The aroma laden zephyr that ballets on the amber faced mustard flowers, carries whispers. The little muttering of love, solace and longing. These gusts are undeterred by ragged mountain tops; thereby echoing their message louder. However, only a few are fortunate enough to heed to their essence. Those few cherish these messages of love encased in their soul for a lifetime. These drafts bring cold shudders and also, heart-warming memories. They also echo with cries.
‘’Oye Beeji! Na beeji…’
Sukhwinder couldn’t control his grief. The dusk had set in, not only upon Mother Earth but upon their family as well. The lump in his throat refused to resolve. Beeji’s presence in his life was eternal. She was the string that bound them all. He would never be addressed as ‘Sukhi’ anymore. He had lost his identity. He had lost his mother.
‘Sukhwinderji, gather yourself. You are a true Sikh, even in extreme personal grief our Babaji guides us to practice self-control. He says the body is just a shell and life a journey,’ comforted Amanpreet, his wife, ‘Beeji shall live within us by the morals and the love she has inculcated in our family.’
Sukhwinder was reduced to tears and found solace in the embrace of his wife. Passing away of a mother is a pain that jabs your heart. It makes you feel exposed to the evils of the world. This agony is irrespective of age and gender; a torment that leaves your soul sore.
Indeed, his mother an extremely devout believer of the God almighty had immersed them in His beliefs. Sardar Sukhvinder wiped his greying brows and stroked his salt-pepper beard to ease away the anguish. He was now, the head of the family and soon his brood would arrive. He resolved to give his mother a farewell befitting her stature; as the most respected senior of their village, Fazalka.
The calls alerted the elderly couple, and they readied themselves to receive the grieving family. Cries rent the air; the family had lost their matriarch; the woman who was an epitome to all of them. The extended family filtered in and out of the house throughout the night. Sukhwinder sat with his mother’s mortal remains, reliving each childhood memory of his parents’ love.
His father’s honey-coated tender voice addressed his mother as ‘Noor’ and not ‘Jasnoor,’ her actual name.
He reminisced his youth when he wished to attain the similar love that his parents had shared. He had a fortunate life. Blessed with the best. He had no reason to complain, but letting go of a mother is never easy.
The new sun rose with warm winds gushing from the west. The westerlies always worried him; for him, they signified -changes. He shook away the thoughts clamouring his mind. A lot of work had to be done. All preparations for the final rites were arranged by his children and their spouses. Grandchildren littered the courtyard with their play. This is the way Beeji wanted her home to be. Walls reverberating with the sound of morning ardaas and children’s laughter echoing around. Sardar Sukhwinder Singh promised his mother to protect his family like she had done when he had lost his father prematurely. He squared his shoulders and walked out to prepare for his mother’s last journey, proud of his legacy.
‘Balvinder, is the crematorium booked? I don’t want Beeji to wait.’
‘Of course Bauji. Everything is ready. We shall move in a couple of hours.’
‘No! Beeji had specifically asked me to tell you all to wait for Mama Ji to arrive before we conduct the last rites. This was her last wish, and I have promised to abide by it’ Interjected Amanpreet.
‘Then so shall it be.’ declared Sukhwinder. The last journey, thus, awaited another member before commiserating.
As the sun rose higher, so did the multitude of humanity from far and wide. People from nearby villages flocked in to pay their last respects. The Sevaks from the gurudwaras in the vicinity too thronged to pay their last homage. The popularity of Beeji and her deeds had heaped honour onto her family.
However, time was of the essence and just when Sukhwinder started feeling uneasy his maternal uncle Sardar Harpal Singh arrived.
‘Sukhi!’ Sardar Harpal Singh cried as he embraced his nephew. They drowned the grief of their loss in each other’s embrace. Shared pain forges everlasting relationships.
‘Mamaji! Beeji, passed away in sleep. In death too, she didn’t bother anyone, not even her son. But she had told Amanpreet long back that her last rites should be performed only in your presence. Now that you are here, we should start the proceedings.’
‘Sukhi, wait!’ Said Sardar Harpal, looking for something in his hold-all.
‘Noor, my elder sister had sworn me to keep this box safely in my custody. She handed it over to me when she got married to your father. Noor made me promise that I shall never open it and check its contents, but to hand it over to her family only at the time of her death.’ Said the elderly gentleman.
Silence prevailed, disturbed by an occasional chirping of birds. ‘This silver box had been Noor’s constant companion since I remember. She treasured it close to her heart. She never allowed me to touch it, but when she got married, she entrusted me with it. My sister was an epitome of virtue, and thus I have cherished her trust unfailingly and now according to her last wish, I give it to you. Open it and discover your mother, maybe she wanted to tell you all something. Maybe it’s her will.’
Sukhwinder along with his siblings and their families sat down in the courtyard. The silver box with intricate carvings became an enigma. The westerlies were now blowing harsher. With bated breath, Sukhwinder unlatched the silver lock to reveal its golden contents. Years of neglect in the form of dust greeted them. As Sukhwinder coughed the dust away, his eyes fell upon an old worn-out, black and white photograph of a family. Sukhwinder adjusted the spectacles on his nose for a better view, ‘Is that Beeji?’ He asked his uncle.
Sardar Harpal carefully took the parchment-like photograph of a family and gasped, ‘Yes, this is her, but I don’t recognise others.’
‘Neither do I.’
A silver anklet, a rag doll, doll’s lehengas, a talisman and a letter. The little silver box seems to hold Beeji’s childhood memories. Sukhwinder gently caressed each one of them. His eyes misted at his loss, and Amanpreet’s tears flowed seeing her husband’s state.
‘Mamaji, should I read the letter. It’s not addressed to me, but it seems it’s for me.’
‘Yes, my son. Please do.’
Sukhwinder handled the yellowed paper with care. However, that paper seemed a little newer as compared to the other contents.
‘Sukhwinder cleared his throat and read aloud amidst pin-drop silence.
‘Sasriakaal! Babaji di Mehar ho!
The one who reads this letter, let it be known that I don’t know you still but would have loved you more than myself in my forthcoming life and that’s the reason you hold my life in your hands today. If it’s you, my dear husband, then remember that what you are about to know does not change my feelings for you and hope it doesn’t alter yours. And, if it’s my children, remember I would have loved to tell you about my life but couldn’t conjure courage enough, to do so. Parents usually bequeath their kids with inheritance in their last will, but I am an unfortunate woman who desires for her last will to be fulfilled by the bearer of this letter. Hope you all forgive me and grant me my last wish.’ Sukhwinder looked up, perplexed to the core.
He continued reading, ‘My last wish is to be buried along with my silver box that contains my childhood memories, which I couldn’t reveal ever. Now in my deathbed, I want to lay down with them in peace.’
Cacophonous rumblings reigned. Murmurs, rebuke and resentment spewed. The extended family had finally got some fodder to chew upon.
‘Mamaji! What rubbish is this? What sort of joke is this?’
Sardar Harpal was in deep thoughts. Musings of the past confused him too.
‘Sukhi. Don’t lose your cool. Read further, Noor hasn’t raised you to be the one to jump to conclusions. She was proud of her upbringing. So, hold your horses and read further.’
Sukhwinder proceeded as decreed.
‘Yes, I know my last wish shall create quite an uproar but if I have raised my children right, they shall read my story and then take a sane call. Harpal my brother is just a custodian of my secret box, not of my secret.
Harpal, my naughty little brother, always remember you are the apple of my eye and I shall always remain indebted to your parents. Yes, your parents raised me like their own. They showered me your share of love and cherished me like their daughter. I am always going to be your Noor didi, but just want to tell you that my name was not Jasnoor, but-Husnoor!’
Sardar Sukhwinder felt the warmth of the sun threading its way through the winds, piercing his skin. The bellowing winds had silenced as if wanting to hear the contents of the letter as well.
He continued, ‘That fateful night of 15th August 1945, changed my destiny forever. That night I lost my Abba-Ammi, my little brother and my identity. We had packed our lives in suitcases and little holdalls, aiming to aboard the last train to Pakistan that everyone called our new abode. All of ten years, I had matured beyond my age. I presume all kids who saw the death of loved ones at such close quarters committed by our acquaintances, do age faster. Abba loved his Hindustan and refused to budge to ammi’s pleadings, to relocate. He vowed to die here but finally relented to ammi’s wishes for our survival. Muslims were not allowed to stay on this side of the border, Pakistan was their new abode. Why? Who gave these people the right to fabricate our destiny? We were born in the land of Amritsar, who were they to declare us outsiders? Alas, none heeded to our cries.
We gathered our humble belongings and Abba seated us in the zanana compartment, ‘Najma keep an eye on Husnoor, don’t ever let go of her hand. I shall be in mardana bogie with Ashraf.’
‘Shafeeq, ehtiyaat se!’ Murmured my mother Najma.
Abba got off the zanana bogie and boarded the next bogie with Ashraf. Just then my eyes fell on my silver doll box that I had left on the platform amidst the confusion. My little Rukaiya would be left in India alone. I couldn’t do that to her, and thus I lunged out of the train pleading to my mother to let me go for a second and retrieve my box. Ammi ran behind me to the door but froze in her tracks. The torch-bearing mob advanced towards the train, lighting it with fire and killing everyone in sight. She saw the burning bogies on both sides.
Just as the train hooted, a mob of Sikhs attacked the last train to Pakistan. Ammi unclasped her grip on my arm and let me alight the train, she sensed the inevitable.
‘Run Husnoor. Run!’
Her last words still echo in my soul. I picked up my silver box and turned, only to discover that the entire train was on fire. I shouted, but suddenly, someone covered my mouth and heaped me off the floor towards the station officer’s room. I had neither the energy nor the will to fight. We gazed at the burning train with scalding passengers as it left for Pakistan. The smell of burning flesh, the tormenting cries and those hounding footsteps have given me many sleepless nights. I still don’t remember for how long we hid there under the table, as I had lost consciousness in the arms of my saviour.
I woke up to find myself in a Sikh household, being tended to, by the most loving, endearing eyes ever. Yes, Harpal, our Beeji! Your parents saved my life from that tragedy, but my hatred took time to ebb. The mistrust between the two communities had breached their bond forever. Harpal, you and your family’s love slowly sapped my disbelief and I became theirs.’
Harpal’ muffled sobs halted the reading, ‘Continue Sukhwinder.’
‘Bauji, was the station master, he tried to find out about my parents, but he couldn’t access any information. Soon the commissions started inquiring about the whereabouts of missing people or orphans left behind. Bauji and Beeji didn’t send me to an orphanage but raised me as their daughter, Jasnoor.
Bauji made me swear to never reveal the secret to anyone until the danger was over. Alas, it never did. All through my life, Hindu -Muslim riots kept happening, and I stifled my identity within. Now, when I am dead, I have no fear.
Don’t for a moment think that I am not respecting your beliefs. I am a SIKHNI, raised by Sikhs, but born to Muslims. Thus, hope you grant me my right to last rites in accordance with my birth. Please fulfil my will. I have burned enough in longing, memories and despair. Let me rest in the cold confines of my motherland. I am scared of the fire.
Harpal, do put this box in my casket, at the least, I shall be with my parents in death.
Sukhwinder took refuge in silence. Slow, hushed whispers conveyed to him the discontent laced with sarcastic remarks. His Beeji was being laughed upon!
‘Sukhi! It is your decision, son. I have had only one sister who loved me more than herself. I don’t care whether she was Jasnoor or Husnoor, for me, she was my Noor!’ Sardar Harpal broke down, but, my child, please honour your mother’s and your grandparent’s wishes.’
Sukhwinder’s eyes met Amanpreet’s. They conveyed the message with silence. Both retreated towards their room. The rest of the family waited with bated breath.
‘Sardar Ji! I have always tried to fulfil your wishes, but today it’s your turn to become the man, I shall be proud of till my dying day.’
‘Preeto! How will I do this?’
‘Sardar Ji, a mother, has no religion. She only nurtures, and so she did. She raised you a true Sikh by sacrificing her beliefs. Furthermore, she left her identity when she got married to your father, and you are hesitating to grant her peace, even in death?’
Sukhwinder smiled for the first time that day. He realised as to why Beeji had insisted on him marrying Amanpreet. Only a woman of substance recognises the other.
‘No, Sardar Ji. Not today, I shall stand in your way. Beeji was my mother-in-law, but she was more than a mother to me. Today, I shall not let you succumb to societal pressures. You are a Sikh; a lion; become one. Grant your mother her will to be buried. And, why are you smiling at such a moment?’ Grumbled Amanpreet.
‘Preeto, I wanted to say, how will I do the Muslim rituals, I have no clue how the ceremony is performed? How could you for a moment doubt my love for my mother, Husnoor Khan? I am a proud son of a survivor mother.’
Amanpreet body crackled with sobs, her tensed body eased. Sukhwinder’s embrace strengthened their bond of eternal companionship. The excited clamour outside suggested that the rest of the family had been witness to each word exchanged inside.
‘Bauji. Don’t worry, I shall call Khan Chacha at once.’ Balwinder their eldest, hollered from outside.
‘No wait, my son. I shall call him myself. It’s for my mother.’ Sukhwinder glanced over Amanpreet, squared his shoulders and walked towards the Masjid. The westerlies had suddenly calmed down. He could hear the feeble whispers it carried from the land across the border. They had come to soothe Beeji’s soul. He would never fear these gusts of winds now.
The mutterings of the gathering were silenced by the look of pride on Amanpreet’s face, as she bent down to kiss Beeji. How she wished to be like her!
Her eyes glistened with tears of gratitude and love. It was all Beeji’s upbringing that seeped into each corner of their home. A home that shall always belong to Sardarni Husnoor Khan Singh.
This is a purely fictional piece based on the plight of people who suffered the partition and its calamity. The author has no intention of hurting the sentiments of any community.
Beeji: mother in Punjabi
Sikh: a religious community
Babaji: religious guru
Mamaji: mother’s brother
Chacha: a term used for uncle
Abba-Ammi: father and mother in Urdu
Rab Rakha; in God’s care
Sasriakaal: greeting of the day
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