Julien Berman is a tenth grade student at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. In 2019, he won the Jaclyn Potter Prize for student poetry presented by The Word Works, a DC-based poetry organization. In 2018, his story “A Partition Parable” won a gold prize in the Scholastic Arts & Writing National Competition.
On an Airplane
I’ve never been to an airport before. I walk into the main terminal and immediately start waiting in what I now know to be the security line. But I thought it was the line to get on the actual airplane itself. Clearly, I grossly underestimated the sheer scale of the terminal. I was also many hours early. I walked to the gate and made myself at home on one of the soft leather benches, lodgings that weren’t substantially worse than my usual bed. At least this accidental preparation gave me time to treasure and milk the moment in which I step from my impoverished and dysfunctional life into a vessel that radiates opportunity and possibility. When my foot mulches down and I pass into the over-airconditioned cabin, clutching my boarding pass with surprising tenacity, I feel victorious—similar to the overwhelming sensation of accomplishment brought about by taking down an empire or “shooting the moon” in Hearts—but more humbled; instead of screaming me, me, me, my brain screams us, us, us. Thank God there’s no going back now, just on and on and on only knowing that the “on” will be better than the “was.” My mind is rambling; I’m overwhelmed. The flight attendants stare at me with their plastered treacly smiles that don’t reach the eyes and silently herd me farther into the plane. An aircraft is what one makes of it. The cramped blue seats are thrones for me and others from my village (though who else of my brethren can afford it I cannot imagine). We enter the new world pampered and sated with gourmet airplane meal and drink, carried on the backs of our entourage as we dig deep for our dignity that we are destined to develop in this new world far from home. Old father figures will soon be replaced by new friends, my desultory and run-down shack in the outback replaced by an equally run-down apartment in a concrete forest. Migration notwithstanding, new hardship will force my life to boil down to one goal: the on and on and on. No matter the time or place, when my mind is dark my body moves through the cosmos. Probably, if I had lately left a good home, this would have been the hour in which I should have most keenly regretted my departure; in which the wind blowing through the airport would sadden my heart; in which this obscure chaos would leave me in peace. Instead, I derived from the separation both a strange excitement and, reckless and feverish, wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen, and the confusion of the boarding process to rise to a clamor. Walking down the aisle without knocking anyone is a challenge, though not as much as stuffing my overly large knapsack underneath the seat in front of me. The drive to Sydney airport had been a long one. I had insisted that I could take the train on my own, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it: we would go by road, and both of us were going, or no-one was leaving the outback at all. She’d packed me into the truck, she’d slumped down into her torn leather driver’s seat, assumed the slightly hunchbacked position so characteristic of our village, and taken the wheel for the first leg of the journey. Meaning to take over soon, I promised mother that she could get some rest for the remainder of the night while I drove. But after I lay down in the back, I dozed off, overslept and awoke only as we wove through the outskirts of Sydney, a full 7 hours after we left our rubble that we call home. I turned my head to look at mother. Observing her eyes red and swollen and lips moving in a wordless rhythm, I could tell that a combination of sleep deprivation and tears had rendered her soundless. We both knew the truth. The journey to America was long and expensive, and mother was not young anymore. Plus, we both knew that she would never leave the town where she grew up, even if it barely looked like a town anymore. She would take me down the main dirt path and say, “This, all this, used to be great. You hear me? That used to be the town hall, and that was my favorite veg market...” But to me, as she pointed to each pile of rubble and trash I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a true city, looking up at the stars (on the billboards – models and actors) and squirming my way through traffic caked in an ever-undulating layer of grime and sweat. Not the greatest aspiration I know now, but back then it seemed so tangible, so real, that I could only accept it as my destiny. My education wasn’t great, but it was enough to give me a chance to find a respectable job in America. My mother only had the money because of compensation for the accident, and even still, it was only enough for three years in Uni. It was a gradual shift. Each day was slightly worse – imperceptibly so. I was the first person to notice the change. The kid I was babysitting was careening around the shack like a rabid comet; in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have given him the rest of my fizzy Cola. So he was particularly rambunctious that day, and I figured the only way I could fend off the kicking and screaming ball of madness was to take him to the top of the local radio tower. It was his favorite thing for some reason. Climbing up and down soothed him. But when we reached the top and could feel the hum of machinery breathing down our necks, I noticed something odd. In one direction, we could see the landscape beyond Pillaga, our village, for miles. But in the other, a grayish haze wafted to the west noticeably obscuring the view. This morning’s visibility was low, a couple of hundred meters. When we returned to the village that evening, we were surprised that the fog hadn’t lifted. Pillaga means “swamp oaks” in the aboriginal language of the region, but tonight the tops of those oak trees were barely visible. Through the eerie filtered light, figures emerged from and disappeared into the gloom, going about their end-of-day activities. Over the coming days the fog stayed, and some of us began to get curious. A few children started complaining that their noses would bleed constantly. My mother’s hair started shedding and littered the floor of our house. None of us knew what to make of it; when you live in a quiet village hours outside of Sydney you aren’t used to anything except pristine skies and spectacular sunsets. Some remained unconcerned. They wore masks or handkerchiefs, and blithely dismissed the apocalyptic atmosphere, shrugging it off as "just fog." But there was no doubt when the village well started coughing up oil. We knew that the fracking would come sometime—we had all heard about it—but we didn’t grasp the consequences that it would have on our lives. For a few months our town limped along. But by the end of the year, some people were packing up and moving west, and the rest began to work for the energy company. Only my Grandmother rejected both options, refusing to leave the house she had lived in all her life, and my mother, ever the loyal daughter, determined to stay by her side, husband in tow. My initial adrenaline-fueled frantic fervor to catch, board, and observe the plane now reduced to merely a trickle of anxiety, my mind moves towards thoughts of airplanes in general. While I of course maintain my excitement to leave my pile of rubble, I cannot help but notice that an airplane is the epitome of colonization and progress. Enabling one to easily traverse the globe, we use this vessel to access previously untraveled areas of nature, and we treat the earth as a harvesting ground where large corporations and government contractors seemingly materialize out of the clouds and wreak their havoc of economic progress and uproot communities. So I sit quietly and stare out the window as Australia floats from view. The man sitting next to me is large, and his body language seems to suggest that both armrests are his and will remain his throughout the flight. With nothing else to do but stare at the seemingly frozen ocean, I shuffle my shoulders towards the plexiglass and attempt to tune out the hum of the engines. Unfortunately, although I have a nice window seat, it’s right over the wing, so it’s hard to see any blue. That’s unimportant though; we’re rising above the clouds anyway. The sky is beginning to change. The sun casts its dying rays down upon the billowing, smoky clouds, turning them bright red; red fire. It is no match for the sunsets in Australia. Or maybe it is, only my separation is tainting my memory. We always gathered in the evening. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The lukewarm air enveloped us, and we played till our bodies glowed and sweated and ached. Our shouts echoed in the silent street: a dirt path used for the mailman, the only person who regularly left the village. The career of our play brought us through the bright muddy grass behind the neighbors’ houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the ranches, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ashpits, to the dark stables where the ranch-hand smoothed and combed the horse and shook mucus from the buckled harness. We’d purchase lollies from the woman who ran the all-purpose store around the corner; she always gave us a discount because we were regular customers. But of course everyone was a regular customer because it was the only market in the village. We’d also explore the scrub, sometimes bushwhacking for miles. It’s maybe what saved us from the disaster. We were coming home from playing way out in the bush when my friends and I saw the fracking rig detonate in the distance, sending a cloud of black cockatoos skyward. The explosion was a random coughing ball of chaos on the skyline. Out on the rolling hills, about three miles away, a lance-like ray of blue-white light shot up into the gathering dusk and blended into the distance. I could barely hear the screams from the village. An instant later, there was a tremor in the earth, and a huge ball of varicolored fire belched upward, leaving a series of smoke-rings to float more slowly after it. That fireball flattened, then engorged the smoke-rings as it rose, twisting, writhing, changing shape, turning from fire to smoke, turning beauty to death, turning home to an unknown landscape. I remember the aftermath just as clearly. My mother rushing from flattened house to flattened house helping struggling survivors and clearing out the more unfortunate dead. I could see the tears spilling down her face and mixing with the oil puddles on the ground. She brought me over and hugged me, and she whispered to me that my father was gone. There was obviously no life for me there anymore, but endings never happen suddenly; we continue in a liminal state. That was me. That is me. I knew I had to escape, but it was another ten years until the settlement money and an education finally provided the ticket out. My blue and silver harness is too tight – but the flight attendants are coming around regularly and checking so often that I have no opportunity to release the cheap leather. Eventually I can get up and stretch my legs. I gently nudge the husky man sitting next to me. I wedge myself out in that awkward way one must, and I take a walk and notice the immaculate symmetry of the plane, 3 people to one side, 4 in the middle, 3 on the other side, all with their laptops out and earbuds in, or earbuds in and tv screens on. I walk back and forth for a while, not sure if the people whose arms I graze even notice my presence. Eventually I return to my seat. 12 hours to go. In Pillaga we would always make things symmetrical. I don’t think it was intentional; it just happened. Every time the carpenter evaluated the blueprints of a house, he would tweak the design so that it matched on either side. Even the lots were symmetrical. The two houses on either side of the street faced each other as if the middle of the road were a mirror. Our lifestyles were symmetrical too. We would get up, brush our teeth with (usually) un-poisoned water, dawdle off to our respective jobs like clockwork. Always greeting the same people at the same time with the same greeting every day. It was like living in a fairy tale. I guess I’ll be keeping some of my past with me each time I notice symmetry. The thing about symmetry, though, is that it is up to the interpretation of the beholder. Every time I’d lie in the hammock and pick up a book, I would see myself reflected in the characters. Every time I stood under the gum tree I’d imagine it were me and I were it. I would stand there as time passed and sway with the whims of nature, bloom and fall, grow and weather, nest life within me, and eventually die as the Chinese come and chop me down to make way for their drilling rigs. I guess I am like a tree – uprooted; my blossoms are dead here. But with the oscillations of the plane wings I can feel myself grabbing for a new identity in America. Away from my friends and family, I will plow forth and develop myself wherever I land. I will colonize my new identity; I’ll rip it from its “made in America” packaging and let it wash over me like a stiff breeze. The smog from my Australian village will never tarnish the perfection of America. I’m already feeling the grayness of the desolate plains fade away into the frosty seas, and the seas fading into the mountainous Sierra Nevada’s. That’s all I can think about as I doze off for the 5th time. The man next to me is now wide awake and typing furiously on his laptop. A few hours later and I’ve given up sleeping. Any respite I’ve had from the world has been at most twenty minutes long. So I just sit there in silence. The gentle hum of the cabin ensnares me with its monotone whisper. The periodic beeps are therapeutic and calm my uneasiness. My mind wanders. This sort of half-calm half-restless state is similar to, if not identical with, the sort of calm you sometimes get when going fishing, a passion that I’ve never truly enjoyed, but which I’ve heard accounts for much of the popularity of the sport. Just to sit with the line in the water, not moving, mind wandering, not really thinking about anything, and yet always thinking about the fish seems to reveal more of yourself than anything. I guess that’s where I am now – attempting to find myself. Where do I belong? Australia? America? On this airplane? Somewhere else entirely? My mother always told me that the world is what I’d make of it. Well, so far all I’ve seen is destruction of my hometown and abandonment of my soul. All I’ve felt is the gnawing sensation of knowing that I’ve lost my home and my parents because the world wanted to move forward – if you could even call fracking progress. The only thing grounding me is the beast of the air, the Dreamliner that ships me across the world. I pinch myself to make sure it’s not a dream. My trust in progress is gone. My village is gone. There is no more home. But I still have this plane, a creature that I cannot help but admire for its intrinsic beauty. I can’t help but long to explore the tiny nooks and crannies of our world, between those valleys we view from the sky, where people and things escape from our eyes, little ecosystems where one can hide. This vehicle shades us in cool clouds as we wind our own paths from within our own little microcosm of potentiality. I suppose that’s why I was clutching so frantically onto my boarding pass earlier. In hindsight, I hadn’t truly abandoned all hope for the world the way I made out earlier. We all need something to center ourselves, and for me, it wasn’t my home in Australia, or my mother, or America, but rather it was the airplane – the boarding pass that truly gave me purpose. The airplane was a vehicle for my fluid freedom to morph into itself. I am a creature of the earth, not of Australia or America, but of everything in between – each leaf falling, each blossom weathering, each keystroke on my laptop, each particle of smog flowing into the atmosphere. I am myself in each frozen slice of time, and what the world around me does is irrelevant. For progress is not true material gain. No. As we touch down on the tarmac in Los Angeles, I realize that progress is all around us. We are progress, and progress is inescapable. I bid goodbye to the treacly flight attendants and as my foot crunches down on the carpeted terminal floor, I search for the baggage claim. I can’t help but notice that the man who was sitting next to me is nowhere to be seen. Funny, he was standing right there just a moment ago.
A Partition Parable
“Alia, Alia!” Papa rushes in to see his new child… Delivery painful as always. Yet more pain to come… Dr Gundar’s Hospital is running on a skeleton staff, up on the second story. Below, peasants and commoners dance nigh on midnight, to celebrate the harvest; they pray to Ganesh…
Twenty minutes pass, with aaahs from Alia Gunadevi.
“She’s beautiful! Alia, you should be proud.” But new birth brings mixed feelings. And memories of what never to remember… Much later. Almost partition time. On a September day in 1945, Chandri, daughter of Alia and Malik Gunadevi, decided to age. Her girlish shy nature disappeared and revealed her inner character. Tying her hair back into a bun, she curled her upper lip and charged into town… “Malik, have you seen Chandri?” “No; pray to God this isn’t the end of the beginning.” “Pray to god she isn’t another Hikma,” replied Alia. Meanwhile, Chandri careened into town amidst all the old men at the paan shop and trash can junkies not knowing what she was looking for… the old men at the paan shop nudge each other as she walks by, murmuring some ancient and inaudible sequence of syllables. Of course, I don’t really know this part, for it was far from me, but I can imagine. Do you need my genealogy? Yes, Alia was my mother too and Malik my father… Chandri finding a store selling war memorial cards. Gift cards. Chandri seeing the women fighting for their country, Bletchley Park for one. Albeit in America and Britain. But why should India be different? Of course, her family would say Pakistan, not India. For Pakistan it would become, and unfortunately Chandri was on the wrong side of Kashmir. Not the family, just Chandri…her newly awakened curiosity, her determination to work for something larger, her yearning to see the world. Yet, every time she acts, every time, her mother says, “Allah forbids it.”
But let me take a step back… This Gunadevi family lives in Kashmir, the right side, except for Chandri. Now, my dear reader, you have to understand the culture of some traditional Muslim households. As Chandri grows up, she watches her younger brother Ahmed, the favorite, gorge himself on pure candy. He gets to walk the streets with his head held high, as if laughing at Chandri’s mandatory Burka and Hijab. Already at 15 Chandri’s parents are going to marry her off to that betel juice spitting swine of a man, Mufasa. Her most important role is to bring in the bride piece. And Alia constantly primps Chandri to be ready for her “display.” Her marriage occupies all of Malik’s thoughts even as Ahmed is allowed free reign. These women do not marry for love. Her mother was the same as her.
… And Chandri, she really grew up. She frequently tied her hair back.
Chandri approaches her parents every day with questions about the world, every day refused. But every day she hopes for some inkling of information. Two years later. Partition time. Chandri, seventeen now, asks her mother one of these daily questions.
“Allah help me Chandri. You’re too inquisitive. Can’t you just accept your place in the world and live with it? I did. You can’t be another Hikma, Allah help me, Allah help me. Assalam alaykum Chandri. Assalam alaykum.” And that was the inkling of information that she needed. The next day Alia didn’t even say Sat Sri Akal when she saw her in the morning. In doing so, treating Chandri no better than a dog. The day after, Chandri went to her father, still smoldering from the sting of the day before. “Father, I need some advice. Who is Hikma?” Unexpectedly, he rears back from his papers (that are more important to him than the welfare of his daughter) and slaps her on the face. She says nothing, used to the beating the way I was used to war… “Never say that name in front of my face. YOU HEAR ME!” Malik pauses, sits back down, “He was a traitor. You hear me, a traitor!” Unknowingly, that visit to Malik tipped Alia off, for Alia has been hiding her distaste for Malik for years. The catch is, Alia wants to love Malik, but she just can’t do so. And when Malik strikes Chandri, something snaps inside of Alia. Though she hates the way her daughter acts, Chandri still is her daughter, her offspring. When Malik slaps Chandri, he also slaps Alia. Alia loves Chandri though she doesn’t want to admit it. So Alia decides to help… A few days pass, and Chandri forgets about Hikma; he just becomes another secret that her parents keep from her. On her daily prowl around the house, thirsty for information, Chandri wanders into her mother’s study and notices the corner of a letter… See, Alia wasn’t educated, but she wasn’t stupid either. She just put on an innocent girlish look for the sake of pleasing Malik. She left that letter for Chandri to find, and made sure that the necessary clues were noticeable. She knew that Chandri would find it, and she knew that Chandri would not be dissuaded or separated from the pull of India, and she knew Hikma was her only hope. She knew a lot of things… You ask when I get to the first mention of me? Well… So Chandri sees the letter. And she sees it as the treasure trove of information she needs to escape the traditions that are suffocating her. Her eyes skim over the contents multiple times. But she stops on the last word: Hikma. And she closes her eyes and takes a breath when she realizes who Hikma is and what he’s done. Silently smirking, she steals out of the room, muttering the contents of the letter to herself, all the while loving the rhythm of the sounds “Hikma, the Sikh.” Dear Parents, I know that you really don’t care about my welfare. You probably notice the return address and immediately burn this letter or shred it. But even still, I want you to know that I still think of you. I hope you have had another child or two. To make up for the disgrace that I am now. You want to know where I am? Yes. I thought you would. The truth is, I am not that far from you. Still in Kashmir. The right side for me. I hope that India stays whole. Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs have been living together in harmony for hundreds of years, why should that change now? Anyway, I know you disagree with me. Did you know that I converted from Islam? I’m sorry mother, I’m sorry father, but I am now a Sikh. And Lambardar of my village. Your son has found success and peace. I’m sorry it had to be away from you. Hopefully the love is mutual,
Hikma That’s the necessary information. Chandri rushes to the window and presses her face to the glass. She hears scuffling on the window panes, and the shouts that seem to be coming from the street, banging and rustling. “It’s a servant,” she mutters to herself, “What’s the urgency?” If only she knew… But alas she takes no notice of it and instead turns her focus to the train pulling into the station. She has always been fascinated with the science of the train. How the axles move forward and the chimney produces that awful gray smoke. She has only seen motion pictures of people riding in trains. “My dream,” she breathes, and the glass in front of her fogs up. It’s not the train that entrances her, but what the train symbolizes. Freedom. But Chandri’s eyes. Liquid and doey, she slowly blinks her eyelids shut and opens her mouth wide, drinking the coldness of the glass contrasted with the warmth and beauty of the train station.
She pushes her lean body away from the window and charges upstairs to begin her letter. Dear Hikma, I am Chandri. That is all there is to say. My parents didn’t want me to know about you, but I managed to uncover one of your old letters. They didn’t burn them. I hope you live at the same address, because otherwise my endeavor would be over. See, I want to come to your village. I would love some advice from you… Your loving sister, Chandri She licks the bitter flap shut, and she smiles when she writes the address, a piece of information that she figured out. And now she goes back to the window to gaze longingly at the train, which is now boarding. “All I want is to ride. Maybe I will, maybe I will.” Several days later, the news finally reaches Chandri, of course the last one in the gossip circle. Even the servants know before she does. And she only finds out by listening acutely to distant shouts of “The viceroy was stupid. How can an educated man be so smart but so stupid?” and “This split--it is necessary, but I don’t want smelly Muslim refugees crowding my front porch.” Every day Chandri wakes up early and runs to the mailman before her parents arise. She checks for any mail from Hikma. One day she is successful… Chandri, Ik Onkar blesses me. I would love to have some contact with my family, but someone who doesn't look at me for who I was or who Muslims think I am, but who I want to be. I will help you with your endeavor Choti. Can I call you Choti? I think I will. But the partition has made the journey all the harder. As you know, I am in India and you are in Pakistan. Of course, now Chandri completes the connection between the shouts that she heard, and the letter. Already she makes a face as she thinks about the chaos of a partition. By the sound of it, Viceroy Mountbatten didn’t make matters easier either. So I want you to take the next train to Chittisinghpura. I will be waiting. But before you leave, I want you to take notice of your surroundings. That is one thing that I miss. Chances are, you may never return. Look out Choti, isn’t it beautiful? The monsoons are late this year but no matter. All the more wished for. People pray for this. Then, the excitement dies down, and towns flood. There is chaos near the river. And dead bodies float down to the ocean as people pretend not to notice. Please notice Choti. Notice, but accept it. This is what partition brings. You can’t do anything. Hikma For the third time in her life, Chandri smiles. And again she looks out on the countryside as she rushes to her throne at the window. There she stays put, watching and waiting, watching and waiting. Entranced by the magic of the train smoke and the multitude of people coming from India. Hikma’s words remain in her mind. Is it a monsoon? The people flood out of the train like water flooding out of a river. They devour all in their divergent paths; destroying homes and woods and destroying themselves in the process. And now my part of the story. Hikma, the village Lambardar of the village Chittisinghpura. Hikma wields power like he was born to, albeit wielded by a small village man in a small village. He leads his fellow Sikhs in prayer every night. And keeps control of the village… Welcome to Chittisinghpura, a quaint little farming village at the border of the newly formed Kashmir. My people… Chittisinghpura is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the Lambardar Hikma. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. The three brick buildings enclose a triangular common with a large banyan tree in the middle. The rest of the village is a cluster of flat-roofed mud huts and low-walled courtyards, which front on narrow lanes that radiate from the center... There are only about seventy families in Chittisinghpura, and Niman Rajul, the village moneylender, is the only Hindu. All the other families are Sikhs or Muslims, about equal in number.
Hikma rules without an iron fist, more like a soft hand. He often combats the local magistrate, who is more strict in his judgments and less willing to see both sides or seek compromise. Hikma knows both sides. It is in his blood.
And these days, they live in a bubble, surrounded by mobs of Muslims who hate Sikhs and mobs of Sikhs who hate Muslims. But in the village they had always lived together peacefully. Villagers were in the dark about happenings of larger scope than the village outskirts, gaining much of their information through rumor and word of mouth.
A problem though. The sign at the train station has always said welcome in three languages. Sat Sri Akal Assalam alaykum Namaste I will get back to the sign later, for the sign is my idol. What I as a leader worship.
On this particular morning, the monsoons arrive. Everyone swarms out to my gathering in the pouring rain. Amidst whoops and hollers, my people roll about on muddy soil. They untether the pigs and horses and, as if sensing the joy, these animals roll around in the mud as well.
But with the rain comes the flood.
Lambardar Hikma gets up early the next morning, happy with his village, his large role in a small place. He again walks into the downpour.
He wants to see the true extent that the river flooded, but when he gets there he immediately turns around and weeps. For the river is not flooded with water. It is flooded with dead men. Hundreds and hundreds. They just keep coming. Sadly he shares the news with the entire village…
They are aghast. “And they were all Sikhs!” someone cries. Yes, I say, I could tell by their long hair, turbans, and beards.
A collective snarl escapes the group.
“Let's kill them all!” shouts are heard.
And then the magistrate proposes a plan that tears my heart…
“We need to fight back. I bet that this village upstream is already completely abandoned, as the cheerful townsfolk deserted it, dead on the river. These Muslim swine need to be punished for killing our brothers! I propose that we derail the next train from Pakistan, and we return the favor.”
Perhaps I do not respond quickly enough. Perhaps there’s nothing I could have said. A hushed whisper spreads through the crowd as lightning spreads through the clouds during a monsoon.
Now a few murmured agreements and nods.
As we walk the banks of the railroad ditch, the sign next to the station creaks. Where white paint once graced dark background in precise letters, now gray paint smears not so dark background with squiggly letters…
And all of a sudden a plan is in place. The Magistrate assigned the parts to play to kill these people from Pakistan. But as he tried to protest, all the Lambardar Hikma could think of is his sister coming over on the next train…
Chandri packs her bags the night the monsoons start. She will sneak out in the morning…
Hikma looks straight at the sign. He could have sworn that there were three greetings. But now the Sikh rebels have changed the world... The three greetings disappear and are replaced with one prominent one; Sat Sri Akal. Only Sikhs are welcome, else we shall purge your people coming across the border on the train…
Hikma tries to appease the groups but they have their mind set. Brandishing their guns, they take up a maniacal cheer meant to embody the ruthless killing of Muslims. But in reality, they have destroyed themselves. Destroyed their identity because they can’t stop themselves from killing. They have now become the “Muslim swine” they hate so much.
… Chandri walks into the station at dawn, now thoroughly soaked, but she doesn’t care. Because she finally gets to board a train. Train Station clunks and screeches, the frozen engine kicks into motion, pushing the sleek, modern train down the beaten, old track and into the black. Even after the train has left, the sound of the pulsing locomotives pound through the night, until the deep booms of its powerful thrusts quiet down to gentle beats in the heart of the night. Mist swirls gently across the now empty track, covering all in a wispy blanket. The track is now hidden beneath a mysterious layer, like a deep secret or a myth…
They get into position three hours before the train is about to arrive. Hikma turns back towards the village and sees that incandescent god, the sikh guru, looming ominously over the village Chittisinghpura. He stands up one last time to convince his townsfolk to halt the plan.
He speaks, but no one pays attention any more. Notice, but accept it. This is what partition brings. You can’t do anything. Yes, he couldn’t do anything.
And the villagers bask in the sound of the locomotive approaching the station. He sees the trip wire glistening in the sun of the three-hour-old day. And he sees Chandri’s face of wonder right before the train hits the wire and careens off the track.
I, Hikma, the village Lambardar, turn and run towards the train, stretching an elongated hand towards the tipping train. Hand closes, air parts, and the hand comes up empty, paired with a silent scream escaping parted lips. And the train tumbles to a halt on its side.
And I am left to tell my sister’s story as it happened, or as I imagine it. This is history.
PHOTO BELONGS TO THE AUTHOR
The guard had fallen asleep for the night, and all that was left were the dusty brown lazy ropes hanging from the gold bars, which were lying tilted next to the barren oak wood floor encasing the gallery that the guard always neglected. Frankly he neglected the whole endeavor, for he didn’t want to be a guard at all but rather a cook, and the dim hot airless room with no light or customers or aroma, inflamed him to the point of exhaustion, and he lay such on this musky floor, rarely trod upon, save for the occasional intrepid tourist ready for any adventure, maybe even seeking one, who is willing to be shut up in an old gallery solely to stare, alone, at fifty paintings of faceless reality that are staring back.
And then the night was over, the guard’s shift was over, and he stared at the faceless Magritte’s, them staring back, and he was cold, even though the floor was now laced with yellow slashes full of dust mites filled with flecks of the dead old dried paint swept from the art. The wind entered from the carelessly opened door that the guard had not left open the night before; no wonder he was cold. When the hot dry mist floated through the open door the guard woke and fluttered his hand towards the open door as if to stop its light and breeze as someone might do with an alarm clock by their bedside table when they sleep and wake up different.
Different, for now the coldness has migrated from the guard to the paintings, and the paintings were even more agitated, but could do nothing, while the guard could go to his cooking class where he would conjure aromas in stark contrast to those of the museum. Later, there would be just a morning lattice painted on the outer wall by the savage summer sun, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the smell of coarse bold strokes performed 89 years ago by a captive Belgian man subject to bizarre flights of fancy blending horror peril love in one adjustment, and this adjustment would be torched by loneliness when the guard leaves.
But it was still early now. The guard had yet in his pocket the note which he had received by the hand of the immigrant cook just before noon the other day, asking him to return for the exam -- the attractively old fashioned, stiffly formal request that was actually a summons, out of another world almost -- an archaic piece of notepaper illustrating the queer commanding presence that this cook had over his psyche, a quality that only seemed to be present in foreigners. The guard, when receiving the note, decided after a few moments of deliberation that he felt unwell and therefore had a fever, though now he felt the utmost calm even as his arm twitched in the cold latticed air like a man who had been peacefully ill in bed and had recovered to move with a sort of diffident and tentative amazement in a world that he had believed himself on the point of surrendering. The twitch was succeeded by a jolt as the mist touched him, followed by a gasp and a grumble, and the guard, now fully awake, stared at the cracked door and accidently at the faceless Magritte, “The Lovers,” two figures eternally staring back through the sort of nonexistent wonder that only a couple whose faces are masked by these frustrating sheets can produce, and, as a consequence of his fevered epiphany, saw this couple for one moment not as a painting, but as an art form, and although he would rather blindly, hazily ascend to the higher art of “chef” and still had no appreciation for the pigment and resin surrounding him, he could in that moment comprehend the lure of art as a means to evoke emotions hidden inside any, even the most foolhardy traveler.
An acceptance was all that the couple needed, and unknowingly the guard in that moment had paid homage to Magritte, not to the person but to the art, he stopped and watched it, the art not being conquered, destroyed, so much as retreating, for its purpose was served now, as all art must convince all people of everything. Even when the guard left, the painting never backed down from the reality; it glided its subjects across the darkened floor, and the barrier of fabric formerly preventing the intimate embrace between the two lovers and transforming an act of passion into one of isolation and frustration now vanished, and the world, either prepared or not, was for the first time graced with the severity of Magritte’s faces, cold and horrid, yet fixed in a perpetual smile of ragged flesh and half-finished nonsense, as if Magritte initially tossed the sheet on in order to conceal the true menace from the rest of the world, there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers such as these know because it makes them both -- if only the guard knew.
And for the brief span of a day, the painting could experience true realism in the world of fakes and insignificance, and even though the lattice moved from one end of the wall to the other, the painting still stayed, uncomfortable from the cold, then heat, then cold again, while finally it was put to sleep again by the bloody rust night sun, covering the gallery in a drunken stupor, and only the guard, elated from the success of his exam, was able to evade the force of the painted reality that Magritte had conjured. But as soon as the sun blood rust covered guard intrepidly set foot into the so often abandoned gallery, the Magritte rested, and Magritte rested; the sheets materialized to throw the vicious faces of these two lover-enemies back into obscurity.