It had just been three or four months since the creation of Pakistan. Everything was in a shambles. Piles of household goods lay abandoned at police stations and check-posts. Boxes, beds, cradles, tables, sofa sets and framed pictures seemed to have uprooted themselves from their abodes and gathered at the police premises. What were cradles and family pictures doing at the police station? At one time they must have adorned the walls and corners of some home and would have seemed out of place anywhere else. But now they were lying jumbled in untidy piles. Utensils and almirahs seemed to have run away from kitchens and attics to assemble outside government offices. No one had washed, polished or counted these utensils in a long time. These objects had not felt human touch for many months now.
Didn’t I say that everything seemed uprooted and out of place? Cattle too had moved from sheds to new enclosures. The animals looked around with dazed eyes and stepped with care. Only the earth remained unmoved as thousands of refugees crawled all over it. Refugees were being pushed into Pakistan at the big camp at Wagah and then they moved from district to district looking for land to till. Not just the refugees, even the locals looked quite lost. Clans and groups had fallen apart. Old trusted friends had vanished into the blue. At one place there were workers but no owner to run the mill, at another the mill owner was there but the workers had fled.
An unending stream of new people had come in. What were these new people like? They were disoriented and lost souls. They did not mingle with the locals. They seemed incapable of saying salaam and striking up a conversation. They just peered out of doorways and if anyone greeted them, they did not respond. These refugees had shaken the very roots of rural society. The old residents felt ill at ease in their own villages, which had changed so drastically and so suddenly. These were not the villages where they were born and where they grew up. Even the streams and canals flowing past their havelis seemed alien. They could no longer purify themselves with the wazu or sacred wash before saying the namaaz because the water was tinted red with human blood and bits of bodies floated in it. How could anyone do wazu with this water? Even strangers were told not to bathe in it. The whole edifice had fallen and things had gone completely haywire.
The slow process of recovery had just about begun. Everyone was trying to find their feet again. Everything had to be built from scratch. “The country is ruined,” a Jat youth said to his old father, surveying the devastation all round.
“True, but as the new people settle down, life will return to normal.”
“You’re just consoling yourself. These new people will never settle down. These poor souls are so battered and lost that they are good for nothing.”
“No, silly boy, that isn’t true. Haven’t you noticed the grass in the fields? When we plough the land, we take every care to uproot it. But after ten days it sprouts again. After a month it is all over the place as though it had never been uprooted.”
Actually, sometimes you could see the truth in the old man’s words. The people who had been allotted land were settling down. The wheat fields, still green, gave some solace to their souls. They dug ditches in front of their homes and burnt cowdung cakes in them, and sometimes people would gather round the fire to smoke the hookah. Slowly, their cattle too were forgetting their fear and getting used to their new sheds. Sometimes they would scratch their foreheads against the branches that formed the fence, or rub up against the mud wall. When a government official came to the new villages, a newcomer would take on the role of community leader. They would relate the common problems of the village like responsible representatives and thus stake their claim to leadership. They would attract attention by the simplest of devices: making the villagers sit down or instructing them not to speak at the same time, or they’d offer water and tobacco to the official.
I was appointed as a liaison officer in this Pakistan which was recovering from devastation. My job was to locate Hindu and Sikh families who had been forcibly converted to Islam as well as trace abducted women from these communities and bring them to India. A unit of the Indian army and some officials from the Pakistan special police force were assisting me. The task became very difficult when it came to tracing abducted women. Once a woman had been located, the Pakistani police would help a little in what was termed as their “recovery”, but they rarely gave us information that would help find the women in the first place. But the task became easier if they accompanied us on the job. In this particular case, not only did the police inspector accompany me to trace the woman, he had also located her.
He told me that the woman’s father-in-law had been the headman of the village. The village was quite a distance from the main road and we had to use dust tracks to reach it. When we got there the chaudharis of the village were waiting to welcome the inspector. In those days the people of Pakistan looked up to the government. When we asked where the woman was, they pointed to a shabby little hovel. The inspector and the others stayed outside and I went in alone. It was a mud-plastered room, barely large enough to hold three cots. A few utensils lay on a wooden rack and in a corner some clothes and some other odds and ends were scattered about. The woman was lying on a cot and she seemed to be very ill. One of her arms was bandaged. Perhaps she was suffering from some kind of eczema. She was very weak and could only speak in a very low voice.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked.
“I have been down with fever for four or five days.”
“Isn’t there a woman here to look after you?”
“No, there is no woman here.”
Her situation was very different from that of the other abducted women I had seen. Usually, there were people around them as though they were being guarded. They were brought forward and shown to me. This woman seemed to be living all alone. The villagers seemed to have left her to her own fate. Perhaps they had helped her. I had been told that her husband and the rest of the family had been butchered. I did not want her to repeat the harrowing tale. I was more concerned about her present state.
“How long have you been living here?”
“Since the day the village was stormed.”
“Who gave you these clothes and utensils?”
“Don’t you understand?”
Finally, I understood it all. She was not living alone and these possessions were not hers. It was just that the owner of the hovel, who owned everything in it, including her body, was not around. She was a miserable prisoner in her abductor’s home. Now I can relate the story quite normally, but at that time I was devastated. My faith in humanity, fostered by the help that I had received from the police and the people of the village, suddenly disappeared. I was face to face with harsh reality. The widow was lying in a miserable state in the hovel. She made the most terrifying picture of the torment one human being can inflict upon another. She had been crushed, abused and neglected in her illness. There was no one left in the village from her caste, clan or religion. She had no hope of seeing her relatives again. Even if someone had told her that she could, she would not have believed them. How could anyone get her out of a big country like Pakistan? She could not even entertain such a thought. The question of taking her away in that state did not arise. It was a bitter winter and moving her would have worsened her condition. No one could have hidden her elsewhere for we had seen her and identified her.
“Changa Bibi, I will come another day.” I meant, of course, that I would come to take her across the border. Perhaps this was something that she could not even imagine. “You are leaving? Sit for a moment and listen to what I have to say.” I sat down on the cot. “You are my Sikh brother. I too was Sikh once, though Virk now I have become a Muslim. I have no one to call my own in this world now. I am in great distress so please help me. I have a sister-in-law, my husband’s younger sister. Those rascals from Yaran Chak took her away during the attack. You seem to be an important man. Even the police listen to you. Please bring her here to me. You just have to tell her once that I, her bhabhi, am here and she will come at once. I had brought her up and she is like a daughter to me. I will get her married to someone here. I shall then have relatives and someone to call my own.” The old Jat farmer’s words rang in my ears. “Haven’t you noticed the grass in the fields? When we plough the fields, we take every care to uproot it. But after ten days it sprouts again. After a month it is all over the place as though it had never been uprooted.”
Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt.
Kulwant Singh Virk (1921-87) was a famous short fiction writer of Punjabi who received the national Sahitya Akademi for his anthology Nave Lok.