16:25 hours, June 3rd 1947, Delhi Cantonment,
A warm, dry breeze was flowing in through the east-facing window that poured in gamboge rays of the bright evening sun, bringing a mahogany tinge to the dark wood sofa that occupied almost half of the narrow hall. Jamedar Ashraf Ullah of the British Indian Army stood in the traditional Qiyaam standing erect with hands folded as he faced the direction of the Qiblah and raised his hands to his ears, uttering “Allahu Akbar”. He kneeled down on the faded Sozni embroidered Sajjada, that his father had bought from Kashmir and straightened his ivory kurti that flapped with the humidity free air, drying his Salat offering throat.
Seventeen year old Aazad was trimming the scarce hair above his upper lip with a pair of small black-handled scissors as he kept slanting his face and twisting it to get a better look at his face in a foot long mirror mounted on the half-white wall opposite to him, much to the amusement of his younger sister. Nafizah stared at her self-obsessed brother and chuckled loudly.”Bhaiya......What are you trying to do?” she enquired mischievously.
“Trimming my moustache” Aazad replied as he ran his hands through the rough little hair-lets he called a ‘moustache’ with pride.
“Ha...really? Even kittu has whiskers that are thicker than your moustache” Nafizah joked, stroking the three day old stray kitten ‘kittu’ that she had adopted as a pet recently and the comment irked Aazad.
Aazad frowned as he had been tricked by her again. He gave his scissors a rest as he glared at Nafizah.
“Look Bhaiya, Kittu is licking his ’moustache.....’” Nafizah giggled adding to Aazad’s irritation.
“You! I am going to get you” Aazad shouted as he chased his giggling sister around the sofa, missing ramming into his kneeling father Ashraf by an inch.
“Sssshhhhhhhhhhhh.............” came Bismah’s hiss trying to calm her children. Bismah signalled them not to disturb Ashraf’s namaz and the room fell silent.
Nafizah and Aazad came to a halt beside Bismah as she laid down a plate filled with piping hot Gosht samosas. She tucked the ends of the bright red shawl that she had used as a Hijab to cover her head to complement her light pink salwar suit , behind her ears and whispered to Nafizah,
“Get the chutney, by the stove..” Nafizah sobered immediately and walked towards the small kitchen to obey her mother.
Ashraf smiled at the children’s antics and folded up the Sajjada after his evening prayers as he noticed his children munching the sumptuous lamb filled pastries. Before succumbing to their temptation he went into the bedroom and brought back his radio transmitter tuning it to the frequency wave of the All-India Radio station to catch the news.
“...afford any toleration of violence. All of us agreed on that. May your decisions be wisely guided and may they be carried out in the peaceful and friendly spirit of the Gandhi-Jinnah appeal.” Lord Mountbatten’s crisp British accent erupted in the prevailing silence startling Aazad who was licking the tangy chilly chutney off his fingers and at the same time scaring kittu off Nafizah’s hold.
The family laughed their hearts out as they watched the kitten run frantically out of the house. Ashraf reduced the volume and tuned it for a clearer transmission as he stretched his feet and relaxed on the floor by his family. Everyone, except Nafizah focussed on the radio that was placed beside the little bowl of chutney on the table as an excited reporter of The All-India-Radio confirmed the identity of the voice and thanked the British General before introducing to the Nation another Dignitary that no one had to guess for they all knew.
The eloquent Voice of Jawaharlal Nehru, echoed in Ashraf’s house in the D-block of Delhi Cantonment as it did in countless homes across the strife torn, tense country. “Friends and comrades, nearly nine months ago, soon after my assumption of office, I spoke to you from this place. I told you then that.....”
Ashraf looked at Aazad who was listening intently to the Indian National Congress’ leader’s words. He slowly nudged him as the speech went on; Aazad looked at his dad puzzled, without a clue about why he was poking him instead of listening to one of the broadcasts that was going to mark the History of India.
Aazad was aware that Members of the Indian National Congress and Muslim league had discussed the plan of the Partition of India into two separate democracies of India and Pakistan, which had been approved by the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee at the House of Commons in England the day before. Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India had presided over the meeting between the Congress working Committee and the Muslim league at Delhi in the early morning hours. The entire plan was being voiced by Lord Mountbatten in the evening news broadcast by All India radio. Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League were to express their views on the plan. The entire nation waited with bated breath for the minutes of the plan while Ashraf kept nagging his son.
"Beta.....Aazu.....” Ashraf whispered.
“Abbu....Are you not going to listen to Chacha’s speech?”
“Of course....I am going to.....but...ummmmmm” Ashraf paused with a plea in his voice.
“What is the problem Abbu? Are you not able to hear it properly? Should I increase the volume or tune it a little more to get a clear reception....” Aazad was irritated as his father’s interruptions were not letting him concentrate on the speech.
“No....No....Beta.....I can hear it just fine...but I cannot understand a single word of it.....”
Aazad did not understand the hints that his father was throwing at him to denote his inability to understand, Aazad stared at him nonplussed.
“Ummm......The broadcast is in English.......” Ashraf said sheepishly as Bismah nodded in agreement. Aazad chuckled realising how he had completely forgotten his parents did not have proficiency in what was considered the language of the ‘rulers’. Unlike Aazad who had just completed his Pre-University at Delhi National College, Ashraf and Bismah had not pursued a class higher than the 8th standard and had never tried to learn the ‘foreigners’ language. Aazad apologised,
“Sorry Abbu” and went on to explain Nehru’s concerns about the violence that was prevailing in the nation in Hindi. Nafizah’s eleven year old brain, seemed to have no interest in what was going on around her as she sat there braiding the tip of her oil soaked hair resting on her thin shoulders covered by the olive green polka dotted blouse.
Ashraf listened intently as his son briefed him about the assertions made by the Congressman about his concern for the prevailing tension in the capital and plans for the future of India.
“Let there be strength and perseverance in adhering to the cause and the ideals we have at heart. Let us face the future not with easy optimism or with any complacency or weakness, but with confidence and a firm faith in India.” The positive dispositions of these words were reflected clear as a pond in Aazad’s translation. After thanking Mahtma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and paying homage to the freedom fighters who had lost their lives in the struggle, the inspiring speech ended with the only phrase that Ashraf did not need translations for, “Jai Hind”.
Aazad took a few gulps of the luke-warm water from the tumbler placed beside him before he carried on with his role of an interpreter of the patriotic speech of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of The Muslim league, who was now expressing his views about the plan. Ashraf sat upright with his arms folded across his muscular chest and nodded attentively with every line of Jinnah that was being translated as if he knew what was coming and had anticipated the leader’s speech since a long time.
There were a few lines uttered by the Muslim leader that had appealed to Ashraf,
“I call upon all the leaders of the Muslim League, and the Mussalmans generally, to organise our people to face this referendum with hope and courage....” strangely, Ashraf felt a strong fervour kindling up inside him. The religious feelings that were repressed by the laws of unity and secularism in the Army were resurfacing on him with the rush of a flooded river.
Aazad waited a moment for the leader to finish his sentence and took a deep breath before he looked at his eager father and continued the translation, ” I cannot, but express my appreciation of the sufferings and sacrifices made by all classes of the Mussalmans, and particularly the great part that the women of the Frontier played in the fight for our civil liberties”
A few more minutes of acute attention later, Ashraf heard the broadcast conclude with the greetings of the reporter after Jinnah ended his speech with “Pakistan Zindabad” and Aazad phewed relief after his half an hour job as a translator ended. Bismah noticed the simmering excitement of her husband as she rose to get the dinner for the night ready. Ashraf sat with a smile on his square-cheeked face, lost in thought until he saw Aazad putting on his white skull-cap and rushing out of the house informing everyone in general loudly ,
“Abbu.......Ammi.....meeting friends at Dwarka....see you....”
Ashraf ran behind his son, full of a sudden fear as the destination Aazad had mentioned sunk in. Aazad was getting on his bicycle ready to leave. Ashraf got hold of the vehicle’s saddle on which Aazad was going to seat himself, he tightened his grip exerting his entire strength to restrict his son’s attempt to move the same way he did almost two years ago when Aazad was about to ram into a tree as Ashraf was teaching him to ride a bicycle. The handle bars lifted up with the force on the rear of the vehicle, stunning Aazad who had not heard his father come out. Aazad turned to look at his father, who was spitting concern in angry words.
“Are you mad? How many times do I have to warn you not to leave the Cantonment? You know there are riot threats all around Delhi and it is not safe to be roaming about.. Especially in a place like Dwarka, which is dominated by the Hindus...you will be literally walking into the lion’s den..”
“But Abbu....... nothing will happen...I am a grown-up...I can handle it.....” Aazad protested in defence.
“No you are not a grown-up and you cannot handle it’ he said firmly “I heard there were gang threats against the Muslim residents at Munshi Gunj last week, a few men who tried to protest were beaten by those thugs and are badly injured ...the lurking violence is ready to conjure the city any time soon........you will be dead meat the moment they set eyes on your taqiyah.." Ashraf spluttered in anger as he pointed at the white skull cap Aazad was wearing.
“But....we were only going to fly kites...” Aazad pleaded still not realising the seriousness of Ashraf’s words.
“No more buts.....Fly kites or even parachutes inside the Cantonment.....don’t even think of stepping out of the Army area....” Ashraf ordered Aazad firmly. Aazad gave a disappointed look mumbling “Fine....what so ever....” and went back into the house.
Ashraf had prohibited his family from leaving the Cantonment soon after the Riots broke out in the Western parts of India following the Rawalpindi and Multan riots in March, 1947 in which many Sikhs and Hindus had been massacred. The mass violence in those areas that were to become parts of the Independent Pakistan under the administration of Muslim league had caused ripples all over Punjab and parts of Delhi. The Hindus and Sikhs organised protests that turned to riots against the Muslims in various parts of the country.
Ashraf followed a sulking Aazad into the house, relieved that his serious tone had worked on his son. He relaxed on the wooden sofa, covered with a thin cotton cushion which was lined at the bottom with a layer of dried straw. Bismah, whose eyes were wet due to the sulfoxide released by the onions she was chopping, looked at her grumbling son,
“Aazu...., Why do you make Abbu furious? He has warned you not to leave the Cantonment several times, it is for your own safety Aazu...understand...” she said, sniffing sharply to control her nose that was ready to run and wiping her teary eyes.
“You always take his side” Aazad grumbled and walked towards Nafizah. Ashraf’s mind went back to fantasising about the happy future in a Muslim dominated Pakistan that Jinnah had just promised in his speech. Imagine, no kafirs!
After another hour of teasing his sister, trying to take his mind off the fun that his friends would be having flying multi-coloured kites sky-high, Aazad noticed his fathers bemused look and asked.
"Abbu, so the formation of Pakistan is official now?”
“Hmmmm” Ashraf nodded absently, as his mind was reeling with the repercussions of Jinnah’s speech and the image of the new nation that was being born from the great Indian sub-continent. He was interrupted by Bismah calling out to him,
“Ji, come on, dinner is ready”, Ashraf brushed aside his thoughts and obeyed his wife. The dinner menu had nothing but Rotis and Channa Curry. As Bismah had spent a long time preparing the family delicacy, a snack in the evening, she did not bother to make an elaborate dinner, knowing they would not be hungry. Aazad and Nafizah were disappointed by the lack of meat in the menu but Ashraf sat abstractedly as he still could not take his mind off Jinnah’s words. Ashraf’s beady brown eyes were fixed on the floor, lost, forgetting to blink as Bismah filled his plate. The others had settled comfortably in cross-legged postures around Ashraf and started sinking their teeth into the spicy masala laden channas.
Bismah brought her bangle covered forearm next to his ear and clanged them. Ashraf blinked, shocked at the snap too close. Bismah retracted her red glass bangle accessorised arm as she motioned him to eat the food on his plate. Ashraf took in a chunk of roti, chewed it thoughtfully and turned to Aazad,
“Aazu....How do you like the idea of a Pakistan?”
“Huh...?” Aazad did not understand what his father meant by the question.
“How would you feel if we live in Pakistan?” Ashraf refined the question to make it clearer.
“You mean like leaving India and settling in Pakistan..?” Aazad asked him, shocked.
“But...” even before Aazad could complete his reply, Ashraf continued deliriously like a child,
“Just imagine...how it would feel to live in a Muslim nation. I mean, the Hindus will not be given the preferences like they are, in India. There will not be any religious clashes....and the grace of Allah and Allah alone will shine on the shrine of the nation of Pakistan....wouldn’t it?” Aazad’s lack of excitement finally registered on Ashraf’s bemused mind. He turned towards Bismah, hoping to find more excitement to match his.
“Bismah....we could even visit the Moti Masjid in Lahore, the one you have always wanted to, the one that your cousin Natheeja has been ranting about for almost ten years now.....” Ashraf faltered in his speech as he realised the surprise in his entire family’s eyes as they gaped at him. Ashraf’s exhilaration died down as no one seemed to be as thrilled as he was with the thought.
“It was just a thought, not a serious declaration and I am part of the military” he paused “I don’t think the soldiers are free to leave the Nation at will, like the civilians. I heard the British Government and the Muslim league are deliberating which troops have to be made a part of the Pakistan army, so, there is no need for you all to panic. I will not go against the orders of the Government and immigrate to Pakistan” Ashraf reassured his wide-eyed family and he saw them relax visibly and get back to their rotis.
Aazad realised with this declaration that the possibility of his father’s dream coming true was weak but the cheer in his father’s voice and the sparkle in his eye when he proposed the idea of Pakistan worried him.
“Abbu I will miss my friends if we go to Pakistan. Can I bring them along too? My friends, my school, this house” Nafizah looked around,
“Can we take all this with us...?” she asked naively. The serious air around them lifted as Bismah and Ashraf laughed at their daughter’s innocence, not noticing Aazad who was silently engrossed in his own thoughts.
What was the reason that his father was coming up with this all of a sudden? Sure, there were riots, but it would all be over soon and they could go back to their normal fearless lives as before. Why had he even entertained the idea of leaving for Pakistan when they had a perfect life in Delhi? He used to love India, Aazad had heard him say that he loved his nation more than his own mother. How could he even be thinking about Pakistan when he had strongly instilled patriotism towards India in Aazad since the day he was born? Aazad mused as he chewed the final bits of roti left on his plate.
Unknown to Ashraf Ullah’s family, the leaders were ruthlessly carving the undivided India into two separate entities which they erroneously believed would bring everlasting peace. Whatever implications it had on the future of the two countries it certainly was about to wreak havoc in Ashraf Ullah’s family.
The Muslim league leaders met on the 9th of June to devise their proposal for the demarcations of the territories that were to come under the legislation of the two brother nations of India and Pakistan and zero in on the decision about which Parts of the Artillery, Infantry and Armoured regiments of the British Indian Army were to form the Pakistan National Army and render their patriotism and life sacrifice to the Jinnah lead Muslim Nation of Pakistan, sowing a seed not just for the enmity between the two new nations but to shatter a happy family.