A Survivor's Saga
A Survivor's Saga
Chandana was standing on the terrace of their red bricked house that was the biggest in the village of Hussainpura on the outskirts of Lahore. The orange hues of the setting sun blended into the inky depths of the starless sky. A few sharp beams that penetrated the clouds created a diaspora of hues in the distant horizon. The yellow mustard flowers swayed gently in the breeze that would be a harbinger of some evil tidings. The air was abuzz with a lot of tension as no one knew what the future could be. She looked around happily as people started pouring into the courtyard to listen to the only radio in the village as her grandfather was the head of the village. She looked at the sunset admiringly but did not know that the sun would never set again in the village of Hussainpura.
“Chandana, come down and help me in serving tea!” Her mother’s voice floated upstairs. She pattered down the spiral staircase with its wooden railings that she loved. She had played so many games on these steps and hidden up on the terrace so many times. She could see the last rays of the sun peeping in through the wide arched windows.
As she climbed down the steps, she could see the courtyard full of the village elders who sat around her grandfather, father and uncles. The radio was placed in the centre and one of her uncles was trying to set it to the right frequency.
Her mother handed her a tray of cups of tea.
“Chandana, take the hot tea out fast before it gets cold and don’t tarry there for I need you inside. There is lot of work to be done.” Her mother said.
She carried the tray into the courtyard where she spotted the handsome Rudra eyeing her surreptitiously from the corner of the eye. She glared at him.
“Chandana, leave the tray on the table and go inside!” Her grandfather ordered her.
She nodded her head meekly and scampered off.
As she was about to turn, the radio suddenly blared to life.
“India has been partitioned into two countries, India and Pakistan. The territories of East Bengal, West Punjab, Sind and Baluchistan are now in Pakistan. The British rule would come to an end on 15 th August, 1947.” The voice of the radio announcer floated in the air.
There was a deathly silence in the air. Chandana stopped dead in her tracks and the tea cup fell from her grandfather’s hand.
“All is lost! The land of our forefathers will no longer be ours. The fields that we have tilled with our sweat and blood shall go dry. The houses that we have built with our hands shall be haunted as we will not be there anymore. Who knows how many of us will see the sun rise tomorrow?” My grandfather said sadly.
The village schoolmaster removed the local news leaflet dated 3rd June, 1947. He read out the stories of loot, arson and murders that were happening all over the country. There was a total chaos and anarchy everywhere.
“Our village will now be a part of Pakistan. Amritsar will be the nearest city that we can reach safely. It is nearly a day and a half’s journey on foot from our village. ” He said.
“We have to make sure that our children and women are safe. So, we should leave at the stroke of dawn armed with some weapons and our valuables that we can carry. We will all meet separately outside the village.” Her father said.
Everybody parted shaken and despondent.
The courtyard looked desolate and forlorn.
Chandana was shaken to her core. Tears fell from her eyes. She looked around the wide courtyard where she had played and fallen so many times. She did not want to leave the soil where she had grown up and that she loved.
She followed her father inside the house.
“Krishnawanti, we have to leave in the morning. Have the women done the sewing that they had been told to do?” Chandana’s father asked her mother.
“Yes, we have sewed the gold coins and jewellery into our petticoats and small pouches inside the men’s clothes. We have finished packing our belongings.” The mother said with tears in her eyes.
Chandana’s father took her hand firmly and said, “Don’t worry! We shall reach Amritsar safely with our girls, Kesar and Chandana. The next days might be hard but we shall work hard to make a new life in a new country.” He said decisively.
Her mother prayed to the Almighty and lit the lamp for the last time in the house that she loved.
Chandana hugged her younger sister and both of them shed copious tears. They had never thought that they would be leaving their beloved land, the trees on which they had swung, the pond where they had swum and the fields where they had played with their friends.
“Will I ever see Fatema, my best friend again? Is she coming with us?” The ten year old Kesar asked.
Her father wiped her tears and said, “You’ll see her after a few days. Now, go and help your mother.”
Chandana took Kesar’s hand and moved into a corner.
“Kesar, we have to be strong. We are leaving this house for good. It is better to forget Fatema now. Let us go and help our mother for there is lot to be done as we are leaving in the early morning.” Chandana said.
The girls despondently made their way into the storeroom where all the women were putting on their garments that contained the sewed horde.
Chandana and Kesar also put on their clothes that seemed too heavy to them. They grabbed their satchels with a few clothes and food for their journey. The males hid their swords and knives in their apparel. The lights were doused to not to catch attention.
At the crack of dawn, the whole family moved quietly through the dusty village road and walked out of the village.
They met up with the rest of the troupe that would accompany them to Amritsar. The village elders and the children were bundled into the buffalo drawn carts.
Chandana took one last look at Hussainpura. She steeled her heart, wiped her tears away and gripped her little sister’s hand tightly and walked away from her homestead with heavy feet.
The group wearily trudged on. The terrain was rough and the sun was beating down harshly on them. They were walking cautiously wary of any strange activity. Everyone was quiet but scared.
“Chandana, I want you to listen to me very carefully. I don’t know what will happen. But if something were to happen, remember to take the money out of the petticoat that I’m wearing and take care of Kesar. I love both of you.” Her mother said shakily and hugged her.
“Mother, please don’t say bad things. Kesar and I, both of us can’t live without you.” Chandana said and started crying.
Kesar looked at them bleary eyed and straddled onto her mother’s lap. Her mother ran her fingers through Kesar’s long tresses.
It was nearly noon now. They were tired and hungry after walking incessantly for hours.
“Everybody sit down and eat something. We are stopping for a few minutes.” Chandana’s grandfather ordered from the front.
The fifty tired travellers sat down and started eating. They had just taken a few nibbles when they heard a shrill scream.
Chandana looked behind her to find scores of men surrounding them and waving swords and machetes. They had already slashed the head of two men who were guarding the rear end of the group.
The attackers had descended upon the group like swarms of locusts.
The men of the village drew their weapons against the ruffians and charged at them.
The sound of the clashing steel reverberated in Chandana’s ears. She saw a group of ruffians overpower her uncle and behead him.
A shrill scream escaped her lips. Krishnawanti clamped her hand on Chandana’s mouth and steered her daughters toward a ditch. Pandemonium broke out and everybody ran helter-skelter.
In the melee, Chandana lost her footing and fell down. She could not locate her mother and sister. She had lost them in the frenzied crowd. She looked at the carnage around her.
The ruffians had overpowered the men and were now heading towards the carts that housed the village elders and the children. An old lady who was near Chandana had been trying to make her escape but was stabbed viciously. Her blood spattered on Chandana’s face.
Chandana fell down and lay still on the ground petrified and continued to watch the mayhem around.
The ruffians set the carts on fire. The air was riddled with the stench of burning flesh. The wails of the burning people resonated all around.
She saw small children being hacked to death. The soil was stained with human blood. The carnage continued for a long time.
A group of ruffians rounded up several young women and carried them away. She heard some women jump into the canal flowing nearby to save themselves. But they were caught and slashed in the water that now flowed red.
They ensured that no one escaped alive. Chandana felt a groping hand on her neck and a strong kick in her abdomen. She lay still and pretended to be lifeless.
“Such a pretty face! The creamy fair complexion and the long tresses that border her face and her well-proportioned body make her a prime catch. If she would have been alive, she would have been mine.” A rough voice said.
He pulled the chain of her pendant off her neck and walked off with a laugh.
Chandana lay still till she could no longer hear the sounds of carnage. She opened her eyes to find that it was dark now and the sun had set.
She got up and scoured the carnage for any signs of her family members. She walked and tears rolled down her cheeks as she saw the faces that she knew lying lifeless in pools of their own blood. She saw the half burnt bodies of her grandparents who had lovingly held her. She saw mangled corpses of the bubbly twins, Sumati and Janki who were always up to some mischief.
She looked around for her parents and sister. She walked on blinded in her own tears and stumbled upon the familiar figure of her father who was barely clinging to life.
He had been stabbed in the gut and was bleeding profusely. She bent down and held his hand.
“Chandana, I saw your mother and sister run away. Take my pouch and go away!” He whispered softly and closed his eyes.
Chandana let out a silent scream and took the pouch off her father’s neck along with his dagger and walked in the shadows.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of twigs being crunched behind.
“Look what we have here!” A rough voice said behind her. She felt a hand encircle her waist and a knife was pressed to her neck.
“Help me!” Chandana screamed.
“Nobody will hear your cries. All of them are dead!” The ruffian said cruelly.
She fought against his hold and slashed the dagger onto his wrist. The ruffian cursed and let her go. She ran away but he followed her.
He pulled her by her hair and knocked the dagger from her hand. He slapped her hard and threw her to the ground.
“I’ll teach you a lesson!” He said threateningly.
As he was about to advance upon her, she felt drops of blood oozing down on her bosom. A sword had pierced her assailant from behind as rivulets of his blood gushed forth.
He fell down on her and she let out a scream.
Chandana felt his weight disappear as somebody lifted the corpse off her.
She opened her eyes to find Rudra standing over her. He helped her up and wiped the ruffian’s blood off her face.
She had never been more than thankful to see Rudra. He was looking pale and had bruises all over.
“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?” He asked tenderly.
“No! I managed to save myself. Is anybody else alive?” She asked.
“No. There are only corpses left behind and the rest are in the water. My sister was carried away and my parents were hacked to death. I escaped by lying under a corpse for hours.” He muttered numbly.
She told him of what had befallen her family.
“Your mother and sister may be alive. Don’t lose hope. We will look for them.” Rudra said.
They looked at each other with an air of trust and friendship.
“I know the route to Amritsar. We’ll walk by the canal in the shadows. Let us not tarry any longer.” He said.
She held his hand weakly and trudged behind him.
They walked for hours.
“Rudra, I’m very thirsty. Let me drink some water.” Chandana said.
She walked to the bank of the river, bent down and scooped gulps of water with her palms into her mouth. Suddenly, her hands netted a familiar necklace.
She took it out for her perusal.
Her eyes blinked in disbelief as she realized that it was her mother’s.
“Rudra, look at this. This necklace belongs to my mother.” She said.
“She may be alive. Let us move in the direction of the flow of the river. We may find them.” He said.
They walked cautiously surveying the area for any assailants. It was eerily quiet. The only sound that could be heard was of the flowing river. Chandana’s heart was palpitating. She did not want to lose anymore loved ones.
As they moved ahead a few yards, they came across a puddle of blood. Chandana was shaking. She ran deliriously followed by Rudra.
They reached an open clearing where they found her mother’s body hanging from the tree. She heard a familiar voice scream for help.
It was Kesar.
She and Rudra rushed in the direction of the sound and saw two men encircling Kesar like two predators. They lunged at the two men without a single thought. They caught them unawares as they stabbed them with their weapons.
Chandana dropped her dagger and picked up her little sister in her arms and cried. Rudra ushered them out of the clearing.
They retraced their steps to the canal and came across Krishnawanti’s body. The sisters clung to their mother’s lifeless figure. Chandana remembered her mother’s last words to her and cut out the money pouch from her mother’s clothes. She took Rudra’s help to lower down her mother’s body into the water.
“It will not be wise to stay here anymore. Let’s cover as much ground as we can in the dark.” Rudra said.
He scooped up the petrified Kesar in his arms and held Chandana’s hand and walked forth.
They walked stealthily in the shadows throughout the night. Even the smallest sound scared them.
At the break of the dawn, Rudra ushered them into the long grasses of the fields where they could hide during the day.
“We will move in the dark when we cannot be spotted easily.” Rudra said softly.
He lowered down the sleeping Kesar into Chandana’s lap and said, “You should rest first. We’ll take turns in keeping guard.”
Chandana looked at him with gratitude shining in her eyes.
She put Kesar down and went and hugged him as she wept uncontrollably as if a dam had burst forth. There was a barrage of emotions of sadness and memories.
Rudra patted her head and held her tightly.
“We have each other. Both of us have lost our families. But we have to ensure that we reach Amritsar so that their sacrifice does not go vain. You have to be strong for Kesar.” He said softly.
She held his hand and dozed off in his arms.
When she felt the sun on her face, Chandana woke up and found Rudra watching over them pensively.
Kesar was still asleep.
“You should rest, Rudra. I’ll keep watch.” Chandana said.
Rudra nodded his head.
It was dark and they set out of their hiding.
It was an endless journey dotted with blood and macabre scenes of burnt houses and arson on the way.
Finally, they reached the border of the Amritsar city where the refugee camp had been set up. Lives had been lost and uprooted.
They lived in the camp till they could be relocated. They made their ends meet with the money that their parents had left them.
Chandana and Rudra had become good friends for they had seen life and death together.
“Chandana, you are the only person who I trust. I have always liked you and admired your fortitude. I want to make you my life partner.” Rudra asked Chandana.
Chandana said, “I will only marry you if you love me. We don’t have to be tied to each other out of sympathy.”
“Why did you think that you would always catch me eyeing you back home? You are my first and last love.” He said.
Chandana and Rudra got married and took good care of Kesar.
Many years later, Chandana and Rudra got a Visa to visit Hussainpura in Pakistan. They went to the village. The red brick house was still standing there. Chandana lovingly caressed the stone steps and the stairway that led up to the terrace from where she could still see her father work in the fields, her mother churning the buttermilk, her sister playing in the courtyard and the rest of her family going about their day in her mind’s eye. She climbed onto the terrace to see the green expanse dotted with yellow flowers swaying in the wind.