numbers to high level of proficiency. His father’s bankruptcy, caused by the accidental loss of the cargo boats in the river Indus near Sukker in the year 1872, pulled the rug from under his feet.  His life changed completely.

From wearing silk, gold earrings and bangles, the boy was reduced to the coarsest clothes and the father, seeing no hopes of a trading future for him and in a major departure from the tradition of the trading classes of the time, enrolled him in the formal colonial education system that was taking shape under the British.

In this he showed shrewd pragmatism and the boy performed well enough in the system to attract notice and win scholarships to higher levels of education, leaving behind a legacy, albeit now forgotten in this part of the Punjab, as a professor of Chemistry at what is now the Government College University, a member of the Legislative Council, prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, a leading reformer dedicated to the spread of scientific ideas and thinking, and a living example of promotion of an enlightened lifestyle where Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs of the era lived in harmony.

The young boy passed his Middle School examination topping the districts and winning fame and prizes from the Deputy Commissioner (who also offered him a job) along with a scholarship for the High School. Ruchi Ram had to travel by boat and camel to get to the nearest high school in Jhang, Adhiwal, costing him about three rupees for the boat and camel ride. On a later trip, he walked over 100 miles to save the one and a half rupee of the camel fare, a remarkable feat at the age of 16. He met all his expenses of books and board at Jhang on the six rupees per month scholarship.

He experienced one year of enthusiastic learning with the professor he adored but this unfortunately was short-lived as the professor retired. Faced with less challenging teachers, he again walked over 50 miles to catch a train to Lahore and join a high school there. His grit and determination at age 17 speaks of his strength of character and love for learning and knowledge. His efforts were noticed and he found supportive teachers and administrators to see him through school to pass his Matriculation examination with a scholarship and to enter the hallowed Government College.

The autobiography portrays in some detail the cultural, social and the economic conditions of the period of consolidation of the colonial administration, education and political control.

The arrogance of the officials and the discourteous discrimination against the natives comes through strongly, as Ruchi Ram talks of his tribulations in everyday life. Reminiscent of the Gandhi’s experience in South Africa, Ruchi Ram was forced out of a First Class Railway wagon despite having a ticket. Ruchi Ram took a stand and fought for his rights but no avail. He had to face insults, physical assault and an undue scolding for daring to report the misdoings of an Englishman, true as they were.

Travelling in a tonga he was suddenly and for no reason hit on the head by an Englishman, who instead of apologising kept threatening him of more beating. There was no one to call for help. No policeman would even think of helping a native in such a situation. This is of immense value to the scholars of the period in terms of cultural transformation and societal evolution of the people of Punjab.

The changing society, and its resistance to change, is documented with patience and humour. Ruchi Ram tells us that the Hindus, with exposure to the new education and liberalisation, slowly began to give up the old practices of caste discrimination etc., while the Muslims, as they came into money, began adopting the same customs of discrimination among themselves.

Ruchi Ram’s science education perhaps developed his rational approach to life. He accepted the rational and reformist ideology of the Brahmo Samaj and became a strong supporter of widow remarriage, and spoke against caste discrimination, child marriage, the dowry system, and expensive wedding and funeral ceremonies. Brahmo, it must be remembered, as opposed to the Arya Samajists, were inclusivists and believed in secularism and were a direct challenge to orthodox Hinduism. His dedication to the philosophy of the Brahmo Samaj alienated him from some parts of the family while he became a hero to his students.

He conducted public lectures to disseminate scientific understanding and attitudes and worked indefatigably towards spreading science education in schools. His illustrated lectures on science became popular all over Punjab, all the more for the reason because they were in Punjabi. He became a strong advocate for teaching science in Punjabi language forcefully making the point that children should be taught science in the vernacular.

The British ultimately did recognise this man and gave him the title of Rai Sahib and nominated him to the Punjab Legislative Assembly.  A strong believer in the commonality of anti-colonial struggle, he participated in the Khilafat Movement helping as a mere worker arranging the processions and meetings etc.

Ruchi Ram Sahni returned the title of Rai Sahib in 1919 on the urging of Maulana Shaukat Ali. He was punished and castigated by the Colonial Officials but he held steadfast. As a punishment, his portrait was removed from the Government College hall, however, the Punjab Government had to reinstate it under public pressure. He was elected to the Senate of the Punjab University.

Burra’s account of discovering the missing links and clues to the manuscript, locating his actual house in Lahore in 2013 after a lapse of more than a century itself make a fascinating account. We can be grateful enough to her for the book, retelling this story of her illustrious great grandfather, a forgotten hero of the Lehnda Punjab.

A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab Ruchi Ram Sahni, 1863-1948
Edited by: Neera Burra
Publisher: Oxford University Press India
Year: 2017
Price: USD65

The story of an illustrious man