|The mirror 2|
Gurdev Singh Ropana
During the Partition in 1947, a caravan fifteen or twenty miles long had passed down the road through the village. The looters had pulled out men and women from the rear of the caravan, killed the men and the old women and took away the young women. Then more rioters would arrive to carry on the carnage. And so it went on. People were being slaughtered at the rear, but the caravan moved on. The road was littered with corpses. Fearing the outbreak of an epidemic, the villagers started removing the bodies and found some infants who were still alive. They brought them to the village dharamshala. But they still faced a problem: what was to be done with these babies? Some of them were adopted by people from the neighbouring villages, but thirty little ones were still left over. They were hardly a few months old. Within a week, the villagers grew tired of them. Who likes to care for the children of strangers? It’s not easy to look after children. A palaver began. Someone said that the babies should be sent to Pakistan. Another favoured sending them to an orphanage. But who’d take them there? It was a dangerous time and no one wanted to risk his life.
"Let’s just send them to their salvation," Boorha suggested. "Who’s waiting to greet them with sweets in Pakistan anyway?"
But who could kill these innocent infants? No one wanted to do it. If they could, then those who had attacked the caravan would have killed them too — the looters who had taken away their mothers. Everyone was shaken.
"Come, I’ll do the good deed," Boorha said in the end. "Why is it so difficult? They need just one gentle stroke each. Or they will be destitute all their lives, these motherless wretches."
Boorha took them to the canal, finished each one with a single stroke of the sword and threw the corpses in the water. This was the good deed that Keharu had referred to, which had earned his father an easy death.
Keharu’s tale was incomprehensible to Dennis, so I repeated it for his benefit.
"Did… you… see… it?" Dennis asked Keharu.
Keharu’s tone changed to that reserved for strangers. "Yes, I saw it; saw it all. I was thirteen then. We piled the children in a cart and took them there," he said.
"How old were the babies?" Dennis asked.
"They were small, very small," Keharu said, spreading out his hands to indicate their size. "Just this much. They were still nursing. This punn saw him through."
"Were… they… cut… up… with… a… sword…?"
Keharu slashed the air with his hand.
"Just one stroke and the head was off."
Dennis trembled. The colour faded from his coppery face and it turned white. He gestured to me to move on. He couldn’t speak.
We walked through the crowd and returned to the path. Dennis put his bag down on the ground and stared at it, at if he was debating whether to open it. Then he started stroking his face, probing the skin with his fingertips as though to gauge its altered colour. Then he turned his face away and threw up. I caught hold of his shoulders to support him. He vomited three times.
There was a water tank on the other side of the path. I sat him down there and he rinsed out his mouth. Wiping his face with a handkerchief, he apologised to me: "I… am… sorry… I should… be… strong… forgive… me… a… person… should… not… be… weak," he said.
My mother took good care of this foreigner, so far from home and country. She gave him warm water to wash himself. She served him tea and asked him about his country, but Dennis was reserved.
To cheer him up, I took him to visit my uncle. He gave us whiskey and fried chicken. But Dennis was mostly silent, speaking only when spoken to. His curiosity seemed to have died. He ate very little. His silence denied me the opportunity to praise our traditional hospitality. I had wanted to show him how my people cared even for an uninvited guest.
We gave him the room on the terrace. It was well lit, with a tube-light and a lamp. He would be able to read there. He asked me to share the room with him, but made no more conversation. He covered himself with a quilt and lay down.
Around midnight, I was woken by his voice. I peeped out of my quilt and saw that he had switched on all the lights. Sitting up in bed, he was talking to himself in French. From the little French I knew I could make out that he was saying, "Even after thirty-five years they think of it as a good deed. Really! My daughter is three months old… a tiny suckling baby…"
Then he fell back on the bed and tossed about as though he was in the throes of a poison, muttering through clenched teeth. I could hear his teeth grinding. The bed was creaking and I was frightened.
I gathered my courage. "Are you awake?"
He leaped straight up out of bed, trembling and white-faced. He picked up the mirror from the mantelpiece and stared at himself, rubbing his neck.
"What is it, Dennis?"
"I needed to look in the mirror — my baby is three months old."
"I don’t understand what the mirror has to do with it."
"I don’t understand it either — but I want to look in the mirror… or I feel sick… I’m sorry, I’ve woken you up. I couldn’t help it." He kept apologising and I kept asking him about the mirror, but he couldn’t explain.
Then he asked, "The caravan that man was referring to, isn’t that the same caravan in your story Hava?"
Yes, it was, I told him.
"Why… why didn’t you write about the incident of the babies?"
I wasn’t expecting this. I could have offered several arguments, but I knew he was saying that I could only write in praise of my people. I could only tell him that I had forgotten about it.
He took the early morning bus back to Delhi. Despite my pleading, he did not stay. tlm
Translated from the Punjabi story ‘Sheesha’ by TLM and Nirupama Dutt
p. 1 p. 2
Gurdev Singh Ropana is an acclaimed writer of short stories and novels in Punjabi. ‘Sheesha’ is one of his best known stories. He lives in Bombay and Ropana village, Punjab