How to face disaster

‘We face the disaster until we are victorious, whether you stand tall to its might, crumble underneath it, or wage at it with a sword in your hands. It only ends when victory is achieved’

“How would you define victory grandma?” “Victory lies in the attainment of peace.”

“And disaster?’

“The sort I saw in 1947, in my hometown of Gurdaspur.”

My grandmother was born under the name Aupinder Preet Kaur, to her Sikh family of three daughters and two brothers. The town, Gurdaspur, a verdant plain of the Punjab province well-known for its fledgling rice fields, celebrated as it lay between two historic rivers of the ancient Greek conquests by Alexander, namely Bias and Ravi. Dominated by a Punjabi population of Muslims, Sikhs were in a demographically weak number by comparison. The town was pecunious with agriculture as the primary source, alongside close knit family units, before modernisation hit the town later in the Cold War era.

Aupinder, my grandmother was 17 years of age and awfully excited for the wedding ceremony of her older sister Manpreet. A wedding in the South Asian culture transcends all borders; anybody and everybody is welcome. The affair kicked off with a huge pre-celebration, profuse with kaleidoscopic festivities encompassing dance, folklore musicals as well as massive food preparations.

“At night, us sisters would scatter around wearing Manpreet’s gold necklaces in the mirror, mocking each other. My mother had crafted the jewellery even before her birth, some of it was heritage from her mother-in-law and so on,” my grandmother reflected.

“Our house was decorated since a month, with origami, lanterns, clay lamps and draperies of all colours. Musicians were stationed to beat drums as soon as the first star of the night sky came up. The entire village would collect at our end and rejoiced, knowing that there would be a night of dancing about to begin. All my friends would come by as we prepared local folk dances for my sisters’ big day. There was food of every kind in the Punjab – local confectionaries made by hand were distributed every week. And it was quite a grand affair.”

What was a wedding after all, if it failed to splutter noise in town, and preparations began as far as a month before the actual date? Manpreet was getting married to a man in the city, who fit all definitions of handsome.

‘At night, us sisters would scatter around wearing Manpreet’s gold necklaces in the mirror, mocking each other. My mother had crafted the jewellery even before her birth, some of it was heritage from her mother-in-law and so on,’ my grandmother reflected

“Having viewed a blurry black and white photo of her future groom, her cheeks threw shades deeper than blood as her sisters teased her the entire night. Unprecedented happiness decorated every corner of their plain yet elaborate courtyard as they counted days to the union.”

“Rayedkluf”, they said. I heard similar mutterings amongst my father and his group of friends, of an approaching unknown danger. The Muslims were all of a sudden no more the innocuous neighbour next door, but a threat to our town, in their eyes. Yet, we estimated that it was far too vile to be real.”

“His name was Radcliff, grandma.”

“Ah, we were colonised, darling. We barely knew English back then.”

She was honest, and his name was Cyril Radcliff, the Boundary Commission head. What he drew was soon going to divide everything in an extant, equivocal manner. He was vaguely maneuvering pen lines across a map that would translate into thicker lines of blood in South Asian history’s biggest genocide. According to Margaret Bourke, a photographer of the Second World War and a witness to the opening of the terrifying Nazi concentration camps, described the horror in Calcutta as reminiscent to a street in Buchenwald.

The disaster for Aupinder was just about to begin. It started with a telegram on the day of the wedding that said that the groom’s arrival from Lahore would be delayed for about four hours. The news unsettled the family as they continued with the arrangements. Yet, grandma described it to be an omen of all sorts, predicting the catastrophe that lay ahead like an oracle from Delphi would.

As the night approached, so did the alluvium of their fate. Pending in queue, a Muslim mob stomped to the direction of their house, two hours before the arrival of the guests.

First, they drove a sword, straight through her youngest brother Balwinder’s stomach, causing his intestines to fall out on the scrubbed floor. His mouth coiled up with blood, he reached his end within seconds.

Aupinder shrieked from her window as she sprang in horror grabbing Manpreet.

Next in line was her elder brother, slayed instantly as a man from the mob penetrated his back with a knife, and two other men cut his limbs right in front of them.

Her father cupped her mother’s mouth with his hands as though a single sound would betray her location. He then proceeded to grab their oldest married daughter, Dharmelan, who was five months pregnant.

“I still remember his words. He said it would have to be done for honour and that we should rather die than breed Muslim children,” Grandma’s voice quivered as she spoke further.

Dharmelan was willingly slaughtered by her own father. Manpreet and Aupinder saw a massacre that had their own father unsheathing his sword, passed on from generations as a tool to behead his favourite child, who he once lifted upon his shoulders at her mere childhood rants.

“Manpreet knew what was next; she didn’t want it for me. Neither did I want it for me. In that instant, I felt my father amongst the mob that came to kill us, doing the same. What difference had remained? Honour meant more than our lives. It cost us our lives.”

Within seconds, Manpreet hid Aupinder in the house’s underground dig, used cow dung to cover Balwinder’s body, which resembled a carcass, as the remaining men approached the quarters of her parents, upstairs. She witnessed her father stabbing her mother as she stood without any resistance, apologising to her repeatedly, with tears crawling down his beard. Manpreet was aghast with what her eyes saw. This was the same woman her father professed love to, often ten times in a day. Honour had triumphed over her life as well?

“When Maajee collapsed, I heard Manpreet gasp. I knew in that dark cell that it was over. Everything was gone. And I was paralysed with fear. I couldn’t as much as blink an eye.”

Soon, they called out for Manpreet. She knew this was coming. She grabbed the nearest scattered glass shard, and slit her own wrists before they managed to lay a finger on her. Soon, she was cold as ice.

In four hours, the groom and the guests arrived at a house, where the floor had turned to a shade of scarlet fused with brown. They came, more than late, to a house all set with death and an oil lamp celebrating their arrival in every corner.

Dhan Singh watched his bride. She was set with flowers in her long auburn hair, covered in ochre embroidered strings, scintillating in her red dupatta. Her wrists slit by the golden bangles on her arm echoed a ruby red reflection of her. They had chopped her foot, because the pure gold anklet would not come off easy.

“I heard him yelp in pain, and the guests moaning and screaming. I thought it was safer to come out as I could hear familiar voices.”

Dhan Singh’s Family soon offered refuge to Aupinder, only until a similar catastrophe hit their village hours later, with girls waiting in line to be slaughtered by the men of the house. She was barely alive.

Aupinder felt soulless, but nonetheless, had enough gravitas even at that tender age, to know the depth of this act, and condemn it as wrong. Purely relying on her survival instinct, Aupinder fled the village in secret and ran as far as she could, finally stumbling upon Ahmad Khakwani’s house.

By then, cotton mouthed with thirst, her feeble legs, along with her body, gave up on her, from the mental exhaustion. Her will to survive had taught her by far that if this was a Hindu’s house, she would swear allegiance to their religion, and if it was a Muslim’s she would claim to be Muslim until she would have to run off again. She knocked on the door.

Ahmad’s household was Muslim; thus, Aupinder lied about being one, to earn access for refuge. However, the rioters, this time, the Sikhs, approached Ahmad’s neighbourhood. Aupinder while out to fetch vegetables, followed by Ahmad’s oldest son, Riaz, saw them in secret. She tried to walk as slowly as she could, to escape their attention, when suddenly, one of them recognised her as Balwinder Singh’s lost sister. He called out to her by her name repeatedly, until he grabbed her, imploring her to come with them. She ran away towards Riaz, pleading him to take her back home, away from the former alliance. Riaz made a narrow escape, running by the speed of light, eventually taking her home, but by then, he had realised that she was not a Muslim.

“And that is when I could feel that this disaster might just end sooner than I imagined,” she sighed in relief.

Riaz, now fully aware of her identity, kept quiescent about the scenario at home. He liked how her eyes showed fear, from all that she had escaped. And it was their honesty that he admired, even more than her narrative. They were two young people falling in love, with a world full of chaos and inhumanity around them. Three months later on their journey to Narowal, Riaz told Aupinder that he knew who she really was.

The disaster for Aupinder was just about to begin. It started with a telegram on the day of the wedding that said, the groom’s arrival from Lahore would be delayed for about four hours. The news unsettled the family as they continued with the arrangements. Yet, grandma described it to be an omen of all sorts, predicting the catastrophe that lay ahead like an oracle from Delphi would

“I was scared and bewildered, both by fear of all that had happened to other Sikh girls that were not dead, and surprised at how he knew the reality all along, yet chose not harm me.”

When she questioned back as to why he chose not to snatch away her honour like the others, his answer made her realise the reality of the human nature.

“I was the biggest Islamophobic in my time. My entire family collapsed in front of my eyes because of a Muslim mob. Yet, Riaz handed me the Quran. He said they were wrong, just as the Sikh mob that visited their town was wrong. He told me that his religion primarily preached peace. The first thing he would say to me every morning was “Assalamolaikum.” It meant, “peace be with you.”

Riaz taught her Arabic through a book he handed her as her first present. Soon, Aupinder understood that the chaos was nothing more than a misunderstanding caused by blood lusting individuals that were devoid of humanity, let alone religion. She found out later that Ahmad’s parents knew of her truth; this was when she didn’t read the five time mandatory prayer read by all Muslims. Yet they did not judge, or object to her presence. They safeguarded her as their own. They followed the teachings of their religion, condemning all those that made chaos on earth, including punishments for those that harmed women and children or promoted violence. It preached tolerance for all religions, told to honour woman and prohibited the infanticide practiced in Arabia within the dark ages.

Aupinder soon converted to Islam, when she realised that this religion did not ask her to pay the price of honour with her life, but instead, told her to live. She married Riaz; thus, became known as Ayesha Fatima. Ayesha was a favourite with Riaz’s parents. They were a family that had a unique bond, one of compassion and shared trauma. Riaz’s sister was murdered by a Sikh mob far before Aupinder arrived at their house. They had experienced pain better than most and did not avenge out of bitterness when given the chance.

“I knew that this disaster was deep rooted by years of hatred that came to a boiling point in a moment, called the Partition. I was adamant that honour did not solely lie in the body of a woman, alone. Nor could she be the sole protector of it. I also knew that this disaster could not cost me my life. I was tough to stand up to life than to give up at the hands of death like thousands of women from my time did, sometimes willingly so. We were hit by the worst wave of violence as a generation, and it seemed as though judgment day was playing out here on earth. Suicide, rape, murder stood staring back at us in every corner of the street. I may have been far luckier than the rest of the survivors, but it has been no easy road.”

“To face disaster, one needs to stand up to wrong. I would often think why Manpreet killed herself willingly, why my mother never said no to dying, why my elder sister sacrificed her child. Some would say that there was no other way, but was the destruction of women really the only way this war could be won, or morals galvanised?”

Ayesha faced disaster, then crawled back up to look at the storm in the eye, and vowed not to fall in its span of control. Today, my grandmother has been an active voice for preaching the importance of honour and Islam’s true message that safeguards women in all circumstances, to thousands of underprivileged woman all across the country. She realised that attaining peace is the only way to know when a disaster is truly over, while being robbed of peace means that you’re already in one.

The author is a finance and economics major, trying to uncover history’s whitewashed chapters with a millennial torch. She can be reached at alishbatajwar@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, February 7th 2018.