One evening, Basanti’s father returned to the dera looking unusually tired. There was an anxious look in his eyes. During the night, her parents talked in whispers. They sighed and tossed on their cot. Since they all slept together under the same roof, it made for a long, sleepless night for her as well.
The next morning, the men stayed at the dera instead of going out to work. The Mukhia set a cot under the shadiest tree and his wife covered it with her best blanket. The men spoke in low voices, and the women seemed jumpy, and loudly scolded their children. Basanti understood the reason for the commotion when the Chaudhry arrived. The Chaudhry owned the village and all the lands around it, as well as the seven neighbouring ones. People said his sharecroppers numbered in the hundreds.
He had recently taken another wife, and Basanti and Devi had danced at the wedding, a grand affair. The Chaudhry’s mother, the aristocratic, white-haired Begum, had rewarded the girls well for their performance, and the entire dera had feasted for three days there.
The Chaudhry was accompanied by the Mullah and followed by two men wearing bandoliers and carrying long guns in their hands. The Mukhia, carrying his traditional curved staff, greeted the guests nervously and sat the Chaudhry and the Mullah on the cot. Their guards stood behind them and stared at the people, who were sitting together on the ground. The Mukhia squatted at the Chaudhry’s feet.
“The time I thought would never arrive has come,” the Chaudhry said, after declining refreshments. “You must all make a decision today – to stay here or leave tonight.”
“Those willing to accept Allah will be welcomed into the village with open arms,” the Mullah said. “No harm will ever come to them, and they will live with us as equals in our new nation of Pakistan.” People turned to each other and spoke in whispers.
“Many are leaving,” the Chaudhry said, “but I hear of massacres in the hills.” It sent a chill up Basanti’s spine and made her want to pee. “Tell us, oh Malik, you tell us what to do.” The Mukhia bent down and held the Chaudhry’s feet. It was a cowardly gesture, Basanti thought, and it brought grins to the faces of the guards.
Basanti glanced at Devi. The fear she felt was also in her cousin’s eyes. The Mullah smiled and nodded and combed his hennaed beard with his fingers. “Convert and be safe. Utter the name of Allah now, I urge you.” The Chaudhry raised his hands and motioned the Mullah to be quiet. “Do what you choose. Stay if you want, or go if you must.” Basanti’s father stood up and joined his hands. “We will go, Malik.” The Mullah’s eyes flared.
“You will put your women and children in danger. It is a hundred miles to the border as the crow flies. You will not make it alive. The countryside is filled with marauders.” The Mullah was almost frothing at the mouth. “I was born a Hindu and will die a Hindu,” her father said. She saw the Mukhia stare at him as more men stood up. The guards shifted their guns from hand to hand. “You are madmen,” the Mullah said contemptuously.
Children hopped into their mothers’ laps and clung to them. Whispers of “Rama, Rama, Rama” spread through the clan. The Chaudhry stood up and called for silence. “All right, then. I will provide you with an armed escort to the border of my lands. Beyond that, may Allah smile benevolently upon you all and keep you safe.”
When the Mullah marched over to her father she ran to him and held his hand. “Changu, I beseech you. Convert. My son will take Basanti as his wife.”
“She is promised.”
The Mullah shook his head at her father, who stared defiantly at him. “Then cut her hair. Dress her like a boy. The marauders might be fooled into sparing her.” Her father bent to touch the Mullah’s feet, but he just shook his head and grimaced. He placed his palm on her head. “Khuda Hafiz, Basanti. Go with god.’ Basanti wept inconsolably as Dadi held her arms and her mother snipped her long locks off at the scalp.
Devi kneeled beside her, and then it was her turn to go through the same ordeal. When Mata stopped cutting, they fell into each other’s arms, their chests heaving. Gulab grinned. “You look ugly.”
Dadi reached out and brought him to his knees with a stinging slap and he ran crying to their mother. “Go help Bhapa load the camel, boy.” Mata was in no mood to either console him or berate her. Dadi pushed Basanti and Devi into the hut. “Come on, girls. Put on your brothers’ long kurtas.”
When Basanti took off her own kurti, her grandmother looked at her chest and nodded. “Good. They’re barely lime-sized buds.” Then she pulled one of Gulab’s kurtas over her head. Finally Dadi gathered her girl clothes, folded them, and stuffed them into a gunny sack filled with bedding and blankets. “Take this out to your father.” Basanti obeyed, her eyes unseeing and her ears deaf to the cacophony around her.
Just past dusk, six armed men on horseback arrived. The clan formed a caravan and began their long walk under a full moon. Basanti understood that they were no longer welcome in their village because they were Hindus, and now that the land was called Pakistan and belonged to the Muslims only, they would have to find a new place to live.
Excerpted with permission from Paper Lions: A Novel, Sohan S Koonar, Speaking Tiger.