Two Days /*/

As I now recall... Or, more correctly, as something I call my memory now tells me after five decades: it was a gray morning. There was not the faintest glow of a sun in the sky -- the colour of a dingy sheet -- and the infrequent gusts of air came damp from a fine spray. But by no means was it an unpleasant day. One felt rather grateful in Bara Banki in August when it actually rained instead of just being humid hot, and when even the slightest breeze grazed one's body.

I was four months short of my thirteenth birthday.

My father's terminal illness -- he was to die fourteen months later -- had not yet made itself manifest, and we still lived in our old home in the Civil Lines, next door to the Hobart Club and the Company Gardens, not too far from the Police Lines and the sports complex that honoured a former Governor of the province named Hallett. Our town boasted only one main road. It started from the railway station and, shaded by old trees, went past the kothis and bungalows of the Civil Lines, then crossed a nullah by a bridge that commemorated the Jubilee of Queen Victoria; on the other side of the bridge, it passed by a few cultivated fields before making contact with the more inhabited part of the town. (The crumbling remains of the Hobart Club now house a primary school for girls as well as its former principal who refuses to vacate her quarters after retirement; the lawns and flower beds of the Company Gardens have disappeared under the bricks and concrete of a housing colony, and so have the tennis courts and the soccer field of the sports complex; the Hallett Pavilion and its annex have been converted into the living quarters of minor officials; only the Police Lines is still there, its esprit de corps enhanced by a Hanuman temple. The Station Road is no longer the city's main artery, and its old trees are mostly gone.)

I woke up early, probably on my own. More likely I was awakened by the voices of the Congress boys who went around the city that morning -- as they had been doing for more than a week -- loudly chanting nationalist songs. I imagine I was quite excited. The previous afternoon we -- all my friends in the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) and I -- had celebrated the creation of Pakistan by holding a rally in front of our small office-cum-library. The crescent-and-star-on-green flag of the Muslim League was raised and saluted, poems were sung, and speeches were listened to. Later, as we were dispersing, someone had suggested that we should further display our commitment to the Muslim League and the Quaid-e Azam by "boycotting" the ceremonies at the school the next day. There was an immediate agreement. We were fearless Muslims. Hadn't we just won Pakistan "laughingly?" (After the announcement of the Partition and the acceptance speeches of the leaders on 3 June 1947, some enthusiastic slogan-maker of the Muslim League had come up with a hot one: hans ke liya hai Pakistan / lar ke lenge Hindustan.)

The ceremony at the school -- Government High School -- was at eight, but the students had been told to come early. We would assemble in rows in the front yard of the school according to the grades we were in. Then, to the accompaniment of an anthem sung by a chorus, the principal would hoist the flag, and everyone would salute the flag by folding an arm before his chest. Later, sweets would be distributed.

I left home early. As I hurried to the MSF office, I met some fellow-members from my neighbourhood. Soon there were five or six of us. As we jauntily marched down the road, we noticed how the Congress volunteers had gone about hanging strings of tri-colour bunting across the road and between trees at numerous places. Someone in our group leaped up and pulled down a string of the tiny triangular pieces; then a second boy did the same. Soon all of us were randomly tearing down whatever such decorations our hands could reach. (Why did we do it? I have no explanation, except perhaps that it was out of a habit we had developed during the preceding so many months. A few people here and there shouted at us, telling us to stop, but no one actually confronted us. We were bold and fearless and full of more certainties about ourselves than we could have actually named.)

By the time we started from the MSF office for the school, our small procession consisted of some twenty or so boys -- fewer in number than the previous day rally and a fraction of our actual strength. One boy was carrying our flag, the flag of the Muslim League. It was tied to a bamboo pole, and the boy frequently made good use of it to pull down any celeberatory string of flags or bunting he passed under. We were shouting our old slogans - probably the new one too -- as we marched down the main road, turned at the General Hospital, and cut through the large open space where there were always some grazing cattle herded by little boys and girls. It was a short-cut that everyone used to go to the school and to the courts further down the road. On our way we passed many people. (We couldn't have known the names of most of them, but the faces must have been familiar. And the people, in turn, must have had the same feeling about us. In fact, we must have exchanged greetings, for no boy in the procession could have failed to greet any older person he knew: "Aadaab Arz" or simply "Aadaab," with the right hand quickly raised to the forehead, then dropped. That was then the accepted way in Bara Banki for a sharif Muslim boy to greet his elders whether the latter were Muslim or Hindu. The Hindu boys too used the same greeting with their parents' Muslim friends. That shared phrase of courtesy has now almost disappeared -- was it too Islamic for Hindus, and not Islamic enough for Muslims? -- replaced by "Namaste" on one side and "Assalaam-o Alaikum" on the other.)

The people we passed on the way didn't avert their eyes. They looked at us. Some, I imagine, with curiosity, some with surprise, even incredulity, others perhaps with some indulgence. Still others must have felt some degree of hate or anger. But no overt response occurred. No one stopped or questioned us.

(I'm afraid I may have forced my memory when I put our procession on the short-cut leading to the school's eastern gate. The memory, on the contrary, insists on placing our crowd at the western gate of the school; and I must yield to it.)

No, our procession didn't take the short-cut. It followed the longer route. We marched through Begum Gunj, turned south at the old Shi'ah mosque, passed the Veterinary Hospital on our way to Fyzabad Road, where we turned left and ended up at the western gate. There we stopped, by the cherished and scarred red-tamarind tree. (It still stands -- cherished for the blood-red inside of its fruit which is normally green, and scarred by the stones that generations of schoolboys have thrown at it to knock down the deliciously sweet and tart fruit. The road to Fyzabad is now a heavily used national highway, and its portion within the city-limits is lined with endless shops. In the Nineties it became the road to Ayodhya. Mechanised chariots, consecrated bricks, fiery sadhus and sadhvis, garish politicians, cheering volunteers, humble devotees -- they all used it during those scary months. And if ever an evening came too quickly for them, they stopped and spent the night in the rooms and verandahs of the old school.)

So there we were finally at the western gate, waving the crescent-and-star and shouting the familiar slogans: Pakistan Zindabad... Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad... Na'ra-e Takbir, Allah-o-Akbar... Hans ke liya hai Pakistan, Lar ke lenge Hindustan. In front of us was the low boundary wall, behind which was the front yard of the school where we could see our fellow students assembling and forming rows. Most of them came through the eastern gate, for it was closer to most of the city, but quite a few also went past us. Given the population of the city, most of them were Hindus -- at the time there were only two Sikh families in the city and only one Sikh boy in our school. But, Muslim or Hindu, none of the boys going in challenged us. (We, on the other hand, probably accosted the Muslim boys and tried to stop them from going in. We had plenty of practice of doing that the previous year, during the provincial assembly elections, much to the discomfort of the numerically fewer kangresi Muslim boys.)

Some time passed. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Twenty? I can't be sure. Then out came Kaul Sa'ab, one of the most popular teachers at the school. (A handsome Kashmiri Pundit of refined manners, he spoke elegant Urdu and Hindi, attended every musha'ira and kavi sammelan in the city, and religiously visited the tomb of Haji Waris Ali Shah at Dewa. Eventually, in his devotion to the saint, he refused promotions and transfers, and died in Bara Banki only two years ago.)

We fell silent when Kaul Sa'ab stepped through the gate, and greeted him with proper respect. He didn't scold us. Even otherwise he never spoke sharply to any student -- he usually addressed him as Bete, "Son." Gently and calmly, he told us that what we were doing was not nice, that it was improper for us to behave that way even if we didn't like what was happening. Someone responded that our protest was against the required salute to the flag, that we had no intention of showing respect to a flag that we didn't care for -- it was not our flag. Even then Kaul Sa'ab didn'tget angry. He merely shifted from quiet reasoning to the more jovial manner he was known for. He teased one boy, made fun of another, told jokes and quoted verses, and soon had us all bursting into smiles. Then, with mock seriousness, he told us about the delicious laddus that were to be distributed under his supervision at the end of the ceremony. Before we knew what was happening, he had us agreeing to a compromise: we would go in immediately and stand with our classmates for the ceremony, but we wouldn't sing the anthem or salute the flag. In return, Kaul Sa'ab would see to it that each of us received a double share of the sweets.

And that is exactly what happened. We left the green flag at the gate, leaning forlornly against the tamarind tree, and ourselves went in, stiff-necked but quiet. The tri-colour was raised, the anthem was sung, the salute was given -- we remained silent and kept our arms hanging by our sides. Afterward, as each class marched by him and his helpers, Kaul Sa'ab quietly made sure that we got two packets of four laddus each. Then everyone dispersed. I too returned home, feeling quite triumphant.

That was the last time the boys of the MSF met as a group. Our library-office closed a month or so later when Nafis Tirmizi, who had been running it, moved to Pakistan with his family./1/ Many older boys who had already graduated from high school also left for jobs in the new country. Many of the "leaders" in the local branch of the Muslim League disappeared too. There was, however, no incident of communal violence in Bara Banki in 1947, nor for that matter in Lucknow and other neighbouring districts. (Thank God, there hasn't been any so far either.)

I have no contemporary memory of the horrors that were happening at the time in other parts of the land. My father used to get The Pioneer, but I could then barely read it. At the MSF library, I had been reading Manshur and Tanvir, the two Urdu newspapers that the Muslim League used to bring out, but the library was now closed for ever, as were indeed the two newspapers. We didn't have a radio -- the city had no electricity then; it came two or three years later. Two of my three brothers -- all older to me -- went across the border. The older was in the army, and he formally opted to serve in Pakistan. (He was with a Dogra regiment, and the only Muslim officer in it. His English colonel held on to his option papers and told him to re-think his decision. That evening several of my brother's subordinates came and pleaded with him to change his mind. But the next morning, my brother went to the colonel and asked him to forward the papers to Delhi. I learned this when I met my brother some thirty years later in Chicago. He told me he had no actual reason in mind when he made that option -- it had just happened.)

The other brother had been a student at Aligarh and, in 1946, with the blessings of the university authorities, had gone to Sindh to campaign for the Muslim League during the assembly elections. Now he quit the university, went back to Nawab Shah, and took up a job with the local landlord he had earlier campaigned for. Later he moved to Karachi, where his lack of a college education didn't stop him from making a reasonably good life for himself and his family. Soon we heard of other young men -- within our extended family as well as outside of it -- who had made the kind of decisions my brothers had. It was happening in all the sharif families that we knew of, or identified with, in what we locally called our javaar, our own special "region." The sons and sons-in-law were moving away; the relatively younger in age were moving away; the men, more than the women, were moving away. And yet our life still seemed to move along on an even keel. If my father felt any anxiety, he didn't talk about it in our presence. As for my mother, she of course wept when two of her sons left for Pakistan without even coming home to bid her goodbye, but her tears were expected and didn't give us a pause.

In my own life outside the house, at the school and on the playground of our hockey club, and among friends -- most of whom were Muslim, though several were Hindu -- I felt no difference. In fact, our hockey club -- the Comrades Club -- was buzzing with such excitement in the final months of the year that nothing else could have mattered. One of its members -- K. D. Singh "Babu," our very own Babu Bhai -- had been selected for inclusion in the Indian team for the Olympic games in England, and the entire city was gripped with hockey fever. (He would be the second "All India" player from Bara Banki; twelve years earlier, my friend Nusrat's father, Shaukat Ali, had gone to Berlin with the legendary Dhyan Chand./2/ In the Forties, we had at least six regular teams in the city competing with each other: three high schools, the police, the army, and the Comrades Club. Now the three high schools have become junior colleges -- in addition a new degree college has also opened -- but there is no hockey, or any other team sport, in Bara Banki. Even the "stadium" built by the state in the Seventies now lies unused except for political rallies.)

I really can't recall what that January morning was like. It must have been very cold. But not too foggy, for we had started quite early. My father was going to Lucknow, probably for a check-up, and my mother and I were going with him in the car. Though he always took with him Buddhu, his personal servant who knew driving, my father liked to drive the car himself. And, before any trip, he invariably went first to the petrol pump in our neighbourhood. But that morning, when we arrived there, the place was closed. The owner, however, was still there, in his little office; he came out to the car and told us the news: someone had killed Gandhiji.

He had no details.

My father turned the car around. He looked grimmer than I had ever seen him. There was absolute silence in the car during the few minutes it took us to reach home. Was the car put away in the garage as soon as we got out? Probably. It was a day of unprecedented acts. The moment we were inside, my father had every outer door closed and bolted. And he ordered everyone to stay inside, not just inside the house but inside the central rooms -- we were not to go out even into the two inner courtyards except to use the latrines. Only my father's voice could be heard in the house; everyone else -- when they did say something -- spoke in whispers. My father was avidly fond of hunting, particularly of duck-shoots in winter. He owned three shotguns and a rifle; he also had a revolver which he had bought many years ago when there had been some threat to his life in a matter of ancestral property. Now he had all the weapons taken out of their cases and laid out on a takht, and he personally checked and loaded each of them. One of the guns was given to Buddhu. I had no experience with guns then -- my father had not considered me old enough to put one in my hands when I went with him on duck-shoots -- so I wasn't of any use to him.

Buddhu and my father, guns in hand, stayed inside with the women -- my mother, grandmother, and maidservants, including Buddhu's wife -- and the children -- my three sisters and Buddhu's many children. My father guarded the front rooms, while Buddhu prowled back and forth through the inner courtyards. Outside in the back, our chowkidar, Bhagwan Din, armed with his well-oiled, iron-tipped lathi, took up a position under a tree near the back gate, while in the front yard, our cook Sajjad, similarly armed, lurked behind a bush near the other gate.

I was probably as horrified as my parents when I had first heard the news at the petrol pump, but now, at home, my state of shock was chiefly due to the terror I could see in their faces. I had never seen my father like that. I couldn't have ever imagined that my quick-to-rage father who was always so sure of his privileged status and its attendant powers -- he was a zamindar of three villages, had received the minor title of Khan Sahib, and was an "Honorary Magistrate" as well as the "Special Railway Magistrate" -- could suddenly appear so helpless and scared. I was terrified, and so were my mother and sisters and everyone else, as we huddled in the gloom behind bolted doors. Even my grandmother had been made to come inside -- she normally spent the winter months in the verandah near the kitchen. After a while she had me sit beside her -- I was her favourite -- as she quietly murmured endless prayers.

A couple of hours passed. (Was it really that long?) Then we heard some announcement being made on a loudspeaker. The sound came closer, but the words couldn't be heard clearly inside the rooms. We cringed as we strained our ears. Finally, my father opened one of the doors and went outside. We anxiously watched him through the opening as he stood on the front terrace and listened to the announcement. Suddenly he began to swear -- more profanely and loudly than we had ever heard him. He stood there in sunlight raging, and seeing him in that familiar state reassured us. It gave me the courage to open a side-door and step out into the verandah, while my mother and sisters gathered at the door behind me. It was either a jeep or a truck, either of the police or of the army, equipped with a loudspeaker, and someone on it was making an announcement over and over. I wish I could recall the exact words, but I can't. I do remember, however, what they meant: an almost palpable sense of immense relief. Those words even meant a few furtive exchanges of smiles, for they told us that it was a Hindu who had done the killing -- a Hindu, not a Muslim. Now we could all acknowledge the terror we had been gripped by and also the reason for our relief, as indeed my grandmother audibly did when she thanked Allah for making Gandhiji's assassin turn out to be a Hindu and not, God forbid, a Muslim.

Soon "normalcy" returned to our lives. The school re-opened after a sudden closure for a few days, and the only visible difference there was the mysterious absence of our Geography teacher, who had been a leader in the local branch of the RSS -- he was held in custody for a few weeks, then released. Father's illness soon became fully manifest, and ran its course until he succumbed to it one night in October. His death, of course, radically altered my own individual life. As the only male at home, and with our mother observing purdah, I was now the visible "head" of the family - but that was usual and expected. A few years later, the government abolished the zamindari system and our main source of income disappeared, but that too had been expected. We could still maintain our safed-poshi, though at a lower scale. There were changes in the hierarchy of local movers-and-shakers, but we still knew many of them and, more importantly, they still knew us.

What was new was a gradual discovery that the terror which that January day had permeated even our bones and then as quickly seemed to have disappeared, had never actually left us. Months would go by, even years, then suddenly, at some odd occasion or during some innocuous conversation, it would let its presence be felt, as deep and certain within us as the sound of our heartbeats and the filling and emptying of our lungs. No longer could we -- my friends and I; our relatives; the sharif Muslims of the javaar, of my generation and older -- feel as cocksure as we had that day in August, or earlier. On the surface it was still very much life-as-usual for most of us, but underneath we no longer had that old conviction that what was paramount in everything that concerned us was our own say. Now we were convinced that everyone and everything we held dear was at the mercy of someone else's whim.

The specific events of that August day soon felt like ancient memory. But not the passions that had led to that day. They transformed themselves into two inter-laced narratives, both peculiarly reliant on the terrors of that January day -- it seemingly had left a permanent fault line in the landscape of our lives -- for maintaining their hold on us. As time passed, we developed a peculiar bipolar attitude towards Pakistan. It appeared to us as a land of opportunity and possible future refuge, but it had seemingly also left us mired in an abject insecurity we hadn't dreamed of. We never missed an occasion to lament the harm we had so foolishly done to ourselves or to feel twinges of guilt for what we had done to our Hindustan, but just as often we also rejoiced in Pakistan's existence and felt grateful it was there even if its borders were no longer open to us after the Nehru-Liaquat Pact. When parts of our homes were arbitrarily padlocked by the authorities under the Evacuee Property Act or when Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in Pakistan we told each other how stupidly we had acted, but when the fires of Jabalpur and Jamshedpur rose in the sky we assured ourselves how right we had been. In this manner, swinging back and forth between these polarities of being right and being wrong, we somehow managed to add fifty more years to our lives.


/*/ Originally published as "Pakistan or Hindustan?" in Communalism Combat (Mumbai), September 1997.
/1/ [2005: I now know that Nafis Tirmizi and his family did not move to Pakistan; they stayed on India.]
/2/ [2005: Shaukat Ali did not go to the Berlin Olympics; he went to the 1928 Olympics in Holland, where Dhyan Chand made his debut and India won its first ever gold medal.]


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