Story 22: Memories of Midnight
Ruchika adjusted the camera, until she got her frame. The old lady was sitting on a charpoy, with natural light falling on her wrinkled face. Ruchika prayed that the interview would go well… for it was the last one she needed. To complete her PhD and this ambitious project. She nodded at the daughter-in-law and pressed ‘start’ on the camcorder.
“Beeji, twada interview lain waaste kudi aayi si,” said the younger woman. “Do you remember anything… from the time of Partition?”
Beeji was bemused, what kind of question was that? Who could ever forget… But, like so many others of her generation, she had spent a lifetime trying to do just that. Yet today, sitting in her aangan, in front of this expectant young woman, something stirred inside Beeji. It was time to tell her story… for who knew how much longer she had?
The old lady was lost in thought for several minutes. Ruchika sat still, she said nothing. For an interview must be allowed to unfold. Finally, Beeji found her voice. What should I say?….
Well, this is my story. But it’s not mine alone, there were hundreds and thousands like me. I was one of the lucky ones. I survived.
I was 16 years old, in the year 1947. We lived in Surjanwala, a village 80 kms from Lahore. It was the month of September, when the trouble began. We heard that mobs were roaming around the countryside, armed with sticks and spears. Murdering the men and abducting the women. Young girls, of my age, were jumping into the well, to save their izzat.
“We must leave for India,” said Bauji, with tears in his eyes. There was no alternative. We left with just the clothes on our back, and made it to the station in the dead of night.
My chacha lived in the adjacent house. He was a rich man, a tax collector, he had a lot of jewellery and cash in the locker. The last I remember, he was busy packing it all into suitcases. We waited and waited, but they never arrived. We later heard, they got caught on the way. Jaan se bhi gaye, maal se bhi.
Our coach was packed with men, women and children. We sat there for hours, hungry and thirsty, desperate for the train to start moving. And finally it did… But when we reached Lahore, out of nowhere, a mob appeared. They began jumping onto the the footboard, hanging onto the windows. We saw madness in their eyes and knew… what was to come.
In that moment, I thought, everything is over. Magar Waheguru ki kripa, Waheguru ki fateh. We were saved. All of a sudden, the train picked up speed. Those mad young men loosened their grip and disapperead from sight. The train did not stop anywhere till we reached Amritsar. Bas… that’s the how we came to India and started a new life.
“Sattar saal ho gaye si,” she said wistfully, and a tear rolled down her eye. Ruchika clasped Beeji’s frail hands in her own and looked into the old woman’s eyes with sincere gratitude. With this, she would finally be able to complete her thesis, and documentary on ‘Survivors of the Partition’. Of whom so few were still alive, and even fewer with memory intact.
Beeji looked into the eyes of this young woman she had met, for the very first time, and felt an ajeeb sa apnapan. She unfolded the corner of her dupatta and extracted a small object. It was a single coin, her only nishaani from an era bygone. It had travelled with her in a train from Pakistan and never left her since.
“Le puttar…” she said, putting her hand on Ruchika’s head. “Tu bada nek kaam kar rahi hai.”
After many, many, many years, that night, Beeji slept like a baby.
6 months later
Ruchika Mehra received the Golden Peacock at the Berlin film festival for her documentary, ‘Memories of Midnight’. While accepting the award, she acknowledged.
“I am here today, only because of an 86 year old survivor, who showered her blessings on me.”
The shagan she had received from Beeji was, in fact, a 1939 King George silver rupee, lapped up for Rs 5 lakh by a coin collector. Exactly the sum needed, to give the film an international release.