Saturday, 12 January 2013

Sardaaran


 Sardaaran 

 

On a crisp morning early this December, in the veranda of a house in Gulberg where an international conference was going on, I met a young girl from India. It was the tea break and everyone was mingling and chatting. Sunlight sifting through the immense peepul trees was eerily balmy, the air fresh and scented. As I poured myself a steaming cup of tea, a sari-clad girl smiled at me from across the coffee dispenser. She introduced herself as Eesha, an architect from Gujarat, India. Coins of light danced on our faces as we chatted lightly.

“I am not coming.” Eesha said when we were at the topic of the much-awaited Gujarat tour planned for the last day of the conference. 

“Why not?”  

“My visa status says: ‘Lahore Only’,” she sang in her sweet voice and the rest of our conversation revolved around the futility of the prevailing visa policy between the two countries. 

The irony of it all is that Eesha lives in Gujarat, India. 

“I was thrilled to know that there’s a place in Pakistan with the same name as the state I live in. I thought that this chance I was getting to go on a tourism spree around my home-state’s namesake was a godsend. But when I read my visa detail…” 

The devil has a reputation of being in the detail. Quite justified. I could imagine what a damper her visa description must have been after all the research she said she had done on the origin of the word Gujarat and the enigma behind the name similarity.  

For the next two days we met intermittently. As I knew her more, she was modest and forthcoming. Mostly we talked about random womanly interests specially because we were bent at keeping it light as focusing on the minutiae of the well-researched papers was anyhow quite strenuous; but the subject would swing inevitably to the dreaded topic: The Aftermath of the Partition. 

The week went by. The conference ended. Eesha and other guests of the conference departed. I, normally a comfortable person, was going through a bout of odd discomfort. I tried listening to the sound of the prickly voice that lives in my head and whose only job seems to give me a guilt trip when I'm least expecting it. It turned out that the insignificant case of Eesha’s visa constraint had brought back an old and sad memory.  

It had brought back Sardaaran. 

Sardaaran was a tall and scrawny old woman with an exceptionally brisk walk who used to roam in the streets of Old Muslim Town, Lahore in the nineteen-nineties. Those days, we had a house in that vicinity so bumping into Sardaaran was quite a possibility. Clad in tattered rags, her hair spread around her head in matted ropes, she would emerge from the end of the street and walk towards you at an alarming speed… as if she had a score to settle. But then, she would walk past and vanish down the street, oblivious to the telltale signs of fear she had spawned. 

Totaly indifferent to people and vehicles on the road, she would sit on the roadside green, scratching her head, whispering to herself.  Sometimes she would do civilly incorrect actions like gathering her shalwar high up on her thighs to reveal most of her long bony legs; sometimes even taking off an indispensible piece of clothing. It was years later that I learned that she hadn’t started this game. Civilization had been incorrect to her first. More so than its prevailing indifference to her plight. 

One chilly winter evening as I was enjoying a snuggle on my favorite seat beside the fireplace, the doorbell rang. Unwantingly, I went to answer it. I was shocked to see Sardaaran at the gate. 

“Give me coals. Give me coals!” she said abruptly.

"Coals?" I asked, not quite getting what she meant.

"Coals are good. Coals keep me warm. I will go; first give me coals," she muttered feverishly, her gaze fixed to the ground below. 

My three-year old son who had followed me to the gate, tugged at my sleeve, warning me to stay away in his own sweet way. Passing him a reassuring smile and asking Sardaaran to wait for my return, I strode back, my boy’s hand gripped firmly in mine. When I returned, I was holding a small bag with a used sweater and shawl inside. With a smile, I offered her the garments. 

“I want coals. Coals are good,” she said, not even glancing at the woollies that I had pulled out of the bag for for her to see what she was getting. 

“I don’t have coals, Sardaaran. No one uses coals any more. We have gas stoves now.” 

“I want coals to keep me warm,” she said as if she hadn’t heard me and walked off muttering, “Where will I get coals to keep me warm?” 

I was rather angry at her for being ungrateful. 

Sardaaran died that winter. One morning she was found frozen to death outside a tea stall on  the nearby Wahdat Road.

She was soon forgotten.  

Years later, Sardaaran’s story was revealed to me by a household helper named Gaami.   

Sardaaran was one of the numerous daughters of a local Sikh merchandiser who migrated to India when sectarian riots broke loose in Lahore in 1947. Apparently, round then, Sardaaran was in love with a young boy of a sound Muslim family, also her father’s acquaintance. The boy had vowed that he would have no problem talking his parents into allowing them to marry. Young, naive and deeply in love, Sardaaran had  promised him that she would stay back in Lahore if and when exodus of Sikhs would become inevitable. Every one around knew it was coming up; that their destiny had been decided by some strangers with high-sounding family names in far-off hotel conference rooms.

The day came sooner than they had expected 

With incidents of looting and killing Hindu and Sikh families more common and intense, Sardaaran's family had to make an emergency exit from Lahore. Sardaran broke the news of her intentions to her shocked parents at the last hour. The boy was there too to give them his word that Sardaaran would be well looked after and safe. Reluctantly, they left without Sardaaran. The boy took her to his widowed uncle who had already agreed on giving her temporary lodging in his house in Model Town.

In the beginning things looked good. Sardaraan and her fiancé would plan the upcoming wedding and he would often take her to meet his parents. They to were happy to have her for lunch or dinner. But sunny days ended soon. The boy lost interest in her and eventually married his cousin. Sardaaran had no option left but to serve as a house-maid in the old uncle’s house, the only place under the sun upon which she had any claim left, however fragile. 

It was rumored that the old uncle’s fatherly feelings towards Sardaaran were later thwarted by his ‘basic instincts’ and he made her his sex partner; under duress or by her consent, nobody could ever tell. Eventually, people began to notice that Sardaaran was going a little fuzzy in the head. As her illness progressed, she became more disoriented and forgetful. She would go grocery shoppping or trash dispensing and forget her way back. For hours she would roam on the roads of Model Town, asking people to escort her back. First there was one lustful man who took advantage of weak mental faculties. Then there was another. Then another. And another. Her custodians now took her as a source of disgrace for the RESPECTABLE family. As a result, the doors of the house were closed on her. 

Begum Shaheen Mirza, a kindhearted woman of the neighborhood who had helped numerous displaced persons to reunite with their families, tried to dig out the whereabouts of Sardaaran’s family from the archives of partition records. But there was no sign of them on the face of the earth. So, like many homeless people who live on the roads and become hidden in plain sight, Sardaaran also became a part of the milieu of Lahore. Unimportant, insignificant but permanently there.  

Occasionally, a kindhearted person would make an attempt to rehabilitate Sardaaran. But it was too late. Sardaaran was beyond help. Life on the road was her only truth. It was the only life she now knew.

Gaami, the cleaning lady who told me Sardaaran’s story, stated an interesting fact about her. She said Sardaaran was very fond tea. Roaming on the roads, she would stop at teashops and stare at people consuming the hot drink. Teastall owners would take pity on her and give her a cupful -  with an occasional bun or biscuit -  and she would slurp it down with unshaking fervor; with ultimate focus; as if all bounties of the universe had shrunken and become a cup of tea; as if time had shrunken and become a moment; as if humanity had shrunken and become a demented old woman and was devoring its last food supply.  

I find it ironical that she died outside the tea stall. Like a fated lover dying outside the home of his lost love. Tea, perhaps, was Sardaaran's last link with tangible world; the only remnant of the person Sardaaran once was.
 
Saradaran isn’t the only person destroyed by politicians' whims. Just in that particular incident, the politically glorious attempt of designing a new homeland for humans of a specific description, millions died, millions were humiliated and millions lost any connection whatsoever with the lives they knew. It's as if they had slept one night and woke up to an alien world. The tragic aftermath of the trans-exodus had left the world pondering: Was what happened a necessary muddle the people had to pass through to reach a state of social balance? or Was what happened so ugly that no social height could ever justify the horrors it had climbed through? Deep down in their hearts, everyone knew and knows the answer. No amount of glorification can cover up the volley of terror that went loose on both sides of the border when the ill-imagined exchange of populations took place.

Eesha's constraint, a mere trifling compared to the attrocities mechanized by The Partition, just reminds me that sixty-six years past, we still live under the pink cloud of the Bloody Partitiont.