The following is a chapter from 'Untimely Rain', and has been commissioned by the International Literature Showcase as part of the 'Crossing Borders' series.
The fire was coming from all directions.
No reasonable sound, only the roar of pain divided in two—not halved but doubled—rose from the streets below Mohinder Singh’s house. From his rooftop he could see Lyallpur and its cantonments ablaze. Neighbours were burning each other alive in their own homes. Over the flat grey or earthen rooftops the faint outline of his cornfields glowed in the dusk a kilometre or so outside of the city. The tall clock tower at the heart of Lyallpur, Ghanta Ghar, the house of the hour, whose timepiece caught the fading sunlight, was turning from gold to red.
August was the wrong month, a bad season. An untimely rain had swept the valley. He would not pick up and run and leave his crops to rot. Nor would he plant for someone else to harvest, someone from another country, who arrived at midnight, scythe-handed, while he fled his home like a stranger.
‘There’s nowhere to go’. He argued to his son, whose body was angling a thin shadow in the evening sun.
Mohinder Singh had spent his whole life in Chak 204; a sector of tightly woven gullies off the Canal Road. Centuries had passed and he and his ancestors had survived plague, famine, the British, the Moghuls and, at times, tensions between neighbours—Sikh, Muslim, Hindu—but only on a small scale. Two hundred years before, his people were nomadic and this whole area was ‘Sandal Bar’, a deep jungle straight out of the ancient epics. In ‘Bar’ they twisted dried reeds into rope. Made baskets, charpoys, grew what little food they could on the fickle floodplains of the Chenab. When the British arrived, each able bodied adult male was granted a bit of land to deforest and cultivate. Mohinder Singh’s grandfathers uprooted trees with their bare hands, like warriors. They built huge pyres; they raised houses. And so they had lived for at least a hundred years: on a steady rotation of desi wheat, rice, lentils, cauliflower and acrid mustard that lit the earth like sunlight.
But at midnight on August 14th, 1947, the India he had fallen asleep in overnight became Pakistan. No one was sure exactly where the Punjab border would fall. Orderly mobs were busily hoisting flags and folding away Union Jacks into the retreating hands of the British. Celebrations were held, bold but uncertain. By most accounts Lyallpur would belong to Pakistan: Muslims were the majority according to the most recent census. But Sikhs and Hindus owned most of the land. Only a week ago, the Akali politician Giani Kartar Singh went from house to house with his solemn message: brothers, he began. My brothers.
Others listened and had already headed East. But Mohinder Singh decided he would wait till the infant state could breathe and knew its name before he took any notice of it. So at about six o’ clock on the evening of August 15th he climbed the stairs to his roof and gazed out at this new country.
‘We have to go,’ Dilbagh Singh insisted, standing back from the surveying edge, making to retreat. He was joined by his younger brother, Manmohan. Both teenagers were carrying long, heavy wooden sticks.
Who gave his sons the authority to decide? He was still in charge. Manmohan moved closer to the roof ledge, peering down to the alley below.
Dilbagh’s thoughts drifted to the family’s twelve bore shotgun, laid under his father’s charpoy in a low metal trunk. He had only just graduated from High School in April. Since his mother died eight years ago, he had never stopped being angry. Once, he threatened to shoot his stepmother. Mohinder Singh did not intervene. But if his father had he would have been guided by blood, as was his way.
The roar was continuous. Every few minutes a single voice distinguished itself from the throng. In the alley, two barefoot men wearing tied dhotis were dragging a horse by its mouth. The beast in its human element foamed at the teeth as the two men slapped its bucking hind legs with wood. If the animal would not give in, they would break its legs there and then.
‘Papa, can’t you hear what’s going on?’ asked Dilbagh Singh. Mohinder Singh turned back towards Lyallpur. Over the pale domes of the gurduwara and the masjid, almost side by side in his line of sight, he marked a line of ox carts forming along the Canal Road towards Lahore.
Men and women in procession behind and in front of the wooden carts; small children seated atop the moveable contents of their homes. So sudden. He could not understand the pace of it. A division. A split. The announcement was made at the end of February, but no date given till later that summer, in June. Already hundreds of thousands had crossed over an uncertain border bisecting Punjab. Lahore’s imperial walled city, he knew, had already been overrun by Muslim evacuees from Maharashtra, Delhi, further south. Perhaps others like him were waiting to see what this new country, Pakistan, would be like. Maybe they could stay on, as they had under other empires. The land was unchanged. The doab was their home, cradled on either side by the Chenab and the Ravi. But, now, a few short hours since its birth, this new country was drowning out his thoughts with its terrible demands.
‘Where are they going?’ He asked his son.
‘To the school.’ Dilbagh pointed in the direction of the Rail Bazaar, past the clock tower and out towards the railway station. Mohinder Singh had studied there, too, and so had his brothers and sons. He had taught English and History at Khalsa High School for several years. Generalist subjects, he thought, absently, as he saw the line of people carrying bundles on their heads, old men carrying women, boys pulling oxen.
Dilbagh Singh wanted to shake his father. He would go to fetch his uncle; maybe he could talk some sense into him. His stepmother had just given birth to a girl, another daughter, Raji, three years old and a son, Bhulwan, who was five. Dilbagh knew that he and Manmohan could run all the way to Amritsar if they had to. But not with his father’s youngest children. He considered that his half-siblings might not survive the journey. That was his father’s problem, he swiftly decided, sprinting across the two gullies that separated their house from Laab Singh’s, finding his door bolted shut.
All around him the wrench of uprooting; shouts but not screams, not yet, as pots and pans, food and blankets were strapped into wagons and tied into sheets. Had his uncle left already, without telling them? He grew frantic, pounded on the wood and iron door once more, this time with such force that the swing lock rattled like gunfire.
‘Thaya-ji open the door!’
On the other side he heard the iron lock shift. He knew that if he stood out there long enough the fire would find him, as would the mobs of men who carried it on every inch of their skin. He threw himself into Laab Singh’s arms, who pulled the boy in quickly. His uncle stood firm against the door with his daughter, Rajni, who was a little younger than Dilbagh, Manmohan’s age or thereabouts. Her waist length black braids made her face look even paler and thinner than usual. She was holding her father’s sleeve at the elbow in both her fists. Further behind him, Laab Singh’s two sons were carrying large clay urns of pulses and rice, while his wife sat on the floor of the courtyard tying turmeric, chilli powder and salt tightly into overlapping squares of cotton.
Dilbagh cried out as he watched his cousins loading up their wooden cart. ‘Papa won’t go, but we have to, quickly, please come and tell him. Please, uncle. Now’. He was still gripping the wooden stick used to drive their cattle to bathe, which Laab Singh took from him, instructing Rajni to lock the door after they’d left. The elder man cloaked himself with a pale woollen shawl before stepping out into the alley, followed closely by his nephew.
Chann Kaur had just put her newborn daughter to sleep when Dilbagh Singh burst into the courtyard, shouting for his father. A wave of street noise rose in his wake, wheels and footsteps, yelling and, distantly, sharp crashing sounds like someone taking a hammer to a brick wall.
Carrying a lantern, chased by an oblivious Bhulwan Singh whose ebullient feet slapped against the earthen floor, she whispered for him to be quiet. Dilbagh Singh ignored her. There was no need to wake his siblings, she protested gently. Chann Kaur looked down at her little boy, invisible in the near darkness, who had caught her leg and was hiding his face in her kameez. She continued: they could discuss all this in the morning. And yes maybe they would have to leave, too.
Catching sight of her brother-in-law, she entreated him, ‘Bhaji, what should we do? He’s on the roof’. Laab Singh patted Dilbagh Singh’s shoulder. He climbed the concrete staircase that ran up the side of the house alone.
Moments later, Mohinder Singh charged down the stairs.
‘We’re going, tonight. Quickly pack as much as you can.’
What he did not say to his wife and children was that for the past hour, the fire had quickly spread—torches, bonfires, explosions and shadowy gangs of figures dart into and out of houses met by breaking, terrible screams. The mobs were converging on 204 and they had to run.
Dilbagh Singh would go with his uncle’s family; they needed his protection and they would travel on foot and by bull cart to the border. In a few weeks they would be in Amritsar. Mohinder Singh and the others would join them later by train. Dilbagh Singh nodded as if his father’s plan had been known to him all along. Only that morning Dilbagh had gone to the Katchery Bazaar to have his turban dyed and starched, as was his habit. But the Muslim market traders—who he’d known for years—threw the spool of cloth into the street. They laughed and told him to get lost. As he crossed his own threshold for the last time, Dilbagh’s final thought was of his mother. More than anyone else, he felt her presence in that house, her ghost moving like moonlight against the walls. She was the only thing left in Lyallpur the boy would never get back. He and his uncle made their hasty goodbyes.
Khalsa High School’s white and red brick arcades would not shelter the tens of thousands who pushed through the police cordon onto its grounds. The perimeter was monitored by the military and by local city officers, whose faces, dark or white, were unmoved by their assigned duties. Many of them were Sikhs, the favoured recruits of the British, and some were Muslims. As Mohinder Singh’s family entered the encampment of stick tents and wax tarps, some no more than a sheet draped in two, he was greeted by relatives, friends and former students, many of whom pressed upon them a spot adjacent to their own to share. He leaned his bicycle against the tall pipal tree outside the canteen, as he had every day for the past several years, out of habit.
That evening, the elder men gathered to confer under the awnings as a steady rain began to take hold. Soldiers held their rifles with both hands, anticipating attack and quickening their response. The School’s main hall, a high vaulted glass and iron roof from which hung four revolving fans, was a hive of activity: apportioning supplies, communications for the United Council for Relief and Welfare. With the British Red Cross, they had developed a rationing system. Each family would get a card. Part of the hall was converted into a makeshift triage centre. Over the coming days, Mohinder Singh would lead the distribution of food and water to the congregated exiles of his own district.
Perhaps things might quieten down, he wondered privately. Maybe they would return to their homes. He and his friends, Sikhs mostly who sheltered under the covered walkways when the rain pelted unendingly on their tents, still held out hope that the violence would give way to the bonds of the past.
Weeks at the camp became a month, and finally two, at which point Mohinder Singh’s wife and children were stewing and mashing tree leaves to eat with their chapattis. The Relief Council gave them flour—from grain Mohinder may have grown on his own land—in portions measured to keep them, just barely, from death. Dysentery was rife, and vaccinations soon began, with the children first and the elderly. Beyond the camp, out towards the railway station, a temporary cemetery amounting to heaps of earth had been allocated for the city’s dead. Irrespective of religion, cremations were impossible under the circumstances. People had to make do with mourning some other way, driving many who’d witnessed the slaughter of their husbands, wives and children to the end of their wits.
Gunfire kept them awake at night. Ever closer, the endless monsoon rains, too, fell like bullets against the cold hard tents. When little Bhulwan could not sleep, and the rains briefly subsided, Chann Kaur developed a game for him to play. Count the stars and for every star put one stone on the ground, just here. Bhulwan was old enough to count only so far, but he gathered small white pebbles strewn from the School gardens and drew a map of the heavens in the rain-caked mud.
Chann Kaur’s baby girl, who they had not yet formally named but called ‘chidhi’, meaning sparrow, slept well. Too well, she worried. When we’re in India, her mother thought, we’ll go the gurduwara and choose a first letter from the guru granth sahib, as she had for all of her children’s names. For now, the gurduwaras had been looted and would eventually be turned into mosques, including her favourite one, with its high ornate entrance, finished in gold, just next to the Ghanta Ghar of the circular Gole Bazaar. She refused to believe word of Sikh rampages against Muslims in Amritsar that had filtered through the camp. Not in the holiest of cities.
As her husband consulted with camp officials and took over more prominent ration and jurisdictional duties, she became more inventive with food and play for their children, whose nightmares only worsened. They could not explain to her why they awoke suddenly in the night, clutching at her face, in tears. Chann Kaur had her own nightmares. The one that terrified her most was of a long-tailed rat, grey black with fanged teeth and a red mouth that lunged and attacked them as they slept. On its back, purloined as if from a colourful butterfly, were large orange and green wings that expanded as it made for her sleeping babies. The more she fought it off, the faster it came after her. She never told this to her husband.
When their turn finally came to board one of the crammed trains out of Lyallpur to Amritsar, it was the end of October. Thousands of passengers jostled for space inside and on the roof of the seven cars, hitched together for the perilous journey. Reports of trains arriving from the border filled with dead and maimed did not deter them—ghost trains of blood and charred bodies, ambushed en route. Sometimes trains stopped and drivers refused to continue, fearing for their own lives or in the hopes that their illegitimate cargo would be forced into the hands of waiting gangs. Trains of dead Sikhs and Hindus crossed the Ravi, bordering the new India, and equally trains of Muslims heading for East Pakistan and West Pakistan, traversed water, fire and whole villages of mutilated bodies hung from trees or just in parts, scattered like grain for animals, over the valleys and plains.
As Mohinder Singh’s family bundled what remained of their belongings, they made for the platform at Lyallpur railway station, which was heavily patrolled but in absolute chaos. Families pushing into cars and hanging from the rear and top, braving even this exposure on the slow journey that lay ahead of them. A rapport of sharp orders to stand back, to wait, some accompanied by low thuds from batons filled the station.
Boarding the train, Mohinder Singh lifted his Raleigh Cruiser onto the carriage, passing it to Manmohan Singh who’d jumped on first.
A local police officer shouted and raised his arms. He pulled the cycle back down onto the platform. ‘You’re not allowed to take this, there’s no room. Can’t you see that these trains are packed full? You have to leave it here.’
As if routine, Mohinder Singh reached into his breast pocket and pulled out five rupees, putting it into the officer’s firm hand around the cycle’s black steel frame. Without making eye contact, the officer retreated, but advised as he walked back into the crowd, ‘Hold it through the window, hang it outside the carriage.’
For the duration of their journey, which would normally have taken five or six hours but dragged on for two weeks, stopping and starting, moving at a speed slower than a leisurely stroll in total darkness, Mohinder and his son Manmohan hitched the Raleigh to a length of cotton cloth and held on to it tightly, in turns, through an open window.
They kept very quiet as the train pulled through Lahore, the once great fortress city of Moghul, Sikh and British India, now teaming with looters and dacoits from all sides.
The worst and most savage visions appeared as daylight rose amid a thick fog. Thankfully, the children were sleeping, curled up in a corner of the crammed box car with their mother. They must be close to the caravan, Mohinder Singh guessed, the columns of foot traffic crossing just south of the Wagah border, avoiding Lahore and Amritsar, crossing the Beas river.
There, in the unsown fields between winter crops of wheat and summer crops of rice, bodies of infants, about twenty of them no more than three years old, as if selectively snatched from their mothers by age, lay face down and bloodied in the furrows. He had heard that Sikh fathers across Punjab were also committing filicide, raising up their daughters’ long braids and chopping off their heads to preserve their honour. Whatever these parents were heading for in newly-formed India, the blood of their seed would forever be here, he thought, as the train crawled ahead. The sin covered them all equally and the lives of these children would never be repaid.
If this was the convoy, then what chance did his own son have? Would Dilbagh Singh be waiting for them in Amritsar, he wondered, knowing that the hope of reuniting may have long since been lost as his son waited daily for train after train to arrive without them.
Mohinder Singh could not yet imagine what life they would have in India. He’d never even been to Delhi or Simla, rarely venturing past Amritsar, which lay only a few miles from the newly-drawn border. English he could teach anywhere. Where would they live? What would they eat? But what did it matter, he decided, leaning his head against the window frame, having secured his bicycle to his waist, the land on both sides of the border was covered with the blood of innocents. Whatever he or his sons would sow there, in that unknown place where they were headed, would taste of this scene that filled the carriage with an unspeakable stench.
Amritsar, the holiest city for Sikhs whose central jewel the Golden Temple was fixed in a collet of intricate marble walls and pools, slowly opened out before them. The passengers roused themselves from hunger and the gasping smell of human excreta. They had long given up on relieving themselves out windows or between carriages onto the track.
The rumours were true. Amritsar, and many other Indian cities, like in Pakistan, was in a state of civil war. Cholera had broken out the month before and was proving uncontainable. Even the Vicererine, Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who Nehru had personally asked to lead the relief effort, found the sheer scale of tens of thousands of dying too much to bear. The British were in the hill stations, waiting to escape. No, the British hadn’t asked for this to happen, Edwina’s husband might say privately. It was unavoidable. The Indian Congress officials would disagree, Nehru especially, and blame Jinnah’s Muslim League for the violence. Jinnah would blame the no-hope line drawer-in-chief Sir Cyril Radcliffe and Nehru, who’d undoubtedly kept the choicest parts of British India for themselves: Kashmir, the mouths of rivers that debouche into the plains of Pakistan’s new Punjab province. The nearly dead, insensate men and women who tumbled onto the train platform, however, did not know who to blame or who would listen. They buried and sunk into concrete silence the things they saw and the things they left behind forever.
As the train pulled into the station, the platform was almost as full as the train itself. Those on the roof swung down over windows, using them as ladder rungs to the ground. Men disembarked first, carrying the small loads they’d stored with them. Mohinder Singh scanned the crowd anxiously. Chann Kaur carried her three children like newly-grown limbs, heavy with sleep.
Against a wall stood Dilbagh Singh who ran towards his father, healthy, strong and speechless with joy. ‘I knew it was you when I saw the bicycle hanging from the carriage’. He spluttered these words and buried his face in his father’s shoulder.
That evening, the family reunited in the Atari camp near the station. Sitting on white sheets, laid out as if for prayer, Mohinder, Manmohan and Laab Singh leaned against a wall. Their father, who had rarely drunk tea at home, sipped and renewed himself on the steaming, milky drink as his son recounted some of their journey on the convoy.
‘Some of the way it was just those of us heading to Amritsar, but eventually the lines in the opposite direction,’ he paused here before resuming, ‘came close to ours and fights would break out.’ Dilbagh would not elaborate on the things he’d seen and his father did not ask him to. Mohinder Singh had noticed several walking wounded in the camp, some men whose hands had been chopped off at the wrist. Dilbagh continued. One evening he and his uncle decided to forage for food from the woods. Bordering on a looted village, still smouldering somewhere near Hudiara, south of Lahore, the two made a silent approach through the thick forest, slipping along a shallow earthen canal.
A group of about twenty men patrolling with their rifles stopped some hundred feet away. They pointed their guns and fired as they ran towards them. The two men quickly slipped back into the canal, swimming furiously, and hid in the reeds, listening to the sound of bullets advancing in the darkness.
‘We thought that was the end, Papa,’ Dilbagh said quietly, if a bit matter of fact, to his father. Laab Singh, who had up to now remained silent, corroborated the boy’s story with a slow nod.
‘They looked happy to have someone to murder,’ Dilbagh added.
Just as the two lay silently paddling among the thick grass, a jeep drove up, its lights cutting through the black of night.
‘A military car with two British officers inside’.
Laab Singh, imitating his own words to the soldiers as the two men dragged themselves up from the embankment, pressed his hands together and spoke blankly into the far distance:
‘We are at your pity, Sirs’.
His hands dropped. He rubbed his folded knees, eyes still fixed and expressionless.
‘They put us in their car and opened fire with machine guns on the Muslims, killing almost all of them.’ Dilbagh added this final detail without relish or elaboration.
The British returned them to the convoy. Dilbagh, surprising himself with a shallow laugh, recounted how he instinctually saluted them as the two officers got back into their car and drove away.
Returning to his pensive stillness, he looked at his Uncle who was staring at his folded legs. ‘We hid under bodies. Women, children. Torn into smaller and smaller pieces.’ Dilbagh Singh rubbed his arms against the cold, pulling the rough wool blanket over his shoulders.
Writer, Critic, interested in issues of migration, race, avant garde literary traditions