[Loosely based on the attack on a Hindu temple in Bhong city of Rahim Yar Khan district, Pakistan in reaction to alleged defilement of a Madrasa by an eight-year-old Hindu boy]
The relentless sun was beating down heavily on the parched land drawing out every drop of moisture in it. Roopchand gazed through the rusted grilles completely oblivious of the world. What time could do to him in little over eight decades the sun could do to the arid land in a matter of days, for the countless fissures looked somewhat like the intricate mesh of wrinkles on his age-old skin. Are the summers getting hotter and the winters colder or is it just a function of the reduced endurance levels with old age? The scorching sun could not dissuade him when as an adolescent he whiled away his time flying kites for hours together. Nah, the climate of Rahim Yar Khan has turned for the worse for sure! With autumn fast approaching the mercury levels would generally dip. Occasional showers were also common. But, this year there was no reprieve. The hot air rising pulled the dust from the ground up into the air in circles creating small whirlwinds only to fall back on the ground again. Roopchand stared at the slice of pure blue sky visible from his window, for a moment. No cloud no haze and no sign of life. Only a few scavengers flew in circles high up in the sky animating the scene. Why do birds fly so effortlessly in circles? Having spent his entire adulthood, middle age and senior years in the midst of nature as a sugarcane plantation worker such questions intrigued him often. May be, it had something to do with the heat – Roopchand thought to himself. Since the time he lost his strength to work outdoors and passed on the job to his son, Lalchand, this was his favourite pastime – gaping through the window and casting his mind back to his prime years and memories.
“BAAAAAM”…the shekran wood door flung open and banged against the unplastered wall loosening the crumbling mortar between the bricks. Lalchand barged in. With ripped clothes and bulging eyes he looked like the casualty of a tribal warfare.
“Bapu, the police have arrested Sunny, they will beat him to death.” Lalchand bellowed out loud, running his hands through his hair. “We are doomed!” With hair dishevelled and his body trembling like a leaf the fear in his eyes was palpable.
His stupor interrupted, Roopchand looked back over his shoulders. One look at Lalchand and Roopchand got unnerved. Where has he been all the while? And…what on earth could do this to him. Cupping his right ear he turned to Lalchand with a blank look. Age had certainly taken a toll on this old man acting on his ability to hear and discern speech meaningfully.
“Who has done this to you? And…where the hell is Sunny? You did not even come for lunch. We were waiting for you all the while…”
“We pleaded for Sunny’s life before them; in fact, all the elders from our community, Gangwaniji, Ukraniji, Bhagwandasji, tendered apology, but they would beat all of us instead…” Lalchand continued without paying any heed to what was being said to him. His restlessness was getting the better of him as he lost coherence. As his voice stuttered and sped up, he had difficulty standing still. “I p…p I mean I prostrated in front of Imam Ibrahim, but to no avail, they still lodged police complaint against him.”
By now, the commotion had tipped off the only woman in the house. Kavita Bai, Lalchand’s wife, came rushing from the makeshift kitchen. With her dupatta unkempt and terror in eyes she was oblivious of the onuses of a dutiful wife in a strong patriarchal society where women were only allowed to show up in front of other men properly covering themselves – father-in-law was no exception. Devoid of any education like most women of her ‘baradari’, she was cut out for spending her life in a 4×4 kitchen making perfectly round ‘rotis’ and cooking meals for the household – she looked older than her age for the incessant heat damaged and weakened her skin prematurely ageing her. Although Pakistani men were exposed to more hazardous work it was undoubtedly the women who worked harder, being the first in the family to wake up and last to go to bed. Kavita had been the embodiment of a typical Hindu Pakistani woman till that very moment, silently acceding to all the diktats and occasional abuses of her husband – a man from a marginalised community living under the constant threat of conversion and liquidation who did not have any other conduit to vent out his frustration.
“What on earth has happened to Sunny? Why can’t I see him?” Kavita exclaimed.
Lalchand tried to mumble a few words but nothing meaningful came out.
Kavita rushed to Lalchand and held him by the collar of his kameez. “Where is S-U-N-N-Y? He left the house with you…what have you done to him?” she screamed at Lalchand atypically. It was surely not her nature. But, anything to do with her son, she was completely locked in. In a country where everyone doted on a male child, Lalchand and Kavita were not so lucky to have a daughter as their first born. To make matters worse ‘Pushpa’ was born fair and pretty, leading to a constant source of worry for her parents. Two years later when Sunny was born her tears were unmanageable. She wept uncontrollably completely unaware of the embarrassment it caused in front of the midwife. Her life had come to fruition giving birth to a son.
Lalchand looked at Kavita with distraught eyes as if what he was seeing could not be true. “K..K- Kavita you know I always watch over him when we go to the Mandir….” This was a tradition passed on from one generation to another. In his youth Roopchand would get on a bus along with Lalchand to visit the Krishna Mandir in Sadiqabad, at least once in a month – Lalchand continued the legacy faithfully. Ever since the Siddhi Vinayak Temple was raised in Bhong Sharif – a stone’s throw from their house, Lalchand would frequent it, instead, with Sunny. Strange, but it is true, more often than not, persecuted communities tended to cling on to their religious practices more conspicuously.
“While I was busy in the puja Sunny swayed away with his friends. I thought, maybe, he was playing a game of cricket with Mosharaf and Altaf…like they always do in the precincts of the mandir…” Lal continued. “Seemingly, today they had different plans; while his friends concealed themselves Sunny was the seeker in the game of hide-and-seek and had the task of tracking them down…”Lalchand pushed Kavita back with force to loosen her grip. Without any shred of doubt, she was tough to be reasoned with. He plodded his way up to his father, Roopchand. “…Papa, in his playfulness Sunny entered the Dar-Ul-Uloom Madrasa thinking his friends were hiding inside. He is just a kid. Little did he know about places forbidden for him…” Lalchand’s quavering voice started giving way and by now he was in tears. He went down on his knees and hid his face in Roopchand’s lap. “…I could not protect him Papa…I could do nothing to save him.”
“So, what if he entered the Madrasa? What did they do to him?” Kavita shrieked out loud.
Ashamed to face the world Lal kept his head buried. “The Imam alleged Sunny had urinated in the Madrasa making light of the sanctity and purity of the premises. They mauled him brutally…a mere kid of eight…everyone in the Madrasa took turns in thrashing my little child…God only knows how he survived. No sooner had they filled their hearts with content Sunny was turned in to the police, charged on account of blasphemy”.
Kavita could not believe her ears. Her knees buckled as she dropped on the ground, breaking few of the colourful glass bangles she was wearing. “What harm can my eight-year-old do to anybody? What does he know about religion?” She kept on murmuring much of which remained indistinct expressions of disbelief.
Lalchand held Roopchand’s hand tight as he cried profusely pouring all his bottled-up agony through his tears. He knew, in the entire world he could not get his feelings through to anyone save his father.
Roopchand passed his fingers through Lalchand’s matted hair in helpless love. He did not speak a word. Being the senior most of the household he was not allowed to shed tears. All the years he stood like a rock behind his family amidst profound gloom. But, today he felt his world was crumbling around him at god speed as fear started gripping him. Will I ever see Sunny’s smiling face again? Will he ever come to me and nag for bed-time stories? Several thoughts clouded Roopchand’s mind as he busied himself in hiding the few discrete droplets that troubled his vision.
The anxiety the family shared was not ill-founded for Pakistan had one of the most brutal blasphemy laws in place. People incarcerated of causing sacrilege to Islam almost never had any chance and would succumb to street vigilantism, if not the apex courts. Countless people, disproportionately consisting of Hindus, were murdered brutally following blasphemy indictments, majority of which were devoid of substance. Undoubtedly this was a tool to oppress the Hindus, settle personal scores or confiscate their women or property. There was no soul in the entire of Pakistan who would have their back.
Roopchand remembered the partition days when as a kid he ran around the Mohalla with Pakistani flag in his hand. Quaid-e-Azam’s speech “…Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims and be citizens of the state…” would give him goosebumps.
Surely, being a Hindu made him a no less Pakistani. While his relatives moved to India for a more secure and prosperous future he stayed put unwaveringly. It had not mattered when his land was confiscated by powerful neighbours reducing him to a menial labour. It had not mattered when his young daughter was abducted, forced to embrace Islam and married off to a Muslim man thrice her age. Roopchand was steadfast in his will to stick to the terrain he believed to be his own. It was here that he went to school, got a job, made a family. It was here that he loved and was loved in return. Despite the systematic run down of the Hindus in the society, despite the nominal status of Hindus which was little better than slaves Roopchand was among the very few who did not perish, get converted or flee to neighbouring India. But, today, Roopchand felt whatever he did in his life was meaningless. This country would never cease to denigrate and marginalise the Hindus – whether a wretched old man like him or an innocent kid like Sunny it mattered little.
The afternoon was a long and uneventful one. The family had barely eaten even a single morsel. No one had the strength even to move an inch. Puhspa, who was tending cattle in their courtyard all the while returned home. She was one person who never got tired – assisting her mother in household chores, running errands, doing all that her family needed her to do. She applied a turmeric paste on Lalchand’s wounds. It was widely believed turmeric played a role in reducing the inflammation. Natural therapies like these were all they could do in such situations. Roopchand looked out of the window to see the sky ablaze with an orange glow.
The slanting ways of the waning sun and the clouds created a soothing work of art. If only, the family could also rejoice in this finest hour of nature. Pushpa unscrewed the chimneys of a lantern, filled it with lamp oil and lit up the room by putting fire to the wick.
The heavy iron ring knobs of the main door clanged with a thud announcing the arrival of guest. None in the house had the strength to get up and welcome the visitor, save Pushpa. She went up and opened the lock latch chain that barely protected the house. The sense of being secure was undoubtedly a mind thing, for one strong kick could break open the door. An unusually tall old man wearing a grey stubble stood outside. The height and old age made him bend forward creating a humped look. He lifted his gout inflamed hand in a motion to bless the girl. The milky eyes through the thick glasses poured affection.
“Please come in Ukraniji.” Pushpa smiled back and made way for the old man.
“Where is your father and grandfather? Are they at home?”
“Yes, yes, they are inside.”
Ukraniji limped his way into the house and took a bamboo cane stool as seat. With old age his bones were no longer in his full control – a disease that plagued lot of old people in the subcontinent, mainly women after menopause.
“Lal – What would you do know?” Ukraniji placed his hand on Lalchand’s shoulder in a patronising gesture. Tortured and tormented people were disposed to stay together. Hindu families in Rahim Yar Khan were no exception. They loved each other like brothers and sisters.
One man’s distress whipped up the entire community.
Lalchand sighed in despair. By now, he was more fatigued than scared. The most miserable feeling in life is probably when a man cannot see the end of his sorrows. There was silence in the room for a minute or a few.
Ukrainiji was first to break the calm. “After you left a group of frenzied men set the temple ablaze. With chants of Nara-e-Takbeer they vandalised the temple complex, breaking the doors and windows and desecrating our idols.” Ukraniji breathed heavily and pressed his turban in an attempt to distract himself. He got up from his seat and moved towards Roopchand. “Makeno mistakes, they will come and ransack our houses. Most of us will leave for the village by daybreak. Roopchandji – I would urge you also come with us. It is not safe here now.”
A straight side-to-side nod and Roopchand expressed his refusal.
“At least for a few days…”
Roopchand raised his hand signaling Ukraniji to stop. There was now no point in talking over this issue – Ukraniji knew it better than others. He clasped his hands in desperation.
“May god be with you in these trying times.” He left the house quiet and forlorn.
Pushpa was reasonably grown up to understand what was happening around her. She gathered all the courage she had and approached her grandfather.
“Dadaji, why is it such a bad idea to leave? Aren’t we worse off than the goats that we rear? Born to suffer and die in dishonour.”
Roopchand stirred and looked at Pushpa. One gaze into her eyes and he could read her soul. From his age-old wisdom he knew the biggest crises could not put off people because the hope of good times kept propelling them forward. Without hope there was no life force left. Roopchand took Pushpa’s hands in his, his eyes fixated at her, jaws relaxed with a wry smile.
“My child…people who are powerless, who forego all worldly pleasures, who are ill-treated in their lives will be the ones who are rewarded in heaven. It is god’s will ‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’” The lantern in the room glistened on Pushpa’s face and her eyes lit up as she grasped Roopchand’s hand tightly.