I stirred and slowly turned to my side. Somewhere, sparrows were chirping away and I was vaguely conscious of the lengthening shadows of the evening sky gathering over the balcony. I opened my eyes, squinted a little and looked out through the barred windows. A tram could be heard trundling down the tramline below. I did not feel good. Baba had not returned as yet. He had left three days ago to meet a client in Haora. We had expected him to return within a day, but he had not. We were fearing the worst.
I rose, folded the bedding and then went up to the terrace to bring in the dry clothes. “It might rain,” Kamla Bhabhi called out to me from the terrace just opposite ours. I smiled at her, picked up the clothes and came away. She was a garrulous lady and I knew that she was initiating a conversation to find out a little more about my father. I did not feel inclined to talk about it.
Below, in the kitchen, Ma and Chachi were preparing dinner. Dadi was crouching on a stool, straining her ears to catch the evening news on the radio. Pundit Nehru had just accepted the Viceroy’s invitation to form the interim government. The communal situation had spiraled out of all possible dimensions of control. A deep sense of insecurity had descended upon all of us. Mr. Jinnah was going ahead with the Direct Action Day and fear loomed large at the impending onslaught of terror.
“Will Baba manage to return before things get worse?” Chutki asked me. She was exactly six years younger than me and I could hardly tell her that I wasn’t sure. There had been a volley of questions from her ever since Baba had left, especially since news about the political developments in the country had been steadily trickling in. A couple of riots had already broken out in other parts of the city. A sense of bitterness welled up within me. Why were innocent victims being made to pay the penalty of political manipulation?
Ma served dinner at 8. Chachi was rolling out the parathas and Ma was cooking them on the tava. There were just five of us for dinner tonight. Chacha had gone to Haora in search of Baba and Bhai was sleeping. The road below was silent as if in fearful anticipation of some unknown evil. Pandit Nehru could be heard announcing his plans regarding the formation of India’s first independent government on the radio. A moment to celebrate, no doubt, but how could one, when we were not sure if we or our near and dear ones would live to see the light of another day. Was Baba alive? As Ma doused the flame of the lamp in the temple, we closed our eyes and prayed hard for Baba and for all those caught in this mayhem of insane hatred. God has no religion. Perhaps He would hear our prayer. Dadi was in her room, murmuring the Mahamritunjay Jaap. I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes.
We woke up to the cries of armed men marching down the streets in large groups. Chutki clung to me. We rushed into Dadi’s room. Ma was sitting beside her and Chachi was peeping out of the window through the slightly parted curtains. Bhai had gone down to ensure that all the doors were fastened. I went quietly and stood behind Chachi. Both of us were trembling. Frenzied men clad in black, holding lethal weapons and torches, stormed past, yelling. We were chilled to the bones and hastily retreated into the room. We sat huddled on the bed, silent. Chutki was sobbing quietly and Ma was holding her. Dadi’s frail fingers steadily moved along the beads of her japmala. A sudden light flashed across the sky. We stifled a cry and hold on to each other. Through the slightly parted curtains, we could see flames leaping up. A few shops in the vicinity had been set ablaze. Would our house be spared? Silently we stormed heaven, begging the Divine to show mercy, to thwart the evil intentions of the marauders for whom the streets had become an open field for venting out their venom. The night stretched endlessly and it was only some hours later that silence returned to a locality torn down by an irreconcilable rage.
The morning light, in all its pristine beauty, started to weave its way through the dark clouds that sullenly hung around in the sky. It was the 16th of August, 1946. Rain had been predicted, perhaps to wash away the blood that was being mercilessly shed by mankind. Dadi was up. She had finished her bath, her morning prayers and had gone up to the terrace to survey the scene outside. I followed her. A sense of dread wanted me to hold back, but a compelling urge to know what ravage had been left behind by last night’s fury, led me up the stairs. Dadi was standing at the far end, staring grimly at the scenario below. I looked over the parapet and gasped. Two shops some eight feet away had been set on fire and clouds of smoke had filled the air. A couple of figures, with blood oozing out from their abdomens, were lying motionless near the drain. I covered my face and rushed down.
There was an eerie silence in the locality. People stayed indoors with their windows and doors tightly shut. The milkman who had surreptitiously come in through a little by lane at the back told us in a low voice that the “devils” were already on the streets of the city, wielding swords and other weapons. “The next three days will be hellish,” he said, as he left. We shut all the doors and windows. The latch of the back door of our kitchen could not be fastened properly and we pushed a huge cupboard to block the door. We then took some puffed rice, the leftover parathas of the previous day and some water and went up to Dadi’s room. The radio too was carried up to her room to keep us abreast of the latest developments. Each moment was torturous. We knew we were waiting for something but we had no clue what we were waiting for. Was it for death or was it for things to get better and for Baba and Chacha to be back with us. Never in our lives had we felt so helpless. Suddenly Ma started sobbing. Till now, she had not shed a tear. Dadi took her in her arms and rocked her like a baby. She didn’t utter a word though. She really couldn’t offer any words of comfort or hope, could she?
By midday, life was paralyzed in the city. Outside we could hear loud cries. A group had taken to the streets, brandishing their weapons and slaughtering anyone who did not belong to their group. Another group had come out to retaliate. According to the radio news, there was chaos everywhere as the swelling mob of rioters was now looting shops, stabbing and shouting out slogans. Suddenly, we heard a loud crash. The huge glass window of the living room had been broken. They could enter the house anytime now. We clung to each other. Our clothes were soaked with perspiration and we sat still on the bed, not daring to even breathe. Another crash followed, this time from above. They had jumped onto the terrace. Dadi looked at us and indicated to us to get up and move out to the ground floor. Holding on to her walking stick and Bhai’s hand, she started walking to the door. We followed her. We could hear them trying to break open the door leading from the terrace. We hurried down to the kitchen and closed the door behind us. The banging on the floor above us continued, and along with it, our hearts were thudding against our chest walls. I wanted to cry out of fear and sheer exhaustion, but Chutki held my hand.
“Everything will be fine,” she whispered. Dadi instructed Bhai to push the cupboard away from the back door. Quickly we slipped out and closed the door behind us. A small empty alley lay ahead of us. We hurried down and turned right into a small path with the red building of the Government College on one side and a moss covered wall on the other. There was a steady drizzle that had made the path slippery and we moved slowly and carefully, holding onto the walls of the building. We could still hear blood-curdling cries from the main road. Dadi led us to an old, broken down gate of the red building. She tapped on it, first gently and then a little loudly. An old man came out, limping, fear writ large on his face. His face, lit up though when he saw Dadi.
“Bhabhi ji!“ he exclaimed. “Why are you here? You should not be out of your house.”“My house isn’t safe, Alam bhai,” Dadi replied. “Could my children and I say stay here for a while?”“Do you need to even ask, Bhabhi ji?” he said, with a gentle look, “Come in. No one will touch this building.”
Memories of the next three days will remain immortalized in the minds of those who witnessed it or lived through that horrific time. People raced through the streets with lathis and weapons and the city was ablaze with fury and hatred. I wondered how people could hate so much. Did they not feel an iota of guilt or remorse when they smashed the skull of another human being or ran a sword through someone? Had humanity died? I cringed each time I heard about the countless innocent victims of this huge frenetic outburst of sheer hatred and anger.
We returned to our house, or rather, what seemed like our house, four days later. The glass panes had been smashed and some of the furniture had been broken to bits. The roof of the bathroom outside had been blown off. There was dust everywhere and blood stains. At least there were no corpses lying around. Dadi sat down in her armchair. She hadn’t spoken much in the last few days. The only bit of information that she divulged to us was that Alam Chacha was a peon who had worked for Dadaji during his tenure as the Principal of the Government College. She looked exhausted and pale. Ma took her up to her room to rest for a while, and the rest of us got down to cleaning the house.
It was yet another August. Gandhiji had come down to Kolkata, a couple of days earlier, in a bid to quell the inflamed communal sentiments. Barely six hours had passed since we had become an independent nation. There was celebration everywhere. Mr. Jinnah had left for Karachi, the previous week with an appeal to the Hindus and the Muslims to “bury the past.” His dream of an independent state for the Muslims too had been fulfilled. A communal outbreak at Noakhali had brought Gandhiji to Kolkata. While the rest of the country celebrated the end of 200 years of colonial rule, he went around the city appealing for peace. There were joy and hope. People danced and greeted each other on the streets. There were prayers and singing and the city had been dressed up with festoons of colored paper.
We woke up earlier than usual, despite having been awake at night to listen to the speech of Pundit Nehru. Dadi spent a long time, doing the puja. There were prayers on every lip – prayers of gratitude and prayers of acceptance. She turned around and put a tilak on Baba’s forehead and caressed his cheek gently, as a teardrop slipped down her cheek. He touched her feet and then hugged her. We all had tears in our eyes. That a single year could wreak so many changes in one’s life was something we had never ever imagined.
The day wore off quietly at home. At dusk, I went up to bring in the dry clothes. A watery sun illuminated the western sky, in all its fading glory. It had rained a little in the afternoon and was likely to rain again. A brittle sense of peace had descended upon the city. I stopped to watch the lone figure, seated on the charpoy, polishing some brassware items with a piece of cloth. It wrenched my heart to see her, silhouetted against the crimson sky, her head bent. She rose, adjusted the pallu of her white saree over her head and gracefully made her way to the entrance of the terrace. She did not see me, standing in the shadows. I waited awhile before following her down. Everyone was in the living room, listening to the All India Radio and having tea. Everyone, except Chacha. Chacha was far away, in another land, probably smiling down at all of us. He had been caught in a crossfire between two incensed, hostile groups when he went to search for Baba that night. Baba returned a week later, having taken refuge in a friend’s house. Chacha didn’t.
As the lights dimmed, and darkness descended on our household, I lay awake listening to the fall of rain. Tomorrow would be the second day of independence. Before dawn, they say, comes the darkest hour, and when it passes off, we rise again with new hope and faith. I turned over and hugged Chutki. “Everything will be fine,” I whispered and closed my eyes.