His son was being honoured today for his contribution in the field of medicine and Sardar Joginder Singh was the chief guest. He was a proud father and recalled how far he had come from the horrors of 1947.

‘Rawalpindi was burning, so was Peshawar, Lahore, Amritsar, Jalandhar, and the entire Punjab. All towns, cities, villages, nothing seemed like what it was. That summer of 1947 had made everything worse.’ Joginder Singh’s thoughts took him back to 1947. ‘Everyone had become a devil, no one knew why they were killing, what they were doing. There was madness everywhere, sheer madness.’ 

For Sardar Joginder Singh time had stopped at 1947, it was a time he wanted to forget desperately, but it kept haunting him. He had now accepted that these memories would follow him to his grave. He had tried to atone for his sins but had not found peace. 

Joginder lived in a village close to Rawalpindi. A beautiful village nestled close to Soan river. The village was blessed with the most fertile land. It was most scenic when the yellow flowers of mustard bloomed and waved in the cool breeze. There were mango groves and sugarcane fields too. Even during the summers if you would sit in the mango grove you would feel cool and comfortable. Farming was the main occupation of the people. All smiling and worked together. Even though each home had their own land to work on they readily helped each other during the sowing and harvesting season. They hardly ever felt the need to hire from outside. They villagers gathered together to work in the farms. In the evening they would gather and share songs and food. It was a big happy family till the British came, making them conscious of their religion. Slowly they were able to sow the seeds of discontent.   

Joginder’s was a family of farmers who were hardworking, happy, and content. They lived in a typical village home found in most parts of Punjab, a central courtyard around which rooms were built. The courtyard acted as the common living area or the baithak and would be the center of family gatherings. The courtyard also trapped air during summers, making sure the indoors were cool.  It also had a choolah where food was cooked, and everyone ate together. The courtyard had one big door which once closed turned the house into a fortress which no one could enter. The boundary walls were high and could not be scaled easily. 

There’s was a joint family, like many others in the village. His father along with his two younger brothers and their families lived together. Joginder had three elder sisters and two younger brothers.  At one point there were good about fifteen children in the house, till the girls began to get married. Their father, fondly referred to as Bauji was a towering personality. He encouraged all his children to study. “Education is important,” he would say, “even if you choose to be farmers. Future is in the hands of the educated.” So, all children were sent to the government school close to the village and the boys who wanted to pursue further education were sent to college, girls had been married off as soon as they finished school. Most of Joginder’s cousins and elder brothers had chosen to pursue farming, but he wanted to study Law and he saw himself as an advocate in the future. Bauji was not exactly very happy at his choice of profession. “So, you have decided to serve these goras, you will be their advocate? “No bauji, I will fight for our freedom and use their law to fight against them.” 

Joginder had the spark in him. He could offer astounding arguments; he could quote the articles and laws verbatim and he was a good orator. Being tall and handsome with a disarming smile also worked in his favour. He planned to move to Lahore after he finished his graduation. Studying in college opened his horizons, he was fascinated by all the new scientific discoveries being made, the revolutionaries and most of all by Mahatma Gandhi whose rally he had attended and heard him speak.

In college he was a favourite of his teachers and his classmates who loved his gentle demeanor. He loved singing and every opportunity he got he would take the stage singing KL Siagal songs having all the girls swooning to the lyrics and to his charm. His classmate Neerja was totally smitten. She belonged to an affluent family of lawyers and was trying hard to get Joginder’s attention. Neerja was a smart girl. Her slight frame would deceive you for she was headstrong and knew exactly how to argue her case.  Even though Joginder was aware of her affection and liked her too, he tried to steer clear given the difference in their social status. 

“Oye, why do you keep avoiding me?” Neerja confronted him directly one day.

“No ji. I am not avoiding you.”  Joginder’s heart was pounding.

“Then let’s go and watch the new movie in the theater.”

“Ok ji.”

Neerja held his hand in theatre as the movie began to play and Joginder couldn’t recall any scene from the movie as he kept looking at her hand promising silently to himself never to let go. 

“Let’s get married,” again it was Neerja who proposed for she knew the shy and gentle Joginder would never muster the courage to ask her.  It wasn’t difficult to get their families approval and they moved to Lahore to pursue their careers. 

Neerja stopped working after their elder son Amrik was born but would always advise and help Joginder with his cases. Soon their second son Guneet was born. Even as a lawyer Joginder was known to be polite and chivalrous. He argued fiercely in the courts but outside he was affable and a thorough gentleman, he hardly ever raised his voice. They were a happy family, but not for long as the news of partition of India began to spread so did an undertone of unrest. 

Neerja’s family decided to move to India, however Joginder’s family did not want to leave. Joginder had been trying to persuade them since he had heard that the partition was inevitable. “Bauji we should leave now before things take an ugly turn. I am sure that India will be divided, and we will have to move. “I don’t believe a word of what you are saying. I knew the courts and those goras will corrupt you. You are speaking in their language. How can a nation be divided on basis of religion? You think the Muslims will throw us out? Oye we have been living on this land forever. My ancestors died here. This is my home. No one can throw me out of my home.” Joginder could not argue with his father anymore. He looked helplessly at Neerja. “Don’t worry we are in this together. Let us go there. Maybe we can convince them if we stay there.” So, Joginder and Neerja left for the village. 

Bauji was not convinced with any of the arguments they gave. “Look, so many of the workers on my farm are Muslim and Hindus. You are saying that each one will have to move to separate places. I don’t believe you,” he scoffed. 

They had been in the village for over two months now news of unrest was spreading fast. Rioting had started in various parts and Bauji was not ready to listen. Not just bauji, his brothers and cousins were also convinced that he was exaggerating the situation, and everything would soon settle down. 

“But Bauji everyone is moving out. Conditions are getting out of hand very fast. All of us will be killed if we stay here. I’ll take care of everyone, and we can always begin farming once things settle down. I can arrange for a bus to take us to the camps. People are being killed every day. Trains full of dead bodies are arriving. There is looting killing burning going on everywhere, even women and children are not being spared.” 

“Tu jaa! I’d rather die here in my home than leave it and go anywhere. Why would the Muslims attack us? We have had good relations with everyone in the village. I am not going anywhere, those who want to go are free to leave. Oh, bibi bring my dinner,” roared bauji.

Neerja and all other women scurried to the courtyard to cook dinner even as Joginder looked at the burning fires not very far from their village. He could not argue with bauji anymore and thought maybe his father was right. Maybe the villages were not as insane as the towns. They ate dinner and the men slept in the courtyard to avoid the summer heat.

It must have been around two at night when the first mashal landed in their courtyard. He could not recall how it all happened, but their courtyard door had been broken and a mob of armed men shouting slogans began slashing everyone without a warning. Joginder saw dead bodies falling rapidly, women screaming, children crying. It was chaos as the only entrance had been blocked and the mob was looting anything they could lay their hands on. 

“Daddyji! Daddyji!” Joginder recognized Amrik’s voice. He turned to see a man slash the throat of his three-year-old son who now lay dead at his feet. Joginder screamed and someone slashed his back with the sword. He screamed in pain. As his eyes darted in the orange hue of the fire, he could see Bauji, Biji, his brothers, children all lying in a pool of their own blood. His eyes were searching wildly for Neerja, and he was screaming at the top of his voice when he tripped and fell. As he was about to get up, he saw Neerja running out of a room being chased by a group of men, who had her dupatta in their hands. She was holding Guneet tight and jump into the well.  He lost his head after this. Picked up the sword that lay in front of him and began slaying and slicing anyone who came in front of him. He went out searching for more people to kill. He entered the home of his Muslim neighbours and saw the family huddled in a corner. He first killed the man then the woman and then their children. There this my revenge! He ran toward the fires that had been lit. That monstrous night had turned even gentle Joginder into a devil.  

He woke up and found himself in a tent set up at a refugee camp. He could not recall what had happened or how he had reached there. His last memory was of the scared family he had killed. His body had several wounds and bruises, and his clothes were stained with blood. He stepped out of the tent. The sun was shining brightly, and he hated it for it. He looked at the camp. It had an eerie silence compared to the madness that was there a few days ago. Everything and everyone was silent. Silent from the suffering each had to endure, silent from the sadness of leaving your home, silent from witnessing the death and torture of their families, silent from the guilt of the crimes they had committed. Joginder began to cry, and his entire body was shaking. He was unable to comprehend the emotions he was feeling, he was sad, yet he was angry.  His sadness stemmed from his loss; his entire family had been wiped out in front of his eyes; his anger was directed at himself. He was angry at his helplessness, angry that he had forgotten the teachings of his guru and turned a monster himself, he was angry at being alive. He vowed to atone for his sins.

He began to do volunteer work at the camp. He would help the wounded, he cleaned the camp, cooked food, distributed water. He began to do paperwork for refugees who could not understand what papers were required of them. He began arranging buses for them to safely reach India. He was among the last ones to leave. Once in Delhi he slowly began rebuilding his life, yet he continued doing his volunteer work. He even began fighting cases for free for people affected by partition. He helped many Muslim families reach Pakistan and helped in their paperwork. Sardar Joginder Singh soon became synonymous with selfless service, yet he did not find peace. He could not sleep at night. He saw the terrified eyes of the innocent children he had killed. He prayed at the gurudwaras, the temples but nothing brought him any peace. His sin was too heavy to be pardoned. 

The resounding sound of claps broke his reverie. His son’s name was being announced and Joginder saw him walking to the stage. He had never felt prouder and was clapping the loudest. His son received the award and was moving toward the mic. 

“Thank you all for gracing this occasion and conferring this award on me. I am very humbled. People are often curious about my name, and I was asked the same question today too. Well, I am Dr. Faiz Singh son of Sardar Joginder Singh and I am proud to say that. I thank my father for everything that I am today otherwise I too would have been one of the many souls lost in 1947. I was twelve years old that summer and had been running and hiding to save my life. I do not remember how many days must have passed since I had eaten anything. I was starving, shivering and scared, and hunger made me steal some roti from a house. The lady asked my name and the moment I said Faiz she lunged at me. ‘How dare you enter my kitchen’ hearing her shout a group of men ran after me. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me and bumped into a sardarji. He held my hand and stood between me and the crowd glaring at them till they retreated. ‘What’s your name?’ I hesitated this time, ‘Faiz Ahmed’ ‘Your family are all dead I presume.’ I couldn’t even cry anymore, just nodded my head. ‘Do you have any other relatives here? I can take you to them.’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to go to Pakistan if you know someone across the border, I can arrange for you to go.’ ‘No,’ I said again. ‘Will you stay with me then as my son. You do not have to change your name or your religion, just accept me as your father.’ 

I changed my name from Ahmed to Singh to show my respect to the man who let me grow up as a practicing Muslim in a Sikh house. Someone who taught me how to love all, forgive all and how to walk the path of God.” 

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3 thoughts on “Atonement

  1. What a beautiful story Deepika. The madness of the partition turning even gentle men into monsters has been so aptly depicted by you.

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