The Dead Pond
The partition had separated Jamila from her home and family. She returns to India in search of her loved ones.
Jamila looked out of the window as the train rushed past green wheat fields, mud houses and old peepal trees. Nothing much seemed to have changed in the last eleven years. Now and then, the train crossed a farmer driving a pair of oxen to draw water from his well while groups of women sat on their haunches, cutting grass for their cattle. Buffaloes bathed contentedly in muddy village ponds as little naked boys rode their backs and waved excitedly at the passing train, their wet, brown skins glistening in the sun. Jamila peered harder at the boys. Did Billa play in the village pond with his friends too?
“How silly of me! As though he is still four. He must be a strapping fifteen year old lad now,” thought Jamila. A dull pain gnawed at her heart. Did he go to school or help his father in the fields? Had he grown tall like his grandfather or taken after his short and stocky father?
“Ammi, I am thirsty,” Rashida tugged at her dupatta. The half-asleep infant in her lap let out a protesting howl as she poured out some water for her daughter.
“How much time is left for us to reach Sirhind, son?” asked Fatima.
“Not long now, you had better collect your luggage,” answered Javed. There was a commotion in the train compartment as people pulled out their beddings, tin trunks and cloth bags, crowding close to the doors as the train drew in close to the city. Many were visiting India for the first time, while for some, it was a trip back to the past after they left for Pakistan during the bloody partition of 1947.
The small group of Pakistani pilgrims travelling to pay homage at the Rauza Sharif in Fatehgarh Sahib stepped out onto the railway platform, looking around curiously. Jamila followed her husband and mother-in-law, holding her infant son.
“Where have we come, amma?” Rashida asked her grandmother.
“We have come to Hindustan,” she replied.
“What is Hindustan?” she asked.
“We lived here earlier.”
“Then why did we go away?”
“Because bad people here burned our houses and tried to kill us.”
Jamila squirmed, the blood rising to her face.
“Amma, let it go. She is a small child.” Said Javed.
“Han, han, I know. She will anyway find out all the horrors we went through when she grows up. I have forgotten nothing. Never would I have set foot in this cursed land again had your dead father not made a mannat to pay homage at the Rauza Sharif if our family crossed the border safely in 1947.”
The three-day Urs at the Hazrat Mujaddid Alfasani Dargah was attended by devout Muslims from all over the world. Jamila and their group were housed in a school near the Dargah. They had dinner at the langar organized for the pilgrims and unrolled their beddings in the room allotted to them. Exhausted by the journey, Javed and Fatima tucked themselves into their makeshift beds.
“You have been very quiet,” Javed asked Jamila.
“No, just putting the children to sleep. What is there to say?” she replied briefly.
“I think I made a mistake bringing you here. If it hadn’t been for abba’s mannat…”
“Stop your whispering and go to sleep, both of you. We must be up for the Fajr namaz and proceed to the Urs there after. And Jamila, don’t step out alone,” warned Fatima gruffly.
Javed and Fatima were snoring in no time.
Tucking in the sleeping children, Jamila crept out of the room without making a sound. She had reached out for burqa out of habit, discarding it when she remembered she was in India. Wrapping her shawl securely around her, Jamila stepped out of the school building and onto the road lit by street lights. There were only a few people out in the freezing winter night, with street dogs curled up in corners, too cold to bark at passers-by. Unaccustomed to stepping out alone after dark, Jamila should have been afraid. Yet she walked on unhesitatingly, with not a thought about whether anyone would pester her or do her harm on this dark, lonely road. Hesitating at the next turn, Jamila wondered if this was the right lane. Much seemed to have changed in the city; there were new shops and unfamiliar buildings, and she had to look hard for familiar landmarks to navigate to Uchcha Mohalla.
Here she was. Her heartbeat wildly inside her chest as she gasped for air, more out of panic than fatigue. The grand, double-storied yellow house with a high, carved blue door loomed up in front of her. Should she knock on the door or turn back? Would she even be allowed inside? Nevertheless, could she come all the way to Hindustan and not see Billa?
Mustering up courage, she stepped up and knocked on the door with the heavy iron rings hanging on the panel. She waited as her mouth went dry with anxiety. Why did no one answer? Had the family already gone to sleep? Some light filtered in through the door cracks, though. A street dog barked nearby as she knocked again. She could hear footsteps in the courtyard. Her heart seemed to stop in her chest. The door opened with a heavy creak. A young woman peered out of the half-open door, giving her a baffled look.
“I am sorry I cannot place you. Who do you want to meet?”
“I…I want to meet ma ji.”
“Oh, please do come in.”
Jamila stepped into the courtyard, looking around at the familiar open kitchen in the corner, the neem tree with the large woven Manja under it, the wooden sandook and stack of earthen vessels in the verandah.
“Do sit down, sister. Where are you from? You don’t seem to be from this area,” the woman looked curiously at Jamila’s clothes.
Jamila was still fumbling for words when an older woman walked out of an adjacent room.
“Who is here at this late hour, Seeto? Is all well?”
Jamila rushed to touch the old lady’s feet, bursting out in sobs.
“Ma ji, it’s I…”
On drawing closer and getting a better look at Jamila in the dim light, the lady’ face went ashen.
“Bant Kaur? Is this really you? Are you alive? How did you get here?”
“Yes, it is your unfortunate Bant Kaur. I…we are here to pay obeisance at the Rauza Sharif.”
“Oh, so you are a Mussalmani now? We took you for dead. What use is it to retrace your steps after so many years? Stay happy where you are.”
“Ma ji, being a Mussalmani was not for me to choose, just as it was not my choice to be abducted and taken across the border like cattle. Did I voluntarily leave my home, family and country to be violated and forced into another marriage and religion?”
“Many self-respecting women preferred death to dishonor! Did you find no well or pond to hide your shame?” spat out the matriarch.
“I did not want to die. I wanted to live; for myself, for my son. Does not Gurbani forbid taking one’s life? I waited for your son to find me and bring me back home. But no one came. I was held captive in Mianwali and had no way to leave.”
“Have you forgotten about my son Teja’s sense of honor and his uncontrollable anger? How would he, who has never laid feet on a soiled sheet, take back a soiled woman? You are lucky he is out of town tonight, or something untoward might have happened today with you and your Mussalman family. It’s best that you leave now.”
“Ma ji, please let me see Billa once. My heart has been bleeding for my son. I will take one look at him and return.”
“What will you tell him about yourself? I brought home Seeto as Jeeta’s wife after you left, and she is the only mother Billa has known. He believes you to be dead. How will you face him as you are- a woman living with a Mussalman after having renounced her faith?”
Seeto stood listening to the exchange between the two women. She could see the striking resemblance between Bant Kaur and Billa. Both were of fair complexion with greenish-blue eyes, so the boy was nicknamed Billa. Giving her mother-in-law a defiant look, Seeto stepped up to hug Jamila, wiping away her tears.
“Bille, come out here puttar, there is someone to meet you!” She called out.
A young, handsome lad of sixteen walked into the courtyard.
“Touch her feet, puttar, she is my sister and your massi.”
Jamila hugged and blessed her son, smiling through her tears. Drawing out some currency from her purse to give him shagun, Jamila realized that the notes had Jinnah’s face on them.
“May your husband and brothers live long, sister. May your son be a dutiful son to you. I take your leave now.”
“No, no sister, I won’t allow you to leave without eating something.”
Jamila hugged Seeto with a sad, ironic smile.
“If my escapade is discovered, I will have to pay heavily for it, sister. Two small children wait for me.” Jamila walked out of the door with one last, tear-blurred look at her son.