The Train Has Reached Amritsar
There were very few passengers in the compartment. The Sardarji, sitting opposite me, had been telling me stories about the war. He had fought on the Burmese front, and every time he talked about the white soldiers, he laughed at them derisively. There were also three Pathan traders in the compartment. One of them, dressed in green, lay stretched out on the upper berth. He was a jovial man who had joked throughout the journey with a frail-looking Babu. That Babu seemed to be from Peshawar, because at times they talked to each other in Pushto. On the berth opposite me and to my right sat an old woman whose head and shoulders were covered. She had been telling the beads of her rosary for quite some time. There may have been other passengers in the compartment, but I can't remember them anymore.
The train moved slowly, the passengers gossiped with each other, the wheat fields outside swayed gently in the breeze, and I was happy because I was going to Delhi to watch the Independence Day celebrations.
When I think back on those days, they seem to be shrouded in mist. Perhaps the past always seems hazy. And as the future opens up before us, the past becomes even more indistinct.
The decision to create Pakistan had just been announced, and people speculated about the shape of things to come. But no one could foresee the future clearly. The Sardarji, sitting opposite me, asked me repeatedly whether I thought Jinnah Sahib would continue to live in Bombay or move to Pakistan. My answer was always the same: "Why should he leave Bombay? What would be the point? He can always go to Pakistan and come back." There was speculation about which side of the border Lahore and Gurdaspur would find themselves. Nothing had changed in the way people talked to each other or joked together. A few people had abandoned their homes and run away, while those who had chosen to stay back had merely laughed at them. No one knew what to do, what steps to take. Some people rejoiced at the creation of Pakistan; others rejoiced at India's independence. In a few places there had been riots, but in other places preparations were being made for the celebration of freedom. Given the country's history, everyone felt that after Independence the riots would automatically stop. However, the golden glow of freedom was surrounded by uncertainty [End Page 1] and darkness. Only occasionally did one catch a glimpse of the future through the surrounding haze.
Soon after we crossed the Jhelum, the Pathan sitting on the upper berth untied a bundle, took out chunks of boiled meat and nan, and offered them to the passengers. In his jovial way, he invited the Babu sitting next to me to share them with him. "Here, Babu, eat. You will become strong like us. Your wife will be pleased. Eat it, dalkhor. You are weak because you only eat dal."
Everyone in the compartment laughed. The Babu smiled, shook his head, and said something in Pushto.
The other Pathan joined in the teasing and said, "Oh, zalim, if you don't want it from our hands, pick it up yourself. I swear it's only goat's meat and nothing else."
The Pathan sitting on the upper berth chuckled and added, "Oh, son of a swine, no one will know. We won't tell your wife. If you share meat with us, we'll drink dal with you."
Everyone laughed. The Babu smiled, shook his head, and said something in Pushto again.
"How can we let you sit there and stare at us while we eat? It's not courteous." The Pathans were in a good mood.
"He doesn't want to take food from you because you haven't washed your hands," the fat Sardarji said and tittered at his own joke. He was reclining on the berth, and half his belly had spilled over. "The Babu doesn't want to accept meat from your hands because you have just woken up and have begun eating. There is no other reason." As he said that, he looked at me, winked, and tittered.
"If you don't eat meat, you should travel in the ladies' compartment. Why sit here?" Again, the whole compartment laughed. There were other passengers in the compartment, but a sort of informality had grown among those of us who had been together since the beginning.
"Oh, zalim, come and sit, sit with me. Let's tell each other stories," one of the Pathans said.
The train stopped at a station, and lots of new passengers pushed their way in.
"What station is it?" someone asked.
"Wazirabad, I hope," I replied, looking out of the window.
The train didn't stop there for long. But before it left, there was a minor incident. A man had stepped down from the next compartment to get some water. He had just begun to fill his pot when he suddenly turned around with a start and ran back. Some water spilled out of his pot. But the manner in which he had been startled was revealing in itself. Others who were standing around the tap also ran back towards their compartments. I had seen people run in fear like that before. Within a few seconds, the platform was deserted. Inside our compartment, however, people were still laughing and joking. [End Page 2]
"Something is wrong," the Babu sitting next to me muttered.
Something was certainly wrong. But none of us was able to find out what had happened. Since I had seen many riots, I could sense the slight change in the atmosphere. The sound of doors shutting, people standing on rooftops, and an eerie silence—they were all the signs of a riot.
Suddenly, there was an altercation at the door opposite the one that opened onto the platform. Some passengers were trying to get in.
"There is no room in here. Don't try to force your way in!" someone shouted.
Shut the door! Can't you see there is no room! People think they can push their way in! Many passengers shouted at the same time.
As long as a passenger outside tries to force his way in, people inside oppose him. But the moment he gets in, all opposition subsides and he becomes a part of the inner world of the compartment, and at the next station he begins to shout and scream at other passengers trying to get in. "There is no room here—go to the next compartment! People think they can walk in!…"
The commotion at the door increased. A man who had a drooping moustache and was wearing tattered clothes was trying to squeeze his way into the compartment. From his filthy clothes, it appeared that he worked in a halwai's shop. Without paying attention to the protests of the other passengers, he turned around and began pulling in an enormous black trunk.
"Come on, climb in!" he shouted to someone behind him. A thin, frayed woman climbed up, followed by a young, dark girl of sixteen or seventeen. People continued to scream at them. The Sardarji had to get up and sit on his berth.
Shut the door! People barge in as if they are walking into their father's house! Don't let anyone else in! What are you doing? Push him out! Everyone shouted at the same time.
The man continued to pull his trunk in while his wife and daughter stood against the restroom door.
Couldn't you have found another compartment?…Did you have to bring women in here too?…
The man was breathless, and his clothes were soaked through with sweat. Having pulled in the trunk, he began hauling in a bundle of wooden legs for his cot.
"I have a ticket. We are not travelling without tickets. I was lucky to reach the station." Suddenly all the passengers fell silent.
But the Pathan sitting on the lower berth yelled, "Get out of here! Can't you see there is no room?" Blind with rage, he suddenly got up and tried to kick the man. Unfortunately, he missed him, and the kick landed on the wife's stomach. She screamed with pain and collapsed on the floor.
The man had no time to argue with the passengers. He was much too busy collecting his luggage. But an ominous silence descended on the compartment. The man began pulling in large bundles packed with his things. [End Page 3] Seeing that, the Pathan sitting on the upper berth lost his patience and yelled, "Throw him out! Who does he think he is?!" The Pathan sitting on the lower berth got up and threw the man's trunk out the door of the compartment. It fell at the feet of a coolie in a red uniform.
No one interfered. Only the old woman sitting in a corner muttered, "Have some pity. Be kind to them and let them come in. Come, child, come and sit next to me. We'll somehow manage! Leave them alone, you scoundrels, let them in."
Before the man could pull all his baggage in, the train began to move.
"My luggage! My luggage has been left behind!" he screamed in despair.
"Father, our luggage is still outside," said the girl as she trembled with fear.
"Get down, down!" shouted the man in despair. He threw the rest of his luggage out and, holding the iron bars of the door, jumped down himself. His terrified daughter and his wife, who was still groaning with pain, followed him.
"You are cruel people—that was an awful thing to have done," the old woman protested loudly. "There is no pity left in your hearts. He had a young daughter. You are cruel, pitiless people. You pushed them out."
The train sped past the deserted platform. There was an uneasy silence in the compartment. No one had the courage to defy the Pathans.
Just then, the frail Babu sitting next to me touched my arm and whispered, "Fire. Look, something is burning."
The train had left the city behind. We saw flames leaping out of the clouds of smoke that rose above the city.
"A riot. That is why people were scared at the platform. There has been a clash somewhere."
The city was in flames. The passengers in the compartment rushed to the windows to catch a glimpse of the fire.
After the train left the city far behind, there was silence in the compartment. When I turned around to look at the passengers, I noticed that the Babu's face was pale and that his forehead was covered with sweat. He looked deathly pale. I realized then that each passenger was nervous and suspicious of his neighbour. The Sardarji got up from his seat and sat down next to me. The Pathan on the lower berth climbed up to join his two companions on the upper berth. Perhaps the conditions in the other compartments were the same. Everyone was tense. The lights had been turned off. The old woman was telling her rosary. The three Pathans on the upper berth quietly watched everyone below. The passengers were alert to everything around them.
"What station was that?" someone asked.
"Wazirabad," another person replied.
The name produced a strange reaction amongst the passengers. The Pathans became less tense while the silence amongst the Hindus and Sikhs [End Page 4] became more ominous. One of the Pathans took some snuff out of a small box and sniffed it. The other Pathans did the same. The old woman continued to tell her beads over and over again and mutter something in a hoarse voice.
There was an ominous silence at the next station where the train stopped. Not even a bird was in sight. A mushqee, however, walked across the deserted platform with a bag full of water on his back, offering some to the passengers. "Water, come and drink water," he cried. The women and children sitting in the ladies' compartment stretched out their hands.
"There's been a communal riot here. Many people have been killed." It appeared as if he was the only man who had stepped out to do a good deed.
As soon as the train began to move, people pulled their windows down. One could hear, over the clatter of the wheels, the loud rattle of windows being pulled shut in compartments far away.
The Babu was so terrified that he jumped up from his seat and lay down flat on the floor. His face was tense with fear. Seeing him thus, one of the Pathans on the upper berth mockingly said, "Oh, coward, are you a man or a woman? Don't lie there on the floor. You are a disgrace to all men." Then he added something in Pushto and laughed. The Babu lay on the floor without saying anything in reply. The other passengers sat in tense silence. The atmosphere in the compartment was charged with fear.
"We won't let a coward stay in our compartment. Oh, Babu, get out at the next station and go sit in the ladies' compartment."
The Babu's lips were dry. He stammered something and then fell silent. After some time he got up, dusted his clothes, and resumed his seat. I didn't know why he had decided to lie on the floor. Maybe when he heard the sound of the shutters being pulled down, he thought that people outside were either throwing stones or firing at the train.
I was confused. It was possible that one person had, in panic, pulled the shutters of his window down and that others had instinctively followed his example.
Tense and nervous, we continued on our journey. The night outside grew darker. The passengers watched each other suspiciously. Whenever the train slowed down, they stared at each other apprehensively. Whenever it stopped, the silence became unbearable. Only the Pathans seemed to be unconcerned. After a while, however, they too stopped chatting because no one was in the mood to talk to them.
A little later the Pathans began to doze, while the other passengers continued to stare anxiously into nothingness. The old woman covered her head, folded her legs up on the seat, and went to sleep. One of the Pathans, climbing onto the upper berth once again, pulled out his rosary and began counting the black beads mechanically.
The moon had appeared in the sky by then, and the world outside seemed even more mysterious and threatening. In the far distance, we [End Page 5] [Begin Page 8] occasionally saw flames leaping up into the sky. Cities were burning all around us. There were times when the train screamed through the night; at other times, it crawled for miles.
Suddenly the Babu, who had been looking out the window, shouted excitedly. "We have crossed Harbanspura!" All the other passengers were startled by his shrill voice. They turned to look at him.
"Oh, Babu, why are you screeching?" the Pathan with the rosary asked in surprise. "Do you want to get down here? Shall I pull the chain?" He continued to make fun of the Babu. It was obvious that he neither had heard of Harbanspura nor was aware of its importance to the passengers.
The Babu didn't say anything in reply. He merely shook his head, looked at the Pathan, and turned around to look out the window again.
Everyone in the compartment was silent. The engine blew its whistle and slowed down. There was a loud clatter of the wheels. Perhaps the train had changed tracks. The Babu continued to lean out the window and stare ahead.
"We have arrived!" he shouted again in excitement. "We have arrived in Amritsar!" He leapt up, whipped around to face the Pathan, and began shouting, "Come down, you bastard! You son of a bitch!…May your mother…"
The Babu began to hurl filthy curses at the Pathan. With the rosary in his hand, the Pathan turned to look at the Babu and said, "Oh, Babu, what's the matter? What have I said?"
Seeing the Babu greatly agitated, the other passengers sat up.
"Come down, you son of a bitch!…You dared to kick a Hindu woman, you bastard!…"
"Oh, Babu, stop cursing and screaming. I'll cut your tongue out, you son of a pig."
"You dare to abuse me! May your mother…" The Babu shouted as he stood on his seat. He was trembling with rage.
"Enough, enough," the Sardarji said. "Don't fight. We don't have far to go now."
"I'll break your legs! You think the train belongs to you?!" the Babu continued to shout.
"Oh, Babu, what have I said? Everyone wanted to throw them out, so I pushed them. Why curse me alone? If you don't stop, I'll cut out your tongue."
The old woman pleaded, "Please sit down and be calm. Please, in the name of God, be calm."
The Babu seemed to be possessed and was muttering something incoherently. He continued to shout, "You pretend to be brave like a lion in your own backyard! Now talk, you son of a bitch!"
The train slowly pulled into the Amritsar station. The platform was crowded. The people who peered into the compartment wanted to ask [End Page 8] only one thing: "What's happening back there? Where have the riots broken out?"
The entire platform was buzzing with talk about the riots. The passengers in the train had pounced upon the few hawkers on the platform. They were hungry and thirsty.
A few Pathans appeared at the window of our compartment. The moment they spotted the Pathans inside, they began talking to them in Pushto. I looked around for the Babu. He was nowhere in sight. I was disturbed. He had been trembling with rage. I didn't know what he would do. The Pathans in our compartment collected their bundles and left with the other Pathans to sit in a compartment further up. This segregation, which had taken place earlier in our compartment, was now taking place in the entire train.
The crowd around the hawkers began to thin out. People started walking back towards their compartments. I suddenly saw the Babu. His face was still pale, and a lock of hair had fallen across his forehead. As he came closer, I noticed that he was carrying an iron rod in his hand. I didn't know where he had found it. Before entering the compartment, he hid the rod behind his back, and as he sat down on the seat next to mine, he slipped it under the berth. When he raised his eyes, he was startled to find that the Pathans were no longer sitting on the upper berth.
"The bastards have run away. The sons of bitches…they have all escaped." He stood up and started shouting angrily, "Why did you let them escape?! You are all impotent and cowardly!"
The train was very crowded. Many new passengers had boarded it. No one paid him any attention.
The train began to move, and once again, he sat down on the seat next to me. But he was very upset and continued muttering to himself.
The train lurched forward. The passengers who had travelled with us had eaten as many puris as they could and had quenched their thirst. The train was now passing through a region in which there was no danger to their lives and property.
The new passengers were gossiping. The train had begun to move at a steady pace. Soon the passengers began to doze. But the Babu continued to stare into space. He repeatedly asked me where the Pathans had gone after getting down from the berth. He seemed to be possessed.
Soon even I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement of the train. There was no space to lie down, so I slept where I sat. My body swayed with the train. Sometimes when I woke up, I heard the Sardarji lying on the opposite berth snoring comfortably. He looked like a corpse. Indeed, I felt, looking at the awkward postures people were reposing in, that I was travelling on a train full of dead bodies. The Babu, however, was restless. He sometimes leaned out of the window and sometimes sat still, his back erect against the wall. [End Page 9]
Whenever the train stopped at a station and the clatter of its wheels ceased, a deep silence fell over everything. In such a silence, even the sound of something falling, or the footsteps of someone getting down, startled me out of my sleep.
Once when I woke up, I noticed that the train was moving slowly. It was dark inside the compartment. All the lights had been switched off. I looked out of the window and saw the red light of a signal glowing somewhere far behind. We had just passed a station, but the train had not yet picked up speed.
I heard a vague sound outside the compartment. Then, still half asleep, I saw the shadow of something moving. I stared at it for a while and then forgot about it. It was nearly dawn.
Suddenly, I heard someone outside bang on the door of the compartment. I turned around to look. The door was shut. I again heard someone bang on the door. It seemed as if someone was hitting the door with a stick. When I leaned outside the window, I saw a man on the footboard of the compartment. He had a lathi in his hand and a bundle over his shoulder. His clothes were dirty, and he had a beard. When I looked down, I saw a woman running barefoot alongside the train. She was carrying two bundles in her hands. Because of their weight, she couldn't run fast. The man standing on the footboard urged her again and again, "Come on, climb up!"
The man banged on the door with his lathi and called out, "Open the door! In the name of Allah, open the door!"
He was breathless. "In the name of Allah, open the door! There is a woman with me. She'll be left behind…"
I saw the Babu jump up from his seat, rush to the window, and ask, "Who is it? There is no room in here."
The man outside pleaded, "For the sake of Allah, she'll be left be-hind…"
The man pushed his hand in through the window and groped for the latch.
"There is no room in here. Get down from the train!" the Babu screamed, and in the next instant he pulled the door open with a jerk.
"Ya Allah," I heard the man exclaim with relief.
At that very instant, I saw the iron rod flash in the Babu's hand. He gave the man a sharp blow on his head. I was so shocked that I couldn't move. At first I thought that the blow had had no effect. The man still held on to the bars of the door. The bundle had slipped down his shoulder and hung on his arm.
Two or three thin streams of blood began to flow down the man's face. In the faint light of the morning, I saw the man grimace with pain. He uttered "Ya Allah" a few times, groaned, and staggered. He looked at the Babu with eyes that were barely open, as if trying to ask his assailant what [End Page 10] crime he had committed. The shadows of the night scattered. I saw terror on the man's face.
The woman, who was running along the track, was shouting and cursing. She didn't know what had happened. She thought that her husband had staggered under the weight of the bundle he was carrying. Running beside him, she kept trying to place his feet back on the footboard of the compartment.
Suddenly, the man's grip on the door handles loosened, and he fell to the ground like a tree that had been chopped down. As soon as he fell, the woman stopped running, as if both of them had reached their journey's end at the same time.
The Babu stood at the door like a statue. The iron bar was still in his hand. His arm didn't seem to have the strength to throw it away. I was afraid and sat unnoticed in my corner, staring at him.
After some time, the Babu stirred. A strange impulse made him lean out the door and look back. Somewhere far behind, next to the railway tracks, lay a dark heap. The train continued on its journey.
The Babu roused himself out of his trance. He threw the iron rod out the door, then turned around and cast his eyes over the passengers. They were all asleep. He didn't notice me.
He closed the door shut. After examining his clothes carefully, he checked both his hands and sniffed them to see if they smelled of blood. After that, he walked quietly across the compartment and sat down on his seat.
Slowly, the morning sun dispelled the darkness. Bright and clear light spread over everything. No one had pulled the chain to stop the train. The body of the man who had fallen had been left miles behind. The wheat fields swayed gently in the breeze.
The Sardarji woke up and scratched his body. The Babu sat quietly with his hands behind his head and stared into space. There was a shadow of a beard on his face.
Seeing the Babu sitting opposite him, the Sardar laughed and said, "You look frail, Babu, but you are brave. You showed real courage back there. The Pathans got scared of you and ran away. If they had stayed here, you would have smashed the heads of all of them."
The Babu smiled in reply—a terrifying smile. He continued to stare at the Sardar's face for a long time.
Bhisham Sahni was born in 1915 in Rawalpindi. He is a prolific translator and author of fiction and plays. His novel Tamas (Darkness), translated into English in 1988, received international notice for its portrayal of the communal riots during Partition. In addition to writing in Hindi, Sahni writes in English, Urdu, Sanskrit, Russian, and Punjabi. He has translated twenty-five books from Russian into Hindi, including Tolstoy’s Resurrection and has received two Sahitya Akademi Awards, the Madhya Pradesh Kala Sahitya Parishad Award, the Shiromani Writers Award, the Lotus Award from the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, and the Soviet Land Nehru Award.
Alok Bhalla has a doctorate from Kent State University and is a professor of English literature at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad. He has published extensively on translation theory, literature, and politics and has recently edited a collection of stories, Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home (Oxford University Press, 2006).