7 min read

Translated from the Hindi by Vishal Ranjan

It was the Calcutta of October 1946. We had gotten used to the riots by then. Our bodies no longer trembled reading about a murder or two, or incidents of loot and plunder, in the newspapers; this didn’t even make us feel as if peace in the city had been disrupted. The city had been divided into many miniature Hindustans and Pakistans, with boundaries not patrolled by guards, but nevertheless at risk of breaching. People were passing their days in this divided state; they had accepted that just as one learns to breathe through one nostril when the other is blocked by cold, a little discomfort doesn’t kill anybody. What does it matter if, like that fragmented breathing, civic life is also divided? Not just a nostril, even a lung could stop functioning, its rot spreading over the entire body and infecting the second lung too. What use is it to drag the metaphor so far?

Every now and then, there would be a blast in this or that locality. For some time, life would come to a halt in the surrounding areas, order would be disrupted, and terror would take over. Sometimes, if the chaos had lasted for a day or two, word would spread that “Oh, that neighbourhood isn’t safe,” and people from other localities would stop going there for a while. Gradually, things would settle down again, and life would go on.

Coincidentally, terror struck many localities one day. These were those localities in which the boundaries of Hindustan-Pakistan couldn’t be contained because, like the layers of an onion, they were seated deep within each other. What happened in these localities was that when there was disorder, or rumours of disorder—whether its instigators were heard to be Hindus or Muslims—everyone would latch their doors and stay put. Those who had gone out would, instead of returning home by evening, spend the night elsewhere, and for two-three days the family wouldn’t know if the person had taken refuge somewhere willingly or had been killed on the way.

I lived around Ballygunge at the time. There was peace here, and it was hardly ever disrupted. We would get all the news and sometimes even the premonition of upcoming ‘programs.’ Consultations took place there, refugees would come, and those seeking sympathy would narrate their tales and leave.

It was the second day of terror. Sitting in an armchair in my veranda that afternoon, I was looking at the passersby. ‘Passersby’ are anyway great objects of study, even more so in times of terror. All of a sudden, I saw my neighbour, the Sikh gentleman, heading home with a group of three-four other Sikhs. I had not seen these other Sikhs in the area before— curiosity was natural, and after all, seeing my neighbour with a long kirpan (sword) today, I was even more surprised. Sardar Bishan Singh was a Sikh but one who was rather modest, peace-loving, and of generous thoughts; he might have carried the kirpan symbolically, but I hadn’t seen him carry one before, and certainly never hanging so defiantly over his coat alongside his belt.

Assuming a Punjabi manner of speech, I said, “Sardar ji, in which direction are the winds blowing today?” 

Bishan Singh looked my way with busy eyes. As if he were saying, “I know that I should smile at your attempt at humour, but you see, I am stuck …” Then he said, “I’ll be back …” The group carried on.

People who look at passersby while sitting in their comfortable chairs don’t get to see much in the first place, and what little they do see doesn’t really stick with them. So, I too had almost forgotten Sardar Bishan Singh when he showed up at my house later that night. However, concealing my surprise, I passed him a chair and said, “Come have a seat, you’re gracing me with your presence.”

He sat down and was silent for a while, then said, “I feel a great sadness in my heart today.”

I switched from Punjabi to a serious tone, “What is the matter, sardar ji? Is everything alright?”

“Everything is good—all good—in this ill-fated country, bhai sahib, what else can I say? I say, how are riots and bloodshed to stop when every day we plant their roots in new places and water them … I’m amazed that our community has managed to survive this long.”

There was a pain in his voice. Unless he could channel that pain, he wouldn’t be able to speak his heart out, so I kept listening silently. He continued, “It’s not as if all Muslims had come from Arabia, Iran, or Tatar. There might be one in a hundred who we can call of the Arabic or Tatar descent. In my experience, the Arabs or Iranians are generally noble, amiable, and peace-loving people. As for the Tatars, I haven’t met any yet. Who are all the other Muslims? They are our brothers, the oppressed whose faces we have been rubbing in mud for hundreds of years. Now, when those same faces rise up and spit at us, we feel offended. But they are Muslims, so we cackle, catch hold of more of our brothers, and rub their faces in the ground. And not just brothers, we even trample our sisters under our feet, and don’t let them make even the slightest sound, because the faintest voice would call our righteousness into question—”

In his fury, the sardar’s voice had begun to falter. He fell silent for a moment and then said, “Babu sahib, you must be thinking— he is a Sikh, and yet he sides with the Muslims. Alright, if someone can have enmity with them, it has to be us. But first, ask yourself, who are the Muslims? In other words, Muslims are the same as oppressed Hindus. If the one we have scorned hates us in return, what is wrong with that? He is simply repaying the debt! I say, even if this isn’t right, who are we to find fault? People should first acknowledge their own flaws; only then can they question others. Don’t you agree?”

I said, “What you say is right, but people are people after all, not gods.”

He said in an excited tone, “Gods! You say ‘gods.’ If only they could merely be human! Rather, if they were pure beasts, that would still be something— even beasts follow a code of conduct! Anyway, I’m not here to quarrel. Listen to today’s events.”

I replied, “Go on, I’m listening.”

“As you know, there is a gurdwara near my house, where people have occasionally found refuge, and where I have myself stayed on watch occasionally. This is not a matter of boast; there is a path of service in the gurdwara and the tradition of providing refuge, which is why this has happened. We haven’t invented any new humanity. Anyway, last evening when I was returning from the market, I witnessed a chilly silence engulf the road in a matter of minutes. Some voices called out to me, “Go home, riots have broken out,” but they couldn’t say where. The trams, of course, had already stopped.

“Near Dharmatala, I saw a woman, alone, hurrying away with a small bundle in one hand and a small money-bag clutched in the other. She was crying. By the looks of it, she appeared to belong to the bhadraloka, the upper class. I thought she was lost and scared, besides to be walking alone during such a time — and that too of a Bengali woman— wasn’t safe. I thought I’d ask and walk her home. I asked, ‘Mother, where will you go?’ At first, she flinched, but noticing that I was a Sikh and not a Muslim, she found her balance. She had come with her husband to Dharmatala from north Calcutta, and decided that they would split to purchase things, meet at a certain time at K.C. Das’s shop, and then head home together. However, things didn’t go as planned. Afraid of the sudden silence that had taken over, she rushed towards home— she didn’t go to Das’s shop, for that would have meant crossing Chandni, which she had always heard to be a Muslim stronghold.

“I told her not to be afraid, she could cross Dharmatala with me. If we found her husband at K.C. Das’s shop, all good and well; otherwise, there might still be the tram for Ballygunge from there. She could spend the night at the gurdwara, and I could leave her home in the morning. The day was giving way to evening, and there was no electricity on the roads. It wouldn’t be safe to cross five-six miles of riot-ridden area.” Having said all this, Bishan Singh paused for a moment, looked my way, and said, “Tell me, did I say the right thing or not? What else could I have done?”

“You suggested the best course of action, after all, what other option was there?”

“But it wasn’t right. Later, I realised that I should have let her roam by herself.”

“Why?” I asked, astonished.

“Listen!”, the sardar took a deep breath, “K.C. Das’s shop was closed. There was no sign of her ‘god-like’ husband. I seated the woman in the tram and got her here. She stayed the night in the room on the gurdwara’s upper floor. You know, I live alone; my widowed sister lives with me. She took care of her, fed her and gave her a bed. In the morning, I arranged a taxi, and took her home. It was in Shyampukur Lane, to the very north. The door was locked, and when we knocked, a sluggish gentleman emerged— her ‘god-like’ husband.”

“He must have jumped out upon seeing you two!”

Sardar was momentarily quiet.

“Yes, he jumped out— not at seeing her but on seeing me.” He took a deep breath again. “The gentleman hadn’t waited at the shop of K.C. Das; on hearing news of the riots, he had made his way to a friend’s house. He had stayed the night there and had returned home only a short while before us. His eyes were heavy. On opening the door and seeing me, he was surprised, then looking at the woman behind me, he stood upright and said, “Who are you?” I said, “Please get her inside first, I’ll explain everything.” The woman was already scared, but upon hearing this, she pulled her veil further forward and shrank even more.

Bishan Singh was silent for a moment again, so was I.

“The husband asked, “Did she stay the night at yours?” I said, “Yes, she stayed at our gurdwara. It wasn’t possible to get here last evening.” He then said, “Do you have a wife and kids?” I said, “No, my widowed sister lives with me, but how does that matter?”

“He didn’t answer me but turned towards the woman and asked in Bengali, “Who knows where you have spent the night, weren’t you ashamed to show up here in the morning?” Sardar Bishan Singh stopped and looked at me.

I said, “Lowlife!”

A pain-ridden smile momentarily appeared and disappeared from Bishan Singh’s face. He said, “I don’t know what I would have done to that man— I wonder what the woman could have said. But the absence of an answer from a woman is an answer in itself, how would today’s diminished humankind understand that? I heard a sound behind me and turned to find that the woman had fainted on the ground. I immediately bent to pick her up, but the man slapped my hand so hard that they stopped in their tracks. I said to him, “Pick her up, spray water on her face …” But he didn’t heed. His big eyes slowly became small slits, and suddenly, he slammed the door.

I continued listening dumbfounded, I couldn’t say anything.

“People began to gather. Concerned for the woman, I didn’t want a crowd to form. With the help of the driver, I put her in the taxi and brought her home. I told my sister to look after her and went to the Baba Bachittar Singh— he is our elder and a trustee of the gurdwara. We held a meeting at the gurdwara to decide what was to be done. Some were of the opinion that the man should be killed, but that wouldn’t lead to a solution for his widow. Then it was thought that a group of five sardars would take the woman to her home on behalf of the gurdwara. The group would tell the man to accept her into the house, or we would consider it an insult to the gurdwara and cut him to pieces.”

“You must’ve been returning from there last evening …”

“Yes, you know that otherwise, I don’t carry my kirpan. In the times when the Gurus made it a religious duty to carry a kirpan, it made sense. Today who’d carry less than a rifle? The fascination of a mere symbol becomes a way to hide one’s cowardice, what else! Anyway, we went with the woman. On seeing us, many people began to gather at first. Seeing our group perhaps brought the ‘god-like’ husband back to his senses. He said to us, “Thank you for your kindness, I accept her back” and to the woman, “Come, get inside” and that was it. Didn’t even ask us in or offer us a seat … besides what would we do sitting in that rascal’s house …”

“The woman went inside? She didn’t say anything?”

“What could she say? Ever since she had regained consciousness, she hadn’t spoken a word. Her eyes had taken on a strange expression, one could peer into them and find nothing— only a wall. I couldn’t bear to linger around her. She stood there— mute. When we said to her, “Go, mother, go into your house now …” She managed to walk two or three steps forward, like a machine. She didn’t look at her husband’s now-expanding, now-shrinking nostrils. It was as if she was growing smaller and bowing even deeper with every step. She walked to the doorstep, faltered, and sat there. I thought she was going to fall again, but as she was sitting, her head bumped into the door frame, and she managed to gather herself. She sat down. We left her there and returned.”

Both of us stayed quiet for a long time.

After a while, Bishan Singh said, “Say something, Bhai Sahib!”

I said, “At least, the matter was resolved somehow. He accepted her back into the house.”

Bishan Singh looked at me with a sharp gaze. “Are you saying this for real, babu sahib?”

Surprised, I asked, “Why? Did I say something wrong?”

“Do you really believe that the matter was put to rest?”

I said with some hesitation, “No, I am unable to believe that completely. I mean even if it’s over for us, it’s not over for them.”

“How is it even over for us? Anyway, leave that for the time being, what do you think will happen to the woman?”

Measuring my words carefully, I said, “In Bengal, every other day, one reads in the papers that women, oppressed either by their mother-in-law, sister-in-law, or husband, die of suicide, consume poison, or jump into wells. And sometimes, such accidents happen where the woman’s clothes catch fire, whether by accident or with kerosene oil …”

“Yes, it could be. Forgive me, I’m going to say something bitter. If it is any consolation, I say this thinking of myself as a Hindu too. You think this way because you’re a Hindu. She will die, it will be over. Hinduism is liberal after all; it doesn’t kill, it makes every possible arrangement for dying. There are two benefits to this — one, it never fails and second, this is also a method of mercy. But tell me this, if men are animals, why should women be goddesses? I say ‘gods’ purposefully, because humans are capable of justice greater than the gods’. If gods don’t charge any interest, they do exact every penny of their dues…do they not?”

I said, “Sardar Sahib, you are in shock, which is why you are saying such bitter words. I’m not calling that man good, but why are you conflating that man’s actions with the entire Hindu religion?”

“Is it really the action of one man? Listen, when I think about how that man will receive justice, all I imagine is that that woman, forsaken, should go and convert to Islam, birth Muslims, such Muslims who each swear to kill a hundred Hindus. And you have studied psychology right? You would understand— these Muslims will truly make the Hindu women live the wrongful accusations that his mother was made to suffer from. The justice of the gods has always been such— each seed of hatred has always sprouted a hundred poisonous plants. Otherwise, how did this forest rise in which you and I have lost our way, and who knows whether we’ll ever make it out? Multiple times every day, we plant new seeds of hatred and when the plant bears fruit, we scream that the earth has betrayed us!”

I remained silent for a while. Sardar Bishan Singh’s words began throbbing like gravel grinding under my skin. The air grew heavy. To lighten the mood, I said, “The Sikh community’s chivalry is well-known. I see; that poor woman’s sorrow has struck a chord with your chivalry!”

Standing up, he said, “My chivalry!” And after some time, again, in a voice that had a strange echo, “My chivalry, bhai sahib!”

He turned his face away, but I saw the edges of his lips trembling— very slightly, but with unfathomable helplessness …

Agyeya is the pen name of Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan (1911–1987). He was an Indian writer, poet, novelist, literary critic, journalist, translator and revolutionary in Hindi language. He pioneered modern trends in Hindi poetry, as well as in fiction, criticism and journalism. He is regarded as the pioneer of the Prayogavaad (experimentalism) movement in modern Hindi literature. Agyeya was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award (1964), Jnanpith Award (1978) and the internationally reputed Golden Wreath Award for poetry.

Vishal Ranjan is an editor and an independent researcher based in Delhi. Having completed his graduate and postgraduate education in English, he continues to think of himself as a literary studies student. Among other things, he is interested in literature, critical theory, and cultural studies. You can find some of his other writings at vishalranjanwriting.wordpress.com.

* The email will not be published on the website.