Following is a work of fiction, which is one of my first attempts to write a short-story.
It was a night darker than any in living memory in the small non-descript town of Berhampur. The cold chill of the predawn was just setting and the Railway station stuck out like a sore thumb, surrounded by the sleepy metropolis, which has never had any night-life. The bedlam at the station was reaching its crescendo, even as the train trickled in, sounding it bugle from afar, announcing its arrival to those unfortunate( or fortunate) enough to have their lodging by the railway lines. I accompanied by my father, stood sheepishly awaiting its arrival at the ungodly hour of a quarter to three. My father, naturally disappointed at having lost his sleep, was one of the few remaining men in the world who had not allowed social media to seduce him out of his natural sleep cycle. He was here to drop his son, who had informed him only the night before of undertaking a journey to the nearby big city of Bhubaneshwar. The son, stood in wide-anticipation, chatting with his father about the merits and demerits of having a fixed sleep time. And so the train pulled in, shaking the platform back to life, setting in motion endeavours to board an Indian train, in a country where trains travel with locked doors in the night, for the fear of intruders.
India has a history of trains and a particularly chequered one at that.
The fear is not totally unfounded. India has a history of trains and a particularly chequered one at that. Railways are not mere means of transport in this country, they have been for several years since they were first set up in the 1860s, real and metaphorical vehicles of social change(good and bad). The first railways embittered the countrymen against their colonialists and so they rose in the uprising in 1857. The railways united nationalist thinkers in the late 19th century and allowed them to develop a shared consciousness of being Indians. It was also a third class railway compartment that the Mahatma, having freshly returned from South Africa, first travelled the countryside in. It was also a train was at the epicentre of the Kakori train robbery, where Indian Revolutionaries organised by HSRA orchestrated one of the first consolidated assault of the treasury of the colonialists. I thought for a moment about what my train travel would presage, what history was in the making or unmaking? Was history going to be retold? My chain of thoughts was broken by a firm voice, almost a shout.
The father, my father was asking the man squatting in the doorway of the train to open up, “Kholo! Kholdo !” he shouted. There was commotion inside in the doorway, people fumbled and mumbled what sounded like curses emanating from souls plucked from a deep sleep. After a brief interval an emaciated, thin hand opened the door, only partly, and I was shoved in. The door closed behind me, and I stood in a world of which there was no escaping. I felt claustrophobic, even slightly nauseous.
Having gained composure and assured myself of my well-being I looked around at the sight which awaited me. In the doorway, there squatted, slept and snored some 15 odd people, whose sleep I had dared to disturb, in whose territory I now stood, sticking out like an apologetic thumb. Now my eyes fell upon the man who had opened the door and let me in, my channel to this world inside the train, my most familiar acquaintance, in what was to be a four-hour long journey. I saw he was shivering, almost shaking, his movements were anxious and his eyes betrayed reminiscence of an old fear which had suddenly come back to haunt him. His white beard fell to his collar-bones, his grey eyes had sunken deep into their sockets, and he kept shivering, almost tremoring, with a virulent force.
I wondered if Bhagat Singh would have done things differently if he would have uplifted and somehow bettered the condition of the people in the compartment? If he would have dared to talk?
I kept wondering whether the cold night had triggered this, violent tremor in him, or was it the shock he suffered, having been awakened from his sleep so suddenly. In the over-cramped railway compartment, where people lay themselves in the hallway and cribbed themselves under bottom berths, my mind was confined to this thought alone. The train was on a particularly busy route and the over-cramped compartment was no oddity. There were few things that you wouldn’t expect to see in Indian rails, but this trembling old man particularly struck me. I felt unable to start a conversation. Other than the deep-rooted advice of ‘never talk to strangers’, which I had imbibed as a kid, the schism between us in age and in socio-economic status, worsened by overcrowding, inhibited words that wanted to escape my vocal chords. I could only extend to him, a shawl I had carried in my bag, which he declined with a shivering hand. I looked for hope at the book I carried with myself “To make the deaf hear: Ideology of Bhagat Singh and his comrades”. I wondered if Bhagat Singh would have done things differently if he would have uplifted and somehow bettered the condition of the people in the compartment? If he would have dared to talk? So I stood there where the doorway and the hallway intersected, resting my back against the middle seat, reading, looking for answers, and some Bhagatly intervention. Sleep loomed large above me, forcing me to lose track of what I read and seducing me into its chilly arms.
‘Why do you tremble so fervently, Kaka’, I asked of the old man, much to my own surprise. My familiarity with the old man and loss of inhibition stumped me, catching both of us unawares.
‘Kuch Nahin, nothing. It happens sometimes when I travel by trains. Just some old traumatic memories resurface. These old eyes have seen a lot on these Indian rails.’
So the shiver was triggered by PTSD, clearly, the old man had a lot on his mind. He looked well beyond 70, perhaps 80. He must have lived through mishaps and witnessed gory incidents. His eyes must have been privy to conspiracies around Indian railways, during Independence. These dehumanising bogies must have carried tales of death and horror, of loss of lives and aspirations of amity and separation.
‘ Tell me about it, what have you seen? Have you lost loved ones? Been in accidents? ’
Much like Zafar, the last Mughal king, we were exiled from our own lands, but we had no palanquins to travel on, we boarded trains, overcrowded, cabined and inhuman means of transport.
‘My first train journey was on a special train called ‘Pakistan Special 21’. I was 7, the date: 12th August 1947. My Abba, Ammi and my two siblings – Iqbal and Myra were fleeing to the newly created nation of Pakistan. I say fleeing and not migrating because we did not want to leave, we wanted to stay on, but circumstances were such. My Abba had been against Pakistan, since its conception. ‘The whole subcontinent is ours’, he used to say, and ‘Amritsar is our homeland, I won’t leave it for the world.’ But things changed one day. One of his office colleagues had said to him over a discussion on partition “Zafar, if you weren’t my friend, I would have killed you”. That changed Abba, he got our bags packed, made us quit school and so we boarded that train, that damned train. Much like Zafar, the last Mughal king, we were exiled from our own lands, but we had no palanquins to travel on, we boarded trains, overcrowded, cabined and inhuman means of transportation.
And so the train rolled on, passing by Amritsar in a whisker. And soon smaller hamlets appeared on the sides. It was darker now, time for Abba’s Maghrib Namaz, but there was no space, so we prayed in our hearts and looked towards Mecca for hope. No muezzins called from the hamlets, we suspected they too must have left, boarded one of these special trains, lest they should never call again.
Then suddenly we heard frantic screams, the train slowed down then halted. We saw people tumbling down from both sides of the bogey…jumping off to save their lives. The overcrowded train had occupants on top of it and now they fell to their deaths or leapt to save themselves from being severed by thick manja like strings that our perpetrators had drawn, across the trains. Their plan succeeded, the train stopped and now they came for us! They came with guns, pistols and hatchets, killing and maiming everyone they could spot, showing no mercy. Their eyes bloodshot, chanting religious incantations, to do just what their religions forbade: hurt the innocent.
Then the train moved on as if nothing had happened, as if this was only anticipated, as if the toll fee of the check-post of retribution, had been paid with death.
Ammi had the foresight to put her three children under the lower birth, before which she herself stood guard. They came as a lightning, leaving the ugly macabre of death wherever they went, sparing no one, not even children. It was all over in a few minutes, yet to my 7-year-old-self cabined under a berth it seemed like a torturing eternity, the haranguing wait of death, coupled with the nauseating presence of the deceased. Then the train moved on as if nothing had happened as if this was only anticipated as if the toll fee of the check-post of retribution had been paid with death.
The train rolled on till it reached Lahore. The three children could not move, for a mortal fear, coupled with the inevitable loss that awaited them outside their hiding place was too much to take. It was only when the train pulled up at the Lahore station and men with camouflage prints pulled out bodies as they routinely did now almost every day, discovered us that we stepped out. Abba and Ammi lay lifeless before our eyes, yet between the shadow of death that entrapped the train, our loss in no way stood out. Iqbal who was 4 years older than me spoke to the camouflage print men. They asked us to make our way to the refugee camp, and visit the morgue later that day to identify and claim the bodies. And so alighted, the only three familiar faces in uncharted territory, arriving at a nation which we never wanted, but were coached to want. Could a country so engineered ever achieve stability?’
In Lahore, the three siblings eked out a living doing odd jobs. Iqbal worked at the butcher’s place, I collected scraps and sold them, Myra was too little to work, but when she could she started running errands for people. And so we became refugees in our own land. How did I get here you ask?
In the spring of August 1957, Iqbal learnt of a distant Chacha of ours who had settled in Masaldanga in Cooch Behar district, in what used to be the Bengal Province. Despite knowing little about the place, we had made certain in our hearts of hearts that we would one day travel there and unite with what remained of our family. ‘
The old man whose animated tremor had piqued my concern had now become in a way the very embodiment of great chasm that has divided the Indian subcontinent. I pulled out my bottle of mineral water and gulped it noisily to make calm of my growing curiosity. The man crouched as he did before on a tin box, his tremor had considerably calmed. As the faint light of dawn set in, his hazel eyes caught my notice. They were his most noticeable feature, yet they were enveloped by sunken sockets and flaking and wrinkled skin. As if opulence had found a pauper benefactor.
‘So we started looking for means to escape Lahore, to reunite with our family in Cooch Behar. And the opportunity came soon. Iqbal found employment as a crew member on a passenger cruise that traveled back and forth between Lahore and Chittagong.He managed to get us on board. For once it seemed that the suffering we had undergone would come to an end, that Chittagong would presage a new beginning with a family which we had never known.
Myra who was only 13 was particularly overjoyed. The prospect of having an Apa and a Khala, for a girl who had known no older woman, was particularly fascinating for her, so much so that the radiance which her face had hitherto lacked returned for a few days.
The ship set sail, occupied predominantly by officials and businessmen from Dhaka who had come to Lahore or Karachi for office work. The idea of having the centre of power for a land separated by miles in Karachi or Lahore to us seemed very weird. Little did we know that this common-sensical observation worsened by divide over what language one could or couldn’t use would become an issue which would further balkanise the subcontinent.
Though the Radcliffe Line separating Pakistan from India, had given Masaldanga to Pakistan, the enclave remained inside the mainland of India.’
We docked at Chittagong four days later in March of 1958. The city was much smaller than Lahore, and the language they spoke: Bengali to us seemed alien and incomprehensible. Iqbal enquired about the journey to’ Masadanga, Cooch Behar’ and his question was received with contempt, laughter and astonishment. It was much later that we learnt of the fate that has befallen Masaldanga. Though the Radcliffe Line separating Pakistan from India, had given Masaldanga to Pakistan, the enclave remained inside the mainland of India.’
I thought for a second of the loss and confusion Radcliffe line had caused in this continent. Sir Radcliffe who had been hastily asked to draw the line separating the two countries had done a poor job, therefore enclaves on either side of the border remained without any nationality or with a nationality different from the villages that surrounded them. My interlocutor continued :
‘For a few days, we slept outside the port, surviving off what little we had saved in Lahore from the petty jobs we did. Entry to Masaldanga, we learnt would prove exceedingly difficult and risky, almost impossible. Iqbal said to me ‘Bhaijan, Maybe Allah doesn’t want us to have a family after all’. Then one-day things took an unexpected turn.
Through the course of his conversation with a man at the port Iqbal was told by him, that he could smuggle the three of us into Masaldanga. The only cost: all the savings which we had earned with our sweat and blood. We were ready to pay the price, risk our lives, for we were convinced that reuniting with the only family we had left, was the only goal we must pursue. The man, Hanif took us to Rangapur district, from where we were to make our way to Masaldanga Chitmahal(enclave). It is said that Rajas of Cooch Behar during the game of dice had staked and lost or earned these villages, thereby ensuring that enclaves of one kingdom won by a Raja were present inside the boundaries of his counterpart’s kingdom. It was now that kingdoms had given way to two countries, yet the problem persisted.
And presently we prepared to undertake the journey in the middle of the night, Hanif warned us to not speak to one another or make any unwarranted noise, lest we should be caught by either country’s military and branded spies. We walked for 7 miles in the pitch dark, without any lights, not even a burning torch. Yet Myra’s enthusiasm was not dulled by the obstacles we faced. She kept waking apace, with a rare enthusiasm. This was our first incursion into India after we had left on that damned train on the 12th August 1947. Yet these lines in the sand, the political ambitions and avarice of men had drawn, did not perturb us. We walked through the night, with an unexemplary attraction to Masaldanga. A concrete slab greeted us, which Hanif told us signalled the beginning of India and end of East Pakistan. After a few more kilometres we encountered another such slab which marked the territory of Pakistan inside the territory of India, the Chitmahal of Masaldanga.
And soon the dawn broke and we asked for Chacha’s house. We spoke our family name in hope of recognition. After a few failures one man offered to show us to his house, and presently we stood before a hutment and banged the door with palpitating hearts.
‘Ki Holo? Tume ke ?’, A man in his fifties, with a skull cap, asked of us with a puzzled look. One doesn’t expect to have guests here, not in a chitmahal.
‘We are your nephews and niece, Chacha. Remember Ibrahim your cousin brother.’ Iqbal proceeded to tell the story which none of us had recounted since that day. A sob escaped from Myra. Chacha seemed befuddled, but the news of death and loss seemed to affect him deeply. He listened and then spoke.
‘I have had no contact with our family members on the other side or in India. It is lovely to see you, people, here’ He proceeded to kiss Myra and me on our foreheads and patted Iqbal on his back.
‘But why have you come here to this no-man’s land, did no one tell you the hell we undergo here?’
So we had travelled from Pakistan and courted house arrest in India. Now there was no escaping Masaldanga, and no going back.
Masaldanga and other Pakistani enclaves, we learnt were called ‘hell on earth’. Not only were basic facilities of education and health-care not to be found in these chitmahals, they were completely cut-off from the surrounding territory, and army personnel zealously guarded these areas, for they were hotbeds for smuggling ..of people, cattle and contraband. So we had travelled from Pakistan and courted house arrest in India. Now there was no escaping Masaldanga, and no going back.
Chacha took us into his humble household, where we men were to sleep outside under the open sky and share whatever little food Chacha got out of his plantations and whatever we could muster by working as wage-labourers. In Lahore, we had slept invariably in mosques, under a roof, but in Masaldanga there were no mosques, let alone one with a roof. Yet the joy of having a family, and a shared household dulled the pain and the suffering we underwent here.
The risks of being caught by the Army and being deported to East Pakistan were not unbeknownst to us, yet we sought to venture forth, mortgaging like every displaced person does, his life for the bleak prospect of a better life.
It was on her 14th birthday that Myra made a near-impossible request of us. She wanted to continue education and go to school. As a child of 4 years, she had learnt merely the alphabets of Urdu, before we had become refugees in our own land and now she wanted to go back and start from where she left. There were no schools in Masaldanga. Those who were willing to take the risk had enrolled their children in neighbouring village schools, by registering their children as children/wards of their friends and relatives in those villages. Residents of the chitmahal were devoid of any identity, they were Pakistanis for name only and neither the Pakistani nor the Indian government seemed to care about them. We entreated with Chacha to enrol Myra in a neighbouring school and fulfil her earnest wish. Chacha was reluctant, and after much pleading and Myra’s hunger strike, he relented, giving us the reference of a friend of his in a neighbouring Dinhata subdivision. However, he refused to secure a means of transport to take her there. The duty fell inevitably on Iqbal, who is the older-brother, felt it his duty to take Myra there. The risks of being caught by the Army and being deported to East Pakistan were not unbeknownst to us, yet they sought to venture forth, mortgaging like every displaced person does, his life for the bleak prospect of a better life.
Thus they set out, leaving me behind to help support Chachas family. It was to be a two days affair,which involved convincing the friend to take Myra in, registering her birth certificate accordingly and securing admission into the block school.I kissed Myra on the forehead and wrung Bhaijan’s hand. I saw my two dearest people walk down the kutcha road, which leads to the subdivision, carrying in a tin box all that they owned. I had expected to not see Myra for a few years, but who knew the loss was to be graver.
Bhaijan did not return for many days. There were speculations rife that the Indian Army had caught him on his way back from Dinhata. I had not given up hope. A month later I received a letter from Myra’s guardian, brought to me by a co-habitant who had returned from Dinhata safely. The letter informed me that her studies were going well and that she had learnt of Iqbal’s disappearance and was deeply traumatised by it. Iqbal as planned, had gotten her into the school and left for Masaldanga. There remained no doubt that the Indian Army had caught him.
The arrest of a chitmahal resident outside of the chitmahal without permission meant deportation to East Pakistan and no hope of returning back. I went to the Indian Army outpost just outside of Masaldanga and begged of the Havildar to give me some information about my brother. He told me that he had learnt of someone of Iqbal’s description being deported to East Pakistan.
In both Myra and Iqbal’s absence, there was not much reason for me to continue living. I had become a zinda lash, who laboured noiselessly by day and slept noiselessly by night. But I had never fully reconciled myself to the sense of loss, I hadn’t shed any tears after that day at the Army outpost. Myra’s letters reached me sparingly, only when someone who was coming back from Dinhata agreed to take the letter with him. Her last one, written of her 19th birthday told me of her success in graduating 8th class. Despite being practically illiterate as a 14 year old, she had in a few years climbed her way to this position. I thanked Allah for his mercy and wrote back asking her to study harder. In the years to come Myra would finish junior college and take admission in Dinhata University.
In Summer of 1971, a huge exodus of people fled East Pakistan and took refuge in India. The tyrant regime of Yahya Khan, advised by ZA Bhutto had started ‘Operation Searchlight’, to persecute Bengali speakers who questioned the suzerainty of West Pakistan over East Pakistan. The huge incursion of refugees made the border porous and these refugees were settled in town and villages along the border in India.
One day a bearded man of forty walked into Masaldanga. He walked into the field where I was working and hugged me out of the blue. I was surprised and apologised, for I could not recognise him. He broke into a poignant smile. There remained no doubt it was only Iqbal. I screamed for joy and embraced him, the separation of two decades had only intensified our love for each other. Iqbal had worked odd-jobs in East Pakistan after his deportation, always looking for a way to come back. The opportunity came with porous borders.
There were discussions ongoing for the exchange of these enclaves or chitmahals to put an end to this confounding border, and give some closure to the two partitions our family had undergone.
A war broke out between India and Pakistan. The Indian Army aided by the Mukti-Bahini of Bengali-Pakistanis took over East Pakistan in no time. Sheikh Mujhibur Rehman the messiah of the Bengali’s became the premier of nascent Bangladesh.With it came the proposal of the Land Boundary Agreement, which would mean Masaldanga would soon become part of India. There were discussions ongoing for the exchange of these enclaves or chitmahals to put an end to this confounding border, and give some closure to the two partitions our family had undergone.
We felt heart-wrenching pain when the realisation hit us that we couldn’t participate in the marriage of our beloved sister.
Having finished MA and then M Phil in college, Myra now received innumerable proposals for marriage in Dinhata. Her guardian there informed us of a few ones he had shortlisted. Myra wrote to us telling us which one she preferred the most. We gave our green-lights for the nikah to be solemnised and fixed the meher at a whopping one thousand rupees. We felt heart-wrenching pain when the realisation hit us that we couldn’t participate in the marriage of our beloved sister. But this was no mean happiness Almighty had bestowed on us.
It took four decades now for the Land Boundary Agreement to reach its fruition. In 2015 Masaldanga became a part of India. There was a gargantuan celebration at Masaldanga, we hoisted the tri-colour and were welcomed into the nation, where till not long ago we were non-entities. Iqbal Bhaijan had left his body a year before and he could not celebrate the Independence which the Agreement brought us. I travelled to Darjeeling, where Myra and her family now lived at the first opportunity I got. At the end of our long embrace, we shared stories of our youth, middle age and now senility for a long time. I met my nephews and cradled by Grand-niece. ‘
Bhagat Singh had said he had set off the non-lethal sound bomb in the Central Assembly, which now houses the parliament on that fateful day ‘to make the deaf hear’.
The old man’s story who had clearly seen history unfolding before his eyes had almost drawn to an end. The sun had arisen in the sky and its golden-hue was waking up most of my co-passengers from their deep slumbers. I looked out of the window for answers to the many questions erupting in my mind. Why does it always take so long, years on end, for the deaf government to hear siren-calls of distress by the marginalised section? Why doesn’t development percolate down to the most deprived sections? In the cacophony of bullet trains and the horde to make sea-planes viable, we have allowed men to travel in inhumane conditions inside trains with less space than what cargo occupies.
The train was nearing my station, and I had no answers, maybe there were no clear answers. Bhagat Singh had said he had set off the non-lethal sound bomb in the Central Assembly, which now houses the parliament on that fateful day ‘to make the deaf hear’. But he had later in his life denounced revolutionary activities and vindicated the path of socialism. But in this world, even socialism comes with a baggage which the shoulders of nameless men like my interlocutor cannot seem to bear.