“Yes, you need to arrive as soon as possible. His health deteriorated last night.”
“I’m on my way. Be there in 2 hours.”
“Yes, I’ll do all that, dad. Don’t worry. He will be fine. I’m coming.”
“Paeri pauna, Bauji,” Balwinder touched his great-grandfather’s feet.
“Arrey, Baloo, you came?” The radiant smile on his face told Baloo how happy Roopinder Singh was to see him.
“How couldn’t I? You refuse to come home. Now I have to be the one coming here,” he replied with a mock anger in his voice.
The room was well-lit with the bright LEDs and the sunlight filtering through the venetian blinds. The air-conditioning ensured there was no chance of the outside chill bothering anyone. There was an eerie sparkle, a glisten common in high-end hospital chambers. Machines were running besides the bed and were accompanied by the dim sound of the static. The fresh flowers on the bedside table lent a lovely fragrance to the room. And despite all this, there was a feeling of lifelessness there for Roopinder Singh until Baloo came.
“How long do you want to hold me here? Your Beeji has been waiting there for 14 years now. Let me be one with her again,” he looked up towards the ceiling.
“Offoh, same old tune again. Forget all that. Don’t you want to know how my classes are going?”
Roopinder smiled and said, “Eh, why not? Regale me with the tales of the best B-School of the country.”
“I was kidding, Bauji. I don’t want to bore you with that economics Mumbo-Jumbo. You know more than all those professors combined. Why don’t you regale me with the tales of partition? Tell me all about it, how you saved all those people.”
Roopinder’s face turned pale. His eyes, which were sparkling till now, suddenly seemed sunk in their sockets.
“Can’t we talk about something else, Baloo?”
“Why not? I have been told in passing by others about your valour. But I want to hear those stories from you, Bauji. You always said you’ll tell me at the opportune time, when I grow up. I’m all grown up now. You can tell me.”
“Vahey Guru, who am I trying to mess with?” Bauji muttered.
“He, he, yes well, now you have to tell me. Please, please, Bauji.” Baloo said in a childish voice, pouting and joining his hands to complete the effect.
Bauji let out a sigh. He stared for a while at the oil painting on the wall opposite his bed. Then he turned his head to the right and gazed in his descendant’s eyes.
“Set me up, arrange these pillows. I am tired of lying on the bed all day.”
A couple of minutes later, the stage was set. Bauji cleared his throat and coughed once. When he spoke, his voice had lost all of its natural charm, like he wasn’t even speaking from the same place.
“Partition,” began Bauji, “killed the kid in me. I lost everything, almost everything that I could call my own. I had nothing when I reached Amritsar.”
Baloo had tucked up his legs under his hips and fixed his palms in them. He was listening intently.
“You do know that we came from Gujranwala originally, don’t you?” Bauji asked in his frail, gravelly voice.
Baloo nodded in approval.
“Right. So when I got on the train to Amritsar, I kept praying that I be able to reach Wagah safely. But we were stopped, of course, and 150 men with arms attacked our train. I resolved that we had to fight them. I rallied the other men in the compartment to join me. There were women and children too and we had to ensure their safety. There were 300 people in a single coach. That train must have had more than 2000 people on it. We could overpower the attackers. As men, as Sikhs, we had to fight. We couldn’t just run away. And the rest is public knowledge, how we forced them to surrender and carried on safely ahead.”
“How many of them did you kill?”
“Oh, no one died. Your uncles like to embellish their stories. The passions were running high, yes. But I and three army officers ensured that no violence occurred. Not one drop of blood was shed.”
“Aha,” he chuckled and continued, “You were awarded by the govt for your bravery, right?”
“Yes,” he nodded, closing his eyes.
“Wow, Bauji, I’m so, so proud of you. I mean, I know how you created this business empire from nothing. But saving so many lives in such a pressure situation, I can’t even imagine what that would have been like.”
“That is not the whole story though,” Bauji cautioned.
“Eh? There’s more?” Baloo’s eyes widened.
“Yes. And it’s something that no one knows.” His voice had lowered down. Baloo dragged his chair nearer to the bed to be able to listen clearly.
“What was it, Bauji?”
“You know how I lost my family members in the partition?”
“Kind of. I heard they were all killed by the people of your locality.”
“Yes, that is how some of them died.”
“‘Some of them?'”
“Yes. My father and uncles were butchered in their fields. They were tending to the crop in the morning, around 10 am, when a mob cut them to death. It was a wet day. Their blood flowed through the fields along with the rain water. My grandfather was hanged by some youth at the village square the same afternoon. I was out roaming with two friends. I had no idea about the kind of mayhem that was taking place.”
Baloo didn’t utter a word.
“When I returned home, I found the womenfolk screaming and crying. I sensed something was wrong because in broad daylight, there was this unreal silence in the whole neighbourhood. When I entered the home, it became all too clear.”
“Those scoundrels, those people we lived with for years, who took refuge in our home whenever their houses leaked, they’d done this to us. I was the only adult male alive in the whole clan. There were fourteen people who were looking at me for direction and I was too shocked to do anything. I took up my youngest nephew, Kanwaljeet, in my arms and bounded up the stairs to my room. There was a chair besides the window and I went and sat on it. Kanwu was fast asleep. I looked out the windows at the rain. And out of nowhere, my tears started to flow. It was like this sea of emotions had welled up inside my heart and I could do nothing to stop it.”
“I don’t remember how long I sat there. I drifted off and had terrible dreams. I saw those killers beating and raping the women of my family. When I woke up, I was so scared I was drenched in sweat. I couldn’t allow my family’s honour and bloodline to be spoiled and them be taken away as slaves. I couldn’t let them be defiled by those murderers.”
Baloo knew what Bauji was hinting at. He interrupted as he didn’t want him to be consumed by the pain of those dark times. “But you failed, didn’t you? They were martyred and lost to those killers?”
“They were martyred,yes. Hamaare khaandaan ki auratein shaheed ho gayi (the women of our clan were martyred). When I came down the stairs, my mind was made up. Then I heard a nephew say that the killers had massacred the whole family of Jarnail Singh, our business partner who lived on the other side of the village. We figured it wouldn’t be long before they came for us. Then Beeji looked at me grimly and said, “Puttar (son), whatever you do, don’t let us fall in their hands.” I looked around the courtyard and there was this apprehension in every eye. I knew I had to do it.”
He fell silent then, as if bringing himself to speak the rest would take his soul out of him. Baloo’s jaw had gone taut. He had clenched his teeth so tight it had started to ache. He could hear his heart pound in its cage.
“Do what, Bauji?” he finally asked, unable to bear the tension.
Bauji muttered something.
“What?” Baloo strained his eyes and cocked his head to a side, trying to pick up the words from the air between them. He stood up from the chair and sat down on the floor at Bauji’s headside. Bauji was still murmuring.
“Them….kill them..Kill them all…Beeji, Manjeet, Beena, Navjota, Gillu, Kanwu…”
Baloo recoiled in horror as he heard the words. His eyes widened and he stared at Bauji’s face, the tears streaming down the sides. His lips were quivering.
“What are you talking about, Bauji? You didn’t kill them, those murderers did.”
“I did. I killed them all and justified their deaths. I rationalised them to myself. I had to save the family’s honour. I did what no human being should do. Their deaths hang around my neck as a collective deadweight. I failed them, I failed my faith, and I failed myself. And all through these decades, I have been living with the pain and guilt of those murders. I have condemned myself to suffering through my actions. These illnesses and afflictions of the flesh are results of those sins. I gave away millions in philanthropy and yet, I’ve been unable to wash them away. After a while, I couldn’t even justify them to myself. I had to let them remain a part of my past, locked away from the world. The burden of this secret has prevented me from leaving this body. It’s like I can’t even die.”
Baloo stared at him like he had seen a ghost.
“So why didn’t you kill yourself?” Baloo whispered.
“Huh? How could I?” He snapped out of his rumination. “I was a coward. A pathetic, godforsaken fool who preferred fleeing away with his life instead of fighting like a true Sikh. I beg you, Baloo, forgive me. Forgive me and release me from this body. I cannot stand this any longer.”
“I am not the person who can forgive you, Bauji. That authority is not mine. Ask Vaahe Guru. Maybe he will.”
“Don’t say that, Baloo. Please do something,” Bauji was still weeping.
“It’s beyond me, Bauji.” He got up from the floor and walked out of the room.
Although fictional, this story is based on an interview of writer Urvashi Butalia, writer of “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India,” done by the journalist Ajaz Ashraf.
Thanks for reading. Do share your views on the comments. I’d leave you with this image of Nida Fazli’s shayari :