by Karthik T.M.
Rain poured outside the old, dilapidated mosque. The late evening call of the muezzin had just finished. In the nearby compound, there stood a run down, vandalized structure - once a Hindu temple. The thunder and lightning outside was deafening, as if this was a an indication of what was happening in Mehndi Kuan, a nondescript apology of a village, about ten miles south west of Sialkot in Punjab, India, on the banks of the Aik Nala and south of the Jammu Hills. This was a Muslim nominated village with a pocketful of Hindus and Sikhs.
India was in the grip of communal terror. The scars of the unprecedented violence unleashed on both sides of a line of hatred drawn will remain as long as the songs of the Ramayana and the sayings of the Prophet exist — a line that said that one eye is different from the other, that the heart of a mussalmaan beats differently than that of a Hindu, and that a culture which had captivated the ‘cultured’ west from time immemorial suddenly stood divided. Yes, this was the eve of Independence, the day when India was going to smile bravely and proudly and a day Indians will always remember with shame.
Even in Punjab, Mehndi Kuan was not well-known. In this small village of a motley crowd of peasants, farmers, paper mill workers and laborers, the big draw was the new factory manufacturing cricket bats and balls that the British had established. Ah, cricket, one of the very few good legacies the white man left behind in the sub continent. Most of the people working in and around Gujranwala and Sialkot were employed in this factory. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived here peacefully, their only reason of dissension being the level of employment each family had. It was in Mehndi Kuan, that Afzal Hussain Khan and his family lived.
Afzal, now in his late 30’s was working in the factory and earning enough to help his family. His wife, Salma was a simple, traditional woman and her sole occupation was looking after their three daughters, Zohra, Zaira and Zainab. Zohra and Zaira were ten and eight, and like most children in this part of the world, were only waiting to be given away at Nikah and did not attend school. But six year old Zainab was a precocious child. She had a great sense of music and was very quick at grasping things. She used to recite the suras as though that was what she had been born for. After a great deal of thought, Afzal decided to put his child in a nearby girls school. Afzal was very proud of his family and of his lineage. His great grandfather was believed to have been part of a brave band of warriors led by Sher Singh, the trusted commander of Sher-i-Punjab Maharajah Ranjit in the First Punjab War against the British.
The Afzal family would wake up every morning to the exposition of the Bhagavat Gita by his next-door neighbour Atma Ram, a Hindu priest. Atma Ram was a devout Hindu and his life was all about serving God at the Ram temple next to the mosque. The Ram temple and the mosque were the hub of activity in this village. This was where the Panchayats were held, this was where the village gossip spread, and this was where the people of the village realized day in and day out, that they had an identity, which was their own, something a minor issue like religion could not disrupt.
Atma Ram and his wife Gomti also had three daughters, at about the same ages of their neighbour’s children. Janki, Parvati and Durga also did not attend school. Their father educated them at home and he ensured the right mix of stories, prayers, morals and values to his children. Atma Ram was well versed in all the major puranas and vedas as well as the Quran and he ensured that all his telling his stories. Unsurprisingly, little Zainab was a constant, enthusiastic presence at his discourses. It was hard to tell whether Janki’s knowledge of the Al-Fatiha, Family of Imran or her understanding of the Al-Maun could match the expressions of Zainab when describing Lord Krishna’s killing of the snake Kaalinga, or her childish ecstasy when talking about how Krishna rose to his full Vishwarupa and explained the Bhagavad Gita to a self doubting Arjuna at the peak of the Mahabharata war. Atma Ram was also a proud man of the soil. His ancestors were part of the early anti-British rebel movements, which inspired the subjugated Indians with nationalistic songs and patriotic fervor.
Both the families competed with each other in celebrating festivals. If Afzal Hussain’s family prepared sweets and joyously celebrated Diwali, Atma Ram’s observed a strict fast through the holy month of Ramadan.
It was against this idyllic backdrop that India’s imminent partition was announced and the evil mask of discontent and hatred was rearing its ugly form and starting to spread like poison. There was a great game of revenge and bloodbath happening all over the country. From Lahore to Calcutta and Amritsar to Karachi, the sounds of the dying and the heart wrenching cries of women only made people believe that the Day of Judgment and Kaliyuga had arrived in unison. The Muslims started hounding the houses of Hindus and calling people out of their houses and butchering them. The Hindus were not far behind as they looted and killed people by the hundreds. Teachers murdered their students because suddenly their names sounded different.
An angry mob brandishing sickles and knives was gathering outside Afzal Hussain’s house, which was locked. The mob started shouting violently and calling out to the inmates. The mob had come to Mehndi Kuan from Rawalpindi with specific instructions to cleanse the ‘land of the pure’ of all Hindus. Illyas, apparently the leader of the gang was shouting “You bastards! Come out or we will set fire to the house. Go to India and give us back our land. I swear in the name of Allah, I will not rest till see the fast dead Kafir.”
The thuds on the locked door grew louder. “We know five Hindus are hiding here. Is the owner of this house a true mussalmaan?Giving shelter to pigs! Bhai, send them out at once, otherwise the wrath at Allah will befall your family. Saala, come out or we’ll come in and burn you alive.”
Atma Ram was shivering. holding on to a reassuring Afzal. The children were wailing. Their mothers were saying prayers and trying to keep the children calm.
“Arre Bhaiyon! What are you saying? Have some sense? Who, in the name of Allah, is a true mussalmaan? Who? The one who saves or the one who kills? Stop this nonsense at once. Islam is about compassion. You are doing grave injustice to Islam and every mussalmaan! Do not fall into the trap set by the forces of Evil. Please listen.to me.”
“Shut up! I will give you three minutes to send them out. Otherwise…”
Inside the house, Atma Ram was panicking “Afzal Bhai, let me go. I will talk to them, beg them to leave me and my family alone.”
The thuds grew louder and louder, “Waiting for you, bastards!”
“Atma Ram, you wait here. I will go outside and talk to them”, said a firm Afzal.
“No, no, Afzal Bhai. You stay. If you are here, there is a chance that we will be saved. Please stay.” pleaded Atma Ram.
The sounds from outside turned menacing. Chants of “Naara-e-takbir! Alla hu akbar!” rented the air.
There was a moment of silence. Illyas shouted, “Ok, we gave you a chance. Since all of you are bloody kaffirs, we are coming in now. Chaaaarge! Allah-hu-akbar!”
Before the mob could reach the door, it opened. Illyas motioned the others to wait. Out of the door, as expected by the gang, walked the full family crying out, “Jai Ram ji ki! Jai Ram ji ki!”
Illyas started a frenzied laughter “Bastards, at least you had the sense to come out. You will now die in hell.”
And in one fell swoop, he grabbed the little girl who was the most vociferous and slit her throat. The others pounced on the remaining family and killed them one by one without any mercy.
Mission accomplished, Illyas and gang turned to leave. But they heard a wail from inside the house. Atma Ram’s family came out banging their chests. “Kill me, kill us. That is the least we can do for Afzal. You want your thirst for blood quenched? Go on. Kill us. We don’t deserve to live in this land… the land of our Afzal bhai.”
Illyas was shocked. He was overcome by a sudden feeling of guilt. With shame writ all over his face, he motioned his advancing gang to stop. He couldn’t believe what he had seen and what he had just done? He just looked at Atma Ram, and with tears swelling
in his eyes, he slowly limped back away with the gang.
As Atma Ram looked at the dead bodies of Afzal and his family, his last words came to mind, “Atma Ram, you have taken refuge at the house of Afzal Hussain Khan, a Pathan. As long as I love, not a hair of yours will be touched. Salma, children, come on. Let’s go, Jai Ram ji ki. All of you now, Jai Ram ji ki…”
Today, nothing of Afzal’s house, or the mosque or the temple exists in Mehndi Kuan. All that remains there is a small ramshackle building with an idol of Lord Ram. At its base inscribed in large letters is a couplet in Sanskrit:
“La illa illallah,
Muhammad ur Rasool Allah”