A true story, from the time of the Partition of India
Deep in Indian Punjab, in the area which is now known as Khem Karan there is a small village called Gurcharanpur. In this village, many years ago, there lived a simple farmer called Bhan Singh.
In other times, Bhan Singh would have remained a simple farmer, content to till his land and live in peace, as his fathers had done for generations. But those were times of the division, when madness had grasped the people of Punjab and the entire northwest of our land, setting Hindu and Sikh against Muslim and neighbour against neighbour. Before long, the demons that haunted Punjab, Bengal and so many other parts of our land in those days began to visit Bhan Singh's dreams. They whispered seductive words of hatred in Bhan Singh's year, and like so many others, he fell prey them. "Take revenge against those who have divided your land", they whispered. "Yes" replied Bhan Singh. "I shall."
Near Gurcharanpur, there lay a small village called Meharbanpur. Though Meharbanpur was in the portion of Punjab that went to India, it was populated by Muslims, and all the Muslims of the area who did not want to go to Pakistan gathered there for their safety. This village was chosen by Bhan Singh as the village upon which he would exact his revenge.
Bhan Singh travelled to all the Hindu and Sikh villages around Gurcharanpur. He spoke eloquently to the people there, and roused them to fight against the people of Meharbanpur. With a small army of Hindus and Sikhs, he marched upon Meharbanpur. But the people of Merharbanpur were well prepared, and they resisted his attack fiercely. And then, just when he was surrounded by a crowd of angry Muslims, Bhan Singh's luck failed him. His rifle jammed, and refused to fire. He was overpowered, and he fell beneath the sickles and blows of those he fought. Dismayed at their leader's death, the rest of his army scattered.
Bhan Singh's eldest son was called Harbans Singh. At the time of Bhan Singh's death, Harbans Singh had already come of age, and he was the head constable at the police station at Jhabal. The police had much to do in those days, and Harbans Singh had little time to mourn his father before he had to plunge back into work.
One day, when Harbans Singh was on patrol near Meharbanpur, he saw a movement in some bushes by the side of the road. Fearing an ambush, he drew his revolver and advanced towards the movement. To his surprise, he found not an armed gang, but a beautiful and terrified young woman. "Who are you, my lady", he asked her, "and what are you doing here?" She made no answer, and shied away from him. "Don't be afraid", he said. "My name is Harbans Singh. I am the head constable of this area, and it is my job to protect you." On hearing his name, she started and tried to run away. But she was quite exhausted, and collapsed after taking a few steps. Harbans Singh was moved to pity. He placed her in the back of his jeep, and drove home, where he entrusted the woman to the care of his mother.
Slowly, the girl recovered, and told them her story. "My name is Nawab Bibi", she said. "My father was Rahmat Mian, and we were of Meherbanpur. Two days ago, we heard that some people from Gurcharanpur were planning to attack us, and we fled, hoping to reach the border and escape into Pakistan. But we were overtaken on the road by some of the attackers, and they killed my family. I escaped by hiding in the bushes." And then she began weeping, and could say no more.
Then Harbans Singh knew what had happened, and he told her: "It was my father who led the attack on your village." She stopped crying, and looked at him with a growing fear. But Harbans Singh continued speaking in a gentle voice: "You have nothing to fear from us. My father has brought suffering on you. As his son, it is my duty to atone for his misdeeds. You can stay here for as long as you wish. We will protect you and make you one of our family."
Would Nawab Bibi truly have wished to stay with her family's killers? Perhaps not, but escape was impossible, and she had no option but to place her trust in Harbans Singh. Through that winter she stayed with them, and when spring and summer had passed, and the rains had come and gone and the next winter arrived, she was still staying with them. The fighting raged on in Punjab. No Muslim would be allowed to live in Indian Punjab, the mobs on our side of the border declared. No Hindu shall be left alive in all Pakistan, the mobs on the other side of the border responded. But all who asked about Nawab Bibi's identity were told: "She is a distant cousin, who has been orphaned by the fighting. Her name is Paro. She will stay with us until she finds somewhere else to go."
And Nawab Bibi was, for the first time in many months, happy. And who is to tell what passed between her and Harbans Singh during those days? Yet to all who had eyes to see, it was obvious that she waited each evening for the hour when Harbans Singh would return from his work, and that his eyes first turned to her when he entered his home. And it was to her that he would speak of his cares and troubles, for those were troubled days and the work of a policeman was not easy. Another year passed, and Harbans Singh decided that he would ask Nawab Bibi to marry him on the day of Baisakhi, the Festival of Spring.
But the fates had destined otherwise. The rulers of India and Pakistan reached an agreement that all persons who had been detained against their will whilst trying to migrate would now be sent on to the countries for which they were originally bound. In this web, Nawab Bibi was ensnared. Her identity could not be concealed forever, and many in the village knew who she really was. One of these was Kirpal Singh, who was of old Bhan Singh's closest friends. Though he maintained friendly relations with Harbans Singh after Bhan Singh's death, he secretly despised Harbans Singh, for he thought Harbans Singh had betrayed his father's memory.
When Kirpal Singh came to know of the agreement, he left the village and travelled to the office of the magistrate of the district. There he told the magistrate: "I have information about a woman who was abducted when fleeing to Pakistan. Her name is Nawab Bibi. She is being forcibly held in Gurcharanpur in the house of Harbans Singh, the son of Bhan Singh, who was known for his attacks upon Muslims." The magistrate was pleased, for the government was anxious to right the many wrongs that had been done to people at the time of the division. He offered to reward Kirpal Singh, but Kirpal Singh scorned him, and said: "Just make sure you go there during the afternoon. Harbans Singh is a dangerous man."
The next afternoon, when Harbans Singh was away, the magistrate's sepoys came and took Nawab Bibi away, despite the protestations of the neighbours. They were told: "Be glad we do not arrest you and take you to jail. For your complicity in what was done, you'd deserve it."
When Harbans Singh came home that evening, his house was empty. He rushed through the streets, asking everyone where his Paro was, but none answered him. Finally, an old woman told him what had happened. "The sepoys of the magistrate came for her. They told us her name was Nawab Bibi, and that you had abducted her during the division. We told them that you would not do such a thing, but they laughed at us and took her away."
Numbly, Harbans Singh returned to his now desolate home. For two days he stayed there, neither eating nor drinking, thinking of his Nawab Bibi. On the third day, the old woman came to see him again. "Harbans," she said, "my son, is there any truth in the story the sepoys told us?" Harbans shook his head, and weeping, he told her the whole story. She stood silent till he had finished, and then she said: "Now what do you plan to do?"
"I do not know", Harbans Singh replied. "I will try to cross the border to find her again, but I do not know how."
"I will help you", the old woman said. "Go to Amritsar. My cousin Ramcharan Das lives there. He is a high official with the provincial governor. Tell him I have sent you, and that I have asked him to give you whatever assistance you may need." And, giving him a letter for Ramcharan Das, she sent him off to Amritsar.
In Amritsar, Harbans Singh found Ramcharan Das without difficulty. "To enter Pakistan", Ramcharan Das told him, "you will need to be a Muslim. If you are not one, you must become one." And so Harbans Singh became Barkat Ali. Ramcharan Das gave him papers, identifying him as a Muslim of Sultanwind, displaced by the partition of India. With those papers, Barkat Ali left Amritsar and travelled to the border.
By then, the border was closed, for the great migration that accompanied the division of our land had ended, and the new countries were already at war. Barkat Ali went to the nearest mosque. "My name is Barkat Ali", he said. "I wish to migrate to Pakistan, our home. Is there anyone who can help me?"
"I can", said a young man with a crooked nose and a twisted lip. "But the price will be high, and it will not be an easy journey. We will travel at night."
"I am prepared to pay any price, and I can bear the hardship of any journey", said Barkat Ali.
"My price is thirty rupees", said the man. "Can you afford that?"
Thirty rupees was about all the money Barkat Ali had in the world, but he agreed to pay it, for what is money when it is the price of the hope of one glimpse of your beloved? That night, they crossed the border, and passed over the mountains and across the river. They were pursued and shot at by soldiers, but the guide was as good as he promised to be, and they reached Pakistan.
Barkat Ali began traveling to Lahore, where he hoped to begin searching for his love. But he had no money. So he first went to a small village, where he offered his service as a farm labourer to the landlord of the village. He worked there for six months, till he had earned enough to buy passage to Lahore. On reaching Lahore, he went to the office of the Commissioner for Displaced Persons, where he was given a shop to run in a village near Lahore.
After a few days, he returned to the office of the Commissioner. "I am trying to find my beloved," he said. "She was from Meherbanpur. She disappeared while trying to migrate here, and I had thought her dead. However, I've heard from relatives in India that she was found in the house of some Hindus who had abducted her. Can you help me to trace her?"
"I have too much work to do", said the Commissioner. "However, if you want to go through the registers yourself, feel free to do so." There were hundreds of volumes, but Barkat Ali was not daunted, and he began going through them all. It took him a long while, but one day, he found a record of a woman called Nawab Bibi, from Meherbanpur, who was found in the village of Gurcharanpur. She was listed as having been relocated to a village near Rawalpindi.
Eagerly, Barkat Ali hastened to that village, and he reached there on the day of the Festival of Spring. And there, he found Nawab Bibi. On that day, two years after the day Barkat Ali had originally intended as the date for their wedding, they were finally wed.
And they lived happily ever after.
I first heard this story on a train while travelling through Bombay. Telling stories during journeys is an old custom in India, and I have tried to keep something of the atmosphere that accompanies such tellings in my version.
The twentieth century has seen so much hate and killing, and it has come from people, ordinary people like us, people who loved their wives and parents and children and who still went out and cut down those they had called friend the last week. But the story of Harbans Singh and Nawab Bibi is also true. Despite the anger and suspicion and hatred, there is still a road to hope and healing.
And when the burning madness has passed, and memory of the massacres and pogroms and ethnic cleansing has faded, the descendents of Nawab Bibi and Harbans Singh will still be here.