In a State of Partition
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure,
but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes,
which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed,
Shobha turned the dial of the rickety tuner until Prime Minister Nehru’s voice was drowned out by the commotion of mass radio waves. It was August 15, 1947, and India had finally gained her independence. Shobha wiped away the tears that traveled down her face. It was an auspicious day. She should perform her puja, she told herself, thank Vishnu and Krishna and Nehruji for the blessings that bring freedom. She smoothed the wrinkles on her forehead, massaging the deep worry lines embedded in her skin. Her husband was right when he sent word to prepare, to pack their belongings, and leave their home. Independence had been granted to their homeland but they had found themselves on the wrong side of the line: they were in Pakistan.
Shobha’s husband was an officer in the Indian Armed Forces. He had been posted in the northern region of Punjab. He had sent Shobha explicit instructions: she was to sort through their belongings; distribute things among neighbors to store for them until they could return or send for the items at a later date; and keep only the valuable things, things that could fit in a car he would arrive in to take her and their daughter across the border into India. He had also told her to procure two jerry cans of petrol. They would need these for the trip.
Shobha was unsure of what she had been told to do. How could she be expected to decide, all on her own, what had value and what hadn’t? Some things were clearly valuable: her jewelry, the gold coins they had received as a wedding gift, the wad of rupees her husband kept stored in his cupboard. But what else could she add to that pile? Her wedding saris? The pieces of glass bangles the bangles that she had worn and he had smashed on their wedding night that she had carefully stored all these years to commemorate the beginning of their shared life together? Would he deem those shards of broken glass valuable? And what about the fans? The summer had brought with it a drought this season, rendered bearable only by the relief emitted from the operations of the fans. Surely, it would be as dry and dusty where they were going and they would need fans? The monsoons were late this year and the heat that bore down into the long, windless days had made the fans extremely valuable items, essential for any household. Would her husband agree? To be on the safe side of things, Shobha decided to take just one of the fans with her.
And so the choices to carry or store aside were made this way. In areas where she was uncertain which turned out to be many as her husband hadn’t told her where exactly they would be going or what conditions might exist there she kept one of several general household items and gave away the rest. Finally, she had a carload of valuables (which included one fan, one kitchen utensil, one set of sheets, a silk carpet, a hand made doll for her daughter, one frock out of the several frilly angrezi dresses her husband liked to see their daughter wear). The rest they would come back for, or rather, come back to, she hoped. In the meantime, those things would have to be relegated to memory.
A medley of conflicting emotions had splayed through Shobha these past months as she had sorted and packed her life away. Fear had sliced through her stock of hope that life would remain as it always had been, as stories of the terror that skirted the edges of her existence climbed over the walls and settled inside the enclosed area that was her home. Stories of unspeakable horrors and carnage landed on, clung to, and dangled from the branches of the Peepul tree, a descendant of the tree under which the Buddha had received enlightenment in Sri Lanka over 2,000 years ago, in her courtyard outside. They shed the leaves of their sorrow onto the grounds of her home at the slightest rustle or intimation of a breeze.
Violence Hindus and Sikhs pitted against Muslims, spread across the Northwest frontier as talks of a proposed division of India along religious lines transmitted throughout the land. Both sides scarred, maimed, and murdered. Shobha heard stories of men that rampaged through villages and towns mutilating, branding, torturing, and raping women of the other faith. They used religion as an excuse: an excuse to cut off women’s sexual organs; to brand symbols of their own beliefs on women’s bodies; to rape, abduct, and sell women.
By way of the whispering leaves of the Buddha’s tree, Shobha heard the story of the train coming from India to Pakistan filled with bodies of Muslims that had been massacred by Hindus: the train had been packed with mutilated carcasses; in one compartment lay gunnysacks filled with women’s breasts. She learned of Muslims pillaging through towns and forcing themselves on Hindu women that were found hiding in their homes and temples. They raped, buggered, and beat them before killing them or leaving them to die. Shobha heard of men in uniform the police force and the army of both religions serially raping women and selling them when their civilians had turned to them for assistance.
Shobha heard stories of martyrdom and self sacrifice for the sake of honor in the face of these terrors. Sikh women and children in one village had jumped into a well, choosing to drown themselves rather than be subject to the atrocities that lay in wait for them, and to escape the inevitability of being forced to convert to the religion of their torturers. One Hindu man had beheaded his wife and four children at his wife’s request while Muslim men rippled through his village, slowly but surely approaching his home; a Muslim man shot his family and then himself while on a bus when it was halted on its journey and surrounded by a mob of Sikh men. Shobha heard of women seeking shelter in their place of worship whether mosque, temple, or gurdwara. They had poured kerosene around the edifice and set themselves on fire when the rioting men stormed towards them.
After hearing these stories, little seeds of doubt took root within Shobha. They flourished, growing strong: their thick vines spread wide, fracturing the foundations of her belief. She started to question everything in which she had once placed her faith. Shobha wondered if her husband had been complicit in these crimes. If men who had lived side by side, as brethren, could turn on each other, then what would stop her husband from doing the same? She lost her faith in God: she couldn’t see where the existence of a merciful deity fit amid this carnage as the stories of senseless violence poured into her home, the home to which she could no longer belong.
“Mama,” Keya sighed in a small voice as she turned in her sleep.
Shobha went to the cot and smoothed her daughter’s furrowed brow. As she stood over her child, watching her dream, she knew she must believe that God does exist, for the sake of her daughter. The alternative a destiny which was not navigated by a supreme being was too bleak to contemplate as she looked down at her daughter’s sweet face. She blew lightly on the closed eyes, the curly lashes resting on those beloved plump cheeks while Keya slept on, blissfully unaware of the dangers that gathered close by.
In the first light of dawn, Shobha lit two joss sticks and a diya. She covered her head, folded her palms, and sat down to recite her prayers.
Fists pounded on the door. The city was enveloped in a shroud of black atmosphere, suffering from power cuts for the third consecutive week. The low light from Shobha’s kerosene lamp guided her to the front of the house. She took the iron key from the ring tied to the end of her sari, unlocked the padlock, and unwound the links of chain so she could slide open the heavy wooden door to let in the mercurial night.
“Look, Shobha ma,” the girl whimpered. “See what they have done.”
The girl’s salwar kameez was soiled and torn in the most menacing places. Dull brown stains spread over her top and the wet fabric clung around her chest outlining each breast. Bruises marked her face and neck, the places where her flesh was exposed.
The shopkeeper, the gardener, the butcher, the butcher’s son, familiar faces, the substratum of communal living, fused together to form a marauding cavalry, nameless, faceless, joined in the name of a discriminating God. They lowered their eyes in His honor. And when they raised their heads again, they could see nothing but their own hate.
La Ilaha Illallah, Mohammed ur Rasulullah. There is no God but God and Muhammed is His Prophet. They recited the Kalma, Arabic verse, as they played their own versions of God in the servant quarters of British Indian army cantonment areas, land that in a blink of an eye became Pakistan. They selected, among the young girls, who would die, who would suffer a fate worse than death, ravaged, spoiled, left over, shunned by her own people and her own religion, and who would merely be teased, exposed, taunted, touched, threatened by their careless intimacies and their lewd play.
Shobha had written letters about these offenses to her husband. He had been called away to deal with matters that were deemed of greater importance by the British who were enacting their own rendering of God, scattering someone else’s land, squandering someone else’s blood. But the postal system, as decimated as everything else surrounding Shobha, misplaced her pleas for his help, his guidance, his instruction.
“I won’t be able to do anything if they decide to come back for you,” Shobha said to the girl. “Let me take you next door, to the Khans. You’ll be protected there.”
“No,” the servant girl was desperate. “You don’t understand. They’re all the same. They were once our friends, our neighbors, our brothers. But none of them can be trusted now.”
“You can’t return to your own family after what’s been done to you,” Shobha explained to her, as gently as she possibly could. “And I can’t keep you here. They’ll come for you, and hurt Keya, my own daughter, too. There are shelters for women like you in Amritsar and in Delhi. We need to hide you until I can arrange through the army for you to go there.”
“Let me die,” the young woman whispered. “Please, all I ask is that the proper ceremonies are performed, the proper rites observed, so I can die a Hindu.”
Shobha took the girl into her arms, letting her own clothes, her own body become soiled. The girl’s blood dripped onto the floor, marking its territory, shaping the fate of everyone else in the house.
The monsoon arrived in a different form this year. It started as a seedling disturbance, an imbalance sparked by the friction of contending masses, igniting horror from each chafing glitch in the earth and sky. One wave after another headed out across the land in a turbulent procession of fervor and recrimination. Each wave was a snag of disorder tucked into the atmosphere. The monsoon came down in a variation of terror this year instead of its usual mass of contentious weather. Communal peoples banded together; impending storms of violence began to circle around the heart of the wave. Then the conflicting winds started spinning. Low lying villages were flooded and small homesteads were parted from their moorings. Walls started crumbling, pigs and cows started flying, mosques and temples started losing their roof tiles; whole villages were battered if not wrecked. Along the border, the battling winds began to pick up and gush louder and stronger. Any person still standing was struck down and stripped of all that was recognizably human. One body after the next buckled, snapped, and splintered in the face of the onslaught; heads and limbs were torn away and vanished in the spinning wind.
They hacked through the streets like a pack of rakshasas, demons driven by hate. Their long black hair, let loose, flew behind them; their beards unrolled, streamed down their chests. With their nostrils flared and their fever stricken eyes open unnaturally wide, they screamed for blood. The Sikh men moved in a mass of dark cloud brandishing weapons kirpans, knives, swords, sickles above their heads. The curved blades of their sickles looked like a series of new moons glinting in the dark as they traveled towards their target: the very people who revered the sightings of a crescent shape in the sky. With a force that lay within them, beyond them, behind them, they were propelled forward. They struck down their weapons beheading, mutilating, branding every Muslim they could find. They raped and killed until there was nothing left unmarked by their hatred. As the hours stretched into the night the new moon in the sky turned from silver to crimson.
Deep in her dreams, Keya wasn’t sure what was happening but she knew whatever it was, it was terrible. She thought she would be able to hear the buildings and homes falling but all she could hear was the angry howling of the wind. The sound was like a freight train crashing through her home. It was so loud the gusts came at her with a deep, deep vibration that made her cringe. The cruel wind tore the breath from her mouth. Keya realized with alarm that she could see this wind. It had become a solid, visible force around her. She could see the gusts of air coming through the darkness the masses of storm physically ripping towards her. It wasn’t absolutely pitch black: she was in a wet, gray murk, with these twisting, shimmering bodies tearing through. The atmosphere was heavy with salt. Then Keya realized what the salty taste was: it was the taste of blood.
The Khans sat on the verandah, refusing to come inside, to take tea even. The Mission, they explained, is accepting every Hindu. The purpose, they stated, is to convert them to Christianity. Given the circumstances, it is too much of an affront, they declared, for you to become a Muslim. As a Christian, they said, you will be welcome in Pakistan. If you remain a Hindu, history will repeat itself, in more horrifying, bloodier ways than you could ever imagine. They spoke with the confidence of prophecy, with the impudence of the majority. If you take a Bible in your hands, they described, you will be left alone: your daughter will be saved. Shobha told them she would wait for her husband to arrive. He had, after all this time, sent a message. She unwrapped her aanchal and poured jewels and gold, that glistened immodestly, from the end of her sari into their laps.
“My dowry,” she said. “Take it to look after Keya should anything happen to me.”
Her eyes turned to them. The shafts of undiluted aching caused them to lower their own eyes, to turn away. And when they were finally able to meet her gaze, their faces were masked in darkness.
As Shobha waited for her husband to arrive in the Indian Armed Forces vehicle the next morning, she sensed that something was not right. There was no flicker of movement, not one sound that indicated life as she stood in the courtyard outside her house with her daughter, a carload of possessions, and the two jerry cans of petrol by her side. She didn’t know what else she could do but wait. She had obeyed her husband’s instructions to the last detail. The house was empty and locked. The servants long gone. She was packed and ready for him to come fetch her.
It was too late when Shobha heard them.
A raging beast unfurled in the dry dust of summer. Her skin tightened in fear as she heard a bloodcurdling cry, “Pakistan!”
“Zindabad!” The beast howled in reply.
As they entered the gates, she could feel the ground tremble beneath her. The house shook behind her. The Peepul tree in the courtyard was bent backwards and ripped out by its roots as the terrible beast raged forward.
Shobha looked at her daughter’s perplexed expression. As she stared into the child’s large innocent eyes, eyes that implored her for an explanation, Shobha knew that she had to believe.
“Keya, do as I say,” she said urgently, cupping her daughter’s face in her own hands. “Run next door to the Khans. They are our neighbors, they will look after you.”
She hugged her daughter, feeling the small body against her for the last time, “Go now, my child. And promise me: don’t look back.”
Keya turned and ran, wondering why her mother had decided to take a bath in the open like that, pouring liquid on herself from the jerry can. She ran and ran, behind the house, down through the garden and over the wall. The sharp stones cut into her soft skin as she fell, but she felt no pain. Keya could sense nothing as she continued to run. Nothing, except for the smell of her mother’s burning flesh as she ran to meet her tryst with destiny.