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Indiaís independence from what?

Ten days after India celebrates its 60th Independence Day, two terrorist bombs explode in quick succession, killing 40 people. Seeing the faces of terror, the scene of the massacre, my memory rewinds to another bloodbath which began for me just ten days after Indiaís declaration of Independence. Images of the train to Attari assault me...I donít want to go there, but thereís no forgettingÖ.

August, 1947. India and Pakistan are partitioned. My army unit and I have been escorting refugee trains for twelve days, taking families of Muslims to the Attari border, and bringing back the remains of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan. Attari, a sweet name that means fragrance, is drowned in the stench of corpses from both sides of the fence. Once a pacific village with golden wheat fields, it burns with hate.

My fatigues are horribly stained, only the epaulettes hold out that Iím a major of the Indian Army. My unit of 200 troops has been subsisting on dry rations for days. We find it difficult to swallow our food. The flies! The smell! Though we take cover under mosquito nets while ingesting the necessary carbs, I disallow any expression of emotion or histrionics, thereís too much of this around. At 28 years, Iíve learnt within hours what carnage means, and how to survive in it.

Day after day, the scenario repeats itself. The refugee train moving reluctantly towards the border. Our people surging from the fields, terrorizing the driver to halt the train. With great swathes of their swords, they decapitate the refugees even as we open fire on them. We are the army doing our duty. We kill our own people in defense of the refugees.

The refugees are not strangers. Weíve shared fields, villages, joys and grief with them. When our people come to kill them, they bow their heads, saying Allah. And our people? Scattered near the railway tracks, their families may never know where they fell.

The same train chugs back from Pakistan with trepidation, and sometimes with nothing living. It is an awful task to get the ubiquitous red floor washed out, journey after journey.

When all seems hopeless, and cracks begin to show in my army unit, a simple incident redeems us.

A contingent of Hindu refugees has just arrived from Pakistan, escorted by members of the Pakistani Army. The condition of the Hindus is abysmal. They havenít eaten for two days. Their clothes are in rags. They carry no possessions, apart from their children.

The refugees sight me at the border while Iím handing over a trainload of migrants to the Pakistan authorities. The Pakistani escort keeps a tight watch while the spokesperson of the group pins me down with a tremulous story.

They are a group of wealthy traders from Sindh. They had only four hours to choose their fate. Forced to decide for their lives, for India, they left huge fortunes, abandoning everything apart from some clutches of jewelry. This jewelry has been looted from them at gunpoint by the people assigned to protect them. The Pakistani escort.

We are in a halfway powerhouse at Attari. The stationís platform is scattered with the detritus of badly battered civilization. There is no law maker, no administrator, the civic body is broken. The tie is between Us and Them and weíre both armed.

Somehow, Iíve decided to arbitrate. Will it be justice? Will Pakistan acquiesce to India?

The head of the Pakistani escort is also an army major. We have a clipped discussion. The stolen jewelry is not his doing, but the crime of his red-faced sergeant and troops. He orders them to return it. Sullenly they drop the jewelry pieces one by one, loads of it, enough to build another Taj Mahal, or at least another Buckingham Palace. The pile builds up high in front of me.

In an orderly manner, the refugees sift through necklaces, bangles, anklets, belts, rings, earpieces, reclaiming what is theirs.

As they watch, the Pakistani troops shift their rifles. The atmosphere turns explosive. Their sense of insult is huge, palpable.

Anticipating the worst, my sergeant major has taken his own decision. With the evening deepening into dusk, he has positioned himself and five others at commanding positions on the bridge of the station, quite without my knowledge.

The jewelry pile has diminished to a single diamond and ruby necklace. It appears to belong to no one. A bedraggled old man in pajamas and singlet is distraught. He canít locate his gold. No, the necklace is not his! I try to reward him for his honesty. Please, grandpa, take this! Buy some food!

He wonít. Itís not his.

On that tumbled up platform, thereís greed, thereís honour. Thereís hate and thereís humanity! All from the same womb. My eyes fill up, despite my own strictures. Glancing at the Pakistani major, something connects. In a flash we see into each other. Thereís pain, despair, a huge reservoir of tears, unstated, kept in strict harness.

Something that frail grey haired man does levels us all down. He touches us in our guts. His drama reduces us and uplifts us. We want to believe, we want to be like him.

Magically, he unites us. The tension is defused. Some tea is organized. Hot tea, in sweltering August. Shared, not partitioned. Very sweet and, without milk, a little bitter.

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