“Javed bhai, did you hear that? The British are trying to dissect our mulk.”
“Yes, Gopi. It has always been their policy. They were waiting for this. The Congress couldn’t agree to the terms of Jinnah Sahib. It’s sad that those who fought for the freedom will have to breathe in two separate nations. The proposal has been sent to British Council.”
Javed and Gopi discussed as they sipped tea in the streets of Lahore, which had lost its earstwhile peace. They would walk down the pavement talking about the political situation everyday. The unrest in the country was something that would give them shivers. Partition! How can there be a partition? There was uncertainty in the air.
And they found it hard to believe. Nostalgia hit them both hard. Javed and Gopi had grown up together. Childhood friends, they recalled running through these very streets, chasing each other, playing until sundown, sipping chai at the corner shop every day. And to think, that the country would be divided eventually. What would happen next is the question that gave them sleepless nights…
Gopi’s wife, Sita was due anytime and they have been asked to leave Lahore. He was wondering what will he carry with him along. Javed tried all his best to safeguard Gopi and bhabhijaan. But fate had its game, they had only an hour to leave the place. As they were above to move, Sita experienced her labour pains.
Sita was distraught with labour pains and calling a doctor seemed impossible because of the chaos burning the city. Hindus were being dragged out of their houses and killed brutally.
Javed asked Gopi to shift Sita to their house immediately. She was writhing in the labour pain and the pain of having t leaver her home forever was even more. She didn’t want to leave her house, her neighbourhood.
“Gopi, why is this happening to us? We dreamt of bringing up our child in this surrounding.” Gopi was grim with grief and worry, “Sita, it is a very tough time for all of us. Things are not in our hands. We have to follow the orders by the political leaders. Don’t worry, everything will be well.” Gopi tried to console her, though he himself did not know which direction life was going to take them.
“You will have no trouble. You have my driver, Ramesh, and my car,” said Javed.
“What? Ramesh?” Gopi was surprised. Ramesh had been their most trusted help. Man Friday, of sorts. Gopi and Javed had grown up watching Ramesh take care of Javed’s house through the years. No one could flaw his loyalty.
“Yes Ramesh. He is a family. I don’t want to put his life in jeopardy either. He will drive you all the way till Patiala. After that it’s your call. Allah willing, we will keep meeting once situation settles down.” Having said these words, Javed’s eyes welled up. Worried he thought to himself, who knows whether we would meet again or not? The situation was not as calm as had been expected.
By evening he, along with Ramesh, went to Gopi’s home to get them to his house. Hardly had they reached outside their quaint village, they realised the situation was not as bad as they had expected. It was worse. Far more worse. Travel by car was suicidal.
Javed had already sent the message to Ramesh and there he was with the car. Sita was immediately made to sit in the car and the four of them went to Javed’s house. Upon entering, he called for his wife and explained her the situation. She sent a message for Dai Ma. The clock was ticking. They had to leave Lahore as soon as they could else the life of their new born would be in jeopardy. There was a sudden banging on the door when Javed opened it.
Sita’s labor pain was getting intensified. Moving at this time could mean disaster for her and baby. Javed’s wife Sakina begum was worried for Sita and so she suggested that they should stay back till the baby is born.
Hesitatingly, Javed opened the door only to find Ramesh who had been waiting outside for further instructions. Javed breathed a sigh of relief and pulled him inside. The fear on his face was unmistakable.
“Bhaijaan, the situation is getting worse outside we have to get Bhabhi and Gopal Bhaiya quickly out of Lahore,” Ramesh said in a single breath.
Sakina disapproved of them leaving at such a crucial time. Gopi and Sita were totally clueless as to what their next step should be. Javed also suggested that they should wait for the delivery. Nobody would come to know of their presence in the house. Ramesh, a tall young main in his forties, who would always have tilak on his forehead, was asked to get hide his identity.
Inside the room, Sita’s pains were growing stronger by the minute. They had no other option now but to wait for the baby to arrive. They could hear noises in the street. Every step and whisper made them even more apprehensive. “God knows what’s in store for us,” sighed Gopi.
Sakina arranged for a Dai Ma, who would assist Sita in delivering. There was mayhem outside as well as inside. In all this fear and confusion Sakina begum took a stand and made Sita rest in her bedroom. As time ticked, Gopi’s anxiety grew.
At dusk around 6pm, Amar was born. Everyone was delighted to see the healthy baby and the exhausted, but safe, mother. Sakina prepared a lot of food for the travel. They decided to leave past midnight when the roads would be deserted. They all knew that the road ahead was not safe but they had no other option.
In the grim atmosphere Amar came as a ray of hope. Their spirits soared. “God has sent a new life to us, this is a message from Allah. I am sure He will show the way.” Gopi and Javed started making preparations to leave.
Ramesh was nowhere to be found. Javed was worried that they may get late to send them off as it would be daylight soon. He had left for getting sweets but had not returned.
Just then they heard loud voices in the street, it seemed a crowd was passing through. Then there was a loud bang on the door.
Javed had no option but to open the door as otherwise the mob would have become suspicious. Gopi had put on Javed’s pathani kurta pajama and had put the skull cap whereas Sita had removed all her Jewelry and kept them in the bag. When the leader of the group enquired who all were there in the house, Javed lied that Sakina’s sister had come home for delivery and introduced Gopi as his brother-in-law.
Javed had an inkling that Ramesh might have been caught in the same mob. Now, he had no option left. He decided to drive the family to safety himself.
The car was parked behind the house hidden by the thatched hedge. Gopi discreetly stepped out from the backdoor and loaded a few clothes and food packed in cloth bags. They had to be careful not to take too many things lest someone would get suspicious. Sita hugged Sakina. She had never thought that the arrival of her son would coincide with them leaving their home forever.
With a heavy heart Sita sat inside the car, bidding farewell to Sakina. Tears welled up in their eyes. It was a tough moment to leave everything and go some place they had absolutely no idea about. The whole uncertainty of their journey ahead was overwhelming for the already exhausted Site.
Javed took the driver seat with Gopi on his side while Sita sat clad in a burqa with the baby in her arms, was in the back seat. Gopi asked Javed not to risk his life for them. “Just drop us at the station bhai, we will take the train to Amritsar. Driving to Patiala will not be safe for you. We don’t know the situation on the way.”
All the while they were quiet in the car, while Gopi was nostalgic leaving his birthplace. He reminisced the times when he along with his childhood friend, Javed, used to play gulli- danda, kaanche and other outdoor games outdoors. It started drizzling and the petrichor stirred his soul even more.
Sita was going through the same nostalgic turmoil of leaving the place she had such fond memories of, from childhood till motherhood. The joy of motherhood had been overcome by uncertainty that lay ahead for all of them. The grief and pain of leaving their homeland in these circumstances, made her heart heavy.
Just then there was a loud thud on the window. A man with his face covered was restlessly banging the windscreen. Javed tried to speed away but Gopi recognized him immediately. It was Ramesh. “Ramesh! Oh we’re so happy to see you safe. We waited for you , what happened, where were you?” Gopi rattled nervously. “Ramesh bhai, come inside the car first.” Sita made some space for him. Ramesh reeling under shock could not utter a single word. He took his time to settle in the car and then he said, “Turn around. This way is not at all safe. They have butchered humans like animals. Turn quickly…” Ramesh said in a state of panic.
Javed followed Ramesh’s directions and handed the steering to him. After all, he had been driving the family on these streets since years but today it was a test of his skills like never before. Ramesh helped them manoeuver the car through precarious bylanes avoiding the raging mobs. They were just nearing the destination when the car stopped. Javed pressed the accelerator turning the keys again but the car simply refused to move. Javed checked the fuel. There was plenty of it, then why was the car not moving? Dawn was setting in slowly.
Time seemed like ages. They were heading towards the Attari station, the entry point of India now onwards. Gopi felt chocked and heavy in his heart as they were struck in a choc-a-block. People were screaming, crying and being chased around. It was utter chaos everywhere and all were either running to kill or to save themselves. Gopi asked Javed to return home. He insisted that they be left at some safer place and then he must return as it would not be safe for him. Ramesh and Sita agreed with Gopi. Javed was perplexed. Sakina was alone at home, as well. Leaving Gopi and his family anywhere was also not an option. He couldn’t decide if going back home was better or should he find a place to spend few hours. Gopi could sense his friend’s quagmire. He, however, had different plans.
He asked Ramesh to take a detour. There was another way that could possibly take longer but was safer, as was understood. Ramesh was not sure. Any place, as per his estimate, at this moment, would be unsafe. Nevertheless, he took Javed’s advice, “ji bhaijaan, let me see if we can find a way through Bhikhiwind into Ferozepur. If not Patiala, at least we can reach Amritsar through that route.”
“Yes yes, we can try that,” Gopi was quick to add.
They took a turn into a narrow street that crossed one of the residential areas of the town. It was deserted and dark. None of the houses on either side had any light. Then they saw something and froze. Dead bodies lay strewn outside each house. There had been a bloodbath, even street dogs were mum with the horror that they must have witnessed a while ago. No one had been spared. They moved ahead treading slowly, carefully.
Beads of perspiration were appearing on their foreheads. As time kept passing, everyone was worried that it would get tougher to get to the other side.
Sita was getting restless now. It had been a few hours since she had been sitting in the car. She was not expecting to be going through all of this immediately after childbirth. Amar was equally, if not more, uncomfortable. Sita was exhausted managing the trauma of being a mother in the midst of this chaos and that of having to save the life of her and her family. This was the toughest that it could get for her. But she willed to get her child to safety as quick as possible. Gopi was quick to notice that Sita was discomforted with this journey and hesitatingly asked Javed if they could stopover for a while.
Javed was perplexed. Sakina was alone at home, as well. Leaving Gopi and his family anywhere was also not an option. He couldn’t decide if going back home was better or should he find a place to spend few hours. Gopi could sense his friend’s quagmire.
He saw Sita’s pale face. She had fallen asleep with exhaustion. Ramesh was holding the baby in his lap. “Bhaijaan, we will take shelter here in an empty house. The mob is not likely to come here again as they have already done their job,” he said. “You can return home as Sakina bhabhi must be worried.”
While they were talking in hushed voices, they heard muffled wails from a corner. Sita suddenly got up. Who’s that, sounds like a child crying nearby. “No Sita, don’t strain yourself, we will see,” Gopi assured her. Javed stepped out and saw a seven/eight-year-old girl sitting at the doorway of one of the houses. Seeing Javed in the dark she fidgeted a bit. Javed could see some bodies nearby. He asked her to come with them, “don’t be scared,” he said. Sita too peeped from car window and called her. She approached her slowly and started weeping incosolably. Sita hugged her immediately, “don’t cry, we’ll help you. Come with us.”
When the little girl realised that Sita was in burqa, she pushed herself away crying. “You have also come here to kill me. Heena was my best friend. His abbu came with a group of people and killed my whole family. He must have sent you to kill me too”, she said sobbing.
Sita couldn’t stop herself and hugged the girl even more tightly saying, “Whether a Muslim or Hindu, a mother can never take the life of a child. You are totally safe with us. Come on in. “
“What is your name beti?” Asked Sita.
“No I will not tell.”
“They killed my family when my father told his name to some people who had come here.”
All the adults were pained to witness the trauma of a little child but they had ensure safety for them all.
Meanwhile Javed murmured, “I have no idea where we are. How will we reach the station?”
“The shortest way to the station is through the market road. But the way is all torn and broken. The rebels have set everything on fire. Only charred walls and rumbles are there now. Maybe they have burned down the station as well.” The little girl sobbed as she narrated whatever she had overheard some people.
“But there is one more way, it’s a very narrow muddy lane. The car cannot go there. We used it as short cut to go to our school,” she continued.
Though it didn’t sound the best plan at that time but they didn’t have any other option.
The men decided to load as much luggage they can on their shoulders. The girl offered to hold the bag of food while Sita carefully held the newborn. Gopi insisted Javed to leave them and go back to his house. He remembered that while leaving, Sakina had asked him to promise that he will not return until he made sure Gopi and his family were safe. The clouds of uncertainty still loomed large. How could he leave them like this? Gopi made him swear upon their friendship that he should leave but he declined saying that at that time humanity had overpowered friendship and for Amar and the little girl’s sake, he would accompany them in the journey ahead.
Treading the muddy lane, they somehow reached the station which was under utter chaos. People could be seen running haywire, wailing, pleading for their lives. A few steps away from the station, Sita got rid of her burqa while the men threw away their skull caps. There were Hindu activists who were targeting any muslims if they spotted them. As they entered the station, they followed the rushing crowd towards the train.
Just then, Ramesh noticed an approaching group of people carrying ‘mashaals’ and heading towards them. “Keep walking,” Javed ordered.
“This looks dangerous,” Gopi added.
“Don’t worry, I shall manage.” Javed gave a glance to the others walking by his side.
Ramesh, Sita and Gopi, all of them were stiff for an instant. The tension was evident. The little girl clung to Sita’s pallu and kept walking in her shadow. Even she could sense that this was not good news.
Ramesh swiftly pulled the little girl and handed her over to Javed. “Wha…” Javed was unable to understand what had just happened. Ramesh signalled him to keep walking.
Before they even realised, the men were right in front of them.
“Where are you going?” one of them inquired.
“Just trying to catch a train to Amritsar, sir,” Ramesh was quick to respond.
“Hindu?” another asked trying to look for signs on them all. All of them nodded in unison.
“What are your names?” the first one pitched in again.
Seemingly Ramesh was the one picking up all the cues, “I am Ramesh, this is Gopi and Sita bhabhi with the baby… and…”
“…this is Jagan bhai with his daughter,” Ramesh recovered quickly pointing towards Javed and the little girl.
“Where is her mother?”
“…she …she… died.” Hearing the feeble voice of the tiny girl, the men decided to believe in their story and let them go
They let out a deep breath and hurriedly paced away from the mob. Javed bhai lauded Ramesh for his presence of mind. But deep in their minds they knew that they were not out of danger yet. An uncertainty still lingered on their heads
The next big question was how will Javed escape from the station. Now that they had reached the station safe and sound, he needed to head back home. Ramesh thought of an idea. While coming, he had seen a burnt tea shop nearby. He advised Javed to go there and hide for few hours. It was going to be morning soon and then finding the right opportunity he could rush back home because if he boarded the train it would be impossible for him to return soon given the situation.
They reached the railway station. There was utter chaos, people were running helter-skelter, all over. Some were looking for their lost kin, some just holding on to their belongings and family members left with them.
Gopi was worried how a newborn and mother will board the train in this mayhem.
The advent of the sound of the train was bliss to their ears. All of them craned their neck towards the sound of the engine. This was going to be their ticket out. Gopi quickly took out his ‘Ram’ necklace from his neck and tied it around Javed’s, “Ramesh is right. You must leave now. You have the taveez and the ram with you now. God willing, you will be safe. Now go. We all will be fine.”
Javed was in tears by now and so were the others. They had been working hard all night to get to this, but this separation was not something that they had prepared for. A final hug and Gopi clung on his baby, held Sita’s hand and asked Ramesh to carry the little girl to cross the river of people ahead and board the train. Anything more horrific than this was dying itself. The train began moving. The people who could board were easily pushed inside, the ones who clung to the doors were still safe but there were a few that fell and never saw the light of the day.
Sita was completely drained by now, physically and emotionally. She wanted this ordeal to somehow get over so that she could rest a few winks with the baby, but it was still a long way to go. This is the final step to take us out of danger, she thought. A sudden wave of people pushed her into the compartment, Gopi was somewhere in the same compartment as she could hear Amar’s wails.
As the train reached the destination, people heaved a sigh of relief. Among the fortunate ones who made it safe were Gopi’s family, Rajesh and the little girl. Would Javed have reached his house safely, was the question. The next many nights were rendered sleepless due to recurring nightmares of that day. The many days that lay ahead, running pillar to post, in a bid to find a safe place to live was an ordeal of equal measure.
Gopi couldn’t focus on anything until he knew that Javed was alive. All means of communication were suspended between the two countries until one day almost after a year, their new neighbors informed them that they were going to the newly opened post office to send a postcard to Lahore. Gopi couldn’t contain his happiness. He wanted to pour his heart out on that tiny piece of paper writing each and everything to Javed. That letter was not merely paper but a token of his love and friendship for his dear friend. He didn’t hear from Javed for a long time when one day, almost 10 years later, he suddenly received a letter while he was busy in the sweet shop that he had got as compensation from the government after the partition. The postmaster who brought the letter informed him, even before he handed it to him, that it was from Lahore.
The sound of the word was enough for Gopi to slip into nostalgia. As soon as he took the letter in his hands, he smelled it. Anything that came from his birthplace was a reward for his patience and he wanted to soak himself in its pleasure.
“Babuji, open the letter,” the girl standing next to him nudged him out of his reverie.
“haan haan,” he quickly tore the seal and opened the letter. The first thing that he did was check the sender’s name ‘Javed Maqsood’. His eyes welled up as he began reading the letter.
I hope you, bhabhi and Amar are fine. I know you reached safely when I received your letters a few months back. That day after dropping you at the station I hid in the teashop for the entire day. As night fell, I managed to escape and somehow reached my village. But my family was nowhere to be found. The entire place had been burnt down; there was no one left. I went from street-to-street looking for my family but to no avail. The next five years were spent going door-to-door looking for them till I found Sakina in a camp. She had escaped the rioteers and had taken shelter in the nearby school. We somehow settled in our new life again. But I couldn’t abandon the memories of my ancestral home and visited there, often. One of the days, I went to the post office and found all your letters. And so I knew that I had to write to you.
Write back to me. Allah-haafiz.
Your friend for life.
The timing could not have been better, Gopi thought to himself. He had just finalised the alliance of the girl they had brought along to adopt and it would be a perfect excuse to call Javed and Sakina to the wedding. Gopi kissed the letter, once, twice, again and again.
“Baba?” the girl asked again, quite surprised by her father’s reaction.
“Nothing, my child. I am going to meet my friend again. I am going to meet Lahore again. After all hope was lost.” Gopi brought the girl closer and kissed her forehead. “You are going to meet too,” he smiled.
Contributed by: Rashim Rohit Brutta, Shristee Singh, Anjali Sharma, Kajal Kapur, Sonali Prasad, Sheena Jain, Jyotee Walia, Amruta Wadekar, Shweta Agarwal, Meera Barath, Sheetal Ashpalia
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