This is the fifth in an eight-part series on Urdu fiction by contemporary Indian writers. Rakhshanda Jalil is the curator and translator for this series.

Part I: In 'The Crocodile', Gulzar tells a story of smoke and fire

Part II: In 'Those Without Graves', Joginder Paul blurs the lines between the living and dead

Part III: In 'The Rape of an Abandoned House', Deepak Budki lays bare the hunger of scavengers

Part IV: 'I Have Done My Bhartiya-karan', Kanhaiyalal Kapoor asks what it takes to become Indian

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RAMANAND SAGAR (1917-2005) belonged to a group of young writers, who were deeply influenced by the Partition and wanted to keep alive the spirit of secularism, along with Ibrahim Jalees, Shamsher Singh Narula and others. The recipient of a gold medal in Sanskrit and Persian from the University of Punjab, he was also the editor of the popular newspaper Daily Milap. Active in the Bombay branch of the Progressive Writers’ Association, he wrote stories, poems, and plays. After doing an assortment of varied jobs, including that of a spot boy and assistant director, he began to write screenplays of hugely popular Hindi films such as Barsaat, before going on to produce and direct many films. He is best known for producing the hugely successful television series Ramayana, followed by Krishna and Luv-Kush. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2000.

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Ramanand Sagar | Run From These Slave Traders

‘The Muslims attacked our village early in the morning. I was collecting dry twigs along the riverbank. Because there was no harvest this year, there was no stubble to burn as fuel either. Our village is on raised ground near the river. The riverbank is beautiful on our side with a row of tall sumbul trees stretching far into the distance. When I was young, I used to climb up to the highest branches of these trees and feel happy as I looked down upon the glittering waves in the river. And I used to swim in the river a great deal too. By the time I was 14 years old, I could cross the breadth of the river in one breath.’

She was adding fragments of several seemingly unconnected thoughts as though she was mumbling to herself in the middle of a sweet dream. To Anand, she looked like a little girl at that moment, swaying like a tender creeper amid the pointed red flowers of the stately sumbul trees growing in rows beside the twisting-turning-sparkling river. It seemed to Anand as though he could see that entire scene through her eyes. And he was also watching the drama unfolding in those eyes... till the girl too realised it, and the spell broke. The girl splintered and scattered in the dust. She stepped out of those dreaming eyes and began to scrape off the dirt of harsh reality.

‘The Muslims had come in boats from the other side of the river to attack our village. I had reached the edge of the river in my search for firewood. My husband was intent on the same task some distance away.

‘I didn’t see the boats row across the water. I only heard some voices: “Subhan Allah! What a delightful young girl!” “It’s a good beginning.”

‘I turned around to see three or four sturdy Muslims holding pick-axes coming towards me. More were getting off the boats and, behind them, several more boats were coming in our direction. A scream escaped me. I threw my bundle of twigs and, calling out to my husband, ran towards him. But then I realised my husband had begun to run long before me, and by now, he was far away.

'Perhaps he had seen them getting off the boats before I had spotted them. And instead of attempting to save me, he had fled to save his life.

‘I too ran with all my might but...’

And she stopped for a few moments.

When she started speaking again, her voice had become faint.

‘Like me, several other women from my village had fallen in their hands. I saw the dead bodies of several elderly people and some young men that I recognised, but there was no one from my family among them. And then my husband’s running away seemed like an intelligent move. He had saved himself and my little Prem, whom he had taken along. There were some women among us who had the corpses of their husbands still lying in their houses – the very houses where they were now living as slaves of other men. I was happy that my husband was alive...’ And it seemed as though her throat had choked up with happiness.

‘Our village was in their control. For a month, we lived as slaves in our own homes under the control of these men. Then one day we overheard them talking; the villages on this side of the border had come under India. The next day, they got news of the imminent arrival of God-knows-which army. So they quickly collected all the women, put them in boats and took them across the river to their own village.

‘Ten to fifteen men sat around each woman. The few goods that remained in our homes had already been sent across to their village. We were the only commodity left, and now they were carrying us away too.

‘I don’t know why I was not as sad about going to their village as I was pleased that my village was being freed from their clutches. Perhaps buried in that layer of happiness was the hope that my husband and child would return to their home and village, and I would be able to see their village that was just across the river – on the other bank. In fact, the other bank that I have been watching since the day I have come here.’

‘The waters of the Ravi were rising. Its breadth was increasing by the day. Yet the other shore seemed to be coming closer to my eyes.

With every day that passed, my sight sharpened and things on the furthering shore kept getting clearer, and clearer and ...’ She tried to stop for a moment, but at this stage of her narration perhaps it wasn’t possible for her to stop.

‘And then one day I did indeed see my Prem playing beside the river. He was alone. He hadn’t yet learnt to walk properly – he would barely take two steps and tumble down. His father was possibly collecting firewood somewhere close by, but I was very angry with him. The waves in the river were dancing furiously. A flood seemed imminent. Yet he had left my Prem alone to play beside the river. Should he not have looked after my boy better till I returned? I became restless. I wanted to go across just to tell him not to leave Prem alone beside the river till I got back. But it wasn’t possible to go back even for a short while. Like all the other women, I was in the clutches of these barbarians.’

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Illustration © Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost

She got up and drank some water. Yet, when she started speaking again it seemed as though her throat was parched. Anand sat like a statue and listened to her. And she kept speaking as though there was no one else beside her.

‘Suddenly it occurred that perhaps Prem was looking for me. There he was, roaming around the same sumbul tree at the very place where I had been collecting firewood that day. The waters of the Ravi lapped nearby. Could it be that he had told my son that the Muslims had abducted me from this spot? The thought made me even sadder...

‘He had barely learnt to speak properly. One day, when he will weave together many sharp, hurtful comments in that one word – “Musalman” – and say it in his lisping voice, what answer will I give him? What would he be thinking right now? Where else would he be looking for his mother besides the sturdy trunk of the sumbul tree? Oh, how he must be calling out to me: “Ma! Ma!”

‘“May the mother lay down her life for her darling child!” the words escaped from my lips quite without my volition. But my voice did not reach him, and I became increasingly more restless.

‘Suddenly, all hell broke loose as he, stumbling and tottering in his attempt to walk, fell down beside the river. The waves lapped close by and I could contain myself no longer. In the blink of an eye, I jumped out of the second-floor window from where I had been watching this spectacle, on to the single-storey house next door. Where that straw thatch broke and where I slid and slipped, I have no recollection. All I can recall now is that the spot where I landed on the ground was full of mud and filth. But I didn’t have the time to stop. Without a second thought, I ran towards the river.

‘I was swimming with all my strength. My eyes were trained to that spot on the other bank when I saw him come running to pick up Prem in his arms. Finally, I drew a long breath. Now I could feel my exhaustion. At the same time, I could hear a lot of commotion on the bank I had left behind. I turned my head around and saw that all the Muslims of the village had gathered at the shore. Some were pulling out a boat. I could hear different voices. It was then I realised what I had done and that if I were to be caught now what the consequences could be for me.

‘Everyone had their eyes trained on me. I stopped swimming. I began to duck under the water. Then I dived deep under the waves to give them the impression that I was drowning.

‘In the middle of all this, when I briefly raised my head above the water, I saw Prem on his way home, being carried by his father in his arms. How I longed to call out to them: “Stop! I am coming too! We will go back together from the very spot where you had lost me one day.” But then I was reminded of the Muslims on the other shore and I began to duck and dive under the water, flailing my arms and pretending to drown. After doing this for a couple of times, when I began to swim in real earnest, I realised I hadn’t eaten a full meal for the past several days. I didn’t have the strength anymore. By now I had reached the middle of the river. I had sustained several injuries when I had jumped from that house which the cold water was now enhancing. But once again, I was reminded of Prem. I thought of him and I imagined how he would see me and cling to my breasts and begin to glug away at the milk from my breasts. And it began to seem to me that I was no longer swimming by the strength of my arms, but my breasts!

‘Evening had fallen by the time I reached the other shore. My village was at some distance above the river. The moment I set foot on the riverbank, all my fatigue and all my worries slipped away.

I was finally free. I had reached the soil of my Hindustan. My soul trembled.

I cannot describe the state of my feelings at that moment. All I could feel was as though someone had crept into my heart and was now dancing with joy. Despite the weight of my wet clothes, I ran towards my village. My wet clothes were clinging to each other. My feet were falling awkwardly on the uneven ground. Yet I didn’t stumble even once. I didn’t slip. I just kept running on and on.

‘Several lamps were lit in our village, as though a garland of lamps was ready in anticipation of my return. Above and beyond them, I could see the light in our two-storey house. Ours was the only two-storey house in the village. My in-laws had been moneylenders for the past several generations. And everyone from all the neighbouring villages knew them.

‘As I was approaching my home, I thought about how tomorrow people from all around would come to congratulate them, for their daughter-in-law had escaped from the clutches of the tyrants. Everyone would talk about my courage and bravery. Women from far and near would come to see me – I who had, all on my own, crossed that river of blood and escaped alive. And Prem? He would fill several questions in that one word and ask: “Muslaman?” I had resolved to pick a quarrel with my husband tonight itself: Why had he told this child everything? Why could he not have said that I had gone to my mother’s? But then he would have said: “How could I have said that? Your mother had come here looking for you. She had sat here for a long time, crying, with Prem in her lap.” And I thought how happy my mother would be to see me alive. She would cry yet again, but this time, her tears would be of joy. She always cries when I leave her home for my in-laws’ home. Yet she never lets me stay with her too long. She always says: “There’s no place for a daughter in her mother’s house after she has got married. Her good fortune lies at her husband’s feet in his home.”

These thoughts were going around in my head and I did not realise when I had reached the door of my house. I spotted him closing the main door and pulling up the latch. A mischief entered my heart: Here he was closing the door of his house when it was actually time for him to open the door of his heart. I wanted to knock on the door and, each time he asked “Who’s there?” I would hide. And keep doing this several times till, finally, he would get fed up and open the door and come looking for the thief till this clump of bushes where I would be hiding and... But it so happened that the first time I knocked, he asked, “Who’s there?” And I stayed silent. Again, his voice came, “Who’s there?”... But the door did not open the door.

I understood that the fear of recent incidents weighed on his mind. Clearly he would not open the door. I felt sorry for him. I, too, could not remain silent after hearing his voice. Quickly, I answered, “Nirmala!”

‘I don’t know why my voice was so low as though I was whispering in someone’s ear. But he heard me and in a voice laden with surprise, he said, “You” and then there was an utter silence. It was so quiet as though the blood pulsing through all the arteries all over the world had stopped. And even that moment, that completely silent moment, passed in what seemed like an eon. And the next moment passed in a similar fashion. But the door did not open. Perhaps he could not believe his ears.

I had heard that people are known to faint when they come in the grip of an unexpected happiness and some have been known to even die! I began to slap on the door loudly... “Open the door... Open the door... It is I, Nirmala... Nirmala...”

'Finally the door opened and I saw it wasn’t my husband –’

And she fell silent suddenly, as though she was scared. She looked at Anand as though she had never seen him before. The story had reached this point where it had given him such a severe jolt that he sat up straight. ‘Who was it then?’ he asked anxiously.

‘It wasn’t my husband,’ Without any especial inflection in her voice, she simply repeated the sentence. ‘He who had held my hand in front of all the assembled guests, he who had taken all sorts of vows amidst the chanting of sacred verses, and made all sorts of promises – he looked like that man but... I don’t know what had happened to him at that moment. At first, he pretended as though he didn’t recognise me. Then, in an extremely cold voice, he asked me why I had come back.

‘It seemed as though someone had plunged a dagger made out of ice into my heart.

My blood turned into cubes of ice and blocked my veins. And my tongue began to jab like a piece of dried wood. What could I say in reply? How could I tell him what I had come to do?

‘Suddenly I heard the clack of my father-in-law’s wooden clogs. He entered the courtyard clad, as always, in a shawl imprinted with the name of Ram. I stepped forward and touched his feet but he did not even bless me. He looked at his son questioningly and then at me. He simply uttered, “Ram Ram!” as though he was seeking refuge from my impure touch in the name of Ram.

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Illustration © Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost

‘And then a deathly silence spread over us. The three of us avoided looking directly at each other. A sense of guilt was sweeping over me, till finally it seemed to me in the midst of this fearful silence as though someone had branded every part of my body with the stigma of shame — flaming stigma that had been scorched in a raging fire. From under my wet clothes, I could see each and every part of my body – naked and burning. Finally, the sense that I was wearing any clothes at all left me and I began to feel that I was standing stark naked before my father-in-law. I don’t know what came over me; I reached out and plucked the shawl from his shoulders, the one that carried the name of Ram. I covered my body with it. But I was still naked.

“Hush!” my father-in-law tried to shush me in a low whisper. “People will wake up. They think you are dead...”

“It’s a lie... Everyone knows they abducted the girls from our village,” I had finally found my tongue. “It’s true that everyone says that their daughter jumped in the river to save her honour. So will none of them now accept their daughters back?”

“Who keeps the ghosts of the dead in their homes?”

“O dear Lord, such injustice!” And I began to cry.

“It isn’t injustice; it is simply the way of the world. No one can stay here without their honour intact,” my father-in-law was explaining to me with the utmost calm. “You used to read the Ramayana every day. Had Bhagwan Ram himself not turned away Sita for the sake of upholding his family’s honour? And then Mother Sita was a sati, chaste...”

‘Mother Sita was a sati – with these words he placed a taunting ember on my body, due to which all the other scars began to smoulder once again. I cursed the saints and hermits who had written the Ramayana. Is this why they had written the Ramayana? Is this why Hindu women are instructed to read the Ramayana every day? Is this why these sages had made every husband into a Lord, so that all their cruelties gain the testimonial of tradition? And my customary Lord was standing there quietly and listening to everything.

‘I felt no anger for him. The man who watches his wife surrounded by other men and runs away like a coward... What else can be expected from him but to see me destroyed for the sake of upholding his family’s name and honour?

‘As I was leaving that house, my father-in-law applauded me: “You have shown great wisdom in coming here in the darkness of the night. Or else the honour of this great family would have been trampled in the dust.”

‘As I was coming away he said to me, as though to offer me comfort, “There’s no need to feel sad; we have extracted a full vengeance. We have taken more women from them compared to the women they abducted from our village. We have brought them to our village and settled them in our homes.”

‘Annoyed, I said. “Yes, of course it is a matter of great pride to keep them in your home.” My father-in-law’s chest looked as though it would burst with pride. Gesturing towards the inner quarters of the house, he said: “We have two of them.”

“I could hear no more. I began to feel as though I was still caught in the snare of the pimps who abducted and sold women as slaves.

‘I ran and kept on running. I was running and I was wondering where I would go. I could see exactly the same fate awaiting the chaste women in Hindustan that was their lot in Pakistan. Both countries belonged to those men who had torn aside the false veils of civility and, showing their true colours, begun to dance around the naked bodies of women.

There was no place for women in both countries. Like land, they had divided our bodies but no one wanted to take a woman who was a mother in their lot.

‘I was thinking of all this as I was running. I could find no refuge. Everywhere I could only see the land of Hindustan, and on it, I could see the stains of blood of those women who had been raped jointly by Hindustan and Pakistan. The two had come together for this bestiality. I wanted to go somewhere far away from the reach of both of them.

‘In front of me was the Ravi, and she too seemed hemmed in by Pakistan, like I was. India was holding her from one side and Pakistan from the other. And yet her pure waters were running away in a bid to save their honour and sanctity. I had found my companion. I thought she would save me and take me along. I was tired and I couldn’t run alone any longer. And so I put myself in her lap but... she left me behind. Perhaps because I wasn’t pure like her. I had been robbed of my honour...’

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Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014); a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015) and Krishan Chandar's partition novel Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017); and in the past year a literary biography of the Urdu poet Shahryar for Harper Collins; The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War (Bloomsbury); Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu (Niyogi), and most recently, Kaifiyat, a translation of Kaifi Azmi’s poems for Penguin Random House. She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.

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