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Authors: Anita Rau Badami

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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Gurpreet’s troubles had begun when Sher Singh returned to the village. He showed Harjot Singh an advertisement from a magazine—he even read out the English words, much to Harjot Singh’s amazement. There was no doubt that Abroad caused magic to occur: illiterate men came back not only with money but with that other, more powerful thing—knowledge. The advertisement, placed by a logging company in Canada, invited strong men to come and work in the company’s forests and mills. It promised that the workers would be well paid and given a place to stay.

“Look at me,” Sher Singh had said, waving an expansive arm at his fields, his cows and his brick house. “I have worked hard and made money. Why not you too?”

“Indeed,” Harjot told Gurpreet later that day. “Why not me too? Why shouldn’t I also go to this place where money seems to grow on trees?” Why not obtain freedom from the endless cycle of uncertain monsoons, the certain arrival of the tax collector with his pursed lips and implacable eyes, and the inevitable journey to the moneylender who waited like a vulture to lay his hands on their meagre land?

Gurpreet had anxiously rattled pots inside the house. Questions such as the one her husband had flung into the air always warned of approaching silliness. The last time he had asked
Why Not,
she had lost her entire battery of hens and found herself the owner of a pig. What were
they to do with a pig? They were god-fearing Sikhs, and neither they nor their Mussulman and Hindu neighbours ate the dirty animal. Harjot had muttered something about selling the creature to the English collector sahib, in whose house such creatures were consumed with great relish, and using the money to buy better chickens. The pig just grew fatter and fatter. Harjot could not muster the courage to go to the collector’s house to ask if he wanted a pig, and the creature had eventually been sold in the weekly market for half the amount they had spent on it.

Now, less than two months later, the Why Not question had arisen again, and before Gurpreet knew it Harjot had sold her wedding gold and remortgaged their land to the moneylender. He used the money to travel across the country to Calcutta, from where he hoped to catch a ship to Canada. It was a full year before Gurpreet received a letter from Hong Kong, penned by a letter writer on behalf of her husband.
“From Calcutta I have travelled to Singapore and from there to Hong Kong,”
he wrote
. “Here in Hong Kong I have met an old man named Baba Gurdit Singh who is chartering a ship for many of us Indians who desire to sail to Vancouver. The ship will leave in a few months. I have found work as a security guard in a Chinese businessman’s house in order to earn the fare. Sikhs are much in demand as guards in this country. We are the tallest people here other than the goras from England and Holland. My employer tells me that the sight of my beard and turban is enough to send any thief running as fast as he can go.”

That was the only news Gurpreet received of her husband until the postman arrived at her door one afternoon in December 1914.

“I have heard from a man who knows these things,” he said, looking down at his hands, for he was a sensitive person and did not like to see unhappiness in the faces of the people to whom he carried bad news. “The ship carrying your husband reached Canada. But the people there would not allow the passengers to get off even for food or fresh water. They threatened to shoot them. It is said that they sent a warship and drove them away as if they were criminals!”

“Where is my husband? Is he hurt?”

“The news is that when the men returned to Budge-Budge near Calcutta, the British were waiting for them with guns,” the postman said, shifting awkwardly.

“Guns! Why did they have guns? What did our men do?”

“Do the sahibs need an excuse to raise guns to our heads?” the postman asked. “I don’t know the details. But there is a war starting in Europe, and it is said the British think the men on the ship were traitors and spies. Many were taken to prison but others ran away. Only two or three died. God willing your husband was not one of them and that he is on his way home.”

A month later, just when Gurpreet was beginning to give up hope, Harjot returned to Panjaur. He wasn’t sure what had happened to end the voyage so abruptly. It had taken him two years and all the money he possessed to get on board the
Komagata Maru
in Hong Kong. And yet here he was, denied entry into Canada, denied a chance to make a better life and finally accused of treason. Since when, he asked Gurpreet bitterly, since when had it been treasonous to wish for a better life?

The disappointment and the long and fruitless trip had exhausted him, and Harjot Singh could not bring himself to leave the house and the string cot again, not even to work his small fields, until that night in September 1928 when he disappeared.

“Beware of anything that begins with the troublesome question Why Not,” Gurpreet would warn her younger daughter after Harjot’s disappearance, for she knew Sharan was a girl given to much questioning and curiosity, unlike Kanwar, who questioned little. Over the years the warning became a refrain repeated with increasing bitterness. And, although Gurpreet Kaur did not know it then, ten years later, sixteen-year-old Sharan would stick out her lower lip mutinously, murmur the Why Not question under her breath and change her sister’s fortunes and her own as well.

TWO
T
HEFT
Panjaur
1938

“A
h, Amma, that hurts!” Sharan complained, rubbing her head where her mother had just raked a comb roughly through her hair.

She held up the mirror and gazed at herself, pleased at the sight of her oval face framed in the shining glass, her eyes (which one of the village loafers had compared to the night sky with a single star in the centre of each), her full lips and slender nose. She was beautiful and she knew it.

Another sharp tug on her scalp. Her eyes watered with pain and she jerked her head away from her mother’s merciless hand. “Why are you combing so hard?” she wailed.

“Oho! Our princess can’t take a little pain now?” Gurpreet said, grabbing a handful of thick hair and yanking
Sharan back towards her. It was one of her bad days. She was angry with the world, with Harjot who had left her alone to deal with its vagaries, with Kanwar for being plain as mud and with Sharan who had more than her share of beauty. Kanwar, already twenty-four, was still waiting for a husband. But every man who came to see her wanted sixteen-year-old Sharan instead.

A week had gone by since Kanwar’s last prospective groom had come and gone. Like the others, he had changed his mind when he laid his eyes on the younger sister.

“The pretty one,” he had sent word through the matchmaker early that morning. “The one with skin like a sheet of moonlight, the one with eyes like the night sky, that’s the one I will marry.”

“It isn’t right,” Gurpreet brooded as she drew the comb more gently through Sharan’s hair.

“What isn’t right?” Sharan asked.

“That one should have so much and the other nothing at all,” Gurpreet said. “Truly, the ways of the One Up There puzzle me sometimes.”

Sharan scowled up at the sun which, grown bolder now, had burned the smoky edges of winter away to reveal a clear morning. “Why are you always so angry with me, Amma? I haven’t done anything.”

“Haven’t
done
anything?” her mother echoed in ascending tones. “Haven’t
done
anything? Why, you wretched creature, did you not show your face to that fool who came to see your sister last week? If you hadn’t, we might have been celebrating her engagement now! Haven’t done anything indeed.”

Sharan’s eyes filled with tears. She didn’t even like any of the men who came—they were all farmers from villages nearby. Was it her fault that Kanwar was without charm? Was it her fault that Kanwar spoke loudly about manly things like the price of wheat and when the sugar cane harvest was due and bored the men who came to see her? Was it her fault that she, Sharanjeet Kaur, was so pretty that even the old half-blind grandpas sitting around the banyan tree turned their heads to peer at her when she walked past? And the women, Sharan knew how they whispered and gossiped behind her back.
Ohhoho,
they went,
look at her strut, what pride, what show, one of these days, yes one of these days she will trip on that long braid and land on her pretty nose and then we shall see.
Sharan didn’t care two clicks of her fingers, because she knew that soon, very soon, she would be gone from this speck of dirt called Panjaur. She was meant for better things, and when chance came galloping towards her she would leap on its back and ride like the wind.

“Born greedy,” her mother would say sometimes, her voice turning sharp and accusatory. “God will teach you not to be so greedy, I am telling you now!”

As an infant, Sharan had screamed for Gurpreet’s breast even after she had been suckled for an hour and her stomach was so round and full that she could barely breathe. When she was older, she would grab the small stones and oddly shaped sticks they used as toys, and take from Kanwar the meagre presents of ribbons and baubles that their mother bought for both of them on market day. But Kanwar, eight years older, uncomplaining, sweet as
the sugar that coursed like nectar through the cane that grew in their fields, loved her in spite of these cruelties.

“And my princess,” Gurpreet continued, tapping the end of the comb against Sharan’s head, making her wince, “you have to come with me to that thieving moneylender Ramchand this afternoon. Don’t go away to Jeeti’s house, understand?”

“Why do I have to come? Why not Kanwar?”

“Because it is no use if I go,” Kanwar replied with not even a twinge of resentment. “I am not as pretty as you. The moneylender will never extend Amma’s loan if he sees me.” She laughed. “He might raise our rates instead. As if you didn’t know that!”

Sharan looked away. She had meant to hurt her sister but ended up feeling small. As her mother so often said, throw a stone in dung and it will only splash up and dirty you.

Gurpreet turned on Kanwar. “This one already believes she is the Queen of Beauties, so why are you adding to her vanity?” She nudged Sharan’s head with her knuckles. “I am taking you because your sister has work to finish in the house. I need you to carry water back from the well on the way back. No other reason, understand?”

Sharan rubbed her burning scalp. Yes indeed, she understood. Her mother was angry with her for being good-looking, but when it was time to negotiate with the moneylender for another extension on their mortgage, it was she who had to flirt with the pot-bellied old bandicoot so that he would be charmed into foolishness. And it was she who was expected to flutter her eyelashes at stringy old Banarsi Das when it was necessary
to get groceries on tab from his shop. Yes indeed, she understood.

There was a shuffle of feet and Jeeti’s mother, Soniya, entered the courtyard. Sharan looked up hoping she had brought her friend, but ever since Jeeti’s engagement to a rich shopkeeper in Patiala she hardly left her house, so busy was she getting her skin smooth and fair for her wedding, learning to cook fancy food to please her in-laws and embroidering her wedding dupatta with sequins and seed pearls. Soniya was, as usual, dressed in a new salwar kameez, her stomach pushing and wobbling behind the green material. Around her neck she had a long gold chain, and her earlobes were so stretched with the weight of gold hanging from them that they appeared in danger of tearing. She no longer wore stockings under her salwar, though. In the years since Harjot’s disappearance, many other men had left the village for foreign shores and many a package had come back bearing silk stockings for the wives and sisters of Panjaur. It was no longer a thing to inspire envy in anyone’s heart.

“Ask why I have come, mother of Kanwar!” she said, sitting down hard on the string cot, unfurling a Japanese paper fan with an ostentatious flick of her plump wrist and churning the air with it. The fan, which had arrived in Sher Singh’s most recent parcel along with the usual consignment of chocolate bars and soaps, had replaced the stockings to attract envious stares. Sharan gazed covetously at the pretty black and gold thing fluttering like a trapped butterfly in Soniya’s chubby hand.

“Have I lost all manners, that I should start asking these things before I have offered you a glass of lassi?”
Gurpreet asked in her warmest voice, even though she had still not forgiven Sher Singh, and by extension his wife, for pushing Harjot into the realm of useless dreaming. It had left her with nothing, while this fat woman fanning herself with a ridiculous piece of folded paper had everything. “What are you sitting there and staring for?” she reprimanded Sharan. “Go, go, get aunty a big glass of lassi with sugar.”

Soniya leaned forward and said in a stage whisper, “Ay-hai! How lovely the girl has grown! What a pity the other one does not even have half of
this
one’s looks.”

Gurpreet’s smile vanished. “Looks are not enough to put food in the belly or harvest the cane, sister,” she snipped, waving a flat hand in the air, as if to push away Soniya’s comment. “My Kanwar is a good girl. She will make some fortunate man a good wife.”

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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