“Once upon a time in a country called India…” She paused and rubbed her severely wrinkled forehead. The children sat around her patiently. Everyone knew you couldn’t rush a story out of Dadi.
“No, not India. In Pakistan. But at that time those houses were in India.” The children were all very quiet, even the youngest lot.
“It doesn’t matter. There are no houses anymore. At least not there.”
“Amma! They are too young for this!” Shanno turned her attention to the little ones, “Chalo! Run home! School tomorrow. You too, Sheetu.”
The others ran away and Sheetu pretended to snuggle up and sleep. Once Shanno was out of earshot, Sheetu sprang up.
“Who lived in those houses, Dadi?”
Dadi coughed and whispered, “Sleep, child. Your mother would be back to check on you.” Sheetu used to share Dadi’s bed on the terrace that overlooked the village.
“Did you live there?” Sheetu ignored.
Dadi didn’t answer. She continued instead. “There were eleven houses in the tiny village and every evening children from those houses wrecked havoc in the fields. From stealing mangoes to chasing donkeys through the field, they kept all elders on their toes. And all of ten, she led the gang of the little rascals. Junaid was her best friend out of the lot. Religion had never mattered there. Their families had lived together in the tiny village forever. They had never tasted slavery and so didn’t really understand freedom. The English had never travelled to those parts.”
“They didn’t even know about Britishers?” Sheetu’s eyes widened. “I know about British rule and I wasn’t even born back then.”
“Once a year,” Dadi smiled and continued, “Junaid’s abba would go to the next village, Bada Gaun, and sell the produce. He would then buy provisions for all houses. No one needed to go anywhere for anything. She would always climb on the last tree right at the top of the hill and watch him disappear into the forest across the railway tracks.”
“What was her name, Dadi?”
“Whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. She was busy climbing trees with Junaid and the other children when the rest of the country was gearing up for Independence. The last tree was the most coveted one because that was the only one which gave a clear glimpse of the train that passed through the next village down the hill, across the patch of forest, every fortnight.”
“After a long day of running aimlessly, the children knew it was time to go home when the crickets started rubbing their feet to invite the moon. On that night, the air was different. It smelt different. She noticed it and so did Junaid. The rest of them were too busy chasing fireflies. Junaid’s Abba stood with the rest of the men, listening intently to what Hari chacha was telling them. Junaid signaled to her and both slipped away from the rest of the bunch and inched closer to the elders. No one seemed to notice two shadows behind the Chaupal.
“So where are we now?” Her father asked Hari Chacha, the postman from Bada Gaun.
“I don’t know. The village didn’t figure in the list on the Indian side. Maybe you are in Pakistan now?”
“Hmmm. Does it matter? It hasn’t so far…and bodies, you say?” Junaid’s Abba shook his head.
“Uncountable bodies, Khan sa’ab, unimaginable. I suggest that you do not go to Bada Gaun this year.”
“Arrey? If we don’t, who will negotiate the crop prices? That is what carries us through the rest of the year and I have to go as soon as possible. Nothing will happen. Those are our people. All these things happen in big cities where people have lots to loot and kill for.”
Junaid pulled her away. Abba seemed relaxed. He assumed there was nothing to worry about.
Next morning, all the little ones raced to the hill. It was time for the morning train. Junaid was the fastest runner amongst the lot but not as fast as her. She outran him and quickly climbed to the very top of the tallest tree, and perched on the thick branch facing the valley. Junaid grumbled and got on to the lower branch. From where he sat, he couldn’t see her. That was another reason why everyone tried to get on the top – the thick maze of leaves made it a perfect hiding space.
TOOOOOT! All kids held their breath. The train chugged nearer.
Da Dhak.. Da… Dhak…… Da….. Dhak…… Da…………. Dhak.
It had slowed down. The children exchanged puzzled glances. It never slowed down here. But that day, it stopped. Junaid looked up. He still couldn’t see her. The air smelt different again.
They could hear people shouting at a distance. Tiny specs had spilled out of the train and were making their way up the hill. The children sat rooted in their trees. Soon the specs turned into people, and soon the people were clearly visible – complete with blood shot eyes, blood stained clothes, carrying bloodied swords and air that smelt different.
Junaid fell out of the tree just as the first of the bloodied lot reached the top. She was too shocked to let go of the branch.
A moment’s silence was followed by a sickening whoosh of the sword. Then they shook trees. The other trees were smaller, and one by one the little ones fell.
Swoosh. Slash. Silence.
She still held on.
The crowd moved on. She still held on. Shrieks rang out behind her. She recognised each one of them – Babaji, Abba, Junaid’s ammi, Ma, bhaiya, Kaka, bhai jaan – one by one she recognised them all.
The bloodied people returned. The dried blood was replaced by fresh stains, and ground below was now darker and wetter. She still held on.
The train chugged along.
Da…………. Dhak. Da….. Dhak…… Da… Dhak….. Da Dhak.
She still held on.
That evening Hari Chacha returned.
“Arrey Khan Sa’ab!” He hollered. “I have found out! We are in India! Look, I even brought a flag. Khan Sa’ab?”
She could hear his crazed screams as he ran from one house to another. Then the screams got nearer. She let go.
Junaid cushioned her fall. Now she was drenched too. The pale pink in her clothes took on a darker, more sinister hue. Junaid’s blood – on her clothes, her hands, and in her head.
Hari chacha scooped her up and ran down the hill towards Bada Gaun. He was still clutching the flag. Colours were swimming in her eyes – saffron, red, white, red, green, red.
Dadi went quiet. Sheetu’s throat went dry and her eyes were moist. She found her voice after a while, “Dadi, what happened to her? Who killed them? Why?”
“She breathed. She died that day but she kept breathing. The day the country got free was the day that she was lost forever. If only she had let him win that day……If only she had let go in time, she would have been one of the dark stains on the earth below the tree. But she lived. And she never forgot the flag. Never celebrated it, and never forgot it.”
Somewhere, someone burst crackers. It was midnight. 15th August was here.
A single tear rolled down Dadi’s cheek and she murmured, ‘Saffron, red, white, red, green, red.”
The story was originally posted at Tell a tale as a part of #myindiastory contest. Participants had to write a short story about the India they know, the India they think existed or the India that should be. The story was to start with the phrase “Once Upon A Time In A Country Called India…
And yay! It won!