The Way Home

I had always wanted to tell this story. My story is an old one, as old as our country in fact. This means that it has been heard and told for years, passed on from one family member to another. I can say I was born into this story, like people are born into poverty or privilege as their fate demands, I inherited this fantastic tale, fed into me since infancy in bits and pieces till I was able to comprehend the whole of it. And what a gift of ancestry it is: dearer than precious stones or sprawling mansions, for, when the times turn dark and I find myself unsure, I turn to this heirloom and draw strength…



“For it is only when you find yourself face to face with Fear, it's menacing gaze reducing your insides to a churning liquid, do you discover the will and the means to reclaim yourself. And that is Courage.”
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The marketplace was secluded and gloomy. Dev, the owner of a general cloth shop regarded the dreary scene with despair and sighed. He remembered the crowds that would throng the place at this time of the day but now those happy times were gone. Born the son of a Tehsildar, Dev had been forced to take up the command at a young age with the untimely demise of his father. Giving up his dream of pursuing studies in Medicine, he had established the shop and sent his younger brothers to Medical school instead. Being able to single-handedly support a family had made him into something of an achiever at a very young age and his character had prospered with the responsibility.
But today, Dev was sad. He knew that things would never be the same again, especially with the communal hatred that was spreading. The village of Mamukanjan, District Sialkot, was rapidly emptying itself of its non-Muslim population. Packing their bags and leaving for the new India where they said life would be prosperous for the Hindus under Nehru’s command. It was August and the air was damp and heavy. Dark clouds were prone to gathering without a notice to unload their burden on the ground. But the dark clouds that were threatening the life of the villagers were different. With the news of the Independence had also come the announcement of the formation of a new nation, Pakistan, a separate country to be chalked out for the Muslim population with Jinnah at the helm of affairs. Dev failed to understand why they needed a separate country. Hadn’t they co-habited peacefully all these years? Separation on the basis of religion! What difference did religion make, after all, they all ate the same bread, drank the same water and faced the same problems of an ordinary domestic household. ‘The only difference is that, in the evening, my neighbor goes to the mosque and I, to the temple…’, mused Dev as he closed down the shop for the day and walked towards his home.
On entering the house, Dev perceived an atmosphere of tension and fear. His wife, mother and sisters were all gathered in the courtyard, silent and still. All eyes turned to him as his made his way towards the cot. He looked searchingly at their troubled faces.
‘The Khannas have also left. They went this morning. Now, all my sisters have gone’, it was Nirmal, his young bride who was the first to speak.
‘Son, they are saying that once Pakistan comes into being, not a single Hindu will be left alive here. Pakistan is only for Muslims. No one else will be allowed.’
‘But, mother, how can it be so? Haven’t we been living here since so many decades? Father was the tehsildar of this village! Everybody knew and respected him. He has done a lot of work for this village. We have as much right to live here as the Muslims. Besides, who will ask us to leave?’, Dev retorted, splashing some cool water on his face.
‘The Muslims will want us to leave, brother. Yes, our very neighbors. I have heard that they have become violent in the cities. Talks of the new country has injected them with venom against us.’
‘Oh, that’s nonsense, sister! Absolute nonsense! What will our neighbours ever gain by driving us out? Let’s not fill our heads with such ideas. It is all propaganda to spread hatred. A departing move made by the British to upset us. Hindus and Muslims in separate countries! Why, there are much more Muslims on the other side of the border than there are here, how can they all come here?’
‘Dev, your sisters are terrified! Your wife is expecting! You must understand we have no way of protecting ourselves in these troubled times. What if the rumors are true? What if they turn us out? Oh, if only your brother was here! He must have news of what is going on there. Have you received any letter from him?’, Dev’s mother asked, referring to his younger brother who was at that time studying in Ludhiana, on the other side of the proposed border.
‘No, mother, I have not received anything from him yet. But we really must not worry. There is nothing to be afraid of. But, if you want, I will enquire about arrangements for a safe passage, if the need shall ever arise. Now, shall we have some dinner?’
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Unfortunately for Dev and his family, the need arose too soon. It was September, the 4th, 1947. Raj, one merchant like him, came with the news.
‘Dev Bhai, you must leave. We must all leave immediately. I am leaving today itself’, he panted as he hurriedly shut down his shop. ‘What are you staring at me for? Run!’
‘Raj, what happened? Why this urgency all of a sudden? Won’t you tell me?’
‘No time, Dev. Just listen to me. These scoundrels are setting fire to every Hindu home in the village. They are looting every shop of ours they can find and hacking our women and children with their swords. Dev, you must go!’
He felt himself starting to tremble. His palms grew clammy and a cold wave ran down his spine. He rushed to Raj and grabbed him by the shoulders. Looking deep into his eyes, he said, ‘Swear to me, Raj, that everything you are telling me is verified. Is there no other way left for us?’
‘Dev, I swear on my family. Now, leave me, I have to go. Talk to a truck driver as soon as you can for passage!’, Raj replied before disengaging himself and rushing away. As Dev watched his retreating figure, terror gripped him. How would he arrange a safe passage on such short notice? They had not even packed anything like the other families. He ran down the streets to where the trucks were stationed and spotted Salim, one of his neighbours.
‘Salim Mia, we cannot find a way to escape. Will you take us?’
‘No, I’m sorry, you are too late. I am already taking one family and it will be too difficult to hide another.’
‘But there is no other way! We must leave now or perish!’
But the bulky Muslim continued to nod his head. Then, Dev did something he had never imagined himself capable of. He took off his turban and laid it down at the man’s feet.
‘Salim Mia, the life of my family is in your hands. Please, I beg of you, show some kindness to your neighbors.’
 Salim regarded the helpless figure at his feet. That he would be caught if trying to help Hindus was certain, but he could not being himself to refuse the man.
‘Okay, Dev, I will be waiting with my truck here. You must come with your family in one hour at the latest. If you are not here at the end of the hour, we will leave’.
No sooner had Dev heard the words that he sprinted, as fast as his legs would carry him. Cries of ‘Allah-oo-Akbar’ were filling the street. He could discern an orange glow on the horizon which could not be the sun setting. ‘Oh God, it has started!’. He reached home and directed everybody to pack everything they could in two suitcases and leave. His wife and mother were appalled. There were way too many valuables in the house to be stuffed into two suitcases. But, it was either survival or wealth and they chose the former.
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Dev knew that to expect a safe and uninterrupted passage was out of the question. But, none of his foresight could have prepared him or his family for the sights that unfolded in the streets. Mutilated, mangled bodies lay strewn along the roads, blood flowing down in small drains. Terrified, the family huddled together in a corner, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. They had forgotten everything about the shop, house and treasures they had left behind. Survival was the only thing on their mind, to stay safe and together till they reached India.
‘Who goes there? Stop the truck! Stop the truck!’
A mob of armed men had gathered around them, bringing the truck to a halt. A tall Pathan got up immediately and went to talk to who looked like the leader of the mob.
‘Yes? What do you want?’
‘We have information that there are Hindus in this truck!’
Dev’s insides went cold. The thing he had been dreading the most had occurred. He looked sideways at his mother, wife and sisters. Their faces were a deathly white. He could see his mother’s lips move inaudibly in prayer. Despite the blood pounding in his ears, he strained them to catch the conversation going on on the road. And what he heard was unbelievable.
‘We will not let you touch any person here!’, shouted the Pathan.
‘Yes, if you want to get to them, you will have to go through us!’, shouting another, brandishing a lathi.
Dev could scarcely believe the words that were being uttered by those men. They were willing to sacrifice their lives for them! Humanity was not dead, after all, despite the hate-spreaders. He tried getting up from his crouching position but was stopped by a man with a command to stay where he was.
The armed Pathan was glowering menacingly at the men below. Someone asked Salim to step up on the gas and slowly, they felt the claws of death release their grip from upon them.
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Two months had elapsed since their escape from Pakistan. They had covered thousands of kilometers by every mode of transport possible to reach a small village near Amritsar, a township in the ‘Indian’ Punjab. As the days had gone by, the excitement of escape had been replaced by a deep sense of irascible loss. Fear for their lives had been replaced by fear for the days that were to come.
Dev often wondered how they would sustain themselves. This new country they found themselves citizens of, their new ‘homeland’, was completely alien to them. Yet, they would have to embrace the land as their own. Times had changed irreversibly. A few weeks after reaching India, their family had been jolted by news of their house having been completely ravaged by none other than their neighbor, Salim Mia’s family. Yes, times had changed irreversibly.
It was while travelling through Punjab that Nirmal had gone into labor. They had to halt immediately and seek help from the villagers. And thus, miles away from what they had once considered home, in an obscure village, after months of running to protect their lives, Dev and Nirmal were blessed with their first progeny, a daughter they chose to name Vijayalakshmi. Now, for a girl to be born in this country and that too in times of trouble would normally be a matter of concern. But, not to this family. To them, the female form was the embodiment of the power which grants and sustains life. The birth of a daughter was a definite sign from the Universe that a new life had been granted to them, a life which they must lead with sincerity and virtue to prosper. And hence, the name Vijayalakshmi: the Goddess of Victory…
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From Punjab, the family set off for Kanpur and tried to establish an enterprise. But it failed and they had to leave the town. They then travelled to Agra where the leather industry was blooming. Dev set up a business of leather balls and goods but the chemicals used in the making gave him asthma and he had to give it up. Never the one to be deterred, he tried his hands at various other small enterprises before settling on a general merchant shop. A humble venture, in comparison to his business in Pakistan, but dedication to work enabled them to raise, feed and educate a family. Steadily, the venture grew and he was able to marry off his sisters and move to a comfortable, independent lodging. Throughout the tough ordeal, he had not given up his love for reading and writing and had inculcated the same in his daughter and three sons. Oh, and also, he was never one to put the blame on Muslims. Allah is great, he would often say, he is watching all our actions and his justice will be final.
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So, this is how the story goes. It is not something very remarkable or extraordinary. But, then, no story is that way by itself. We lend greatness to the tales of our everyday lives by extracting from them a message, a moral to be learnt and imbibed. The astonishing thing about this account for me is the realization of the fact that my grandparents, great grandmother, grand aunts and uncles were, at the end of the day, very plain and simple people. Yet, they pushed themselves to get the better of a gargantuan task when the need arose. My grandparents were young, way too young to face the uprooting, the killings and the poverty. They portrayed a courage and sensibility way beyond their years. Stripped of all material possessions, cheated by the people they trusted, they were faced with the daunting task of raising and caring for a family. It was an uphill climb throughout. But, they made it. I shudder to think what would happen if I found myself in their situation. Would I have the strength? Or the valor? We cry and crib over every minute thing that does not go our way. We are so tied down by weight of our assets that every small loss upsets us. How, then, does one react to a complete wipeout? This is where these memoirs give me inspiration. The story of how my family came into being is testimony to the fact that it is not the wealth you possess but the ethics you carry that make you.

It is not in the nature of Life to be fair. It is your reaction to the obstructions it throws in your way that decide your destiny. And there isn’t any mountain high enough that a man with will and vision cannot climb. 






3 comments:

Words are always welcome.
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