The rain had been heavy through the day. Small streams of water flowed through the muddy lanes of the refugee camp and in many cases flooded the tents which stood shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the lanes. The clouds had parted in the afternoon, and the sun had at last appeared. Groups of men were busy clearing the lanes with shovels and pickaxes. Children and the womenfolk in each tent sorted out the wet things and spread them out on lines, which were hung inside the tents. Most of the women had removed their saris and were working only in petticoats. With brooms in hand, they vigorously pushed the water out of the tents and made little mud dams outside to prevent it from coming in again. The monsoon was late this year, but it had been raining off and on for many weeks.

It had also rained on the 15th of August, the independence day. The news of the celebration in Delhi was blocked out by the Pakistani press and no Indian newspapers were available. Most families in the camp sat together on that day and while they were aggrieved at their personal fate they also felt inexplicably proud. The families from Fort Street were allowed four of the smaller tents. They were tiny army tents. The canvas sloped sideways from two poles in the centre, and the space inside could barely accommodate a single family.

Bibi Amar Vati was given a full tent for her family. The Sardars too, because of the special condition of Isher Kaur, got a tent to themselves. Lala Kanshi Ram allowed Padmini and Chandni, the charwoman and her daughter, to move in with his family. The remaining families moved together into the fourth tent. The afternoon had the peculiar freshness Indian days acquire after rain and Lala Kanshi Ram had gone out for a walk with Arun. The far-off hills of Jammu stood out clear in the cleanwashed blue sky. The air smelled of wet earth and made you feel good. The red army barracks in the Cantonment looked redder and thoroughly scrubbed. Lala Kanshi Ram knew the army men would soon come out to clean up the damage caused by the rain. At the moment the fields were deserted, and the trees by their side shook majestically in the wind. When they returned from their walk, they found Dr Chander Bhan and his wife sitting inside their tent.

Dr Chander Bhan had a small medical practice in Trunk Bazaar and the two families occasionally met each other. He too had moved into the camp a few days before independence. Lala Kanshi Ram had seen him around, but had not had the time to talk to him. “So at last we can sit for a few minutes with each other,” said Lala Kanshi Ram, going forward to meet Dr Chander Bhan with his usual friendliness and a warm smile on his face. Dr Chander Bhan and his wife were sitting on one of the beds that was spread on the ground. Dr Bhan got up and gripped Lala Kanshi Ram’s hands. “My privilege,” he said. “How do you like living in a camp?” asked Lala Kanshi Ram of Dr Bhan’s wife. While she smiled noncommittally, Lala Kanshi Ram noticed she had especially dressed up to come to their place. She was a matronly woman with a pinched, ill-defined face, so that what you saw of it was only the chin. Her hair was combed back over her ears, from which hung two gold trinkets. She was wearing a white silk blouse and a fine white muslin sari. And she had a pair of lavish Punjabi shoes on, with gold trimmings all over their surface. He looked at Dr Chander Bhan and found he too was wearing spotlessly clean white clothes, with a black cap on his head.

This disturbed Lala Kanshi Ram. Why were they so overdressed on such a rainy day? Prabha Rani emerged from behind the curtain that hung in one corner, adjusting her sari. They had no visitors here. Lala Kanshi Ram knew what a ritual it was for Prabha Rani to make her toilet. She had to get ready in a hurry today, and a faint blush spread on her face as she came and sat by the side of Mrs Bhan. “It is a good day!” she said, embracing Mrs Bhan and greeting Dr Bhan.

It was the traditional sentence of approval – approval of the visitor. To this, the traditional reply was, “It’s a good day for us, too.” But Mrs Bhan remained quiet. She only leaned forward and met Prabha Rani in the embrace. And then there fell a silence in the tent. Dr and Mrs Bhan said not a word. They did not look particularly uncomfortable. Only they did not speak and stared at Prabha Rani and Lala Kanshi Ram. “Is anything the matter?” asked Lala Kanshi Ram, sensing danger in that silence. “No, nothing is the matter,” said Mrs Bhan, shaking her grey head and jingling her earrings. She kept shaking her head and jingling the earrings. They surely make a good sound, she was saying to herself. And why shouldn’t they? They were made of solid gold – 22 carat! Again a long pause followed, when Lala Kanshi Ram fidgeted with his shirt sleeves and Prabha Rani looked at Mrs Bhan and Arun sat flurried next to his father. Arun hated Dr and Mrs Bhan.

“We’ve bad news for you,” said Dr Bhan finally, addressing Lala Kanshi Ram. “I wish we weren’t the messengers of this...” His tone was heavy with concern, but it was only assumed heaviness. “Say it.”

“We’ve heard your daughter Madhu Bala is killed,” said Dr Bhan sonorously, almost delivering a speech. Arun bit his lip, and Lala Kanshi Ram and Prabha Rani stared at their visitors. “Who told you?” asked Lala Kanshi Ram, with remarkable poise and control.

“Lala Dina Nath of Gujrat.”

“How does he know?”

“He was in the train in which it happened.”

“Which train?”

“The one from Wazirabad. She was coming to Sialkot – to you. Along with her husband.”

“And her husband?”

“He too was killed.”

Arun watched his mother. She did not cry. She stared at Dr and Mrs Bhan in dismay, but she shed no tears. But she said to Arun: “Now you have no sister left!”

“Ma, it’s only hearsay – it’s not true,” said Arun. Facing Dr Bhan, he asked crossly: “Have you met Lala Dina Nath yourself? Where is he? I should like to ask him the details for myself.”

“Lala Dina Nath was here last night. He left for Jammu by car soon afterwards.”

“Why didn’t he come and see us?”

“He said he was in a hurry.”

Prabha Rani here went behind the curtain. Arun went after her, and they could hear him whispering to her. Said Lala Kanshi Ram: “I wish you had first communicated the news to me alone.” Dr and Mrs Bhan felt cheated. They loved funerals and condolence meetings. Arranging things, offering sympathy, while sitting clean and well-off themselves, there couldn’t be anything more exciting in life for them! Mrs Bhan had come ready to hold Prabha Rani’s arms and prevent her from beating her breasts. Dr Bhan had looked up a suitable quotation from the Gita, and was only waiting for the right moment to pass it on – with explanatory notes and comments – to Lala Kanshi Ram. But Lala Kanshi Ram and his family had acted in a most unpredictable manner. Eccentrics that they were, instead of sorrow they had displayed anger. Lala Kanshi Ram was now staring hard at their ornate dress. Dr and Mrs Bhan saw that and felt a trifle abashed and guilty.

Excerpted with permission from Azadi, Chaman Nahal, Hachette India.