Desi Friendship People of Color

“That’s a beautiful name,” says the smiling portly middle-aged man against whose legs the left side of my body presses and sweats on. I thank God he’s friendlier than the woman across the aisle who kicked the young man at her feet for an inch more of legroom. I suppose I might not be particularly accommodating if I had three bouncing children to keep track of and twice as many suitcases. When the fidgeting boy on her lap dives into the sea of people behind, she spins into the back of the man who is perched atop her backrest and a portion of her long braid. Her shriek of pain is absorbed by the hubbub and her worn-out sandals meet the boy’s shoulder again. His only recourse is to spit at her feet as she desperately scans the disordered rows for her son to resurface. 

These days, there’s not really any space for friendliness. There’s not any space at all on this train that hasn’t been overcrowded with bodies, bags, heat or fear. Terror was an unruly river flowing through our coach like the Ganga at the height of monsoon, collecting passengers’ sweat and tears along its course. The only one seemingly sheltered from this ever-growing wave was the man next to me who had miraculously slipped into slumber. His well-groomed beard almost matched in color to his grey-blue four-piece suit. Hypnotized by the intricate paisley print on his jacket, I didn’t notice he had awakened and was following my eyes with the same well-worn smile from just a few minutes ago. 

“It was my grandfather’s jacket,” he informed me. 

My heat-flushed face reddened further as I gingerly asked, “Was he a very important man?” The man boomed with boisterous laughter, even catching the attention of the legroom boy across me. 

“He was a simple farmer before he started growing cotton for the British,” he responded wistfully, “and soon became one of their biggest producers. He liked to say that in those twenty years of hard labor, his cotton dressed at least two thousand British noblemen. But I think that was just his way of validating two decades of work that left him essentially a pauper with a nice jacket.” 

“It is indeed very nice,” I pointed out. I wasn’t just saying that because it was a family heirloom. It truly was the most beautiful thing on this blood train, a distraction from the overwhelming sense of impending doom as we drew closer to crossing over into the newborn nation of Pakistan. India’s independence had been announced a fortnight ago but the British couldn’t leave without their usual colonial parting gift of hastily drawn borders. The partition of India and Pakistan poured fuel on the small fires of tension that had been steadily burning for months, now setting the entire subcontinent aflame. Hindus and Muslims engaged in bloody riots as the former ran to one side of the border and the latter to another. To do so was no simple task. Trains were frequently stopped by violent mobs that left the engineer the sole survivor to guide the funeral procession in blood-soaked silence to its destination. Every single person on this train was carrying the loss of loved ones; grandparents who couldn’t escape fast enough, fathers who were cut down in the streets and daughters who were kidnapped in the midst of the chaos. 

The necklace tucked safely under my shirt was a reminder of my own grief. I had time only to pry it from my brother’s corpse before hearing the shrill cries of the next victim. Determined to not condemn my father to his own incapable care, I hurried the few feet to our front door, welcoming in a trail of blood. My father awoke hours later, to the sight of our kitchen newly varnished in blood, tears and vomit. The worst part was having to tell him how close my brother was to a different outcome; his proximity to safety likely lowered his guard, allowing his murderer to sneak up behind and slit his throat. Not a single link of his gold chain was its original color as I squeezed it in my fist, willing him to walk in and tell us I was mistaken. 

While I waited on a miracle, a letter arrived from my mother; the soldier who delivered it charged specifically with bringing it safely to our hands. I had hoped it contained good news but this wasn’t a time for either of those things, was it? The bullet fragments left near my mother’s hip that were previously trophies of a life spent protesting British subjugation now were leaking poison into her body, reversing her role from doctor to patient at the hospital she worked at in Murree. Which just a week ago would’ve been part of the same colonial India but now was perched on a hill in another country. My fear of leaving my parents childless and alone, separated by an impenetrable border but united by impenetrable grief was overcome by my duty to my dying mother. She had stood faithfully at the side of countless British soldiers who entered the sanatorium calling her a savage and left thinking of her as their very own Florence Nightingale and I wanted to stand by hers.  

So early the next morning, an old army friend of my father’s drove me to the station where the train I was to embark was still being cleared of corpses. It was hardly the most optimistic glimpse into the insane journey I was about to take, and I found myself, as we passed the blood-red Jhelum River, in need of reassurance. 

Estimating my co-passenger to be a kind man, I searched his eyes for hope, asking, “Do you think we’ll make it?”

“Of course we will,” he replied without hesitation. 

“How can you be so certain?”

“Do you know the meaning of your name?” he questions. I shake my head no. “In Arabic, Samara means ‘guardian’ and ‘protected by God’. Two beautiful meanings. That’s why my wife wanted to name our daughter Samara.” 

“Did she?”

“She didn’t get the chance to,” he says and for the first time, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes smooth away. “There were complications during the pregnancy and unfortunately, neither of them made it.”

“I’m so sorry. How do you stay hopeful?”

“Some days it’s hard. But some days, there’s a girl at your feet who you imagine your daughter would’ve grown up to be like with a name that’s basically a guarantee of safe passage.” 

I let out a tearful chuckle. 

He continues, “And if it helps, my name is Lucky so between the two of us, we should be able to get this train to Lahore.” 

Lucky’s grandfather had chosen a fitting color for his jacket. It’s almost as if he had known his grandson would one day be the human embodiment of calm and kindness. I found myself thanking God once again for the companion I was sent for this perilous journey. There’s not many things that can distract a person from the thought of near certain death. But Lucky managed to draw me into a conversation that only ended when our train screeched to a stop at Lahore station. Fear was pushed out of the windows by the collective sigh of relief. We had made it. 

The bodies littering the platform weren’t an alarming sight to any of the passengers - not even the children. After hours of making the coach their playground, trampling limbs and precious possessions, they’d finally run out of juice. In just fifteen minutes, the death train emptied its living cargo. People floated through the station like clouds in a languorous sky - perhaps they were so convinced they’d reach Lahore dead, they forgot how to be alive. I was pulled along in the ghostly procession, searching the crowd like the kicking mother had for the distinctive suit. I had been swivelling my head in all directions like an owl for ten minutes, watching the numbers surrounding me dwindle as a majority of my trainmates left the station to start their new lives. Clutching onto my necklace, I lamented the missed goodbye as my head drooped to see the pool of blood I was standing amidst. My current predicament was an almost mirror image of the morning my brother died, same hot tears cascading down. My knees nearly buckled me into the same position I occupied on the train when I felt a gentle arm around me. 

“Come, my girl, we have to get you to your mother,” cooes Lucky, guiding me to a much shorter train. He helps me to a seat in the middle of the three nearly barren coaches as the train engineer shouts that the Murree-bound train will be leaving in two minutes. I turn to thank him when I see him stepping out of the coach to help two young children with a suitcase that was larger than the both of them combined. Beyond them, our miracle train suddenly begins moving with a fraction of its load onboard. As it speeds away from the station back to Delhi, I get a horrifying view of the reason for its abrupt departure. Unloading on the adjacent tracks was the perfect brutal example of a blood train. Streams of blood poured down the train’s steps, forming a gory red carpet for the band of murderers that rapidly filed out, brandishing their weapons of choice. I watched helplessly as a spear went through the stomach of a young man before looking to the coach door where the suitcase and one of the siblings had embarked. Lucky had just lifted the second on when the train commenced its desperate getaway, flinging me into the rusted metal frame of a seat. As I brought a finger to the gash crowning my right temple, I felt breathless and faint - the world painted into a blur as we fled like robbers from a bank heist.     

When I next opened my eyes, my blood had dried into a tinted patch of my hair that matched the sunset sky. The sun was descending behind the mountains as we ascended towards the hill station, washing the coach in a saffron glow that highlighted the concerned expressions on the siblings’ faces. They were the only other passengers. How different this leg of the journey was from that which preceded. A fall in the previous train would’ve been cushioned by the entangled bodies. The usual passengers of the Murree train were tourists who multiplied the town’s population in the summer, when the rains washed the hillsides in brilliant greens and the cloudless noon sky allowed the eye to see as far as the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir. I would have enjoyed this scenery that my mother had fallen in love with far more if my new friend had remained by my side. It was too crushing to imagine the violent end Lucky might’ve met but was it foolish to hope that he had hopped on the third coach and was coloring joy and hope into the blank landscapes of another fearful mind? I replayed our entire conversation in my mind, committing to memory the morals he wove in and once again, his stories carried me to another station. 

The station wasn’t scarred by violence as in Lahore. Where I feared bodies would lay, benches and old trees were planted. Had we ascended as far as Olympus where celestial beings roamed, untouched by the mortal strife of mere humans? Then again, women who save lives don’t slowly lose theirs to fragments of metal that have the power to shut down organs. Despite the loss of function in one of her kidneys, my mother looked as firm as she always had. With a wide smile, she welcomed me into her nurturing embrace.

“I was so surprised to receive your father’s telegram,” she exclaimed, “You really didn’t have to come, my love. What about your father?”

“Oh, the stubborn man insisted he could take care of himself -”

“Certainly not!” she interrupted, “He can’t even make a glass of chai without bringing the kitchen down.”

“Which is why I asked Nabela to take him to her house. Her kids adore him so she’s got a break from the little rascals,” I laugh, “Now Mama, please let me be concerned about you for once.”

“So I guess I shouldn’t ask about the gaping hole on your head,” she exaggerates.

“I guess we should be grateful I survived when so many others didn’t,” pointing out a painful reality that lightly dampened our reunion.

“Small mercies.”

Over her left shoulder, I caught a glimpse of a familiar paisley jacket and took off. Tugging on its owner’s elbow, I was confused by the absence of facial hair and deep overworked smile lines. 

The young man wore the same expression as me, quizzically asking, “Beg your pardon but-” 

“Where did you get this jacket?”

He was taken aback by the peculiar question, “My mother had it stitched. If you’re thinking of stealing it, it truly is worth less than it looks. My mother always said its value relied on its wearer.” 

“I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else. I knew a man with a jacket just like this.”

My mother interjected, “Could be Rohan’s uncle Lucky. Can’t imagine there're many jackets like this out there.” 

I stare at her incredulously, “You know Lucky?”

She chuckles, “He seems to have had the usual impact on you. Come, if you’re not too tired, we’ll head to his favorite spot in Murree.” 

The moonlight illuminated the cobblestone path leading to the sanatorium. Instead of turning right toward the hospital, we took a left till the trees cleared to a grassy cliff where a single bench sat. As we took our seats, I could just about read the wording on the plaque - in loving memory of Zahina and Samara Khan

“Lucky’s wife and daughter died at the sanatorium. He was still on the way here when it happened. He was so overcome with grief when he found out, he ran straight for the woods. The doctor had found him on this bench, staring at the sky. Just when he thought all hope was lost, he noticed beautiful streamers of light streaking past near the moon.”

“A meteor shower?”

She nodded, “And since then he has spent his summers in Murree talking people away from the verge of death where he once sat. He was actually supposed to come a week ago but there were rumors that his train was attacked.”

“But he was on my train, Mama. He was the best part of that train.” 

“That’s weird because his nephew Rohan works with me in the hospital and he said he was coming back to Murree because a relative claimed to have seen Lucky’s body near the Lahore station.”

Unable to decide who was right, we resorted to sharing stories of the kind man, our laughter resounding through the woods behind and echoing into the valley below. We were still smiling when the sun peeked through the foggy dawn sky. Closer to its birthplace, the Jhelum River and its tributaries sparkled in their icy purity as they drew azure trails in the sea of green. To my left, I could see the botanical gardens built for recovering soldiers, perfuming the air with the fragrance of freshly-dewed flowers. The dancing breeze delicately carried the aroma to the town on the opposite hill where every house was painted a shade of pink, as though the mountain was indeed a volcano that erupted with rose petals. The bench on which we rested was spotlighted by the heavens, reminding us of the angel they had sent to restore faith to the faithless.

April 23, 2021 20:16

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