Srividya sat on the verandah shelling peas when her brother climbed down from the rickshaw. “Dharam Phaji was not on the train,” he announced.
“It has been weeks. No letter or telegram. Where is he?” Apprehension churned inside as she rubbed her swollen belly.
“Many people are trying to leave. It must be difficult to get a ticket. Stay hopeful.” Viraj struggled to sound optimistic.
Srividya’s tears sprinkled the peas. Hearing the laughter of children returning from school, she wiped her eyes with the corner of her sari. The gathering clouds signaled another monsoon downpour.
Inside, Viraj described the scene at the train station to his parents. “Every car filled with dead bodies. Hundreds. Blood everywhere. Perhaps Phaji also is…” He halted, unwilling to voice his thoughts.
Dharam rubbed his newly-grown beard which allowed him to blend in with the throngs of Muslims in Lahore. Months earlier, as riots erupted, he sent his wife and children to her parents’ home in Amritsar. Soon afterwards, he moved in with his childhood best friend. His family was supposed to return when the tension subsided, but as mid-August drew closer, the place Dharam called home no longer welcomed him. Now he needed a safe way to leave what soon would be called Pakistan.
That evening, over dinner, Iqbal, announced, “I borrowed a truck. We leave for the border in the morning.”
Dharam took a bite of rice and peas with a trembling hand as he recalled some of the horror stories the first refugees had told.
Before sunrise, with only the clothes on his back, Dharam and Iqbal set out. As the truck wound through crowded streets, Dharam glimpsed his family home, the place he was born. The gate had been smashed. Scorch marks stained the concrete and brick. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, trying to erase the memory of the night the mob broke into his home with taunts of “Hindus leave here!”
Outside the city, the truck came to a standstill. Dharam struggled to comprehend the scene. They were in the middle of a river of people and bull carts stretching ahead to the horizon. Rain pelted the throngs. Many people had camped out on the side of the dirt road. Some looked like they could not take another step. Wheat fields and rice paddies blanketed the countryside.
Time blurred as they inched their way toward Wagah, the village marking the division of India and West Pakistan. Near the crossing, Iqbal stopped the truck. “I hope the rest of your journey is safe.” He handed a package to his friend. “Shave and change your clothes. No need to disguise yourself now.”
“Thank you for everything, Iqbal Bhai.” Dharam embraced his friend.
“What thanks? You would have done the same. Give my regards to everyone,” Iqbal called out.
Dharam joined the line of people crossing the border. He looked over his shoulder, his heart heavy over all he was leaving behind. In the refugee camp, he collapsed on a cot. Many of the people around him were ill or injured. In the distance, a woman screamed. The clouds parted, revealing a star-filled sky. The sky has no borders. Why must the land have boundaries?” He mopped his sweaty face and tried to sleep.
As the sun rose, Srividya lay in bed screaming with labor pains. Her mother mopped Srividya’s face and waited for the baby to arrive. Viraj fetched the doctor before making another trip to the train station. He returned dejected, but was consoled by the birth of his niece.
That evening, Srividya sat in bed, cradling the baby as she stared out the window. The neighborhood was silent due to the evening curfew. She thought of the house and garden in Lahore, realizing her children would never again climb the mango tree or chase lizards around the water pump. She glimpsed a rickshaw stopping in front of the house and she craned her neck for a better look.
Dharam climbed down from the rickshaw and pushed open the gate to his in-laws’ home. His last trip to Amritsar was for his wedding. This time there were no lights or welcoming garlands, no band heralding his arrival. He bent down and touched the dirt, then stood and put his hand over his heart. Looking up at the window, he glimpsed his wife holding a bundle. He smiled and called out, “Main khar a gaya."*
*I am home.
Author’s note: An estimated 15 million people migrated across the borders between India and Pakistan when independence from Britain was achieved in 1947. The partition of the land resulted in chaos, violence, and up to 1 million deaths.
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