A historical romance set in India - please rate/review and I'll do the same for you!
| The Indian subcontinent was partitioned into two separate nations of India and Pakistan in August 1947. Simple on paper, surrealistic in real life. Pakistan became the new Muslim nation while predominantly Hindu India invited its ex-citizens of Muslim origin to stay. Religion had always been a part of the identity, but with a Partition mostly on the basis of faith, it became the only identity. Much has been written of the devastating aftermath: thousands of lost lives as a different religion became the justification to attack old friends and neighbors, abandoned homes as owners sought to save themselves by escaping across the new border, and dispersed families with members on either side that have yet to reunite sixty years after their last glimpse.
Joginder Bhatia* left a booming tobacco business to move his family of grandmother, mother, two younger brothers, a dog and a parrot from their marble mansion in Lahore to a refugee camp in Delhi. The grandmother groaned as her pampered feet trekked on dusty roads under the hot sun and his mother hid her tears to promise her youngest that food was just around the corner. 20-year old Jogi alternated between muttered complaints to the saints for letting his father succumb to his corpulence and desperate pleas to keep the rest of his family safe. His family was one of the few to survive the journey intact, their path smoothed by exchanges of jewelry to secure spots on bursting trains and by the absence of young females that would attract ravagers.
In the midst of all the pain, it is difficult to imagine a love story. But there was. It had been three months since the Bhatia family had been living in the refugee camp; three months since they had a room to call their own, known for certain they would have a full meal that night, heard the parrot mimic anything besides sounds of crying. Every sunrise, Jogi would fight for a place in the line for government-sponsored business loans. Every afternoon, he would return disappointed. But there was no time to wallow since he had to rush out again to find work as a day laborer to get more food than the meager refugee rations. However, work had eluded him today since the supervisor found his bribe inadequate for one of the premium jobs of collecting and burning leftover corpses from the Partition riots.
He couldn’t let his vulnerable family see their young head cry so he had made the pretext of taking the dog Raja for a walk outside the crowded camp. Not that the dog needed it, he thought, patting the once-glossy fur and feeling the bones beneath. Sitting in a small courtyard littered with debris, he used his turban to wipe off the dust from his face. He had just started blinking rapidly to keep away the tears when he heard full-blown sobbing in the abandoned house behind. A man can‘t even cry in peace, he grumbled, hoping that whoever it was would tire and leave. Five minutes went by, but the wailer persevered. Raja joined in with soft whines. Ashamed the dog was showing more concern, Jogi pushed himself to his feet, wincing as a stone pierced a new crack in the worn sole of his sandals.
Walking around to the back, he saw a yellow veil obscuring a face staring down an old well. Her tightly-woven plait hung past the heaving breasts as if eager to get a glimpse of the well before her eyes could. The small feet clad in blue rubber slippers were on tiptoe, and she would periodically hit a clenched fist on the rim. Jogi debated turning away. Months of witnessing the sobs of his mother and grandmother had convinced him that there was no stopping women once they started. But Raja had other plans. Escaping from Jogi’s preoccupied grasp, he bounded over to knock against the girl's knees, tail thumping against the patchy grass in evident concern.
She didn’t seem surprised by the dog’s presence, and even scratched behind his ears in a subconscious affectionate gesture. Jogi’s curiosity was piqued. After months of fighting with indignant neighbors who kept popping up over the wall-sheets to object to the dog, a fellow dog-lover was appreciated. Seeing his indecision, Raja took matters in his own paws. He had lorded it in Lahore with his own silver bowl; surely he could get a girl for his morose master. Tugging at her veil, he got the girl to look up. As she did, he barked a conspiratorial woof at Jogi.
Jogi attempted a crooked smile. The girl almost cried again halfway through her smile, but stopped as Raja tickled her hand with an energetic tongue. As she lifted her face, Jogi inhaled. This was the first time in weeks that Raja had done more than balefully crawl on his belly, and Jogi was grateful. Feeling in his pocket for one of the penny toffees he had bought to comfort his little brothers for that evening’s sparse meal, he offered it to the girl instead. As she slowly reached out to accept it with downcast eyes and the tiniest curve of her lips, Raja flopped to the ground with a heartfelt sigh of relief.
Her name was Anita Kaur*, and her family lived in the neighboring refugee camp. She had lost her parents in the riots against Hindus in Rawalpindi, and had escaped to India with her uncle and aunt. One of her relations knew of a local middle-aged merchant who had just lost his second wife in childbirth, and had proposed Anita as a substitute. Grateful for a young bride and knowing the unsettled family had no other means, the merchant had offered a substantial amount to the uncle to marry his niece. Once an adored only child, she had been shocked by the barter her aunt had suggested that afternoon.
However, bolstered by Jogi’s sympathetic indignation, Anita sniffed back her tears. As the weeks unfolded, her uncle and aunt gave in to her stubbornness but reduced their conversation and her share of food. Her meetings with Jogi increased from once a week to every couple days to even twice a day, with his mother slowly figuring why he stayed smiling even after putting in 14-hour days at his new grain store. Six months to the day they first met, Anita tired of the taunts and near starvation. She tied her veil around her dainty head and snuck out from behind the sheets of her allotted space, careful to not upset the burning kerosene lamp on the way out. She had been doing this nearly every day, but tonight she brought along her sagging bedroll, scratched aluminum trunk and a gold jewelry set she had hidden from her aunt. A little past midnight, she knocked on Jogi’s newly allotted single-room apartment in one of the government housing projects for refugees.
They were married at the local temple in the morning, with Raja a proud witness under the mother‘s shawl. Jogi’s grandmother’s querulous protests at the impending scandal were subdued, partly by her relief that none of the women from her card circle in Lahore would ever know and more significantly by the shine of Anita’s heavy gold set. The gold was pawned to buy a gas agency. Little by little, the Bhatia family's assets grew and the five-year anniversary of their arrival in India was forgotten in the demanding cries of their first grandchild.
I met this couple recently, parents of one of my classmates. There is still a twinkle beneath his wrinkled eyelids, a glow remains on her aging face. I was inspired by their love story, developed during one of the most turbulent periods of Indian history, as an enduring testament to hope.
*names changed to protect identities*