Sunday 30 May 2021

Preetha Vasan, First Prize, Prose 500 2021

The Memory

Ram Sahai hates queues. They are restless, sticky and smelly. Exactly like this one. He shudders despite the heat. His sweat drenches his orange turban and his white kurta-shirt.

Sahai hates queues for other reasons. They bring back memories: convoys of trucks and lines of people, with bundles atop their heads, dragging hungry, wailing children as they waited to cross the border into the safety of Amritsar. Provided you were lucky to reach the other side alive, before the Muslim mobs got you.

His hands are wet like the time he had stood, waiting for their truck, in the other queue on the evening of the 16th of August, 1947.

Little Sahai held on to his father’s hands tightly.  A cloud of red dust announced the arrival of the last of the convoys. There would not be another for a week. Anxieties and fears of being left behind filled the air like a contagion.  People pushed from all sides.

Baba’s hands, Sahai remembers, were wet with sweat like his are now. It has turned the map- he grips in his clenched fist-into a round ball of wet paper. He knows it thoroughly, yet he opens his fist to see the drawings one last time. The domes are a criss-cross line of cracking earth. Sahai grimaces to himself .He feels the sledge hammer in his khadi-cotton satchel.
Sledge hammers can break skulls; domes of mud and chalk are nothing under its impact.
His blood rushes to his head and he wishes   the speeches and the sloganeering would cease and let them do what they are really here to do.

Hadn’t they been told the trucks were safer? The trains were the real danger, weren’t they?

But there are no safety zones during times of uncertainties.

The truck driver and the soldier, spotting the rushing Muslim mob, had fled. As if on cue, everyone- father, mother, and the neighbours from their village- attempted to jump out of the truck.People lumped together like cattle were not faster than a mob – burdened as it was with hammers and axes-raging for the fleeing refugees’ blood.  Everyone he knew was pretty soon an unidentifiable mass of flesh.  Bar Sahai-the little shrivelled up boy of three, whom a father had tossed under the tarpaulin atop the driver’s seat of the truck.
Anytime now!

The young man bearing the saffron flag has broken the police cordon. This is the signal.  Within minutes they will storm the ancient structure and level it. After all they have read, like Sahai , the architect’s map; they know the domes’ weakest points.

Sahai’s legs are pillars of salt. 

Because a woman clad in a black burqua found him, lost and speechless, hours later, next to the bleeding truck. She took him home, fed him and sent him to safety across the border.  
Sahai drops the hammer.

The queues transform to their purpose:  a vindictive mob. Sahai breaks his, turns, flees from the ancient monument whose domes crumble.

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