Krishna Sobti was haunted throughout her life by the death of her childhood friend, who was murdered during the Partition riots on her wedding night. In her last novel, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There (Gujarat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan, 2017), she describes her younger self circa 1948, being visited in a dream by her friend (here called Beembo).
Here is an excerpt from the 2017 novel and her 1950 short story on the same topic, “Fear Not, I will Protect You”, both translated by Daisy Rockwell.
From A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There
Phuli Bai placed the tray Hamid had set on the table and sat down against the bamboo lattice.
“Hukum, the district’s orders are that I sleep by you one night and Mishri Bai sleeps by you one night.”
Bai agreed with a glance and Phuli Bai stood up and clasped her hands together, “Hukum, please write and say that we should stay in our own homes at night.”
“But you didn’t want to stay at home,” said Bai in astonishment.
Phuli Bai was silent and stared fixedly at the other side of the lattice.
“Phuli Bai, is there some problem with staying here?”
“Then?” Suddenly Phuli Bai began to cry.
“Hukum Khamma, I’m scared in Gangawa.”
Bai set her cup down on the tray and said gently, “What are you afraid of, will you at least say that? Don’t talk in riddles!”
Phuli Bai clasped her hands together. “Hukum, this is a haunted house. No one wants to live here. You’re from outside. You don’t know the ghost stories. Bai ji, that’s why the Maharani Sahiba ordered a guard to remain here.”
Bai began to laugh.
“Phuli Bai, ghosts don’t run away from guards. Stay here a few days. Nothing will happen to you.”
“Bai ji, you’re from outside, what do you know! When someone dies at the palace, the body is placed here. You were asking about the square terrace in the side room, remember? Hukum, the funeral lamp is lit there.”
“It’s not the only funeral lamp in Gangawa. They must burn in all homes some day, Phuli Bai. In four days, Zutshi Sahib and I are going to Bombay. Until then you will both have to stay here. If a ghost shows up during that time, I’ll come back and arrange for you to work somewhere else.”
Phuli Bai was choking with fear.
“Hukum, please listen to me, it’s not right for you to live here. All of Sirohi knows that the ghosts rule at night at Gangawa, that they knock at the doors.”
Bai said sternly, “I do not believe in ghosts, nor in fear – you will both have to report for duty for these four nights.”
Phuli Bai fell silent and stood quietly weeping.
“Look, I don’t care for crying and carrying on. I have no sympathy for such behaviour,” she scolded.
The very same night she issued her admonishment, such an incident indeed came to pass. As she lay sleeping, a girl came to stand at the head of her bed in a red suit. The sound of footsteps, the clink of bangles.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, my Kishni! You don’t recognise the dead! It’s me, Beembo. Your childhood friend. Remember? I used to tease you:
As thirsty as a well
How much water will you pull
How much thirst will you quench
As much nectar as you drink
That’s how long you’ll live.”
In her dream, she felt herself choking with fear. She shrank back. “How did you get here, Beembo?’ she asked.
“What’s it to the dead? We just wander about.’”
“Beembo, I didn’t see you in the camps.”
“My husband and I crossed over to the shores of death on the night of our wedding. We got engaged in the afternoon, with the beating of tambourines at the haldi ritual, and at midnight, the pandit tied the red thread around my wrist and quietly recited the wedding sloka as we walked around the fire. When we started to hear shouts of Allahu Akbar and Har har Mahadev coming closer from the next neighbourhood, Ma pointed to the secret staircase – ‘Go, daughter, into the upstairs storage room,’ she said. The two of us sat holding our breath and clasping hands, ‘Oh, god, if the murderous crowd ends up somewhere else, and if you have mercy on us, we’ll escape to the camps in the dead of night,’ we said.”
“Did you make it to the camps?”
“No, Kishni, that wasn’t meant to be. Our enemies jumped from the neighbouring house and surrounded us. Those cruel men came barging in. They separated me from my groom, and after he tried to confront them, they cut off my bangled arms and threw them away, and in just a moment our lives had descended into darkness. The End.”
“And now you’ve come here?” she asked in a trembling voice.
“To see my friend, to watch how you struggle as you forge new paths!”
Seeing Beembo, Kishni, she who feared not the ghosts, felt suffocated by terror.
“Go now, Beembo! Go far, get out of here!”
Phuli Bai leaned over her and shook her by the shoulders and called out to her, “Get up, Bai, drink some water! Didn’t I tell you Gangawa was haunted? It’s haunted.”
She drank some water, looked around cautiously, checked the time on her watch and turned over. She laid her head down again and squeezed her eyes shut. Would all the other thousands of murdered people start wandering about as ghosts too, like Beembo?
Fear Not, I Will Protect You
On that stormy night, when the sky above echoed with slogans, two arms embraced a beautiful delicate body and made this promise:
Fear not, I will protect you.
Arms wrapped arms and eyes smiled, squinting with fear. Eyes met eyes and dew alit upon the bosom of earth. The pearls of the sky blossomed into flowers in the soil. Then one day, thousands of stamping feet trampled through the spring flower garden.
Kill, kill! Die, die! Allahu Akbar! Har har Mahadev!
Eyes swimming in blood. Hands bearing weapons.
In that locked house, two souls held breath, swaying, drowning in the struggle between life and death.
The cries of Kill, kill! drew closer. Nearer, nearer – a soft shriek, and two strong arms held that swooning body and whispered:
Fear not, I will protect you.
Suddenly, a crowd of thousands at the door. The door panels break. Kill! Burn! And in the blinking of an eye, hands are pulled from hands. Old promises are broken.
I will protect her, I…
The voice broke. Someone pressed against a neck, dashed a head against a wall and grabbed hold of those delicate arms.
The head spun, eyes spun, earth spun, sky spun…and in this whirl, those eyes saw that sweet, fragile form in the hands of the murders. Alas! A blade glistened. The fair arms, heavy with gold, were slashed, falling to the ground.
Fear not, I will protect you.
A deserted afternoon. Trucks pull up before the camp. Children, elderly, wounded, all descend. All undone by hunger and thirst. Stumbling, falling, but on this last seat lies a stricken young man…stony eyes, rough hair, blue lips…the driver shakes his limp body and says in a voice heavy with sympathy, Get up, brother, you’ve reached your homeland… My homeland! Two heavy arms rise up. The lips flutter:
Fear not, I will protect you…
…as the voice disappears into the silence of death. The lids of the stony eyes stiffen: now the journey to the homeland is complete. And those protecting arms are still forever more. The driver lifts the extinguished body with chill hands and lays it out on the ground. Dust is to dust. But listen, a faint voice rises from the dust:
Fear not, I will protect you. I…