- Oranges, Patas, Puddles
Punjab Province, Western India, 1947
Sergei had followed the kafila’s track for days, a path trampled through cornfields and eucalyptus groves and mustard greens, alongside canals and over mud walls and through stretches of uncultivated land like a gigantic goat run, save for the abandoned items at its margins. Clothes and mattresses, carts and brooms and irons, but stranger things too, dropped by Muslims making their way to West Punjab, hounded by Hindus and Sikhs as they fled. Milk bottles, brass inkpots, and a single black shutter, burlap bags stuffed with newly picked cotton, street signs, an entire band’s instruments: chemtas, a bhangra dhol, a tumbi, even a harmonium. Letters tacked to trees addressed to sisters, to fathers, to lost children, a basket filled with dried cow patties near Karnal, never food. From Amritsar it had followed the railroad tracks to Chheharta, then left the roadbed and wound north across country, skirting the towns of Chuganwan and Lopoke, no doubt because of the regular massacres on the trains. Now it had turned west again, toward the hills and the Ravi River.
He swayed in the heat and began to wonder if this were the wrong kafila. His judgment was slipping, and there had been dozens, most starting with the inhabitants of a single village and gathering more followers along the route, growing to a few hundred or a thousand souls as those who had lingered, certain the violence would never touch them, wavered and gave in. The largest was said to have held half a million people and to have taken eight days to pass a single spot, but that would not be where his father was; numbers that large meant it was self-protected.
No, his father was certain to be with a much smaller group of Muslims, one more likely to be in danger. Though raised a Hindu, he professed himself a Marxist, and though Bombay had been calm, far from the rioting and murder, he’d gone north to convince [End Page 127] the Muslims’ attackers they were wrong. This kafila seemed a good bet, as it left the narrowest track of them all. Now and then it followed a path trodden by others before striking off again on its own, whether from fear of attack or because flooding had altered the routes to safety or because a larger and better armed kafila of Hindus and Sikhs had been spotted tramping in the opposite direction it was hard to know.
To the north three Sikhs rode bicycles toward the green hills, kirtans strapped to their backs, silver blades flashing in the sun, and to the south was a town that seemed untouched by the madness: buildings unburned, roofs intact, the sky above it free of circling crows. Downwind, he smelled dung and dusty wheat but not the telltale odor of rotting flesh. His legs ached, his shoulder hurt, his neck was beginning to stiffen, and the urge to continue was losing ground to a growing resentment; an hour’s rest might restore his flagging enthusiasm, so he cut a new path toward the town through sucking mud and shoulder-high brown wheat, its curled leaves rolled, its thin stems shiny black at the base.
The town had indeed remained unmolested; a collection of only a few houses no bigger than Bombay servants’ quarters, it was too small to hold either a mosque or a temple, so neither side would have been tempted to stray from the path to destroy it. Muslim or Hindu? One couldn’t tell from afar, and no one from the kafila would have risked a fatal mistake to find out. Its apparent poverty would have protected it, too. No shaggy ashcocks or stately palms lining its roads, no gardens filled with lemon and lime trees; the town probably had nothing to eat.
At the first house a braying donkey stopped him; he pressed his palm to a dried handprint on the mud wall and listened. The call came again, louder, but it wasn’t one of pain or protest, and he poked his head around the corner to find two donkeys copulating in the middle...