A science student turned storyteller with a secret love for languages, I finally realised, even that tiny mushroom growing in the backyard of my house had a story to tell! Wouldn’t you agree? Having spent five years learning the Japanese language, I love mixing cultures in my narratives and creating unique concepts out of it. I feel the best stories come from people, whoever they are and from wherever they come. To add to my stash of those, I have gone around collecting ideas on the streets at home, through the lanes of London until I finally came around to possessing a diary full of such tales. From this point forward, it shall be kept for posterity.
Life unfolds in seven stages for the migrant Mukherjee family from East Pakistan as they journey through decades seeking freedom, respect and a home. There is always a price for crossing lines, but are they willing to pay it? A tale of love, loss and struggle, the runaway Mukherjees look for acceptance in a land they can’t call their own.
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
That’s what Nehru had promised. He kept his promise alright. India did get its freedom. But, at the stroke of midnight, along with millions of others, Birendranath Mukherjee had lost both of what was promised to him – the life he had in his own land and the freedom in the one he was heading to.
Dacca, East Pakistan
It wasn’t until Birendranath felt a tug at his sleeves when he looked down at Paritosh pointing towards Anupama walking behind them. The bullock cart which had carried them had only managed to come till Manikganj, stopping short of six more hours on foot until Goalundo Ghat. Birendranath slowed down, balancing the small aluminium trunk on his head to see what his son had to say. The fatigue from the three-hour toil had started to show on the little boy’s face. His frail shoulders had distinct carmine lines running across them on the right side. The coarse jute straps of the bag had cut through his soft skin, leaving the gashes bare in the afternoon sun. –
Birendranath looked at his three-year-old following his tiny index finger towards Anupama. She was a few steps behind hobbling slowly towards them. Behind her, masses of people walked on the dirt paths with cloth bundles scantily filled with whatever they could have grabbed from their homes. A few fortunate ones who could afford not letting their feet touch the ground rode away on bullock carts, carrying bigger bundles with them. Apart from a few wheels amidst the people, feet covered in dust and sweat was all that he could see. The grassy patches on the sides lay trampled under the weight of thousands of people dragging themselves towards the river bank. The vast land looked as parched as the people who trudged on them.
Birendranath’s eyes went down to Anupama’s feet and eventually to her bloodied slippers. Her feet left a faint crimson outline of her footprint in the dirt. His mind went back to the day that she had entered his house for the first time as his bride, her feet dyed red with bright alta. She had looked nothing less than a goddess. His mother, along with other elderly women of the family, had waited eagerly for the newlyweds to arrive home. They had then made Anupama dip her feet in alta again and walk all the way inside from the entrance, leaving bright red footprints behind her as she made her way in – signs of a goddess entering the house. But now, her divine glow was gone. The butter-coloured cotton sari that she wore was torn at her knee on one of the inner pleats, which she had hidden with another one over it. The sweat made her sari stick to her body, giving away her heavily pregnant belly underneath it.
Anupama was nine months pregnant. This would have been their third child, had the first one’s heartbeat not stopped in her womb. The local astrologer had predicted that she was to deliver this child today and that it would be a boy. Birendranath was there with her when they had first visited him. The man had taken a handsome fee and given her one of those red stones in return saying that it would protect her and her unborn. Mounted on a silver ring on her right ring finger, she wore the stone on her at all times. Each time she prayed, she would touch the ring and hover her fingers over it. Now, her left hand clutched the ring as tightly as she could.
She was still a few steps behind and slowed down to take a breath. Paritosh left his father’s side and went running to her. As he came to a halt right before her belly, she stopped for a moment, stunned, as she looked at the marks of dried blood on the boy’s shoulders, the brown shade of it mixing smoothly with the brown of his skin. Her eyes met Birendranath’s, closing the distance between them and inflicting him with a pain that she was not able to voice out loud.
A bunch of men on swift feet moved past her like a herd of scared animals looking for shelter. She quickly pulled Paritosh out of their way towards herself. Nobody had the time to care if a child was trampled under the feet of rushing men and women while crossing countries. It would just become another unfortunate casualty reported alongside thousands of other unknown people the next day. Anupama was scared, and her face gave it away as the dust rose around her in small eddies from the feet of all those running people. As the crowd advanced towards Birendranath, he stepped aside, making room for the sprinters. They moved to the side where their pace matched that of the other tired travellers. He squinted his eyes to find Anupama covering her mouth and that of their son, waiting for the crowd to pass. Her eyes looked morose under her dripping brows which she quickly dabbed at.
But Birendranath had traced the single teardrop that had run down her cheek. He watched her pull herself together and resume walking towards him, holding the boy close to her. He sensed the immense amount of strength she was putting into her movements, in each step and each breath. He looked straight into her eyes, aching to reduce himself to ashes just to be worthy enough to hand her some of his strength.
Yes, you are almost here, just a few more steps, Anu.
Even with the masses of people rushing past him, his gaze remained fixed on Anupama. Seeing her walk towards him carrying one of his children inside her while holding the other one outside, a momentary fear gripped him. What if she went into labour now? What if everybody started running? He vehemently brushed aside the voice in his head, which kept saying that she would die before they even made it past the border. He prayed to the ten-handed Goddess Durga in the back of his head. Ma, Calcutta is not that far away. It is not. Don’t take her away from me before our feet touch its soil.
He put the aluminium trunk on the ground as he waited. Anupama’s weight was slowing her down by each minute and tiring her more by each. As she reached him, he engulfed her in a warm embrace. She let her body fall freely in his arms, letting go of all her weight at once. He managed to catch her just in time, one hand shooting right under her belly to provide support while he held her with another.
“Anu, are you alright? Tell me, do you feel fine?” asked Birendranath, his voice ridden with panic as he let the cloth bundles slide from his shoulders to put all his strength into her. Her face had become pale, a slight grey, like the colour of the moon on nights when he would sneak up behind her and put his arms around her waist as she put their infant son to sleep. She nodded a tired yes to his questions. He pulled out a water container from one of the bundles and clunked the lid open, handing it to Anupama. As she took small sips of the warm water, Birendranath noticed that it was almost noon. They had left their house the previous night, and now their shadows lay pooled around their feet. He took the water container from her hands and slowly made her sit on the trunk. He hoped that a few minutes of rest should give them some strength to keep going on. But, the moment Anupama sat down, she winced and tried to stand up immediately, failing in her attempt to do so. The metal trunk had become hot. Birendranath instantly picked up one of the cloth bundles off the ground and smoothed it out over the trunk to create a buffer for the heat. Even though she sat, there was still no escaping it.
Birendranath took her face in his hands, looking at her fluttering eyelids. “We are not going to die in a land that has chosen to abandon us, Anu, do you understand me?” said Birendranath, a sudden ferocity taking over his demeanour. He didn’t know if he would survive this journey. He didn’t even know if they would find shelter once they reached Calcutta or how their child was going to come into this world. But he longed for a chance.
He thought about Faisal, the bearded man with a white skullcap knocking on his door a few days ago. Faisal with his wife and his four children had come to East Pakistan from Calcutta. Their clothes were torn in places and mouths dryer than cracked ground in the middle of a drought. Birendranath wouldn’t have guessed in the world that the man was a reputed school headmaster back in Calcutta had he not told him. Seeing their dilapidated condition, the Mukherjees had taken them in, fed them and clothed them. With a will to repay this debt, Faisal had promised his own house in Calcutta to the Mukherjees. With a broken heart, Birendranath had accepted. Faisal had written their address on a blank sheet of paper signed with his declaration which now lay folded inside Birendranath’s pocket. Faisal had given only one thing to Birendranath and nothing else – his word. And, he wondered if the weight of it was enough to balance the scale on which he walked to reach to the other side.
“They will kill us if we wait for too long, Anu. We have to go now,” Birendranath whispered after a few moments as he noticed one of the uniform-clad men patrolling nearby with a lathi in his hands.
“Can you walk, Anu?” he asked again, his voice apprehensive at seeing her distress. Anupama looked at his face, catching the slight glimmer of hope even amidst the dreariness around. It promised her a life full of dreams and freedom on the other side of the invisible line that now separated East Pakistan from India.
“Yes…I just need a few minutes. I am— I am not able to walk much faster with my weight,” replied Anupama taking in short breaths and holding her belly.
Birendranath knelt in front of her and took her feet in his hands. His eyes became moist at the sight of them. He battled the dilemma of blaming himself for putting her in this position while he also tried to defend himself by blaming their fate for putting them in this. Her skin had cracked around the heels exposing the inner layers to the prickly dust slowly making its way inside the gaping wounds. It had become a slightly reddish shade of brown upon mixing with blood. They, in turn, had a fresh layer of earth neatly covering her whole foot inch by inch. Birendranath took off her thin slipper and slowly wiped her feet with his loose shirt, staining it with scattered patches of red around the hem.
“Anu, half an hour more. Just half an hour. We have almost reached the Padma.”
Birendranath kept repeating the lines as he cleaned Anupama’s feet as if he were reassuring himself instead of her. He knew that the river wasn’t going to be visible for another three hours on foot, yet, he didn’t stop himself from believing that thirty minutes was all that they needed. He took out a piece of cloth from the bundle lying on the ground, tore it in half and tied them on each of her feet. By the time he had finished, a thousand more people had already crossed them.
Birendranath helped Anupama back on her feet, looking more reluctant than her to see her walk again. He then looked at Paritosh who had been standing patiently beside them all this while, watching his father tend to his mother. He smiled at the boy and said, “Make a strong fist and hold the corner of my shirt in it. Make it tight and don’t let go.” Birendranath made a fist himself to show him. Paritosh made a fist back at his father, a broad smile emerging on his dust-ridden face.
“Where are we going, Baba?” asked Paritosh.
“Far away from here. A land where you will be free to dream about anything you want,” replied Birendranath, still smiling.
“But I don’t want to go. Why can’t we stay here and dream?” came another question.
“Because, here, your dreams won’t always be yours,” Birendranath said meekly, patting Paritosh’s head.
After he had slung the two cloth bundles on each shoulder, Birendranath picked up the trunk on his head again. Swarms of people rested on the side of the pathway gulping water or fanning themselves with their clothes. He eased his steps this time to walk beside Anupama. The heated metal of the trunk over his head was separated only by a thin gamcha tied closely till his temples and, it didn’t do much to lull the dizzying swelter. Once a man of repute himself, he was now reduced to being a mule carrying the weights of his worries towards a destination that he knew nothing about. He walked straight without looking behind. He didn’t want to look behind himself anymore. He didn’t want to see the masses of people who were walking behind him, going towards the same destination as dark as the decision that the government had made for them. A decision about their lives that they had no say in.
The corner of Birendranath’s shirt was neatly tucked inside Paritosh’s tiny fist, his little feet tip-tapping beside his father’s giant strides. He was carrying the jute bag on his left shoulder now for the right one made him let out little winces. Birendranath glanced down on his right to his son, wishing he could pick up the little boy in his arms and kiss his wounds. Another wave of sprinters had already passed, and people walked wearily again. As they carried on, he wondered if his son understood what he was going through. He wanted to explain to him why everybody was so desperate to get on the train and why they had left their houses to walk in the heat. Birendranath knew that the boy probably didn’t understand just yet. Now and then, a few men and women continued to rush past everyone as if running ahead guaranteed them some unspoken treasure in the land of happiness. A few bodies lay scattered on the parched ground, abandoned in the selection between survival and respect. Parents closed the eyes of young children as they passed the corpses, making attempts to save them from a lifetime of scarring memories. But Birendranath couldn’t save his son from witnessing that. With this lack of censoring, Paritosh kept his eyes on one of the bodies lying in the dirt. The man’s limbs lay stuck to his torso, stiff and graceless, his face half-buried in the dust that still rose from the feet of others. Flies hovered over his dried lips and crawled up the nostrils looking for moisture. His dead fingers lay locked with each other as if begging the earth to swallow him up. Even in death, respect had eluded him. Birendranath looked ahead, not wanting to cloud his hopes with disfigured faces strewn across his path. But Paritosh’s curious eyes never left the bodies even after he had walked ahead.