Another India-Pakistan Partition story, based on true events & written from an outsiders’ perspective!
“But baba, my chappal?” Runi kept shouting.
“Maadi, you’re the best!” Runi had exclaimed in excitement when her mother gifted her those 8 aanas rubber chappals last Diwali. No one in the world, other than Runi knew the value of those chappals. After maadi passed away in January during a protest, all she had of her were those chappals and a tattered pin she kept attached to her hanker-chief at all times.
Runi was unlike any 10 year old. Born in a village near Rawalpindi in about 1936, she saw her friends going away from the village, distress and riots, the fear of displacement and the stress that came with it. She grew up watching her mother and father protesting against the British and then those politicians who supported the partition. She didn’t understand the meaning of partition too much but Ameeran’s father had told Ameeran that after partition Hindus will have to return to their part and Muslims will get all the land they deserve. She was a Hindu. This worried her to great measures ‘cause if Ameeran’s father was right, she would have to leave behind Ameeran, Akram, Saba and all her Muslim friends.
By the time she could understand things India was already on the verge of partition.
Till just a few years ago, children wouldn’t even care too much about each-other’s religion, yet now it did determine a lot of things, a lot for these ten year olds.
“Amma, where did bauji go?” Runi would continuously pester her grand-mother asking about her father. Runi’s father too was an active participant in all the protests like Runi’s Mother, but he died due to some health problem a last Holi or that’s what her grand-mother would tell her. Amma was an amazing lady. She took all possible care of baba, Runi and Maadi. Despite her back and knee aches she seldom complained. She would go to the well with other muasis and khalas to fetch water, cook food, wash clothes and do all other house chores. She even used to send Runi to school some time ago while it was still functional. Maadi was never around to help amma or take care of Runi, but Runi knew she really loved her and all she was doing was for her better future only. Baba although, was the funny man. He had few teeth and majorly black ones from all the khaini he chewed. He would crack jokes occasionally and tease amma by calling her beautiful and other names like those big boys would say to those pretty didis outside school every afternoon. Runi would laugh harder every time, for her it was bewildered to even imagine frail and wrinkled amma as pretty or any of those words baba used. Runi would even take pity on amma for being so old and not so pretty. To Runi, maadi was the most beautiful lady in the whole village, even her friends would agree, but Runi did know that amma was beautiful in many other ways maadi could never be.
She had no siblings but her friends did, so she would take Saleem chacha’s son- Junaid out with her and call him her cousin. At those times siblings and cousins would not really be too different from one another in the sanctity of the relationship. Surprisingly it was also alright to have a Muslim cousin. Runi was a strong willed girl, born to a set of respectable parents and loving grandparents. Although her family wasn’t around for too long, she sure had seen enough to grow with the survivor’s instinct like her parents.
Today no one calls that girl Runi; she is Arunima Pandit, mostly addressed as amma, maadi and mumma and so on. With three sons and two daughters, all of them married and prospered, Runi has got everything she had ever wished for in life. Her amma and baba made her live with some old neighbors who had shifted to Dilli before the massacre had started. Maybe amma already knew that they won’t stay around for too long, because they didn’t. The neighbors were just too generous to always take care of her and they even sent her to school. Their only son, Shailesh, was 3 years older to Runi, but they never settled on the brother-sister terms and ended up being married to each-other when Runi turned 19. Shailesh’s father later told Runi how her grandparents had already promised her hand to Shailesh and that’s why they were comfortable keeping her.
Shailesh was a gentle-man. Even after getting married, he promoted Runi to study and she did. They did not even have a child till Runi was 23. Shailesh studied a little more to become a doctor and Runi was qualified enough to be a teacher, but she stayed back at home to take care of the kids. She lost Shailesh about 2 months ago, he was fast asleep, she would recall, we had wished our good nights just the night before, and he never woke up. At 77 today, Arunima loves her life; she does miss Shailesh but knows he’s going to be waiting for her at the altar, as always.
If one would ask her for a last wish, she would say how bad she wants to visit her village once again, just see how it turned around, maybe meet her friends and see if anyone even remembers her there. She wants to show her family all the places she had been to, played and hidden at, and at a point even made some loving memories with her husband before his family moved here.
Runi still goes into trance sometimes, revisiting all of those beautiful times she lived as a kid on the other side of the border. It was hard for her to imagine a habitat beyond her village. Amma and baba were her life but all of her actions and triumphs were always just to impress her maadi. Maadi and Bauji were from the same caste and village, Bauji and maadi’s parents were friends and that’s how they happened. Surprisingly, before the marriage no one knew how much they loved each other. Bauji would wait for maadi at the well when she had to go fetch water and pass letters via bua who was in maadi’s class. Amma had known maadi since she was a little kid and that’s probably why maadi was more like a daughter to amma than a bahu. Maadi was a very strong and self-made woman; her approval was everything to Runi.
It was few weeks post maadi’s demise; Runi was sniffing in amma’s breast as usual, when they heard some noise. The backyard faced the main-road; they knew it was from there. There was someone at the backdoor and the thumps were a routine since maadi had gone, but today they were a little more urgent than just a warning to all the weak households. Baba sat up and walked over to the door, the thumps now louder. Amma hid Runi inside the room and went behind baba. Soon a faint voice from the other side suggested it was Saleem chacha, Runi saw him enter the door and say something to baba and amma through the window crack. She knew something was wrong; the alarming expressions on amma and baba’s face were evident. Amma paced towards her and told her that they have to leave right away.
“But where will we go amma?”, Runi asked, trying to understand the situation.
But amma wouldn’t answer, and just started grabbing whatever she could. “Keep it light”, baba almost hissed from the aangan. Something was very, very wrong. In the pitch dark night, Runi saw faint lights, like those of a mashal that maadi used in revolts. The heat was approaching her place from the front door, she could make out. Saleem chacha picked her up and stuffed her with some wheat sacks in the bail-gaadi he owned. Amma too was curled up and laid down that way. Baba sat in front with chacha. “Listen to me very carefully Runi. No matter what happens, do not come out. This is like the hide-seek game you play at school, no matter what happens don’t come out till I ask you to.” Baba firmly instructed before moving. She ducked her head inside the sack between her knees and the bail-gaadi soon started to move. They must have travelled for an eternity as she laid there uncomfortable and cold. When finally baba came to fetch her, it was already morning. She saw a truck stand in front of her eyes and more number of people than she had ever witnessed.
In about a day more, they were transported to the Indian grounds. She was famished and amma finally gave her some bread that she got from the common distributors as soon as they entered. As some hard food went inside her system, she just shouted- “my chappals!” Baba and amma didn’t realize what she was talking about. They were worried about greater things; they had to live there in the tents before they could find an accommodation. A permanent place to live and proper food were their concern. Besides they had a girl with them and her safety was a major issue.
For hundred long days, as Runi would recall, they lived in those tents trying to contact anyone and everyone they knew. They made some friends but trusted none. It was like living a nightmare till that day when baba was reminded of Shailesh’s dada. He wrote him a letter, in turn, sent Shailesh’s bauji for us at once.
“Once we came to Dilli, things were easier, no more scarcity, no more dirt or other problems. I saw baba and amma fighting for those hundred days, people trying to take me away from them and them continuously guarding me. Although I lived those hundred days in reality, they kept coming back for many a thousand nights. When the whole world slept in peace, I would, at times, wake up because of suffocation from those wheat sacks, or by the voices of baba shouting at amma, even when both of them had passed away years ago. “Sometimes, it still comes back”, Runi would blandly say.
Runi was like thousands of those kids who left a part of their identity behind in the dreadful event of the India-Pakistan partition. It’s not only sad but also surprising that even now while most of them, like her, wish to visit their villages, it isn’t so easy. After meeting Runi and listening to her story, which she doesn’t share with many, it was evident how the over six decade old memory still had so much life.
As Runi lays in peace for her evening nap, her grand-daughter who’s about my age walks up to me tells me, sometimes, she screams in her sleep. She probably gets those nightmares. She mentions those rubber-chappal a lot.
I close my eyes in pain and enter a trance.
“But baba, my chappal?”, Runi keeps shouting
Picture via http://cms-cloud.watermark.org/legacy-blog/2014/06/muddy-feet-1.jpg