Saturday, September 25, 2021


Forgotten Short Stories : 2

The Refuge

 Satchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya”

Translated by Mangal Murty                        


“It can never be, Devinderlalji”

Rafiquddin, a lawyer, said with a touch of solicitation, clearly reflected on his face tinged with pain. “It’s just not possible”, he repeated.

   Devinderlal seemed compliant with his friend’s concern, and yet expressing his helplessness, he said, “But everybody has already left, though with you, I know, I’ve nothing to fear; in fact, you are my strongest support. Yet, as you know, once fear spreads and people panic, then the whole situation will change. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else, and a kind of hidden animosity is breeding all around. I know, you command all the respect in the locality, but what about the outsiders? You have already seen the alarming happenings – .”

   Rafiquddin quickly interjected, “No, no, it will mean a clear loss of honour for me. How can you be a refugee in your own town? We won’t allow you to go; rather we’ll stop you forcibly. In fact, I consider it the responsibility of the majority community to protect people of the minority community and stop them from fleeing. Arre, if we can’t protect our neighbours, how can we protect the country? And I’m sure, what to talk of other places, there must be many Hindus in Punjab itself, where they are in a majority, who would be thinking and doing the same. You mustn’t go; no, you mustn’t. Your safety is my responsibility, and that’s it.”

   All Devinderlal’s neighbours had sneaked away one after another. And as it was, when Devinderlal met someone in an afternoon or evening, he would just ask him: “Well, Lalaji (or Bauji or Pandatji), what have you thought about it?” And that person would only reply: “Aji, what’s there to think? Just staying here; let’s see what happens.” But by evening or next morning, he would have slinked away, carrying whatever he could; either out of Lahore or in some other Hindu locality of the town. And soon the situation worsened so much that all the four houses to the right now lay vacant, after which there was the compound of a gujjar Muslim. On one side of the compound the gujjar kept his buffalows and on the other side lived some Muslim artisans. And all the houses to the left of the houses between Devidarlalji’s and Rafiquddin’s were now vacant. Next to Rafiquddin’s house was the centre of  the Mojung area and thence forward it was out and out a Muslim locality.

Devinderlal and Rafiquddin were old friends, and they now used to talk about the people leaving one after the other. But when Devinderlal one day suggested that he, too, was thinking of leaving soon, it was a bit shocking for Rafiquddin and, in a rather anguished way he could only say – “You, too, Devinderlalji?”

                                    x                          x                   x

Yet on Rafiquddin’s assurances, Devindelal stayed on. And it was decided that God forbidding, if there was some real danger, Rafiquddin would sound an alert in good time and even arrange for his safety –whatever be the price. Devinderlal’s wife had already gone to her parents’ home at Jullundhar, and he had written to her to keep staying there and not to return yet. Only Devenderlal had stayed back with Santu, his servant from a village in the hills. Though this arrangement, too, didn’t last long, and on the very fourth day when he woke up in the morning – Santu wasn’t to be found.

    Devinderlal  made tea for himself and started cleaning the kitchenware, when Rafiquddin came to inform him that mayhem had broken out in the whole town and very soon marauding groups were likely to spread out around the Mojung area. Time not to go out anywhere now. Devinderlal must collect his things and valuables if any, and come with him to the latter’s house, to return only when the violence subsides…

   There were no valuables. His wife had carried everything with herself to Jullundhar. Only some money was in the bank. And even otherwise he had kept his belongings to the minimum. Although for a householder everything would appear to be essential….After an hour, Devinderlal had reached Rafiquddin’s house with his bedding and trunk.

   By afternoon the rampaging groups had reached Mojung area, and by evening, before his helpless eyes, they had broken into his house and pillaged everything. Flames rose high by night and in that humid July sky the acrid smoke made the sultriness all the more suffocating…

   With discomfiture writ large in his eyes, Rafiquddin just looked on. He could only mumble – “We had to see all this, Devinderlalji  – and all in the name of freedom! Ya, Allah!”

                                    x                                  x                                  x

But when Allah drives you out of your home, even the lane would provide no shelter.

   For Devinder it became impossible to go out anywhere; only Rafiquddin would go out when necessary. All day-to-day work had stopped. Rafiquddin would only venture out – often up to the market only - for the daily needs. He would bring all kinds of worrying news, and discuss and bewail with Devinderlal, the grim future of the country. Devinderlal would not realize it at first, but slowly he began to see a distinct tinge of anxiety and some kind of hidden, undefinable anguish on Rafiquddin’s face – was it sadness? exhaustion? silent sufferance or defeat? How would he know?...

   The whole town now seemed deserted. Corpses lay rotting everywhere. Houses stood pillaged and burning. Meanwhile, some influential people had gone to a famous doctor of the town to plead that, being the most respected person in the locality, he could, perhaps, move around persuading people for restraint as well as visiting some of his patients. The doctor, accompanied by two prominent Muslim leaders,went round the area, and after visiting some localities, when he went to see a patient in a Muslim area, he was suddenly stabbed from behind by a relative of the same patient, as he leaned to examine the patient with his stethoscope…

   In a Hindu mohalla, a railway employee had given shelter to some people who had fled their ravaged houses. He informed the police to come and help these affected people staying in his house, if possible, and also to protect their houses. The police came, arrested him, and all the women in the family along with all others in his shelter, and took them away. But soon thereafter their houses were looted and burnt. Three days later, the police released all of them from the police station and sent them out with two armed policemen for protection. But barely fifty steps from the police station, the two policemen shot at him and the others, killing him and three women on the spot. His mother and wife fell grievously injured on the road and were just left there…

   It was as if, the whole environment had become vicious. As if the horses of violence were being whipped up in a frenzy of hatred and acrimony; and communal groups went round sprinkling venom everywhere, in connivance with the police and the bureaucracy!

   Devinderlal would often feel guilty, that he and Rafiquddin were both, perhaps, in the wrong to be staying idle when all is on boil and bubbling, scorching and burning in a cauldron … Meanwhile he had also started noticing that the usual firmness in Rafiquddin’s voice seemed lapsing into a whining, rasping tenor…                                       

    Several hundred Muslims had taken refuge in a Sikh village near the presumed partition line between India and Pakistan. Ultimately, however, under pressure from people from Amritsar and nearby villages the situation became so precarious for those under shelter that the villagers finally decided to move their vulnerable protectees to the Amritsar railway station from where they could proceed to the safer Muslim areas. With kirpans drawn out for safety, and surrounding them in a ring, about 250 Sikh villagers, went with the threatened Muslim crowd, marching them right up to the railway station.

    On hearing of the incident, Rafiquddin meekly said – “Yes, yes, sometimes it becomes inevitable, and one has to bend to pressure. A whole village had been protecting them, but ultimately they had to yield. And yet hats off to them that they withstood the onslaught till the last and reached their Muslim bretheren to a safe destination.” Devinderlal nodded in agreement, but the dark insinuation behind Rafiquddin’s words – “sometimes it becomes inevitable, and one has to bend to pressure” –  did not escape his notice. He only cast a wary eye towards Rafiquddin, but didn’t say anything.    

                                    x                          x                              x

    Five-six people came to meet Rafiquddin in the afternoon. He took them to his drawing room and shut the door. The talks went on in subdued voices for nearly two hours. Devinderlal would overhear just a word or two, like ‘foolishness’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘Islam’, though he would rather not make out the complete sentences. After about two hours, when those visitors departed, Rafiquddin came out. With some effort,Devinderlal curbed his natural urge to ask him about that meeting. But when he saw Rafiquddin going to the inner apartments, with lowered eyes and a strained face, almost slinkingly by his side and without saying a word, he couldn’t restrain himself from asking him – “Rafiq Saheb, is everything alright?” Raising his eyes a little, Rafiquddin answered in the negative, and lowered his eyes again.

    Devinderlal then said – “ I know, all this humiliation for you is because of me. And besides,  you are facing a grave danger for my sake. But now you must allow me to go. Do not take any more risks. I am deeply obliged for all that you have done for me. Your friendly generosity…

    Rafiquddin put both his hands on Devinderlal’s shoulders, and, breathing heavily, could only say –“Devinderlalji…” , and then went inside.

    During dinner, Devinderlal again raised the issue – “If you would not let me go willingly, I will just sneak out. But tell me, in truth, what were they saying?”

    “ Only threats. What else?”

    “ But what kind of threats, after all?”

    “ Is there any ‘what’ in threats? They only want their prey. If they can’t get it through a row, they will just put the house to fire.”

    “ Really. That’s why I want to go now. A lone man, I will quietly slip out somewhere. You are a householder. And they are bent upon destruction.”

    “ Ruffians, all of them!”

    “I must leave today itself.”

    “ But how can that be? After all, I had asked you not to go. And I owe you some responsibility on that account…”

    “Indeed, you had done so only for my welfare. But there can be no responsibility beyond that.”

    “ But where will you go?...”

    “ We’ll have to see.”

    “ No, that’s not possible.”                                                              

Ultimately, however, after much discussion, it was agreed that Devinderlal would just leave the place. Rafiquddin would arrange for him to live in a Muslim neighbour’s house where he could stay in hiding. It may not be very comfortable, but it would be safer than here. At least his life would be safe there, and in the meanwhile some better alternative for an escape might be found.                             

                                    x                                  x                                  x

Devinderlal was taken to a garage that was hidden behind a cluster of trees and shrubs, at one end in Sheikh Ataullah’s compound. Not exactly in the garage, but in a small room adjoining it, with a very small courtyard in front. The room was, perhaps, meant as accommodation for a driver. Except for the door opening into the garage and a tiny window towards the small courtyard, there was no other opening of any kind. A cot lay in one corner, and a small water-pot on a ledge. The floor was earthen but neat. At one end of the garage there was a strong gate covered with iron sheets which was locked. In another corner was a dug pit with a heap of earth and lime with an obvious suggestion of its use.

    The bed and trunk of Devinderlal was put there in one corner of the room and the inner gate of the courtyard was locked from outside. Quite nonplussed, Devinderlal stood there in a stupor. That was freedom for him now! Earlier it was the foreign government that used to lock up people fighting for freedom. Now their own bretheren were locking them up in solitary confinement because they want to stop the fight for the same freedom. But soon Devinderlal’s existential instincts woke up and he started assessing the facilities that he could avail there for himself in that closed world of that garage-room with its small courtyard.

The garage seemed ok – in spite of its slight stench; though not too much. By closing the room’s door into the garage, the stench could be neglegible. A bath, of course, was clearly out of the question – though water for washing hands or face would suffice.

The room, too, is ok. Though there won’t be enough light for any reading. But some reflected light comes through into the room from the courtyard, because there is a dim electric light at one corner of the house, protruding into the courtyard. And, may be, standing in that corner some reading can be done. But then he remembered that there wasn’t anything for reading!

    Devinderlal stood absolutely stunned. In a prison, perhaps, you could even sing or shout sometimes, but here – he will have to keep absolutely quiet!

    He remembered, he had read, prisoners in jail would rear birds, pigeons, squirrels, cats, etc for company. And even if such animals were not there, they would pass their time studying ants or spiders in their cells… and he just looked around the room. Or could even mosquitos be treated as friends? –no, not possibly.

    He stood in the courtyard gazing at the sky. The sky of a free country! And the smoke arising from the burning houses – as if in celebration! The sunshine was a blessing ! Red sandal paste – blood-red!

    Suddenly the shadow of a big male cat appeared on the wall. “Come, come” – he beckoned to the cat, but the cat would only keep staring fixedly, sitting there. So there can be no loneliness where the cat comes. He went into the room and spread his bedding and soon fell into sound sleep.

                                    x                      x                      x

Food would come only once after dark in the evening, but it would suffice for both times. And the water pots also in his room and in the garage would be filled at the same time. A young boy - not a servant - would bring everything. Perhaps, he must be Sheikh Sahab’s son. But he would not utter a word, though. On the very first day, Devinderlal had asked him – how was everything in the town, but the boy would only give a stranger’s look. Had peace been restored? – he asked. And the boy jerked his head – No! Otherwise everything going well ? This time he nodded – Yes.

    The food was sufficient for two times, and though he could easily keep some of it for the second time, Devinderlal thought it better to eat as much of it as he could at one time only; the rest he would give to the cat to eat. The cat, too, had grown familiar and would often sit in his lap while eating and later take the bones and remains to a corner in the courtyard and keep  eating there for a long while, and when tired with his chewing and chomping of the bones, would come near him and start growling.

    By then evening would start slowly darkening into night and finally Devinderlalwould go to sleep. On waking in the morning, he would do some light exercise in the courtyard to keep his body fit, and for the rest of the day, he would sit in the room playing with pebbles, or keep watching from afar the sparrows sitting on the wall, or listen to the whooping of the pigeons. Sometimes he could even overhear the incoherent ongoing talks of family members of the Sheikh’s household by going near one of the corners of the courtyard. Quite soon he could distinguish the individual voices, and in those three-four days he had already become familiar with the different inmates in the household and their way of living. There was a heavy, hoarse female voice, presumably of Sheikh Sahab’s wife, and another sharp and raucous voice of some elderly female in the family. And there was a third younger and gentler voice answering to the address – “Zaibu, Ni Zabu!”- which could, perhaps, be of Sheikh Sahab’s daughter Zaibunnisa. Also there were two male voices – one of Abid Miyan, Sheikh Sahab’s son, the same, perhaps, who brought the food; and then the one heavy, fat-greasy voice of Sheikh Sahab himself. This last voice, Devinderlal could hear, of course, but could not make out the words or sentences spoken; only the loud, sharper voices could be understood somewhat clearly.

   Devinderlal had a special soft feeling for Zaibu’s voice – not for its natural attraction because of its youthful quality, but for its gentle humility. Though he would also involuntarily chide himself about the hidden romantic leanings in his attitude towards the girl, but then he often wondered whether this gentle voice could also be adding to the poison of sectarianism. But could it?                                                                          

    Sheikh Sahab himself is a head clerk in some police office. While bringing him here, Rafiquddin had said so, and that Devinderlal could be more safe in the house of someone in the police department; though, at the same time, and quite often such places were likely to be centres of intrigues. No wonder, if family members even in such a house could also be complicit in such poisonous sectarianism…

    Even while eating, such thoughts would keep coming to him. Who may have cooked what, and what hand may have put everything together in the utensils that were sent to him. From what he had gathered from his overhearings, much of the cooking was done by that elderly woman with the sharp and raucous voice; though it was Zaibunnisa who arranged everything in the utensils as sent to him. Lost in such thoughts, Devinderlal would go on eating and would often overeat the food served to him.

                                    x                      x                      x

In the food that had come today, Devinderlal found quite a few typical Hindu phulkas – round, small, flattened wheat flour bread, soft and blown up – instead of the usual big Muslim roti. For him it was a welcome change! And there was an addition of rabadi – sweet thickened milk – besides the usual mutton. Earlier, for dessert, it generally used to be a small piece of shahi tukda ( a sweetmeat) or some firni (pudding). Abid had put all this before him and gone back. For a little while, Devinderlal kept staring on his food. His fingers would relish for a few moments the touch of the soft, hot phulkas, turning them over and over to feel their tenderness, as it were. He lifted a couple of them and then put them back. Memories of his own home kitchen surged before his eyes. Lost in thought, he again lifted a few of them…

    But then there was a shock!

    Beneath three or four phulkas, he saw a very tiny piece of wrapped paper. But when he opened it, he found nothing in it. Yet just as he was going to throw the small bit of paper, he stopped suddenly. He went out of the room on tip-toe to that lighted corner of the courtyard and tried to read a message written on that tiny piece of paper – it was just a sentence: “ Eat only after feeding the food to a dog”!

   He tore that piece of paper into tiny bits, crushed it in his palms, and went across the room to throw it into the pit in the garage. Then he came back again into the courtyard and kept strolling there for some time.

    His mind had gone blank – totally stunned. Only one name kept whirling in his dazed mind – Zaibu…Zaibu…Zaibu!

    After some time he went near the food – the food sent for him – for Devinderlal! Food that had come not from a friend, but from the friend’s friend – his host, his shelter-giver; not Zaibu, but Zaibu’s father!

    But where to find a dog?

    Deviderlal kept walking restlessly. Just then he saw a shadow moving on the wall – it was the same male cat prowling there. Devinderlal called him lovingly and it jumped on to his shoulder. He cuddled him in his lap and started fondly stroking his back. The cat kept purring. Devinderlal went into the room carrying him, and kept stroking the cat’s back softly. He then said to him: “Look, son, you are my guest - just as I’m Sheikh Sahab’s guest. Isn’t it? What he would do to me, I’d do likewise with you. Rather, I’m going to do the same to you, even though I don’t want to. Whether Sheikh Sahab also wants or doesn’t want to do so with me, who knows? Though that I’d certainly like to know. And that is why I want to do with you what he does or doesn’t want to do with me? It’s now a thickened puzzle. Ok, you used to eat my leftovers till now, but today let me eat your leftovers for once. Yes, that’s it. Start eating now…!”

    The cat at once started gobbling up the mutton and tried to pounce on the bones. But Devinderlal, holding him lovingly in his lap, also fed him all the rabadi,–and the cat lapped  it up all in no time, while Devinderlal kept fondling him in his lap.

    In all animals there is a natural survival instinct to distinguish between what’s edible and what’s not, and in cats this instinct is most pronounced. That’s why they are the most wily and undocile pets, unlike dogs. What a cat would eat can be the safest edible food for others. It’s a different matter that a cat would eat even rotten fish, which is utterly inedible for a human being.

   All on a sudden the male cat started screaming in anger and jumped out of Devinderlal’s lap. Then howling and shrieking, he jumped on to the wall and thence to the roof of the garage. For some time he appeared to be fighting with himself, but slowly and gradually his angry yelps mellowed into feeble moanings of extreme pain, and finally into a faint whine. Then there was only silence: he was dead….

    Devinderlal kept staring at the food. Now everything looked fuzzy before his eyes. It was as if Devinderlal’s gaze had frozen on the food lying before him.

    Freedom. Fraternity. Nationhood….

    First someone insisted he must keep and protect him, yet pushed him out ultimately. Then someone else gave him refuge with poison. But with it, also a caution about the poison being given in his food.

    Deviderlal’s heart was filled with a gush of remorse. All this could be borne only with a philosophical frame of mind, not with any political stance which could hardly withstand such devastating jolts.

    Devinderlal could now clearly see that the world is not threatened with the force of evil, but with the utter infirmity of good. The feebleness of good is the greatest evil. It’s not the dark clouds that usher the night. Night comes only with the fading of the sun.

    Devinderlal put the food out in the courtyard. Took a couple of draughts of water, and started walking in the courtyard.

    Soon he went in and opened his trunk, took a cursory look over the things in it, and then took out from its upper holds some papers, some photos, his savings bank passbook, and a large-sized envelope, and kept them all in his black sherwani’s pocket which he had put on by now. Coming out in the courtyard he tried to hear any sounds around there. Then he quickly scrambled on to the wall and jumped into the street. How he did it all, he hardly knew.

                                    x                      x                      x                     

The events after that can’t be called events. Because events are always unfinished. It’s only stories that complete themselves. The culmination of stories are only the consummation of human logic or thought or the fulfillment of art or aesthetics which satisfies the human being and they derive the pleasure of full realization from it. The completion of an event is only brought about by some unseen power for human beings. It obtains itself, say, by time, nature, coincidence, or some divine force which often remains unmanifest to the human being. That is why it may not be necessary to narrate all that happened, or how it happened, subsequently. It would suffice to say that Devinderlal, after about a month and a half, got an appeal broadcast by Delhi Radio to learn about his family by giving the address details of his house. And then one day he got a small envelope with a date stamp from Lahore.

    “A thousand gratitudes to the Almighty for your safe escape. I pray from my heart that your family members for whom you had issued the radio appeal may join you safely. And I sincerely apologise for what my father did or intended to do. And I would also say – not as any obligation - that it was I who foiled the nefarious plan, with the solemn plea that if there is any poor person of the minority community near you, please remember this. Not because he or she is a Muslim, but because you are human. God be with you!”

    The heavy, fat-greasy voice of Sheikh Sahab – “Zaibu!… Zaibu!” echoed in Devinderlal’s memory in a flashback. And then the painful whining, dying moan of the male cat that had slowly gone silent, on the roof of that garage!

    Devinderlal rolled that letter into a small ball and flung it away.


In a corridor of the Council House, Lucknow

2-3 December, 1947.    

 (C) Dr BSM Murty                                                          


 This translation of Agyey's short story 'Sharandata' is shortly to be published in an anthology of stories on Partition to be edited by Prof. Aftab Husain,  Pakistan scholar and Professor of Asian Studies at Vienna University, Austria.

Satchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan’s story ‘Sharandata’, first published in his book ‘Sharanarthi’ in 1947, translated from Hindi by Dr BSM Murty, Retired Professor of English (Magadh University, Bihar, 1999), presently living in Lucknow.

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