Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cry, My beloved country- a short story

This is my own work and is a complete work of fiction. All characters and situations are fictitious. The place “Mehndi kuan" does not exist.

Rain was pouring outside the old dilapidated mosque. The late evening call of the muezzin had just finished. In the nearby compound, there stood a run down, vandalized structure which was once a Hindu temple. The thunder and lightning outside was deafening, as if this was a an indication of what was happening in Mehndi Kuan, a nondescript apology of a village, about 10 miles south west of Sialkot in Punjab, India, on the banks of the Aik Nala and south of the Jammu Hills. Sialkot , the place of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Guru Nanak ,was supposed to have been founded by Raja Sul (or Sálá), uncle of the Pandavas.This was a Muslim dominated village with a pocketful of Hindus and Sikhs.

India was in the grip of communal terror. The violence unleashed on both sides of a line of hatred drawn by the British was something this part of the world had never seen, the scars of which will remain as long as the songs of the Ramayana and the sayings of the Prophet exist – a line which said that one eye is different from the other, that the heart of a mussalmaan1 beats differently than that of a Hindu, and that a culture which had captivated the ‘cultured’ west from time immemorial suddenly stood divided. Yes, this was the eve of Independence, the day when India was going to smile bravely and proudly and a day Indians will always remember with shame.

Mehndi Kuan was not well-known even in the Punjab. This was a small village of a motley crowd of peasants, farmers, paper mill workers and laborers. Of course, the big draw for most people here was the new factory manufacturing cricket bats and balls that the British had established. Ah, Cricket, one of the very few good legacies the white man left behind in the sub continent. Most of the people working in and around Gujranwala and Sialkot were employed in this factory. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived here peacefully, their only reason of dissension being the level of employment each family had. It was in Mehndi Kuan, that Afzal Hussain Khan and his family lived. Afzal, now in his late 30’s was working in the factory and earning enough to help his family. His wife, Salma was a simple, traditional woman and her sole occupation was looking after their three daughters, Zohra, Zaira and Zainab. Zohra and Zaira were 10 and 8 respectively and like most children in this part of the world, were only waiting to be given away at Nikkah and did not attend school. But 6 year old Zainab was a precocious child. She had a great sense of music and was very quick at grasping things. She used to recite the suras as though that was what she had been born for. She was a very inquisitive child and after a great deal of thought, Afzal decided to put his child in a nearby all-girls school. Afzal was very proud of his family and of his lineage. His great grandfather was believed to have been part of a brave band of warriors led by Sher Singh, the trusted commander of Sher-I-Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh in the First Punjab War against the British.

The Afzal family would wake up every morning to the exposition of the Bhagawat Gita by his next-door neighbour Atma Ram, a Hindu priest. Atma Ram was a devout Hindu and his life was all about serving God at the Ram Temple next to the mosque. The Ram temple and the mosque were the hubbub of activity in this village. This was where the Panchayats were held, this was where the village gossip spread, and this was where the people of the village realized day in and day out, that they had an identity, which was their own, something a minor issue like religion could not disrupt.

Atma Ram and his wife Gomti also had three daughters, at about the same ages of their neighbour’s children. Janki, Parvati and Durga also did not attend school. Their father ensured that all their education was done at home and he ensured the right mix of stories, prayers, morals and values to his children. Atma Ram was well versed in all the major puranas and vedas as well as the Quran and he ensured that all his children learnt the tenets of the holy Quran as well. Atma Ram had an endearing way of telling his stories and not surprisingly, little Zainab was a constant, enthusiastic presence at his discourses. It was hard to tell whether Janki’s knowledge of the“Al-Fatiha” , “Family of Imran” or her understanding of the“Al-Maun” could match the expressions of Zainab when describing Lord Krishna’s killing of the snake ‘Kaalinga’, or her childish ecstasy when talking about how Krishna rose to his full “Vishwarupa”and explained the Bhagavad-Gita to a self doubting Arjuna at the peak of the Mahabharata war. Atma Ram was also a proud man of the soil. His ancestors were part of the early anti-British rebel movements, which inspired the subjugated Indians with nationalistic songs and patriotic fervor.

Both the families competed with each other in celebrating functions and if Afzal Hussain’s family prepared sweets and joyously celebrated Diwali, Atma Ram’s observed a strict fast through the holy month of Ramadan

It was against this idyllic backdrop that India’s imminent Partition was announced and the evil mask of discontent and hatred was rearing its ugly form and starting to spread like poison. There was a great game of revenge and bloodbath happening all over the country. From Lahore to Calcutta and Amritsar to Karachi, the sounds of the dying and the heart wrenching cries of women only made people believe that the Day of Judgment and Kaliyuga had arrived in unison. The Muslims started hounding the houses of Hindus and calling people out of their houses and butchering them. The Hindus were not far behind as they looted and killed people by the hundreds. Teachers murdered their students because suddenly their names sounded different.

An angry mob brandishing sickles and knives was gathering outside Afzal Hussain’s house, which was locked. The mob started shouting violently and calling out to the inmates. The mob had come to Mehndi Kuan from Rawalpindi with specific instructions to cleanse the ‘land of the pure’ of all Hindus .Illyas, apparently the leader of the gang was shouting “You Bastards! Come out or we will set fire to the house. Go to India and give us back our land! I swear in the name of Allah, I will not rest till I see the last dead Kafir.”

The thuds on the locked door grew louder “We know five Hindus are hiding here! Is the owner of this house a true Mussalmaan??. Giving shelter to pigs! Bhai, send them out at once, otherwise the wrath of Allah will befall your family. Saala10 come out or we’ll come in and burn you alive!!”

Atma Ram was shivering, holding on to a reassuring Afzal Hussain.The frightened kids were wailing. Their mothers were saying prayers and trying to keep the children calm.

“Arre Bhaaiyon, What are you saying, have some sense? Who, in the name of Allah, is a true mussalmaan? Who? , The one who saves or the one who kills?? Stop this nonsense at once. Islam is about compassion. You are doing grave injustice to Islam and every Mussalmaan! Do not fall into the trap set by the forces of Evil. Please listen to me”

“Shut up!.I will give you three minutes to send them out .Otherwise …..!”

Inside the house, Atma Ram was panicking “Afzal Bhai, Let me go! I will talk to them ,fall at their feet and beg them to kill me and leave my family alone”

The thuds grew louder and louder. “Waiting for you, bastards!!”

“Atma Ram, they will go away. You just wait here. I will go out and talk to them,” said a firm Afzal Hussain.

“No! No! , Afzal Bhai, you stay. If you are here, there is a chance my family will be saved! You stay. I will go” pleaded Atma Ram.

The sounds from outside turned menacing. Chants of “Naaara-e-takbir! Allah-u –Akbar!” rented the air.

Then…there was a moment of silence. Illyas shouted “Ok!! We gave you a chance .Since all of you are bloody Kafirs , we are coming in now. Ok !!!Chaaarge …Allah-u -Akbar!!!”

Suddenly...the door opened. Illyas motioned the others to wait. Out of the door, as expected by the gang, walked the full family crying out “Jai Ram ji ki!Jai Ram ji ki”.

Illyas started a frenzied laughter “Aaagh!! Bastards!! Atleast you had the sense to come out and die!! For this, you will have a sweet time in Hell! Ha! Ha! Ha!”.

And in one fell swoop grabbed the little girl who was the most vociferous and slit her throat. The others pounced on the remaining family and killed them one by one without any mercy.

“Aaaaaaaaaaagh..!!!!Jai Ram ji ki!!!”

Mission accomplished Illyas and gang turned to leave. Suddenly there was wailing and crying from inside the house as they saw Atma Ram’s family come out banging their chests. “Kill me! Kill us!! That’s the least we can do for Afzal Bhai.You want your thirst for blood quenched. Go on. Kill us. We don’t deserve to live in this land. The land of our Afzal bhai”

Illyas was shocked .He was overcome by a sudden feeling of guilt. With shame writ all over his face, he motioned his advancing gang to stop. He couldn’t believe what he had seen and what he had just done. He just looked at Atma Ram, and with tears swelling in his eyes, he slowly limped back away with the gang.

As Atma Ram looked at the dead bodies of Afzal Hussain and his family , the last words spoken by Afzal came to his mind. “Atma Bhai! You have taken refuge at the house of Afzal Hussain Khan, a Pathan.As long as I live, not a hair of yours will be touched.Salma,children come on, Let’s go. Jai Ram Ji ki !! All of you now Jai Ram ji ki.”

Today, nothing of Afzal’s house, or the mosque or the temple exists in Mehndi Kuan.All that remains there is a small ramshackle building with an idol of Lord Ram. At its base inscribed in large letters is a couplet in Sanskrit

“La ilaha illallah,

Muhammad ur Rasool Allah”