The sun was setting when I set my foot on the land from which I had been long exiled.
The sun was mellow, and a breeze tiptoed around in soft fitful gusts.
I looked up at the sky. It was like any other sky would be at the time of the declining sun. It was overcast with a flimsy veneer of dust, light blue with a tinge of grey.
I looked at the earth beneath my feet, the earth that had shaped me more than half a century ago. The earth too was just the same as any other stretch of earth would be during the time of setting sun on a sultry August day. It was sort of thirsty, sort of dishevelled. Dusty and disheartened.
This was the city whose air I had breathed when I was born. This was the city that had pierced my heart like an arrow and had remained half-stuck in it all these years. It was the city that had sweetened my whole being by drizzling a bit of honey in my blood. It was the city, where at one time my friends Rohini, Prakash and Kishwar lived, but who had got lost in the tornado that swept the land in Forty-Seven.
My whole spirit quivered as I stepped on the land of Lahore. It was the trepidation that comes before meeting the long-separated beloved land. It was also perhaps the cold shiver of all the bloodshed and flames of arson which kept smouldering in my memory, and which now passed down my spine.
So many faces and events from the foggy past had crowded around me.
The land where your eyes see the bright sunbeams for the first time, the land that has heard your lisping babble, the land where your lips and your tongue tasted the first warm and honeyed suckle from your mother’s breast, remains with you all your lifetime. Pulsating in your blood-stream!
You may go anywhere, across seven seas, yet the land concealed in your heart travels with you.
At the airport! The custom officers were poking into and going through the contents of my bag. I had a mind to tell them, “Come on, don’t be silly! This is my city, and after so many years…and you…”
Outside the airport some friends had come to receive me bearing bouquets of their smiles. They had brought the warmth of friendship and reassuring hugs, claiming me as one of their own family.
Proceeding towards the hotel I was looking at the buildings and the roads with curious longing. These were the dear darling roads, which had been haunting my dreams for years.
There’s nothing to compete with the roads of Lahore. No road anywhere in the world, can compete with roads of Lahore.
I may travel to any part of the world, but the roads there would never appear to me like the smooth and clean and welcoming roads of Lahore.
The roads of Lahore were like rolls of grey silk opened and stretched across the land, specially for me.
But there’s something essentially wrong with them, I thought. They were all covered with dust and dirt. There were pieces of waste paper and fallen dried leaves strewn and swirling across the roads, like dead butterflies.
It was rather a strange feeling.
There was a knot of nostalgic emotion that rose from the pit of my stomach, like a fireball, and choked my throat.
“No, no,” I thought, “everything would be all right. I am just hallucinating. Everything should be all right. Let me just get to the hotel, have a bath and brush the dust out of my hair, and things will be all right.”
Indeed there has to be dust on the roads. Besides, the weather too is sultry. After all, the leaves must fall down onto the roads. The leaves can’t take flight into the sky from the branches of the trees like birds do. Aren’t you a silly woman?’ I was trying to explain things to myself.
The hotel, I felt, could be any hotel in any of the metropolises of the world. It seemed intent upon cheering me up in the bright light of innumerable electric bulbs, the reception desk, the bellboys, the lifts, and the clean and tidy room. There was hot and cold water running in the taps, thick carpets, heavy curtains and counterpanes of heavy expensive material. All hotels have such stuff. If I had a hotel I would have kept the floors of the rooms uncovered in this season, so that the soles of feet may feel the cool touch of the bare stone floors. Besides, I would have the bedspreads all made of thin and fine white muslin. The soft white muslin that my mother and my grandmother used to wear.
I had come here intentionally to embrace my childhood home, take it in my arms and weep.
I was sure it would be just there, the way we had left it, waiting for me!
We, who had been dislodged from our homes and were made destitute, had tried to set up home in whichever city we went. Our home in Lahore seemed to have always travelled with us. First we went to Shimla, then to Jullundur, and then finally we went to Delhi.
And why just Delhi, wherever in the world I went, I carried my original home in Lahore within my rib-cage, fluttering like a singing bird.
Our home in Lahore!
The roads of Lahore!
The sky stretched over Lahore!
The little sparrows and crows and pigeons of Lahore!
At the fall of dusk there used to be rows of black crows flying back to their roosts against the bluish grey sky. The clamorous birds returning home to their nests, all flying in one direction. Always in the same direction. And they all flew over our house, from one end across to the other end, on their dark black wings.
Often the dying golden light of the sun would shimmer and get reflected from their flapping wings.
And all day long the kites and eagles would go round and round, floating in the higher reaches of the sky. They always had their necks bent and their sharp eyes roving over the earth, ready to pounce on their prey. Sometimes they, too disconsolate, like the fish in the deep blue waters of the sea, would take a dive. Sometimes they allowed their wings to flutter slowly, balancing their bodies in flight, and just float on the wind. But quite intent, and all the time totally alert ! I could then guess that clouds would be on their way, and there would be rain.
The steady sailing flight of the eagles and kites before the advancing rain clouds had always proved a true harbinger of the coming rain.
“Beeji, shall I take off the garlands of strung dhingri from the terrace?”
Garlands of vegetables hanging to dry up. To be used during the dry days when vegetables were out of season.
“Shall I stow away the cots under the veranda awning? It is going to rain.”
“Where are the clouds, you silly girl?” And she would look up to the sky. “There’s just no sign of any clouds but this girl can predict rain! I don’t know what she’s up to on the terrace all day. Allows her mind to wander anywhere.”
And sometimes I thought it would be better to just lie down and gaze at the eagles and kites bobbing up and down, or see them just stop flapping their wings and sail on the wind. I should let the dhingris and the cots take care of themselves and get wet in the rain. Why should I be concerned and get scolded?
Yet I would quietly wind up the whole lot of things that had to be done. I would stow away and shelter everything under the awning of the verandah. And except for my cot woven with flax strings, and the other one strung with jute strings softened and smoothened not only with use but also with winds and rains, I kept away all other cots in the shelter of the verandah. But I always took care to have the woven side standing upwards. Beeji had always told us that to stand the cots with the woven side downwards was inauspicious.
Beeji used this word, ‘inauspicious’ for all the things forbidden for us. For instance, not to fight with my brother, for it was inauspicious! Not to lift the bamboo blind and stand out on the terrace, because it was inauspicious. Not to peep in when a stranger was visiting, for it was inauspicious.
And a hundred other things which were all inauspicious : to climb up and down the stairs stomping your feet bang, bang; to laugh loudly like vulgar rustics; to talk loudly like uneducated rustics, not to stand in front of the mirror and admire yourself; and not to talk back and reply to any allegations that the elders hurled at you, for all these were, too, inauspicious.
And also the irreputable injunctions were never to go out on the street to play like those vulgar boys, and not to talk to any man who is a stranger, for these too were inauspicious.
Almost everything seemed to be inauspicious except to be meekly obedient to Beeji and do all she ordered to be done. That is, read only school curriculum books, remain indoors, go into the kitchen and help her in the chores and learn to cook vegetables. Cooking and knitting were the few things which had been left unbranded as inauspicious.
And suddenly, I didn’t know why after so many years all these memories seemed to be flooding back to me. Perhaps it was the city and its air I had come to breathe in after all those years. The city of my childhood had departed from me a long time ago, and yet had been hidden in the folds of my heart, running like blood in my veins.
The hotel room was quiet. The palpable silence was almost audible, for it was echoing along with the beating of my heart. The loosened strings of the drum had been tightened. And now, all those past years were playing their beat upon it. Dumm, dumm, dummak dumm.
Each grief, each experience of pain, echoes of words, remain alive in every moment of one’s lifetime. They come back in the midst of profound silence, and one can hear them all in their billowed echoes again.
It was late at night. All those friends, who had come to join me for dinner, had left for their homes. I was left alone with my city now. Quietly I left the hotel and started walking the roads.
For forty-two years the city of Lahore had coursed through my veins, in my bloodstream.
My mother used to say that there was no point in nursing the memory of the places and people that have been left behind for good. And my grandmother said why remember the ground from where our roots have been plucked out?
But I always said, ‘Why, what’s wrong in recalling the name of my honey-sweet city? That’s my birth place! My native city! I will go back there at least once. I shall look for my roots, the earth clinging to them. I shall kiss the beloved land. And I shall look for my childhood, which like a vagrant orphan, must still be wandering somewhere in those streets, where I was forbidden to go and play.’
Now Beeji was not there, who always said, ‘Girls don’t go out into the streets and play. It is inauspicious.’
We may go and settle down and live in whichever country of the world we like, and our growth, like a tree, may spread out its branches and leaves in any foreign city. But the moment we try to find our feet, we find them in the same land where we were born, because the soles of our feet take roots in the land of our birth.
Those who have their feet, or roots, in one place, and their branches and foliage growing and flourishing in another, must be carrying a terrible burden of anguish in their hearts, always.
The road I walked was empty. Well, it was almost empty. Only a car or two would periodically zoom past. My heart, like the beating of drumsticks on small army kettledrums, was constantly going on tick-tock, tick-tock. Simple and innocent. The crescendo could reach the sky. Like the little sparrows hopping, trying to fly up to the heavens, trying to reach the sun, and beyond!
In the ink blue sky above, stars were shining. Suddenly, for no reason at all, I felt that the stars were bursting out and turning into suns—hundreds of thousands of blazing suns.
I suddenly felt dizzy. It was fatigue, perhaps. Or perhaps, the fatigue and the turmoil of emotions had been added to the burden of my dreams.
I returned to the hotel.
The next day passed in attending the conference, to which I had been invited to make a presentation.
Several new friendships were formed. Many phone numbers and addresses were exchanged.
Yet, where was my Kishwar?
Rohini and Prakash had been blown off and swept away by the hurricane. They could not have been in this city. For they, too, had been severed from this city. But Kishwar, she should be here somewhere, in this city of my childhood.
Kishwar my childhood friend!
Where? But where?
With half my heart wandering the streets of Lahore and peeping in half-forgotten homes, dimmed in memory like old sepia photographs, with the other half I was meeting and talking to people with a smile. I listened to the lectures delivered at the conference. Mine too had been delivered and heard. We had our lunches and our teas. The scheduled programme was routinely going on according to the moving hands of clocks and wrist watches.
And yet a strange choking emotion, like a heavy cloud, was gathering round my heart. It was a strange kind of apprehension, a sort of upheaval. It was like the roll of the high roaring waves of the deep seas far away. A restlessness deeply upsetting.
A full evening, a night, and the following whole day had passed, and I had still not gone to visit my house.
Isn’t it strange that sometimes the meeting, which we have so much desired and looked forward to, gives us the creeps? An unknown fear huddles and hides within us somewhere like a terrified hare.
It is the fear of the squashing of our dream. It is the fear of the sacrificial death of the dream that we have nurtured in our breast for years.
There is a perpetual feeling in some corner of the mind that the water that flows down under the bridge today, could never be the same as that which used to flow down forty-two years back.
Life and death walk hand in hand.
Can you catch hold of a wave? It is here now, and then, it isn’t. A wave advancing towards a bright moment shines and shimmers. But when it passes by and goes beyond, it is sad, melancholy and turbid, devoid of light, brightness and cheer.
Can we hold on to that bright moment in time, which is here now, and then it’s no more?
The greatest tyranny that nature inflicts on man is not that one day death comes and he is swept off his feet, with all his dreams, desires and ambitions, like garbage. So too would be his physical being which he considers his identity, and toils so hard and spends so much of the precious time of his life to give it comfort and a presentable appearance.
The greatest tyranny is Time, which trickles through our fingers like crumbling sand.
No, actually the greatest delusion of life is the tightrope of hope that the creator of this universe has tied between man’s birth and death, and all his life man continues trying to balance himself on the tightrope, to keep himself steady on it like an acrobat.
It is this hope which keeps man running from nowhere to nowhere, in darkness. And the fear of breaking of his dreams and hopes is the death he lives everyday.
Such are the wiles of nature. They are like practical jokes played on man.
It may well seem to him that the flutter of his heart is the tremulous heartbeat of the whole universe. It is only after a long while that he begins to sense — rather breaks his shins against the fact — that he is almost a nonentity. He is just like a dry leaf wafting in the dusty wind. That he can be swept away anywhere by any whirlwind created by a conspiracy hatched in any part of this world, an erratic decision of a political leader, or by the whims of any powerful man or deity.
That is what happened in the year Forty-Seven. The political leaders were in a hurry for their chairs of authority. They wanted power. And they conspired and sealed the fate of millions of people.
Across the land of five rivers the sixth river, the river of blood, flowed from one end to the other. With us there was no hope in sight.
The reek rose from hundreds of thousands of corpses lying on unknown dusty roads.
Hundreds of thousands of people driven out of their homesteads were left to go from pillar to post in search of livelihoods. It was indeed their grit and enterprise that having left their roots far behind they were still able to prosper and flourish on alien ground, breathing in alien atmosphere.
Man is truly such a marvellous being that he can have his roots deep in one place, and his branches spreading out under different skies. Only man has the grit to achieve this miracle. All other living beings – water creatures, the four-legged ones and the crawling ones on the earth, and the birds cannot survive. Well, some of the birds do fly for thousands of miles, make their nests, lay eggs under different skies, in alien lands. But once the weather changes, they fly back. Year after year they come, and fly back to their homes in far-away lands.
Only man cannot!
Once he is exiled, leaves his home and hearth behind, he can never go back.
All those exiled people! All over the world! Leaving their roots behind, but sustaining their foliage and flowers in alien lands!
Can there be a more amazing miracle?
Thoughts kept buzzing in my head during the poetry reading session following the conference.
I asked the host who had come to drop me back at the hotel, where Lawrence Garden was. He smiled and said, “You are located in Lawrence Garden. This hotel is situated on the Lawrence Garden Road.”
Was it true?
Which meant that last night, when I had come out for a stroll, I had been walking on the Lawrence Garden Road, and very close to the Garden itself !
Yet how could that be possible? I didn’t know. How could I not recognise my own Lawrence Garden?
As the night descended, once again I took the same road and started walking.
I turned into the narrower pathway that led into the Lawrence Garden. The trees around me seemed to be in deep melancholy. As if in mourning, they were nodding their heads in despair against the sighing wind that blew through them.
The sighing breeze floated over the foliage.
Far distant in the sky the half-moon seemed to be sad at its own pallor.
As if it was made of paper.
It looked like a kite cut off from its string and stuck in the upper branches of a tree, wafting slowly in the mind.
When we were young we used to fly kites. If a kite somehow got stuck in the top branches of a tree, the children would bring long bamboo sticks with a bramble twig tied at the top, and would try to wrap its thread around it, and bring the kite safely down. The deftness was in getting the kite safely down without it getting torn by the bamboo stick.
For a moment I wondered where I would find a bamboo stick to get that moon-kite down!
Wrapped in the dark of the Lawrence Garden were the softly nodding trees, the bushes, and of course there would be flowers too, but their myriad colours were invisible in the darkness.
But the fireflies were not there!
Where had all the fireflies gone?
A profound sadness gripped my heart. I began to walk back towards the hotel. I looked up at the sky once again before entering the modern hotel building.
The moon now seemed to be leaning its head in a snooze on the parapet of a nearby house.
The darkness in the hotel room seemed to quiver.
I changed and lay down in the bed. The room, being air-conditioned, was quite cold. I wrapped the blanket snugly around me. And I went to sleep, waiting for the next day.
All night my sleep seemed to be disturbed by all kinds of chaotic dreams. Every time I woke up startled. And I drank up the whole jug of water at my bedside.
It seemed in the morning as though all night I had been walking across loose sandy stretches of unknown deserts.
It is quite simple and easy to walk over level ground. But to walk over loose sand! As you lift one foot to move forward, the sand seems to devour the other in its jaw, and then you try and drag the other one facing the same problem: the sand having a soft, loose but inextricable grip around the second foot.
Walking in the sand tires a man more than climbing a mountain.
The next day I told my friends to drive me down to Chamberlain Road.
“To your house, you mean?”
“How can it be mine? It belongs to those who live there now. It was just that…”, I hesitated.
Their car was running on Chamberlain Road. My throat felt choked. My heart, as if some fluttering thing with a loud irregular drumbeat was flapping in my rib-cage!
“My house! House….! House….! House!”
My subconscious was resounding with the music of one word: house–my home! The house which was once my home!
The car seemed disconsolately meandering across the road. And I thought we had drifted into some unknown area I had never seen before.
I could hardly recognise the other roads of Lahore too, but I knew my own road, the Chamberlain Road. Every inch of it! Across the road, almost opposite our house, was the street that turned towards the Gurudwara of Gwalmandi. After the turning there was another lane, and then another, which led to the road that went straight to the Gurudwara. All those serpentine lanes were still embedded in my memory, coiled within me.
I could also recall Nisbet Road, which took me to Abbot Road where my school was. Half the way down, in Lakshmi Chowk, stood a majestic canopy under which a huge Queen Victoria, with heavy folds of dress spread around her torso and her legs, with a globe in one hand and a queen’s command-staff in another.
We always looked for our Kohinoor in her crown.
‘Malka Da Butt’ it was called. The statue of the queen who lived across the oceans and ruled over us! And we were fighting to get rid of her. Of her cruel rule! Of her huge statue under the canopy!
Dayal Singh College building was perhaps of a dull pink colour, which I passed every day on my way to school.
And Lawrence Garden! The velvety grass, the flowerbeds, and the tall shady trees. Like sages in a trance, the trees stood peacefully, raising their arms skywards in prayer.
And I recalled the botanical garden, in which stood horses, camels, peacocks and other birds cut out from thick hedge-bushes.
And then there was the zoo with zebras, otters and macaws, lions and cheetahs, tigers and their little cute cubs.
I recalled too the Sacred Heart School to which I had been admitted when I started my education. I used to walk to school, going through Bharat Building, and the lane behind it lined with white eucalyptuses. Standing beneath their green leaves we soaked ourselves in their aroma.
And I recalled Anarkali, and Dabbi Bazaar, and the Dera Sahib Gurudwara.
I thought of my nani’s house in Peer Makki Di Gali, where I had opened my eyes upon this world of dazzling lights. My nani perpetually sat at the hearth and busied herself in cooking something or the other. A little respite from this hearth, and we’d find her stitching and sewing something.
It was in the spacious courtyard of that house that quilts for winter were made for her whole family.
And the family comprised my mama, mausis, and other relatives of my mother, and of course for all of us too. Not only for us, but also for all the guests who came visiting from all over. Distant relatives, and my father’s patients.
The old quilts were unstitched and opened up, and the old knotted cotton was taken out for carding by the street hawker, who went from house to house calling “roon dhunva lavo roon!”
When his carding strings pounded the ugly-looking lumps of cotton, the cottonseeds and white flakes of cotton flew around the yard. And the ugly lumps became soft, fluffy heaps.
Then the covers of the quilts were stitched. The broad borders of the quilts were of a different colour from the rest of the quilt. My nani examined silks of various colours, placing them side by side to see which shade and colour would go well with which. Bent intently on the silks, she looked like an artist.
The fire of my nani’s hearth and its glowing embers were always glowing alive. Either the wood burnt bright, creating crimson and purple embers, or it burned slowly, under a heap of ash, smouldering, always ready to come alive with a little poking. The flames threw up sparks that flew like little fireflies around the hearth. And delectable dishes were cooked on that hearth.
Besides, there was a brazier in which coal was used. And another fireplace which had three mounds like the turrets of a mud fortress, and an opening in the front like the door of the fort.
In the process of making rotis my nani would shake off the ash and collect small burning coal pieces just outside the mouth of the fireplace.
A lazy little composite flame rose from them. And within the increasing ash beneath them the coals continued to burn and glow brightly.
Having cooked the roti on the iron tawa she browned it on the little heap of coals.
The round chapatti would get blown up like a ball with the steam inside it, and slowly develop lovely brown floral spots all over. With the swelling of the roti there appeared a look of gratified fulfillment on my nani’s face.
She then placed a small blob of home-made butter on it, and squeezed it in her palm, and kept it safe like a little fledgling chick, with the butter melting in its belly. And when we, a couple of her numerous grandsons and granddaughters, sat down on colourful pidhis to eat, with those small bronze stools with beautifully etched tops in front of us, her gratification and crystal pure happiness would sprout from her eyes and spread all over her face like the melting butter on the roti.
We placed our kansa plates, the colour of old, very old gold, on those bronze stools and ate morsels of those rotis dipped in daal, vegetables, and curd.
These plates were our miracle plates, with katoris of the same colour. No, they were neither bronze nor copper. Not like any of the metals we know today. If they fell down, they broke. Like delicate china dishes.
They have just disappeared, and so have the choolha, with all their mystery, their glowing embers, and the fire sleeping under the quilt of ash.
The old fireplaces and braziers were heavenly magic! Ilahi choolha they were called. One could cook anything on its fire. The flame and heat could be raised or lowered at will.
And during winter it was pure, lucid pleasure to sit by these fireplaces and enjoy the warmth from the firewood.
Even when the fire was put out at night, the warmth remained buried in them for hours afterwards.
Sometimes if I woke up in the middle of night, and placed my hands on the fireplace, it felt like a kitten that had been waiting for a caress from me.
Sometimes on the heap of ash and dying coals, a few broken pieces of dung-cakes were placed which looked like a ferry hut. Either the green leafy mustard leaves or urad daal were put on the low fire for the whole night to cook. By the morning they were cooked and ready to eat, with the rich aroma of the far-away forests, from which the firewood had been brought, besides the peculiar aroma of smoke rising from dung-cakes, and of pans made from special alloys.
The aroma was peculiar to the Ilahi choolha made of special clay called Ilahi mitti. It was the clay from the earth of my city, Lahore.
In the morning the fireplaces were given a fresh coat of clay wash, after which they shone bright and looked absolutely new. They gave out the peculiar aroma of the fresh clay used for the coat of wash.
But before the coat of clay wash the whole lot of ash was swept from the fireplace and gathered in a broad basin. Is there any detergent powder in this whole wide world that can scrub utensils as clean and sparkling as that ash? The bronze dishes, the kansa plates, silver tumblers, copper bowls and iron kadhais and deghchis would shine better than the new ones.
Our bhabhi jee, my nani, always said that the life of the utensils increased if you scrubbed them with ash fresh from the hearth. The utensils blossomed and smiled, and the smiles lengthened their life-span.
When we lost our homes, the hearths were broken too.
To declare that the house was desolate and abandoned, the lady of the house used to kick the fireplace and break it, dismantle it at the time of leaving.
Who has broken up all the hearths?
Where have they thrown and scattered the shards of the Ilahi mitti of the choolahs?
What could one do with fireplaces when there were no homes?
And then I would go to the prized place in Lahore – Simla Pahadi. I should be able to find all the ladybirds there, the deep red ladybirds. I could spend hours watching them going around in their serpentine tracks. And indeed I would rediscover those winding pathways, on which I used to walk. Walking along those foliage-clad little pathways had given me the first fine carefree rapture and the feel of the mysterious charm of just being alive.
I shall then search for that light of the sun, which is saffron gold in the morning, white hot like the wings of a paddy bird during high noon, and red or pink at the time of sunset.
I shall look for the breezes that come meandering after having kissed the waters of the Ravi.
For years, I had wanted to roam about the roads of Lahore alone and unencumbered. I wanted to sniff around and search and grope for my past.
Yet for the present I was crouched in safety among friends and hosts, and was being driven to Chamberlain Road to meet the house from which I had been exiled.
I felt my heart pounding loud like a drum.
Alongside the road on which the car was running, there flowed a sort of broad nullah. ‘This is the canal. Residential colonies have come up on both sides. This Gulbarg is the best and the poshest colony of Lahore.’
‘The canal? Is this the canal that used to be so broad? Full of cheerful water, strolling elegantly down ! Surrounded by trees and lush green stretches on both sides?’
Where could a canal disappear?
We used to go for a swim in it. And the water used to be absolutely crystal clear, limpid and shimmering. We enjoyed picnics in the surrounding woods inhabited by thousands of birds.
We lighted our fires in huge cauldrons under the trees, so that the grass doesn’t get scorched. “Never hurt any blade of grass,” my father ordered. Cooked dishes like puris, chholey, kheer, and mahl-pooras. Everything tasted different from those cooked at home. Here they were soaked in the aroma of the forest around.
Afterwards we gathered the garbage of paper, ash, and other leftovers in a bucket so that it may not sully the clear water of the canal. Everybody was responsible for keeping the canal water clean and unsullied. To keep the woods and the grass fragrant and green was a part of our culture and conscience.
No, this just could not be the canal I knew, I thought.
My friends were reassuring me, and very strongly, that it was the same canal. This life, when it takes a turn, when progress is made and grand high-rise buildings come up, then naturally the waterways have to be sacrificed.
I felt a stab of pain in my heart when I saw that little muddy drain starkly flowing with filthy water, with a throbbing pain in its heart. Poor thing must be weeping at its lacklustre condition.
The car was now passing through desolate and indifferent roads. We may have drifted away, I thought, and said, ‘I hope you know where Chamberlain Road is. Nisbet Road, and we turn right…’
‘Indeed, we are on Nisbet Road,’ they told me and laughed.
‘Nisbet Road? This could not be Nisbet Road. It used to be a rather broad road, clean and shining. Early in the morning these roads were swept of all dirt, garbage and fallen leaves with those long broomsticks. Then water was sprinkled by the water-bearers who carried leather bags, half on their backs and half under their arms. With showers from those leather bags, the roads shone, and a very pleasant aroma of wet earth rose from them. This was especially true of Nisbet Road, Chamberlain Road and Abbot Road that led to my school.
This road, covered under layers of dirt and mud, and full of potholes, could not be Nisbet Road.
Clinging to the door-post of past, my memories were peeping out with shock and amazement, their hearts busting with buckets of tears.
Indeed it must be Nisbet Road for we had just climbed over the soft slope and were going gently down, near the crossing. But the slope that seemed so romantic once, had only dirt and potholes in it. The jolts over the potholes were enough to shatter my dreams.
We turned right from the crossing.
Is this the same Chamberlain Road? There used to be no other road in the world as clean and swanky. And this road with its broken edges and potholes and all the dirt in the world, making it look like a dust-bin, looked quite desolate and deserted.
And where are the splendid rows of houses that lined both its sides? They had shining bright fronts, with broad marble porches, and wonderful maple trees.
There was an air of melancholy about these houses. Wretched looking things! They had moved a little forward, with all the porches covered and converted into small shops.
Covered with layers of dust, they seemed to be like travellers limping with fatigue in a journey of long distances. They were perhaps seeking a moment’s respite for they had to resume their tiresome journey after the breather.
No, I was unable to spot my house.
I remembered that there were just about thirty or forty houses along the whole length of the road. Our house was on the left side. And most of the houses belonged to doctors. They had their clinics on the ground floor and residence on the upper floors. There used to be a newspaper office also. In front of the office was a very thick shady tree with a wide trunk. Where had that tree disappeared?
Now almost all these houses had small, miserable looking shops in the front, and there was an eerie silence.
How was it possible to have such ghostly silence in the midst of so much humdrum!
Perhaps it is the desolation and emptiness within, that gradually oozes out and spreads around.
Wasn’t it amazing? The house that had been coursing through my veins all these years, and had been journeying with me wherever I had travelled, I could not recognise that house!
We went past it.
I said, ‘Please, stop. Our house was not so far from the entry point of the road. It was just about midway between the two crossings. There, facing us already, is the crossing of Gwalmandi. Please go back a bit.’
I was trying my utmost to subdue the emotion choking my voice. Yet I could hear the sound of that crying voice loud and clear. It had been submerged and permeated within me all these years.
They turned the car round.
‘Perhaps this was it!’
But what’s happened to this house?
It seemed as though my gentle and innocent house had shifted elsewhere. This ugly, depraved, vagabond of a house had elbowed it out.
The car stopped. Was I facing my own house? This could not be my house. Mine was full of light and air. There were four or five stairs from the road up to the broad marble landing. The neighbouring porch of Doctor Raghbir Singh was even larger and fairer than ours.
Where were those terraces? Those marble porches?
The house seemed to have stationed itself right on the roadside. How could it have shifted like this?
Right on the road was a small shop selling eggs, bread, cooking oils, soaps, toothpaste…. It was apparently built on what was a marble porch once.
I approached that shop with hesitating steps. My friends told the shopkeeper, ‘‘This lady has come from India. This house belonged to her. She has come to visit it’’.
‘Come,’ the man said and gave me a suspicious look, full of doubt and disbelief, and not a little challenge in it that the house now belonged to them, and what had brought me there? And did I plan to carry it back on my shoulders?
O why did I come here at all? What was I looking for after all these years?
Can you really hold your past in your hands? So that whenever you so desire, you can open your palm like an oyster and see the past like a pearl? The past is like a small gold fish. If you hold it tight, it will die in your hand. The golden hue of the fish would metamorphose right before your eyes. Changing from gold to grey, to steel grey, and then into the white of death.
Through a narrow and stinking passage we went on to climb the stairs. Downstairs, adjacent to the landing, was located my father’s clinic. And there used to be a large waiting hall for the patients, by the side of which was the dispensary, where two or three assisting compounders would be busy folding up the medicines in small paper packets, putting them in small envelopes, with the names of the patients written on them. The inner room was where my father sat like a king, across a huge table with glass top, on a rather high chair, and examined the patients and took down a summary of the history of their illnesses in a huge register. There was a small open courtyard at the back. Sometimes he came out and called, “Jeet, send four or five glasses of lassi downstairs,” calling out my name though the shout was really meant for my mother.
The clinic, the waiting hall, those rooms and the open courtyard had all disappeared.
We started climbing the dark and damp staircase. And as I put my hand on the sidewall of the stairs, I felt the plaster was crumbling. The wall was either bare or at places the brickwork showed or the little plaster that was left was brittle and in the last stages of crumbling down. The bricks were bare and moist as though on the verge of tears.
We reached upstairs. A middle-aged woman offered us a seat. Was this that large room, which had a running balcony all along its side and its windows were hung with bamboo blinds?
No. This small room could not be that same large room.
It was now clear to me that the whole house had been cut like a cake from the middle and divided into several small sections. The family must have grown. There were perhaps quarrels among brothers, and the house got divided into several little homes for several families.
No, this was not my house. It was merely a morsel of the corpse of that house caught in the sharp beak of a vulture.
As though there was something palpable, and yet it wasn’t quite there. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Like the presence of God, he is there and not there!
I had the strange feeling that the world around me was falling apart. Cracking into bits and pieces.
I just could not go on looking around the house any more.
I felt deeply disconcerted and got up. I went up to that woman, took her hand in both of my hands and said softly, ‘Aapa, would it be a great bother to you if I come tomorrow?’
There seemed to be suspicion lingering in the eyes that gazed at me from behind the spectacles. It was suspicion, and perhaps a little self-defense too. As if she was trying to guard herself and her home from me.
‘Okay, let it be tomorrow then,’ she said.
On my way back to the hotel, my throat choked with anguish, and with all the welled-up tears.
As if I had just returned from a mourning, a funeral, the crematorium.
The midday sun was sweltering hot and it seemed to be drilling holes into my body.
God’s greatest of miracles is the element of endurance in man. God has quietly and secretly planted in man’s heart the elements of tolerance and the strength to wait.
The evening was going to be devoted to a visit to the tomb of Sayyad Waris Shah. Some sort of a fair was going on there. My hosts were supposed to take me there. But I had a heavy heart. I kept looking out of the car window. The road outside seemed to be a huge river in which flowed the whole desolate, unhappy humanity. Faces dark and fair, faces that were tired and wilted, faces that were in full blossom! Dark as ebony and pink as roses! All floating down the same unknown river. People walking down the road. And on bicycles, on tongas, on scooters, motorcycles and cars.
But I wondered what had happened to the buggies that were drawn by a horse or a pair of horses, which could drive you straight to heaven.
There never was such chaos or such a rush of people in the city ever before. Why are the people in such a mad rush? Are they running for life? Away from life? But life used to get along leisurely, rather softly and slowly. Life was sober and steady. And today in these streets, and on these roads, there seems to be a scramble to gulp down every moment in a single swig. There seemed a mad rush to climb all the rungs of the ladder in a single leap.
Even Delhi is like that!
In fact all metropolises resemble each other. More or less.
Then suddenly one of my hosts pointed out, ‘‘We are crossing the bridge over the river Ravi’’.
I looked down. Is this the mighty river Ravi that I had nursed in my memory all these years?
They used to celebrate ‘Basant’ on its banks. The summer festival.
Ravi was a celebration of flowing water coming straight from mighty mountain glaciers! The water sparkling in such a wide expanse!
My cousin Gursharan used to take us for a boat ride. A boat ride which was at once a quiver of fear, and an abundance of joy. On the vast stretch of water, the softly swaying delicate boat seemed to be breathing. Sighing and breathing! A slow breath, and a huff! There was a graveyard on the other bank of the river surrounded by wild bushes and tall trees.
Legendary Anarkali’s grave was also there perhaps, I don’t remember. The dancer who died for love! On this side lived human beings, and on the other side the spectres.
Standing by the graves it seemed that the dead were locked in a stony sleep. Hollowed but lost in some vague dreams. From the winding lanes of the world of stars their dreams seemed wafting down to penetrate the subterranean regions of the earth.
This was not the same old Ravi. There was desolation on both its banks with smoke curling up from tiny little shanties. The woods had disappeared. What must have happened to the graves? And what happened to those who lay buried with their dreams inside their skulls? Skulls with a perpetual grin!
The whole world, the whole world of Lahore seemed to have been bereft of dreams. Somebody had stolen all the dreams, and left the skulls scattered around! Yet it was in Lahore that fresh graves were being dug for the dreams of my past. And it was my own hands that were digging the graves. And my hands were full of blisters.
Lying down in my hotel bed I waited for the next day. But no, I hadn’t anything to wait for. All waiting had swooned senseless, perhaps had died. From the chink beneath the door there seemed to be slipping in something damp. The room was getting filled with wetness. A spreading huge tree within me suddenly seemed to be stricken with autumn. The leaves, dried and seared, began falling in drifts. And in my mind a death march was being played. Soundless and heavy!
Something seemed to be piercing my whole being. As though some unknown fingernails were scratching the door of my soul.
A thought came wandering like a mosquito and settled down on the window of my mind: Is it possible to slice one’s life like beams cut out from logs of wood? For if we try cutting off slices of life, all pieces would be rendered worthless. And even if the pieces are made going by proper measurements, can pidhis, tables or chairs, or a door of the house be made out of them?
It was an extremely queer and weird thought. I shook it off. My mind was being shredded into bits, and in the constant hum of shredding it seems I fell asleep.
Next morning when I woke up, I parted the heavy curtains and peeped outside. It was still dark. The dawn hadn’t broken.
There was no point to see what time it was, I thought. And I lay down in my bed again.
The woman whom I had met the previous morning in my house came and stood before me. ‘My house’! The idea seemed ironical and ridiculous.
Who was she?
We were in Simla when the country was partitioned. Daarji, my father, could not sleep the whole night. Beeji too didn’t sleep. In his restlessness my father walked up and down, from one room to another, trying to listen to the news on the radio.
In the morning he said, ‘I am going to Lahore. My old parents are in the house alone. God knows what they are going through.’
Beeji said, ‘I won’t let you go. Even my old parents are there. They’ll have to bear whatever fate has in store for them. I’m sure they’ll come over if they are destined to live.’
The argument continued for a while. Finally, my father set out for Lahore.
Roughing it out and sometimes travelling in the railway engines, helping the engine drivers with shoving coal in the furnace, living through the trauma of dance of death around him, he reached Amritsar in twelve days. And then proceeded onwards to Lahore.
My daada and daadi were found in a refugee camp. It was with great difficulty that they were able to rescue my naana and naani out of their home. Their house was under the siege of a mob at that time. The miscreants had planned to drag my grandparents out and kill them.
When all of them had been collected in the camp, my father called an old friend of his, Dr. Mohammad Yousuf. “Just go and take a look at my house and tell me if it would be possible for me to go there just for once.”
He came and told my father that our house had been in the occupation of prostitutes who had fled from Amritsar, and that their pimps were a rather violent lot. The touts, who protected the women, were hooligans.
“No, you can’t go there.”
My father said, “At least get me my Guru Granth Sahib, please.”
Dr. Yousuf said, “Let me talk to them on the phone. And unless they haven’t burnt it….”
After about two hours a man came on a tonga. He was chewing betel leaf, his hair shining black with oil, combed straight with a side parting, his eyes overflowing with surma, and around his neck a gold locket, his shirt and pyjamas wafting whiffs of some cheap perfume. My father could see that he was one of those men.
He carried the bundle of the Granth Sahib wrapped in a bed sheet.
The woman, whom I had seen in our house the previous morning! Was she one of the women who had come from Amritsar? Or had those people sold off the house to some others? And the people who came later had partitioned the house into several pieces? Or had the women from Amritsar divided the house into smaller sections and then sold those for profit?
My understanding, my power to reason and sift, and some sixth sense told me time and again that the woman I had met was one of them. She was surely one of them. That is why she had that shield of steel in her eyes to protect herself. Her eyes also threw a fierce challenge as if saying, “Strange woman! If you try prodding my past, I shall tear you into shreds.” And her face had an other-worldly stony look. Even when I held her hand, she continued looking at me as if from an enemy camp. Actually, she was looking through me, as if I was not a person but a whiff of air. There was no thaw in her eyes at all.
The place where I was trying to look for my past was the place where she was trying her utmost to bury her past, in one of its remotest and most secret corners. She somehow wanted to stow away the bundle of her past in some hidden underground cell. And the stony look in her eyes said, “If you dare cast a glance at my personal life, I shall gouge your eyes out.”
I was driven by my compulsion, and she by hers.
We all have our sore spots locked up within. Sometimes they burst like popping corn and sometimes they merely ooze with wrenching pain. And sometimes these wounds are hidden beneath crusts and get raked by our own nails.
A whole world changes in forty-two years. O what all has transpired in forty-two years—Vietnam, Africa, Korea; the confrontations between India and Pakistan; friendship with China and then bloodshed, and then again the extending hands of friendship. Then there has been the prolonged war between Iraq and Iran, the disintegration of the Soviet Union which was, in a way, the shattering of the dreams of our adolescence and youth. The blood-drenched skirmishes between Israel and Palestine, and the flowing human blood in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Each individual that dwells on the surface of this earth has to bear the pain of the wounds caused to anyone, anywhere in the world. Although it is true that a knowledgeable and sensitive person suffers more, yet those who remain ignorant of the struggles and conflicts going on in other parts of the world are also affected.
The limit of our world is created by the stretch of our vision.
In these forty-two years, the life of that woman too must have changed. Who knows, she may have married that tout of hers, and her son was the one running the small shop selling eggs in that small shop on the ground floor? And who knows they may have sold the other girls in Hira Mandi?
Hira Mandi, the market of beautiful dancing girls.
Hira Mandi! I had learnt about Hira Mandi from the stories of Manto.
Hira Mandi must still be there.
To tell the truth I didn’t want to go back to that house. It would not have been anything but scratching old sores, I knew. Then I thought—it might be my last visit to this city. Earlier too, forty-two long years had passed. And this is three-fourths of man’s life span.
I took a cab and started for Chamberlain Road.
What a thing a house is, I ruminated. Man builds it, and then remains confined within its four walls. He tidies it up by cleaning, scrubbing and washing it every day! And gradually, bit by bit, his very spirit permeates the whole house. And the house becomes a witness of his whole life. The confidant! The house silently watches and hears and experiences all his joys, griefs, sorrows, agonies, his guffaws of laughter and bouts of melancholy, his buoyant songs and his dark gloom.
One may go away, far away, to distant lands, but one’s spirit continues to haunt the walls and the roof of the house where we were born. At no place in the world one can find the sky which used to stretch over that house. At night when the stars move in the orbit of their eternal journey, one can calculate the time by looking at the stars from a certain angle on the rooftop. And if the house is lost, all sense of time is lost. For the stars of a strange sky too are strangers, and so is their movement. The time that keeps in step with the stars, goes astray and gets lost.
The flux of life too takes strange turns sometimes, I thought. One man churns up a dream and starts pursuing it. Gradually, others start following him. And thus the future of the coming generations undergoes a change.
What indeed is future? And does it really register a change?
Jinnah, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, each one had his own dream that he thought good and beneficent for mankind. The dream to change the world in accordance with the new design of their vision. They must have in full earnestness and honesty thought of a bright and better future for the following generations and a better world. Wouldn’t they?
As consequence there may be callous bloodshed, or this earth may be divided with the help of a sharp knife, or six million people may be sent to gas chambers. Whatever happens has to be endured, but only history is witness to all that.
Did those who roamed these streets with daggers in their hands know what the future held for them? How the destinies of millions of people will go astray! How people would be compelled to walk barefoot, leaving their hearths and homes behind, in the slush of their own blood!
Those were dark times!
Death stalked the streets like a demon, eyes wide open, blood oozing out from the wound that was her mouth, with her wild hair flying in the whirlwind.
The season of bestiality and savagery is left far behind. And yet, has it really passed?
Many of them would be lying buried in their graves today.
Man has to die one day. It is the legacy of the ethos of his love or his hatred that he leaves behind for the coming generations.
What is history after all? It’s a kind of fog, an opaque fog, which can be manipulated any way, moulded and interpreted according to one’s own vision and convictions. True history is like the crumbling banks of a fast-flowing river that keep falling in the river, swiftly swept away, by the tides of the river of time. And with the crumbled edges and history, even our own identities have the tendency to get swept away.
History teaches that even those alive today are just a page in its book, a page that shall be tom into shreds and blown away by the gusts and drift of time.
The leaves of this tree of life fall continually and merge with the earth to form fertilising manure.
When we reached Chamberlain Road, I asked the driver of the taxi if he could wait for some time, for I had to go back to the hotel. He agreed to wait, and happily too.
I looked at the house. The windows opening on the still and sultry air seemed to be yawning.
I began to climb the damp and musty stairs with tired and unwilling steps.
And upstairs I met the same woman. She was making lace with crochet. The image of a woman busy making lace with crochet could have been the mask-appearance of a domestic lady of the house.
She did not have those iron walls in her eyes today. But there definitely was an effort to protect herself from me with the distance she maintained. It was an effort at holding out a challenge which she was prepared to defend with her sharp tongue.
I looked around searching for Beeji’s room, from which every morning her soft musical voice sang the prayer from Sukhmani Sahib. Where was it?
And where was that bathroom in which my daadaji used to hum shabads as he had his bath? His voice used to be balanced during summer, but tremulous and quivering like the easily vibrating tight strings of a rubaab in the cold winters.
And where was that kitchen in which, from early morning till evening, something or the other was always being cooked? The utensils were scrubbed until they shone bright. And the fragrance of the cooking dishes meandered all over the house.
It was not possible to locate any place, any sound, any aroma in the house that had been so brutally marauded.
‘‘May I go up to the terrace, on the rooftop?’’ I asked the lady.
‘‘Go ahead. In the meanwhile I shall get some shikanjbee ready for you,’’ she said.
Caressing the walls on both side of the stairs, I climbed slowly. Even if I were not able to find anything else I shall at least find the sky, like a gigantic overturned platter, stretching over the house. The sparrows, the crows and the pigeons that swelled their bellies when they cooed, and celebrated their existence by dancing a waltz on their tiny paws, intoxicated with just the joy of living, would still be there.
I reached the terrace, at the top of the house. An open space under the sky, like a beggar’s bowl. It too seemed to have shrunk. Even the terrace upstairs might have been divided into several parts.
I looked up towards the sky. It was very distant and quite indifferent. Nondescript. Dusty, and colourless. Like a huge diffused haze of blue. Was it dust? Was it smoke? Or was it the collective embodiment of the sighs of the people who had parted from this city?
Where was that small attic? Where must the pigeons be perching to celebrate their existence? Where must the sparrows be, waiting to pick at their grain of food?
Where were all the birds that daadaji used to feed everyday with crushed rotis?
There seemed to be a cloud of opaque colourlessness that enveloped the whole place. That was all!
I suddenly saw some movement in a wall from which plaster was crumbling. I cannot say definitely whether I saw it, or it was merely an illusion. And now, when I think back, everything seems so confused.
This was the same wall behind which there used to be a shed to store fuel wood and coal. Its doors used to swing in the breeze with a subdued creak, like someone sobbing and weeping with suppressed, suffused cries. The eyes of ever-present, supposedly carnivorous, but always unseen cats used to frighten me in the night. Cats lived in this room.
I looked very intently at that wall. And it seemed to me that my father, wrapped in a dank white sheet, emerged from the wall and slowly walked towards me. Then my mother too came out draped in a similar white sheet. And then my daadaji, daadaji!
They emerged silently, and for a few moments gazed at me with tranquil affection, full of such lucidity for which we haven’t yet invented any words, and then disappeared into that wall again.
I was trembling when I went forward and softly caressed the bare bricks of the wall.
As though not merely my past, but all members of my family, who were no more, were buried in that wall. Although they had moved from here a long time ago and had settled in different cities of the world, or were dead and gone, their spirits remained buried here in these walls. There was my father, whose black beard turned half grey on the night of 15 August in a house in Shimla. So was my mother who still sat on that colourful pidhi of hers and made rotis. My grandfather, who muttered the scriptures from his memory all the time, and had witty conversations with his maker, and fed the birds on the rooftop with crushed bits of rotis. As he fed them he seemed to have a heart-to-heart chat with them, slowly, almost lisping with affection, the way mothers talk to their toddlers. My grandmother was there too, who used to massage her milk-white face and hands and lower legs with a mixture of cream and fine-ground gram flour. Jasbir, my brother, whose chin twitched when he spoke, and I, who used to stand behind the bamboo blinds and watch and count the waves of people passing by on the road below. There was a lot to look at! All the wonders of the world! Mysterious pageants of life flowing by! At night, the bullock carts full of vegetables going past our house around midnight, with their wheels creaking, and the lanterns hanging from bamboo poles under the carts, the bullock tails swinging, the wheels painting weirdly dancing shadows on the roads as they passed.
I noticed then a solitary eagle flying across the sky. It was like a black fish in a murky blue sea drifting from one end to the other. As if searching to see if there was any other end of the sea. Its long and fearful scream plunged a knife into the empty and hollow belly of the sky. It was the sound of an iron hammer pounding upon iron.
My mind turned foggy.
I began to climb down.
The vestiges of the house seemed to be the corpse of my house. But it was without a shroud.
It was my dreams that surfaced in my eyes like dead fish on the surface of water. They were the dreams of the house that had got parted from me many years ago. They were the dreams of houses which no one had seen yet, and houses which had not even been built yet.
‘No, I shall not stay in this house until evening. The droves of crows, I was sure, wouldn’t be flying over this house in the evening to their roosts any more.’
Was it a surprise? Was it regret? Was it grief? Was it resignation? The final giving up? Accepting the death, and all the deaths?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it was the anguish wafting up from the grave of a heart for which an epithet is yet to be chiselled.
The severed head of the body of my dreams had rolled down on the floor, but the body was still in slow paroxysms of death. The dazed eyes in the severed head were still gazing at the slow spasm-like motion of its torso, at the slow flailing of its tiny claws. Soaking its dying wings in the blood seeping from its own body.
Even before death, the spirit in the wings, drenched in its own blood, was taking flight.
I was being driven back to the hotel. The roads and streets were echoing with the footsteps of invisible ghosts which stalked the ruined streets. The spectres were haunting the filthy and desolate pothole roads. Spectres of the ages that had gone by, and the dead dreams.
The whole city was like an oyster-shell that had internalised within itself all those echoes in its innermost recesses, echoes that still drifted like some dank fog or hot vapour over these streets.
Translated by the Author