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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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Nothing had helped.

“The child is due in October and this worries me,”
Kanwar continued in her letter.
“Ever since it was announced that there will be a division of land between the Hindus and the Mussulmans, there has been unrest everywhere. There are rumours that Punjab will be broken into two pieces—one piece of our heartland to stay in India and the other to go to Pakistan. This is the name that Muhammad Jinnah has chosen for his new country. I do not know which piece we will end up in. Where will my new child be born, I wonder?”

The door opened, and Bibi-ji looked up from the letter, frowning. A gora came in.

Bibi-ji wiped the frown from her face. “Good morning!” she said cheerfully, just like Mrs. Hardy of Amritsar had taught her. “Howdyoodo?”

The man ignored her and wandered around the shop.

“Are you in need of something in particular, sir?” Bibi-ji called after him, even though he had not responded to her greeting. As if she were invisible. Maybe she was. Maybe when the gora fella looked at her, he saw not Bibi-ji—beautiful and accomplished proprietor and clear owner of this shop and the upstairs apartment, in debt to nobody in the world except God-he saw an insignificant brown foreigner, one of the people
who ran small shops like this one, or worked in the sawmills, or cleaned up in the posh restaurants, hardly worthy of notice. Bibi-ji shrugged. It did not hurt her, this kind of blindness. She knew who she was and she knew her place in the world.

“You don’t keep root beer?” the man asked.

“No sir, but we have many other things.”

“How about tuna?”

“No sir, but we have six types of dal. I will show you, if you wish. And high-quality rice.”

The man left without buying anything.

Lalloo’s thin, sharp-featured face appeared from behind a tall shelf. He asked, “No sale, Bibi-ji?”

“No, putthar, the gora wanted tuna and some kind of beer. Maybe we should keep the things these goras like. Some root beer, some ice cream, sardines …”

“You will need a refrigerator in the store for all that,” Lalloo pointed out earnestly.

“Mmm, that is true. I will have to think about it a bit,” she said, waving him back to work. Her mind, though, clicked busily, adding and subtracting, expenses versus profits, plans and projects for the future. Since her arrival in Vancouver, Bibi-ji had discovered that she had a talent for accounting and business. Focusing on the shop also kept her from worrying about her sister and her own childless state which, she was certain, was the Ooper-Wallah’s punishment. She had stolen a life and she would not be allowed to give birth to another. So she had thrown herself into the business of making money. To begin with, she had swiftly put an end to
Pa-ji’s habit of accepting credit notes instead of hard cash for purchases.

“No more credit until arrears are cleared,” she told the regulars crisply.

Some of them paid their bills without a murmur. Others did not like it at all—the well-off ones who had no business grumbling about paying two years’ worth of debt. One woman whose husband owned acres of vegetable farms in Abbotsford had whined and fussed. “But,” she had said, a frown corrugating her high round forehead, “but, but …”—like a duck—“I wish to speak to Pa-ji about this. He knows me well. I am not going to run away with the money we owe you, understand?”

“It is his decision to collect all arrears,” Bibi-ji had said, staring her down, taking in her gold chains and bangles and thinking,
You are using my money to buy all that jewellery!

“In that case, sister, I will not be coming to this shop again,” the woman had declared.

“Your wish, sister,” Bibi-ji had politely replied—wondering briefly if she was ruining the business that her husband had so painstakingly built. “You owe us one hundred and two dollars and five cents.”

The woman had slapped the money down on the counter and swept out. A month later she was back for dal and wheat flour, cash in hand, a smile on her face and a gushing invitation to visit her house for an important ceremony.

Bibi-ji had been relieved to see her—and even more pleased that she had, once again, taken a chance and won.

Recently she had set about trying to get rid of the house guests who always filled their apartment.

“What is this, ji?” she asked Pa-ji one evening after he had settled in his favourite armchair with a glass of Johnny Walker whisky in hand. “A dharamshaala for every passing person? They are sitting here and eating and sleeping at our expense. At this rate we will be bankrupt.”

“Only until they find their feet, my sweet Bebby,” Pa-ji said firmly, his good eye fixed on her. “People helped me when I came here, and this is my way of paying back. We are strangers in this land and have nobody but our own community to turn to.”

Bibi-ji recognized when not to argue. Pa-ji had said nothing when she stopped taking credit notes, even though she knew that the grumblings and mutterings from the customers had reached him. But on the matter of their house guests she knew he would not budge. However, there were other ways of dealing with the endless train of people wandering through their home; what could not be removed could be used. The women understood this and made themselves useful around the apartment, cooking and cleaning, washing dishes and doing laundry without being asked. It was the men who lounged around, watching television, listening to the radio or discussing the political situation in India. All very well, talking big about distant matters, but what about the here and now? Bibi-ji thought sourly. What about the money that was leaking out of Pa-ji’s pockets to feed these people while they sat around talking?

“We are not doing these boys any favours by letting them stare at the walls.” She had widened her eyes at her husband in a way that she knew he could not resist, and leaned
against him. “They need to keep busy, otherwise God knows what trouble they might get into. They can help in the shop. It will be good Canadian work experience.”

Pa-ji looked doubtful. Bibi-ji wriggled her body against his and ran a finger down his cheek.

“Yes my beauty, you are right,” Pa-ji sighed and gave up. “It will be good experience for them.”

After that, when a grateful newcomer folded his palms and said, “Pa-ji, how can I repay you?” Pa-ji would pat him genially and say, “Pass it on, pass it on. There are certain things that must be passed on, not returned.” And in the same breath he would add, “By the way, from tomorrow morning if you could help Bibi-ji in the shop, poor thing, her back is gone lifting those heavy sacks of rice …”

Bibi-ji turned to gaze out at the street, her eyes resting momentarily on two small plum trees shorn bare of leaves. A young couple peered into the window of an antique shop across the road, a few yards from the Salvation Army store. Bibi-ji wondered whether there was any money to be made from selling dusty relics from the past. More than her grocery store made? They could become far more prosperous, she was sure of that. Opportunities lay around them like pearls on these streets. But they were visible only to people with sharp eyes.

“What are you looking at, Bibi-ji?” Lalloo asked, coming around to the front with a box full of pickle jars. He lowered it carefully on the floor and stared out the window.

“What am I looking
for,
Lalloo,
for,”
Bibi-ji corrected. “I am looking for pearls.”

“I don’t see anything there, Bibi-ji,” Lalloo remarked after a few moments.

She laughed. “Neither do I, but I will. I
know
I will.” She continued to appraise the stores across the street—the bakery with the electricals shop on one side of it, and the store selling second-hand clothes, a store, she noted, that was always full of people. The war had left the whole world poorer: why had Pa-ji not thought of opening a used-clothing store instead of this Indian grocery shop? She wondered whether the shop would do better in Abbotsford or in Duncan, where there were more Sikhs than here in Vancouver. But no, she liked being in the city. She had a feeling that it was a city with a future, one in which she would be wise to invest her money and her hard work.

The aroma of cooking drifted down from the upstairs kitchen, and an idea came to her. How about a restaurant? Small, no fuss, just a few things on the menu. She could supervise the kitchen and Pa-ji could handle the cash. But then a real estate agent’s sign in a window across the road caught her eye, and the thought of a restaurant slid away. She decided that their future lay in real estate: she would persuade Pa-ji to buy a house and rent out their apartment …

She returned to Kanwar’s letter.
“Last week there was a big fight between the Mussulmans and the Sikhs in Hazara district in the north-west. My husband’s cousin escaped with his life and is here with us now. He spends his days sharpening his kirpan and swearing that he will kill any Mussulman who crosses his path. Across our land, hearts are filling with anger and hate.
So far there is calm here in Dauri Kalan, but hate is like an infectious disease, it can become a plague very soon if something is not done to stop it. I too am becoming suspicious of every Mussulman in this village. Now I notice there are more of them than of us Sikhs. If there is a fight we will be outnumbered. My husband says I am being foolish and nothing will happen to us. He has known the Mussulmans in our village from the time he was a baby. They are like his family, he says, they will protect us if there is trouble. My husband has lived for ten years longer than I have on this earth, so perhaps he is wiser than I am. But I have a bad feeling about this Partition business. I am afraid.”

Bibi-ji had replied promptly, enclosing postcards for her nephew and little niece Nimmo. There had been no answer. She followed up with another letter. Again there was no response. By July, Kanwar’s silence began to consume Bibi-ji. The following month, India and Pakistan were due to become independent nations. But the only thing Bibi-ji could think of was the fate of her sister and her family.

That year—her first in Canada—her already crowded apartment became a gathering place for their friends. Every day it was full of people who would huddle around the radio and listen anxiously to the BBC news or discuss rumours of fighting between Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, of the beatings and rapes and killings occurring daily in the villages near the lines that had been so arbitrarily drawn across the country. An Englishman, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, had been appointed in the days before independence to head a commission that would create two nations in the subcontinent—India, with
a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, for the Muslims. Most of West Punjab, with its Muslim majority, would go to Pakistan, as would East Bengal on the other side of India. East Punjab, with its Hindu and Sikh majority, would remain part of India.

The date for Pakistan’s independence was set for August 14th and India’s the following day. As those dates drew closer, the conversations in Bibi-ji’s apartment grew more intense and carried on even later into the night. Bibi-ji listened to the stories with a growing sense of worry and confusion. Even though Kanwar’s letters had spoken of premonitions of disaster and rumours of killings and quarrels, Bibi-ji found it hard to believe that people who had lived as neighbours and friends for so many years could suddenly become enemies just because of a line drawn on a paper map in a government office.

August 14th had arrived like a hurricane. Bibi-ji had sat with Pa-ji and listened to the radio as the new Pakistan was born on the stroke of midnight. On the following midnight India assumed its newest incarnation as an independent nation. In the months that followed, stories of the savagery sweeping Punjab in the north-west and Bengal in the northeast trickled steadily into Vancouver. Entire villages—Hindu, Muslim and Sikh—had been burned to the ground. Women had been killed by their men to preserve their honour, for it was feared that if they remained alive they might be abducted or raped. Trains loaded with dead bodies came and went across the newly established border, and ten million people lost their homes, their families, communities and memories. News,
both of great escapes and of confirmed deaths, grew. But out of this tumult of information and rumour came not a whisper about Kanwar or her family. A shroud of silence lay over her area. Dauri Kalan appeared to have vanished, leaving no trace. Had it been seized by the Muslims and burned to the ground? Had it been reinvented and turned into a Pakistani village? Was it perhaps in that band of dust that lay between the new countries of India and Pakistan and that had since become a no man’s land of mines and soldiers and hot white searchlights? Was it even possible to say where that small collection of homes and families that had been a village might now be found on a map? Bibi-ji clung to Pa-ji, asking him to find answers for her. He contacted relatives and friends in Amritsar and Delhi, Jullundur and Lahore. He knew people everywhere; he would find Kanwar for Bibi-ji, he promised. “Nobody disappears,” he said confidently. “These things happen only in the films, only in storybooks.”

By January 1948, when there was still no news, Bibi-ji had become frantic. She had insisted on going back to India. It was to be the first of a series of trips that she would make to that newly formed country in search of her sister and family. She contacted government agencies in charge of displaced persons in Pakistan and India. She left word at as many gurudwaras as she could reach, and she wandered around the refugee camps in both countries, asking for anybody from Dauri Kalan village. An old man in Amritsar told her with absolute certainty that Kanwar’s entire family had died: he had seen it with his own eyes. But a fifteen-year-old boy with a cracked voice
who claimed to be from Dauri Kalan said that he had with his own eyes seen Kanwar’s five-year-old daughter Nimmo in the sad procession that had wound its way through the burning fields of Punjab.

The old man had shaken his head at this and said, “Don’t listen to him, daughter. He makes up stories. The poor boy has lost his entire family and it has affected his mind. He tells everyone who comes here that he has seen their kin in that kafeela. Yesterday he said that he was from Nandayal village, today he is telling you he is from Dauri Kalan.”

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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