The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers. Even the weather had a different feel in India that year. It was hotter than usual, and drier and dustier. And the summer was longer. No one could remember when the monsoon had been so late. For weeks, the sparse clouds cast only shadows. There was no rain. People began to say that God was punishing them for their sins.
Some of them had good reason to feel that they had sinned. The summer before, communal riots, precipitated by reports of the proposed division of the country into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, had broken out in Calcutta, and within a few months the death toll had mounted to several thousand. Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped. From Calcutta, the riots spread north and east and west: to Noakhali in East Bengal, where Muslims massacred Hindus; to Bihar, where Hindus massacred Muslims. Mullahs roamed the Punjab and the Frontier Province with boxes of human skulls said to be those of Muslims killed in Bihar. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs who had lived for centuries on the Northwest Frontier abandoned their homes and fled towards the protection of the predominantly Sikh and Hindu communities in the east. They travelled on foot, in bullock carts, crammed into lorries, clinging to the sides and roofs of trains. Along the way—at fords, at crossroads, at railroad stations—they collided with panicky swarms of Muslims fleeing to safety in the west. The riots had become a rout. By the summer of 1947, when the creation of the new state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier. One of these villages was Mano Majra.
Mano Majra is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. The three brick buildings enclose a triangular common with a large peepul tree in the middle. The rest of the village is a cluster of flat-roofed mud huts and low-walled courtyards, which front on narrow lanes that radiate from the centre. Soon the lanes dwindle into footpaths and get lost in the surrounding fields. At the western end of the village there is a pond ringed round by keekar trees. There are only about seventy families in Mano Majra, and Lala Ram Lal’s is the only Hindu family. The others are Sikhs or Muslims, about equal in number. The Sikhs own all the land around the village; the Muslims are tenants and share the tilling with the owners. There are a few families of sweepers whose religion is uncertain. The Muslims claim them as their own, yet when American missionaries visit Mano Majra the sweepers wear khaki sola topees and join their womenfolk in singing hymns to the accompaniment of a harmonium. Sometimes they visit the Sikh temple, too. But there is one object that all Mano Majrans—even Lala Ram Lal—venerate. This is a three-foot slab of sandstone that stands upright under a keekar tree beside the pond. It is the local deity, the deo to which all the villagers—Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or pseudo-Christian—repair secretly whenever they are in a special need of blessing.
Although Mano Majra is said to be on the banks of the Sutlej River, it is actually half a mile away from it. In India villages cannot afford to be too close to the banks of rivers. Rivers change their moods with the seasons and alter their courses without warning. The Sutlej is the largest river in the Punjab. After the monsoon its waters rise and spread across its vast sandy bed, lapping high up the mud embankments on either side. It becomes an expanse of muddy turbulence more than a mile in breadth. When the flood subsides, the river breaks up into a thousand shallow streams that wind sluggishly between little marshy islands. About a mile north of Mano Majra the Sutlej is spanned by a railroad bridge. It is a magnificent bridge—its eighteen enormous spans sweep like waves from one pier to another, and at each end of it there is a stone embankment to buttress the railway line. On the eastern end the embankment extends all the way to the village railroad station.
Mano Majra has always been known for its railway station. Since the bridge has only one track, the station has several sidings where less important trains can wait, to make way for the more important.
A small colony of shopkeepers and hawkers has grown up around the station to supply travellers with food, betel leaves, cigarettes, tea, biscuits and sweetmeats. This gives the station an appearance of constant activity and its staff a somewhat exaggerated sense of importance. Actually the stationmaster himself sells tickets through the pigeonhole in his office, collects them at the exit beside the door, and sends and receives messages over the telegraph ticker on the table. When there are people to notice him, he comes out on the platform and waves a green flag for trains which do not stop. His only assistant manipulates the levers in the glass cabin on the platform which control the signals on either side, and helps shunting engines by changing hand points on the tracks to get them onto the sidings. In the evenings, he lights the long line of lamps on the platform. He takes heavy aluminum lamps to the signals and sticks them in the clamps behind the red and green glass. In the mornings, he brings them back and puts out the lights on the platform.
Not many trains stop at Mano Majra. Express trains do not stop at all. Of the many slow passenger trains, only two, one from Delhi to Lahore in the mornings and the other from Lahore to Delhi in the evenings, are scheduled to stop for a few minutes. The others stop only when they are held up. The only regular customers are the goods trains. Although Mano Majra seldom has any goods to send or receive, its station sidings are usually occupied by long rows of wagons. Each passing goods train spends hours shedding wagons and collecting others. After dark, when the countryside is steeped in silence, the whistling and puffing of engines, the banging of buffers, and the clanking of iron couplings can be heard all through the night.
All this has made Mano Majra very conscious of trains. Before daybreak, the mail train rushes through on its way to Lahore, and as it approaches the bridge, the driver invariably blows two long blasts on the whistle. In an instant, all Mano Majra comes awake. Crows begin to caw in the keekar trees. Bats fly back in long silent relays and begin to quarrel for their perches in the peepul. The mullah at the mosque knows that it is time for the morning prayer. He has a quick wash, stands facing west towards Mecca and with his fingers in his ears cries in long sonorous notes, ‘Allah-o-Akbar’. The priest at the Sikh temple lies in bed till the mullah has called. Then he too gets up, draws a bucket of water from the well in the temple courtyard, pours it over himself, and intones his prayer in monotonous singsong to the sound of splashing water.
By the time the 10:30 morning passenger train from Delhi comes in, life in Mano Majra has settled down to its dull daily routine. Men are in the fields. Women are busy with their daily chores. Children are out grazing cattle by the river. Persian wheels squeak and groan as bullocks go round and round, prodded on by curses and the jabs of goads in their hindquarters. Sparrows fly about the roofs, trailing straw in their beaks. Pyedogs seek the shade of the long mud walls. Bats settle their arguments, fold their wings, and suspend themselves in sleep.
As the midday express goes by, Mano Majra stops to rest. Men and children come home for dinner and the siesta hour. When they have eaten, the men gather in the shade of the peepul tree and sit on the wooden platforms and talk and doze. Boys ride their buffaloes into the pond, jump off their backs, and splash about in the muddy water. Girls play under the trees. Women rub clarified butter into each other’s hair, pick lice from their children’s heads, and discuss births, marriages and deaths.
When the evening passenger from Lahore comes in, everyone gets to work again. The cattle are rounded up and driven back home to be milked and locked in for the night. The women cook the evening meal. Then the families foregather on their rooftops where most of them sleep during the summer. Sitting on their charpais, they eat their supper of vegetables and chapattis and sip hot creamy milk out of large copper tumblers and idle away the time until the signal for sleep. When the goods train steams in, they say to each other, ‘There is the goods train.’ It is like saying goodnight. The mullah again calls the faithful to prayer by shouting at the top of his voice, ‘God is great.’ The faithful nod their amens from their rooftops. The Sikh priest murmurs the evening prayer to a semicircle of drowsy old men and women. Crows caw softly from the keekar trees. Little bats go flitting about in the dusk and large ones soar with slow graceful sweeps. The goods train takes a long time at the station, with the engine running up and down the sidings exchanging wagons. By the time it leaves, the children are asleep. The older people wait for its rumble over the bridge to lull them to slumber. Then life in Mano Majra is stilled, save for the dogs barking at the trains that pass in the night.
It had always been so, until the summer of 1947.
One heavy night in August of that year, five men emerged from a keekar grove not far from Mano Majra, and moved silently towards the river. They were dacoits, or professional robbers, and all but one of them were armed. Two of the armed men carried spears. The others had carbines slung over their shoulders. The fifth man carried a chromium-plated electric torch. When they came to the embankment, he flicked the torch alight. Then he grunted and snapped it off.
He dropped down on the sand. The others crouched around him, leaning on their weapons. The man with the torch looked at one of the spearmen.
The leader laughed. He tossed the torch in the air and caught it. He laughed again and raised the torch to his mouth and touched the switch. His cheeks glowed pink from the light inside.
The leader turned off the torch and took it from his mouth. ‘Nooran,’ he said.
‘She must give Jugga a good time,’ said the gunman who had not yet spoken. ‘During the day, she looks so innocent you would think she had not shed her milk teeth.’ He sighed. ‘But at night, she puts black antimony in her eyes.’
The others laughed. One of them suddenly sat erect.
The others stopped laughing. They all listened in silence to the approaching train. It came to a halt with a rumble, and the wagons groaned and creaked. After a time, the engine could be heard moving up and down, releasing wagons. There were loud explosions as the released wagons collided with the ones on the sidings. The engine chuffed back to the train.
His companions rose and brushed the sand off their clothes. They formed a line with their hands joined in prayer. One of the gunmen stepped in front and began to mumble. When he stopped, they all went down on their knees and rubbed their foreheads on the ground. Then they stood up and drew the loose ends of their turbans across their faces. Only their eyes were uncovered. The engine gave two long whistle blasts, and the train moved off towards the bridge.
The others followed him up the embankment and across the fields. By the time the train had reached the bridge, the men had skirted the pond and were walking up a lane that led to the centre of the village. They came to the house of Lala Ram Lal. The leader nodded to one of the gunmen. He stepped forward and began to pound on the door with the butt of his gun.
There was no reply. Village dogs gathered round the visitors and began to bark. One of the men hit a dog with the flat side of his spear blade. Another fired his gun into the air. The dogs ran away whimpering and started to bark louder from a safer distance.
The men began to hammer at the door with their weapons. One struck it with his spear which went through to the other side.
A woman’s voice answered. ‘Who is it who calls at this hour? Lalaji has gone to the city.’
The men put their shoulders to the door, pressed, pulled back and butted into it like battering-rams. The wooden bolt on the other side cracked and the doors flew open. One of the men with a gun waited at the door; the other four went in. In one corner of the room two women sat crouching. A boy of seven with large black eyes clung to the older of the two.
One of the men snatched them from her hands.
In the courtyard four beds were laid out in a row.
The man with the carbine tore the little boy from his grandmother’s lap and held the muzzle of the gun to the child’s face. The women fell at his feet imploring.
The gunman kicked the women away.
The boy shook with fear and stuttered, ‘Upstairs.’
The gunman thrust the boy back into the woman’s lap, and the men went out into the courtyard and climbed the staircase. There was only one room on the roof. Without pausing they put their shoulders to the door and pushed it in, tearing it off its hinges. The room was cluttered with steel trunks piled one on top of the other. There were two charpais with several quilts rolled up on them. The white beam of the torch searched the room and caught the moneylender crouching under one of the charpais.
The leader slapped the moneylender with the back of his hand. ‘Is this the way you treat your guests? We come and you hide under a charpai.’
Ram Lal covered his face with his arms and began to whimper.
He produced a wad of notes from his pocket. ‘Take these,’ he said, distributing the money to the five men. ‘It is all I have in the house. All is yours.’
‘There is nothing left in the safe; only my account books. I have given you all I have. All I have is yours. In the name of the Guru, let me be.’ Ram Lal clasped the leader’s legs above the knees and began to sob. ‘In the name of the Guru! In the name of the Guru!’
One of the men tore the moneylender away from the leader and hit him full in the face with the butt of his gun.
The women in the courtyard heard the cry and started shrieking, ‘Dakoo! Dakoo!’
The dogs barked all round. But not a villager stirred from his house.
On the roof of his house, the moneylender was beaten with butts of guns and spear handles and kicked and punched. He sat on his haunches, crying and spitting blood. Two of his teeth were smashed. But he would not hand over the keys of his safe. In sheer exasperation, one of the men lunged at the crouching figure with his spear. Ram Lal uttered a loud yell and collapsed on the floor with blood spurting from his belly. The men came out. One of them fired two shots in the air. Women stopped wailing. Dogs stopped barking. The village was silenced.
The dacoits jumped off the roof to the lane below. They yelled defiance to the world as they went out towards the river.
No one answered them. There was not a sound in Mano Majra. The men continued along the lane, shouting and laughing, until they came to a small hut on the edge of the village. The leader halted and motioned to one of the spearmen.
The spearman dug a package from his clothes and tossed it over the wall. There was a muffled sound of breaking glass in the courtyard.
They moved on down the lane, still laughing and blowing kisses, towards the river. Juggut Singh did not answer them. He didn’t hear them. He was not at home.
Juggut Singh had been gone from his home about an hour. He had only left when the sound of the night goods train told him that it would now be safe to go. For him, as for the dacoits, the arrival of the train that night was a signal. At the first distant rumble, he slipped quietly off his charpai and picked up his turban and wrapped it round his head. Then he tiptoed across the courtyard to the haystack and fished out a spear. He tiptoed back to his bed, picked up his shoes, and crept towards the door.
Juggut Singh stopped. It was his mother.
‘Pigs!’ his mother said. ‘Don’t try to be clever. Have you forgotten already that you are on probation—that it is forbidden for you to leave the village after sunset? And with a spear! Enemies will see you. They will report you. They will send you back to jail.’ Her voice rose to a wail. ‘Then who will look after the crops and the cattle?’
‘Go! Go wherever you want to go. If you want to jump in a well, jump. If you want to hang like your father, go and hang. It is my lot to weep. My kismet,’ she added, slapping her forehead, ‘it is all written there.’
Juggut Singh opened the door and looked on both sides. There was no one about. He walked along the walls till he got to the end of the lane near the pond. He could see the grey forms of a couple of adjutant storks slowly pacing up and down in the mud looking for frogs. They paused in their search. Juggut Singh stood still against the wall till the storks were reassured, then went off the footpath across the fields towards the river. He crossed the dry sand bed till he got to the stream. He stuck his spear in the ground with the blade pointing upward, then stretched out on the sand. He lay on his back and gazed at the stars. A meteor shot across the Milky Way, trailing a silver path down the blue-black sky. Suddenly a hand was on his eyes.
Juggut Singh stretched out his hands over his head and behind him, groping; the girl dodged them. Juggut Singh started with the hand on his eyes and felt his way up from the arm to the shoulder and then on to the face. He caressed her cheeks, eyes and nose that his hands knew so well. He tried to play with her lips to induce them to kiss his fingers. The girl opened her mouth and bit him fiercely. Juggut Singh jerked his hand away. With a quick movement he caught the girl’s head in both his hands and brought her face over to his. Then he slipped his arms under her waist and hoisted her into the air above him with her arms and legs kicking about like a crab. He turned her about till his arms ached. He brought her down flat upon him limb to limb.
The girl slapped him on the face.
‘You put your hands on the person of a strange woman. Have you no mother or sister in your home? Have you no shame? No wonder the police have got you on their register as a bad character. I will also tell the Inspector sahib that you are a badmash.’
Juggut Singh crossed his arms behind the girl’s back and crushed her till she could not talk or breathe. Every time she started to speak he tightened his arms round her and her words got stuck in her throat. She gave up and put her exhausted face against his. He laid her beside him with her head nestling in the hollow of his left arm. With his right hand he stroked her hair and face.
The goods train engine whistled twice and with a lot of groaning and creaking began to puff its way towards the bridge. The storks flew up from the pond with shrill cries of ‘kraak, kraak’ and came towards the river. From the river they flew back to the pond, calling alternately long after the train had gone over the bridge and its puff-puffs had died into silence.
Juggut Singh’s caresses became lustful. His hand strayed from the girl’s face to her breasts and her waist. She caught it and put it back on her face. His breathing became slow and sensuous. His hand wandered again and brushed against her breasts as if by mistake. The girl slapped it and put it away. Juggut Singh stretched his left arm that lay under the girl’s head and caught her reproving hand. Her other arm was already under him. She was defenceless.
Juggut Singh slipped his hand inside her shirt and felt the contours of her unguarded breasts. They became taut. The nipples became hard and leathery. His rough hands gently moved up and down from her breasts to her navel. The skin on her belly came up in goose flesh.
The girl continued to wriggle and protest.
Juggut Singh’s searching hand found one end of the cord of her trousers. He pulled it with a jerk.
A shot rang through the night. The storks flew up from the pond calling to each other. Crows started cawing in the keekar trees. Juggut Singh paused and looked up into the darkness towards the village. The girl quietly extricated herself from his hold and adjusted her dress. The crows settled back on the trees. The storks flew away across the river. Only the dogs barked.
‘Don’t talk like a stupid peasant. How …’ Juggut Singh shut her mouth with his. He bore upon her with his enormous weight. Before she could free her arms he ripped open the cord of her trousers once again.
She could not struggle against Juggut Singh’s brute force. She did not particularly want to. Her world was narrowed to the rhythmic sound of breathing and the warm smell of dusky skins raised to fever heat. His lips slubbered over her eyes and cheeks. His tongue sought the inside of her ears. In a state of frenzy she dug her nails into his thinly bearded cheeks and bit his nose. The stars above her went into a mad whirl and then came back to their places like a merry-go-round slowly coming to a stop. Life came back to its cooler, lower level. She felt the dead weight of the lifeless man; the sand gritting in her hair; the breeze trespassing on her naked limbs; the censorious stare of the myriads of stars. She pushed Juggut Singh away. He lay down beside her.
‘That is all you want. And you get it. You are just a peasant. Always wanting to sow your seed. Even if the world were going to hell you would want to do that. Even when guns are being fired in the village. Wouldn’t you?’ she nagged.
Faint cries of wailing wafted across to the riverside. The couple sat up to listen. Two shots rang out in quick succession. The crows flew out of the keekars, cawing furiously.
The girl began to cry.
Juggut Singh was not listening to her. He did not know what to do. If his absence from the village was discovered, he would be in trouble with the police. That did not bother him as much as the trouble the girl would be in. She might not come again. She was saying so: ‘I will never come to see you again. If Allah forgives me this time, I will never do it again.’
The girl began to sob. She found it hard to believe this was the same man who had been making love to her a moment ago.
The couple lay still, peering into the dark. The five men carrying guns and spears passed within a few yards of them. They had uncovered their faces and were talking.
‘Yes,’ Juggut said, ‘The one with the torch is Malli.’ His face went tight. ‘That incestuous lover of his sister! I’ve told him a thousand times this was no time for dacoities. And now he has brought his gang to my village! I will settle this with him.’
The dacoits went up to the river and then downstream towards the ford a couple of miles to the south. A pair of lapwings pierced the still night with startled cries: Teet-tittee-tittee-whoot, tee-tee-whoot, tee-tee-whoot, tit-tit-tee-whoot.
Juggut Singh sniggered. ‘Let us get back before they miss me in the village.’
The pair walked back towards Mano Majra, the man in front, the girl a few paces behind him. They could hear the sound of wailing and the barking of dogs. Women were shouting to each other across the roofs. The whole village seemed to be awake. Juggut Singh stopped near the pond and turned round to speak to the girl.
‘No one can harm you while I live. No one in Mano Majra can raise his eyebrows at you and get away from Jugga. I am not a badmash for nothing,’ he said haughtily. ‘You tell me tomorrow what happens or the day after tomorrow when all this—whatever it is—is over. After the goods train?’
‘No,’ she repeated, this time a little less emphatically. The excuse might work. Just as well her father was almost blind. He would not see her silk shirt, nor the antimony in her eyes. Nooran walked away into the darkness, swearing she would never come again.
Juggut Singh went up the lane to his house. The door was open. Several villagers were in the courtyard talking to his mother. He turned around quietly and made his way back to the river.
In bureaucratic circles Mano Majra has some importance because of an officers’ rest house just north of the railway bridge. It is a flat-roofed bungalow made of khaki bricks with a veranda in front facing the river. It stands in the middle of a squarish plot enclosed by a low wall. From the gate to the veranda runs a road with a row of bricks to deckle edge each side and mark it off from the garden. The garden is a pancake of plastered mud without a blade of grass to break its flat, even surface, but a few scraggy bushes of jasmine grow beside the columns of the veranda and near the row of servants’ quarters at the rear of the house. The rest house was originally built for the engineer in charge of the construction of the bridge. After the completion of the bridge, it became the common property of all senior officers. Its popularity is due to its proximity to the river. All about it are wild wastes of pampas grass and dhak, or flame of the forest, and here partridges call to their mates from sunrise to sundown. When the river has receded to its winter channel, bulrushes grow in the marshes and ponds left behind. Geese, mallard, widgeon, teal and many other kinds of waterfowl frequent these places, and the larger pools abound with rahu and malli and mahseer.
Throughout the winter months, officers arrange tours that involve a short halt at the Mano Majra rest house. They go for waterfowl at sunrise, for partridges during the day, fish in the afternoons, and once more for ducks when they come back in their evening flight. In spring the romantic come to ruminate—to sip their whisky and see the bright orange of the dhak shame the rich red hues of the sun setting over the river; to hear the soothing snore of frogs in the marshes and the rumble of trains that go by; to watch fireflies flitting among the reeds as the moon comes up from under the arches of the bridge. During the early months of summer, only those who are looking for solitude come to the Mano Majra rest house. But once the monsoon breaks, the visitors multiply, for the swollen waters of the Sutlej are a grand and terrifying sight.
On the morning before the dacoity in Mano Majra, the rest house had been done up to receive an important guest. The sweeper had washed the bathrooms, swept the rooms, and sprinkled water on the road. The bearer and his wife had dusted and rearranged the furniture. The sweeper’s boy had unwound the rope on the punkah which hung from the ceiling and put it through the hole in the wall so that he could pull it from the veranda. He had put on a new red loincloth and was sitting on the veranda tying and untying knots in the punkah rope. From the kitchen came the smell of currying chicken.
At eleven o’clock a subinspector of police and two constables turned up on bicycles to inspect the arrangements. Then two orderlies arrived. They wore white uniforms with red sashes round their waists and white turbans with broad bands in front. On the bands were pinned brass emblems of the government of the Punjab—the sun rising over five wavy lines representing the rivers of the province. With them were several villagers who carried the baggage and the glossy black official dispatch cases.
An hour later a large grey American car rolled in. An orderly stepped out of the front seat and opened the rear door for his master. The subinspector and the policemen came to attention and saluted. The villagers moved away to a respectful distance. The bearer opened the wire-gauze door leading to the main bed-sitting room. Mr Hukum Chand, magistrate and deputy commissioner of the district, heaved his corpulent frame out of the car. He had been travelling all morning and was somewhat tired and stiff. A cigarette perched on his lower lip sent a thin stream of smoke into his eyes. In his right hand he held a cigarette tin and a box of matches. He ambled up to the subinspector and gave him a friendly slap on the back while the other still stood at attention.
‘Come along, Inspector Sahib, come in,’ said Hukum Chand. He took the inspector’s right hand and led him into the room. The bearer and the deputy commissioner’s personal servant followed. The constables helped the chauffeur to take the luggage out of the car.
Hukum Chand went straight into the bathroom and washed the dust off his face. He came back still wiping his face with a towel. The subinspector stood up again.
He flung the towel on his bed and sank into an armchair. The punkah began to flap forward and backward to the grating sound of the rope moving in the hole in the wall. One of the orderlies undid the magistrate’s shoes and took off his socks and began to rub his feet. Hukum Chand opened the cigarette tin and held it out to the subinspector. The subinspector lit the magistrate’s cigarette and then his own. Hukum Chand’s style of smoking betrayed his lower-middle-class origin. He sucked noisily, his mouth glued to his clenched fist. He dropped cigarette ash by snapping his fingers with a flourish. The subinspector, who was a younger man, had a more sophisticated manner.
The subinspector joined his hands. ‘God is merciful. We only pray for your kindness.’
‘You haven’t had convoys of dead Sikhs this side of the frontier. They have been coming through at Amritsar. Not one person living! There has been killing over there.’ Hukum Chand held up both his hands and let them drop heavily on his thighs in a gesture of resignation. Sparks flew off his cigarette and fell on his trousers. The subinspector slapped them to extinction with obsequious haste.
‘Do you know,’ continued the magistrate, ‘the Sikhs retaliated by attacking a Muslim refugee train and sending it across the border with over a thousand corpses? They wrote on the engine “Gift to Pakistan!”’
The subinspector looked down thoughtfully and answered: ‘They say that is the only way to stop killings on the other side. Man for man, woman for woman, child for child. But we Hindus are not like that. We cannot really play this stabbing game. When it comes to an open fight, we can be a match for any people. I believe our RSS boys beat up Muslim gangs in all the cities. The Sikhs are not doing their share. They have lost their manliness. They just talk big. Here we are on the border with Muslims living in Sikh villages as if nothing had happened. Every morning and evening the muezzin calls for prayer in the heart of a village like Mano Majra. You ask the Sikhs why they allow it and they answer that the Muslims are their brothers. I am sure they are getting money from them.’
Hukum Chand ran his fingers across his receding forehead into his hair.
‘But Chundunnugger is said to be a good police station. There are so many murders, so much illicit distilling, and the Sikh peasants are prosperous. Your predecessors have built themselves houses in the city.’
‘I don’t mind your taking whatever you do take, within reason of course—everyone does that—only, be careful. This new government is talking very loudly of stamping out all this. After a few months in office their enthusiasm will cool and things will go on as before. It is no use trying to change things overnight.’
‘They are not the ones to talk. Ask anyone coming from Delhi and he will tell you that all these Gandhi disciples are minting money. They are as good saints as the crane. They shut their eyes piously and stand on one leg like a yogi doing penance; as soon as a fish comes near—hurrup.’
Hukum Chand ordered the servant rubbing his feet to get some beer. As soon as they were alone, he put a friendly hand on the subinspector’s knee.
‘You talk rashly like a child. It will get you into trouble one day. Your principle should be to see everything and say nothing. The world changes so rapidly that if you want to get on you cannot afford to align yourself with any person or point of view. Even if you feel strongly about something, learn to keep silent.’
The subinspector’s heart warmed with gratitude. He wanted to provoke more paternal advice by irresponsible criticism. He knew that Hukum Chand agreed with him.
‘Sometimes, sir, one cannot restrain oneself. What do the Gandhi-caps in Delhi know about the Punjab? What is happening on the other side in Pakistan does not matter to them. They have not lost their homes and belongings; they haven’t had their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters raped and murdered in the streets. Did your honour hear what the Muslim mobs did to Hindu and Sikh refugees in the marketplaces at Sheikhupura and Gujranwala? Pakistan police and the army took part in the killings. Not a soul was left alive. Women killed their own children and jumped into wells that filled to the brim with corpses.’
‘Harey Ram, Harey Ram,’ rejoined Hukum Chand with a deep sigh. ‘I know it all. Our Hindu women are like that: so pure that they would rather commit suicide than let a stranger touch them. We Hindus never raise our hands to strike women, but these Muslims have no respect for the weaker sex. But what are we to do about it? How long will it be before it starts here?’
‘I hope we do not get trains with corpses coming through Mano Majra. It will be impossible to prevent retaliation. We have hundreds of small Muslim villages all around, and there are some Muslim families in every Sikh village like Mano Majra,’ said the subinspector, throwing a feeler.
Hukum Chand sucked his cigarette noisily and snapped his fingers.
‘We must maintain law and order,’ he answered after a pause. ‘If possible, get the Muslims to go out peacefully. Nobody really benefits by bloodshed. Bad characters will get all the loot and the government will blame us for the killing. No, Inspector Sahib, whatever our views—and God alone knows what I would have done to these Pakistanis if I were not a government servant—we must not let there be any killing or destruction of property. Let them get out, but be careful they do not take too much with them. Hindus from Pakistan were stripped of all their belongings before they were allowed to leave. Pakistani magistrates have become millionaires overnight. Some on our side have not done too badly either. Only where there was killing or burning the government suspended or transferred them. There must be no killing. Just peaceful evacuation.’
The bearer brought a bottle of beer and put two glasses before Hukum Chand and the subinspector. The subinspector picked up his glass and put his hand over it, protesting, ‘No, sir, I could not be impertinent and drink in your presence.’
The magistrate dismissed the protest peremptorily. ‘You will have to join me. It is an order. Bearer, fill the Inspector sahib’s glass and lay out lunch for him.’
The subinspector held out his glass for the bearer to fill. ‘If you order me to, I cannot disobey.’ He began to relax. He took off his turban and put it on the table. It was not like a Sikh turban which needed re-tying each time it was taken off; it was just three yards of starched khaki muslin wrapped round a blue skullcap which could be put on and off like a hat.
‘All is well so far. The lambardar reports regularly. No refugees have come through the village yet. I am sure no one in Mano Majra even knows that the British have left and the country is divided into Pakistan and Hindustan. Some of them know about Gandhi but I doubt if anyone has ever heard of Jinnah.’
‘You must remember Juggut Singh, son of the dacoit Alam Singh who was hanged two years ago. He is that very big fellow. He is the tallest man in this area. He must be six foot four—and broad. He is like a stud bull.’
The subinspector smiled broadly. ‘Sir, what the police of the Punjab has failed to do, the magic of the eyes of a girl of sixteen has done.’
Hukum Chand’s interest was aroused.
‘With a Muslim weaver’s daughter. She is dark, but her eyes are darker. She certainly keeps Jugga in the village. And no one dares say a word against the Muslims. Her blind father is the mullah of the mosque.’
The two drank their beer and smoked till the bearer brought in lunch. They continued drinking and eating and discussing the situation in the district till late in the afternoon. Beer and rich food made Hukum Chand heavy with sleep. Chicks on the veranda had been lowered to keep out the glare of the noonday sun. The punkah flapped gently to and fro with a weary plaintive creak. A feeling of numb drowsiness came over Hukum Chand. He got out his silver toothpick, picked his teeth and rubbed the toothpick on the tablecloth. Even that did not help him ward off sleep. The subinspector noticed the magistrate nodding and stood up to take leave.
The subinspector saluted and left. The magistrate stretched himself on the bed for a late afternoon siesta.
The sound of the car leaving the bungalow woke Hukum Chand from his sleep. Pampas-stalk chicks which hung on the veranda had been folded into large Swiss rolls and tied between the columns. The stark white of the veranda was mellowed in the soft amber of the setting sun. The sweeper boy lay curled on the brick floor clutching the punkah rope in his hand. His father was sprinkling water all around the rest house. The damp smell of earth mixed with the sweet odour of jasmines came through the wire-gauze door. In front of the house, the servants had spread a large coir mat with a carpet on it. At one end of the carpet was a big cane chair, a table with a bottle of whisky, a couple of tumblers and plates of savouries. Several bottles of soda water stood in a row beneath the table.
Hukum Chand shouted for his servant to get his bath ready and bring in hot water for shaving. He lit a cigarette and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Just above his head two geckos were getting ready for a fight. They crawled towards each other emitting little rasping noises. They paused with half an inch between them and moved their tails with slow, menacing deliberation, then came to a head-on collision. Before Hukum Chand could move away they fell with a loud plop just beside his pillow. A cold clammy feeling came over him. He jumped out of bed and stared at the geckos. The geckos stared back at him, still holding onto each other by the teeth as if they were kissing. The bearer’s footsteps broke the hypnotic stare with which the magistrate and the geckos had been regarding each other. The geckos ran down the bed and up the wall back to the ceiling. Hukum Chand felt as if he had touched the lizards and they had made his hands dirty. He rubbed his hands on the hem of his shirt. It was not the sort of dirt which could be wiped off or washed clean.
The bearer brought a mug of hot water and laid out the shaving gear on the dressing table. He put on a chair his master’s clothes—a thin muslin shirt, a pair of baggy trousers strung with a peacock-blue silken cord interwoven with silver thread. He brushed the magistrate’s black pumps till they shone and put them beside the chair.
Hukum Chand shaved and bathed with great care. After bathing he rubbed skin-lotion on his face and arms and dusted himself with perfumed talcum powder. He dabbed his fingers with eau de cologne. Brilliantine made his hair smooth and soggy and showed the white at the roots of it. He had not dyed it for a fortnight. He waxed his thick moustache and twirled it till the ends stiffly pointed to his eyes; the roots of his moustache also showed purple and white. He put on his thin muslin shirt through which his aertex vest showed clearly. The trousers fell in ordered starchy folds. He dabbed his clothes with a swab of cotton dipped in scent of musk rose. When he was ready he looked up at the ceiling. The geckos were there staring at him with their bright, black, pin-point eyes.
The American car drove back into the driveway. Hukum Chand went up to the wire-gauze door still waxing his moustache. Two men and two women stepped out. One of the men carried a harmonium and the other a pair of drums. One of the women was old, with white hair dyed a rich henna-orange. The other was a young girl whose mouth was bloated with betel leaf and who wore a diamond glistening on one side of her flat nose. She carried a small bundle which jingled as she stepped out of the car. The party went and squatted on the carpet.
Hukum Chand carefully examined himself in the mirror. He noticed the white at the roots of his hair and smoothed it back again. He lit a cigarette and in his customary manner carried the tin of cigarettes with a matchbox on it. He half opened the wire-gauze door and shouted for his bearer to bring the whisky, which he knew had already been put on the table. It was to warn the people outside of his coming. As he came out he let the door slam noisily. With slow deliberate steps punctuated by the creaking of his glossy pumps he walked up to the cane chair.
The party stood up to greet the magistrate. The two musicians salaamed, bowing their heads low. The old toothless woman broke into a sonorous singsong of praise: ‘May your fame and honour increase. May your pen write figures of thousands and hundreds of thousands.’ The young girl just stared at him with her large eyes lined with antimony and lampblack. The magistrate made a gesture with his hand ordering them to sit down. The old woman’s voice came down to a whimper. All four sat down on the carpet.
The bearer poured out the whisky and soda for his master. Hukum Chand took a large gulp and wiped his moustache with the back of his hand. He twirled the pointed ends nervously. The girl opened her bundle and tied the ankle-bells round her ankles. The harmonium player played a single note. His companion beat the drums all round the edges with a tiny mallet and tightened and loosened the leather thongs by hammering the ring of wooden blocks wedged between them. He beat the taut white skin with his fingers till the drums were in key with the harmonium. The accompaniment was ready.
The young girl spat out the betel saliva and cleared her throat with a series of deep chesty coughs that brought up phlegm. The old woman spoke:
The young girl salaamed. ‘As you order.’
The musicians put their heads together and after a brief consultation with the girl they began to play. The drums beat a preliminary tattoo and then softened down for the harmonium to join in. The two played for some time while the girl sat silently, looking bored and indifferent. When they finished the introductory piece, she blew her nose and cleared her throat again. She put her left hand on her ear and stretched the other towards the magistrate, addressing him in a shrill falsetto:
O lover mine, O lover that art gone,
I live but would rather die,
I see not for the tears that flow,
I breathe not, for I sigh.
As a moth that loves the flame,
By that flame is done to death,
Within myself have I lit a fire
That now robs me of my breath.
The nights I spend in counting stars,
The days in dreams of days to be
When homewards thou thy reins shall turn
Thy moon-fair face I again shall see.
The girl paused. The musicians started to play again for her to sing the refrain:
O letter, let my lover learn
How the fires of separation burn.
When the girl had finished her song, Hukum Chand flung a five-rupee note on the carpet. The girl and the musicians bowed their heads. The hag picked up the money and put it in her wallet, proclaiming: ‘May you ever rule. May your pen write hundreds of thousands. May …’
The singing began again. Hukum Chand poured himself a stiff whisky and drank it in one gulp. He wiped his moustache with his hand. He did not have the nerve to take a good look at the girl. She was singing a song he knew well; he had heard his daughter humming it:
In the breeze is flying
My veil of red muslin
Ho Sir, Ho Sir.
Hukum Chand felt uneasy. He took another whisky and dismissed his conscience. Life was too short for people to have consciences. He started to beat time to the song by snapping his fingers and slapping his thighs to each ‘Ho Sir, Ho Sir.’
Twilight gave way to the dark of a moonless night. In the swamps by the river, frogs croaked. Cicadas chirped in the reeds. The bearer brought out a hissing paraffin lamp which cast a bright bluish light. The frame of the lamp threw a shadow over Hukum Chand. He stared at the girl who sat sheltered from the light. She was only a child and not very pretty, just young and unexploited. Her breasts barely filled her bodice. They could not have known the touch of a male hand. The thought that she was perhaps younger than his own daughter flashed across his mind. He drowned it quickly with another whisky. Life was like that. You took it as it came, shorn of silly conventions and values which deserved only lip worship. She wanted his money, and he… well. When all was said and done she was a prostitute and looked it. The silver sequins on her black sari sparkled. The diamond in her nose glittered like a star. Hukum Chand took another drink to dispel his remaining doubts. This time he wiped his moustache with his silk handkerchief. He began to hum louder and snapped his fingers with a flourish.
One film song followed another till all the Indian songs set to tunes of tangos and sambas that Hukum Chand knew were exhausted.
The girl started to sing a song which had several English words in it:
Sunday after Sunday, O my life.
Hukum Chand exploded with an appreciative ‘wah, wah.’ When the girl finished her song, he did not throw the fiverupee note at her but asked her to come and take it from his hand. The old woman pushed the girl ahead.
The girl got up and went to the table. She stretched out her hand to take the money; Hukum Chand withdrew his and put the note on his heart. He grinned lecherously. The girl looked at her companions for help. Hukum Chand put the note on the table. Before she could reach it he picked it up and again put it on his chest. The grin on his face became broader. The girl turned back to join the others. Hukum Chand held out the note for the third time.
The girl gaped wide-eyed at her companions.
Hukum Chand put a glass of whisky to the girl’s lips. ‘Drink a little. Just a sip for my sake,’ he pleaded.
The girl stood impassively without opening her mouth. The old woman spoke again.
‘Then she will eat something even if she does not drink,’ said Hukum Chand. He preferred to ignore the rest of the woman’s speech. He picked up a meatball from a plate and tried to put it in the girl’s mouth. She took it from him and ate it.
Hukum Chand pulled her onto his lap and began to play with her hair. It was heavily oiled and fixed in waves by gaudy celluloid hair-clips. He took out a couple of hairpins and loosened the bun at the back. The hair fell about her shoulders. The musicians and the old woman got up.
The old woman again set up a loud singsong: ‘May your fame and honour increase. May your pen write figures of thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands.’
Hukum Chand produced a wad of notes and put it on the table for her. Then the party went to the car, leaving the magistrate with the girl in his lap and the bearer waiting for orders.
Hukum Chand stretched out his hand and put out the paraffin lamp. It went out with a loud hiss, leaving the two in utter darkness save for a pale yellow light that flickered from the bedroom. Hukum Chand decided to stay out of doors.
The goods train had dropped the Mano Majra wagons and was leaving the station for the bridge. It came up noisily, its progress marked by the embers which flew out of the funnel of the engine. They were stoking coal in the firebox. A bright red-and-yellow light travelled through the spans of the bridge and was lost behind the jungle on the other side. The train’s rumble got fainter and fainter. Its passing brought a feeling of privacy.
Hukum Chand helped himself to another whisky. The girl in his lap sat stiff and frigid.
The magistrate was not particularly concerned with her reactions. He had paid for all that. He brought the girl’s face nearer his own and began kissing her on the back of her neck and on her ears. He could not hear the goods train any more. It had left the countryside in utter solitude. Hukum Chand could hear his breathing quicken. He undid the strap of the girl’s bodice.
The sound of a shot shattered the stillness of the night. The girl broke loose and stood up.
The girl nodded. ‘May be a shikari,’ she answered, speaking to him for the first time. She refastened her bodice.
The two stood in silence for some time—the man a little apprehensive; the girl relieved of the attentions of a lover whose breath smelled of whisky, tobacco and pyorrhea. But the silence told Hukum Chand that all was well. He took another whisky to make assurance doubly sure. The girl realized that there was no escape.
The girl did not answer. She allowed herself to be dragged onto the table amongst plates covered with stale meatballs and cigarette ash. Hukum Chand swept them off the table with his hand and went on with his love-making. The girl suffered his pawing without a protest. He picked her up from the table and laid her on the carpet amongst the litter of tumblers, plates and bottles. She covered her face with the loose end of her sari and turned it sideways to avoid his breath. Hukum Chand began fumbling with her dress.
From Mano Majra came sounds of people shouting and the agitated barking of dogs. Hukum Chand looked up. Two shots rang out and silenced the barking and shouting. With a loud oath Hukum Chand left the girl. She got up, brushing and adjusting her sari. From the servants’ quarters the bearer and the sweeper came out carrying lanterns and talking excitedly. A little later the chauffeur drove the car into the driveway, its headlights lighting up the front of the bungalow.
The morning after the dacoity the railway station was more crowded than usual. Some Mano Majrans made a habit of being there to watch the 10:30 slow passenger train from Delhi to Lahore come in. They liked to see the few passengers who might get on or off at Mano Majra, and they also enjoyed endless arguments about how late the train was on a given day and when it had last been on time. Since the partition of the country there had been an additional interest. Now the trains were often four or five hours late and sometimes as many as twenty. When they came, they were crowded with Sikh and Hindu refugees from Pakistan or with Muslims from India. People perched on the roofs with their legs dangling, or on bedsteads wedged in between the bogies. Some of them rode precariously on the buffers.
The train this morning was only an hour late—almost like pre-War days. When it steamed in, the crying of hawkers on the platform and the passengers rushing about and shouting to each other gave the impression that many people would be getting off. But when the guard blew his whistle for departure, most of them were back on the train. Only a solitary Sikh peasant carrying an ironshod bamboo staff and followed by his wife with an infant resting on her hip remained with the hawkers on the platform. The man hoisted their rolled bedding onto his head and held it there with one hand. In the other he carried a large tin of clarified butter. The bamboo staff he held in his armpit, with one end trailing on the ground. Two green tickets stuck out beneath his moustache, which billowed from his upper lip onto his beard. The woman saw the line of faces peering through the iron railing of the station and drew her veil across her face. She followed her husband, her slippers sloshing on the gravel and her silver ornaments all ajingle. The stationmaster plucked the tickets from the peasant’s mouth and let the couple out of the gate, where they were lost in a tumult of greetings and embraces.
The guard blew his whistle a second time and waved the green flag. Then, from the compartment just behind the engine, armed policemen emerged. There were twelve of them, and a subinspector. They carried rifles and their Sam Browne belts were charged with bullets. Two carried chains and handcuffs. From the other end of the train, near the guard’s van, a young man stepped down. He wore a long white shirt, a brown waistcoat of coarse cotton, and loose pyjamas, and he carried a holdall. He stepped gingerly off the train, pressing his tousled hair and looking all round. He was a small slight man, somewhat effeminate in appearance. The sight of the policemen emboldened him. He hoisted the holdall onto his left shoulder and moved jauntily towards the exit. The villagers watched the young man and the police party move from opposite directions towards the stationmaster who stood beside the gate. He had opened it wide for the police and was bowing obsequiously to the subinspector. The young man reached the gate first and stopped between the stationmaster and the police. The stationmaster quickly took the ticket from him, but the young man did not move on or make way for the subinspector.
The stationmaster was irritated. The visitor’s urban accent, his appearance, dress and holdall had the stationmaster holding back his temper.
The police party and the stationmaster scrutinized the youth with a little diffidence. Not many people said ‘thank you’ in these parts. Most of the ‘thank you’ crowd were foreign-educated. They had heard of several well-to-do young men, educated in England, donning peasant garb to do rural uplift work. Some were known to be Communist agents. Some were sons of millionaires, some sons of high government officials. All were looking for trouble, and capable of making a lot of noise. One had to be careful.
The young man went out of the station towards the village. He walked with a consciously erect gait, a few yards in front of the policemen. He was uneasily aware of their attention. The itch on the back of his neck told him that they were looking at him and talking about him. He did not scratch or look back—he just walked on like a soldier. He saw the flag-mast draped in yellow cloth with a triangular flag above the conglomeration of mud huts. On the flag was the Sikh symbol in black, a quoit with a dagger running through and two swords crossed beneath. He went along the dusty path lined on either side by scraggy bushes of prickly pear which fenced it off from the fields. The path wound its narrow way past the mud huts to the opening in the centre where the moneylender’s house, the mosque and the temple faced each other. Underneath the peepul tree half a dozen villagers were sitting on a low wooden platform talking to each other. They got up as soon as they saw the policemen and followed them into Ram Lal’s house. No one took any notice of the stranger.
He stepped into the open door of the temple courtyard. At the end opposite the entrance was a large hall in which the scripture, the Granth, lay wrapped in gaudy silks under a velvet awning. On one side were two rooms. A brick stairway ran along the wall to the roof of the rooms. Across the courtyard was a well with a high parapet. Beside the well stood a four-foot brick column supporting the long flag-mast with the yellow cloth covering it like a stocking.
The young man did not see anyone about. He could hear the sound of wet clothes being beaten on a slab of stone. He walked timidly to the other side of the well. An old Sikh got up with water dripping from his beard and white shorts.
‘No, Babu Sahib, only when you go in near the Book, the Granth Sahib, you take your shoes off and cover your head. Put your luggage in that room and make yourself comfortable. Will you have something to eat?’
The old man showed the visitor to the spare room and then went back to the well. The young man went into the room. Its only furniture was a charpai lying in the middle. There was a large coloured calendar on one wall. It had a picture of the Guru on horseback with a hawk on one hand. Alongside the calendar were nails to hang clothes.
The visitor emptied his holdall. He took out his air mattress and blew it up on the charpai. He laid out pyjamas and a silk dressing gown on the mattress. He got out a tin of sardines, a tin of Australian butter and a packet of dry biscuits. He shook his water bottle. It was empty.
The old Sikh came to him, combing his long beard with his fingers.
The young man was relieved that the other had not gone on with his first question. He did not have to say what Iqbal he was. He could be a Muslim, Iqbal Mohammed. He could be a Hindu, Iqbal Chand, or a Sikh, Iqbal Singh. It was one of the few names common to the three communities. In a Sikh village, an Iqbal Singh would no doubt get a better deal, even if his hair was shorn and his beard shaved, than an Iqbal Mohammed or an Iqbal Chand. He himself had few religious feelings.
‘I am a social worker, Bhaiji. There is much to be done in our villages. Now with this partition there is so much bloodshed going on, someone must do something to stop it. My party has sent me here, since this place is a vital point for refugee movements. Trouble here would be disastrous.’
The bhai did not seem interested in Iqbal’s occupation.
Iqbal knew that meant his ancestors and not himself.
‘I belong to district Jhelum—now in Pakistan—but I have been in foreign countries a long time. It is after seeing the world that one feels how backward we are and one wants to do things about it. So I do social work.’
Iqbal had learned not to resent these questions.
He got out his tin opener and opened the tin of sardines. He spread the fish on a biscuit and continued to talk while he ate.
‘Morality, Meet Singhji, is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion. Our first problem is to get people more food, clothing, comfort. That can only be done by stopping exploitation by the rich, and abolishing landlords. And that can only be done by changing the government.’
Meet Singh, with disgusted fascination, watched the young man eating fish complete with head, eyes and tail. He did not pay much attention to the lecture on rural indebtedness, the average national income, and capitalist exploitation which the other poured forth with flakes of dry biscuits. When Iqbal had finished eating Meet Singh got up and brought him a tumbler of water from his pitcher. Iqbal did not stop talking. He only raised his voice when the bhai went out.
Iqbal produced a little packet of cellophane paper from his pocket, took a white pill from it and dropped it in the tumbler. He had seen Meet Singh’s thumb, with its black crescent of dirt under the nail, dipping into the water. In any case it was out of a well which could never have been chlorinated.
Iqbal resumed his speech. ‘To add to it all,’ he continued, ‘there is the police system which, instead of safeguarding the citizen, maltreats him and lives on corruption and bribery. You know all about that, I am sure.’
The old man nodded his head in agreement. Before he could comment, the young man spoke again. ‘A party of policemen with an inspector came over on the same train with me. They will no doubt eat up all the chickens, the inspector will make a little money in bribes, and they will move on to the next village. One would think they had nothing else to do but fleece people.’
Reference to the police awakened the old man from his absent-minded listening. ‘So the police have come after all. I must go and see what they are doing. They must be at the moneylender’s house. He was murdered last night, just across from the gurdwara. The dacoits took a lot of cash and they say over five thousand rupees in silver and gold ornaments from his women.’
Meet Singh realized the interest he had created and slowly got up, repeating, ‘I should be going. All the village will be there. They will be taking the corpse for medical examination. If a man is killed he cannot be cremated till the doctor certifies him dead.’ The old man gave a wry smile.
‘A murder! Why, why was he murdered?’ stammered Iqbal, somewhat bewildered. He was surprised that Meet Singh had not mentioned the murder of a next-door neighbour all this time. ‘Was it communal? Is it all right for me to be here? I do not suppose I can do much if the village is all excited about a murder.’
‘Why, Babu Sahib, you have come to stop killing and you are upset by one murder?’ asked Meet Singh, smiling. ‘I thought you had come to stop such things, Babu Sahib. But you are quite safe in Mano Majra,’ he added. ‘Dacoits do not come to the same village more than once a year. There will be another dacoity in another village in a few days and people will forget about this one. We can have a meeting here one night after the evening prayer and you can tell them all you want. You had better rest. I will come back and tell you what happens.’
The old man hobbled out of the courtyard. Iqbal collected the empty tin, his knife and fork and tin plate, and took them to the well to wash.
In the afternoon, Iqbal stretched himself on the coarse string charpai and tried to get some sleep. He had spent the night sitting on his bedroll in a crowded third-class compartment. Every time he had dozed off, the train had come to a halt at some wayside station and the door was forced open and more peasants poured in with their wives, bedding and tin trunks. Some child sleeping in its mother’s lap would start howling till its wails were smothered by a breast thrust into its mouth. The shouting and clamour would continue until long after the train had left the station. The same thing was repeated again and again, till the compartment meant for fifty had almost two hundred people in it, sitting on the floor, on seats, on luggage racks, on trunks, on bedrolls, and on each other, or standing in the corners. There were dozens outside perched precariously on footboards, holding onto the door handles. There were several people on the roof. The heat and smell were oppressive. Tempers were frayed and every few minutes an argument would start because someone had spread himself out too much or had trod on another’s foot on his way to the lavatory. The argument would be joined on either side by friends or relatives and then by all the others trying to patch it up. Iqbal had tried to read in the dim light speckled with shadows of moths that fluttered round the globe. He had hardly read a paragraph before his neighbour had observed:
It had not worked. The man had simply taken the book out of Iqbal’s hand and turned over its pages.
Iqbal did not comment.
The book had gone round the compartment for scrutiny. They had all looked at him. He was educated, therefore belonged to a different class. He was a babu.
The man had obviously taken him to be a Muslim. Just as well. All the passengers appeared to be Muslims on their way to Pakistan.
Thereafter other passengers had joined in the cross-examination. Iqbal had to tell them what he did, what his source of income was, how much he was worth, where he had studied, why he had not married, all the illnesses he had ever suffered from. They had discussed their own domestic problems and diseases and had sought his advice. Did Iqbal know of any secret prescriptions or herbs that the English used when they were ‘run down’? Iqbal had given up the attempt to sleep or read. They had kept up the conversation till the early hours of the morning. He would have described the journey as insufferable except that the limits to which human endurance could be stretched in India made the word meaningless. He got off at Mano Majra with a sigh of relief. He could breathe the fresh air. He was looking forward to a long siesta.
But sleep would not come to Iqbal. There was no ventilation in the room. It had a musty earthy smell. A pile of clothes in the corner stank of stale clarified butter, and there were flies buzzing all round. Iqbal spread a handkerchief on his face. He could hardly breathe. With all that, just as he had managed to doze off, Meet Singh came in exclaiming philosophically:
‘Robbing a fellow villager is like stealing from one’s mother. Iqbal Singhji, this is Kalyug—the dark age. Have you ever heard of dacoits looting their neighbour’s homes? Now all morality has left the world.’
Iqbal removed the handkerchief from his face.
‘What has happened?’ repeated Meet Singh, feigning surprise. ‘Ask me what has not happened! The police sent for Jugga—Jugga is a badmash number ten [from the number of the police register in which names of bad characters are listed]. But Jugga had run away, absconded. Also, some of the loot—a bag of bangles—was found in his courtyard. So we know who did it. This is not the first murder he has committed—he has it in his blood. His father and grandfather were also dacoits and were hanged for murder. But they never robbed their own village folk. As a matter of fact, when they were at home, no dacoit dared come to Mano Majra. Juggut Singh has disgraced his family.’
Iqbal sat up rubbing his forehead. His countrymen’s code of morals had always puzzled him, with his anglicized way of looking at things. The Punjabi’s code was even more baffling. For them truth, honour, financial integrity were ‘all right’, but these were placed lower down the scale of values than being true to one’s salt, to one’s friends and fellow villagers. For friends you could lie in court or cheat, and no one would blame you. On the contrary, you became a nar admi—a he-man who had defied authority (magistrates and police) and religion (oath on the scripture) but proved true to friendship. It was the projection of rural society where everyone in the village was a relation and loyalty to the village was the supreme test. What bothered Meet Singh, a priest, was not that Jugga had committed murder but that his hands were soiled with the blood of a fellow villager. If Jugga had done the same thing in the neighbouring village, Meet Singh would gladly have appeared in his defence and sworn on the holy Granth that Jugga had been praying in the gurdwara at the time of the murder. Iqbal had wearied of talking to people like Meet Singh. They did not understand. He had come to the conclusion that he did not belong.
Meet Singh was disappointed that he had failed to arouse Iqbal’s interest.
Iqbal did not register appreciation of the valuable saying. Meet Singh explained: ‘Jugga had been going straight for some time. He ploughed his land and looked after his cattle. He never left the village, and reported himself to the lambardar every day. But how long can a snake keep straight? There is crime in his blood.’
‘There is no crime in anyone’s blood any more than there is goodness in the blood of others,’ answered Iqbal waking up. This was one of his pet theories. ‘Does anyone ever bother to find out why people steal and rob and kill? No! They put them in jail or hang them. It is easier. If the fear of the gallows or the cell had stopped people from killing or stealing, there would be no murdering or stealing. It does not. They hang a man every day in this province. Yet ten get murdered every twenty-four hours. No, Bhaiji, criminals are not born. They are made by hunger, want and injustice.’
Iqbal felt a little silly for coming out with these platitudes. He must check this habit of turning a conversation into a sermon. He returned to the subject.
‘Jugga cannot go very far. He can be recognized from a kos. He is an arm’s length taller than anyone else. The Deputy sahib has already sent orders to all police stations to keep a lookout for Jugga.’
‘You do not know the Deputy?’ Meet Singh was surprised. ‘It’s Hukum Chand. He is staying at the dak bungalow north of the bridge. Now Hukum Chand is a nar admi. He started as a foot-constable and see where he is now! He always kept the sahibs pleased and they gave him one promotion after another. The last one gave him his own place and made him Deputy. Yes, Iqbal Singhji, Hukum Chand is a nar admi—and clever. He is true to his friends and always gets things done for them. He has had dozens of relatives given good jobs. He is one of a hundred. Nothing counterfeit about Hukum Chand.’
There was a pause in the conversation. Iqbal slipped his feet into his sandals and stood up.
‘Go in any direction you like. It is all the same open country. Go to the river. You will see the trains coming and going. If you cross the railroad track you will see the dak bungalow. Don’t be too late. These are bad times and it is best to be indoors before dark. Besides, I have told the lambardar and Uncle Imam Baksh—he is mullah of the mosque—that you are here. They may be coming in to talk to you.’
Iqbal stepped out of the gurdwara. There was no sign of activity now. The police had apparently finished investigating. Half a dozen constables lay sprawled on charpais under the peepul tree. The door of Ram Lal’s house was open. Some villagers sat on the floor in the courtyard. A woman wailed in a singsong which ended up in convulsions of crying in which other women joined. It was hot and still. The sun blazed on the mud walls.
Iqbal walked in the shade of the wall of the gurdwara. Children had relieved themselves all along it. Men had used it as a urinal.A mangy bitch lay on her side with a litter of eight skinny pups yapping and tugging at her sagging udders.
The lane ended abruptly at the village pond—a small patch of muddy water full of buffaloes with their heads sticking out.
A footpath skirted the pond and went along a dry watercourse through the wheat fields towards the river. Iqbal went along the watercourse watching his steps carefully. He reached the riverside just as the express from Lahore came up on the bridge. He watched its progress through the criss-cross of steel. Like all the trains, it was full. From the roof, legs dangled down the sides onto the doors and windows. The doors and windows were jammed with heads and arms. There were people on buffers between the bogies. The two on the buffers on the tail end of the train were merrily kicking their legs and gesticulating. The train picked up speed after crossing the bridge. The engine driver started blowing the whistle and continued blowing till he had passed Mano Majra station. It was an expression of relief that they were out of Pakistan and into India.
Iqbal went up the riverbank towards the bridge. He was planning to go under it towards the dak bungalow when he noticed a Sikh soldier watching him from the sentry box at the end of the bridge. Iqbal changed his mind and walked boldly up to the rail embankment and turned towards Mano Majra station. The manoeuvre allayed the sentry’s suspicion. Iqbal went a hundred yards up and then casually sat down on the railway line.
The passing express had woken Mano Majra from its late siesta. Boys threw stones at the buffaloes in the pond and drove them home. Groups of women went out in the fields and scattered themselves behind the bushes. A bullock cart carrying Ram Lal’s corpse left the village and went towards the station. It was guarded by policemen. Several villagers went a little distance with it and then returned along with the relatives.
Iqbal stood up and looked all round. From the railway station to the roof of the rest house showing above the plumes of pampas, from the bridge to the village and back to the railway station, the whole place was littered with men, women, children, cattle, and dogs. There were kites wheeling high up in the sky, long lines of crows were flying from somewhere to somewhere, and millions of sparrows twittered about the trees. Where in India could one find a place which did not teem with life? Iqbal thought of his first reaction on reaching Bombay. Milling crowds—millions of them—on the quayside, in the streets, on railway platforms; even at night the pavements were full of people. The whole country was like an overcrowded room. What could you expect when the population went up by six every minute—five million every year! It made all planning in industry or agriculture a mockery. Why not spend the same amount of effort in checking the increase in population? But how could you, in the land of the Kama Sutra, the home of phallic worship and the son cult?
Iqbal was woken from his angry daydreaming by a shimmering sound along the steel wires which ran parallel to the railway lines. The signal above the sentry’s box near the bridge came down. Iqbal stood up and brushed his clothes. The sun had gone down beyond the river. The russet sky turned grey as shades of twilight spread across the plain. A new moon looking like a finely pared fingernail appeared beside the evening star. The muezzin’s call to prayer rose above the rumble of the approaching train.
Iqbal found his way back easily. All lanes met in the temple—mosque—moneylender’s house triangle with the peepul tree in the centre. Sounds of wailing still came from Ram Lal’s house. In the mosque, a dozen men stood in two rows silently going through their genuflections. In the gurdwara, Meet Singh, sitting beside the Book which was folded up in muslin on a cot, was reciting the evening prayer. Five or six men and women sat in a semicircle around a hurricane lantern and listened to him.
Iqbal went straight to his room and lay down on his charpai in the dark. He had barely shut his eyes when the worshippers began to chant. The chanting stopped for a couple of minutes, only to start again. The ceremony ended with shouts of ‘Sat Sri Akal’ and the beating of a drum. The men and women came out. Meet Singh held the lantern and helped them find their shoes. They started talking loudly. In the babel the only word Iqbal could make out was ‘babu’. Somebody who had noticed Iqbal come in, had told the others. There was some whispering and shuffling of feet and then silence.
Iqbal shut his eyes once more. A minute later Meet Singh stood on the threshold, holding the lantern.
‘Then you must have some milk. Banta Singh, the lambardar, is bringing you some. I will tell him to hurry up if you want to sleep early. I have another charpai for you on the roof. It is too hot to sleep in here.’ Meet Singh left the hurricane lantern in the room and disappeared in the dark.
The prospect of having to talk to the lambardar was not very exciting. Iqbal fished out his silver hip flask from underneath the pillow and took a long swig of whisky. He ate a few dry biscuits that were in the paper packet. He took his mattress and pillow to the roof where a charpai had been laid for him. Meet Singh apparently slept in the courtyard to guard the gurdwara.
Iqbal lay on his charpai and watched the stars in the teeming sky until he heard several voices entering the gurdwara and coming up the stairs. Then he got up to greet the visitors.
They shook hands. Meet Singh did not bother to introduce them. Iqbal pushed the air mattress aside to make room on the charpai for the visitors. He sat down on the floor himself.
‘Yes, Sahib, we are ashamed of ourselves. You are our guest and we have not rendered you any service. Drink the milk before it gets cold,’ added the other visitor. He was a tall lean man with a clipped beard.
The lambardar ignored Iqbal’s well-mannered protests. He removed his dirty handkerchief from a large brass tumbler and began to stir the milk with his forefinger. ‘It is fresh. I milked the buffalo only an hour back and got the wife to boil it. I know you educated people only drink boiled milk. There is quite a lot of sugar in it; it has settled at the bottom,’ he added with a final stir. To emphasize the quality of the milk, he picked up a slab of clotted cream on his forefinger and slapped it back in the milk.
‘No! No! No, thank you, no!’ protested Iqbal. He did not know how to get out of his predicament without offending the visitors. ‘I don’t ever drink milk. But if you insist, I will drink it later. I like it cold.’
The lambardar covered the tumbler with his handkerchief and put it under Iqbal’s charpai. There was a long pause. Iqbal had pleasant visions of pouring the milk with all its clotted cream down the drain.
Iqbal did not know how to answer simple questions like these. Independence meant little or nothing to these people. They did not even realize that it was a step forward and that all they needed to do was to take the next step and turn the make-believe political freedom into a real economic one.
‘They left because they had to. We had hundreds of thousands of young men trained to fight in the war. This time they had the arms too. Haven’t you heard of the mutiny of the Indian sailors? The soldiers would have done the same thing. The English were frightened. They did not shoot any of the Indians who joined the Indian National Army set up by the Japanese, because they thought the whole country would turn against them.’
Iqbal’s thesis did not cut much ice.
‘Yes,’ added Meet Singh, ‘my brother who is a havildar says all sepoys are happier with English officers than with Indian. My brother’s colonel’s memsahib still sends my niece things from London. You know, Lambardar Sahib, she even sent money at her wedding. What Indian officers’ wives will do that?’
Iqbal tried to take the offensive. ‘Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?’
After a long silence the lambardar answered: ‘Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more lands or more buffaloes?’
Iqbal was startled at the analysis.
‘What you say is absolutely right,’ he agreed warmly. ‘If you want freedom to mean something for you—the peasants and workers—you have to get together and fight. Get the bania Congress government out. Get rid of the princes and the landlords and freedom will mean for you just what you think it should. More land, more buffaloes, no debts.’
‘I am glad. That comrade did not believe in God. He said when his party came into power they would drain the sacred pool round the temple at Tarn Taran and plant rice in it. He said it would be more useful.’
‘If we have no faith in God then we are like animals,’ said the Muslim gravely. ‘All the world respects a religious man. Look at Gandhi! I hear he reads the Koran Sharif and the Unjeel along with his Vedas and Shastras. People sing his praise in the four corners of the earth. I have seen a picture in a newspaper of Gandhi’s prayer meeting. It showed a lot of white men and women sitting cross-legged. One white girl had her eyes shut. They said she was the Big Lord’s daughter. You see, Meet Singh, even the English respect a man of religion.’
Iqbal felt his temper rise. ‘They are a race of four-twenties,’ he said vehemently. [Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code defines the offence of cheating.] ‘Do not believe what they say.’
Once again he felt his venom had missed its mark. But the Big Lord’s daughter sitting cross-legged with her eyes shut for the benefit of press photographers, and the Big Lord himself—the handsome, Hindustani-speaking cousin of the King, who loved India like the missionaries—was always too much for Iqbal.
‘I have lived in their country many years. They are nice as human beings. Politically they are the world’s biggest four-twenties. They would not have spread their domain all over the world if they had been honest. That, however, is irrelevant,’ added Iqbal. It was time to change the subject. ‘What is important is: what is going to happen now?’
‘We know what is happening,’ the lambardar answered with some heat. ‘The winds of destruction are blowing across the land. All we hear is kill, kill. The only ones who enjoy freedom are thieves, robbers and cutthroats.’ Then he added calmly: ‘We were better off under the British. At least there was security.’
There was an uneasy silence. An engine was shunting up and down the railway line rearranging its load of goods wagons. The Muslim changed the subject.
They all got up. Iqbal shook hands with his visitors without showing any trace of anger. Meet Singh conducted the lambardar and the Muslim down to the courtyard. He then retired to his charpai there.
Iqbal lay down once more and gazed at the stars. The wail of the engine in the still vast plain made him feel lonely and depressed. What could he—one little man—do in this enormous impersonal land of four hundred million? Could he stop the killing? Obviously not. Everyone—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Congressite, Leaguer, Akali, or Communist—was deep in it. It was fatuous to suggest that the bourgeois revolution could be turned into a proletarian one. The stage had not arrived. The proletariat was indifferent to political freedom for Hindustan or Pakistan, except when it could be given an economic significance like grabbing land by killing an owner who was of a different religious denomination. All that could be done was to divert the kill-and-grab instinct from communal channels and turn it against the propertied class. That was the proletarian revolution the easy way. His party bosses would not see it.
Iqbal wished they had sent someone else to Mano Majra. He would be so much more useful directing policy and clearing the cobwebs from their minds. But he was not a leader. He lacked the qualifications. He had not fasted. He had never been in jail. He had made none of the necessary ‘sacrifices’. So, naturally, nobody would listen to him. He should have started his political career by finding an excuse to court imprisonment. But there was still time. He would do that as soon as he got back to Delhi. By then, the massacres would be over. It would be quite safe.
The goods train had left the station and was rumbling over the bridge. Iqbal fell asleep, dreaming of a peaceful life in jail.
Early next morning, Iqbal was arrested.
Meet Singh had gone out to the fields carrying his brass mug of water and chewing a keekar twig he used as a toothbrush. Iqbal had slept through the rumble of passing trains, the muezzin’s call, and the other village noises. Two constables came into the gurdwara, looking in his room, examined his celluloid cups and saucers, shining aluminum spoons, forks and knives, his thermos, and then came up onto the roof. They shook Iqbal rudely. He sat up rubbing his eyes, somewhat bewildered. Before he could size up the situation and formulate the curt replies he would like to have given, he had told the policemen his name and occupation. One of them filled in the blank spaces on a yellow piece of printed paper and held it in front of Iqbal’s blinking eyes.
The other slipped the ring at one end of a pair of handcuffs in his belt and unlocked the links to put round Iqbal’s wrists. The sight of the handcuffs brought Iqbal wide awake. He jumped out of bed and faced the policemen.
‘You have no right to arrest me like this,’ he shouted. ‘You made up the warrant in front of me. This is not going to end here. The days of police rule are over. If you dare put your hands on me, the world will hear about it. I will see that the papers tell the people how you chaps do your duty.’
The policemen were taken aback. The young man’s accent, the rubber pillows and mattress and all the other things they had seen in the room, and above all, his aggressive attitude, made them uneasy. They felt that perhaps they had made a mistake.
‘I will settle it with the whole lot of you—police and magistrates! Come and disturb people in sleep! You will regret this mistake.’ Iqbal waited for the policemen to say something so that he could go on with his tirade against law and order. But they had been subdued.
The policemen’s civil attitude deflated Iqbal’s anger. He collected his things and went down the stairs to his room. He went to the well, pulled up a bucket of water and began to wash. He was in no hurry.
Bhai Meet Singh came back vigorously brushing his teeth with the end of the keekar twig which he had chewed into a fibrous brush. The presence of policemen in the gurdwara did not surprise him. Whenever they came to the village and could not find accommodation at the lambardar’s house they came to the temple. He had been expecting them after the moneylender’s murder.
Meet Singh maintained a casual indifference. It was not up to him to argue with the police or be nosy about their business. Iqbal Singh was probably a ‘comrade’. He certainly talked like one.
‘Thank you very much,’ answered Iqbal through the tooth paste froth in his mouth. He spat it out. ‘The tea in the bottle must be cold by now. I would be grateful for a hot cup. And would you mind looking after my things while I am away? They are arresting me for something. They do not know themselves for what.’
Meet Singh pretended he had not heard. The policemen looked a little sheepish.
Iqbal ignored their protest by more brushing of his teeth. He washed his face and came back to the room rubbing himself with a towel. He let the air out of the mattress and the pillow and rolled them up. He emptied the holdall of its contents: books, clothes, torch, a large silver hip flask. He made a list of his things and put them back. When Meet Singh brought tea, Iqbal handed him the holdall.
The policemen looked away. Meet Singh was embarrassed.
Iqbal got out his celluloid teacup and spoon. The constables took brass tumblers from Meet Singh. They wrapped the loose ends of their turbans round the tumblers to protect their hands from the hot brass. To reassure themselves they sipped noisily. But Iqbal was in complete possession of the situation. He sat on the string cot while they sat on the threshold and Meet Singh on the floor outside. They did not dare to speak to him for fear of rudeness. The constable with the handcuffs had quietly taken them off his belt and thrust them in his pocket. They finished their tea and looked up uneasily. Iqbal sat sullenly staring over their heads with an intensity charged with importance. He glared vacantly into space, occasionally taking a spinsterish sip of his tea. When he had finished, he stood up abruptly.
Iqbal pounced on the opportunity. ‘Is this how you do your duty? If the rule is that I have to be handcuffed, then handcuffed I shall be. I am not afraid of being recognized. I am not a thief or a dacoit. I am a political worker. I will go through the village as I am so that people can see what the police do to people they do not like.’
This outburst was too much for one of the constables. He spoke sharply:
‘Babuji, we are being polite to you. We keep saying “ji”, “ji” to you all the time, but you want to sit on our heads. We have told you a hundred times we are doing our duty, but you insist on believing that we have a personal grudge.’ He turned to his colleague. ‘Put the handcuffs on the fellow. He can do what he likes with his face. If I had a face like his, I would want to hide it. We will report that he refused to cover it.’
Iqbal did not have a ready answer to the sarcasm. He had a Semitic consciousness of his hooked nose. Quite involuntarily he brushed it with the back of his hand. Reference to his physical appearance always put him off. The handcuffs were fastened round his wrists and chained onto the policeman’s belt.
The party marched out of the temple courtyard, leaving Meet Singh standing with the kettle of tea in his hand.
At the time the two constables were sent to arrest Iqbal, a posse of ten men was sent to arrest Juggut Singh. Policemen surrounded his house at all points. Constables armed with rifles were posted on neighbouring roofs and in the front and rear of the house. Then six others armed with revolvers rushed into the courtyard. Juggut Singh lay on his charpai, wrapped from head to foot in a dirty white sheet and snoring lustily. He had spent two nights and a day in the jungle without food or shelter. He had come home in the early hours of the morning when he believed everyone in the village would be asleep. The neighbours had been vigilant and the police were informed immediately. They waited till he had filled himself with food and was sound asleep. His mother had gone out, bolting the door from the outside.
Juggut Singh’s feet were put in fetters and handcuffs were fastened on his right wrist while he slept. Policemen put their revolvers in their holsters. Men with rifles joined them in the courtyard. They prodded Juggut Singh with the butt ends of their guns.
Jugga sat up wearily, blinking his eyes. He gazed at the handcuffs and the fetters with philosophic detachment, then stretched his arms wide and yawned loudly. Sleep came on him again and he began to nod.
Juggut Singh’s mother came in and saw her courtyard full of armed policemen. Her son sat on the charpai with his head resting on his manacled hands. His eyes were shut. She ran up to him and clasped him by the knees. She put her head in his lap and started to cry.
Juggut Singh woke up from his reverie. He pushed his mother back rudely.
She began to wail. ‘He did not do it. He did nothing. In the name of God, I swear he did nothing.’
‘He is a badmash under orders not to go out of the village after sunset. We have to arrest him for that in any case.’ He motioned to his men. ‘Search the rooms and the barn.’ The head constable had his doubts about Juggut Singh partaking in a dacoity in his own village. It was most unusual.
Four constables busied themselves looking around the house, emptying steel trunks and tin cans. The haystack was pulled down and the hay scattered in the yard. The spear was found without difficulty.
The old woman stopped moaning. She did have proof—the packet of broken bangles. She had not told Jugga about it. If she had, he would certainly have gone mad at the insult and been violent to someone. Now he was in fetters and handcuffs, he could only lose his temper.
The policemen watched the woman go in and bring out a packet from the bottom of her steel trunk. She unwrapped the brown paper. There were broken pieces of blue and red glass bangles with tiny gold spots. Two of them were intact. The head constable took them.
‘The dacoits threw them in the courtyard after the murder. They wanted to insult Jugga for not coming with them. Look!’ She held out her hands. ‘I am too old to wear glass bangles and they are too small for my wrists.’
Jugga lost his temper. He raised his manacled fists and brought them heavily down on the head constable’s palms. ‘What seducer of his mother can throw bangles at me? What …’
The constables closed round Juggut Singh and started slapping him and kicking him with their thick boots. Jugga sat down on his haunches, covering his head with his arms. His mother began to beat her forehead and started crying again. She broke into the cordon of policemen and threw herself on her son.
The beating stopped. The head constable picked pieces of glass out of his palm, pressed out blood, and wiped it with his handkerchief.
‘You keep the evidence of your son’s innocence,’ he said bitterly. ‘We will get the story out of this son of a bitch of yours in our own way. When he gets a few lashes on his buttocks, he will talk. Take him out.’
Juggut Singh was led out of the house in handcuffs and fetters. He left without showing a trace of emotion for his mother, who continued to wail and beat her forehead and breasts. His parting words were:
Jugga recovered his temper as quickly as he had lost it. He forgot the incident of the bangles and the beating as soon as he stepped across his threshold. He had no malice or ill will towards the policemen: they were not human like other human beings. They had no affections, no loyalties or enmities. They were just men in uniform you tried to avoid.
There was not much point in Juggut Singh covering his face. The whole village knew him. He went past the villagers, smiling and raising his manacled hands in a greeting to everyone. The fetters around his feet forced him to walk slowly with his legs apart. He had a devil-may-care jauntiness in his step. He showed his unconcern by twirling his thin brown moustache and cracking obscene jokes with the policemen.
Iqbal and the two constables joined Juggut Singh’s party by the river. They all proceeded upstream towards the bridge. The head constable walked in front. Armed policemen marched on the sides and at the rear of the prisoners. Iqbal was lost in the khaki and red of their uniforms. Juggut Singh’s head and shoulders showed above the turbans of the policemen. It was like a procession of horses with an elephant in their midst—taller, broader, slower, with his chains clanking like ceremonial trappings.
No one seemed to be in the mood to talk. The policemen were uneasy. They knew that they had made a mistake, or rather, two mistakes. Arresting the social worker was a blunder and a likely source of trouble. His belligerent attitude confirmed his innocence. Some sort of case would have to be made up against him. That was always a tricky thing to do to educated people. Juggut Singh was too obvious a victim to be the correct one. He had undoubtedly broken the law in leaving the village at night, but he was not likely to have joined in a dacoity in his own village. He would be too easily recognized by his enormous size. Also, it was quite clear that these two had met for the first time.
Iqbal’s pride had been injured. Up to the time he met Juggut Singh, he was under the impression that he had been arrested for his politics. He had insisted on being handcuffed so that the villagers could see with what dignity he bore himself. They would be angered at such an outrage to civil liberties. But the men had gaped stupidly and the women peered through their veils and asked each other in whispers, ‘Who is this?’ When he joined the group that escorted Juggut Singh, the point of the policeman’s advice, ‘Cover your face, otherwise you may be recognized at the identification parade,’ came home to him. He was under arrest in connection with the murder of Ram Lal. It was so stupid he could hardly believe it. Everyone knew that he had come to Mano Majra after the murder. On the same train as the policemen, in fact. They could be witness of his alibi. The situation was too ludicrous for words. But Punjabi policemen were not the sort who admitted making mistakes. They would trump up some sort of charge: vagrancy, obstructing officers in doing their duty, or some such thing. He would fight them tooth and nail.
The only one in the party who did not seem to mind was Juggut Singh. He had been arrested before. He had spent quite as much time in jail as at home. His association with the police was an inheritance. Register number ten at the police station, which gave the record of the activities of the bad characters of the locality, had carried his father Alam Singh’s name while he lived. Alam Singh had been convicted of dacoity with murder, and hanged. Juggut Singh’s mother had to mortgage all their land to pay lawyers. Juggut Singh had to find money to redeem the land, and he had done that within the year. No one could prove how he had raised the money, but at the end of the year the police had taken him. His name was entered in register number ten and he was officially declared a man of bad character. Behind his back everyone referred to him as a ‘number ten’.
Juggut Singh looked at the prisoner beside him several times. He wanted to start a conversation. Iqbal had his eyes fixed in front of him and walked with the camera-consciousness of an actor facing the lens. Juggut Singh lost patience.
Iqbal looked up, but did not return the smile.
Juggut Singh became polite. He gave up the tone of familiarity. ‘I hear we have our own rule now,’ he said. ‘It is Mahatma Gandhi’s government in Delhi, isn’t it? They say so in our village.’
‘Yes, the Englishmen have gone but the rich Indians have taken their place. What have you or your fellow villagers got out of Independence? More bread or more clothes? You are in the same handcuffs and fetters which the English put on you. We have to get together and rise. We have nothing to lose but these chains.’ Iqbal emphasized the last sentence by raising his hands up to his face and jerking them as if the movement would break the handcuffs.
The policemen looked at each other.
Juggut Singh looked down at the fetters round his ankles and the iron bars which linked them to the handcuffs.
‘But,’ interrupted Iqbal angrily, ‘what makes you a badmash? The government! It makes regulations and keeps registers, policemen and jailers to enforce them. For anyone they do not like, they have a rule which makes him a bad character and a criminal. What have I…’
‘No, Babu Sahib,’ broke in Juggut Singh good-humouredly, ‘it is our fate. It is written on our foreheads and on the lines of our hands. I am always wanting to do something. When there is ploughing to be done or the harvest to be gathered, then I am busy. When there is no work, my hands still itch to do something. So I do something, and it is always wrong.’
The party passed under the bridge and approached the rest house. Juggut Singh’s complacency had put Iqbal off. He did not want to waste his breath arguing with a village bad character. He wanted to save his words for the magistrate. He would let him have it in English—the accent would make him squirm.
When the police brought in the prisoners the subinspector ordered them to be taken to the servants’ quarters. The magistrate was in his room dressing. The head constable left the prisoners with his men and came back to the bungalow.
The answer irritated the subinspector. ‘I do not suppose you have any brains of your own! I leave a little job to you and you go and make a fool of yourself. You should have seen him before arresting him. Isn’t he the same man who got off the train with us yesterday?’
‘The train?’ queried the head constable, feigning ignorance. ‘I did not see him on the train, cherisher of the poor. I only carried out your orders and arrested the stranger loitering about the village under suspicious circumstances.’
The subinspector’s temper shot up.
The head constable avoided his officer’s gaze.
The head constable started looking at his feet. The subinspector let his temper cool. He had to face Hukum Chand, who relied on him and did not expect to be let down. After some thought, the subinspector peered through the wire-gauze door.
The subinspector went in, and saluted.
‘Well, what have you been doing?’ asked the magistrate. He was rubbing cream on his freshly shaven chin. In a tumbler on the dressing table a flat white tablet danced about the bottom, sending up a stream of bubbles.
‘Sir, we have made two arrests this morning. One is Jugga badmash. He was out of his house on the night of the dacoity. We are bound to get some information out of him. The other is the stranger whose presence had been reported by the headman and you ordered him to be arrested.’
Hukum Chand stopped rubbing his chin. He detected the attempt to pass off the second arrest onto him.
The inspector shouted to the head constable outside.
‘I will just find out, sir.’ The head constable ran across to the servants’ quarters before the magistrate could let fly at him. Hukum Chand felt his temper rising. He took a sip out of his glass. The subinspector shuffled uneasily. The head constable came back a few minutes later and coughed to announce his return.
The magistrate turned to the door angrily.
Hukum Chand was in a rage. He gulped down the fizzing water in the tumbler and mopped his head with the shaving towel. A belch relieved him of his mounting wrath.
‘Nice fellows, you and your policemen! You go and arrest people without finding out their names, parentage or caste. You make me sign blank warrants of arrest. Some day you will arrest the Governor and say Hukum Chand ordered you to do so. You will have me dismissed.’
‘Well, then, go and find out, and do not just stand and stare,’ barked Hukum Chand. He was not in the habit of losing his temper or of being rude. After the subinspector had left, he examined his tongue in the mirror and put another tablet of seltzer in the tumbler.
The subinspector went out and stopped on the veranda to take a few deep breaths. The magistrate’s wrath decided his attitude. He would have to take a strong line and finish the shilly-shallying. He went to the servants’ quarters. Iqbal and his escort stood apart from Juggut Singh’s crowd. The young man had a look of injured dignity. The subinspector thought it best not to speak to him.
Iqbal’s planned speech remained undelivered. The constable almost dragged him by the handcuffs into a room. His resistance had gone. He took off his shirt and handed it to the policeman. The subinspector came in and without bothering to examine the shirt ordered:
Iqbal felt humiliated. There was no fight left in him. ‘There are no pockets to the pyjamas. I cannot hide anything in them.’
Iqbal loosened the knot in the cord. The pyjamas fell in a heap around his ankles. He was naked save for the handcuffs on his wrists. He stepped out of the pyjamas to let the policemen examine them.
The subinspector looked at Iqbal with a sinister smile. ‘The People’s Party of India,’ he repeated slowly, pronouncing each word distinctly. ‘You are sure it was not the Muslim League?’
Iqbal did not catch the significance of the question.
The subinspector walked out of the room before Iqbal had finished his sentence. He ordered the constables to take the prisoners to the police station. He went back to the rest house to report his discovery to the magistrate. There was an obsequious smile on his face.
‘Cherisher of the poor, it is all right. He says he has been sent by the People’s Party. But I am sure he is a Muslim Leaguer. They are much the same. We would have had to arrest him in any case if he was up to mischief so near the border. We can charge him with something or other later.’
The subinspector smiled confidently. ‘I had him stripped.’
Hukum Chand shook his glass to churn the dregs of chalk at the bottom, and slowly drank up the remaining portion of the seltzer. He looked thoughtfully into the empty tumbler and added:
The subinspector saluted dramatically.
‘Wait, wait. Do not leave things half done. Enter in your police diary words to the effect that Ram Lal’s murderers have not yet been traced but that information about them is expected soon. Didn’t you say Jugga has something to do with it?’
The subinspector smiled. ‘I will get the names of the dacoits out of him in twenty-four hours and without any beating.’
‘Yes, yes, get them in any way you like,’ answered Hukum Chand impatiently. ‘Also, enter today’s two arrests on separate pages of the police station diary with other items in between. Do not let there be any more bungling.’
The subinspector saluted again.
Iqbal and Jugga were taken to Chundunnugger police station in a tonga. Iqbal was given the place of honour in the middle of the front seat. The driver perched himself on the wooden shaft alongside the horse’s flank, leaving his seat empty. Juggut Singh sat on the rear seat between two policemen. It was a long and dusty drive on an unmetalled road which ran parallel to the railway track. The only person at ease was Jugga. He knew the policemen and they knew him. Nor was the situation unfamiliar to him.
‘No, not one,’ answered one of the constables. ‘We do not arrest rioters. We only disperse them. And there is no time to deal with other crimes. Yours are the first arrests we have made in the last seven days. Both cells are vacant. You can have one all to yourself.’
Iqbal did not answer. Jugga felt slightly snubbed, and tried to change the subject quickly.
‘We do not know whether they have joined up on the other side—they kept protesting that they did not want to go at all. On the day of Independence, the Superintendent sahib disarmed all Muslim policemen and they fled. Their intentions were evil. Muslims are like that. You can never trust them.’
‘Yes,’ added another policeman, ‘it was the Muslim police taking sides which made the difference in the riots. Hindu boys of Lahore would have given the Muslims hell if it had not been for their police. They did a lot of zulum.’
Iqbal said nothing.
Every rupee is worth sixteen annas, thought Iqbal. He refused to take interest. Jugga went on.
‘The Bhai told me of a truckful of Baluch soldiers who were going from Amritsar to Lahore. When they were getting near the Pakistan border, the soldiers began to stick bayonets into Sikhs going along the road. The driver would slow down near a cyclist or a pedestrian, the soldiers on the footboard would stab him in the back and then the driver would accelerate away fast. They killed many people like this and were feeling happier and happier as they got nearer Pakistan. They were within a mile of the border and were travelling at great speed. What do you think happened then?’
‘Listen, Babuji, this is worth listening to. A pariah dog ran across the road. The very same driver of the truck who had been responsible for killing so many people swerved sharply to the right to avoid the dog, a mangy pariah dog. He crashed into a tree. The driver and two of the soldiers were killed. All the others seriously wounded. What do you say to that?’
Policemen murmured approval. Iqbal felt irritated.
Bhola stopped beating the horse. The expression on his face was resentful: it was his horse and he could do what he liked to it.
‘And lose my life for money?’ asked Bhola angrily. ‘No, thank you, brother, you keep your advice to yourself. When the mobs attack they do not wait to find out who you are, Hindu or Muslim; they kill. The other day four Sikh Sardars in a jeep drove alongside a mile-long column of Muslim refugees walking on the road. Without warning they opened fire with their sten guns. Four sten guns! God alone knows how many they killed. What would happen if a mob got hold of my tonga full of Muslims? They would kill me first and ask afterwards.’
There was an awkward pause. No one knew what to say to this sour-tempered babu. Jugga asked naively: ‘Babuji, don’t you believe that bad acts yield a bitter harvest? It is the law of karma. So the bhai is always saying. The Guru has also said the same in the Book.’
Jugga was taken aback. His temper began to rise. The policemen, who had started to snigger, looked nervously at Juggut Singh. Bhola regretted his mistake.
‘If these handcuffs and fetters had not been on me, I would have broken every bone in your body,’ said Jugga fiercely. ‘You are lucky to have escaped today, but if I hear you repeat this thing again I will tear your tongue out of your mouth.’ Jugga spat loudly.
Bhola was thoroughly frightened. ‘Do not lose your temper. What have I…’
That was the end of the conversations. The uneasy silence in the tonga was broken only by Bhola swearing at his horse. Jugga was lost in angry thoughts. He was surprised that his clandestine meetings were public knowledge. Somebody had probably seen him and Nooran talking to each other. That must have started the gossip. If a tonga driver from Chundunnugger knew, everyone in Mano Majra would have been talking about if for some time. The last to learn of gossip are the parties concerned. Perhaps Imam Baksh and his daughter Nooran were the only ones in the village who knew nothing of what was being said.
The party reached Chundunnugger after noon. The tonga came to a halt outside the police station, which was a couple of furlongs distant from the town. The prisoners were escorted through an arched gateway which had WELCOME painted on it in large letters. They were first taken to the reporting room. The head constable opened a large register and made the entries of the day’s events on separate pages. Just above the table was an old framed picture of King George VI with a placard stating in Urdu, BRIBERY IS A CRIME. On another wall was pasted a coloured portrait of Gandhi torn from a calendar. Beneath it was a motto written in English, HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. Other portraits in the room were those of absconders, bad characters, and missing persons.
After the daily diary entries had been made, the prisoners were taken across the courtyard to their cells. There were only two cells in the police station. These were on one side of the courtyard facing the policemen’s barracks. The wall of the farther end of the square was covered by a railway creeper.
Jugga’s arrival was the subject of much hilarity.
With Iqbal it was different. His handcuffs were removed with apologies. A chair, a table, and a charpai were put in his cell. The head constable collected all the daily newspapers and magazines, English and Urdu, that he could find and left them in the cell. Iqbal’s food was served on a brass plate and a small pitcher and a glass tumbler were put on the table beside his charpai. Jugga was given no furniture in his cell. His food was literally flung at him and he ate his chapattis out of his hand. A constable poured water onto his cupped palm through the iron bars. Jugga’s bed was the hard cement floor.
The difference in treatment did not surprise Iqbal. In a country which had accepted caste distinctions for many centuries, inequality had become an inborn mental concept. If caste was abolished by legislation, it came up in other forms of class distinction. In thoroughly westernized circles like that of the civil servants in the government secretariat in Delhi, places for parking cars were marked according to seniority, and certain entrances to offices were reserved for higher officials. Lavatories were graded according to rank and labelled SENIOR OFFICERS, JUNIOR OFFICERS, CLERKS AND STENOGRAPHERS and OTHER RANKS. With a mental make-up so thoroughly sectionalized, grading according to their social status people who were charged or convicted of the same offence did not appear incongruous. Iqbal was A-class. Jugga was the rock-bottom C.
After his midday meal, Iqbal lay down on the charpai. He heard snoring from Jugga’s cell. But he himself was far too disturbed to sleep. His mind was like the delicate spring of a watch, which quivers for several hours after it has been touched. He sat up and began to turn over the pile of newspapers the head constable had left him. They were all alike: the same news, the same statements, the same editorials. Except for the wording of the headlines, they might all have been written by the same hand. Even the photographs were the same. In disgust, he turned to the matrimonial ads. There was sometimes entertainment there. But the youth of the Punjab were as alike as the news. The qualities they required in a wife were identical. All wanted virgins. A few, more broad-minded than the rest, were willing to consider widows, but only if they had not been deflowered. All demanded women who were good at h. h. a., or household affairs. To the advanced and charitable, c. & d. [caste and dowry] were no bar. Not many asked for photographs of their prospective wives. Beauty, they recognized, was only skin-deep. Most wanted to ‘correspond with horoscopes’. Astronomical harmony was the one guarantee of happiness. Iqbal threw the papers away, and rummaged through the magazines. If anything, they were worse than the newspapers. There was the inevitable article on the Ajanta cave frescoes. There was the article on Indian ballet. There was the article on Tagore. There was the article on the stories of Prem Chand. There were the articles on the private lives of film stars. Iqbal gave up, and lay down again. He felt depressed about everything. It occurred to him that he had hardly slept for three days. He wondered if this would be considered a ‘sacrifice’. It was possible. He must find some way of sending word to the party. Then, perhaps … He fell asleep with visions of banner headlines announcing his arrest, his release, his triumphant emergence as a leader. In the evening a policeman came to Iqbal’s cell, carrying another chair.
Iqbal did not answer. The policeman studied the position of the chair for a moment. Then he withdrew. There was a sound of voices in the corridor, and the subinspector appeared.
Iqbal nodded. ‘What can I do for you, Inspector Sahib?’
‘We are your slaves, Mr Iqbal. You should command us and we will serve you,’ the subinspector answered with a smile. He was proud of his ability to change his tone and manner as the circumstances required. That was diplomacy.
‘I did not know you were so kind to people you arrested for murder. It is on a charge of murder that you have brought me here, isn’t it? I do not suppose your policemen told you I came to Mano Majra yesterday on the same train as they did.’
‘We have framed no charge. That is for the court. We are only detaining you on suspicion. We cannot allow political agitators in the border areas.’ The subinspector continued to smile. ‘Why don’t you go and do your propaganda in Pakistan where you belong?’
Iqbal was stung to fury, but he tried to suppress any sign of his anger.
The Inspector spoke back sourly.
‘You should use your tongue with some discrimination, Mr Iqbal. I am not in your father’s pay to have to put up with your “bloodys”. Your name is Iqbal and you are circumcised. I have examined you myself. Also, you cannot give any explanation for your presence in Mano Majra. That is enough.’
‘It will not be enough when it comes up in court, and in the newspapers. I am not a Muslim—not that that matters—and what I came to Mano Majra for is none of your business. If you do not release me within twenty-four hours I will move a habeas corpus petition and tell the court the way you go about your duties.’
The subinspector left the cell abruptly, and locked the steel bar gate. He opened the adjoining one behind which Jugga was locked.
The subinspector did not acknowledge the greeting.
Jugga remained seated on the floor. The subinspector stood leaning against the wall.
Jugga looked down at the floor. ‘I had gone to my fields. It was my turn of water.’
The subinspector knew he was lying. ‘I can check up the turn of water with the canal man. Did you inform the lambardar that you were going out of the village?’
Jugga only shuffled his feet and kept on looking at the floor.
Jugga continued to shuffle his feet. After a long pause he said again, ‘I had nothing to do with the dacoity. I am innocent.’
Jugga did not reply.
Jugga winced. He knew what the subinspector meant. He had been through it—once. Hands and feet pinned under legs of charpais with half a dozen policemen sitting on them. Testicles twisted and squeezed till one became senseless with pain. Powdered red chillies thrust up the rectum by rough hands, and the sensation of having the tail on fire for several days. All this, and no food or water, or hot spicy food with a bowl of shimmering cool water put outside the cell just beyond one’s reach. The memory shook him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘For God’s sake, no.’ He flung himself on the floor and clasped the subinspector’s shoes with both his hands. ‘Please, O king of pearls.’ He was ashamed of himself, but he knew he could never endure such torture again. ‘I am innocent. By the name of the Guru, I had nothing to do with the dacoity.’
Seeing six foot four of muscle cringing at his feet gave the subinspector a feeling of elation. He had never known anyone to hold out against physical pain, not one. The pattern of torture had to be carefully chosen. Some succumbed to hunger, others—of the Iqbal type—to the inconvenience of having to defecate in front of the policemen. Some to flies sitting on their faces smeared with treacle, with their hands tied behind them. Some to lack of sleep. In the end they all gave in.
The subinspector freed his feet from Jugga’s hands and walked out. His visits had been a failure. He would have to change his tactics. It was frustrating to deal with two people so utterly different.