(First published in Daily Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, in its Sunday Magazine edition, on 10 August 1997. Later published in Sampark: Journal of Global Understanding, Pakistan: an age of violence, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2004, New Delhi)
14 August 1996: It’s quiet outside. No traffic. But something is amiss. On this 49th anniversary of Pakistan. What is that? I try to figure out. Oh, yes. Now I remember. It`s the sound of cannon-fire. Twenty-one salutary shots to be exact, in the morning. Yes, I didn’t hear cannon-fire this morning. We are too far away from the Naval post in Manora Island. Is it 25 km or 30 km from Gulistan-e-Jauher?
I recall the morning of the Independence Day just a year after the 1965 war with India, when I was 13; I had woken up with a start at the sound of the cannon-fire and thought another war had begun. ‘Do you hear this sound?’ In panic, I had rushed to my parents’ bedroom. ‘Go back to sleep. They are celebrating Independence Day’, my father had told me. But somehow, for many years, that salutary cannon-fire kept disturbing me annually. Why can’t they fill the air with chimes, or some kind of music, instead of this thunderous, terrifying, terrible sound?
Good. No cannon-fire this year. It would have startled Nudrat, my daughter. I realise she hasn’t heard it in all her four years. Good that we moved away from the city centre. And so, 14 August has begun with no cannon-fire, a pain in my nose (I had a minor nose surgery yesterday), and Zeeshan in our house. Zeeshan is a poet. He has a gentle soul. And deep-set eyes with a dreamy mist. He is a quiet person by nature. Retrospective. When he is at our place, he reads, or writes poems, or plays with Nudrat. He can play with Nudrat for hours. They tell stories to each other, play with blocks, toy train, bears, dolls, and they draw, write numbers, alphabets. They fight. Sometimes when Zeeshan wants to leave the child circle, and enter into the adult world, Nudrat whines ‘play with me, play with me’ and clings on to him. But today Nudrat is sitting on the floor and drawing funny, cute little shapes by herself. ‘No… This is a cat. And this a rabbit. Look. Look…’
And Zeeshan is sitting on the dining table and scribbling. Scribbling fast. ‘I have written a poem for Nudrat..’, he announces as he finishes writing and puts down Nudrat’s thick charcoal pencil. `What?’ I rush towards him, bend down on the piece of paper lying in front of him on the table. And read the poem, pick it up and read it again. It’s beautiful. It’s the second poem he has written for Nudrat. With the piece of paper clutched in my hand, I rush to Ajmal. He is in the study. Taking a print-out from the Laser. He reads it. ‘It’s my first poem after months of blockade’. Zeeshan smiles. And his eyes shines.
I remember his torrential stream of poems last year on Karachi’s carnage, capturing Karachi’s brutal moments, people’s despair, and hopes and dreams, and the absurdity of it all. The year 1995. When 2000 people were killed. He just couldn’t stop writing. For two months on, day and night. He was under a spell. And when he finished, we all were astir. His poems were read out in the Friday gatherings of our friends. Ajmal set down to compose them on the computer, with Zeeshan sitting next to him, proof-reading as the lines of his poems appear on the screen. ‘We should have some illustrations too.’ And so we asked artist-journalist Nafisa to illustrate his poems. And the book of poems on Karachi, his third collection, was published within two months. It was such an event for us. Really. But was it for Karachi? The city of madness, the city of chaos.
It has been a year. The killings have subsided. It’s still quiet at noon. And sunny. The morning clouds have floated away towards the eastern horizon. Reminding me of the blue of the skies and the calm and the provincial ambience of the place when we had first moved to this flat on the main thoroughfare on Gulistan-e-Jauher, a newly-built neighbourhood in the northern outskirts of Karachi. What had enchanted me the most was the sound of the old Indian film songs that wafted in and out of the half-filled mini-buses as they stopped every twenty minutes or so in front of the building. With 2-month old Nudrat asleep in the crib in her room, I would lower the book I’d been reading, in the sunny verandah, close my eyes for the moment, and savour the melodious love songs that I had loved so much as an adolescent, as a young woman. Those songs, emanating from the other side of the border, capturing the hearts, stirring the dreams, obliterating the boundaries…
‘Bhaiyya was born on the night of 14 August 1947. One of the midnight children he was…’, Zeeshan murmurs sadly. It has been eight weeks since his eldest brother died from heart failure. An unexpected, untimely death at 49. We had wondered how would Zeeshan take it, death of an affectionate brother, a father-figure. Zeeshan was calm on his death, and on the days of mourning afterwards, compared to his baji, his eldest sister — in her early 50s — whose eyes turned red and puffy with streams of silent tears, and his second eldest brother — in his late 30s — who was visibly shaken. Zeeshan’s composure and his silent mourning had worried us for days.
At dusk comes Nadeem. A young lad of 24, he works part time for us, composing stuff on the computer for the magazine we bring out. His face is flushed. `There has been firing on a rally. Many people have been killed’, he breaks the news. We are startled, but not shocked. It can happen any time, any day, we know that. For so many consecutive years we have lived with this feeling that we might get shot and drop dead, any time, any day, anywhere in Karachi. And this feeling has sort of formed a thick crust on our souls, benumbed us, in a sense. And so we say: we take things in stride.
Ajmal switches on the transistor radio and listens to BBC. Yes, Nadeem is right. Eleven people have died from firing on a celebration rally. Ten people have been injured. BBC newscaster proceeds on to other events in the subcontinent: ‘A candle light peace vigil, to promote amity and harmony between the peoples of the two countries, is going to take place tonight by a group of Indian writers, journalists, intellectuals, at India-Pakistan border. A counter vigil was expected from Pakistan side. However, Pakistani group has not been able to hold a similar rally on the other side of the border.’ The Lahore deputy commissioner has expressed his inability for such a rally on the ground that it went beyond his jurisdiction. `We were notified a bit late about this event by our Indian counterparts,’ I. A. Rehman, intellectual-journalist-human rights activist from Lahore is on air, `…so we could not get the permission on time…’ I close my eyes. Flickering candles, on both sides, along the long stretch of the India-Pakistan border, tearing the black curtain of the silent night of 14-15 August, closing the chasm, for a flicker, that has opened up since 1947, between the peoples of the two countries. I love the sight. And the symbol. We live by symbols, don’t we? And which one is better? Cannon-fire or candle light? May be next year I too would hold a candle in my hand and stand by the barbed wire fence, gazing beyond the no-mans-land, with my eyes moist at the sight of flickering candles on the other side of the border.
August 15: Today is a working day. In Pakistan. In India, it’s the Independence Day. Ajmal has gone to office. Nudrat’s school is closed. So I have packed her off to my mother’s place which is full of children — 2 or 3, or 5 or more, depending on whether one of my sister or the other, or both, plus a sister-in-law, are visiting her on a holiday. Zeeshan is busy in his work. He is doing some translation. I lounge around, reading, resting, doing household chores in bits and pieces. Taking it easy. No office today for me.
‘I wish you’d met my mother,’ Zeeshan says. `Your mother?’ I repeat and look up at him, waiting to hear more, trying to remember if he’d ever told me anything about his mother. No, not really. I have heard about his father. From him. From Ajmal. From others. But not about his mother. What would I have talked to her had I met her? About Zeeshan. About his childhood. What went wrong. And why. And how did she cope with his illness, and the deformity, which has left a permanent scar on his soul. I would have asked her how she managed to give to him so much inner strength, such infallible faith in life, cascades of pearl-like poems, infinite dreams of love and of hope.
‘She lived mostly in Hyderabad. She hardly visited Karachi after you two got married. And she died while you two were visiting Iran. So you never had a chance to see her,’ Zeeshan tells me between the bites he takes of the food that I have laid on the table for the two of us. ‘My father lived two lives. One before partition and one after,’ he starts again. I am stirred. Two lives? Don’t people use this phrase to connote some devastating accident, which somehow changes the course of one’s life? Zeeshan’s face is as calm and serene as ever. He is silent. I wait for him to resume. `The people who knew him in India, before Partition, could not believe the life he lived here in Pakistan’. He is silent again. ‘Was your father teaching before Partition?’ I ask him. `No. He was in the Police, posted in Dehra Doon. It was his 19th year in the Police service, in 1947. The riots had begun. One of his colleagues abducted a Pathan woman. My father reported the incident. He was stripped off his belt,’, sentences come out from his mouth one by one, steadily, without any jerk. And he goes again into a reverie. `You mean that man was stripped off his rank and service?’ I am confused. `No. My father was. His colleague was a high-ranking official. No action was taken against him. But my father persisted. He got the woman out of Dehra Doon and brought her to her family in Noshehra, Pakistan.’
I listen to him as my mind tries to put the pieces together: August 1947. Communal riots in India. A Muslim police officer discloses involvement of a Sikh police officer in an abduction case, and possibly rape, of a Muslim woman. The Muslim officer is hounded out, stripped of his 19-year long service and told to chuck off, or else. But he stays. Risking his life. Gets the woman out and crosses the border along with her, heads toward the mountains where her family lives and hands her over to her parents.
The official estimate of the number of abducted women in the communal riots of August 1947 was placed at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan within a short span of four weeks. Between December 1947 and July 1948, the number of women recovered was 9,362 in India and 5,510 in Pakistan.
‘My father married her and lived with her in Noshehra’, he picks up the thread again. ‘And your mother?’ I mumble. ‘She was in India. She came to Pakistan in 1954 — six years after my father arrived on this side of the border — with my elder brother and sister’, he says nonchalantly. Zeeshan and his other brother Abid were born later when his father decided to reunite with his first wife. ‘Did he have any children from the second wife?’ I ask him. No,’ Zeeshan says emphatically. August 1947.
Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Its mere mention touches your inner cord. Of the people who went through it. And of the people of my generation. Though I was born after the Partition, in the 1950s, my earliest memories are the shared memories of my mother and my grandmother, about their homeland, India, which came to me in an endless string of happy tales of the land and the people, of village Ghatumpur, where my maternal grandparents lived, and of Kanpur, where my mother came to live with my father’s clan, after her marriage at 13, and of the numerous blood relatives who chose to remain where they were. The traumatic tales of the Partition I learned through fiction. As an adolescent, I had devoured the Urdu short stories and so many of them had vivid glimpses of those events, that mass frenzy that finds no match in the recorded history of mankind. About eight million people crossed the newly-created boundaries of Punjab and Bengal. Eight million people. And how many were killed, abducted, violated maimed, in the process? One million: official estimate. And how many relationships were marred in unknown, incomprehensible, subtle ways?
‘I came to know about my father’s second marriage in 1979. I was eighteen then. And I was shocked’, he says. ‘But not really’, he corrects himself. ‘Second marriage was not unusual in our family. My uncle had two wives and my aunt–my father`s sister– was betrothed to a man whose first wife was infertile’.
His father never filed a claim, either for his service in India or his property there, tells Zeeshan. He had lost his worldly concerns. He wrote scripts for Radio Pakistan for some time to make a living. And with the advent of Ayub Khan`s Basic Democracies, he was made in-charge of Jamhoria Library in Hyderabad Sindh that he nurtured with love till he died at the age of 70 in 1981. Amongst books, he made peace with life. ‘He taught me to value people and books’. Zeeshan keeps talking about his father, softly, as if singing to himself, and his father`s image, tall and well-built, in white kurta and pyjama, astride a bicycle, peddling daily from home to the library and back, floats in my mind. ‘He never told us anything about what happened in 1947 that changed his life. It was a closed chapter for him. Had he not received that letter from his friend in Noshehra unexpectedly, in 1979, perhaps we would have never come to know about it’.
Zeeshan’s father regularly arranged literary sittings in the library and those sittings and discussions were chronicled in the newspaper. Once this brief report in a daily newspaper was read by his friend up north ‘so he found out my father’s whereabouts and wrote him a letter’.
‘I often wonder what came over him after he read the letter. He told my mother and all of us about the Pathan woman in Noshehra whom he recovered and wedded and lived with. He asked my mother to take me and my younger brother to his friend in Noshehra, ‘who would take you to her house’. He himself had given up travelling long ago: had become totally, peacefully, sedentary. So, off we went. Up north to his friend and visited our step-mother`s house. She had died a few years earlier’. Zeeshan is silent. He goes back to his work. I clean the table.
In the evening, my aunt and cousins visit us, along with a cousin who lives in India. Jamil is grandmother’s sister’s son. My grandmother. Who died on 28 June 1996 and who remembered Jamil till her last breath. Though her two daughters and a son, her grandchildren and great-grand children, her adopted daughter with her brood, her adopted son’s widow, and numerous close and distant relatives were all present by her bed side, she longed to see Jamil, her darling sister’s son, the sister she had left behind, in 1947, on the other side of the barbed wire, beyond the no-man’s-land, once her homeland. Sounds strange. Her longing to see her sister’s image in her son. But such is the complexity, the depth and the mystery of kinship ties, in my side of the world, circa 1996. Difficult to fathom. Impossible to capture its essence in words.
And so, there was my grandmother, 91, amazingly agile, active and strong, till cancer crept into her slim body, settled in her gullet, weakened her bones and put her to sleep. I look at Jamil, who could not reach the death-bed of her loving aunt. He did not get the visa to travel to Pakistan on time. ‘I had applied in April this year, along with the documentary proof, that my aunt is dying, but… He recounts softly the all-too-familiar tale, oft repeated by the members of the divided families living on the two sides of the border. How much clichéd it sounds, I wonder, ‘Sir, I beg to state that my aunt is dying… I be granted a visa soon.’ But how true, how real.
Jamil has come by train, Samjhota Express it is called, the only train that shuttles between Wagah to Atari. ‘I did not have any problem on the Indian side, but as soon as I step into Pakistan, I was surrounded by officials pocketing money right and left, from tired, harassed passengers. I must say, bribery is well and alive and kicking in Pakistan…, he chuckles. We feel ashamed. Yes, Pakistan is more corrupt than India. India is doing better. In so many fields. In manufacturing. In trade. In academia. In computers. We read, we hear about it from western media. But not from India itself. Books, journals, magazines, are not exchanged. There is no trade between the two countries. We don’t learn from each others’ experiences. We are so close to each other, yet so distant. And we are so much alike. We live almost the same lives on each side of the border. Or have we become different people? I look at Jamil, donning white qameez and pyjama, tanned, bespectacled, plump, on the wrong side of the 40. He looks Indian, thoroughly Indian, inside and out. His gait, his accent, everything has an imprint of the country, of the city, he has been born and bred and brought up in. I am bewildered. Why do I categorise him as ‘Indian’? He is related to me by blood. His skin is as tanned as mine. And we speak the same language. Just because he lives on different side of the barbed wire?
The dusk has settled on the city. Traffic has thinned out. Journey of the night has begun. August 15, India’s day of celebration, is about to fade away. Ajmal forgets to switch on the radio to listen to BBC news. Perhaps, he instinctively knows there couldn’t be another carnage on 15 August as well. The wounded of the 14 August have yet to recover.