The mob’s cries got louder until Gurpal Singh could decipher the words of their slogan.
“Allah Hu Akbar” chimed in through the slits in the windows and doors of the otherwise tightly bolted Amrit Niwas in Wahez, a middle-class suburb of Lahore. The house was like the others in the lane, two-storey stone building with a small courtyard, bordered by a low-walled compound. Its inhabitants, thirty-five-year-old Sardar Gurpal Singh, his pregnant wife Parminder Kaur, their sixteen-year-old daughter Tejinder Kaur, and their twelve-year-old and eight-year-old sons Sukhi Singh and Dharmveer Singh, shuddered inside. The adults had packed their valuables in a small cloth bundle and their clothes in two larger bundles fashioned out of Parminder’s old dupattas. Gurpal’s usually firmly bound red turban was askew. His sons had a blue cloth around their topknots to keep the flyaway hair in place. But now there was more hair out of the cloth than under.
The cries came from one of the houses near the entrance to their lane. Gurpal and his family waited near their backdoor, ready to run out if the noise got any closer but hoping the mob took a long time ransacking the other houses and killing the neighbours before they reached their house near the end of the lane. The doom of the neighbours formed a protective wall around the family, buying them time. They prayed for morning; at dawn, the mob might call it a night and leave. If the British soldiers came, the rioters would disperse, or if the mobsters realised this was a Sikh locality, they might back off and go looking for the remaining Hindu houses in town to attack. If any of these happened, the family would be safe inside the house for one more night.
“Tomorrow I will leave everything I have here and go to Hindoostan,” Gurpal promised as he stared at the framed picture of the turbaned Sikh Saint that hung on the wall in front of him.
But darkness had just fallen and morning was hours away. British soldiers had abandoned the town like the colonisers were abandoning India. The first wave of rioting in Pakistan had focused its ire on the Hindus, their homes, property, women, and lives had been desecrated to the ultimate. Then the mob that has tasted blood had turned their eyes on all that was not Muslim.
“Tomorrow I will leave for Amritsar,” Gurpal pledged, “just give us this one night,” he begged to whichever God was listening to him.
But in that summer of 1947, the Gods had taken leave. All of Punjab was burning. It was his own fault; he cursed himself for believing that they were safe in their ancestral home, that they weren’t rich enough to be looted, that this was between Hindus and Muslims. He kicked himself for believing in the assurances by the government that hadn’t taken office yet. The new country’s founding father, Jinnah, had said that Sikhs were safe in Pakistan. After all, Sikhism was established as a bridge between Hinduism and Islam.
Beside him, his wife, Parminder, held back the bile that was threatening to erupt from the back of her throat as she looked at her husband and saw the burly, six foot man trembling and his shaggy beard quivering. Teji passed her mother a pinch of cardamom seeds. Parminder placed the seeds in her mouth and smiled at her daughter’s ability to sense her discomfort.
They waited like that for what seemed like hours, and then the mob quietened. Every silent moment added a layer of blanket on the shivering hearts of the crouching family. But blood-curling cries of women tore through the air a few minutes later, shattering their hopes. Parminder strained her ears to identify the shrieks. She had known the neighbourhood women since the day she got married and entered Gurpal’s house twenty years ago. These were the women she had gossiped with onin the evenings over tea and snacks and sung hymns with at the gurdwara on Sunday mornings. She knew their voices. But now, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t tell who was calling out, the sounds were too piteous and yet too beastly to be human.
Gurpal turned to his wife and daughter, and the thoughts of what the mob would do to them drove him to unlock the back door and herd his family out. He carried his hockey stick in one hand and had the jewellery bundle tucked under the other arm. Once outside, he ignored the beseeching calls from his neighbours and slipped the blade of his hockey stick through the window next to the door which he had opened before leaving. Gurpal deftly pushed the latch on the inside of the door back in its place with his hockey stick. The attackers would find the back door locked from inside and not chase after them immediately. A trick that he had devised and practised in the desperation of the last few days to buy them a few extra minutes to escape.
The wall surrounding the house was less than three feet tall and connected to the neighbours further into the lane. The Singhs jumped over a dozen boundary walls that night to reach a Muslim friend Zafar’s house. Gurpal knocked softly on his friend’s door in the dead of the night. Even when he heard Zafar’s voice on the other side, Gurpal did not trust his own vocal chords to comply and kept knocking until the door slid open.
Zafar wordlessly let the family in and bolted the door behind. They had planned this arrangement weeks ago since the riots had started and Gurpal’s brother had fled for Amritsar.
Zafar was a bachelor and lived alone. He worked for his rich cousin Suleiman Khan and lived in Suleiman’s outhouse. Zafar and Gurpal had been friends since childhood, since when they were in the same class in Wahez Public School. After graduating from school, Gurpal went to work on his father’s farms and Zafar got by doing odd jobs for Suleiman Khan. But the friendship between the boys lived on. The poor, orphaned Zafar always got hot rotis drenched in ghee and a large glass of sweet buttermilk in Gurpal’s house. While Gurpal’s mother was alive, she treated Zafar as her son, gifting him a set of clothes for the harvest festival of Lodhi when she got her own children new clothes and packing a box of sweet coconut laddoos for him on Baisakhi, the Sikh New Year. After Teji was born, Zafar was like a Godfather to the girl. He had played with her as a toddler, given her piggyback rides, and brought her sweet treats and toys. When friends and relatives gushed over the baby’s fair round face and perfect dimples, he got her an amulet from the mosque to ward off the evil eye. And when her wedding was arranged to a boy from Amritsar, Zafar had gone to the prospective groom’s house with Gurpal to discuss the wedding plans and dowry details. The wedding was to be in the coming winter. If only they had rushed the rituals and had the wedding in the previous spring, Teji would have been safe in Amritsar.
At night as Teji lay beside her mother, the men looked at her dark sleeping form and cursed themselves repeatedly for keeping her away from safety. Their playful Teji, who danced in her colourful finery around the fire at Lodhi to celebrate the harvest and led the choir that sang hymns in honour of the Sikh saints at the Maghi festival, had become unnaturally quiet. She spent hours massaging her mother’s swollen ankles and whispering stories to her brothers at night to help them fall asleep. Her neatly braided, waist-length hair had turned dry brown from the neglect and her face had dulled and shrunk from the perpetual hunger. Bringing too much water for washing up from Suleiman’s well was unsafe. How many pails would a man like Zafar need? The faces of the Singhs were getting paler under the grime that formed a grey cover.
The family stayed hidden in Zafar’s four-hundred-square-foot dwelling for days. Sukhi scratched a line in the wall to mark each day as the calls for Azan from the nearby mosque roused them every morning before dawn. Light trickled into the outhouse only from cracks in the windows and doors. During the day, they would not dare open the windows. Suleiman’s household that was only a few feet away from them could not be trusted. While the sun baked the building from outside, the inside felt like a semi-dark oven. Monsoon that year played truant, siding against the hiding Sikhs. Crouching became second nature and eating plain roti with salt once a day the norm. Teji kept aside half her share of the dry bread for the nights when her brothers writhed in pain from hunger pangs.
Zafar did his best to steal as much food from his cousin’s kitchen as he could without raising suspicion. When he went about his business in Suleiman’s grocery shop in the market and he heard the Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speeches, on the radio that talked about personal freedom to all Pakistanis, he kept a straight face. If his cousin got as much as an inkling about the Sikhs in his outhouse, he would slaughter him along with his friend’s family.
Every night he placated the increasingly anxious Gurpal. The raids in and around Lahore were getting worse. A group of fifty Sikhs were discovered hiding in a gurdwara in Rehmatpura, another suburb of Lahore. Pregnant women raped and slaughtered, young boys set ablaze, their turbans doused in petrol, wrapped around them, and set on fire; Lahore was burning. Zafar skipped the details he had heard about the massacre but gave a gist of the happenings to Gurpal to explain the need to be patient.
“Keep calm, Gurpale. Let the nightly raids abate. I will put you on a train to Amritsar,” he promised his friend again and again.
When trains filled with butchered bodies pulled into Lahore and they heard stories of similar killings on trains going to Amritsar, the plan changed to walking across the newly crafted border. The town of Attari was on the other side of the partition line, less than twenty-five kilometres, only one night’s walk for a healthy person. All but Parminder were fit to walk, and she was getting more vulnerable each day. Time was of extreme essence.
The month had changed to August and the mood in the country became charged as the date of Independence crept closer. But the humid heat in the tin-roofed outhouse sent the half-fed Singhs into fits of aberration. Rains brought some intermittent relief, but the air became agonisingly stifling when they ceased. Sukhi ranted in his state of delirium, almost always about feasts. He spoke at length about the juicy sweets he was eating. His description of the tender lamb kebabs that he imagined himself biting into brought water to his mother’s mouth and tears of helplessness to her eyes.
One afternoon in early August, this desperation drove Teji to a blunder beyond reprieve. Eight-year-old Dharmveer choked on a dry piece of roti that his sister had saved for him the night before. Rain had been missing for days and their tight hiding den felt like a hot oven under the blazing afternoon sun. Dharmveer’s face turned blue like his turban cloth. He begged with his hands for water as his mouth coughed the demands of his gagging throat. Parminder covered her son’s mouth with her dupatta to hush the sounds that could give them away. Gurpal sat stunned in a corner, unmoving in the plight of his family. If only he had left with his brother’s family two months ago. If only he hadn’t greedily eyed his brother’s share of their ancestral lands and decided to stay on. If only he had braved a penniless start in Hindoostan.
Teji did what her family needed; she ran to the well in Suleiman’s house and brought in a jug of water for her brother. Dharmveer spluttered as the first drops reached his lips, but soon his coughing subsided and the colour on his face returned to a reddish grey. The moment of relief was short lived as the door swung open and the hulking form of Suleiman cast a dark shadow on the five and half-hidden Sikhs.
“Zafar!” he bellowed as the family cowered for safety. But there was nowhere to run. They were trapped in the room with the devil blocking the only exit. Teji fell at Suleiman’s feet and begged for her family’s safety. Suleiman picked her up by the hair till her feet were dangling in the air. He turned his face away from the girl and spat out a red volley of tobacco juice. Zafar rushed to them. He pleaded with Suleiman to leave Teji and come away from the outhouse. He spoke softly in Suleiman’s ears and pulled him by the arm. Suleiman let go of Teji, who fell in a heap on the floor. As Suleiman stepped away with Zafar, Parminder ran to her daughter. Sukhi closed the flimsy door and tried to rouse his father.
Zafar came back a few minutes later and shook the half-conscious Gurpal.
“Oye Gurpale, wake up,” he urged Gurpal.
There were noises from the main house and shouts that resembled the mob they had escaped from earlier. Zafar sprinkled water from the jug that Teji had brought and managed to bring Gurpal out of his trance.
“Before the rioters come here, we have to talk to Suleiman bhai. Only he can save us now,” Zafar told the stunned family.
He promised to be back with news soon and took the dazed Gurpal out with him. As Teji, Parminder, and the boys sat in the outhouse, they heard sounds of crying and grovelling mixed with thuds of kicks and of the ground crunching and someone falling on the dry soil. Teji packed the belongings as she had seen her parents do a few days ago when they left their house. Her mother lay motionless on the floor, staring over the mound of her belly. The baby was weeks away from coming into this burnt, bloodied world.
When Gurpal stumbled in a couple of hours later, his face was unreadable. The women unloaded a barrage of questions and scoured his body for injuries. His face was black in places and his left jaw was swollen and bruised. He wordlessly handed them a package of food in reply. Teji unwrapped the newspaper packet of fried puris and sweet, orange jalebis. The pleasure of the food, food that they had forgotten to dream about, overshadowed the surprise on the faces of the others.
Sukhi and Dharamveer grabbed a few pieces and shoved them into their mouths to make sure they weren’t hallucinating. Teji fed her mother a jalebi with tears in her eyes.
“We will leave at night break,” Gurpal said in an emotionless tone.
“How? Did you sign away our lands in his name in return?” Parminder asked in disbelief.
There was nothing else they had to give. But how did her husband strike such a fanciful deal? The land was useless to them, anyway. Even if the family survived, they could never return and claim their land. The locals had occupied houses and properties of the Hindus who had been massacred or chased away without a fight. Who would object? The owners were gone and the authorities absent. How did Suleiman, the man who was known in town as the devil personified, not see that?
Teji’s eyes echoed her mother’s doubts. But the alternate payment for their escape drew a blank, and she decided her father was, after all, a clever negotiator and a God somewhere had finally heard their pleas.
The sun could not set faster for the Singhs that evening. But as the dusk approached, their hearts started beating in a frantic, collective rhythm. Could the end to their ordeal be so close? The journey would be perilous, but if they made it out of Lahore, they could reach safety; Amritsar, Hindoostan. A few hours ago when Dharamveer was choking and later when the mob was approaching them or beating their father and Zafar outside the house, escape of any sort seemed like an impossibility. And yet miraculously they were on the verge of making it out of Lahore.
When Zafar came to the door to escort them, they followed him in a line; the boys at the head, followed by Parminder and Teji and Gurpal at the tail end. The bundles of clothes were on Zafar and Sukhi’s shoulders and the humbler pile of jewellery under Gurpal’s arm. Teji looked at the outhouse one last time as she covered her head with her dupatta. She had swept the room clean and covered the cubicle at the back where they did their morning business with a layer of dry mud. The small oil lamp, which they had never lit during their days of hiding, was wiped clean, in gratitude to Zafar, and even Suleiman.
There was a bullock cart waiting for them behind the low back wall. The group quietly trooped towards it in the darkness. The boys hoisted their mother over the wall and helped her into the cart. Parminder dabbed her moist forehead with the end of her dupatta as the boys climbed in after her and the baby kicked in her stomach. She wanted to call out to Gurpal and Teji. Why were they taking so long? But even when she knew they were going with Suleiman’s blessings, she did not dare raise her voice and invite trouble. Not now, not when they were on the brink of escape. She turned questioningly to Zafar, who had taken the reins and sat staring ahead, ready to whip the bullocks into action.
A moment of confusion later, Gurpal emerged and jumped onto the cart. Zafar lashed the tethered animals, and they broke into a run. The cart shook in protest at the sudden motion.
“Wait!” Parminder commanded. “Where is Teji?”
Neither man responded, and the cart gained speed, wobbling down the deserted lane, heading for the safety of the forest. Parminder stared at her husband’s ashen face, and then at Suleiman’s mansion that was becoming smaller with each thrust of the cart. The bundle of jewellery was still in Gurpal’s hands, but the daughter that he had fed the devil was missing.