The Night Before
The Night Before4 mins 259 4 mins 259
14 August 1947, Midnight, Sialkot (now in Pakistan)
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny……At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom……..”
A small group of men huddles around the radio trying to catch every word. The measured voice crackling from the overused speakers resonates on the empty street.
They can hear it too, the three subdued figures that quietly cross the front veranda of their house to come out in the street. Saidas is afraid to look back lest the others see the pain reflected in his eyes. He steals a glance at his wife who follows a step behind, firmly holding the hand of their three year old daughter. She believes they will return when the situation improves. He doesn’t. The lone lamp on the main door fights hard to bring a little brightness into an otherwise dark moonless night. He stops and turns to lock the door behind them.
“…..We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again…….”
His only inheritance from his father, the two-storeyed house, served the past four generations of the family and would have continued resolutely had it not been for the line that was drawn through the heart of the nation. The red sandstone walls of the house have witnessed every peak and trough in his life. His birth, his parent’s demise, his marriage, his daughter’s first step, in every occasion the house had been an unconditional backdrop eagerly looking after his needs and desires.
He quickly locks the door and throws the key back inside over the wall. Ali Beg, his friend, has a spare set. He knows he needs to hurry if they hope to catch the special refugee train that runs from Sialkot to Jammu every few hours.
Saidas can’t help but recall how he had initially dug his heels, refusing to move. And then the news had started pouring in. The newborn countries had stumbled in their first step. It is difficult to know if the stories were rumours to initiate mass exodus or a gruesome reality. Some say it started with a minor brawl between two refugee caravans moving in the opposite direction. The earth is now saturated with spilled blood and the winds shiver with the screams of the innocent.
“……It is a fateful moment for us in India……..A new star rises, the star of freedom in the East, a new hope comes into being……..”
“I should have told Ali Beg to water the rose plants every second day,” he thinks, “they wilt if you water too much or too little. Maybe I should have taken them with me. But they say the soil is not as fertile in Jammu. They would have died eventually. Are the roses Hindu or Muslim?”
“Father?” his thoughts are interrupted by his daughter who tries to catch his attention hoping to be picked in his arms. That’s what he does when they go together to the weekly town market. He obliges, drawing her close to his chest hoping to give assurance and drawing comfort from the fact that his world is now in his arms. They quicken their pace along the street. He pats on his pocket to check if the small piece of paper is safe.
“Saidas, I have written to an acquaintance in Jammu to arrange for a place for you,” he remembers Ali Beg’s hopeful voice when he handed Saidas the paper with the address scribbled on it. “You should avoid going to the refugee camps. They are not in a liveable condition. I will pray to Allah for your safety.”
“…. Jai Hind (Victory to India)!”
They hear the applause faintly as they come to the end of the street and turn towards the railway station.
Partition of the British Indian Empire displaced up to 12.5 million people on the basis of religion and also resulted in the dissolution of the empire. Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of independent India made his historical speech ‘Tryst with Destiny’ on the midnight of 14th August 1947 addressing the first constituent assembly of India. It was broadcasted live to the nation over the radio. The riots which ensued stained the optimism of independence. Estimates of loss of life vary from a few thousands to a million.