They settled in – Gurdev, his two young boys, and Simrat – at the refugee camp, amid thousands of others like them, people of all types, all clinging to the little they had brought with them, trying to find a way out, clamouring for the food that was available, squabbling over the flap of one tent swinging over the neighbour’s tent. The screams of children being beaten by their mothers, wives by their husbands rent the air night after night.
Simrat, despite the cramping in her stomach, took charge.
She organised a communal kitchen, where a group of families put together their rations and made a cooking group, a cleaning group and a shopping group. At first it was only a few but soon others realised that maintaining a separate kitchen was not easy.
A chulha, along with everything else in the barrack, took up so much space, and the smoke and smell got into everything. Women began coming to her for things – from how to dispose of sanitary napkins to what to use as sanitary napkin, from when to have a bath and when to wash their long hair to treatments for coughs and colds.
She also tried to teach the frontier and farmer women how to stay clean. Many had never used toilets. One woman told her that they went in the fields to defecate before the men woke up, and the men woke up early. They had to be back in the house or they were raped in the fields. They couldn’t tell anyone. They had to go on with their day.
Simrat had also grown up in the village. She had also gone for her morning business to the fields when she was young. She went with her mother and a few more women. They had their spot, not far from the tree but not too close because the men ate their lunch under it. They covered up their business with dirt using the same steel utensil they carried water in to wash. She sat right next to her mother at first but as she got older, she sat not too far away but facing the other direction.
Her mother had also told her to never eat or drink anything outside the house. Nobody wanted unpredictable bowel movements – there was nowhere to go. Simrat and her relatives didn’t have to go before the men because men in their village had their own area. There were a few families that kept black pigs and let them run around the fields to clean the mess.
It was only after she met Gurdev that Simrat learnt about toilets that could be made inside the house.
She found it dirty at first, to have all that her body rejected so close to where they were cooking and washing. But Gurdev wouldn’t have it any other way. There was no sewage system in the village when Gurdev built his house, only open drainage. So, he built a small toilet in the corner of the plot closest to the road, a ceramic bowl shaped like a rajma with a water-filled hole on one end.
There were two white bricks on either side of the bowl to put your feet on. The hole in the ground connected to the drain outside with a pipe that Gurdev had buried below the surface. During monsoons, the water sometimes came backwards but most of the time, throwing a few mugs of water into the hole took care of things.
Simrat knew that Gurdev had come from Lahore. She also knew he was educated, much more than her, like those English people, actually. She had heard him talking on the phone in the post office once. He sounded like them.
He spoke to her in Punjabi, city version but now after so many years in the village, he had learnt the Gujarkhani dialect. He read English books to the boys but not how he was talking on the phone. He talked like they talk, like an Indian.
She had married a complicated man. He had so many ways to speak, which he didn’t do much imagine the number of thoughts he had.
Simrat didn’t like to think too much. Too much thinking made her worry and she had learnt that with Gurdev, she didn’t have to worry. So, she didn’t think while she doubled over every now and then, face plain and expressionless but eyes narrowed with pain, then straightened up, smiled a short smile at whoever was around and carried on with her work – washing clothes, cooking in the communal kitchen, or sweeping and swapping their space. And she didn’t think while she ran to the bathroom, more and more frequently.
She didn’t think when she ate her meagre diet – no milk, no lentils and no wheat. Now, even some vegetables like, cabbage and cauliflower were affecting her. They were cooking rice in the community kitchen every day. Most days, she ate rice and potatoes but she didn’t think; she went on and waited for Gurdev to worry. Colonel Hardit worried, though. He was there with Simrat in the kitchen and when she cleaned, he helped get everything out of the way. He didn’t let her lift heavy things and washed the biggest utensils himself. But he was one of many and Simrat paid little mind to him.
Meanwhile, more and more people were coming to Kingsway every day. The government was setting up tents in the space outside the barracks, rows of tents, almost one on top of the other. The number of toilets remained the same. Water was scarce, still only coming for two hours in the morning. The common toilets were far away and Simrat often had to stop along the way, holding her stomach, then standing still to take deep breaths and then walking the rest of the way.
But now, she had to wait because they were always full. She had to say something to Gurdev, but he was always out. He would come back and mumble things to her, but she was tired by then. She felt she couldn’t understand anything that was even a little more complex than what she already knew – her mind was fuzzy, her eyes always droopy.
Excerpted with permission from Ladies’ Tailor, Priya Hajela, HarperCollins India.