Life without You
It hurts to say how life goes by
A long day’s wait, some nights I cry
The life I knew has lost its charm
No piece of mind, no joy or calm
No spark of life or strength to flee
Your shadow always follows me
My life resembles a desolate land
I have no strength to sow this land
The ship of life, stuck in a storm
Colossal waves about to form
With broken keel, the hull will crack
With bending mast, the sails go slack
A lightning bolt strikes the deck
Then panic mounts the imminent wreck
The crew goes wild, in a state of flux
Neptune laughs who knows the crux
To guard the craft, I look for land
A tree, a hill, or stretch of sand
To save the lives, I pray to God
I get no answers, just a nod
I wait and wait to get a break
The God’s gesture, a total fake
The thundering clouds dim the skies
The air is filled with endless cries
The reefs abound where sharks surround
I veer the ship. I won’t go down
In a fit of fright the people dive
I boldly fight, persist ‘n’ strive
We don’t know when the journey ends!
The race to top, the twisty bends
The countless needs we die to meet
Will one day scatter at our feet
The time flies, good or bad
The urge to hoard, a passing fad
One by one we all will go
What survives is what we sow
“Insane,” you say-that may be so
No place is left for me to go
My mind is blank, but hope survives
That some day, somehow, you’ll arrive
Wherever I go, whatever I do
My wandering eyes look for you
The wish that one day I shall see
A glimpse of you to set me free
Life goes on, or so they say
Without my dreams, I say nay
I know I will not see you again
The hope persists, but all in vain
© 2012 A. S. “Abe” Khan Trust
All rights Reserved
A Way of Life Vanished
It was close to midnight when Eli’s family left their ancestral home forever, leaving behind everything they owned—the farm, the house, the livestock, and the household goods. They only took some food, bedding, and fond memories of a bygone era.
The moon shone in full glory, illuminating the dirt roads and casting dark ghostly shadows. With the town residents asleep, there appeared no signs of life, causing a pin-drop silence. They boarded a bullock cart. As it lurched into motion, it squeaked. They had just gone a few yards when Eli’s mother, Janet, suddenly demanded, “Stop the cart!” Their servant, Ismail, obediently complied. She turned around and took a long look at their home, a place that held decades of memories. The apprehension that they might never return distressed her. As tears began rolling down her face, Janet sobbed like a young girl.
They left behind a treasure worth millions, which aggravated her agony even further. Janet’s father, Jamal, though born into wealth, grew up illiterate and could only count to twenty. Years ago, he had traveled to Singapore and bought gold bricks. For safety, he buried the gold in his backyard. Dying a sudden death, he didn’t get an opportunity to tell anyone where he buried them. With this night’s departure, no one knew where to find the gold bricks. A couple of days before, Janet had requested Eli’s father, Nasser, “Ask some of the servants to dig up my folks’ yard. The gold will come in handy wherever we go.” Nasser replied, “Honey, we don’t have much time. Every minute counts. Let’s just depart as soon as possible and save our lives.”
Janet didn’t feel comfortable with Nasser’s answer, but she consoled herself with a false hope. Maybe we will come back some day. Hopefully, it might still be there, she thought.
They decided to leave their home following the announcement of the British colonial power to divide India into two countries—India and Pakistan. Hindu-majority areas formed India, while Muslim-majority regions established Pakistan. With one stroke of the pen, politicians obliterated a way of life—one that had been in existence for centuries.
Born in the northwest part of India, Eli grew up among military families and farmers in Dharan, a small, dusty town located in the parched region of Punjab. The nearest post office in Tosham required a three-mile journey on horses, camels, or ox-driven carts. Drinking water had to be brought in on mules or camelback from other towns due to salty water in the area. In this isolated community, most people built their homes with mud, using tree branches as beams. Eli’s and the next-door neighbor’s homes—red brick with marble facades—stood out in the town, symbolizing their relative prosperity and status.
Climatic conditions dictated all homes have verandahs and courtyards. The homes of well-to-do families consisted of two sections—the main section for the entire family and a relatively small one where the men socialized. In the evenings after a hard day’s work, friends and neighbors gathered in the men’s section. They sat on cots made of bamboo or hardwood frames and woven reed strings intertwined in a checkered fashion. In summer, they sprinkled the ground with water to cool the air. In winter, they built bonfires and bundled up in cotton-filled quilts. An oriental smoking pipe called a hookah served as the centerpiece. It rotated among smokers as people exchanged the day’s events and recited wartime stories. The battles fought by the Rajpoot clan comprised the favorite subjects of their conversations.
Most residents of Dharan came from this clan that ruled vast regions of India between the years 600 and 1200. Since then, they continued to rule various states, until India’s independence in 1947. At the time of independence, they ruled more than 400 of the estimated 600 princely states.
History remains uncertain about Rajpoots’ origin. They claim their descent from ancient royal warrior dynasties of Kshatriyas. In ancient times, people referred to the son of a king as Rajpoot. Historians, however, do agree upon their well-documented valor and chivalry in battles. Their gallantry helped them conquer major parts of India. In keeping with the warring tradition, Rajpoots continued to serve in the armed forces. The British colonial government considered them superior, classified them a martial race, and recruited them in large numbers for military service.
Eli’s parents, Nasser and Janet, like many Dharan residents, took great pride in their Rajpoot heritage. They built their home in accordance with their clan’s tradition. A dividing wall separated the men’s area from the rest of the family’s. Unlike the vast majority of homes, the men’s section of their home spread out on a vast area and accommodated not only large groups of people but also a barn for water buffalos, cows, goats, horses, camels, and a chicken coop.
Up until the 1940s, people in rural India lived their lives the way their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years before them. Despite decades of the British colonial rule, much of small-town India remained unexposed to western culture. Socially a stable society, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and other ethnic and religious communities had lived together in harmony for generations. Everyone knew one another.
Prior to the British rule, Muslim kings ruled India for centuries, even though Hindus constituted the majority in the country. The fact that members of a minority group ruled the country, no matter how benevolent, must have caused resentment among some of the Hindus. Sikhs, in particular, even though they comprised less than two percent of the population, harbored bitterness toward Muslims going back to the 17th century.
In 1947, political leaders made plans to replace British rule with a democratic government. Hindus, being in the majority, were expected to form the government. Fearing a backlash, Muslim leaders pushed for a separate homeland. Scared of victimization, people started to move from regions where they had lived for generations. They took whatever little they could carry. Many hoped to return one day after the violence had died down. Those who were lucky took the overloaded trains. Some hung on from handrails; others rode on the roofs of the trains or the bumpers of steam engines. The vast majority formed caravans, sometimes as many as 40,000 people stretching over scores of miles. They used bullock carts for the women, children, and the elderly. The rest just walked.
Of those migrating, most had no idea where they were going to live or how they would survive. They just headed toward the border of the country that would be their new home—Muslims toward Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs toward India. It resulted in the largest single migration of people in modern history. An estimated 15,000,000 people moved from one country to the other.
With the division of India along religious lines, old, deep-rooted resentments surfaced and bloody riots broke out. The hasty departure of the British colonial authorities further aggravated the situation. They announced the decision to divide the country in the first week of June 1947. By mid-August of that year, the British had left the country, setting off bloody communal riots—Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, each group attacking and massacring the other. Religious and ethnic groups who had coexisted for centuries became enemies. Armed gangs attacked and counterattacked one another. Lootings, abductions, rapes, forced conversions, and killing of innocent people became commonplace.
The politicians demonstrated no concern for their uprooted countrymen who supported them during this struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. While the leaders traveled in comfort and safety from one country to the other, the masses were left to fend for themselves. Hundreds of thousands paid dearly for what they stood for— with the lives of loved ones and with just about everything they owned. Some decided to leave for the new country, others preferred to stay back and face the tyranny of the majority. The episode, so devastating to the lives of millions, left a trail of death and destruction, marking a bloody end to the British Indian Empire.
For the longest time, despite hearing horrifying news every day, Nasser and Janet chose to stay in their home and wait to see what would happen. One day, Eli, his father Nasser, and his older sister Jamila got together at their family farm to eat a picnic lunch under a tree. They saw one of the farmhands coming hastily toward them, appearing out of breath and in a state of panic. As he came closer, he shouted, “A mob has attacked the town! They are armed with guns, hatchets, and spears.”
Hearing this, images of family members butchered and the house reduced to rubble flashed across their minds. They ran as fast as they could. Eli was only three years old, Jamila about nine, and Nasser, a tall, muscular man with a commanding personality, in his late forties. Jamila took off first, followed by Nasser with Eli trailing behind. Jamila screamed, “Run, Eli, run!” Realizing Eli couldn’t keep pace with them, Nasser picked him up and kept running. Expecting an assault at any time, the villagers stood ready. They came out in full force with their weapons and made the invaders retreat.
The incident aroused anxiety among villagers about the possibility of more assaults. Being a former military officer and a village elder, the town folks looked upon Nasser to defend them. He went to his fellow officer and neighbor, Aazem, and asked, “What do you think we could do to safeguard the town?”
“Maybe we should get some more rifles, swords, and daggers,” Aazem said.
“We can do that but it won’t prevent an attack. How about building a bomb and exploding it?”
“What kind of a bomb?” Aazem asked, intrigued at the suggestion.
“A large pipe bomb. Both the pipe and the gunpowder can be easily bought.”
To buy time and to save themselves from harm, they agreed on the idea Nasser proposed. They made a huge pipe bomb, took it to the nearby mountain Jangar and exploded it. The sound reverberated for miles. Soon, the rumor spread that the town was armed with cannons and bombs. The little, innovative trick worked, scaring away potential assailants. They escaped the onslaught of more violence, for the time being.
The lull gave people time to move out of the area. Nasser took his family to another town, Dang, where it seemed relatively safe. After a few days, he moved them to yet another town, Balyali. Violence kept erupting wherever they went. Finally, he brought them back to their hometown, Dharan.
In view of deteriorating circumstances, Eli’s parents decided against staying in Dharan any longer. Prior to their departure, they had to make a heart-wrenching decision— whether to kill the pet deer, Bouncer, or leave him behind to the mercy of others. Eli’s father, an avid hunter, had caught him when he was just a fawn. Over time, he became Eli’s pet.
As he struggled with the decision, Nasser asked Janet, “What should we do with Bouncer?”
“Maybe we should let him loose in the forest.”
“No, I’m afraid that won’t work. Bouncer has been domesticated for so long, he may not survive in the wild. I suggest we put him down,” Nasser said. “A more worrisome question is how to break the news to Eli.”
“Well, there is no easy way. We just have to deal with it.” Signs of anguish appeared on her face as she envisioned what was to follow.
“No point in delaying it. Let’s go talk to him right now,” Nasser said as he proceeded to fetch Eli.
When he appeared with Eli holding Nasser’s index finger, Janet met them halfway. She sat down on the floor and pulled Eli in her lap. Nasser took a seat right beside them.
Janet opened the conversation, “Sweetie, as you know we’re going to move to our new home far, far away. We can take only a few essentials with us. Your daddy and I have been trying to figure out what to do with Bouncer. It’s a hard decision to make. If we let him loose, bad guys or other animals like lions might kill him. It would be easier on him if we did it ourselves.”
“Ma, no! Please don’t do it! Can’t we take him with us? Please? Please? Can we Daddy? Can we? Can we?” Eli pleaded as he looked toward Janet, then at Nasser.
Nasser interceded, “Honey, nothing would please us more than to do just that. But we can’t. No animals are allowed on trains. And there’s no other comfortable mode of travel.”
Eli’s face fell. With his head down, he rose, inched to his room, and sat down on the floor, reclining against the wall with his head buried in his knees.
“Well, let’s get it over with.” Nasser got up to get his gun.
“Not in the family area, please. Take it to the far end of the men’s section so it won’t horrify Eli.”
A gunshot rang out.
“Nooooo, Daddy, no.” Eli’s scream startled them both. They found him on his hands and knees nearby, repeatedly pounding the floor with his fist. Teardrops poured from his eyes, soaking the ground. His loud cries blew apart the hushed silence.
Janet ran to him, picked him up, and hugged him. Eli, still crying incessantly, wrapped his little arms around her.
Nasser circled both with his arms, trying to comfort them. “Honey, we’re sorry. We’re so very sorry. We wish there had been another way. But Bouncer is now in heaven and is resting peacefully.”
Janet added, “You know what. Your daddy is going to get you another fawn when we reach our new home. It’s going to be just like Bouncer. Won’t that be nice?”
Nasser hurriedly covered the pool of blood with dirt and Bouncer’s body with a sheet to make it less gory for Eli. As Eli quieted down a bit, Nasser announced, “I’m going to the store to buy candies. Who wants to go with me?”
In other circumstances, Eli would’ve shouted, “Me, me, me!” Instead he turned his face away, still sobbing, looking totally indifferent.
Nasser grabbed him and put him on the ground. “All right big guy, you lead me to the store. We’re going to buy your favorite candies—not one, not two, but three. Does that sound good?”
Eli remained quiet for a while, and then said, “May I say bye-bye to Bouncer?”
“Sure honey. Go right ahead.” Nasser encouraged him.
Eli ran his little hand over Bouncer. Then he hugged him. “You were my bestest friend, Bouncer. I’ll miss you. I’ll always miss….” He choked, tears flooded his eyes again, and rolled down his cheeks. After waiting a while, Nasser picked Eli up saying, “Let Bouncer rest now, Pumpkin. We’ll get those candies.”
Thoughts of Eli’s suffering intensely troubled Janet. She kept thinking about what he was going through. To her, offering candies to a traumatized child seemed akin to treating a gunshot wound with aspirin and hoping it would cure. Somehow it appeared to divert his attention—at least for now. But some wounds never heal. Time may diminish the intensity of pain and a superficial scab may form. However, underneath the surface the wounds linger on—sometimes for a lifetime. Slightest triggers reopen the wounds, reignite the pain, and rekindle dormant memories of the grief once endured.
Soon after, the extended family left for the nearest train station in Bhiwani. Expecting an ambush, Nasser approached Eli’s cousin Rafi, a veteran of World War II. “Rafi, please don’t sit. Walk on the other side of the cart across from me and keep a watchful eye for any troublemakers.”
“I was thinking of doing that myself,” Rafi answered as he climbed down from the cart.
With guns drawn, they both stood ready to defend. The slightest movements in the bushes or rustling of leaves seemed to spook everyone. They didn’t let their guards down, even for a moment, to the danger that lurked around them. No safe place existed those days.
After three arduous hours, they reached the train station and then waited many more hours. Finally, the train arrived and a new long journey began. Incidents of robbing and killing abounded. It made access to food and water impossible for the passengers when the trains stopped at stations. By the next day, they had run out of water. Eli passed out due to dehydration and temperatures of more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. They had to wait until the next train station in Bhaliwal to replenish the water containers.
Finally, the train reached the station. To everyone’s horror, a train full of armed Sikhs, with razor-sharp swords hanging from their waists, pulled up alongside. Eli’s family and others on the train feared an assault. They had heard stories of horrendous crimes—bridegrooms beheaded in front of brides, parents murdering their own daughters rather than allow their rape, fleeing children stabbed with spears by brutal horsemen. Some killed their own wives and children rather than allow them to fall in the hands of enemies. In some places, the entire population of communities was wiped out.
No one knows exactly how many were mercilessly slaughtered during this time. Estimates run between 500,000 to 1,500,000. Dead bodies lay strewn in the streets and gutters like garbage. Women became victims of shameless violence. Reports of “ghost trains” full of severed body parts arriving at the border circulated among the migrants. The smell of death hung in the air everywhere.
It seemed hard not to miss the paradox. Heinous, inhuman acts committed by those who called themselves human, horrendous atrocities done in the name of religions that emphasized love, compassion, and tolerance. Did this characterize genocide as in Germany, senseless killing of peasants in the name of modernization as in the Soviet Union, religious cleansing as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or ethnic cleansing as in Sudan? Or, were people caught in the frenzy of the moment? Historians have not devoted much time to the subject. Most treated them as local disturbances and failed to capture the magnitude of devastation that took place.
Despite all of their experience in colonialism, the British failed to plan the partition, anticipate its disastrous consequences, or to prevent the atrocities that ensued. The scale of bloodshed and pillage surprised and overwhelmed the new administration. They took little or no action to avert the tragedy. Sadly, some local leaders, members of legislatures, maharajas, and civil servants backed the misdeeds. Maybe it advanced their agendas to let the carnage continue.
Terrified and huddled in the train compartment, Eli, his family and the other passengers could only turn to their Creator. Urge the Almighty, the Omnipresent, and Loving God for protection. At the same time, they wondered at the contradictions one could witness all around. How could a loving, omnipotent God allow this to happen to His own creation? They thought about those who were brutally victimized. They must have prayed too. Why didn’t He prevent such heinous acts? Theologians among them gave all kinds of explanations. “God is testing us.” Or, “He gave humans free will. Some have misused that prerogative.” Or, “All will be made right in the life hereafter.” That offered no solace to those who feared becoming the next victims.
Sensing signs of terror on everyone’s faces, a religious person got up and said, “In times like this it helps to pray. So let’s pray. ‘O, the Creator of the heaven and earth. Help us in these turbulent days. Turn our enemies’ fury into compassion. Make them see that we can practice different faiths and still coexist. That appreciating differences enriches lives and emphasizing them destroys them. Be merciful. Watch over us and keep us safe from harm. Amen.’”
The sound of “Amen” filled the train compartment as other passengers joined the prayer-leader.
With Eli lying listless in Janet’s lap, they faced yet another life-or-death decision. Janet panicked and yelled, “We need water and need it now!”
Nasser, Rafi, and other men in the compartment looked toward one another. Stepping out meant inviting death. For a few moments, silence filled the air. Then, she exploded, “Isn’t one of you man enough to save this child’s life?” Both Nasser and Rafi sprang to their feet at the same time. Nasser said to Rafi, “I will go. You stay here.”
“No, Uncle Nasser. It doesn’t sound like a good idea. You’re stronger and battle-hardened. You appear better able to protect the family.”
With his hands trembling, Rafi picked up his gun in one hand and a water container in the other. He looked on both sides before stepping down from the train. Approaching the water pump cautiously, he looked all around at every step to avoid a threatening situation. Miraculously, no one assaulted him and he managed to get some water. Eli’s mother spooned some water in the young boy’s mouth. Others got just a swallow each. The small amount of water saved their lives.
Tired and shaken, they reached the town of Bhola Ki Mandi after three days. It was just across the border in Pakistan, the country that would be their homeland. Since the train was scheduled to return to India from that point, they had to disembark. There existed no shelters and no food. The newly formed country’s government was still trying to figure out how to cope with the influx of millions of dislocated people. Eli’s family spent days trying to decide where they would go and how. A train loaded with coal presented the only opportunity. They took it. Their destination—any place with fertile land. Toward the end of the day, they got off at a nondescript station, Mailsi. After camping out overnight, they tried to find a place to live and landed in a small town, Bhagwanpur.
For two weeks, they shared an abandoned house with Dawood, an army Captain, and his family. During that period, Nasser and Dawood scouted the area to identify a town that would meet their needs. A small town of about two thousand inhabitants, Khanpur, seemed to fulfill their criteria. They occupied yet another abandoned house in Khanpur. People like them—people of different ethnic and religious groups who migrated in the opposite direction, vacated many such houses. Compared to what they had left behind, the house appeared no better than a shack. Though fairly spacious, the dark and dingy house provided rather limited ventilation. Under the circumstances, they felt thankful just to have a roof over their heads. The house had no furniture, no pots and pans—just an empty house. They sat on the floor. At dinner, Janet served dry-roasted garbanzo beans and water. “This is all we have, son,” she said as she gave some to Eli.
She choked, became teary-eyed, and tears streamed down her face. She had lived a life of luxury and had never experienced bad times. The reality of losing everything seemed to be sinking in. This was nearly too much for her to bear.
In the midst of the ruins of their lives, they finally got a little reprieve—some measure of peace of mind that we all seek and very few of us find. The colossal task of rebuilding their shattered lives still lay ahead.
In their new homeland, overwhelming challenges impeded their every effort to adapt. In the absence of an effective civil administration, chaotic conditions prevailed. Corruption, red tape, and veiled discrimination by locals added misery to the trauma they’d already suffered. Eli’s family found themselves surrounded by people of a different culture, whose language they didn’t understand with customs alien to them. Without any farm or livestock, coupled with temporary stoppage of Nasser’s pension from the British Indian army, the family struggled every day to figure out where their next meal would come from. But pride in their heritage and a strong sense of self-respect kept their spirits unbroken.
With their dogged determination, Nasser and Janet embarked on the long, Herculean task of breaking every barrier that stood in the way of a safe, comfortable life for their family. In the midst of toiling for bare survival, they sometimes paused and Janet would reflect on recent upheaval. “It seems hard to believe we once lived a fabulous life. A houseful of noisy children happily running around. The hustle and bustle of servants bringing fresh supplies from our farm and preparing scrumptious meals. Friends and neighbors coming and going, enriching our lives. Extended family standing by us at every step, and town folks greeting each other with smiles and chit chat. It looks as if that way of life just evaporated into the winds of the conflict.”
She would then shake her head in disbelief and sadness, her voice would trail off, and turn into a whisper. “Simply vanished. Simply vanished.”
© 2012 A. S. “Abe” Khan Trust
All rights Reserved
Note from the author: These pictures depict our house in Khanpur, Punjab. It shows the main section meant for the entire family. A cross-section consisting of outer wall and sitting room of men-only section appears in the foreground of the second picture. The two pictures together illustrate the house I described in A Way of Life Vanished. It shows how people lived in the Indian subcontinent more than six decades ago. Such houses are rare these days. With the liberation of women, social norms have changed. And so have house designs. The wall that separated the men’s section from the family section is a thing of the past. One has to travel to remote corners of the country to find this kind of house.