March 1947, Thoha Khalsa, British India
The onset of spring was Rano’s favourite time of the year. The air warmer, the fresh smell of new flowers budding and the advent of the first showers of the season always brought music in her life. It was the time when inadvertently her mouth would start humming the local punjabi folk songs and her feet would begin to sway in absolute abandon. It was also the time of prepping the kitchen for the oncoming summers. Raw mangoes to be cut and pickled for the whole of next year, the harvest of the winter crops bringing in Maize and Wheat, which have to be gleaned, and oiled to preserve them for the whole next year. Every year, with the start of spring, all the ladies in the neighbourhood would congregate in each others’ house to help with these chores and also for singing, dancing and gossipping. During this time Rano’s 12-year-old daughter, Simmi, would absolutely lose herself in this atmosphere, listening to the stories of all these elders, wondering about the future when she will be able to tell similar tales to girls around her.
Simmi was Rano’s favourite of all her three children. Maybe because she was her only girl child, maybe because she was the youngest or just because her constant jabbering about everything and anything would keep the home smiling and laughing all the time.
But this year was different. The air though was warmer, the village felt cold. The music that she associated with spring had turned into a cacophony. The camaraderie of the neighbors had turned into gloom. There were stories doing the rounds; of independence and alongwith it: partition. Division of the country in two religion-based lands. The Hindus and Muslims in her village had always lived harmoniously but now the cracks in friendships had started showing. People had started fighting at the slightest of provocation and the ladies of the homes would worry till the time all family members would not be back home.
The spring evening was slowly creeping in the verandah of her east facing house. The weather had started to change from misty cold to cozy warmth. But the streets and houses were all silent marking the calm before the storm.
A shout, and the calm was broken. It seemed as if hundreds of horses had entered the village. The scrambling of the footsteps on the streets and the clambering of the ones inside the homes were giving clues of the oncoming foreboding.
Pathans from nearby villages had accumulated in Thoha Khalsa and were asking for all Sikhs to convert to Islam. The sight of so many Muslims at once scared the villagers. They were unprepared for this onslaught.
Rano’s family was also one of the many Sikhs in Thoha Khalsa and her husband and sons were all worried about the consequences of a mob attack in case they did not agree to the terms of the Pathans. Stories of women being raped and killing of children in front of the parents, were already doing rounds in the village even before this attack. All stories till now, but the fear in the eyes of her family members told Rano that these could be a reality soon.
The horrors that the impending attack could bring, the unknown future of their household, made Simmi so scared that she clung to her mother like an infant.
Not wanting to put their families in danger, the villagers decided to forge a truce with the Pathans whereby they will not harm the Sikhs, who will abandon their homes for the Muslims to loot them & do as they please. The Sikhs were all to take shelter in Gulab Singh’s haveli till the Pathans left their village.
“Mai, where are we going? Why are we leaving our house? When will we come back? Mai, will they kill me?” Simmis’s questions came onto Rano like piercing arrows. She herself had no answers to some of these questions. How to tell your 12-year-old daughter that she has to be prepared for the worst, like she herself was doing right now. Rano packed some basic supplies and essentials and the one thing that she knew that would probably protect her and her daughter, her Kirpan.
“Mai, why are you not answering my questions? Are you scared?” Simmi pestered Rano all the way to the Haveli of their refuge.
“Simmi, do you remember sleeping in the verandah during the summer nights? Remember how you always say that the stars appear so much brighter when there is no moon around. That the darkest nights produce the brightest stars. But the stars are always there, moonless night or not. It’s just that during the darkest nights, we are able to see them more clearly.” Simmi looked at her mother dumbstruck. What was wrong with Mai? Why is she talking about moon and stars when we are clearly facing death. Has her fear overpowered her senses?
“Mai, are you alright? Do you want some water?” Simmi asked as they reached the Haveli. But Rano seemed not to hear her. She went on continuing her speech.
“Today onwards, our lives will see many such dark, moonless nights. Our lives will not be the same. We have already sacrificed our house and possessions. Coming days may show us the ordeal of losing our loved ones too, but it is in these hard times that we will have to look for the bright stars within ourself. Our strengths. The strengths that we did not seem to have till now but which are hidden somewhere inside us. Today we have shown the strength of abandonment from our material possessions. But tomorrow we may have to show our strength to fight for our honor and our loved ones. We may have to show the strength of building a new life on our own. We may have to rely on our strength of love and trust. And most importantly of never quitting till we can fight.” Rano did not know whether what she said was understood by Simmi, but speaking these words aloud was her way of finding the strength within herself.
The night stretched along seemingly never-ending, for all the Sikh families in the Haveli. In the distance they could see the dance of flames above their homes, to which they would never return. Life, as they knew till now, had ended for them. It seemed as if they had transcended into the realms of death and awaited their next life.
The dawn brought with it a new horror. The Pathans did not keep the terms of the truce and surrounded the Haveli. This time the men did not want to be mute spectators. They knew that they will have to fight for themselves and their families.
“Mai, what are we going to do now? What if Bauji never returns?” Simmi was inconsolable seeing her father and brothers leave.
Rano again did not know how to answer Simmi. The only thing she knew for sure was that it was up to her now to take care of Simmi and herself. She felt for the Kirpan in her Kurti.
Soon, the screams of the war-cry started dying and the silence that ensued only foretold the worst. The ladies in the Haveli started congregating in the center fearing the crowd that was coming to dishonor and kill them. A well in the center caught someones’ eye and before anybody could think of anything, that someone jumped in the well along with her toddler. What followed was a heart-wrenching sight of a woman after a woman taking a plunge to their death.
Simmi also ran towards the well taking along Rano who had turned into a statue. As they neared the well, Rano jerked backed halting Simmi and pulling her back.
“No, Simmi, we can’t do this! We are not weak. Our men did not die for us to follow suit. They died to protect us, to move on with life without them. We may not survive what lies ahead of us but we can’t die without fighting, without knowing what could have been.”
“Mai, how do you think we are going to save ourselves from the rascals that are entering the Haveli to claim our honor?”
“Simmi, this is just not the right path. We will find a way, but please do not let this darkness engulf you.”
Rano and Simmi hid themselves in the Haveli, Rano’s Kirpan out in her hand to kill anyone coming near her and her child. But the mob came, saw the massacre in the well and fled. Nothing left to loot there.
“Mai, we are saved. Your will power and not to quit attitude saved us!” Simmi said with relief. Her young pink face was aglow with a tired smile.
“The fight is not over yet, my child. This is just the beginning. We do not know what lies ahead of us. We have lost all, our home and our family. But we have each other. We have chosen to move forward, we have chosen to show perseverance, we have shown courage and we will choose these values always. And there will be times when it will be even more difficult to carry on, but we will have to stay true to ourselves. There will be darker nights ahead and we will shine as the brightest stars.”
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