Disclaimer – “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”
“I can’t move; my leg hurts.”
“I know Papa, but we will have to move if we want to stay alive. Here, hold my shoulder.”
Her father tried to pick up his bleeding leg which he felt had probably been severed. He gathered up his strength and holding her daughter’s shoulder, stood up on one leg, shrieking in pain.
“Mumma, stop crying, please. He will be fine. Just gather yourself up, we have to leave this place. Now!”
Balbir Singh was sleeping on a cot on the roof of his house due to an electricity outage in his village Sidhaur. It is a village on the International Border between India and Pakistan in Kathua district, Jammu and Kashmir. It was almost midnight when mortar firing from the Pakistani side hit his village as a bolt from the blue.
Diwali is only two days away, and like every year, the Pakistani side has started firing 82 mm mortars. A trail of fireworks can be seen across the sky. The Indian Army is giving a befitting reply but the residential areas are taking a hit.
A mortar shell has hit the roof of Balbir’s house, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling. Splinters from the shell have hit his leg and it is bleeding profusely. His family who was sleeping in the courtyard are calling out to him. He asks them to stay put and not come to the terrace. Managing to hold his bleeding leg, he starts coming down the stairs but trips midway, yelling in pain. Loud cries can be heard across the village. People were running helter-skelter, to find cover. Some of the families have been fortunate enough to get a government built bunker in their courtyard, but most families will have to run distances across their fields in the open fire to reach the community bunkers. For Balbir’s family, the distance to be covered is more than half a kilometre.
Balbir’s daughter, Ananya, is pleading him to get up and try reaching the bunker. Her mother is inconsolable seeing her father’s leg. Her brother, Gourav, is on duty in the Indian Army, defending some other position on the border. Balbir gets up placing one arm each on the shoulders of his daughter and his wife. One limping step at a time, in the open, under the flying mortars, the two women manage to take Balbir to the bunker. On the way, another mortar had hit at a distance from them. Ananya had been fortunate to have suffered only a minor injury from a flying splinter. Meanwhile, Balbir’s phone has started ringing incessantly, its Gourav. Ananya takes the phone out of her father’s pocket and answers:
“I heard there was firing on the border. Are you safe?” a worried tone in Gourav’s voice.
“Yes, we are safe. Don’t you worry”, Ananya said barely catching her pacing breath.
“Where are Mumma and Papa?”
“We are all in the bunker. We will call you later.” And she disconnected the call.
The nearest primary health facility is ten kilometres away from Sidhaur. And amidst this heavy fire, it’s impossible to reach there. In the bunker, there are three other families, a total of fifteen people in that eight feet by six feet space. Two other people have been injured in the firing, but Balbir is the worst hit. He is bleeding heavily from his thigh and his wife has torn a piece of her dupatta to tie around the injury in an effort to slow down the bleeding. His family waits impatiently for some help to arrive.
People on the border live a precarious life. They do not face any adverse natural conditions that would threaten their survival. In fact, they would live a happy and fulfilled life if not for these continuous involuntary migrations. These people not only became structural victims of the partition but also the machinations of both neighbours.
It’s been an hour since the firing started. Balbir has started losing consciousness due to the excessive loss of blood. His family implores him not to close his eyes and to have faith in God.
“If I die, don’t marry off Ananya too soon. Let her complete her studies and get a good job. Yeh mera naam roshan karegi (She will make me proud)”, says Balbir with half-closed eyes.
“Don’t say such inauspicious things. Nothing will happen to you”, says his wife putting up a bold face.
“You are a strong man papa, you will fight this for us,” Ananya says with tears in her eyes.
Meanwhile, five Kilometres from Ananya’s village, Anukalp is woken up at around 2 AM by loud thuds on the gate and incessantly ringing doorbell. Anukalp’s father and mother wake up too. Anukalp asks them to stay inside and goes out to check. It’s the police.
“There has been heavy shelling on the border. Lots of refugees from the border villages are coming in. We have set up a temporary shelter from them in the government school in the village and we need volunteers to help.”
“Sure sure. I will be there in five minutes.” Anukalp said and the police left.
It struck Anukalp; Ananya also lives on the border. He goes inside running and picks up his phone to call Ananya. “Switched off!”
“What happened? Who was it? Why are you running around?” ask his parents.
“It was the police. There has been shelling on the border and they need volunteers at the village school. You close the gate and go off to sleep. I will come in the morning”, Anukalp says running away.
Anukalp tries dialing again. “Switched off!” He hurries to the village school. At the school, people from many border villages have started coming in. The Government has deployed bullet-proof vehicles to ferry people from the border to the camps. Anukalp gets to work, helping set up temporary shelter tents and distributing edibles, water, and woollen blankets. His mind still stuck on Ananya. He is hammering an anchor into the ground when the hammer slipped and came down on his foot. He had been distracted by the thought of Ananya. He gave out a muffled scream, lest others should get worried. He takes five and gets to work again.
At the border, shelling has come down a bit and an ambulance has arrived. Balbir is being ferried to the ambulance. He has managed to hold on for three hours. The ambulance is to carry only the seriously injured persons and no family members are allowed. While the ambulance whizzes away, Ananya and her mother hop on to the bulletproof vehicle that has come to ferry them. They reach Anukalp’s village in about twenty minutes. Anukalp notices Ananya enter from the gate and goes running to her. Her mother is crying inconsolably while she explains the ordeal to Anukalp.
“Don’t worry aunty ji. He will be alright. You should be thankful that he is in safe hands now.”
Just then, the officer-in-charge of the camp announces that they have run out of tents and they will have to wait for more tents to arrive.
“You stay put Ananya, I will go talk to them”, says Anukalp.
Ananya tries to help her mother who has dropped down to her knees now. After a while, Anukalp comes back with a bottle of water and tells them:
“Here, drink some water aunty ji. I have asked the officer to send you and two more families to my place for the night. Aunty ji, you can stay at my place as long as you want. I have also asked the officials to fetch information on Ananya’s father. We should be hearing some good news soon.”
Anukalp leads Ananya, her mother, and two other families to his place. In about ten minutes, they reach there. Anukalp apprises his parents of the situation and they make space for them in two rooms. Anukalp then urges all the families not to worry as they are at a safe place now. When they have all settled down, Anukalp says to them:
“Consider this your own home. The bathroom is in that direction and I will be in the living room if you need anything.”
When he is about to leave for the camp again, Ananya comes to him in the living room.
“I don’t think I will be able to sleep. My mind is too disturbed.”
“Heyy, don’t worry. You are safe now.”
“I need a hug. No, I need your hug.”
Anukalp goes over to her and hugs her.
“Are you bleeding?”
“Yeah, maybe! I had forgotten about it. I was probably hit by a splinter.”
“Let me take a look……You have been hit on your back, just below your neck. Let me get some dressing and clothes for you to change.”
After the wound has been dressed and Ananya has changed into his clothes, Anukalp says:
“I had never thought I would meet my girlfriend in such a vulnerable situation.”
Ananya hugged him even tighter.
“Here, sit on this couch.”
Both of them settle down on the couch, while Ananya places her head in Anukalp’s lap. For some time, both of them stay in that position, quiet; Anukalp stroking Ananya’s hair gently.
“I can’t get my head clear. I don’t know, help me catch some sleep.”
Anukalp holds Ananya’s hand and places it over her waist like a half hug, while she tries to catch some sleep. He begins singing a song for her:
“The very thought of you,
And I forget to do,
The little ordinary things,
That everyone ought to do.”
By now it was 5 AM and Anukalp’s mother comes out of her room. She notices them on the couch and shoots him a look. But before she can say anything, Anukalp gestures her to be quiet for the time being. He does not want to startle Ananya who has just caught some sleep. His mother tip-toes across the living hall to the kitchen. After a while, she comes out of the kitchen. If you can imagine someone with a fret and a smile, that was the expression on her face.
“I have made tea for the refugees. It should be sufficient for 50 people. Take it to the camp.”
Anukalp gently lifts Ananya’s head off her lap and places it on the couch, while he moves from under her. He then covers her up with a blanket. He takes the tea from his mother and is about to leave for the camp when Ananya’s mother comes out:
“Son, I haven’t received any information on Ananya’s father. I couldn’t sleep with anxiety. Could you please ask the officials at the camp to get some information?”
“Sure aunty ji, I will,” Anukalp says and leaves for the camp.
At the camp, things have become much calmer than last night. All families have been allotted tents and only a few people could be seen outside. Anukalp goes directly to the make-shift office of the camp in-charge.
“Good morning sir!”
“Hi, Good morning!”
“Sir I have brought some tea for you and the others.”
“Thank you so much for your help. I appreciate it.”
“My pleasure, sir. Also, sir, a man named Balbir was injured last night and taken to the hospital. Any update on him?”
“None so far. But I will ask somebody to get information about the injured.”
“Thank you, sir. Here is the phone number of his family. Could you convey the information to them as and when it comes?”
“Yes, sure. I will be happy to be of any help. These people have already suffered a lot. We are also sending a team to assess the damages in the border villages. You may also go with them along with some volunteers to check on the cattle that have been left behind.”
“Sure sir. Give me half an hour; I will gather some people up.”
In the next hour, Anukalp and other volunteers are in an open truck with other government officials, going to the villages on the zero line. On reaching there, Anukalp is appalled by the scale of damages. Sidhaur has become a ghost village. Firing has stopped, but the houses are still burning; dark smoke still billowing from them. Large gaping holes have been formed in walls and ceilings. Furniture items and electronic appliances can be seen shattered from the courtyards. Crops have been badly damaged. At least six dead domestic animals have been found so far and many others injured; hungry and thirsty.
Anukalp and other volunteers get to work and start providing the animals with water, loosening up their leashes.
“Will these people be compensated by the government for their losses sir?” Anukalp asks one of the officials.
“Yes, they will be, but it won’t be sufficient enough for them to reconstruct their lives. Let me tell you how. There is a hole in the ceiling in the house over there. The government will only pay for the material required to repair that hole. But once hit by a shell, the ceiling is bound to leak during the rainy season, even after repairs. To be honest, off the record; the government does not care. All you will see in the news today is that the Indian Army gave a befitting reply. No doubt they did, but what they won’t cover is the sad reality that these people face every day.”
Just then Anukalp receives a call.
“Hi! We got a call from the camp”, said Ananya on the other side.
“Hi! Yes? Is uncle ji ok?”
“Yes, thankfully, he is. He is stable and we can go visit him today.”
“Thank God! I will be home in an hour.”
“Okay, I will see you then!”
“Come on, Anukalp! Get to work. Much to do.” Calls a friend of his.
“Yes, coming!” He says.
“Bye!” he tells Ananya and gets back to work.
Today’s Diwali and Ananya’s father is to be discharged from hospital today. Anukalp has been invited by Ananya’s mother for a small celebration at their home. The celebration takes place under the hole in the ceiling. Though they cannot stay in the village for the night, Diwali is meant to be celebrated at home. Amidst the cracker bustling, Anukalp and Ananya sneak a moment of endearment with each other.
“Thank you for being my support system.” She tells Anukalp.
“Thank you, for being in my life”, says Anukalp and they kiss.
Sourav Kumar Sharma