A true story arising from the Partition
Many decades later, the third son, now a grown man with grey sprinkling his beard, stood on the land, the sun shimmering on him, feeling the grains of soil beneath his feet. Eyes slowly taking in the fields around him. As he turned a little, the village came into view in the far distance; he knew, without having to see it, there would be a large house, a compound really, for a prosperous and bustling household. He moved his eyes away, not wanting his emotions to overspill. They had barely stood here two minutes.
Many decades ago, when the world was a different shape, his life had begun in this place, his first cry had gone into this air, he had breathed in its dust.
He walked a few steps forward. The ground beneath his boots, feeling unnaturally vivid, the crunch of dry soil strangely loud. He took off his dark glasses, and quickly shut his eyes as the hot light blazed into them. Unknowingly, a wry smile touched the corners of his lips. He and his brothers had run around here without any fancy eyewear to protect their vision. Often with other children from the village; a tumbling herd of them, moving one way, then another, driven by the urgency of a game or some half-made plan.
Unthinkingly his feet moved forward, towards a line becoming clearer with each step. The tall trunks coming nearer, the heavy branches loaded with leaves that flickered and flicked in the sunlight. He didn’t remember the line being so straight, or the rows being so long; providing shade, a rustling accompaniment, a landmark to assure tired travellers their journey’s end was near. For those were the trees planted by Bir Singh Randhawa, his father.
It was too early to allow his emotions to escape. The visit had barely begun: unlooked for and bizarrely accidental.
He halted, the courtesies of a guest stopping him from going further, in these first few minutes of arrival. But his eyes went beyond the trees, to where there would be a river, and beyond the river, field upon field upon field, where cotton used to grow. The fluffy white balls plucked from the prickly plants by women who’d fill baskets balanced on their heads. Every twelfth basket belonged to the picker. At the end of the day, it was his mother, who did the reckoning and counting with the women. Remembered how she’d always throw an extra handful into each twelfth basket.
A gust of wind threw up a cloud of dust – unconsciously he flung out a hand to grab its shadowy substance.
Memories hoarded over long years, began awakening, seeping out, threatening to unlock an old and terrible pain. As a distraction he turned to look in another direction and words came out, but they were wrong, and right. Not meaning to make his host feel guilty, but wanting the land to recognise him, welcome him back, embrace him as part of itself. He said, ‘Once, this was the dust… once these marabe* were ours…’
The man standing beside him, in his police officer’s uniform, whose loved ones, cherished ones, had also been marked by the butchery of history, said quietly ‘They will always be yours.’ An attempt to soften sorrow.
The third son doesn’t know, that his eldest brother, now in his late eighties and living in the cold land of England, regularly comes here in his dreams: walks through the fields with his beloved dog, Sherjang; returns from town and dismounting from his horse, gives his young sister the book she’s requested; sits with his father-sahib and his father’s two friends, who always arrive in time for afternoon tea; fetches the priest from the Gurudwara to say evening prayers when his father-sahib is away; gallops through the countryside, Sherjang, racing at his side…
The third son is a man with a sunny temperament and engaging manner, who delights in his four daughters rather than feeling it a burden; who looks at life with positivity and expectation. But as the jeep turns towards their old house, he can’t stop the tightening of his heart. The house was called a hatha. He wonder’s if the word hacienda comes from it. Living in California, many Mexican words are now as familiar to him as Punjabi.
The fatefulness of Independence and Partition was coming nearer. The unknown was knocking on their door. His eldest brother had said to his father, ‘there’s talk in the town of murders and violence, they’re saying all the Sikhs will be killed or driven out.’ His father had replied, ‘it’s all noise and hot-air. Things will settle down. What are landowners supposed to do? Carry the land on their backs?’ Yet, a few turbulent weeks later, his father called his household together, and said ‘We’re the richest house here. If they come looting and robbing, they’ll come here first. If it happens, run for your lives. Leave everything, abandon everything, save yourselves.’
Beyond their settled, orderly lives, events boiled, fractured and exploded. In the market, a Muslim friend of his father’s advised, ‘they’re going to impose a curfew. Get your family out.’ In the house, desperate decisions. His eldest brother said to his father, ‘I’m younger and stronger than you, I’ll stay and see how things go. You take everyone away, and come back when it’s all quietened down.’ Even then, no-one really believed the catastrophe about to hit them, an Armageddon of brutality, inhumanity, cruelty, vengefulness and evil.
The earth itself must have recoiled and cried. Blood on every doorstep, streets full of bodies. More blood than water, more screams than air; violations of the youngest girls, the oldest women. Every side donned the devil’s mask and every side denied the darkness of their deeds.
They’d been the lucky ones. The third son reminded himself of that: a stroke of fortune never to be underestimated, taken lightly, or forgotten. All the women of the family: the young girls and the older ones had been saved from the atrocities inflicted upon so many. An enduring thankfulness, lighting their days. His father’s quick decisiveness, his elder brother’s courage. Within the hour, he and his two brothers, his young sister, his father and mother, had left the house they loved. Never to return.
Thus, four decades later, his feet were the first from his family, to cross that threshold.
He was overwhelmed by his welcome from these strangers. Flowers, embraces, emotional words – bridging the calamity of history – for both sides. The walls surrounding the courtyard of his childhood home, seemed to shiver, crumble, and re-form, as if absorbing him, re-aligning themselves to this new twist in the story. He wiped away the tears on his cheeks. Clearing his vision.
When he had left his Californian home, a few weeks ago, he could never have imagined where this journey would take him. Although decades on from the Partition, there were still some legalities which needed to be tied up, so after visiting India, he had come to Pakistan.
He had checked into a hotel, washed and immediately gone to sleep, exhausted after long hot journeys, combining buses, trains and taxis. He was a man who enjoyed the exhilaration of travelling, the impromptu conversations with strangers, the grandness which new sights and vistas injected into life. The following day, he had gathered together the papers which needed to be signed by the Chief of Police, and set off to walk to the central police station, often getting lost and having to ask his way. He didn’t mind. He had deliberately decided not to take a taxi, wanting to enjoy the heat and clamour of the streets, to rub shoulders with the people, enjoy the smells of food from the ramshackle looking cafes, be part of the hustle and bustle. His western clothes, affluent appearance and turban attracted much attention, some of it good natured and curious, some of it cold and hostile.
Finally arriving at the police station, he explained what was needed, gave the papers to a clerk, and sat down to wait for the man to return with the signed documents, becoming absorbed in watching the ebb and flow of officers and public, catching low conversations and vociferous arguments, while absent-mindedly brushing away flies. The clerk had to speak twice, before attracting his attention, apparently Sir wished to see him. Sighing a little, knowing he had carefully checked the papers, and everything was in order, he picked up his jacket and followed the clerk, through high wooden doors which could’ve done with a lick of paint, along a corridor, past a room where a man in handcuffs was being loudly questioned, and around the corner.
Stepping into the office of the Chief of Police, an imposing man in his late fifties, his confidence had wavered a little, as the officer had looked up and examined him; a forensic look, taking in the details of his appearance and demeanour, probing his character and nature. He had steadied himself and taken the chair the clerk had pulled forward, telling himself such instinctive examination must be second nature to this man, whose work relied on scrutinising and investigating people, endeavouring to determine what he was dealing with.
Strangely, for such a simple matter as he had come for, he was surprised to find the officer starting at the beginning, asking him for his personal details, examining his passport, delving into family history, recording the names of his brothers and sister, going as far back as pre-Partition, noting details of where they had lived, what had happened to them afterwards, and their dispersal to other continents. Lastly the officer had asked him what his father’s name was. As he had replied, ‘My father’s name was Bir Singh Randhawa,’ an awed and wondering expression had crossed the officer’s face, as if this information had touched something deep and mysterious, releasing emotions both sublime and tragic.
The officer had spoken with humility and a strange guilt, ‘Sir, we live in your family house, your lands were allocated to us.’
A flurry of activity had whirled around him. The Chief had insisted on having him as his personal guest, sending a jeep to the hotel to collect his belongings, phoning his brother in the village, who looked after the family affairs there, and making plans for an unexpected journey. Thus, the third son had crossed the threshold of his old home.
He didn’t know that news of his arrival had spread like wildfire through the village, that older eyes had gleamed in recognition and whatever work they were doing had immediately been abandoned. At first in ones and twos, then fours and fives, they came through the gates. Embraces, inchoate words, and tears. Some had been class-mates, some had been friends of the family, some had worked for them. Many faces and names were missing, black gaps puncturing the fabric of this reunion. An outpouring of feelings filled the courtyard like an ocean; made their hearts green again, gave some solace against the past. They had all been through the same fire, they had all lost in one way or another.
Questions, answers, anecdotes, ebbed and flowed, as the lost years were filled in, as the living and dead were accounted for, as the missing were remembered. ‘My eldest brother lost his dog, Sherjang,’ said the third son, ‘you all know he was like a family member to us, Bhaji had raised him from a puppy, feeding him through a baby’s milk bottle. Sherjang loved gurdh,’ he smiled, only faintly aware of the dense silence which had fallen on the group, imagining it was part of the texture of the evening, horror and savagery having already filled their words. ‘Whenever my mother went into the store-room, Sherjang followed her and made straight for his favourite baskets. ‘What’re you doing Sherjang?’ she’d say to him, and he’d turn and show her the lump of gurdh** in his mouth, then run out and enjoy it in the sun. At night Sherjang never went to sleep without doing a full tour of the house, making sure there was no danger, everything was in its place, locked up and safe. Only then he went to sleep, on the foot of Bhaji’s bed.’ He drew a deep breath, ‘You know Bhaji stayed behind, as did the men of some other families. Everyone thought… no-one thought…,’ there was no need to complete the sentence. ‘The day came when they all had to run for their lives. In the chaos and danger, Bhaji and Sherjang lost each other.’ He stopped, not wanting to say how much Sherjang’s loss had meant to them, conscious that others had lost, children, wives, parents; whole families had been wiped out, entire villages massacred. After all, Sherjang had only been a dog.
The silence had thickened and deepened. Till the oldest man there spoke. ‘Sherjang came back.’
‘Thank God,’ the third son exclaimed.
The old man, nearly toothless, his walking stick lying by his side, paused, as if gathering his strength to pick up some invisible fire. ‘It’s no surprise Sherjang got separated from your brother and couldn’t find him again. Thousands of people were on the move, crowds of them. Carrying what they could on their backs and heads, from the young to the old. Some strong, some weak. Parents lost their children, families lost each other… and there was always danger, from every side, every so-called religion. Devils, murdering and killing.’
‘But Sherjang returned. So he was safe. He was a creature, an animal, no-one would’ve murdered him.’ The third son concluded, reassured.
The old man raised his head and looked at him directly, ‘The looters came to your house. And found Sherjang.’
Alone, Sherjang had held them off. Snarling, growling, barking; running from side to side, jumping and threatening. Refusing entry, threatening every foot that moved forward. An unmitigated tornado of menace.
However, he was only one and they were many. At first, they laughed at him; then they threw a few stones at him, thinking to frighten him away. But Sherjang hadn’t even faltered; barking louder, baring his teeth, defending with greater determination, refusing to allow them in.
Finally, they understood the nature of his stand. Snarling in fury, at the audacity of this creature, they rained stones and rocks upon him; screaming and cursing, they ran at him with their sticks and axes, harrying and taunting, hitting and escaping. Sherjang’s body flinched and tore, blood began to stain the ground, but still he blocked their way, still he raced with bared teeth towards any who tried to get past.
Shouting and swearing, more of them ran at him, throwing axes and knives, hitting and wounding. Attack after attack, till they saw him totter and fall, till he could no longer get back up. Then descending upon him like a plague of locusts, as they had also descended upon those of their own species, as they had filled streets with dead bodies, as they had killed and murdered without mercy, so they descended upon him. Pitiless, remorseless, barbarous.
A few days later, the third son left, to travel back to his home on another continent. Some way from the village, he asked the driver to stop, so he could get down and take a last look.
There was no wind, but still, he flung out his hand to catch some dust. Keeping his hand closed, he climbed back into the jeep.
The friendship and affection showered upon him in the last few days, and which he had returned, had filled them all with a deep joy. Despite all the memories revived, friendships renewed, he was leaving with a heavier heart than when he had arrived.
When I began to write about these events, I intended to write a documentary account, but as soon as I started, an overwhelming impulse propelled me to write it in a fictional form.
*Marabe: a unit of 25 acres.
** Gurdh: raw sugar