The axe fell right in the middle and the log split into two. Master Karam Singh stood in his courtyard, chopping wood. His turban had slid down to his neck. His daughter-in-law came out of the kitchen and said, “Bhapa-ji, why are you cutting so much wood? There’s enough.”
“Never mind. It’ll come handy.”
After a while, tired, he rested the axe against a wall and started to tie his turban properly. Ever since the schools had closed, it was difficult to pass the time. Avtar, his elder son, had gone to meet his sister’s in-laws four villages away. At Derewalan. That is where Karam Singh’s daughter Nikki had been married. Avtar had also taken his mother along. He was to have returned in three or four hours.
They may have stopped for lunch, but now evening was upon them. Avtar’s wife, Satya, saw Master-ji’s concern in his furrowed brow. He was cutting the wood not just to while away time, but to dispel his anxiety. She too was anxious, but there was nothing she could do. She said, “Even Bhuri keeps looking at the entrance. He feeds her every day before she is milked.”
Master-ji grunted. “He will come, Bhuriye! Avtar must be on his way now!”
In response, when the buffalo mooed loudly, he said: “Look, she has started calling out his name. You don’t call him by his name, but this one does!”
A ripple of laughter passed between them, leaving their hearts no lighter. They were trying to reassure each other. Karam Singh said, taking a dig at his wife, “See, if he had been alone on his cycle, he would have been here by now. But he has carried along a two-ton sack.”
Bahu protested, “But Beeji is not that fat.”
“What do you know, bitiya, how heavy she is! Come, hand me the bucket, I’ll milk the buffalo.”
“Bhapa-ji, have you ever lifted Beeji?” Bahu asked, washing the bucket.
“What do you know! I’d lift her on my shoulders and do the bhangra when we were young.”
Bahu brought him the bucket. He washed the udder of the buffalo and began milking. In the meantime, Satya peeped out into the lane echoing all the way with hushed whispers.
She said, almost to herself but within his earshot, “Some really bad news from Montgomery!”
“About the riots? It’s nothing...Only rumours!”
The first stream of milk fell into the bucket like the ringing of a bell. A crease appeared on Master- ji’s forehead.
“I had told your mother-in-law...let Avtar go alone...he’ll bring back news about his sister and her family. But she just doesn’t listen to anyone.”
He was growing angrier with his wife by the minute.
“The other day when I wanted to go there myself, she wouldn’t let me.”
Satya tried to reassure him. “They will come back soon, Bhapa-ji. Why do you worry?”
Just then, there was a thud in the lane outside. Perhaps it was Phajju’s bullock cart. Soon it came and halted in front of the door. When Satya’s face flushed red, it became apparent how pale it had been a little earlier. Avtar Singh was getting his cycle down from the cart. Master-ji spoke from where he sat milking the buffalo.
“Oye, what took you so long?”
Phajju shouted his greeting from the door: “Salaam alaikum, Master-ji!”
“Walekum-as-salaam, Bhai Phajju. Come, have a couple of milk streams. Have a glassful before you go.”
“Some other time, Master-ji. I’m in a hurry...Veer-ji’s cycle got punctured on the way. Good that we met. Okay then, Allah beli!”
When Phajju had left, Master-ji asked Avtar, “Oye, where have you left your bebe? I don’t see her.”
“She’ll stay there for a day or two. Nikki’s mother- in-law insisted.”
Avtar Singh began to wash his hands and feet under the tap. Satya hung his clothes and a towel close by. A strange silence enveloped the courtyard. Master-ji put out the fodder for the buffalo, kept the milk in the kitchen and asked, “What news? From the Derewalans.”
Avtar walked across the yard and said, “It doesn’t look very good, Bhapa-ji!”
“Why? Has something happened there?”
“Not really, but...”
He paused and Master-ji said, irritated, “Oye, these are mere rumours. Just rumours. They fly around like bats.”
“If they are mere rumours, why did Stephen Menon close the school and run away? In the middle of the night, he called for a military truck and escaped.”
“That Anglo-Indian was bound to feel threatened...He belongs neither to India nor England. Where will he go after the British leave? He was the one who had Master Fazaldeen whipped in the school. His skin peeled off. His blood still stains my back. Who will run away if not he?”
Avtar fell silent.
After muttering something to himself, Master-ji said, “It’s been days since I last met Fazlu. People in his lane have started looking at me with suspicion.”
Excerpted with permission from Two, Gulzar, translated from the Urdu by the author, HarperCollins India.
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