Reality of Partition: An encounter

Part novel, part memoir, part feminist anthem, Sobti’s work is not a mere tale of loss and dislocation

Reality of Partition: An encounter

Krishna Sobti

Strike up the band, heave-ho!
Oh, my brother, heave-ho!
We’ve earned our keep, heave-ho!
We’ve shed our blood, heave-ho
We’ve gone to the gallows, heave-ho
We’ve been martyred, heave-ho
Strike up the band, heave-ho!
We’ll rule now, heave-ho
Wear the crown, heave-ho
Get our government, heave-ho
Strike up the band, heave-ho

The words of the patriotic song sent a shiver down her spine as they echoed through the dreary afternoon. Perhaps the singers were dragging the round electric transformer down the street. She was the middle daughter, just arrived from her hostel in Lahore. She placed the scissors she’d been using to cut out pictures of leaders from the newspaper on a cushion and lifted the curtain to peer out the window. Suddenly the clip-clop of horses’ hooves mingled with the deep receding cries of ‘heaveho’ and came to a stop in front of Qureishi Uncle’s home next door. She peered across the lawn. So they were leaving too. The luggage was being loaded on to the tonga. The Public Works Department chowkidar stood at the ready to fix a lock on the door. It must be leaving today—the Pakistan Special to Lahore. Qureishi Aunty placed a foot on the running board of the tonga and turned once to look back at her home and wipe her eyes. She went outside and touched Aunty’s hand and began to cry—just as she’d done back when she’d left her hostel and walked out to the front gate.

She’d turned and looked back at her room once more through brimming eyes, then run and stood by the door. She’d muttered to herself, ‘Flowing breezes, remember: I once lived here.’ When she’d returned to the gate, she felt as though the room was already gone—far, far away, forever.

Now, Qureishi Uncle patted her on the head and said, ‘Go, daughter, go, this is no time to stand outside.’
‘Uncle, goodbye.’
‘Goodbye. May you live long.’

She watched the tonga as it disappeared around the bend. Then she returned to the house. The last Pakistan Special was leaving today, so Rahat Hyder would also be going to the station. Instead of returning home, she turned suddenly towards Curzon Road. She lives on Barakhamba Lane, she thought. I’ll get there before she leaves. She walked quickly along the sidewalk of Keeling Road. The bird cries in the dense trees depressed her. From the intersection, she turned towards Barakhamba Lane.

Her ears were alert. Was that the jangling of tongas?

No. The row of bungalows was silent. She stepped on to the veranda of the last bungalow: here hung that same PWD lock. She stared at it silently for a long time. Then she returned to the street. A man with a long face came and stood before her.

‘Miss Sahib, those people left last night for the camp in Purana Qila. Today their special train will leave. Rahat Apa left a note for you in the letter box. I took it and carefully placed it there myself—here you go.’

Her eyes smarted as she read the note:

We’ve left. Definitely do not try to come to Purana Qila. Goodbye. —Rahat Hyder Tahir

She thanked the bearer and said farewell in her heart, erasing the proximity of Barakhamba Lane forever from her mind. The streets were deserted as before. Urging her legs forward with the encouraging thought that she was still alive, she left Keeling Road and turned towards Hailey Road.

Were her ears ringing, or were there voices calling out from nearby? Har har Mahadev! The bloodthirsty voices of Lahore seemed present here as well. She was walking home quickly when the anxious pond behind Hailey Road warned in a quavering voice, This is no time for taking a walk. Someone might kill you. Understand, little girl.

Mondays are very dangerous in Delhi. It was on a Monday that the city of Delhi slipped from the hands of the Mughals. It was on a Monday that the British seized the city too; you do notice what things are like today, don’t you? Go home—this is no afternoon for a stroll!

On Curzon Road a handful of cars diminished the silence—one drove by, and then another. The door of the house probably won’t be open, she thought. It won’t work to turn the knob quietly either. If I call out softly, maybe Jagdish Bhai will open it. If that didn’t work, a crowd of relatives would fall upon her. Someone or other would surely say to her: Oh dear! Where on earth had you gone off to at a time like this? These friends of yours be damned!

She glanced surreptitiously towards Qureishi Uncle’s door. That door was now closed to them forever. The Partition and Independence of the country, all in one. The moment she set foot on the veranda she quickened her pace, as though she were about to confront an attack. She didn’t have to knock on the door. It was ajar. Outside lay a pair of worn Peshawari slippers. So someone else’s relative had come fleeing and wounded from their homeland. Who knew what the calculation had been—one comes from here and one goes over there—murder, mayhem, madness on the way— some set off from here and went there, some turned their backs on everything over there and made it over here, and some were lost along the way . . .

The acid tones of her uncle from Marjai Chak swept over her: ‘Whom were you saying goodbye to just now? Really, we are suffocating here, and there you go still trusting the government. I say, burn it to ash! Burn down the government of the whites and its cowardly leaders that first instigated the Muslims and then tore apart our homeland.’

Before she chose to respond or not, Uncle closed his eyes and burrowed back inside himself. Defeated, all of them, with their bundles, their discoloured old trunks, their filthy dupattas, their faces—blazing with impotent rage—paralysed by a murderous hatred now cooled. One is stuck with the face of a lost young son, another with the branded tin bangles of a daughter: Oh lord, have mercy—her arms!

Some recall elderly parents left behind. Homes turned to loony bins, all thanks to politics. The whole city full of beings ejected from their homes. Full of human rags. By stations, platforms, train tracks; down galis and lanes; in chowks and bazaars and ruins; massacres scattered everywhere—willy-nilly. As though Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s challenge had come true for Punjab, Bengal and Sindh: Let’s go to Delhi—we’ll die, we’ll be slaughtered, but let’s go anyway!

Delhi—India’s capital, Delhi, New Delhi, Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi, Chirag Delhi—not one, but many Delhis. It would be the first Diwali for free Pakistan. The flag would fly high. Allahu Akbar would be shouted. Voices would cry—Long live Pakistan, long live Muhammad Ali Jinnah! They fought, they won; we feared, we lost. Bapu Gandhi, you turned our homes, our land, our water all foreign. What sort of politics is this?

Sikander Lal’s dirty turban began to slip from his dozing head. Bitterly, he said, ‘Brother, this dark chapter of history has conquered politics: Jinnah raced Islamic horses, and Gandhi and Nehru raced Porus’s elephants. Jinnah created a nation by racing intellectual horses. And they took this group of elephantsand broke the branches off the beloved trees and threw them down. The same old history.’

Baldev Raj Nanda, voracious reader of Urdu newspapers, remarked, as one might explain to the elderly, ‘Now what’s the point of such questioning? What had to happen happened. The question is, what will our government give us tomorrow, after Independence?

(This extract from A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti, translated by Daisy Rockwell has been taken with permission from Penguin Random House)

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