Pakistan was barely three months old. Signs of the violent convulsion of its birth were all too apparent. Everything seemed dislodged and disturbed. Household goods lay in heaps outside police stations. Boxes and bedsteads, dressing-tables and sofa sets, cradles, perambulators, torn from their usual places had found their way into these public asylums. In their home they would have borne no disturbance. The slightest shift would have made them look shockingly out of place. Yet now, cooking pots lay cheek by jowl with heaps of junk. They were not scrubbed and cleaned and counted anymore. It had been weeks since human fingers had touched them. In improvised stalls, cattle stared out with wide bewildered eyes and trod the earth with puzzled weariness.
The earth itself seemed the only stable thing in the whole upheaval and across it trudged streams of despoiled, weary, displaced people. From the refugee camp at Wagah, on the border, they entered their new land and roamed from village to village on foot or in their bullock carts, in search of land to settle upon.
Dazed and dejected, these immigrants appeared to have unlearnt their simple ways of ordinary courtesy. When they met local peasants, they failed to greet them in the customary way. They seemed to find it difficult even to speak freely. Instead they watched and stared when they were spoken to and they had little to say in response. They could not even speak of their sufferings and misfortunes. In the presence of the local people they felt unsettled and uneasy. They were strangers in a new land.
Somehow life had lost its flavour. Their environment had been defiled, and air and the water had been profaned. The streams which had irrigated their lands for generations, now flowed red with blood and were choked with corpses. They could no longer wash themselves in these canals and streams. They did not know what would happen to the crops that were being watered with the water from these streams. They forbade their children to play and bathe in the water.
“The land lies in ruins”, a peasant youth said to his father, gazing at the chaos and disorder all around them.
“Yes”, his father answered sadly. “But you wait and see. Let this mass of humanity find some breathing space, and you will see how quickly things return to normal.”
“Normal? Like it used to be? Never! That is impossible! Where will all these people fit? And don’t you see how heart-broken and demoralised they are? They can hardly lift their morsels of food to their lips.”
“No, my son. You do not know. Haven’t you seen the grass in the fields? When we plough the land, we pull the grass out, root and blade. And what happens in a few days’ time? Little blades of grass break through the earth once again. In a short while. It is as if the soil had never been ploughed at all.”
A will to survive was already evident among the displaced persons. Behind their apparent sense of despair was hidden the will to live and the desire to make a fresh start. Those who had managed to acquire a small strip of land seemed ready to forgive Fate the harshness with which it had dealt with them. Plots of land allotted to them by the government gave support and solace to their spirits and helped them to reestablish their links with life.
They painstakingly raised fences around their new fields and dug holes in which dung fires smouldered to light their hookahs with. When they found the time they sat around together and chatted and smoked in a companionable way. Even their cattle seemed to shed their fear and settle down. Instead of staring vacantly, the cows and buffaloes rubbed their necks against trees and shrubs and grazed placidly on the new pastures.
When a government official came to visit, some of these immigrants tried to establish their claim to the future leadership of a particular village. They would represent the villagers in order to present the common grievances of the community, or try to gain the official’s goodwill by inquiring about his health and that of his family and offering him a hookah.
In this disturbed and broken land, I arrived as a liaison officer on behalf of the Government of India.
My assignment included the recovery of kidnapped women. To assist me in this task, I had at my disposal, an army contingent and a few men of the Pakistan police.
Locating lost women was by no means an easy task. It involved all sorts of problems, the chief one being the reticence of the villagers, who volunteered no information. Much depended on chance. Sometimes a small effort produced results beyond our wildest hopes while on other occasions no amount of efforts yielded anything.
One day, we came to a village in which we were to look for the daughter of the headman of a neighbouring village, who had been taken from a caravan of refugees. My informant, a police officer, was with me.
The villagers came out to greet us, especially, the police officer who was my escort. They had evidently guessed the purpose of our visit. When the Inspector asked them about the girl, they pointed to a house in the middle of the village. We walked to the hut they had indicated. Leaving the Inspector and the others outside, I went in.
It was a little hole of a place. There was barely room for two beds in it. On one side lay some bronze utensils on a wooden plank, and on the other side lay a few articles of winter bedding. A woman was huddled on a low string cot. She did not seem to notice my entrance. As I drew closer to her, I saw from her parched quivering lips and her swollen eyes, that she was in a high fever. Even when she saw me, my presence left her strangely unaffected. She neither stirred nor made an attempt to speak.
“Have you a fever?” I asked a little awkwardly. I did not know what to say, how to begin.
“Yes,” she answered faintly. “I have had it for several days.”
“Is there no woman to look after you?”
Never before had I met anyone in such forlorn surroundings. Normally such women were kept under strict surveillance and were always surrounded by a large number of women when we went to see them.
This woman, I thought, had been deserted and left to her cruel fate.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked. I was, of course more interested in her present circumstances than in her past, for I had already heard of how her village had been attacked and how here husband had been killed by a bullet fired by someone in the invading mob, a story so often repeated and so familiar in all its details.
“Ever since our village was looted”, she replied.
“Who gave you these utensils?”
She stared at me, a little surprised. I realized that I had been wrong in my speculation. She was not living alone nor did the things in the room belong to her. The room and everything in it had an owner who was absent at the moment. She was too weak and too exhausted to require surveillance. And she herself, of course, never imagined that she would be able to escape, or that any agency, human or divine, could come to her rescue. She had never been told that she could meet her people, from whom she had been parted earlier. If I had told her so, she would not readily have believed me. How could anyone take here across the vast and powerful barrier that had grown around her?
We did not consider it safe to try shifting her that cold December day. She seemed to be very ill.
“Very well,” I said, “I shall come another day.”
“Are you going now?” she said, pausing as if she wanted to say something more. Then, “won’t you sit down for a minute?”
I sat down on the other bed.
” I have a favour to beg of you”, she said in a halting tone. “Will you do something for me?”
“What is it?” I asked.
“You are my brother in faith. You can see how helpless and miserable I am. You can help me. You seem to be an important officer, otherwise how could you have come here? I am sure you will be able to do me this favour.”
“Yes, I shall do whatever I can. Tell me what it is.”
“I have a sister-in-law,” she said, “My husband’s younger sister. She is in village Chak 11. When our village was attacked, she shared my fate. But I only discovered where she is the other day. A large crowd from that village had joined in the raid and she was taken there. Now I want to see her. If only you would go and bring her to me. You can use your influence. Please entreat them on my behalf. I am her elder sister-in-law. She grew up in my arms. She is like a daughter to me. I would like to arrange for her to get married. I shall establish new links, and if I could have her with me, I shall have someone to call my own.” I could see the gleam of hope in her eyes.
The words of the old peasant rang in my ears:
“……. Haven’t you seen the grass in the fields? When we plough the land, we pull the grass out, root and blade. And what happens in a few days time? Little blades of grass break through the earth once again. In a short while, it is as if the soil had never been ploughed at all.”