Do not touch lajwanti, for she will curl up and die.Punjabi folk song
The carnage of the Partition was at last over. Thousands of people joined hands, washed the blood off their bodies, and turned their attention to those who had not been physically mutilated, but whose lives had been shattered and souls had been scarred.
In every lane, in every locality, "Rehabilitation" committees were set up, and in the beginning there was a lot of enthusiasm for programmes like Trade for the Displaced, Land for the Refugees, and Homes for the Dispossessed. There was, however, one that was neglected by everyone. That was the programme for the rehabilitation of women who had been abducted and raped. Its slogan was "Honour them. Give them a place in your hearts." This programme was opposed by the priests of Narain Baba's temple and by all those good and orthodox people who lived in its vicinity.
A committee was formed to campaign for the implementation of the programme by the residents of Mohalla Shakoor, a locality near Narain Baba's temple. Babu Sunderlal was elected its secretary by a majority of eleven votes. According to Sardar Sahib, the lawyer, the old petitioner of Chauki Kalan, and other well-respected people of the locality, no one could be trusted to do the job with greater zeal and commitment than Sunderlal because his own wife had been abducted. Her name was Lajo—Lajwanti.
Every morning Sunderlal, Rasalu, Neki Ram, and others led a procession through the streets of the city. They sang hymns and folk songs. But whenever they started singing, "Do not touch lajwanti/for she will curl up/and die," Sunderlal's voice would begin to choke with tears. He would continue to follow the procession in silence and wonder about Lajwanti's fate: "Where is she now, how is she, does she ever think of me, will I ever see her again?…" As he walked on the hard and stony streets, his steps would falter.
But soon there came a time when he ceased to think about Lajwanti with so much sorrow. To ease his pain, he began to sympathize with the sufferings [End Page 21] of others and immersed himself in service to them. But even though he devoted himself to giving solace to those who needed it, he could not help wondering how fragile human beings really were. A careless word could hurt them. They were delicate like the lajwanti plant; the mere shadow of a hand could make them tremble and wither…And how often had he mistreated Lajwanti himself. How frequently had he thrashed her because he didn't like the way she sat or looked, or the way she served his food!
His poor Lajo was a slender, naive village girl—supple and tender and fresh, like a young mulberry bush! Tanned by the sun, she was full of joyous vitality and restless energy. She moved with the mercurial grace of a drop of dew on a large leaf. When Sunderlal first saw her, he thought that she wouldn't be able to endure hardships. He himself was tough and well built. But he soon realized that she could lift all kinds of heavy weights, bear a lot of suffering, and even tolerate the beatings he gave her. He began to treat her even more cruelly and lost sight of the limit, beyond which the patience of any human being breaks. Lajwanti herself was, perhaps, responsible for the blurring of these limits; for even after the severest of beatings, she would begin to laugh happily if she saw a faint smile on Sunderlal's face. She would run up to him, put her arms around his neck, and say, "If you beat me again, I shall never speak to you…" It would be obvious that she had left the thrashing behind. Like the other girls of the village, she knew that all husbands beat their wives. Indeed, if some men let their wives show independence and spirit, the other women would turn up their noses in contempt and say, "What kind of man is he...