A Clerk Dies
The frail, geeky kid with the round glasses watched wide-eyed as his daddy plunged two stories down to the concrete verandah of their house. The boy, Vasudeva, who’d been flying his kite had backed off right to the fringe of the roof and would have fallen off had not his father, who was holding the spool, dived and shoved him aside. But while he managed to push the kid to safety, he himself lost his balance and fell, there being no custom of high railings or parapets on roofs those days. Daddy made a sound big enough when he thudded on the floor for all of the occupants of the house to come running out. There were neither ambulances then, nor telephones to summon them. Vasu’s youngest maternal uncle, Poli ran to fetch a rickshaw on which Daddy was taken to the local gurudwara trust hospital.
They operated on him and then gave him a bed in the crowded surgical ward. It was a long hall with tall windows through which the hot summer loos of Delhi blew in, withering everything they touched. Frayed khus tutties hung outside the windows. Relatives of the patients sprayed the tutties opposite their beds with water during the visits, providing some relief in the ward that only had ceiling fans for comfort. Vasu’s mummy and elder sister Paro visited the bed-ridden daddy everyday at the hospital to sponge him down and bring him home-cooked daal, chapattis, and vegetables. Vasu was allowed to visit sometimes too, but was banned after he began to cry one day on seeing another patient sharing his daddy’s bed. The man was down with malaria and delirious with high fever. Beds were scarce and the poor patients, one too many. The hospital never turned anyone away, irrespective of faith. A howling Vasu would have dragged the man down from the bed had he not been yanked away and taken home by his sister. Daddy was lucky to get any bed at all, since the new patients were being put up on the floor in the verandahs. Every bit of bed space was used up, and it was not uncommon to have two or sometimes even three patients on one bed. Noone complained and the poor people were grateful to be looked after at all.
Daddy was not a poor man, he was a clerk in the Central Secretariat, but on his meager salary depended a horde of unwed, unemployed siblings, his own little brood, and his mother, all of who stayed in the same small house in Janakpuri, West Delhi. They had been refugees from West Pakistan, and the government had allotted them this house on the basis of claims they’d made after partition. The Indian government gave properties to refugees on the basis of documentary evidence they could produce for the properties held by them in Pakistan, now lost forever to that country. Vasu’s grandfather had been a rich landlord from Mandi Kamoke, and had owned many shops, rice mills, lands, and even a gurudwara in that area. He died soon after the partition, in grief, unable to cope with his loss. Daddy was the eldest son.
Whatever business the family invested in, made a loss. They bought trucks, and the drivers drove away with them. They bought a shop, and the rats ate away the grains. They traded in textiles, and the customs seized the shipment. They took road-repairing contracts but couldn’t bribe the inspecting engineers, so they didn’t get any payments for the jobs done. After a string of losses, when the family had no more spare cash to chuck into ruinous business projects, and after Vasu’s grandfather’s death, daddy took up the job of a postal clerk, which had been generously arranged for by a family well wisher- also a refugee. Daddy worked through the day and studied through the evenings, managing to complete his graduation from one of the night colleges. It was a big thing to be a graduate then and he soon landed the plum, much coveted government job of clerkship at the Central Secretariat. He had a princely salary of a hundred rupees per month with which his mother kept the kitchen fires burning. On every 1st of the month he faithfully placed all his salary in her lap, and she would mumble a vague prayer under her breath and bless him and shove the notes inside her blouse quietly, without giving him anything.
Grandmother had stitched her cash and ample gold ornaments to the insides of her loose suit while fleeing their home to escape the carnage that preceded Partition. She sold off cheaply the other properties in Delhi that the family had got in claims, and bit by bit her gold jewelry as well to keep the ship afloat and to marry off her children.
At the end of the day daddy had nothing left for his own flock, save loads of love, which he showered on them generously without fear of its stocks running low, so blessed were his basket and his store. Scrounged he might have on the fineries of the world; never did he spare his children a good education and a nourishing diet. He worked late nearly every night for bonuses with which he brought fresh fruit of the season to his family. Every night, little Vasu would wait at the end of the park opposite their house for his father to get home from work. He was not allowed to cross the road beyond the park for fear of being run over by a vehicle, or of being taken away by roving sadhus or tantrics or thugs, which was again quite common in those days when law enforcement in the fledgling nation was lax, as well as toothless.
Vasu would throw caution to the winds when he spotted his father walking down the road, and dash into his arms. Daddy was a tall, handsome man, who would scoop the little one into his tight embrace, and hand him over the small parcel of fruits wrapped in old newspaper. Daddy bought fruits by number- four to be exact, one for each of them. During the winters dry fruits like almonds and chilgoza were brought and divided into four equal portions and put in separate clay jars, or martbans as they are called. Everyone indulged Vasu, the youngest, who finished his portions first, and then took generous shares from the others.
Mummy saved all the newspapers that came home. She and Paro would squat on the floor in the cool of the evenings and make neat envelopes out of them using homemade glue made from white flour and sugar. They were sold to the local Kirana shop that used them to wrap the groceries. Mummy and Paro also stitched clothes for the neighbors. Sometimes they also took on embroidery and sequin jobs for the local boutique that specialized in wedding dresses. It brought in extra money to pay for Vasu’s rare indulgences of ice dollies and lemon soda pop, and sometimes coconut candy to cheer him up when he fell ill. Mummy dreamt of a house with an attached toilet and kitchen where her kids could live with some dignity and privacy. She put aside every single penny she could for that dream purchase, forsaking any extravagant indulgences in fine silks or greasepaints for her own self. She probably made more money than daddy, but kept it her carefully guarded little secret; she was afraid daddy would handover all the money to grandma if he came to know of her tiny fortune.
Vasu fell ill frequently. He was a premature baby with just 32 weeks of stay in the womb as against the usual 40. As an infant he’d rarely cried and had slept through the day mostly. He was underweight; he was on the ventilator for a good couple of weeks before his mother could bring him home from the neonatal ICU. All the milestones of crawling, talking and walking came much later for him than normal babies. In the beginning he had breathing problems, then he had behavior problems and finally at school he found it hard to make friends or cope with the learning. If there was a virus lurking in the city it got to Vasu first. At the slightest exposure Vasu developed colds, fevers, chills and blights.
As if that was not enough, he was a dreamy boy, and accident-prone at that. Disconnected from the squalor of his living, he might have been a hero in his wild dreams but was a stumbling, clumsy boy in reality. If there were a glass door to be walked into, Vasu would find it and squash his beak against it. At restaurants he tilted his chair to a point where it tipped over and bunged him to the floor. He hung from the frailest branches of trees and came crashing down to the ground with them. He swung over iron gates with spikes that slashed his feeble thighs open. If there was an accident waiting to happen, Vasu walked right into it, dreamy-eyed, incorrigibly cheerful, optimistic, curious, undaunted, and determined not to learn from the past. He beat the unfair odds nature had given him, bit-by-bit, everyday, and proliferated like determined ivy, helped along by his family that took extra care of him and pampered him and heaped him with candy and soda and affection and fiercely watched over him.
The house where the joint family lived, though not small, was badly designed. It had a verandah up front, after which came four square-shaped rooms that served as bedrooms and then a much larger brick-lined courtyard at the back. One Indian style latrine was constructed at the far end of the setback for the family of nine and one bachelor tenant. Next to it was a small store where Poli stayed with his wife, whenever he was married. He married and divorced at least four times, as far as Vasu could remember, before he became irrelevant. The wives left Poli as soon as they found out that he was a wastrel and a drunkard, and lived on pocket money doled out by his mother or the generous elder brother. Next to the store came the kitchen where daddy brought in the rations for the whole month and the ladies cooked, squatting on a small, round wooden stool on the floor. Meals were prepared on the traditional angithi, a brazier using glowing coals or charcoal. There was an open bathing area for everyone, ladies and gents included, where they took bath, fully clothed, and washed laundry using soap nuts at a hand pump that spouted salty, hard water. The front left room had been given to Daddy and his family. It served as their complete, luxurious 100 sq. ft. living space for all practical purposes, save toilet. The room behind them was with the tenant and remained locked through the day. The two rooms on the right were with the grandmother and her four children of two daughters and two sons. The only way Mummy could get to the kitchen or the toilet at the back was through the rooms with the grandmother, or by climbing over the roof. There were no stairs.
When Vasu came home in the afternoons from school, it would be siesta time. Knock all she might, mummy could not make grandmother open the door for her little boy, hungry, as well as desperate to go to the toilet. She gave up after her entreaties to her mother in law and her husband proved futile. To prove mummy wrong, grandma kept the doors wide open whenever daddy stayed at home on Sundays or holidays.
Mummy would make Vasu squat under the tree in front of their house for relieving himself. Since the only water they had in the room was for drinking, mummy used it sparingly till grandmother opened the gates in the evening after her beauty sleep. So mummy would give him pieces of old newspaper to wipe his backside. Then she poured coarse sand grains into his hands with which he rubbed them clean while she poured on some of the drinking water. Then she fed him a cold meal with her own hands, and sang him lullabies so that he could forget where he was and enter the realm of his dreams where everything was plentiful and perfect, and eventually fall asleep.
The kids slept on the floor while the parents slept on the double bed in the room. At night when the parents made love and the bed creaked and groaned under them, Vasu would become anxious and try to climb up to see what was happening. But Paro, who was elder to him by several years, would suppress her giggles and clasp him close till the sounds of the lovemaking ceased, and when she knew her parents had pulled on their pajamas, she would release him so that he could hop on to his daddy’s broad chest and there fall asleep in peace.
Vasu often prodded his father about their life at Mandi Kamoke. It made him feel that his was a better destiny, he was meant for a life where he didn’t have to live in a cramped single room or squat in the public under a Jamun tree opposite the house where the girl who he had this mighty crush on lived. It terrified the child no end that she might come out any minute and discover him in the midst of a very private moment.
Daddy had spoken of a life that seemed idyllic, with fields carpeted with green paddy fields as far as the eye could see, vast granaries, booming rice mills, big kites and huge houses teeming with munshis and servants that chased after you with your meal, hollering at you to have it before it got cold.
Mandi Kamoke was once the greatest Basmati rice granary of Asia. It fell in the Rachna Doab area and was one of the best places in the world to grow rice in. It was situated on the grand Trunk road and a good network of rail and road communication made it one of the more prosperous and faster growing districts of Pakistan. Crisscrossed by wide canals with sweeping currents of red water, dusty streets with green Urdu markings, and meandering rail tracks drowned in human poop, it was a bustling place of the fertile Punjab. Vasu’s grandfather owned most of the shops in the Mandi, the rice mills, and the sweltering paddy fields that rolled like a green carpet from the frayed canvas tents where much of the haggling and business of the day took place. They had a huge house on the outskirts of town where granddad, Amar Singh, the most prominent and influential member of the community lived with his two wives and children, staff, livestock and two buggy horses. He had donated land for the gurudwara and was its greatest patron. Every year, on Baisakhi, two handsome Arabic horses pulling the buggy would ride the family into the grand procession where Sardar Amar Singh would initiate the commencement of Paath (Prayers) and Langar (community meal) at the gurudwara. Vasu’s father would recall with a fond smile on his face wearing black achkans with buttons of real gold on those occasions.
Rich men could marry as many times as they liked in those days. Grandma was the younger wife, tall, lissome, and very fertile. She bore Amar Singh many children and stayed with him right till the end. The elder wife and her children could not bear the humiliation and cost of having a second wife and her abundant progeny staying under the same roof, staking claim to the privileges and the properties. Narain Singh, the eldest son from the first wife, clumsily tried many times to eliminate his infant stepsiblings, but by some stroke of his bad luck failed to succeed. His last unsuccessful attempt had been to drown them in the Upper Chenab Canal. One evening when the fog had begun to settle like a heavy mantle upon the green-brown landscape he had bundled the children into his car, a rare luxury in pre-partition times, and drove them on the dusty track to the Headworks. A Muslim butcher at the Mandi who knew the family well, while returning home from work on his bicycle on that fateful evening happened to cross Narain and the children at a remote patch, and had immediately understood Narain’s intentions. In a small place family rivalries and intrigues are well within the domain of public knowledge. He pedaled furiously and raised an alarm at Amar Singh’s house. The menfolk and staff rushed to the Headworks as fast as the horses could carry them and averted the disaster just in the nick of time.
Amar Singh decided he could not be sure of the safety of his children any more as long as both the families lived under the same roof. He summoned the munshi, his eldest, Narain Singh, and his first wife to counsel that same evening and divided the property right there and then. He had the munshi draw up papers hiving off a substantial share of the properties to his first wife and her children straightaway. At the crack of dawn he ordered a separate wing to be constructed for the first family and barred them from ever coming into the main premises again.
His British friends in the town had well in time given Amar singh wind of the impending partition and the mayhem that would follow. But he had refused to believe that such a thing could happen in his beloved birthplace where generations of his ancestors had lived in peace and harmony with the Muslim community. The Muslims tilled the land for the rich Punjabi landlords or did menial jobs such as scavenging and housework, and largely kept to themselves in small dung splattered mud and thatch huts in their dirty little village on the periphery of the large townhouses of the Hindus and Sikhs. They were a meek, downtrodden lot and it was foolish to imagine them capable of the kind of thuggery or treachery or debauchery being attributed to Muslim mobs running amok in rest of West or East Pakistan, as per the initial reports that were trickling in.
District Gujranwala had a Muslim population of 70%, the rest were Hindus and Sikhs, well to do and enlightened. By July the British staff in the police and civil administration had begun their exodus and Muslim officials had started taking their places. Before leaving, the DC of Gujranwala, an Anglo-Indian by the name of Disney, came to pay Amar Singh a courtesy call.
Over drinks, Disney tried to warn his generous Indian friend about the glum forecast. ‘You still have time, Sardar Sahib, to save your family. Forget about the money and your lands, if you live, you would have a lifetime to earn them back, and many score more. India is going to be a better place for business, and for an enterprising community like yours, you will never regret this decision. Take the money out of the bank and leave with what you can carry. In fact, we’d be glad to let you join our convoy- we leave in a week’s time. You will be safe with us- no one will dare touch a party of British officials and their people. We’ll drop you off at Firozepur, and from there, you can take a call on which Indian city to settle in. Come on, old friend, this is the best offer you can get. Who knows, maybe one day we will have a drink again, either in India or in England?’ he said, rotating his glass in his hands and staring wistfully through it at the Sardarji.
Sardar Amar Singh laughed out heartily. ‘This house is an arsenal. We are well armed, and we have able bodied, loyal men to guard over us. I own most of the place here as well as the people in it’, he said with pride.
‘Bloody stupid Khalsa! Don’t blame me if you have your women’s breasts skewered on a spear’. Disney said a little too harshly, but Amar had been a dear old friend and he could take liberties.
‘I think this place will go to India. Just wait for the Award of the Boundary Commission to be announced.’
‘You must be out of your mind- whatever makes you think such a ridiculous thing?’
‘What’s ridiculous about it? This is the undivided Punjab- it belongs to the Sikhs. We own all the lands and shops and factories in this region. And then Nankana Sahib, the font of Sikhism, has to come to India.’
‘They don’t divide as per the wealth owned. It’s as per demographics! Anyway Amar Singh, I hope you will see reason before it’s too late. Stop trying to cling to your empire- let it go. Make another one, at another place and time’. Disney rose wearily to his feet and hugged his host. They stood like that for a long time, savoring the warmth of each other’s fellowship. Then it was time to leave.
Sardar Amar Singh had expensive gifts of dry fruits, Basmati rice and the best silks of the area loaded in the buggy. Then he bade Anwar, his Muslim buggy driver drop his trusted English friend at the circuit house. The handful, remaining British departed by a convoy of ten military vehicles during the next week, leaving behind a yawning, gloomy abyss in the land filled with the stench of death and stoked with the fires of suspicion and hatred.
The news that trickled in each passing day filled Amar Singh with dread and he began to recall his departed friend’s parting advice with great regret. Dire conspiracy seemed afoot between the Muslim League and the civil, police and military departments. On 10th July a Muslim Public Meeting was convened at Shaikhupura where Hindus and Sikhs were not invited. The Muslims were very secretive about the meeting,’ it was to pray for the rains’, they said, when questioned. Later Amar Singh came to know through Disney’s PA that an exhaustive list of all Hindus and Sikhs in the area had been drawn up.
During the next week, issue of petrol to non-Muslims was banned. It was purportedly being kept aside for arson.
Rice and wheat worth lakhs was looted from the granaries belonging to Hindus and Sikhs in the Mandi. The Central Bank Of India branch at Gujranwala was robbed and gutted.
There were reports of huge consignments of knives getting intercepted and confiscated. The culprits meant to deliver the knives, manufactured at Nizamabad, which is next to Kamoke and famous for its cutlery, at Muslim League centers all over West Pakistan.
On 15th July a peace meeting was convened where Muslim leaders Mian Iftikharuddin and Khan of Mamdot made glib speeches on communal harmony and brotherhood. Even Sardar Amar Singh had been invited to sit on the podium so that he could be seen as a symbol of faith to the thousands watching from the cattle grounds yonder. But when he sensed the hostility in even the most servile of officials, who had been so far on his fat payroll, he knew it was a ploy to lull the minority into a false sense of security so that a panic exodus of the community didn’t get triggered off. He also understood that the Muslims were going to hold till the award of the border commission was announced, just to be sure which region went to which country before they put their nefarious plans into dirty execution. And he understood, sadly again, that the award was going to be in Pakistan’s favor on the strength of demographics and religion.
Night curfews began soon. The Muslims defied the curfew at will and used the dark window of opportunity to loot and murder and rape Hindu Sikh households in stray pockets. A delegation of the minorities met the Muslim DC Ashfaq with their protest, and he as usual gave them a syrupy assurance of safety, all the while the gleam of intense loathing in his eyes giving him away.
Sardar Amar Singh soon began to lose faith in his belief that peace would prevail in the country where his ancestors had settled, toiled and prospered, enriching the bounteous lands in the process. He rummaged through his little red book and found the number he’d saved. He picked up the telephone and called.
‘Yes’, Disney spoke at the other end.
‘Sat sri akal, Disney sahib’.
‘Oho, Sardar ji! Is all well,’ he asked with rising alarm. ‘ Are you in India? Have you left yet?’
‘Not yet’, Sardar Amar, once a proud leader of his community, now a man about to lose everything, said in a meek voice, expecting a backlash. ‘But I think time has come’.
The Englishman was silent. This was no time or place for reproach or harsh judgment. Too many terrible things were happening and these were momentous times in history where the role of the British themselves was not entirely above board or honorable or exemplary. It was a sordid end to a glorious era of British rule. The jewel in the crown had been carelessly and cruelly cast asunder.
‘Are you ready to move?’ Disney asked.
‘Yes, I can be…ready in a couple of hours’.
‘Then be prepared to move by tomorrow night latest. I will speak to Capt Malcolm of the 7th HORSE. I believe they would be returning from the garrison at Rawalpindi anytime now. You could hide your family in their convoy and come till Firozepur Cantonment’.
‘Really?’ Sardar Amar Singh began to sob with relief. He couldn’t bring himself to mutter thanks to his dear friend or even say his prayers.
Hearing a proud Sikh cry this way made the Englishman uncomfortable. He felt guilty about the way the British had let the cauldron of religious frenzy simmer and reach boiling point. And now they were leaving without a care in the world. They felt no shame, no dishonor, and no moral responsibility to control the frenzied uprisings and prevent the oncoming carnage that would destroy millions of innocent households in the coming days. He felt at least he owed it to the Sardar, the son of the soil where Disney and his family had spent a good couple of happy decades of their lives.
‘I will contact you again. Godspeed and take care there,’ Disney said, and softly replaced the receiver. Then he began to make calls to the military commanders who were in the process of evacuating their regiments and contingents from West Pakistan.
Sardar Amar Singh immediately sent for both of his wives and bid them to be prepared to move by dawn. ‘Don’t share any plans with the Muslim staff. No word of our move must be leaked out at any cost, even the children must not know. And lesser the women of the house know, the better it is. Carry all your gold and cash and any other valuables that you think you can sell. I will carry all the documents and papers that we will need to make claims in India.’
Kartar Kaur, or Biji to the children, his younger bride, listened closely with her head bowed and the edge of her stole covering much of her pretty face. She never talked back or even looked him in the eye.
Preeto, the elder bride looked on with disdain. ‘I am not going anywhere,’ she declared firmly, ‘with my children.’
The man was aghast. He was not prepared for such foolhardy tantrums at this hour. True, she had a reason to be aggrieved at his remarrying and at having her and her children cast out like lepers from the house, but surely, at this hour when the pogrom could commence any day, she could not doubt that he meant only well for his family and that she would do well to place her full faith in him! He couldn’t afford to waste any time in winning her over with convincing arguments. ‘Shut your mouth slut, and go pack,’ he shouted, beginning to foam a little at the corners of his mouth.
His desperation was beginning to show. The woman felt no sympathy or sorrow for him! He was about to forsake all that he and his ancestors before him had toiled so hard to build and nurture. Instead of leaning in at this time of grief and doom all she thought of was her comfort, her house, and her wealth. Stupid woman, did she think that they were going to let her spend the rest of her days basking in the same luxury in the same village? But then it wasn’t really her fault, was it? He, who remained out all day at work with his ear to the ground, who knew what was happening, who despite being warned by the British sitting at the helm of affairs, had also stubbornly misread the signs, why then would he have such lofty expectations from an illiterate, wronged and domesticated woman who had never crossed the threshold of his house? He wished reason would prevail, but had very little hope of it. She might refuse to come along just to spite him.
We will see about that in the morning, he thought grimly, as he unlocked the safe and began to carefully replace the property and business documents in a plastic envelope, which he put in a canvas satchel that he tied to his neck with a strong cotton cord, and slipped inside his long robes. He never took it off for many months after, not even while bathing.
When the first rays of the orange sun broke over the banyan trees and the spires of the mosques and the gurudwaras, Amar went to check on his family. Biji had packed, fed the kids, stitched canvas satchels for each one of them to carry and put away enough foodstuffs to last many days. She had stitched all the gold and cash and valuables she possessed to the insides of hers and well as her baby daughters’s suits. She cleared stuff off the children’s bed for him to sit. While she went out to milk the buffalo and get him tea, he fell asleep. Though very young, she was mature and intelligent in a grounded, rustic sort of a way. She was stoic and solid, and it had been to her that Amar Singh had always turned whenever he was in need of a comforting moment or for sharing his dreams, passions, hopes, or fears. She returned shortly with the tea and woke him up. They stepped outside and sat on the jute charpoy in the verandah and sipped loudly from saucers. Early morning smells of fresh cow dung, milk and wet earth wafted in through the large open courtyard. It was hard to believe that all was not well with the world. The maulvi hadn’t skipped his morning call to the faithful; the granthi at the gurudwara had read out the gurbani in his lilting voice, the birds were cheeping and chirruping as usual and little bells tied to the bullock’s neck were still tinkling as the animals were led to the fields.
He finished his tea and opened the large, creaky gate to the compound where his first wife and children lived. They were still asleep! He woke up Preeto by shaking her roughly. ‘Wake up Preeto! The sun is half up already. Are you ready?’
Preeto yawned and stretched. Then she opened her eyes languorously and looked at him. The sun was indeed high, and she covered her eyes with an arm from the glare. Then she turned her back to him and began to snore again.
‘Preeto’, her husband shouted, and pulled her up by her hair. ’This is no time to sleep! Have you packed?’
She screamed and shrank away from him, out of his maniacal grasp.
His children, on hearing the racket walked into the room. Narain, the eldest and married said, ‘stop it Paaji! What are you doing? We are not leaving!’
‘Are you crazy? This is the only chance we’ll get to leave here alive. You will be killed, and she…she will be fouled’, he said, pointing shakily to Narain’s wife standing by him defiantly. She was a fair, stunning woman, famous for her beauty all over Lahore. Daughter of rich landlords from Shaikhupura, she’d been brought home with great fanfare. After the death of her parents, her younger brother, Chattru, also came and stayed with them. He walked on crutches, since his legs had been wasted as a child by polio. He was a devious fellow who was responsible for poisoning Narain’s mind against his father and stepmother.
‘Nothing is going to happen to us.’ Chattru limped in and stood between Amar and his son. ‘ You are getting unnecessarily alarmed. All these lands will go to India, you just watch. Wise people would stay put and wait for the opportunity to buy more land at throwaway rates.’
‘Your greed blinds you, and my son!’ Amar yelled. He folded his hands and turned to Preeto, ’ don’t let Narain listen to this village idiot! Come with me, I beg of you!’
Preeto was torn between the love for her only son and hatred for her husband on the one hand, and her first instinct to trust her husband’s judgment on the other. Long habit of an Indian bride to suppress her feelings and give in to the man of the house finally prevailed. ‘We will come away with you’, she declared.
‘Good, thank you!’ Amar Singh clasped her hands, which was only as far as he would go on a public display of sentiment for his wife. ‘Now remember, not a word of this to the servants. Everyone stays at home; no one stirs out for anything… no one… not an inch, not for a second, understand?
They all nodded except Chattru who was already busy whispering in Narain’s ears.
‘Now, be ready by nightfall. Take only what you can carry on your back. And make sure you carry the gold, cash, and the property papers’. Amar Singh repeated the most important instructions, and once convinced that these had been understood, he left to speak with the munshi and close the books.
‘Let us just stay put. Imagine all this will be yours once Sardarji leaves!’ Chattru said to an undecided Narain.
‘Enough said. We will follow Sardarji. You can stay behind if you like Chattra!’ Preeto said with finality. She dragged her younger children, three of them, all girls, away to her room to pack, leaving the other three to figure out for themselves.
Sardarji went on a round of the sprawling grounds with the munshi, ostensibly to check on the livestock, his favorite Arabian horses, the granaries, and the deep carved three-storeyed stepwell that his great-grandfather had built, as if everything was normal, letting out nothing of the plans afoot. Privately, the broken man was saying his goodbyes and praying that the dumb creatures would be well taken care of after they all left.
During the afternoon he returned to the chambers of his second wife, Kartar Kaur, for lunch and siesta. He made a final call to Disney and on his affirmation, resigned himself to his fate. It was done, by the break of dawn he would be a refugee, a man struggling to stay alive and to feed his family. He pondered suicide, after putting all his family to death. But the pioneering instincts of a long line of hard working and brave survivors dismissed the thought as soon as it had appeared. He couldn’t sleep. He simply stared at the beams on the ceiling above and waited for darkness to fall. His children came and climbed on him in the bed and slept, peacefully. Only the eldest, Gurcharan, Vasu’s father, seemed a little worried. He had an inkling that things were going to change, in more ways than his innocent mind could fathom. While patting the anxious child to sleep, Amar Singh also dozed off.
It was dark when Kartar Kaur softly nudged him awake. ‘They’re here’, she whispered, fright showing clearly in her young eyes now.
Amar rose and tied his turban around him. Then straightening his clothes he went out to meet the British Captain of 7th HORSE who had driven into the vast compound in his jeep. The remaining convoy waited at the GT Road, the captain didn’t want to invite undue attention or allow anyone to accuse the British of being partial towards Hindu Sikhs. It was purely a personal agenda of a fellow British and he honored that. A soldier has nothing to do with religion or creed or politics.
Sardarji greeted him profusely and asked after him as per custom.
‘Shall we leave’, the captain asked impatiently. He had no time for elaborate and now mistimed hospitality of the Indians.
‘Sure’, Amar muttered and signaled to Kartar Kaur and her children to sit in the jeep. Preeto and her children were nowhere to be seen. He cursed under his breath and stormed into their quarters. They all sat huddled morosely in Preeto’s room.
‘What are you waiting for? Let’s go. The British are here!’
Preeto looked at him through red eyes and burst into tears. Narain’s’ wife was sprawled comatose beside her while Chattru stared at the floor and made figure of eights with the stump of his crutch.
‘What’s wrong?’ the old man stopped. Then he looked around and asked in panic, ‘where is Narain? Where is Narain!’ he shook Chattru by the neck. ‘What happened to him?’
No one would speak anything. The younger children, already terrified and confused, began to bawl.
‘Will someone say something’, the man bellowed.
‘He... he’s not here’, Preeto managed to mutter through her sobs.
‘Where is he? I said no one is to leave the house! Where is he?’
‘He’s gone to Chajjoke’, she replied.
‘Chajjoke…what for?’ the man sank on the bed. Chajjoke was a notorious, rundown area of town where the lowliest of thieves and castes: Julahas (weavers), Qasais (butchers), Nais (barbers), and Arzaals (sweepers, shoe makers) etc. eked out a precarious living, even the Muslims avoided the place.
‘He’s gone to Shabbos’s house’. Shabbo was the nanny.
‘But why, for gods sakes?’
‘She must have guessed we are leaving. Narain’s wife used her to help pack.’
‘I told you not to let the servants know! Well, then what?’ he shouted, desperately wringing his hands.
‘Her jewelry was missing!’ Preeto said, pointing toward Narain’s wife. ‘Shabbo must have stolen it’.
‘She pestered Narain to get it back’.
‘Oh no!’ the old man cried and slapped his forehead. ‘My son, my son, he’s gone’, he began to beat his chest.
‘When did he leave?’ he said, after some time, pulling himself together when the captain honked.
If he hadn’t returned in nearly eight hours, there was nothing really to be done then, the old man realized. Chajjoke was barely half an hour away from their house. Dare he go look for him? To not leave now would put the entire family at risk, and he could not sacrifice the others for one smitten man. He would have to send for him later, and arrange for his evacuation, if he was still alive, which he doubted.
‘It is time to leave. He can come later. Right now, all of us have to leave’. He stood up and looked at them, pain and the effort to hold back his tears had distorted his features into a hideous scowl. The others didn’t move.
‘We are not coming without Narain’, Preeto said.
‘At least think of the girls- you know what they will do to them’.
‘Then that is our fate.’
‘You are mad! Think of your life ahead!’
‘My life is done’, she said. ‘I will wait for my son to return’.
‘Alright let me take the girls’, Amar Singh sank on his knees and folded the girls in his embrace.
‘No!’ Preeto screamed and dragged the girls away and stood between them and her husband. ‘Send them!’ she screamed, pointing towards Kartar Kaur’s quarters. ‘ Let the diseased whore leave with her litter! Off with the pestilence! You stay back with us- Waheguru will see to it that we are safe’, she grabbed his arms and pleaded.
Amar singh looked down at his crazed wife. He prayed for god to dispatch some senses into the lovelorn mother. The jeep was honking almost incessantly now. He had to make the decision or all were to be lost forever.
‘May god bless you all’, he pulled away from his wife’s hold, and turned, and left.
Never did he once cast a look over his shoulder as the jeep sped away from his house, his first family, and the life, as he had known it till then. He resolved to beg Disney for one last favor and get his remaining family out of Kamoke. He was sure the old dog would still have some tricks up his sleeve. Of Narain escaping his certain fate, Paaji had little or no hope. He had always been a sentimental, impulsive fellow, prone to dash into the first reckless misadventure that fell his way. It was no less a miracle that he’d managed to beat the odds and survive thus far. Of his first bride ever forgiving him, he was certain there was remote possibility, but then he didn’t even know how to make amends now. He prayed death would befall his three girls left behind before they were put through the horrors that he’d heard had befallen the others. He could have forced them away, but it would have driven Preeto, who was already beside herself with terror for her son, completely insane. He had decided to surrender to life, what was happening in the larger scheme of things was far beyond a small man’s devices. He even gave up trying to figure out if there was any earthly logic or divine reason behind what was going on around him. He was exhausted- nothing made any sense any more. For now, at least a part of his family was under his care and he would, god willing, take them to safety.
With no further adventures the convoy sped towards the Indian border.
On the way they passed fields and homes that had been set afire and destroyed, gutted trucks, and dead cattle and humans strewn like dung about the blazing, smoking landscape. A great stench rose from the land, empty clouds gathered daily, and left without shedding a drop, the parched land was rutted and cracks coursed its face like the wrinkles on an old woman’s face. It was as if Amar Singh was staring at the very curse of god in the face. The wrath of god had descended upon them to fix burning stakes in each breathing, living soul till nothing but smoldering desolation stalked the land. Throngs of men returning from the pogrom, brandishing red spears high above their heads and shouting ‘ya Allah’ seemed no better or happier with the blood of innocents on their hands. With glazed eyes that shone through dark faces they seemed like possessed men who had just severed their linkage with humankind.
It was good the kids were sleeping; they would never have to recall this day. He looked at the captain who had fixed his gaze on the road and refused to look at the mayhem and devastation that had ravaged the land.
Once they’d crossed the border, Amar Singh began to breathe easy. But any relief that he felt without the other half of his family was only overcast with fear and doubt. Amar Singh’s gladness knew no bounds as he was reunited with his friend Disney at Firozepur. Disney was devastated when he came to know that Amar Singh had left half his family behind. He promised he would do everything in his power to see that they were brought out, if they remained alive. He was leaving on a convoy to Okha, Gujarat, from where ships would carry the English back to Britain by sea.
Sardar Amar singh and his family kept moving from one refugee camp to another for several months, till they finally arrived at Delhi and made it their home.