by Hema Nataraju

They came in the morning, armed with swords and maddened by bloodlust. From the granary, I heard Baba’s voice, begging them to spare us. Maa was wailing, as if someone was physically pulling the life out of her, strand by strand.

“Maa, Baba!” I mumbled through my tears.

Baba had said, “Everything will be alright. Just stay in there for a few hours, Rajo. I’ll come get you when it’s safe.”

I squeezed myself further between the gunny sacks of wheat and prayed to all the Gods Maa prayed to every day. I knew they wouldn’t let us down.

The noises grew louder. Utensils clanged, closets were opened and banged shut, vases crashed. I prayed harder. If only I could go back in time and convince Baba that Ahmed and the other servants were right.

“Leave now, Saheb,” Ahmed had begged. “They’re killing and looting houses. Not even children and women are being spared. Hindus against Muslims, Muslims against Hindus.”

Baba had smiled. “You worry too much, Ahmed. Mountbatten has just announced the Partition. He has assured us there won’t be any communal riots. Besides, we’re brothers, aren’t we? Everything will settle down in a few months.”

Soon the milkman stopped delivering milk. Schools closed down indefinitely. The temple bells stopped ringing and so did the sweet sound of the morning azaan.

Horrific stories of people getting murdered, raped, and dismembered while crossing the newly defined India-Pakistan border wafted through the air. All our servants left us, but Baba persisted. “It’s safest to stay put.”

The noises from the house stopped. It was over. Baba would call me any second now. But fear struck the very next moment. Heavy footsteps on the staircase right above my head could only mean one thing. They were headed toward the granary. They were coming for me.

My heart drummed in my ears. I could tear open one of the sacks and hide in it. Or I could crawl towards the tool shed. My thoughts raced, collided and collapsed in a jumbled heap. They came thundering down. A cough threatened to well up from my sandpapery throat. I dug my face into the sack to stifle it.

Two men walked past me. Their shoes crunched on the freshly threshed wheat that bled from the sacks they tore open. But he could smell my presence like a wolf tracking its prey. His green turban covered his mouth and nose, but those soorma-lined eyes bored into mine through the thick jute.

Any second now, he would drag me out of hiding. He took a couple of steps towards me and put a finger to his lips.

“Nobody here.” he declared, as the others were pillaging whatever dignity was left of our house. Those eyes. I knew those eyes. I had seen care in them when he brought me my morning chai. I had seen affection in them when he picked me up from school. I had seen love in them when he let me ride on his back as a little girl.

How could you, Ahmed?

Their bloodlust sated, the wolves turned away. Blood was seeping from under the door as I climbed up to the house. A deep gash on Baba’s throat had dyed his white kurta red. Maa’s bindi had been forcibly wiped out leaving a vermilion trail on her forehead. Her clothes were torn, her hair disheveled. Their lifeless bodies lay there like abandoned rag dolls. I hugged myself to stop shaking. I tried to scream, but my voice failed me. The tears wouldn’t come either.

I don’t know how long I sat staring at them before Ahmed came back.

“Get up, Rajo. We have to go.” He pulled my arm.

I wanted to spit on his betraying face. I wanted to scream and tell the world what this snake had done. But I was numb. He wiped off my bindi gently and pulled my dupatta over my head.

I didn’t know where he was taking me. My brain screamed, imploring me to resist. But my legs defied and walked. I turned around and took one last look at my house.

“Maa, Baba.” I whimpered.

He pulled at my arm again, this time with an urgency I couldn’t ignore.

Trees drooped like mourning widows, broken windows mirrored the shattered souls of houses. Smoke and rubble formed a dark cloak over this once-bustling town. Ghosts of my happy past haunted the streets. A man’s body lay at the spot where we kids bought spiced guavas after school. Blood flowed in the gutters where we used to float paper boats in the monsoons.

We walked for hours. I finally sat down at the outskirts of our town. Dusk was falling and I couldn’t walk another step. He fed me a roti and encouraged me to drink from his water canteen.

The tears came as I chewed, a trickle at first and then the dam burst.

“I didn’t have a choice, Rajo,” he blurted out, cradling his face in his palms. “I tried to stop them, but fanatics don’t listen to reason.”

I wasn’t sure what he was saying was true. The last twelve hours had changed everything. But I was lost and his was the only face I recognized, my only connection to Maa and Baba. I resigned myself to my fate.

We joined thousands of weary feet, an unending serpentine caravan desperate to cross the border. Fights broke out at every mile, over religion, supplies, practically anything. Ahmed and I glided through like ghosts. There was nothing left for anyone to take from me.

We stood at the entrance of a refugee camp. We would be taken to Pakistan from here. Thousands of dusty white tents were pitched behind the makeshift table we stood at.

“Name?” The khaki figure barked.

“Ahmed Kazi,” he answered.

He turned to me. “Name?” he asked robotically.

Ahmed spoke before I could open my mouth. “Ayesha Kazi, my daughter.”