Independence day


They have all gone leaving me alone here. This is how I had wanted it; nevertheless, I am surprised that they went away so easily. I had expected them to demur, to urge a little , to try and make me change my mind. Perhaps they were being tactful, leaving me to grieve over my father’s death by myself. But there’s no grief; how can you sorrow for someone who looked death steadily in the face, a person to whom it was but the next step of a journey? I realize now that he’d been preparing for this for some time. Each time I came home in the last few years, I found the house denuded of a few more things. I never asked him where they had gone; reticence has always been part of our relationship, indeed, of his personality. And living alone, in the years after my mother’s death, he had retreated even more into silence. It is his silence and solitude that seem to enclose me now; they are both welcome and comforting. And there are the memories. Is that why he cleared the house so thoroughly to make more room for memories? I can feel them thronging around me, I can see my mother at the sewing machine, her face lowered, her hand caressing the wheel, her small bare feet going up and down on the treadle. But how can this be his memory? No, it’s my memory that I am foisting on him. You can never get at another’s memories, can you?

The absolute quiet in the house makes me strangely restless, and it is a long time before I finally go to sleep. And wake up with a startling abruptness when I hear voices, the disjointed conversation of a group of people all talking together. It takes me a moment to realize it was a dream, a dream in which people were speaking a language I don’t know. How strange! Are we not then the authors of our own dreams? Or were the voices real? I go to the window and look over the wall into the yard next door, as if I expect to see the people I’d heard talking there, sitting under the tree. But there is nothing, only the darkness and the emptiness of the night. Even the tree has gone. It was a dream, of course, a dream that came to me out of my past. I wonder what it is that had tugged these people out of my past to this time. Is it the emptiness of this house which reminds me of Padma’s words “they’ve lost everything”? But nothing was taken from my father; it was he who voluntarily gave up everything. Whereas, those people Padma had been speaking of, the people who came back to me in my dream…

Refugees was the word for them, though it was a word never used in Padma’s house, where they were spoken of as “our family”. In any case, to us in the south, so far away from where the brutal division of the country was taking place, the steady stream of traffic that went through Padma’s house those months before Independence and after, was only a curious phenomenon. The bloodshed and the tragedy were happening too far away to register with us. But the sight of the men and women sitting on the string beds under the neem tree in Padma’s house was a spectacle to be gaped at. In a while I’d have lost interest in them. Except for Padma’s words which made them suddenly interesting and dramatic figures. “They’ve lost everything.” Padma said to me dramatically repeating, I knew even then, words that were not her own. Recently, I saw a shot of the partition refugees — miles and miles of hopeless trudging humanity moving in two opposite directions, two independent lines, each unaware, it seems, of the other. A rare picture, now that I think of it. It’s as if we’ve stashed away all the ugliness — the uprooting, the killing , the raping in some dusty forgotten archives, retaining only the sanitized pictures we are more comfortable with. Khadi-clad men and women moving forward in a non-violent surge. Gandhi lifting his fistful of salt at Dandi. The Congress leaders leaning against fat, overstuffed bolsters. It sometimes seems to me that we store our personal memories in old files, putting them away so that we can move on more easily. But memories are not records; they refuse to stay enclosed within covers. They choose their time and spring out at you. Like my own personal memory now does, rushing at me through the dark tunnel of the years. And I can see the woman I have not thought of for years, I can hear the indescribable sounds emerging from her open mouth, her hands flat on her thighs, rocking herself violently faster and faster….

“A flock of birds,” my father had said, speaking of the refugees once, in the early days. An unusual way for him to speak; he was not a fanciful man. Inaccurate word as well, for there was none of the joyousness of birds about the tired-looking, dishevelled, bewildered groups with their shabby bags and bundles. The first time we saw them, getting out of the tonga that stopped before Padma’s house, we had stared in amazement at the hugging and sobbing that went on. But soon the sight became a familiar one and the people themselves were quickly absorbed in Padma’s house, becoming part of it, like ordinary guests. Which is why, when Padma said to me, “They’ve lost everything”, it conveyed no more than a kind of monumental carelessness. It was hard to associate tragedy with that house, bursting at the seams and so full of bustle and noise. And yet, my mother always referred to them as “poor things”. Even my father, who so rarely spoke to any neighbours, got into conversation with Padma’s father one day; such an unusual sight that I stood and stared. Padma’s father, excited perhaps by my father’s taking notice of him, kept respectfully addressing my father as “Principal saab”, something my father would normally have corrected with an emphatic “headmaster, not principal”. But that day he let it pass. And when he came home he said, “A very generous man, our neighbour”. It was the first time in my memory that I had heard him speaking of someone else. Like his talking to Padma’s father, this was such an extraordinary phenomenon that I knew something had shaken up my father’s usual self. Do I give the impression of a cold and callous man when I speak of my father? But he was not that. Shy, I think, not easy with people. Distanced from most by his reputation as a learned man and a strict teacher. Often I had a feeling, specially when he was with my mother and me, that there was something he wanted to say but couldn’t. Now, years later, I remember the way his fingers moved at such times, like a shadow artist creating shadow pictures on the wall.

But, yes, my father was right. Padma’s father was a generous man, for, though he was only the owner of a sweetmeat shop. He took them in unhesitatingly, all the people who arrived with such regularity. Not everyone who came stayed on, though; many went away in a while, specially the young ones, and others took their place, so quickly that I forgot those that had gone. But I still remember a young pair, a sister and brother I think from their resemblance, who enchanted me with their beauty. With their fair complexions and sharp features, they had the chiselled look of marble statues. But now, when I think of them, it is not their beauty that I remember, but their eyes. Empty. As vacant as the eyes of a statue.

It was the older people who sat on the string beds under the neem tree, some in loud and animated discussion, one or two always lying on the beds, staring at the sky through the branches of the neem tree. And often, in the evenings, a group of them played cards. I had never seen adults playing cards before. To me, it was a game children played during their holidays. But the way these people played, with a desperation and a kind of silent passion, made it into something that was not a game at all. And, what seemed even more odd to me was that even the women joined in this game.

But everything about these people was odd to us, actually. Not just their language, but their clothes, for example; the women wore huge baggy salwars and kameezes. “Punjabi dress” as we called it then, something we had never seen adult women wearing. Grown women, according to us, wore saris. It was the dress that made them “Punjabis” to us, something that Padma energetically refuted and never tired of correcting. “We’re not Punjabis”, she would say. “We’re Sindhis”. I remember her exasperation in school when, one day, a girl again spoke of her family as Punjabis. “We’re not Punjabis, we’re Sindhis”, Padma began, then suddenly stopped and grabbed the girl by her hand. “Come, she said, come I’ll show you.’ I followed the two of them into the assembly hall which was a hive of activity that day. It was only a few days before the first Independence Day and the school was preparing to celebrate. The hall looked like a house a few days before a wedding, there was the same joyous buzz of excitement in it. A sense of chaos, yet each one knew what she was doing. Padma went straight to the group of girls who were drawing a map of India – a huge one which would be the backdrop for the stage on the day. The girls had an old map by their side to look into. Compared to the old one, the new map seemed incomplete. As if someone had clipped its wings. And the proportions too, were, somehow, not quite right; it looked elongated, as if the whole country was standing on tiptoe. Padma stood with her victim firmly in her grasp before the map and said, “I’ll show you, I’ll show you Sind…” And then she stopped. Her hand hovered over the map, moved up and down searchingly and then fell to her side. She looked bewildered as if she had lost something. “It’s gone,” she said, turning to me, as if accusing me of having taken it away, “It’s not there.”

They’ve lost everything. Was this part of it? Was it possible to misplace a piece of land as well? Did I think of this then? I don’t remember. But I can remember Padma’s face as it was then, the look of total bewilderment on it. It meant nothing to me at that moment. After all, what did a blank space on a map mean at that time and in that place of joyous excitement?

Memories don’t come in sequential order. I have to fit them together. And when I do this, it seems to me that it was the morning after Padma’s futile search for her homeland that we heard the cry. There had been the usual sounds of arrival, the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves as the tonga arrived, the jingle of bells round the horse’s neck, all the sounds loud and clear in the silence of the early morning. Then the bustle of arrival with a jumble of voices speaking all at once. Doors banged, voices receded and the morning quiet enveloped us once more. Until it was shattered by a cry. A cry? It was a long-drawn-out mournful wail, like the howling of a dog in the night. It sent a shiver up my spine, the goosebumps came out on my arms and even my mother rushed out, a startled look on her face. But there was nothing after that cry. As if a spell had been cast on the house, its inhabitants remained cloaked in silence and invisibility.

But news, bad news specially, can never be sealed in. We soon heard what had happened. one of the women, she whom we called the “fat aunt”, had come to know that her only surviving daughter who had been missing all these months, was dead. Dead, it seemed, in some terrible way, from the manner in which the adults who spoke of it looked and whispered.

My mother went next door in the afternoon. And when she returned she wept aloud, so rare a thing that I was frightened. Even my father hovered around her as if he wanted to do something, to say something. I felt the weight of the woman’s loss through my mother’s weeping. Still, it was hard to connect the woman, who to us was a figure of fun because of her bulk, to this enormous tragedy. Tragedy receded anyway, put into the shade by my own moment of glory which now arrived. The two are connected in my memory by Padma’s absence, for Padma was away from school the day I was chosen to be Bharat Mata in the finale of the Independence Day pageant. I was walking out of the schoolroom, I remember, when someone came and told me I was wanted in the assembly hall. There was a group of girls there gathered around the teacher, a group that parted to make way for me, so that I was facing Pushpa teacher, one of the youngest and the most popular among the teachers. She looked gravely at me for a moment when I stood before her and then suddenly smiled and said, “You’ll do.” And then, turning to the girls, “She’s right, isn’t she?” The girls looking at me questioningly, doubtfully, as if assessing me and finding me wanting. Pushpa teacher then picked up my plait and said, “Look at her hair, just look at that.” The girls were still silent, but as if that sealed the matter she let my plait drop and told me what it was: I was to be Bharat Mata on Independence Day.

I can see myself, bursting with pride, rushed home to tell my mother about it. But her response was not as I had expected it to be. Her face was doubting, questioning, almost like the girls, yet not quite.

“Why you?” she asked me, suspiciously I thought.

Because, I told her, the girl who was supposed to play the role had suddenly fallen ill.

“Yes, but why you? Is it because your father is the headmaster?

“No.” I exclaimed indignantly. “It’s because of my long hair. Pushpa teacher said so.”

Not only did this not satisfy her, she seemed even more displeased. I heard her speaking to my father in the evening. I was terrified she would say something that would take my glory away from me. But I heard my father say “Nonsense!” And then, “She knows what she is doing”? She. Did he mean me?

My mother’s displeasure was even more obvious when Pushpa teacher came home the next day to choose a sari for me to wear on the day. Her face closed up, she brought out some saris of hers for Pushpa teacher’s choosing. Pushpa teacher, unaffected by my mother’s silence, went on talking and picked up the saris one by one. Finally, holding one against me, she said, “This one, I think. Sir, don’t you think so?”

Yes, my father was home that day. How strange it was to find him taking interest in any of my activities apart from my studies. He spoke little, was almost as silent as my mother, but Pushpa teacher included him in the discussion, calling him “Sir” at the beginning of each sentence. I remember the enormous emphasis with which she said the word and even today, when I hear someone say the word, I think of her, I think of that day.

“Yes,” my father said, realizing some response was expected of him. “Yes, it’s good”.

Pushpa teacher wanted to try out the sari on me right away. I could sense my mother’s reluctance, but she did it nevertheless, her fingers deftly making the pleats, tucking them, in arranging the edge over my shoulder. I felt a kind of anger in the roughness with which she did these things, but when it was done and I looked at her face I knew she was not angry. Not with me, anyway. She was amused. And no wonder. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked like a pincushion. But Pushpa teacher was not amused; she chewed her lip, looking worried, “Well,’ she said finally, “I think you will have to cut the sari.”

“No,” my mother said. “No! It’s my wedding sari.”

And she held me close as if it was I who was being threatened.

I heard my parents arguing again that night and the next day, I saw my mother sewing the cut edge of the sari, her head lowered over her sewing. Memory comes to me now spiked with insight and I know that she was concealing her face so that I should not see that her eyes were red. And I know too now that it was not always the wood-fire smoke that inflamed her eyes, as she said. And even then I knew that her moods had much to do with my father. I can see so clearly her curious under-her-lashes look following my father’s retreating back. An only child, I was too close to the pulse of my parents’ marriage, too linked to my mother’s emotional being. There was something about the manner in which she got my dress ready that made me uneasy and subdued my joy.

It was Padma who restored it. Even the shadowy memory of that joy is stronger than any happiness I have known since. She listened silently, her eyes and mouth three “ohs” of amazement when I told her I was to wear a sari, a grand Banaras sari, a crown, jewels, and yes, make-up too. No one had said this to me. But I knew that you never went on stage without lipstick and two spots of rouge high on the cheeks.

Padma was there, watching with awe when my mother made me try on the sari and blouse, she walked around me in silent admiration, like a devotee circumambulating in a temple. And then, stopped before me and exclaimed. “Let’s go and show my mother”.

I hesitated, I remember that, I drew back when we came to the yard, as I draw back now from the memory of what was waiting for me there. They were all there in the yard under the tree, but silent now, wordlessly working together. I must have noticed it then, though my mind was full of myself and of the effect I would have on them, for I seem to know now that they had two baskets in their midst, one piled with sweets, the other with some fried stuff. They were busy packing small paper bags with these two sweets and a fistful of savoury in each bag. These were for us I knew this when they were distributed to us in school the next day.

It was Padma’s mother who saw us first. “Look who’s here,” she said with a smile. “Bharat Mata herself.”

As if a breeze had rippled through them, there was sudden movement. Heads were raised, faces turned to me. Words flew about, incomprehensible yet familiar sounds to me by now and I knew I was being admired. And then suddenly, as if cut by a knife, the voices ceased. They turned away from me to the woman who’d made a queer sound. Somehow, I could no longer call her the “fat aunt”.

“She wants you to go to her,” Padma’s mother said. I had loved being the centre of attention, but this was not the same. Her blank fixed stare made me uneasy. Nobody spoke. And when, finally she did, her voice was hoarse as if it had been unused for a long time.

“Bharat Mata,’ she said . And laughed, laughter that changed in an instant into a cry the same cry we had heard that morning.

Padma’s mother moved swiftly, she put her arms round the woman, saying, “Padma, go away both of you, go, just go.”

I could not move. Mouth open, I watched the woman still uttering that cry, her hands on her dough-like thighs, rocking herself, violently, faster and faster. And then she fell, face down, right there on those two baskets, spilling all the stuff out on the ground. I began to retreat at last, backwards, and my last sight was of her being lifted and dragged away, the huge breasts we had found so funny almost touching the ground.

I suppose everything happened on Independence Day as it should
have — the flag hoisting, the games, the songs, the fireworks. But all that I can remember is the rain on my face as the tricolor went up and the quiver that went through me when I saw the packets of sweets, piled in those same baskets.

As for the evening, which should have been my time of glory, I remember that the sari was too heavy, the pedestal seemed to rock under me and the crown and armlets had been tied on so tight that the string cut cruelly into my skin. I had thought I would dazzle by the spotlights. Standing against the truncated map edged by glittering little lights, when I looked down into the audience, I could see none of those I wanted to see. Instead, in the darkness I saw the woman lying face down among the baskets. And when, as the grand finale, the girls marched in singing “Jhendaooncha rahe hamara”, I thought I heard above all the girls’ voices, the woman’s scarcely human cries, the sound of her keening.

Is the daughter of the renowned dramatist and Sanskrit scholar, Shriranga. Her writing career began in earnest in 1970, initially with short stories, of which several volumes have been published. She is the author of four children’s books and six novels, the best known of which are The Dark Holds No Terrors and That Long Silence, which won the Sahitya Akademi award. Her recent work is The Stone Women.

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Is the daughter of the renowned dramatist and Sanskrit scholar, Shriranga. Her writing career began in earnest in 1970, initially with short stories, of which several volumes have been published. She is the author of four children’s books and six novels, the best known of which are The Dark Holds No Terrors and That Long Silence, which won the Sahitya Akademi award. Her recent work is The Stone Women.

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