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from the June 2009 issue

The First Morning

I have no definite answer to questions about why I migrated from India to Pakistan after the partition in 1947. I look back and see a crowded train rushing past lively and desolate towns and villages, under a bright sun, and in the dark of night. The train is running through the most frightening night and the passengers are quiet like statues. I strain to hear them breathe. Where will the train stop? And will it move again, if it stops?

Half a century later, it seems to have been the moment when two eras met and parted. History has its own dawns and dusks. We were in between the dusk and dawn of history. That is what made the journey from Meerut to Lahore the longest journey. We weren't on a train; we were on the ship of history. We had left home at dawn and it was noon. The train had already crossed Saharanpur. We were past the borders of our province, Uttar Pradesh, into that enormous wilderness that had seen carnage a few days earlier. Now there was silence. Those destined to survive and leave, had left. Those destined to fall, had fallen. Their homes were still smoldering.

The train chugged on, indifferent to the ruined towns. Before we had crossed Saharanpur, the train stopped at the routine stops. The stationmaster would blow the whistle, the guard would wave the green flag, the train would slowly begin to move, and the passengers on the platform would take a few steps back. Then, something changed. The train would not make any more stops; it sped past every station on the way.

A little later, it suddenly stopped. Armed guards patrolled the platform, forbidding the people walking on the platform from coming near the train. Sikhs with scimitars hanging by their sides stared at us from a distance and kept on walking. Refugees from the other side of the border hung about the platform in groups. Their tired eyes would meet ours and then turn away. A train full of refugees from Pakistan stopped on a parallel track. My heart seemed to stop beating. My eyes met many terrorized, angry eyes. The train felt claustrophobic. Many others were sitting on the roof. How did they hold on to the speeding train? Maybe desperate flights for life teach you how. Our train does not move. I want to get away from the angry, burning eyes staring at me. The train does not move.

Somehow night fell—a very dark night. The lights on the train engine were switched off. It was running like a blind man, past the stations dotting our path. The passengers in my coach seemed to have turned into ghosts. Heartbeats competed with the sound of the train and anxiety invaded the mind. Then the train stopped again. Nobody spoke. There was darkness inside, and darkness outside—then a few flashes of the guards' searchlights. We had stopped in a forest. Some armed soldiers walked around. The searchlights only heightened the dread, the sense of danger.

Somebody shuffled a bit beside me. I heard the faint friction of a match being struck. A yellow flame burst into the dark coach, startling everyone. "Who is it?" "Stub it out!" "Stub out the damn cigarette!" The man with the burning cigarette was my friend, Saleem Ahmad. What a moment Saleem had chosen to have a smoke! He stubbed it out. The train did not move.

"This reminds me of a joke," Saleem said. He went on to tell the joke. The group of boys from his hometown Meerut, who came with him, laughed. Furious eyes tried to stare them down in the darkness. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" an angry voice shouted. "Ashamed of what?" Saleem replied, with mock naïveté. An old woman, who had taken off her veil, spoke with great affection: "Son, this is not the time to be frivolous. This is the time to say the Kalima (the words affirming Muslim faith)." "They would say the Kalima, if they believed in it!" the angry voice shouted again.

An armed guard walked past the coach window. One of the boys from Saleem's group shouted, "Guard Sahib, when are they attacking?" The guard stopped in his tracks, startled. "Shut Up!" the guard replied after a moment and moved on. Saleem's boys laughed again. The boy who was snubbed by the guard spoke again. "Oh! I know that guard. He is in bed with the Hindu extremists. That is why he shouted at me." He wasn't convincing anyone.

The train stirred to life. No green flags were waved, no whistle was blown, and the echoes of its wheels were muffled, as if a languid centipede had begun to crawl. "Praise be to Allah," said the old woman, her voice soaked in relief.

A little ahead, the train stopped again. Fear filled us again. "They are going to attack now," one of the boys cried. "This reminds me of a joke," Saleem shouted. The boys began to laugh. "Have the fear of God!" the old woman pleaded. Something seized me and I shouted at Saleem. "Shut the fuck up! The Sikhs will attack us later, first these people will…" I don't know what I'd meant to say.

The train moved. "Thanks be to Him!" the old woman exclaimed. A collective sigh of relief followed. We seemed past the danger of an attack. Perhaps it was another mirage. The train rolled on leisurely. I was restless, but couldn't make it go faster. Why can't it shoot out of this forest? My anxiety grew. The train kept crawling for ages.

It seemed as if I had been on the train for aeons. Will there be a destination? Will we make it? Many trains on this route had reached their destinations carrying only the corpses of the men and women who had boarded them. The mobs had spared only the driver. Is this some ancient caravan, crossing perilous deserts and waters?

The night melted and the day bought other visions. I stared through the coach window at a long line of bullock carts, carrying people uprooted from their homes, and carrying things uprooted from kitchens, living rooms, and drawing rooms. The train passed more bullock carts, unending line of displacement. Where were they headed? Where were we going? It was difficult to say. The parallel lines of anxiety, uncertainty, suspicion, and grief urged them on. And Saleem! He was still trying to make jokes, prove he wasn't scared.

When we were approaching the Wagah border post, the coach suddenly came alive. In a moment the passengers dusted off their fear and cowardice, and were transformed into men of steel and women of courage. The dimly lit coach morphed into a podium. Many speeches were given. I turned to Saleem. "Why aren't you making a speech?" "I will remain silent," he said. "It's their turn now."

The train stopped again. Lahore! The sky was turning light, the air a little foggy. It was my first morning in Pakistan.

Read more from the June 2009 issue
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