Hilal For Her

A Train Ride Back in Time

Anaya watched her beeji's wheelchair being pushed towards the green buggy awaiting them. All around them was the hustle bustle of the Karachi folk rushing to catch a train or awaiting the arrival of one. There was a plethora of conversations highlighted by customary greetings and shedding of tears, as some sent their loved ones away while others got to greet them after a long time. As they carefully navigated through the crowd she noticed trepidation all over her grandmother’s usually cheery face, curious and a little concerned, she reached out and grasped her grandmother’s hand and said, “Beeji are you unwell? If so we can always go by a plane or go another time.” In response to her question, the old lady just patted her hand reassuringly and looked away.

She didn't understand why Beeji suddenly wanted to take a trip to Lahore by train. Her request was so sudden that neither her mother nor her father could take time off from work and hence, they sent Anaya with her. She was only 17 so how could she take care of such an old woman? But here they were, at the Cantonment Station, with a journey of eighteen hours awaiting them.
Anaya was pulled out of her thoughts when the train came to a halt right in front of them. She looked at the magnificent green metal snake. It looked haunting yet beautiful, turning to face her grandmother she was an image of a frightened child. Beeji was peering up at the train timidly with big tawny eyes sheltered by wrinkles. She clutched the wheelchair tighter and then let go gesturing for her walking stick. Frailly, she took one step, then another and with a little help from the coolie and Anaya she was able to get inside their coach. Paying the coolie Anaya herself went inside and looked at their accommodations. She heard the sound of sniffling and at once she glanced at her grandmother.
Beeji sat by the window on her wheel chair, her white shawl fluttering with the wind and her hand stretched beyond the bars, with the setting sun casting a rose gold hue on her cherub face and a ray of light catching onto a lone tear as it slid down her face, making it sparkle. Her eyes were looking out towards the world but Anaya felt as though they were lost in time hazy with recollection of memories and looking beyond the present. 
They were both jolted to the present as the train started to move. Anaya felt it was best not to interfere with her grandmother’s thoughts and sat quietly. As the train began slowing down at the Hyderabad Junction, she noticed her grandmother quickly shutting the blinds and become deathly still while shedding silent tears. Only when the train started moving and was well away from the station did she relax. The same happened on the next two stations. Now Anaya was really concerned. Her grandmother noticing her concerned face began with a soothing rasp, “My beautiful Anaya, you must be wondering why am I acting like this and also why I requested for such an emergent trip by train. You see, many years ago, almost 72 years to be exact, when I was around the same age as you, I made a similar journey by train. I remember that journey as though it happened yesterday. I was but a child blooming into womanhood in my home, Delhi, the city of lights and festivals. However, that was a most tumultuous time in the subcontinent and little did I know that I would have to forever leave my home, my friends and neighbors. The event of partition was foreseen by our elders but we were mere children unable to guess what lay ahead. This event tested our ties of brotherhood. I remember the night of August 13, 1947. Our complete household was huddled around the radio in complete silence. A voice boomed out:
''Greetings Pakistan Broadcasting Service. We are speaking from Lahore. The night between the thirteenth and fourteenth of August, year forty-seven. It is twelve o'clock. Dawn of freedom.”
The elders roared and jested. Everyone was happy but they still grumbled upon the unjust boundary demarcation. However, the celebration was cut short by the sounds of gunshots. My grandfather having foreseen such circumstances asked my mother and father to gather only the essentials and set out towards the Delhi Station. In the dead of the night, with the whistling wind as our companion, we set out towards the station. I remember the terror as we dodged the mobs and bloodthirsty crowds of Hindus while navigating through the narrow backstreets. A gunshot rang out and it hit my grandfather on his leg. He fell down but instructed us to carry on towards the station. I remember his sad smile as he gave my head a pat and squeezed my hand for the last time. My grandmother chose to stay with him. They bade us goodbyes with the saddest of smiles. I don't remember the rest but it was a race against time to reach the train that departed for Lahore. All that remains in memory is the desperate shuffling and the muffled cries as we left our home for the first and last time. Once on the train, each berth was full to the brim with desperate passengers fearing for their lives. Only when we pulled away from the station did we take a breath of relief. There was the sound of desperate prayers and terror suffocated the coaches. I remember looking around confused, not knowing how we had made it to a train filled with cries and desperation. I saw my mother and father along with my brother but none of my cousins or aunts. Who knows where they were? Killed in cold blood or trampled by the crowd? Only God knew."
At this point Beeji broke off and looked towards her hands as the train was slowing once more. Anaya looked towards her grandmother with sadness and disbelief that she had survived through such a difficult time. Once they pulled away from the station, she began once more in a wobbly voice:
“The reason why I go still when we stop at any station is because as we neared any station moving towards Lahore, it was filled with corpses of the awaiting passengers with terror-filled eyes that were for-ever frozen, with their murderers all waiting with deadly intent towards us as well. The train wouldn’t stop there as the driver knew what would become of us. The train went on and on and at Chheharta Railway Station, we were forced to stop. The angry mob entered the train and started to mercilessly kill and drag passengers off the train. I remember our father jumping atop us and acting as a shield. Blood was spilt and my mother shielded my eyes but not before I saw a man take a woman and drag her by the hair. There were screams and cries full of pleading and remorse. I was horror struck at the brutality of our Hindu brethren who had just before midnight rejoiced and ate with us. After the assailants had looted and murdered to their hearts content the train once again started to move. After we were quite a distance away from the station the ones playing dead awakened once more and paid tribute to the ones mercilessly killed. My father was quite well; I was fine as well but my mother had been blinded in one eye. Looking around it was like a scene from hell. Limbs lay amputated, bodies ruthlessly mutilated. Our berth thankfully had some survivors including us,” Beeji broke off, sniffled and burst out into tears as the train slowed down once more.
Anaya got off to get something to eat but Beeji stayed put. Bringing back some snacks and water, she settled down in the train. This time her grandmother stayed silent for quite a long time. After the third stop had passed, Beeji nibbled onto something and drank a few sips of water. Then clearing her throat she beckoned Anaya. Anaya came and sat on the floor while Beeji stoked her hair. She began once again:
''In complete silence we wove through the lands of a country that was no longer ours, going towards our only safe haven – Pakistan. There were screams and cries for mercy coming from the villages we were passing. We ourselves travelled on with corpses and shriveled hearts with tiny seedlings of hope that we might live to see another day, a dawn of freedom, unmarred by the horror we had just witnessed. We didn't stop after that. We traveled on through all the stone pelting and all the firing. We kept low and breathed slowly afraid that the breath we had drawn in could be our last. At last we passed through the border pulling in towards the promised land of freedom. As our train pulled up to the Lahore station it stopped as though unable to go on burdened by the weight of those innocently murdered. We incredulously looked from one person to the other and unbelievingly got up to exit the coach that reeked of death and hope so ruthlessly smothered. I remember grasping my mother’s hand and leading her towards the door into the midday sun that took away some of the ice that would forever remain in our hearts after witnessing such cruelty. As soon as our vision cleared up I took in the throngs of people that huddled around the doorways of the coaches, their hopeful eyes searching for any signs of their loved ones. Stepping out from the crowd a lady took my hand and guided us down from the steps. She lovingly caressed my hair and tended to my mother and gave us some milk and apples. We were starving and hence, the food, however simple, tasted better than the finest of meals. The lady further guided us towards a bull cart that would take us to the refugee camp. When asked by my mother that if she had any relation to us, she smiled and said, “In times of such difficulty we all are related by the ties of the motherland. Welcome to Pakistan sister. Allah be with you.
Such sincere words brought tears to my mother’s eyes and she embraced the woman.” Softly stroking Anaya’s head, her grandmother, wiping tears from her eyes, said, "After that train journey I never once travelled because I’ve been plagued by such dark memories. But now as my end draws near I wanted to honor the memories of all the brave souls who never made it to this side of the border alive. I wanted to tell the story to someone who will pass it on. So here I bequeath my life story to you, I hope you will pass it on and remember it. I wanted to make a journey once more to the station that marked the beginning of a new life of me. Those were the real heroes and they forever are etched into the slate of my mind. Now I can rest in peace knowing that I passed on their memory to a young citizen of the very state that now stands proud and independent."
Anaya smiled, wiped the tears from her own eyes and hugged her grandmother. “Beeji,” she said, “You are also a hero. You smile and breathe after losing loved ones and friends. You contributed to the growth of Pakistan by serving it. As for the people that laid down their lives I can only salute them for their bravery.”
Humara Khoon Bhi Shamil Hai Tazi'ene gulistan mei;
Humein bhi yaad Kar Lena jab chaman main bahar aye

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