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The hold-up

  • Published at 03:13 am August 14th, 2020
Untitled 1947–48; Sketch from the famous Partition Series by SL Parasher
Untitled 1947–48; Sketch from the famous Partition Series by SL Parasher

A young writer fictionalises the brutalities that followed the partition of India

Because of his name, Saleem writhes in agony, on a hot, gritty road, under the sky’s burning eye. His limbs are stationary, held captive by his neighbour's machete blows. The neighbour, whom he used to address as Chacha—a term filled with utmost affection, throbbing with sweetness, sloshing warmth and tenderness in its insides—did not flinch once as he hacked and hacked. Saleem’s family members received the first blows. The more violent blows. Blows that had their heads drifting away from themselves—ownership stripped, rolled away, bouncing, kissing the hot dirt of the street.

Abbu. Ammu. Razia. All headless.

Chacha did what he had to, also because of his name. After all, one’s name reflects the vivid portrait of the god they have utmost faith in. After all, the city was burning in flames, amputated by the tridents of hatred. Hatred that festered in the summer air and lay on roads, in ditches, beneath trees, on doorsteps. Hatred that marched across the lake like a brigade of rotten, reeking mangoes. Inside-out. Outside-in. Hatred that climbed up the bodies of friends and neighbours with its feral legs, settled into their hearts, and madly branched out like a Banyan tree with gnarled roots. Birds shaped and coloured like hatred perched on each of the branches and flapped their wings and cawed in unison.

 A loud orchestra of hatred.

That year—after a British man drew a long, invisible line across a gigantic map, partitioning the forests, the mountains, the rivers, the tigers, the leopards, the lions, the harmony—the thread that used to keep everyone at a safe distance from taking up arms against people of different faiths vanished into thin air like a damn fast woodpecker, at the drop of a hat, without a proper goodbye. In the wake of its flight to god-knows-where, Chacha’s family was killed on the other side of the border (by of course, people who worshipped another God). That is when Chacha’s thread, like most people’s, took flight. To god-knows-where. That is when he, like most people, he started disregarding people from different faiths. Those who worshipped the same god as his family’s killers, must be killed. In his heart, the banyan’s branches roiled while the birds perched on them kept letting out their shrill cries: the gust of sounds and winds fanned out through his blood. He believed his god wanted him to take up arms. 

The partitioned forests did not take up arms against one another, though. No Banyan chased a fig with machetes and swords. No mountain decapitated another. No fire raged in one river’s eyes to kill another. Even though the humans were mired in unspeakable violence and cruelty, the forests remained as they were before. The trees still conversed with one another through their roots beneath the earth. They still wore flowers in their hair, hosted hornbills, hoolock gibbons, squirrels, bats, snakes. They still allowed the bears to rest under them, the elephants, deer, and rhinos to chew their leaves.

So, as Saleem writhes, the sky shines brighter, the air grows hotter and the dead double, triple, quadruple, quintuple, and vultures descend from the sky—a mob of beaks, talons, feathers. The dead are involuntarily calling them to end up inside their stomachs. So are the ones who are not dead yet, but will be soon.

On an ordinary day—when there would be no wielding of machetes, no burning of houses, no killing, abducting, no sight of a single vulture; when the dogs would eat only the garbage and not the flesh of the dead; when all the Chachas would remain Chachas who brought candies and ice-cream to all the Saleems—this time of the day would be a lazy one. Devoid of activity. People would sleep, electric fans would stir the warm air, crows would keep still on electric poles, dogs would rest in front of grocery shops, bicycles would miss the touch of their snorting-while-sleeping owners. 

But now, ironically, in a locality breathing in a post-destruction atmosphere, the afternoon is suffused with activities:

Saleem writhes. Fires burn here and there. Saleem writhes. The fires eat the roofs, the walls, the dead, the living. Saleem writhes. With many others who are lying on the street, scattered, like garments in a messy room, archipelago on a river of fury. Plumes of smoke climb, as if on a slow flight to heaven. Saleem writhes. The local dogs find a new appetite and run madly for flesh. Their tongues drip with blood and they get to taste the core element that makes all humans the same (of course, the dogs don’t understand fanaticism). Saleem writhes. The writhing ones keep dying and the vultures keep claiming them. Saleem writhes. The flapping of the vultures’ wings, the dogs’ hasty footsteps, the cackling of the remains of houses, and the mewling of the ones yet to die ram into his ears. Saleem writhes. And waits. For that calm moment when his soul would be lifted, slow-dancing on its way to another world, like smoke from his eyes.

He lives many lifetimes. Each minute is one. As though it is the main purpose of a machete blow—that if you receive them properly, you will drift away, traversing sphere after sphere, shapeless, off the earth; but if you don’t, you will live lifetimes in pain, disguised as minutes, before the life inside you gracefully flaps its wings and speeds off towards the sun. He does not know anymore how the neutral existence of saliva used to be like. The inside of his mouth is under the clutches of a cruel alkalinity tinged with the mix-up of warm, thick sand. His body is a planet full of aches. One gash here, another there. One line of blood meets another, they fuse, they run as tributaries throughout his riverine body. They look like the Radcliffe line. In a way, they are its physical manifestations. A panting dog comes near him, sniffs him, and understands he hasn’t hit the bucket yet, but will soon. It lingers around for the prospect. Other dogs follow, their eyes firmly engraved on his calves that have been slit open. Saleem does not look up towards the sky since it is nothing but a blinding, heavenly sheet now, where there is no Radcliffe line, where lines do not dictate how long one can live, how cruelly one has to die for believing in a different god. So, he busies himself watching the dogs and vultures fight over the inheritance of the dead and wishes for the sky to turn grey and empty itself on the burning earth. Rain. He wants to be battered, soothed by rain for the last time. The last time it rained, everyone had the ownership of their heads and hearts. Then fires were made for cooking, machetes were used to slaughter domestic animals.

Meanwhile, vultures hover very close above him. The fluttering of their wings soothes his skin with the wind they produce. They land, they inspect his status, blood of the dead dripping from their beaks and talons. And like the dogs, they linger around for the prospect of his departure to another world. Saleem looks into their eyes and imagines how, after some time, he would exist as a drop of blood on their beaks and talons, fused with the blood of others. He imagines how they would eat up his body and reduce him to bones. From where would they start? Who would gain the inheritance? The dogs or the vultures? Would they, for a change, feast and swim in the calm waters of co-existence—which those who lived in this locality could not?

The smoke from the nearby houses stretches and floats over Saleem, obscuring the sky. It makes its way into his nostrils and probably finds a little difficulty treading forward because of the nose’s broken bridge. He gasps for breath. His vision grows warm and sooty, darkening and darkening. He coughs, the action making all of his wounds sink their teeth into his soul. His eyelids slowly start quitting the struggle to remain open. They traverse to meet each other. Like turtles. While they traverse, a vulture’s wings flutter in his vision. The vulture inches closer to him, the tiktiktik of its talons ringing loudly in his ears, its glassy, alert-all-the-time eyes meet his. 

His eyelids complete their journey. They meet. They kiss.


Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor.