She looked him over carefully. His knees were scathed again, bleeding in parts, just peeled terribly in others. She had cried in the morning, seeing him go again. She knew he didn’t want to. But he loved her, she knew that too. She understood why he went. If he didn’t, the bastards would take her away and … He would then try to kill all of them, and he wouldn’t be able to. The haters are always in majority.
The haters always are.
That is the sad truth of our country now. I’ve lived in Lahore all my life. So has my family. So have their parents, and theirs, and theirs. None of us ever thought of leaving, moving, even shifting lanes. The neighbours, Munshiji and his five daughters, they’re all family. I got to know before Munshiji when Sadashree got hurt. I would be the one running errands for mataji. But now, they have to move. Leave. Eastward bound, and with no other real destination. I cried when I saw them packing, I cried like a madwoman, and Munshiji took me in his arms and told me not to worry, that he’d stay in touch, that it won’t be as far as the leaders made it out to be. It’s only as far as Delhi my dear, we would be so close! I told him I’d come along if it wasn’t for Salim. I told him Salim couldn’t leave, that his parents couldn’t travel at this age, and he would not agree to leave them behind. And I, I just couldn’t go without him.
Munshiji left the day after. We have not heard of them since.
Salim goes every morning, and sometimes doesn’t return for days. When he does, he’s all cut up and it cuts me up even worse to see him like that. He’s got to start listening to me and stand up to the haters. He has to, or one day soon, he won’t come back, and I won’t be able to tell him to anymore.
He groaned loudly as she cleaned his wounds. The day had been horrific. They’d gone to the neighboring village brandishing swords as if they were heroes. They had massacred two whole families while they cried and pleaded and prayed at their feet. He had murdered a little girl, and he wished he could rub these wounds until they pained him to his own death. But he could not, he wasn’t that brave. He was a coward. He cared too much for this woman tending to him like it was all she was ever meant to do. How could he betray her? How could he revolt? How could he tell those haters that he loved each one of the Hindus he had killed today?
If only that girl hadn’t said Allah when she died. I tried to convince myself she was a Hindu, that she deserved to die, that if she lived, she would give birth to another Hindu who would kill my son in the future. I told myself everything they had preached to me. But then, right before I slit her throat, she shouted ya allah. And that moment on, I couldn’t focus. The Hindu boys came charging at us, and I just stood there over her body wondering why she had said Ya Allah, and not Hey Ram, or Radhe shyam. Or some other thing that Munshiji often said when I and Sakeena broke one of their chaarpaaees jumping on them too hard.
Munshiji left a week ago, and nothing I said would make him stay. The day he left they came for me, and they mentioned everything from allegiance to Allah to Pakistan’s right to exist, to Quaid-e-Azam’s greatness. What they didn’t mention was that if I didn’t go along, they’d kill my ailing parents even though they prayed five times a day. And then they’d take Sakeena and…
So I went. I was a coward, because I can kill to save the ones I love. Greater men from our country have given their own lives, and the lives of their loved ones, but stuck to what they thought was right. I am not one of them, so I go with them each day and massacre a few Hindus I am trying to hate.
A week ago, I could have run down the streets screaming Munshiji was my father. Today, if you ask me whether I’d kill him, I wouldn’t know the answer.
Sakeena asked him carefully what he’d done today. He didn’t reply, just stared at his wounds and flinched. She noticed he was flinching even when she wasn’t touching them. She could not get him to speak today. Other days, at least he would tell her how it was going out there, where they had been, and how many refugees they had met on the way coming to settle down around Lahore. She probed again. Nothing. Something had gone horribly wrong today.
She wished it wasn’t so easy to guess what that could be.
Sakeena peeked from behind the pillar of the upper floor at the men seated in a circle in Salim’s house’s courtyard. They had just come back after another of their expeditions, but it seemed they had not shed any blood today. There was a new voice in their midst today though, a voice that demanded that you listen, and obey. She could only see the back of his covered head, but she saw his head sway from side to side like a serpent as he hissed and shouted and commanded in the same breath.
We are not killers. We are not murderers. We do the work of Allah, and Allah wants us to fight for our right to be one people. To live as a nation. To leave no doubt in the minds of the infidels that we can be united, that Pakistan is truly the land of the pure. That Pakistan has always existed. That Pakistan, insha allah, shall become the most powerful nation in the world.
All this will only happen if we, khuda ke bande, the true devotees, show the world, and those impure Hindus their place. They have put us down, killed our men, raped our women, taken our children and slaughtered them, spat at our faces while we preached Allah’s word of peaceful separation. Are we to keep taking this? Are we to lie down in the mud of Lahore, our Lahore, and let them trample our noses in our own land? I don’t know about you, but I can’t do that. When someone kills my mother, my neighbor, my fellow Muslim, my blood curdles with Allah’s wrath, and I think of his greatness, and I think of the great sacrifices the Prophet himself made to uphold Allah’s might, and I think, let there be war. Let there be blood, if that is how they will learn God’s true word. If that is how they will leave us to our peaceful lives, and farms, and wives and children, and prayer, and peace. You think while those murderers, those Hindu assassins live amongst us, while another Hindu womb bears another impure child, while they still walk our roads, shop in our markets, eat at our chaiwallah, do you think we can live in peace? Can you look at their faces without the red of our fellow Muslim’s blood coming to your mind and spreading anger in your hearts?
This is why we cleanse our soil. This is why our work will be rewarded at intqaam. Because we are the messengers of His word, because we will deliver our people and give them a country to live in peace in. Hindustan is big enough for this Hindu filth; let’s take what is rightfully ours. Jeeve jeeve –
“Pakistan!”, they shouted in unison. Sakeena noticed some of them were panting by the end of his speech. One of them sprang from his seat and fell to the new man’s feet. They embraced, as if they were brothers.
As if a brother could ask his brother to kill someone. If I saw Ahmed even touch an ant, I would slap him across his face and get him to pray for forgiveness from Allah for a week. Muslims don’t kill. We don’t fight our own people. Munshiji killed no one. He did not want to leave. He did not give birth to impure daughters. His daughters are my sisters. And none of these men are my brothers. Not one.
I do love one of them though, but I wonder how long I will be able to. If Salim survives this bloodbath, if he lives on, he would not be able to live with himself. He would sit all day and smoke, and stare into the open fields thinking of the dead trains and the number of people on them that he had put his sword to.
If I stood next to Sadashree, and we clicked a photograph, none of these hate-mongers would be able to say we were not sisters. None of them.
Salim got up quietly from his seat, touched the man’s feet, and walked away from his extended arms, avoiding his embrace.
“I’ll bring you some chai, janaab.”
He walked slowly to the kitchen and began to prepare the tea. Outside, the five other youths huddled around the new man and talked jovially of their grand plans, and shared their bravado in battles past, and plans of more bravery to be shown in battle in the future. They laughed with a twinkle in their eyes when one of them would relate a particularly gruesome killing.
“But one day, son”, said the new man gravely,” one day soon, those Hindus would outnumber you in a battle. They would have too many blood-thirsty men, and your cause would be defeated in the battle field, not by a higher conviction, or a better lust for righteousness, but by sheer numbers. It is then that you must not turn back. That is when you show what you are made of. That is when you can truly pledge your allegiance to your faith. Show them what you are made of, and the future of Pakistan is safe and secure.”
Salim caught the last few sentences of that speech as he walked back to the courtyard with the tea. He bowed and offered the tea to the new man, wishing with every muscle and vein and nerve in his body that he had poisoned it.
Sakeena asked him why he was acting so weird today.
“It’s nothing, is showing love weird now? I love you, meri jaan, and it is stronger than any feeling I have felt in my life.”
She would have felt happy if his eyes weren’t dead, if he had said this with a smile, peering into her eyes with an intensity that would make her quiver. But he didn’t look up from the twig he was twirling in his fingers, he did not smile, and he said it as if he hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
“What is it, Salim, what is wrong today?”
“Nothing is wrong, dammit!”
The anger was new, and she was still trying to get used to it.
“Ok, it’s alright, calm down please. Here have some water.”
He took and gulped it down with a strange resignation.
“I love you Sakeena, I want you to know that, I always will.
Kahun kis se main ke kya hai, shab-e-gham buri bala hai,
Mujhe kya bura tha marna agar ek baar hota.”
“Why are you talking about dying Salim! Just shut up!” she cried, raining blows on him in despair and frustration.
He took her hands in hers, and smiled into her eyes.
“You never did understand these ghazals…”
She looked down and started crying. She tried to hide her tears, but she couldn’t. She was tired of being strong all the time.
He took her in his arms and stroked her hair. And he pushed back a tear or two, drank them up, determined not to let her remember him like this.
I want to say I will always be here Sakeena, but I can’t. I love you, and I want to stay with you, but I can’t. I can’t kill by day, and love by night, I can’t pray five times, and then do the complete opposite of it when I’m not praying. It has to end. So I’ve decided to put them to test.
I can’t tell you how much I would miss you. But I will be there in Allah’s jannat, and I will wait for you to live out your years in peace and join me there. And I am sure they will not be there.
I am no great man Sakeena, I am not. I just, am not a greatly evil man either. So I’ve made a choice that you cannot hear. I’ve decided, and I don’t think you will ever see me again. Sweetheart, stop crying, don’t make this harder…
She was still breathing in gasps, stuttering and sighing as if she had just almost drowned in ice-cold water.
But don’t you worry, I will watch over you, and I will see you are never touched by them. Those haters, they will never set foot anywhere near you, you rest assured, my love.
Today, I will let them convince me that they are right. I will give them that chance. They have belief, they have faith, and they have these ideas they keep throwing at us, challenging us to differ, inviting us to revolt, yet asking us to join their cause. Today, let them try and win me over. Or not.
Khushi se mar na jaate gar aitbaar hota?
He smiled wryly as he thought that last line, and slowly sat up straight and let go of Sakeena. She quieted down and started to get up. He let her, looking resolutely at the ground. She got up and stood erect, to his side, facing him, willing him to meet her eyes, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t let himself cry, so he just kept on looking at the ground.
She suddenly turned, and left without another word. He looked up as soon as she turned away, and stared at her retreating figure with forlorn eyes. She sped up as she went further and further away, as if his power over her reduced with physical distance. When she was no longer visible, he continued looking at where the tiny speck of her silhouette had last been.
Then, he tore his eyes away, stared at the ground one last time, blinked twice, sprang to his feet and walked away in the opposite direction.
His eyes were all steel.
“Yes, I am ready, brother”, said Salim.
“Good. Tonight, we, the five brave souls of our pind shall join our brothers from the other pinds around us, and we will raid a small group of Hindu migrants at the main road leading from Lahore to Amritsar. Not one of them shall reach Amritsar. Not one.”
Salim looked into his eyes, and tried again to feel his sense of purpose and conviction, and failed again.
He was indeed ready.
They began the long march to meet the other Muslim assassin team at a pre-determined rendezvous point. They hugged each other, and smiled and laughed in the dark, and the clang of the swords and smell of gunpowder belied their joviality. It was a much more serious matter than any of them dared to admit. But they were still there, with an unreal sense of glory in their eyes and steps. Just a small corner in their hearts still begged to differ, still pointed to their weapons with questioning eyes, but they had locked that part up long ago.
They began walking to the location of the ambush. Their team was 50 people. The target was a caravan of Hindus going to Amritsar on foot. The latest report was that there were around 15 families. That meant not more than 25 to 30 men. It would be a certain victory for their righteous cause. Then, they would kill each of the women one by one, and then the children, last the children. They would see the fear in their eyes, and revel in the magnitude of their success.
They took their positions around the road, hiding in the trees and lying in the tall grass, and squatting behind bushes, swatting off the mosquitoes that did not ask them their faith. They waited for over an hour before the first sounds of people could be heard. Salim’s heart started to beat faster than ever.
It was time.
He cautiously began to crawl back and away from the road into the jungle. He couldn’t be heard at all now; the caravan was closer and louder. He could hear songs of nationalism, and bhajans being sung, and the small lights of the lanterns were starting to show. He kept crawling backwards on his belly, images of Munshiji’s household rushing through his mind in fast succession. Sadashree singing –Jayashree playing the sitar – Munshiji reading newspaper, rocking in time with the music – Sakeena eyeing him from the other corner of the room. He stopped when his foot hit a tree. It was far enough.
He sat up slowly, looking around for any other member of his ambush party. He was sure he was a good distance behind them, and that they were not aware of his retreat. He began duck-walking in the direction of the caravan now. Slowly but surely, he had made enough distance between himself and the ambush party. He stood up straight, and started to walk briskly towards the music and the lights, pushing aside the branches and jumping over bushes. Some scratched his face, some tore at his kurta. He trudged on until he was level with the Hindus.
He could see them from his position, but he would be invisible to them. None of them would bother to look anywhere but ahead anyway. He went down to his knees and hands again, and crawled towards the road. If anyone looked sideways now, they would see his black kurta creeping towards them, serpent-like.
He slowly took off his sword and dropped it to the ground. He squatted quietly behind a tree staying low. The tree was barely a few meters from the road. He waited patiently for another five minutes, and then peered around the tree to find that the rear end of the caravan had crossed his position.
He moved quickly now. With great caution, he stepped onto the road behind the travelers, and slipped up behind the last group of people, and slowly started to sing along, brushing away the leaves and dust on his clothes and in his hair. He began to chant with them, and slowly picked up his pace. They were almost there: almost at the point where armed, masked men, were prepared to take away their lives.
He sang hard. Sang of the glories of Lord Rama, the might of his honesty, truth, dutifulness. Sang of the Maata that watched over all existence, the gods that maintained the balance on earth. And he thought of the beautiful similarities with the Qur’an. Thought of the many prayers he had sent to Allah to keep the order in the world, to ensure all was well, that all was peaceful and prosperous.
And then they were there.
He heard first the “Jeeve jeeve” from Kareem, the leader of the pack. Almost no one else did. The front end of the caravan had already crossed the point of contact by some distance, and they were totally surrounded. With a piercing “PAKISTAN!”, the attackers unleashed their fury. They came from all directions, weapons gleaming yellow in the lantern light. Their faces were full of anger, full of wrath, full of conviction, and they shouted Jeeve jeeve Pakistan!-Jeeve jeeve Pakistan!, in time with slashing swords and exploding gunshots.
Salim shouted along. He screamed in terror. He could feel his intestines rise to his throat with the sheer effort of screaming. He let out all that he had never showed Sakeena. He bawled. He fell to his knees as he saw them slashing away at the Hindus. He got up, and ran towards the boy. The boy, he was crying right in middle of it, standing over his dead father. His mother was nowhere to be seen. Salim scooped him up and threw him into the bushes to the side of the road, hoping he would have the good sense not to come back.
The Hindus’ resistance came finally, albeit too late. It wasn’t even a fight. It was a butchering. Blood splashed across the road’s muddy exterior, and into the underbrush’s roots. The road will be re-laid, but the trees would never forget.
He ran here, and he ran there, avoiding slashing swords, shouting like a senile man. Frantically, amidst falling bodies, and shrieking mothers, and bawling children, he looked for the leader of his attacking party.
Ah! There he was – Kareem! Resplendent in his gold embroidered kurta, killing with the grace and elegance of a circus performer. Salim ran towards him, creeping up from behind, still shouting hoarse.
And then, in one swooshing movement, typical of his poise, Kareem turned to face Salim, raised his sword and slashed across his throat. It was a beautiful maneuver, replete with an almost musical rhythm.
Salim stopped shouting, and looked at the towering figure whose sword was now bathed in his blood. He looked at the blood spurting from his neck, and back at Kareem, who seemed to realize that Salim hadn’t died yet.
He raised both arms up now, holding the sword with both hands, and brought it down with crushing force into Salim’s upper chest, piercing his heart.
And then, Kareem simply moved onto the next existence he could terminate with panache.
Salim had just enough time to smile before his body died. Kareem had failed. The haters had failed.
He smiled to be dying in the midst of his brothers and sisters and loved ones. He smiled to be dying a human, unrecognizable from these other dying men and women. Indistinguishable; the same.
He smiled to be dying as one of them.
He smiled because he was simply one of those who died; not one of those Hindus, or those Muslims, or those Sikhs who died, but just, one of those who died.
He smiled because he was killed by them; not by the Hindus, or the Muslims, or the Sikhs, but killed by them. Killed by those haters.
He smiled, and collapsed, with Sakeena’s face singing Sadashree’s beautiful, peaceful song in his head, like shrieks from a terrified boy’s mouth.