Across the Bridge – Chapter 23
Continued from “Cesarean Section”
Partition of India took place when Bhuvan was about four years old. About that time, Grandpa decided to resolve the impasse between the Patwarun and Big Mouth. He allocated a separate area for Patwarun in the house, gave her bare essentials for survival and she set up her separate household. Nothing could be farther from the minds of Grandpa and others but there was some similarity with India’s partition, which was done to resolve an impasse between the pro-partition group lead by Jinnah and the opposing one. While India and Pakistan became separate states, Patwarun’s set up was more like an autonomous state within a state for the time being. Parasu and Bhuvan moved around in both households until full separation some time later just as a natural evolution.
During their abject poverty days, Big Mouth had always wanted a buffalo for milk as Hori in Munshi Prem Chand’s novel ‘Godan’ had longed for a cow whole his life. Hori had to wait much longer, essentially forever. Much worse, he died facing a cruel irony: Required to donate a cow. Big Mouth got her buffalo much sooner. Sometime after Parasu started earning, a buffalo was bought for her with full control over its milk and whatever else came out of it. The buffalo was called Grandma’s buffalo. After the initial division, Parasu and Bhuvan kept getting the milk but not Patwarun who in turn swore never to drink milk until she acquired a buffalo of her own. She did not have to wait as much as Hori or even Big Mouth but her longing kept getting stronger as the buffalo was still sometime in the future mainly because Parasu considered his earnings mostly his parents’ due.
After planting the wheat crop, it was time for annual couple of weeks camping at the banks of the Ganges and enjoy the accompanying fair. Grandpa could not afford regular ‘pilgrimages’ to the Ganges during his poverty days but for some years now, it had become an annual affair except that it was cancelled the previous year fearing violence, which had followed Jinnah’s call for the Direction Action Day to apply public pressure for the creation of Pakistan. Situation had gotten out of control and there was bloodbath in some parts of the country. After the partition, the border areas were engulfed in gruesome turmoil, Muslims driving Hindus out from Pakistan except for those whom they wanted to keep, like Leelo. There was exodus from the Indian side also but since India had allowed Muslims to stay in India, whosoever wanted to, it was at a lower scale as about half of them opted to stay where they were. Consequently, the interior in India was relatively calm except for some sporadic killings of a Muslim here and a Hindu there. So, the potential for violence was there this year also but the family was eager to go particularly as they had missed the previous year. The decision was rationalized by arguing that these sporadic killings are the acts of ruffians and there is no strife in general to create a riot-like situation at the fair; besides, the fair is an organized event with sufficient police and other state instruments to ensure a smooth functioning of the event.
Khaira and Gora were permanent bullocks in the family, a third one was acquired every now and then to be sold later as the need dictated. For the fair, it was more convenient to make arrangements with another family in a co-op style. Usually Khaira and Gora pulled the cart with people in it and the two bullocks belonging to another family pulled the cart with food, fuel and the luggage. Driving was assigned as convenient, usually one from each family driving one’s own cart pulled by one’s own bullocks. As a matter of routine, Grandpa’s family prepared for the fair by feeding special foods to the bullocks and getting them new shoes; so did the other family. On the auspicious day, the carts departed joining hundreds of others along the way. When they reached the banks after a day and half, they set up two tents, one for the males and the other for the females, segregating the two as they did in the village.
Two weeks’ camping was standard. During the first week, things were proceeding normally, people wandering through bazaars, going to the movies and the like. Bigger merchants made temporary shops with canvas sheds and raised platforms, smaller vendors would just sit on sand two parallel lines displaying their wares defining a street in the sand; then there were others who wandered around pushing their trolleys, which was not easy in that sand and some carried merchandize like balloons and other children’s toys, themselves, wandering even around the residential tents. Some made their money by applying sandal-wood or some other similar paste to the foreheads of the pilgrims after they took a dip in the Ganges. Movie theatres were just the tents and the audience watched movies sitting on the sand.
On the first day of the second week, Grandpa noticed a fellow running towards his tents with his head and face covered by a bamboo basket turned upside down. Grandpa looked at the sight in dismay. The suspense was broken when the fellow took his basket off revealing that he was Rehamatullah from Kesari Nagar.
“What are you trying to do, running like a ghost, trying to scare children?”
“No, no Grandpa,” Rehamatullah said hysterically, “A gang of Hindus is after me with knives and spears. I am running for my life.”
Poor Rehamatullah was selling fruits as many others to make some money during the fair. They would go to a town nearby to get whatever they thought they could sell, fruits and vegetables, in bamboo baskets. That day, Rehamatullah had barely sat at his usual spot when he saw an armed gang of Hindus coming towards the bazaar. The Muslim vendors ran in all directions; the Hindus just stood up declaring that they were Hindus with some believable proof like their dress or the paste-mark on their foreheads. Had it been a Muslim gang, the response would have been reversed. In the present situation, Rehamatullah emptied his basket on the sand, covered his face with the basket turned upside down and ran towards the tents of Kesari Nagar people. He could see through the tiny holes in his basket as a burqa-clad woman can see through the net and it could still hide his Muslim cut beard although his strange appearance could generate enough suspicion to get him into trouble. However, he made it to the Grandpa’s tents.
Grandpa grabbed a sari, threw it at him and pushed him inside the females’ tent as he ordered, “Wrap it around quickly, sit among women and make sure to pull a long veil over your lousy face to cover your lousy beard,” all in a flash.
“Among women Grandpa!”
Grandpa pushed him even harder, “Do it quickly, you bastard or I’ll stab you myself.”
Rehamatullah obliged this time. All of this happened very quickly. He was hardly settled among the women by the time the gang approached the tents.
“Did you see a Muslim bastard running this way?” one in the gang members demanded to know.
“Yes,” said grandpa calmly.
“Well, then blurt it out. Which way did he go?” hollered the fellow leading the gang.
Grandpa pointed in a direction away from the tents. As the gang was out of sight, Grandpa ordered, “Pack up quick, fight has broken out. God forbid, it might end up looking like the borders in the East and West.”
The tents were folded immediately and the carts loaded. The wood and cattle-food had depleted during the previous week but there was enough for Grandpa to make a small chamber in the woodpile, which he did and ordered Rehamatullah, “Get in there.”
“I can’t squish in there, Grandpa.”
“If you don’t, they’ll come back and cut you into so small pieces that two like you will squish in there, not that they’ll have any inclination to squish you in there; and include me as well, for trying to squish you, a Muslim, in there.”
Not sure if it was the fear of getting squished into a smaller hole or the fear of losing his life but Rehamatullah did squish in there faster than a mouse chased by a cat squishes in a hole. Both of the carts were soon on their way joining a caravan that was soon forming as many had realized that it was time to get out of there. Grandpa took the reins of Khaira and Gora with whom he had about the same connection as Rana Pratap had with his blue Marvari Chetak, which was not exactly blue, just had a hue of blue. They moved as fast as they could but in that chaos, not much speed could be attained. After the carts were outside the danger zone, Grandpa diverted the carts along a lonely country road for fear of getting caught hiding a Muslim. When it appeared to be safe to do so, Grandpa ordered Rehamatullah to come out of his hole. Carts trudged along.
Soon after the sunset, the carts reached a spot where Grandpa’s entourage rested. They had supper and the bullocks were fed also. As the preparations were being made, Bhuvan felt an urge to relieve himself. He was told to go relieve in a field. Just then, someone noticed some suspicious movement outside a close by village. The village was inhabited by the Muslims. It was assumed immediately that a gang of Muslims was planning to attack the two lonely carts. Everyone rushed to get back in the carts. The driver of the cart with food, fuel and the like was replaced with Hookah Walla Uncle as he was not going to be worth much if they had to fight the gang. As the carts started to race Patwarun noticed that Bhuvan was left behind. Grandpa ordered the carts to halt, told Hookah Walla uncle to go alone taking a detour and hopefully escape; a spot was decided upon where they would meet again. Then he wrapped his pagari and pulled out his special weapon, an axe and a spear in one. Every grown up man pulled out some weapon, mostly sticks; there were a few spears also. They all stood in a formation protecting the cart. Hookah Walla Uncle was already out of sight somewhere behind the bushes.
“My daughter is married to a fellow in this village Grandpa. Let me talk to them;” Rehamatullah said.
“Your head will be rolling before they notice this Noor of Allah on your face,” hollered Grandpa, “Now take a stick and help the others while I fetch the child.”
Grandpa marched fast in a direction different from where the child was. While everyone wondered where the hell he was going, he let out a scream, “Har har Mahadev,” and then turned and ran towards the field where Bhuvan was. The gang that was approaching the carts was diverted somewhat and Grandpa managed to reach Bhuvan, grabbed him by the arm and carried the boy like a bag while telling him, “If the gang catches up to me, I’ll release you and fight. You go behind the bushes and get to the cart. And if you get caught, do as the captors say. I’ll come and rescue you soon but remember who you are. Who are you?”
“I am grandson of Grandpa of Kesari Nagar.”
“That will do.”
None of this turned out to be necessary. Grandpa made it to the cart safely and took the reins. After that there was no way any man on feet could catch Khaira and Gora even with that heavy load. They reached the spot where they expected to meet the Hookah Walla Uncle, waited longer than was necessary for the Uncle to catch up. He didn’t show up, they gave up and headed to Kesari Nagar.
They reached the village well before sunrise. Some rest was necessary. By the time they completed their rest, the sun was out and it had become a common knowledge in the village that Hookah Walla Uncle had fallen victim to some gang of Muslims. Grandpa tried to calm the situation, “We don’t know that,” but rumors have too seductive a spell to be over-ridden by reason.
A search party was formed. Several strong men and arms were collected and two chariots were prepared. Chariots were not so much in use in the wedding parties anymore; under the circumstance however, these dust gathering fast moving vehicles proved to be of some use; in fact, of great value. Poor Khaira and Gora had to get going again. Two other fast moving bullocks were selected from the village for another chariot. Yet again, Grandpa took the reins of Khaira and Gora and led the search party. They had barely gotten out of the village when they saw Hookah Walla Uncle half asleep in the driver’s seat with nozzle of his portable hookah in his mouth while the bullocks trudged along by themselves.
“And where the hell have you been?” demanded Grandpa.
“Oh, I stayed in Durga Pur with Hari Prasad for the night, left well before the morning.” It is difficult to say why all of them had not stayed there in the first place where they would have been safer.
After the disturbance at the Ganges fair, more sporadic killings started taking place in the area. A Muslim washer man who washed his customers’ clothes in a pond between Kesari Nagar and a nearby village was killed by severing his head. He came to be known as the ‘Headless Washer man’ after his death. It was rumored that he had become a ghost and lurked around the pond. Children were afraid to go around the pond as they believed that the ghost swooped over Hindu children to avenge his murder. A mutilated Hindu corpse was found in a ditch in the morning after some people heard his cry for help in the middle of night. No one responded as they believed that that may be a trick to trap the ‘helpers’ and they did not know the strength of the attackers. Such incidents flared the tempers and at times quite unexpected events took place like the killing of a Muslim tailor from Kesari Nagar who brought work from the neighboring villages.
While coming back to his village, the tailor passed by some farmers working in the fields.
“A Muslim, kill him,” shouted a farmer.
The tailor burst out laughing, “Jamindar Sahib, why are you joking?”
Other farmers in the neighboring fields also thought that this was just a joke.
“So you think it is a joke, eh!”
The farmer picked a spare plough blade lying around and swiftly came face to face with the tailor. Now the tailor was a bit concerned, “Jamindar Sahib, I am your tailor, I sew your clothes all the time, you are one of my few most valuable customers and you will harm me!”
When the farmers in other fields noticed that the threatening farmer was going with a sharp plough blade to the tailor, they felt that things might get out of hand and rushed to calm the tempers in case they did flare up. But before the other farmers reached the scene, the farmer with blade said, “You are a Muslim4” and the blade found its way to the tailor’s heart before the others could reach the spot leaving tailor’s two sons orphan back in Kesari Nagar.
“Why the hell did you do it?” inquired one of the farmers.
“He was a Muslim.”
“But he lived here, he was our tailor, one of us.”
“Didn’t you hear of that mutilated Hindu corpse in a ditch? And what about the borders?”
“They are mobs killing mobs, gangs, criminals. Individually humans are more sensible, they lose their heads in a mob.”
Arguments went back and forth. Finally, everybody dispersed leaving the corpse lying around as was the case with the corpses in the ditch and by the pond. Police removed the corpses in time but hardly any investigation was ever conducted; if any was, it produced nothing. Whatever law and order there was, was broken. Corpses at the borders weren’t that lucky, army had to be called in and paid extra to remove the piles of decomposing corpses.
Blindness was not just in thinking; it was taking somewhat of a physical dimension also as in the case of a well-known Hindu landlord from a neighboring village attired in what was perceived to be a Muslim garb who was travelling in a bullock cart driven by his Muslim servant attired in a traditionally Hindu garb. A gang of Hindus stopped the cart.
“Get off the cart,” ordered a gang member addressing the landlord, who laughed in turn.
“You know who I am and you are mistaking me for a Muslim!”
“Get down you bastard, and let me check.”
The landlord had to come down. The gang took him inside a sugarcane field, had him undress and show that he was not circumcised. The Muslim servant sat there in the driver’s seat unsuspected, drove off with the landlord afterwards.
As for the tailor’s sons, the elder one had learned some tailoring from his father who became the breadwinner of the family and a teacher to his younger brother at a tender age. The killer of their father was still their customer; in fact, a valuable one; who became somewhat charitable towards the boys. Most killers weren’t that repentant and orphans, not that lucky.
Continued to “Battle of Kesari Nagar”