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“All that we shared were stories of tragedy – of lost children, of missing husbands and brothers, of sexual abuse endured. I felt I was the luckier one among them.”
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Gitanjali Maria is one of the winners for the April 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web.
I looked closely at the wrinkles on her face and wondered how many stories and experiences it held. As she continued speaking her voice was croaky and unsteady.
“And she said, oh yes, I knew, I always know when he’s here, and what-all you’re up to, but you must understand that you’re older now. Just like childhood ended, and school ended, and college ended, your childish ‘best-friendship’ with that boy also has to come to an end.”
“But I knew it was not because she hated Abhijit that she was saying this. The times were so.” She paused.
I could see the scenes she had once lived through flash before her eyes.
“There were rumours everywhere. Many of which were true. And my family wouldn’t be safe in Lahore if it associated itself with their Hindu neighbour. So, my mother wanted me to sever all ties and relationship with him and his family.”
“Maybe she had other reasons too”, Nani (grandmother) chuckles.
I don’t ask her what the other reasons might be. I can guess them. Moreover, I’m here to hear details of those times and of people like her who lived during those times.
“What did you do then, Nani. Did you stop seeing him”, I ask gently, prodding the exhausted ninety-three-year-old lady to continue talking.
“No, we did continue meeting. But not at the house. We met outside at the library. At our college where we had studied just a year ago. In the fields and at friends’ homes.’
“But everywhere in the air, you could sense the tension. People talked about the same things. What would happen in a few days when the subcontinent is divided. Some vouched things would remain the same, maybe just a few days of trouble.” She paused as if wishing that it had happened that way.
“But most anticipated bigger trouble and were making plans to reach that side of the Radcliff line that was safer for them.”
I passed Nani a glass of water. She had started sweating. She took a few sips and with her trembling hands kept it back on the table.
“Nani, do you want to take some rest”, I asked, concerned.
She waved her hand in impatience to indicate a ‘no’. “You have a book to write and it can’t be delayed.” And she continued in her hoarse, low tone.
“On the night of August 13th, he came to see me. And he said tomorrow is our Independence Day. But I cannot be here. The new desh (country) will not accept me. Everyone else has gone ahead. I came to see you.”
“His voice stuttered as he spoke. And I could make out the fear, pain, and sadness in it.”
“And after a long pause, he asked, ‘Will you marry somebody else?’”
“I could no longer control myself and I flung myself onto him. And we kissed, tears flowing down our cheeks.”
“Say ‘No’ Afrah and I’ll not go, he said. But I knew he was putting himself in danger for me. And I said ‘go’, if Allah wills, we’ll be together again.”
“And he left. For days I cried. I fasted and prayed. I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. Everywhere around there was only news of riots and bloodshed. Women held hostage and children butchered.”
“I was pretty safe from all these till I decided one day that if Allah has to will our reunion, I’d to do something about it.”
“I left home one day on the pretext of going to a friend’s house but instead took a train that was headed toward the east. We were stopped several times.”
“Each time we stopped I thought it would be the end. But fortunately, I made the journey across the border alive.”
“On the other side of the line, I realized the vulnerable spot I was in. As I woman and a woman of the other faith I was doubly vulnerable. Violating women from the other camp is considered a macho act especially in chaotic times like these. The safe cocoon that I’d back in Lahore was no longer there and I was all alone.”
“I walked endlessly throughout the day, dodging armed mobs by hiding in drains and under heaps of dead bodies. Occasionally somebody would help. I’d left behind my burqa at the border and looked a lot like women in these areas. Still, it was a dangerous journey.”
“It was only when I reached the refugee camps in Delhi did it dawn upon me how foolish I was to set out without any knowledge of where Abhijit could be. Looking at the teeming crowds in the refugee camps spread across the city, I felt I never stood a chance at finding him. My hope drained. I even contemplated jumping into the Yamuna.”
Nani slumped back to rest her head on the headrest of the polished teakwood armchair she was sitting on. Trauma haunts survivors even decades later, and I could see that from her sad expression.
“There were days when there wasn’t food to eat and water to drink. I’d lost the only other pair of the dress I’d carried during the journey. I stayed with a group of women in one of the tents near Purana Qila. We never asked each other whether we were Hindu or Muslim or Sikh. All that we shared were stories of tragedy – of lost children, of missing husbands and brothers, of sexual abuse endured. I felt I was the luckier one among them.”
“As months passed, we started venturing out from the camps a bit. Not very far initially. This way we were able to find odd jobs to make some money. I worked cleaning plates for an open kitchen nearby for some time. And then as a housemaid. I used different names and different stories at different places, unsure which one would help me survive.”
“All the while, I kept looking for Abhijit. He’d only mentioned that his family was crossing the border. Were they at Amritsar or had they gone ahead to Bombay? I didn’t know then.”
“At one point I was so dejected I applied with the authorities to be taken back to Lahore. I wasn’t sure whether my family would accept me again but that was where home was.” She sighed.
I wanted to ask her whether she missed her family. Did she ever get to see them any time after? Before I could frame the right questions to ask, she continued.
“Then one day came that sad and shocking news. Gandhiji was shot dead. There was grief and mourning everywhere. He had stood as a symbol of peace and unity and I wondered what would happen now. The shock of that act seemed to have numbed the nation.”
“The next day a lot of us went to see the procession carrying his body for cremation.”
“The light had indeed gone out.”
“But while there, I saw a familiar face in the crowds. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. For a brief moment our eyes locked. And we smiled. A smile of relief, of happiness, of love. I’d finally found your Nanu”, she giggled at the memory.
“In between all the grief that surrounded us, we managed to spin a blanket of happiness. And that’s what you see here”, she said pointing around the house they’d build, the lives they’d raised, and the love they’d preserved.
I smiled. Some sad stories can have a happy ending. I stopped the recorder and closed the book in which I was taking notes.
“Nani, you should rest now. We’ll talk again in some time.”
“Is this enough for your book? When will your book come out?”
She was the one now eagerly asking the questions. “Soon”, I said.
“Baba, make sure your book speaks of the love between people rather than all the evils they’ve done. We need more stories of love and kindness and trust to overcome the hatred and evils that human minds so often rear.”
I nodded. That’s what I wanted to do.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Anuja Chauhan, who has worked in advertising for over seventeen years and is credited with many popular campaigns. She is the author of five bestselling novels (The Zoya Factor, Battle for Bittora, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, The House that BJ Built and Baaz) all of which have been acquired by major Bombay studios.
The cue is from her latest book Club You to Death.
Image source: a still from the film Pinjar
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