“Quiet children! Please, please walk in twos….”. Mrs.Nair tried to discipline the group of middle school students that she was leading.
“Excursions are a big pain in the….”. Mrs.Dev whispered into her ears, careful not to let the words reach the rabbit-eared among the lot of children.
Mrs.Nair couldn’t agree more but as a senior teacher she had no other option but to pretend deaf.
The road was rough, stony and wore a dusty look. No palace or even a hut was visible in the vicinity. Is the tour-guide taking the right way? Mrs. Nair began to wonder. She was about to speak up when the tour guide stopped in front of a tree – a banyan tree that didn’t look too old enough to be of historical importance or even a scientific marvel.
“ And this is a place where no tour guide of Muzaffargarh would ever bring you to!” The aged guide gave a seasoned pause. His modulation held such a promise that the noisy bunch of children were hushed into silence that very moment.
“Do you see this ?” He pointed to a near-obsecure, corner not very far away from the tree.
Spheres of various heads huddled to look down at the ‘precious spot’.
Amidst the dusty, red soil and a small heap of neatly arranged stones was a trident and crescent – both crudely welded in iron rods. With their base covered with dried remains of marigold and tube roses they offered a strange visual that could hardly be of any importance to school children on a study tour.
Mrs.Nair adjusted her specs and bent forward for a close inspection.
“And what is this supposed to be Mr.Ali?”
“Ullu Banaoing!”. Someone giggled near her ears. She chose not to look that way.
The guide cleared his throat. “ This, my dear children , is a symbol of eternal friendship – of Haider and Kanu. No history book, no story book on our independence will ever have their names written in them but even today in the alleys of Muzaffargarh you will hear the saga of their friendship. And today I will tell you their story”.
“Haider….Haider are you here ?” . Kanu called out as loud as possible. He could hear his own heartbeat. Given a choice he would avoid the mango orchard of the Chaubeys anyday. The eerie play of light and shadow amidst the dense mango leaves were too frightening for him to overpower his lust for ripe mangoes. But Haider was different – he was fearless and physically strong at the same time.
“Haider yaar…please come out na !” , he pleaded, his eyes hovering from branch to branch, from tree to tree.
“Did you bring?”, a voice spoke from amidst the foliage. Kanu smiled to himself. Thank God ! He held out his open palm. There, within the soft cup of his pink flesh a flattened milk sweet waited to be eaten. The sweat of the palm had already made it soggy and sticky. A loud thud and a quick swipe later it was gone with the speed of lightning into the mouth where it should be.
“ As soon as Babuji finished offering bhog to Kanhaiyaji I brought it for you Haider”, Kanu announced proudly.
“And he did not even suspect that the sweet was gone”.
Kanu grew impatient. He had expected at least a pat from his best friend.
The sweet having traveled down his throat, Haider bent down and clutched the edge of Kanu’s dhoti.
“Nooooo yaar….this is a fresh one….mother had just washed it yesterday”, Kanu protested.
Nevertheless Haider nonchalantly used the edge of the dhoti to wipe his fingers and face. Then as if on an after-thought of compassion he took out a half-eaten mango from his pocket and placed it on Kanu’s palm. This gave immense satisfaction to Kanu. Like a true devotee of his hero he clutched his prized possession and smiled from ear to ear.
Then suddenly he remembered the real purpose of his visit.
“ Haider yaar, they are having a big meeting in your house – the entire mohalla is there!”
“ And Nanujaan ?”
“ He is the one who has called the meeting….they are planning some celebration!”
“Celebration?”. Haider’s eyes twinkled at the thought of celebration. He clutched Kanu’s arm and made his way amidst the wild array of mango trees without bothering to collect his booty that he had hidden in one of the tree holes.
There at the courtyard there were a lot of them – many people and many emotions – Badri Chacha, Osman Chacha, Manikram – the postman, Salauddin- the shopkeeper who sold meetha golis, Poorna Chachi….
Haider revolved his gaze from face to face, trying to gauge the reason for the occasion. Eid was long gone and Diwali was still far away! But all he could hear were discussions.
“Do you really think it will happen tonight ?”
“ Yes, tonight it is. They even consulted the astrologers – either midnight or not. The rest of the days are not auspicious at all”.
“ Is the situation auspicious anyway? Tension is hovering everywhere….”
“ You all can never think positively! Atleast, at last we are getting what we deserve”.
Haider grew impatient. When will they talk about celebration? He ran down to his grandfather seated on the grand-chair, Kanu in tow.
“ Nanujaan, what is it they are talking about ? What will happen at midnight? Will there be a celebration of some sort tomorrow?”
Ahmed Ali pulled his grandson to himself and made him sit on his lap. He was immensely fond of the orphan lad and often over pampered him.
“ So many questions you have my love! Yes, tomorrow is a special day for us – for all of us! It will be a new morning, a new sunrise”.
“ And what will happen to the old sun ?”
Ahmed Ali laughed out loudly, so did the crowd. This did not amuse Haider one bit.
He looked angrily at his grandfather. His grandfather smiled at him in return.
“Well, the English will take back the old sun with them!”
“And who will put up the new sun then? Bapuji ?”
“ Well, not just Bapuji but all those who have fought hard to build the new sun”.
“ And when the English go will they take away Father Gordon with them ?”
Heart in heart how much he wished the answer to be yes! Father Gordon’s English classes were always a nightmare for him.
Ahmed Ali smiled just a bit; he dared not to laugh out loud again.
“Ahem…well….that is not possible right now I guess. Father Gordon will have to wait till my grandson completes his grammar lessons”. He tried too hard to suppress his laughter.
Disappointed, Haider sunk his face into the snow white mass of his grandfather’s beard.
“Lets now talk about the celebration then! This moment will never come again and we all need to celebrate!”, someone from the crowd remarked.
This was cue enough for Haider to sit up and take notice. Kanu exchanged a “see-I-told-you” smile with him!
Gandhiji stood smiling at him. He was careful enough not to let the golden disc slip off his hands. “Careful Haider…one step at a time”, Gandhiji warned him yet again. The blue sky was still so far away. The ladder wobbled a bit but he carefully placed his next step. “Don’t worry Bapuji, I can do this in no time”, he assured. The white horse standing next to Gandhiji smiled at him. Suddenly it called out loudly, “Haiiiiiiderrrrrr Betaaaa”.
Haider opened his eyes in a jiffy. A face stared at him. The horizontal stripes of light and shadow from the bamboo curtains created a strange look. He sat up shocked.
“Yes, your own Nanibi! Why are you so shocked”, the old lady pulled his head to her bosom.
It took a few more seconds for him to understand where he was. Then a familiar smell made way to his nostrils.
“Sewain!”, he remarked. How could he fail to identify the smell of ghee, milk, cardamom and fresh vapour emanating from the pot of hot vermicelli!
“Yes! Get up my lad….It is a special day for all of us today.”, his Nanibi remarked. Her eyes were moist already.
He sprung up to his feet at that very instance. He rushed to the courtyard, hardly bothering to wash himself.
The courtyard was teeming with people- those who were there yesterday and many more. Each were having a bowl of fresh sewain in their hand.
He rushed to his grandfather seated at the same place.
“ Did they put up the new sun as yet!”
His grandfather looked up. He smiled but looked tired somehow.
“ They did, my love! But they broke the sun into two. Now we have only half a sun!”
“ And what about the other half?”
“They put it up elsewhere!”.
His grandfather’s words sounded like a riddle to him. Placing his palms above his eyebrows like a shade he tried to look beyond the dazzling brightness of the morning sun.
Why, it did look round, didn’t it ?
“ Don’t go close….it is still wet”, Haider warned his friend before he could even approach the highly creased piece of cloth hanging like a festoon between two parallel tree branches. Uneven, indigo coloured message in a horrific handwriting stared from the banner. Kanu squinted his eyes and tried to decipher the message.
“How will you read it, silly? It is in English!”, Haider proudly warned his friend, stressing on the word ‘English’.
“But I know a bit of it, na?”
“Huh! That is because I had taught you! This is not a simple English; it is only for big people”, Haider remarked, trying to fix up a botched letter.
“Still….atleast you can read it out!”, Kanu was adamant.
“Hmm well then…I will read out the alphabets one by one so that you learn the spelling too. Look here: I -N -D-I- P-E-N-D-I-N and then D-A-Y”. Together you pronounce it as ‘Indipendin Day’ “. He took a breather, having read out such a mammoth word.
“And what means Indipendin Day, Haider?”, Kanu asked eagerly.
“Indipendin means to be free. This day onwards we are free from the gora angrez – no English police, no English officer….Nanujaan has permitted only Father Gordon to stay back. The rest will all take their horses and go”.
“Won’t the horses become tired ? English land is far away, isn’t it ?”, Kanu was puzzled.
“That is not for you and me to worry about. We will only celebrate. Tomorrow morning the entire mohalla will take out the big rally starting from our house. We will sing songs and you and I will hold this banner right in front”.
“ Wow! Then I will ask mother to take out a fresh dhoti”.
Haider placed his hand over his shoulder and smiled.
“Stupid! We have to wear Khadi dress tomorrow !”
“Yes, Bapuji has made sooooo much thread with his own hands. We will wear dresses made from that thread!”
Kanu was disappointed, “But who will buy me the Bapuji dress?”
“ Silly! Who else but Nanujaan! Today evening I will go to Munafgarh with Osman Chacha and get cloth for both of us! Nanibi will make dresses for us!”
Kanu’s eyes lit up at the thought of new dress.
“ Then, when they light up the gas lamps in the evening I will wait for you yaar – right near the kite shop”.
“ Yes, wait for me – I should be back by then. And when you come, bring this festoon with you. It should have dried by then!”
All of a sudden Kanu hugged Haider. Not that his tiny hands could encircle his friend fully but he knew he had to do it.
It was only orange and red everywhere. Flames danced from every corner of the neighbourhood. Human shrieks and cries tore the serenity of the nascent night. Pools of human blood masked every bit of the dusty road. Haider stood staring at the macabre death of humanity. He could not believe his eyes. Was he really standing in Muzaffargarh?
The people at the railway station did warn them. “Muzaffargarh ? Are you crazy ? It is a boiling pot of human blood now – Muslims are killing Hindus and Hindus are chopping Muslims in return! “, the tongawallah had warned them. Could things have gone wrong within three hours? They did not believe him. But the sight that they visualized right at the entrance of Muzaffargarh took their breath away.
“ Run Haider, run! We cannot enter the area now. Let us go to Munafgarh. We can stay at Mehmood bhai’s place till……”, Osman didn’t have a word to complete the speech but all he knew was that they had to escape.
“But I cannot”, Haider spoke, as if in a trance.
“Don’t be crazy Haider. Your Nanujaan, Nanibi are big enough to take care of themselves but how will we escape?”. He tried to drag Haider by his hands.
“But I have to reach the kite shop chacha”, he began to sob all of a sudden.
“Kite shop ? Have you gone crazy ?”.
“ Kanu…Kanu would surely be waiting for me”
Osman could not believe his ears but he softened his tone nevertheless. “ No my son, there can possibly be no one there. Who knows if they are….”
Haider couldn’t care less. He looked straight into his uncle’s eyes and spoke firmly, “I know he will wait. And I have to go – at any cost”.
“ Open your eyes Kanu…open!”, Haider shook his friend once again. Kanu tried to look at his friend, surpassing the steady stream of blood flowing from his forehead but he just couldn’t. Every attempt of his would be marred by a fresh trickle of raw blood covering his eye-lids. The charred kite shop smelt of burnt flesh. Haider pulled up his friend’s head close to himself once again. “ Get up Kanu….Look I have brought Bapuji’s cloth. We will make dresses- same to same. We will walk in the rally holding the banner”. Haider broke down, sobbing incessantly.
Kanu’s lips broke into a faint smile, his eyes shut tight. “ I have kept the banner safe yaar”, he whispered haltingly. He managed to lift up his hand. Therein clutched between his fingers was the banner – the indigo blue of the words ‘INDIPENDIN DAY’ now merged with the fresh red of the blood.
All of a sudden, Haider stood up – placing the frail body of his friend on his strong shoulders.
“What are you trying to do now Haider?”, Osman shrieked. So long he had been a mute witness to the conversation but now he knew he had to intervene. They just couldn’t afford to stand there any longer. But before he could do anything Haider began to run – his friend firmly on his shoulder. He didn’t seem to hear anyone, nor had any explanation to offer. All he knew was that he had to run – away from this mad frenzy, away from this vortex of hatred.
Silence was the only sound at that moment, broken at times by the chirp of the homeward birds. The purplish-orange of the setting sun offered a perfect setting for the narrative.
“Then?”, a small voice quipped from amidst the unusually quiet students. “ Did they survive – Haider and Kanu?”, the soft voice spoke again.
The guide smiled sadly, “If only one knew what happened to them! No one could ever trace them again, nor did they appear in Muzaffargarh ever. Like lakhs and lakhs of riot victims after independence, Haider and Kanu too remained lost forever. But people of Muzaffargarh have not forgotten them. This tiny structure was erected as a memory to their ever-lasting friendship – a friendship beyond every hatred. People place flowers here and remember them till date”. He pointed to the trident and the crescent structure.
“Ahem…”, Mrs.Nair cleared her throat. But the trace of moisture in her voice was evident. “Well then children….we will now have to go towards the main road. Our bus would arrive any moment now”.
The children made a perfect line this time, in twos – holding each other’s hands more tightly and firmly than usual.
Mrs.Nair turned towards the guide, “ Thank you so much…This was the best part of our trip. How much should we pay you?”
The guide smiled, “You don’t have to pay Madam. I do it for my happiness. I volunteer for this”.
“Well then…thank you once again. Mr…. ?”
“Ali”, the guide smiled again, “My name is Ali”.
Some of the children looked back and waved at him. He waved back.
The last trace of human figure had just melted into the horizon. The guide stared at the vanishing act for some time. Then he turned around and let out a sharp whistle. A short, aged man with cropped hair and a knee-length dhoti appeared from behind the Banyan tree.
“Chalo, get on with your work. My part is over.” .The guide seated himself on a boulder and instructed his friend. His friend grinned from ear to ear. Seating himself beside the Trident and Crescent structure he began to remove the small stones and boulders, clearing the mass of dried flowers along. Then with deft fingers and a soft nudge he dismantled the Trident and Crescent structure, cleared the dust and soil from the base and wrapped it neatly with a piece of cloth and put it inside a side bag. Having completed his task he turned to look at the guide.
“Yaar, why do you do this? Year after year, whenever you see kids…..”
The guide looked at him and smiled. “ Did you see their eyes ? I notice their eyes every time ….This time too I did not forget to see their eyes – they speak volumes. Those children may have been friends of each other but they would now onwards look beyond the limits of friendship. They would know that beyond every difference, every religious boundary there is the power of human bonding that can surpass hatred.”
“You speak so well yaar”. His friend laughed.
“ Hmm… forget about me. Look at the sky, it is getting dark.”
The two men took their belongings and began to walk towards the main road, still chatting with each other, pulling each other’s legs.
“Yaar Haider, say what you may but no one makes Sewain like your Nanibi.”
“ And no one milk sweet tastes as good as Uma Chachi’s”.
Epilogue: The children had all just got inside the guest house with the respective teachers. Mrs. Nair took out her purse to pay the bus-driver. Just then a figure appeared at the gate of the guesthouse. With three-fourth of his paan stained tongue hanging from between the clutch of his teeth, Mr.Mishra looked every bit a symbolism of embarrassment.
“Arrey re re re….I am so verrrrrrry sorry Mrs. Nair. I had promised you the best of arrangement but could not keep my word.”, he apologised profusely.
Mrs.Nair looked bewildered. “But why, Mr.Mishra ? Everything was perfect. The bus came on time and the guide….”
“Yes, exactly- the guide….”, Mr.Mishra was too eager to carry on with his apology.
“ What about the guide ? Mr.Ali was just perfect for the children”.
Now it was Mr.Mishra’s turn to be surprised.
“Ali ? Who is this Ali ? That is what I wanted to tell you Mrs. Nair. The guide, Shyam Singh, ditched us at the last moment….Some family emergency….All excuses….I will not leave him alive. And he knows pretty well that he is the only guide in the region…trying to act too important….My name is also Patitpawan Mishra…I will ensure that the rascal…….”.