Trigger warning: Violence
This story is inspired by true events.
“Ammi, I’m waiting,” I cried, gazing longingly at the empty plate in Ammi’s hand from which she’d just served the last makki ki roti (cornbread) to my elder brother, Ali.
Abbu shot me a disappointed look from across the table. He loathed impatience.
“Two minutes, Inaya,” said Ammi, wiping the sweat on her forehead with her dupatta as she disappeared into the kitchen where I could see my Chachi (paternal aunt) flattening a roti between her hands and placing it over the tawa. Overhead in the dining room, our decades-old ceiling fan creaked on, mixing the hot air with the heady scent of sarson ka saag (a spiced curry made of mustard greens), which lay steaming and delicious on my plate with a dollop of melting ghee (clarified butter) on top, while I waited for my makki ki roti to devour it with.
“Umm,” said Ali, closing his eyes and moving his head from side to side. “Ammi, Chachi, the saag is delicious!” he cried, licking his fingers, an elaborate gesture carried out solely to spite me.
Farhan nudged Ali, admonishing him for teasing me, and offered me his makki ki roti. “Take it,” he says kindly. “I’ll wait for the next one.”
I felt blood rushing to my face as I accepted the roti from my cousin, who was six years elder to me. Marrying cousins is common in my community and I wondered if he’d be my husband one day. While helping Ammi dry clothes on the terrace the other day when I’d asked her this question, she’d knitted her brows and replied sharply that eight-year-old girls should not ask such questions.
Hungrily, I broke a piece of makki ki roti, doused it in saag and brought it to my mouth when there was an urgent knock at the kitchen window. This was odd. Our kitchen was located at the back of the house and if we had any visitors, they always knocked at the front door.
A cloud of worry darkened Abbu’s features. He exchanged a disquieting look with Chachu (paternal uncle) and went directly to the kitchen. Chachu exhaled slowly, wiped his mouth with the napkin and followed Abbu to the kitchen. It was strange seeing Abbu and Chachu standing by the window in the kitchen, the only room in the house they never entered because it was considered a woman’s dominion.
I craned my neck to look over the heads of my siblings and my cousins, who were now crowding the threshold of the kitchen to watch the unfolding events. I wondered if this could have something to do with the recent announcement by the Indian Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, bringing up the date of India’s independence to August of the current year and announcing the division of British India into the two new dominions of India and Pakistan. It was the topic that monopolized conversations nowadays, the only thing Abbu and Chachu discussed, worrying about how the partition of India would affect the millions of Muslims who lived in east Punjab and the rest of India where Muslims were a minority. Here in our hometown of Lahore, Hindus and Sikhs were a minority, comprising less than 20% of the population.
“Ram Charan, bhai. What’s wrong?” Abbu’s voice was clear and purposeful.
I dropped my roti on my plate and huddled up behind my brother, nudging and pushing, standing on my tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of the proceedings in the kitchen. The man Abbu addressed was the father of my best friend, Radha, who lived with her family down the road.
“Mohammed, bhai, only you can help us,” pleaded her father desperately.
“What happened?” Chachu interjected.
“They’re killing us, slaughtering Hindus and Sikhs. Only you can help us.”
Somewhere behind the walls of the kitchen, a baby started wailing as though sensing the imminent danger she was in. It could only be Radha’s one-year-old cousin. If her baby cousin was here too, it meant her whole family of nine was now glued outside the wall of our kitchen asking for refuge.
“It’s not possible. We’ve not heard anything,” said Chachu, sounding incredulous.
“Mohammed bhai,” said Radha’s father, addressing Abbu. “It really is happening. We wouldn’t be here if our lives were not in danger.”
“The streets are running red with blood. The blood of Hindus and Sikhs.” It was the quavering voice of Radha’s seventy-year-old grandmother, who, I knew, had trouble walking due to arthritis.
I dropped to the floor and peered through the gaps between the legs of my siblings and cousins.
Outside the window, I could see Radha’s father holding his frail mother over his shoulders, tears streaming down his cheeks. Beside him, I saw Radha’s uncle, pleading with folded hands.
“Just like the streets in Bengal ran red with the blood of Muslims.”
Surprised, I glanced up to see Farhan, his face a mask of fury and malice. I could not believe he had uttered those words. There was some truth to what he'd said. Last year in August, four days of massive Hindu-Muslim riots in the capital of the Indian state of Bengal had left nearly 10,000 dead and 15,000 injured. The ugly event, called the Great Calcutta Killings, was a blot on the Indian history and still fresh in people’s memories. But people had died on both sides. Did it justify today’s violence? Did it justify murder?
“Quiet, Farhan! Don’t talk when the elders are talking,” his father chided him.
“What do you want from us?” said Abbu.
“Mohammed bhai, if you do not give us refuge, we will be slaughtered right outside your house, all of us including my one-year-old daughter and my seventy-year-old mother,” said Radha’s uncle, his voice ragged with emotion.
“Why didn’t you leave Pakistan, go to India?” said my Chachu, folding his arms across his chest.
Abbu looked at him sharply. “Akram, this is not the time for such questions.”
“Bhai, you’re not actually thinking about allowing them in, are you?” said Chachu. “If what they’re saying is true, there are mobs out there lynching people. We can’t get in their way or they’ll kill us too.”
“Abbu is right,” said Farhan. “If we let these kafirs in, all of us might die. Are you going to risk all of our lives for them?”
In a moment of frustration, I pinched Farhan’s calf over his white pyjama. He winced, glaring down at me.
“How dare you!” he whispered angrily.
I got to my feet and clambered up the stairs leading to the terrace, my heart pounding in my ears. I was leaning against the railing, trying to catch my breath when I saw them. Down the road, not more than two hundred meters from our house, a mob of men carrying knives and sickles and metal rods were shouting anti-India slogans and marching in the direction of our house. My heart stopped when I saw the long hair belonging to a Sikh man by which one of the men in the mob was holding a decapitated head, blood dripping down from it, leaving a bloody trail on the tarmac road. I clapped my hand over my mouth, but it was too late. The contents of my stomach shot up through my oesophagus and splattered the terrace floor.
Wiping my mouth on my sleeve, I willed myself to look over the railing again. The mob was dangerously close now, just a few houses away. They stopped outside a house belonging to a Hindu family and after a moment’s pause, broke down the front door and barged into the house, shouting slogans. The family of seven was dragged out by their hair while being kicked and beaten by metal rods. Five young men dragged two women behind a patch of bushes while their husbands were kicked and beaten by the rest of the mob. A bearded man impaled the family’s baby with a sickle and paraded the dead baby, dripping with blood, over the heads of men of the family. A woman’s scream pierced the night air, yanking me out of immobility.
I dashed down the stairs, two at a time, barrelling my way through the tangle of my siblings and cousins at the threshold of the kitchen, dropping at Abbu’s feet.
“Abbu please let them in. Please Abbu, I beg you,” I said, grabbing Abbu’s leg.
“Inaya, go to your room,” thundered Abbu.
“Abbu please let them in,” I said, still clutching his leg.
“Mariam, take the kids to their room,” Abbu said to Ammi.
“They’re telling the truth, Abbu,” I sobbed. “I saw from the terrace. The mobs are killing everyone, even babies. They are raping women. Please Abbu, let them in.”
“Mariam, take the kids away!” Abbu was now shouting.
Ammi held me by one arm and Farhan by the other, dragging me away from Abbu, away from the kitchen window outside which stood a helpless, vulnerable family, minutes away from being butchered. I saw Radha wedged between her father and her uncle, standing on tiptoes to glimpse into our kitchen with pleading eyes.
“Allah won’t forgive you if you let them die on your doorstep!” I shouted.
Abbu froze, the first signs of panic appearing on his pale face.
Ammi paused too, but Farhan kept dragging me away. Glancing at his baleful face, his eyes rabid with hate, I promised myself I would never marry him.
“Abbu, their blood will be on your hands. You, who could help them, but turned them away,” I bellowed. “What does it matter if they are not Muslim? They are human, aren’t they?”
Abbu looked at me, his expression inscrutable.
“The question is,” I said, looking right at him, “are you?”
At that moment, Farhan lifted his hand to slap me. I cringed, expecting to be struck, but when I opened my eyes, I saw Abbu standing between me and Farhan. “Don’t you dare touch my daughter!” he hollered at his nephew.
Dumb-struck, Farhan stumbled two steps backwards. “I was just... she was insulting you.”
I saw my window of opportunity. “Abbu, that’s also a daughter there—my friend, Radha. There’s her Abbu and her Ammi. That’s her Chachu and Chachi, and her little brothers and her cousin. That old woman is her Dadi. They’re a family, just like ours. We have to help them, Abbu.”
I saw the light dawn in Abbu’s brown eyes. He turned to Ammi. “Open the back door. Quick!” He motioned to Radha’s family to come around the kitchen and enter through the back door.
“Tayaji,” interjected Farhan, furious.
“Akram,” said Abbu, addressing Chachu. “If your son cannot shut his mouth, lock him up in the bedroom.”
Chachu nodded and grabbed Farhan’s arm, dragging him out of the kitchen. “Come, we’ll do as bhai says.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Ali, looking at me with awe. “That was brave of you,” he whispered, sounding impressed.
I brushed off his comment and concentrated on the back door, from where Radha and her family were crowding into our now cramped kitchen.
“Come this way, please.” Abbu’s voice was infused with urgency, and rightly so. Any moment now, that mob would pass right by our house.
Abbu flicked on the light and led the Hindu family down the stairs into the dusty basement where the ceiling was a dense tangle of cobwebs and the air was musty. Abbu and Ali moved around some worn-out furniture—old beds and mattresses, chairs and tables—and adjusted them in a way that would allow Radha’s family to crouch behind them and remain obscured.
A sharp knock at the front door made me jump.
Abbu brought his fingers to his lips and we all hurried up the stairs as noiselessly as possible. Abbu switched off the light and closed the basement door, padlocking it.
Abbu feverishly motioned us to take our places at the table while he went to the front door. I stuffed a piece of cold roti into my mouth when I heard a man’s voice.
“Mohammed bhai, Akram bhai, sorry to bother you during dinner. Have you, by any chance, seen Ram Charan and his family?”
“No. Why?” said Abbu.
“We found their house empty. There was food on the table. Looks like they fled in a hurry. They couldn’t have gone far.”
“We have no clue where they are,” said Abbu, his voice calm.
“Do you mind if we take a look inside?” said another man. His voice was harsh.
“Of course, I mind. My family is eating. There are women in the house,” said Abbu.
“We won’t be a bother. We’ll just take a look inside and leave,” said the man with a harsh voice. “We’ll allow your women to wear the purdah, but we will check your house. We’re checking all houses.”
From somewhere outside in the street, a child’s shrieking and howling could be heard. And then, it stopped abruptly, plunging the neighbourhood into deafening silence. I almost threw up on my plate.
Abbu entered the dining room, his face creased with worry. “Purdah,” he motioned to Ammi and Chachi, who hurried to their rooms to don the purdah.
After five minutes, two men entered our house, keeping their gazes away from the women and girls but taking in every nook and corner of our ancestral house. The man with the harsh voice kept grunting occasionally as he surveyed room after room. They climbed to the terrace and undoubtedly saw the fresh pool of vomit.
“What’s in here?” said the man with the harsh voice, clutching the padlock on the basement door.
“Storeroom,” said Abbu, his hands clasped behind his back.
“Open it,” said the man.
Abbu shot him an exasperated look but carried out a pretence of looking for the key in the cupboards in the hallway.
“Mariam, I can’t find the basement key here.”
Ammi bustled into the small room and began rummaging through the various shelves of the cupboards. “It’s not here,” she informed her husband.
“Go check in the other rooms then,” Abbu uttered in his vexed tone that was usually reserved for me.
This went on for several minutes until the man with the harsh voice lost his patience. “I’m going to break down this door.”
“You will do no such thing,” said Abbu, his voice laced with anger. “I allowed you into our house while my family was eating dinner. You’ve already caused much inconvenience. Now, leave.”
Through my peripheral vision, I could see the man standing his ground, glaring at Abbu. I wondered if my reckless actions were going to cause harm to my family, my Abbu. I couldn’t bear to see anything happen to him and yet, how could we have turned those people away? If we hadn’t let them in, they’d probably be dead by now.
A door creaked on its hinges and my heart sank to my knees. That was Farhan’s door. It annoyed the hell out of me when on some nights he went to the kitchen for water at 2 a.m., disturbing me in my adjacent room.
“Munir bhai, what’s going on?” I heard him say.
“Farhan, this is your house,” said the man, surprised.
“Yes, that’s my tayaji you’re talking to.”
“As-Salamu-Alaykum,” the man greeted Abbu, lifting his right hand to his forehead.
With an audible sigh, I saw Farhan placing a firm hand on the man’s shoulder and leading him away from the basement door. After a few minutes of chitchatting on the porch outside, the men left and Farhan closed the door behind them.
As he returned to the table, Abbu placed his hands on Farhan’s shoulders and embraced him.
“I did it for our family not for those kafirs,” said Farhan, still sore about the earlier exchange.
“I understand,” said Abbu. “They will stay with us for some time until the situation cools down.”
We cleaned the basement and made it comfortable for the Hindu family to spend the next few days in. I carried trays of food downstairs every morning and night, while Ali shouldered the responsibility at lunch. Radha and her family weathered the storm bravely, never making a single request and remaining contended in that decrepit basement for the next few days. When the situation improved, they packed their meagre belongings and left by train for East Punjab, where Radha’s maternal aunt and her family lived.
Radha and I corresponded for several years. I still think of her as my best friend. I wonder if my family had been caught in the violence on the other side of the border, in Hindu-majority India, would someone have risked their lives to protect us. Would my family have survived the bloody genocide and the mass exodus? I guess I’ll never know. Just like the millions who lost their lives in Pakistan and India during the country’s partition will never know what could’ve become of the rest of their lives.