Hari Singh was the flashing, throbbing moment of conscience that Sammi had been trying to seize for nearly seven years. Seven Years. The two words thundered in Sammi’s mind just as soon as she woke up. She shivered and sat up on her manji. It was an early January morning in 1946, chilly winds sweeping across the house, the brutal winter that year unlike any that Sammi had seen in her 23 years.

The days were grey and the nights frosty, hailstorms flying in at feverish intervals to cover the earth in a blanket of white. Stepping outdoors without draping oneself in thick woollen covering resulted in chilblains, runny noses, chapped hands and sneezing. The sun rose teasingly each morning to dispense a little light, but no warmth, and sank hurriedly just as the evenings set in, leaving behind an invasive cold that tore through walls, seeping and settling into clothes and blankets, pillows and quilts, sending teeth chattering and bodies shuddering through the nights. If only the sun would break through the dark skies with vigour one morning and imbue the space with its life-infusing heat, Sammi wished as stray streaks of sunlight sneaked into the room through the rims of the tightly shut window by her manji.

Her village Aliwala lay along the intermittent River Ghaggar in the backwaters of the Malwa region of Punjab. It comprised brick homes and mud houses, stashed alongside each other, winding, unpaved paths connecting dusty streets and bystreets. Once a predominantly Muslim village, now Aliwala had equally as many Sikh families as there were Muslim, the Sikh farmers having trickled into the village over the years from the drier, sandy plains that lay to the south. A handful of Hindu families comprising traders and priests had gradually made their way into Aliwala as well, a shared way of life coming into play with Eid, Vaisakhi and Diwali being celebrated with gusto and the mosque, gurudwara and temple being held in reverence by all.

It was, however, at the annual autumnal anniversary celebrations of the village’s patron saint, the great Sufi master Ali Hujwiri, that all men, women and children came together to rejoice in fervour at his tomb, recalling his message of love and compassion, singing excitably of miracles and treasures, truth and light.

Sammi lived with her parents, paternal aunt and two brothers in a brick house that sat snuggled among a few other Sikh homes, close to the riverbank. A wooden gate stood at the entrance to the house; it opened into a long courtyard shaded by three mulberry trees that cast runaway shadows in the afternoons. The courtyard led to four rooms: the baithak and the front room behind which were the back room and a storage room, every nook and cranny of the space spilling over with stories, some old, others new and some still unfolding, each one defying norms, affirming possibilities, asserting its truth. A kitchen with a tall chimney stood to the side of the rooms. Farther away in the opposite corner of the courtyard, were the outhouse and a barn in which cattle huddled together, mooing sluggishly, dreaming of sunny days and green meadows. Beyond the barn lay sprawling fields where young wheat stalks stood silenced in the mist.

Sammi clenched her icy hands. They lacked sensation but her heart was fluttering as though racing against time. She wondered about the wheat crop. Would the green stalks ripen in winter and become a shimmering gold in spring? Would it be a good harvest? Those questions like so many others in Sammi’s life hung heavy in the air. There was a burst of wind and Sammi wrapped her woollen shawl tightly around her shoulders. The Second World War had ended four months ago but continued to blaze within her. She took a deep breath to blow it out, but much to her alarm, the many sounds of war came rushing back inside her head – the echoing gun shots, the blasting bombs, the loud sobbing, but most all, what she heard were cries erupting from all four directions to converge into an earth-shattering shriek that reverberated through countries and continents and across the five oceans before quivering down her spine. Not only did she hear the war, she could see it too with her mind’s eye – devastated buildings and homes, burning fields, heaps of dead bodies, leaf-less trees and endless stretches of parched earth.

In the midst of it all, the lone figure of Hari Singh was trudging through the wasteland in his muddied khaki uniform, straining to hear the song of the bulbuls. “Some bulbuls are dead, and the others have fled,” he was saying. “Oh, Sammi, they couldn’t bear the barbarity.” “What? Surely not all the bulbuls have gone?” Sammi heard herself asking him. “No, not all,” he said, smiling a tired but reassuring smile. “I can hear the song of the bulbuls in the far distance. It will lead me home. Surely, you can hear the song too?”

Could she hear the bulbuls? Could she truly hear the bulbuls? Sammi’s head began to whirl. Yes, her mind whispered, she could hear the warbling song of the bulbuls. She had been hearing it for almost seven years now. It came to play in her head at uncertain times – through the winter fog and in the middle of the monsoon rain, on windy nights and stillborn days, on weepy afternoons and anguished evenings. Sometimes in the dead of the night, the song pierced through her chest to echo in her being. What if the song ceased? What if, one by one, all the bulbuls curled up and dropped dead? The war had killed men and women, children and trees, plants and dreams. The earth lay battered. Could the scorched landscape sustain the bulbuls?

Sammi saw herself traversing time and space to grab Hari Singh and bring him home as he groped for a way out of the wilderness. But no matter how hard and how far she stretched, she couldn’t reach him. If only the bulbuls would sing their song and show him the way home, but there wasn’t a single bulbul in sight. Had all the bulbuls died? Had the war snuffed life and song out of them? Images of field after field, full of dead and dying bulbuls, came to play out before her eyes. She gasped. The song of the bulbuls was the chord that bound her and Hari Singh together across thousands of miles, infinite waters and immeasurable time. Whatever would she do if the chord snapped? “No! The bulbuls can’t die! The bulbuls mustn’t ever die!”

Sammi’s cry rang across the back room, slipping through the front room and the baithak, past the courtyard, into the kitchen. Her paternal aunt Jeeti Bhua came rushing in and took Sammi’s hands in hers. “Sammi, is everything alright?” Her terrified eyes met Jeet Bhua’s composed ones. She nodded at her aunt. Though her aunt slept by Sammi’s side every night, she woke up very early each morning to tend to the house. “You were probably thinking of the war again. The moment Jasjit returns home from the city for the holidays, you hound him with question upon question about the war. The same with your father and Kirpal. Barely do they come home after a trip that you start with your war queries. All the talk of war has begun to scare you. Come now, think happy thoughts. Today you will begin embroidering the new phulkari! It will be the first of its kind for you! I can hardly wait to get you started,” Jeeti Bhua said, clutching Sammi’s hands.

Excerpted with permission from The Song of Distant Bulbuls, Simrita Dhir, Speaking Tiger.