Monday, August 29, 2016

Bhisham Sahni's short story 'अमृतसर आ गया है' (We have Reached Amritsar) in English

Read here  my English translation of one of Bhisham's Sahni's masterpiece short stories on the Partition.

                                                         अमृतसर गया है


                   WE HAVE REACHED AMRITSAR 

                                                 By Bhisham Sahni

There weren’t many passengers in the compartment. The sardarji sitting on the berth in front was narrating his war experiences. During the War he had been at the Burma front. He was making fun of the white soldiers and breaking into laughter every now and then. Besides us there were three Pathan traders in the compartment, and one among them, wearing a green dress, was reclining on the upper berth. He was of a genial temper and cracking jokes with a lean and thin babu sitting by my side. That thin looking babu seemed to belong to Peshawar, because now and then the two would break into  Pushto. On my right in a corner sat an old woman with her head and face covered, counting  prayers on her rosary. These were the only passengers in the compartment. There might have been  one or two others, but I don’t remember.

The train was moving slowly; the passengers in the compartment were chatting. I was in a cheerful mood for I was going to Delhi to participate in the Independence Day celebrations. 

Whenever I think of those days I begin to suspect that it was all an illusion. May be, with the passage of time the whole of past looks like an illusion, and as the future unfolds itself before us the illusion becomes still stronger.

The declaration for the creation Pakistan had been made and people were making all kinds of guesses about what the future had in store for them. But they were not able to go very far. The sardarji sitting in front of me was asking again and again whether, after the creation of Pakistan, Jinnah sahib would stay in Bombay or go to Pakistan; and every time my answer was he would not leave Bombay. He would keep visiting Pakistan off and on. There was no logic for him to go and live there permanently. People were making guesses about Lahore and Gurdaspur, wondering whether these cities would be part of India or Pakistan. They were gossiping, laughing, cracking jokes as in normal times. Some were quitting their homes and others making fun of them. No one knew what the right step was and what the  wrong one. In one group of people there was the excitement at the creation of Pakistan; in another the  coming of freedom. Many places were hit by riots, and at many the preparations to celebrate the Independence Day were on. In this atmosphere people believed that the riots would stop by themselves when the country gained independence. In this illusory belief a kind of golden dust was in the air combined with an uncertainty; and in this uncertainty one could see a glimpse of the future relationships among people.

Perhaps the train had crossed the Jhelum station when the Pathan sitting on the upper berth opened  a packet and began to serve boiled meat and naan to his companions. Then, while eating, he began to offer, out of fun, a piece of meat to the babu sitting by my side, saying he would become strong like them. His wife too would like it. ‘You are weak because you eat only daal.’

The passengers in the compartment began to laugh. The babu said something in Pushto and kept on smiling and shaking his head.

The other Pathan said, laughing, ‘O zalim, if you don’t want to accept it from our hands, come on, pick it up with your own hands. I swear it’s goat meat and nothing else.’

The Pathan sitting on the upper berth said, ‘Oh you son of a khanjir, no one’s watching you here. We won’t tell your wife. You eat meat with us and we shall eat daal with you.’

 People broke into laughter at this too. The thin looking babu kept smiling, shaking his head and uttering a few words in Pushto. 

‘How bad that we’re eating and you are watching...’  All the Pathans were busy eating.

‘He’s not eating because you haven’t washed your hands,’ said the corpulent sardar, and started giggling. In his half reclining posture the bulk of his belly was hanging down the seat. ‘You’ve just woken up, and started eating. That’s why the babu is not eating from your hands. It’s nothing else.’ And he broke into a long giggle again. Sardarji looked at me and winked, and started giggling again.

‘If you don’t eat meat, babu, go and sit in the ladies’ compartment. What’re you doing here?’

One again there was a roar of laughter.

There were other passengers too in the compartment, but they were short distance travellers, boarding and alighting. These people had boarded the train at the origin and a kind of bonhomie had grown among them.  

‘Oh, come and be seated among us. O zalim, we shall tell stories to each other.’

The train stopped at a station and a crowd of new passengers thronged into the compartment.

‘What station is this?’ Someone asked.

‘Perhaps, it is Wazirabad,’ I said looking out through the window.

The train took some time to move out of the station but before that something happened. A passenger alighted form the adjacent compartment and walked towards the tap to get water, but before he could fill his lota he ran back towards his compartment. Water from the lota was spilling out, but the manner in which he had made his dash told much. Three or four others at the tap had also run towards their compartments. I had already seen people running like this. The platform had emptied in no time. But fun and banter continued in the compartment.

‘Something’s wrong,’ said the thin looking babu.

Then we heard some noise from the door on the wrong side of the platform. A passenger was trying to force his entry into the compartment.

‘Why're you forcing yourself in? There’s no room here,’ Someone said.

‘Shut the door. Everyone’s trying to enter here.’ One could hear this in many voices.

Whenever a passenger tries to enter a compartment, the passengers inside resist his entry.  But once he’s inside the opposition stops, and the same passenger joins the rest in shouting at those trying to enter the compartment. ‘No, there’s no room here. Go to the next compartment. Don’t try to get in.’

The noise at the door was increasing. Then we saw a man in dirty clothes and drooping moustaches entering the compartment. His dress was awfully dirty. Turning his face towards the door and a deaf ear to the protests, he started dragging a black iron box into the compartment. ‘Come in, come in. You also come in.’ He was urging someone behind him. Then I saw a lean and thin woman come in followed by a darkish teenaged girl. People were still shouting. Sardarji had to sit up on his haunches.

‘Shut the door. They barge in without enquiring, as if it is their father’s lodge. Don’t let them come in. Push them back…’ Many others were also shouting. 

The man was dragging his luggage inside and his wife and daughter were standing close to the toilet door.

‘He couldn’t find any other compartment. And he has brought these women too.’

The man was drenched in sweat and dragging his luggage, gasping for breath. After the box, he was dragging in a dismantled cot tied with a string.

‘I’ve a ticket. I’m not without ticket.’ Most of the passengers in the compartment stopped protesting. But the Pathan sitting on the upper berth shouted at him, ‘Get out of here. Can’t you see there is no room here?’

And the next moment the Pathan lunged one foot forward to hit the man but instead of hitting him the foot landed on his wife’s chest and she sat down crying with pain. That man had no time to settle scores with the passengers. He was just dragging his things inside. Dumbness reined in the compartment. After the dismantled cot came in a few bundles. At this the Pathan lost all his patience. He began to shout, ‘Throw him out. Who’s he?’ Hearing this the other Pathan, sitting on the lower berth, pushed the man’s box out of the compartment where a coolie in red uniform was loading the man’s effects. 

The passengers had become silent after the woman had been hurt. Only the old lady sitting in the compartment was pleading, ‘Oh God’s people, let them sit. Come, daughter, come and sit beside me. We shall manage somehow. Stop, you cruel men, let them sit.’ 

Only half the luggage had been loaded when the train began to move.

‘My luggage has been left behind,’ the man was shouting frantically.

Pitaji, our luggage has been left behind.’ The girl, standing near the toilet, was shivering from head to foot and shouting.

‘Get off, get off.’ The man shouted in a frenzied voice, and got off the train after throwing out all the pieces of his luggage one by one. After him first his daughter and then his wife also got off, all wailing with their hands pressed against their hearts. 

‘You did something very bad, very bad.’ The old woman in the compartment was saying it loudly. ‘All feelings have died down in you. There was a small girl with them. You heartless fellow, you have driven them out.’

The train moved on. An uneasy silence reigned in the compartment. The old woman had stopped complaining. She did not have the courage to oppose the Pathans.

Just then the slightly built babu put his hand on mine and said, ‘Look, something is on fire.’

The train had left the platform far behind and was moving out of the city. One could see thick smoke and flames rising from somewhere in the city.

‘It’s a riot. People were running about even on the platform. Surely there has been rioting somewhere.’

Everyone in the compartment came to know that fires had broken out in the city, and all of them began to peep through the windows to have a view of the burning city.

When the train had driven past the city there was dead silence in the compartment. I looked around. I saw that the face of the thin babu  had turned pale and  a layer of sweat was visible on his deathly face. It seemed to me that all the passengers in the compartment had sized up each other. Sardarji  came and sat beside me. The Pathan sitting on the lower berth got up and joined the other two Pathans sitting on the upper berth. Something similar was perhaps going on in other compartments too. The atmosphere had become tense and people had stopped talking. All the three Pathans on the upper berth sat quietly watching the passengers below. Each eye in the compartment was wide open with suspicion.

‘What station was it?’ someone asked.

‘Wazirabad,’ another replied.

The answer evoked another reaction. The tension among the Pathans eased but silence among the Hindu and Sikh passengers became still more grim. One of the Pathans took out a box of snuff from his jacket and applied a pinch of snuff to his nose. The other Pathans also took out their boxes and began to apply snuff to their noses. The old woman was fingering her beads. Occasionally one could hear a weak trembling sound issuing from her lips.

When the train stopped at the next station quietness reigned here too. Not even a bird could be seen. A water-carrier carrying a mashak slung on his back came there and began to offer water to the passengers.

‘Come, here’s water to drink.’ From the ladies compartment many women and children pushed their hands through the windows. 

‘There has been a massacre. So many have been killed.’ It seemed he was the only good Samaritan in this mayhem.

As the train moved, people began to pull down the window shutters. One could hear, along with the heavy clanging of the wheels, the noise of the shutters being pulled down.

Troubled by an unknown fear the thin babu got up from his seat and lay down on the floor between two berths. His face still looked deathly pale. The Pathan sitting on one of the berths began to tease him. ‘O you shameless! Are you a man or a woman that you have left the berth and are lying on the floor. You’re a disgrace to us men.’ He kept on talking and laughing. Then he switched to Pushto. The babu kept quiet. The other passengers too had become quiet. 

‘We won’t let a man like you sit in this compartment. Babu, get down on the next station and go to a ladies’ compartment.’

But the babu’s response had dried out. He muttered something and then relapsed into silence. After a short while he went back to his seat and kept on dusting his clothes. He had lain down on the floor fearing that the train might not be stoned or fired upon. That’s why, perhaps, the shutters too had been pulled down. 

It was difficult to say. May be a passenger had pulled down the shutter for some reason and the others might have followed him for no reason.

The train moved on in this heavy and  uncertain atmosphere. Outside, the darkness was thickening. The passengers sat quiet and apprehensive. Occasionally the train would slow down and passengers would look askance at each other. And when it stopped the silence in the compartment would become more intense. Only the Pathans sat relaxed. And they had stopped talking because no one was responding to them.

Soon the Pathans began to doze off, while the other passengers stared in the blankness ahead. The old woman covered her face and head, folded up her legs onto the seat and went to sleep. One of the Pathans took out from his pocket his string of prayer beads and started fingering it. 

Occasionally a passenger opened a window to peep at the landscape. Outside, the moon had come out and the moonlight had made the atmosphere still more uncertain and mysterious. Occasionally one could see a town in flames. The train roared forward but sometimes it slowed down and continued for miles at a slow pace.

Suddenly the babu looked through a window and shouted, ‘The train has crossed Harbanspura!’ There was great excitement in the way he had shouted. All the passengers in the compartment were unsettled on hearing him shout. Many in the compartment turned on their sides on hearing his voice.

‘O babu, why’re you shouting?’ The Pathan who was fingering his beads asked. ‘Are you getting down here? Shall I pull the chain?’ And he started laughing. It was clear he did not know the situation in Harbanspura, for he did not seem to know what Harbanspura was.

The babu said nothing and just shook his head and started looking through the window after throwing a glance at the Pathan.

Silence reigned in the compartment once again. Just then the engine whistled and the train began to slow down. Soon after there was a rattling sound of the train switching its line. The babu peeped out to see in the direction the train was moving.  

‘We have reached the city,’ he shouted. ‘We have reached Amritsar.’ He said it again. He jumped from his seat and stood up and shouted at the Pathan occupying the upper berth in front of him, ‘O you son of a Pathan, come down...  you mother... come down. I will ... the one who has given you birth...’

Babu was hurling abuses at the Pathan. The Pathan turned on his side and said, ‘Babu, did you say something to me?’

‘Come down, you mother...How dare you hit a Hindu woman? You bastard!  That mother of yours...’

‘O babu don’t bark. You son of a Khanjir... don’t  swear, I tell you. I shall pull your tongue out.’

‘You swear at me, you mother...’ the babu shouted and jumped on to the berth. He was shivering from head to foot.

‘Stop it,’ said the sardarji. ‘This is no time to fight. We’re at our journey’s end. Sit quietly.’

‘I’ll break your leg. Your father doesn’t own the train,’ shouted the babu.

‘What did I do? Everyone was trying to push her out. I did the same. If he swears at me I shall pull his tongue out.’

The old woman spoke again, ‘O God’s men, sit peacefully. Come to your senses.’

Her lips were opening like that of a ghostly figure and one could hear her feeble muttering.

The babu was still shouting, ‘You were behaving like a lion in his den. Now speak, I shall ...’

Just then the train stopped at the Amritsar station. The platform was overcrowded with people. The people on the platform were peeping into the compartments. They were questioning the passengers again and again. ‘What happened? Where did the rioting take place?’ 

Everyone on the over-packed platform was discussing only one thing: What had happened back there. Many passengers had mobbed the two-three hawkers. They were suddenly very hungry and thirsty. Just then three Pathans appeared in front of our compartment and began to peep inside. The moment they saw their Pathan companions they began to talk to them in Pushto. I turned and found that the babu had disappeared somewhere. He had seemed to be mad with anger. God knows what he he was planning. In the meantime the three Pathans in the compartment picked up their luggage and walked out of the compartment and joined their companions on the platform and moved towards another compartment. 

The crowd surrounding the hawkers began to thin out. The passengers began to move towards their compartments. Then I saw the babu coming towards the compartment. His face was still deathly pale and a bunch of hair covered his forehead partially. When he came closer I saw him holding an iron rod in his hands. God knows where he had got it from. He hid the rod behind his back the moment he entered the compartment and pushed it under the berth quietly as he took his seat. Immediately after he had sat down his eyes searched for the Pathans and not finding them here he looked all around.

‘They have bolted, the bastards and mother...all of them’. He beat his head and shouted at us, ‘Why did you let them go? You are all impotent and spineless.’

But the train was too crowded because many new passengers had boarded and no one took notice of him.

As the train began to creep he came and sat beside me. He was strung up and muttering something.

The train moved haltingly. The old passengers in the train had fed themselves on pooris and quenched their thirst. And the train was now moving in the direction where their life and property were safe.

The train had picked up a steady speed, and the new passengers, who had been gossiping till now, began to doze off. But the babu was still staring in front with his wide open eyes. He was asking me again and again as to where the Pathans had gone. He  had gone crazy.

I myself had begun to doze off. There was no room for me to stretch myself fully and in sleepiness my head would droop now on this and now on the other side.  At times when my sleep was broken by a jerk I heard the sardarji’s snoring as he lay on the berth in front in an ungainly posture. The passengers were seated in all sorts of awkward postures. From their frightening looks it appeared the compartment was stuffed with dead bodies. The babu sometimes looked through the windows, now open, or sat erect with his back stuck against the back of his seat. 
When at times the train stopped at a station and the clangour of the wheels stopped a strange silence reigned all around.  Then it seemed something had dropped on to the platform or a passenger deboarded. And I sat up with a jerk.

In the same way when I once woke up from sleep with a jerk I found the train had slowed down. I looked out through the window from where I lay. Far at the rear end of the train I could see the red light of a signal. It was clear the train had crossed a station but had not speeded up.

Outside the compartment, I heard an indistinct voice. Far away I saw a vague black smudge. I tried to figure it out with my sleepy eyes and then gave up. It was dark inside the compartment, with the lights switched off but outside the day was breaking. At my back I heard the noise of someone scratching at the door. I turned to look. The door was closed. I heard the sound again. Someone was knocking at the door with a lathi. I saw from the window that a man had in fact climbed up the footboard. He had a bundle slung on his shoulder and a stick in his hand. He was wearing worn-out clothes and supported a beard. Then I lowered my glance and saw a woman running along the train, barefooted and carrying two bundles on her head. She was unable to keep pace with the train because of the load on her head. The man standing on the footboard was urging her in a gasping voice, ‘Come on, come on, get onto the footboard.’
Once again there was a knock on the door. ‘For God’s sake, open the door.’

The man was gasping for breath. ‘For God’s sake open the door. There’s a woman with me. We’ll miss the train.’

Suddenly the babu got up from his seat and looked out through the window adjacent to the door and said, ‘Who’s there? There’s no room here.’

The man outside was cringing, ‘For God’s sake, we’ll miss the train...’

And the man pushed his hand through the window and searched for the door handle inside.

‘There’s no room. Get down the train.’ Shouted the babu and then he moved abruptly and opened the door.

'O Allah...’ said the man as if expressing great relief at the opening of the door.

Just then I saw the rod in the babu’s hand. He hit the passenger on the head with full force. My legs shook with fear. It seemed the blow had had no effect on the man for he still clung to the handle with both his hands. The bundle slung across on his shoulder had slid up to his elbow.

 Just then I saw a two-three streams of blood on his face. I could see his gaping mouth and shining teeth. He called out to Allah once or twice and then his feet staggered. He looked at the babu with his half-closed eyes, perhaps trying to guess as to why this man had hit him. His lips fluttered again as if he was trying to say something. I thought he was smiling but his breath had given way.

The woman on the ground was complaining and cursing. She still did not know what had happened. She thought her husband had been unable to get into the train because of the weight of his bundle. She was running along the train with her two bundles trying to hold on to her man’s legs and climb on to the footboard.

Just then the man’s hands slipped off the handle and he fell down like an axed tree. As he fell the woman too stopped running, as if their journey had ended there.

The babu stood at the door close to me like a statue, still holding the rod. I thought he was trying to throw it away but was unable to do it. I could not breathe normally and was sitting in the darkish corner of the compartment staring at him.

Then the babu stirred and looked through the door towards the rear of the train. The train was moving ahead and at a distance far behind one could see a dark heap.

The babu moved and threw away the rod out of the compartment. He looked all around in the compartment. The passengers were all asleep. He did not look at me.

 He stood at the door for some time and then shut the door. He looked at his own clothes carefully, then at his hands one by one and lifted his hands to his nose as if to check if they smelled of blood. Then he came and sat beside me.

Gradually the day was dawning. Bright light was spreading all around. No one had tried to stop the train by pulling the emergency chain and the body stuck with the rod was left miles behind. 

Sardarji woke up scratching his body. The babu was sitting beside me staring in front. I could see stumps of hair on his face, as if they had grown overnight. Sardarji started talking to him ‘You’re a brave man, babu. You’re so thin but courageous. The Pathans  left this compartment  because of you. If they had stayed here you would surely have broken their heads.’ And he started laughing.

The babu too smiled  a terrifying smile and kept on staring at the sardarji.