The world around was spinning, the surroundings changing, a country divided into a binarial new, and a line demarcating the two.
The morning of August 18 and the year 2017.
Mohan wakes up from his slumber and senses little impressions- specks of dust arranging themselves around his bare arms. He rubs his eyes but is unable to extend his vision to look in the vicinity as ashes and smut mar his perspective. Like a little child, prematurely woken up from his sleep, Mohan cringes at first at the ambience, curses the lunar cycle and then brushes off the settled dust from his shoulder. He sits with his legs folded on a muddy sludge on the ground, with blotches of shapely, powdered black mass in the surrounding terrain- alone and fevered in a completely desolated land as his sight gradually makes the locale visible to him.
A ringing in his ears as if someone was trying to reach him sends him into a state of frenzy.
‘M....mm...mass...mutilat...mahatma...’As if some sharp pincer were piercing his auditory canal, Mohan, after incessant scratching at his ear realized that at some distance away a PA System was announcing the news of partition of Hindustan. ‘fzz fzz..India and Pakistan...14.5 million displaced...Mahatma Gandhi in Calcutta...India is a secular country...millions maimed, mutilated, murdered...mass hysteria...fzz fzz.’ Mohan gathers all his strength to lift himself up off the ground, pats his dirtied pair of khakee pants, his collared shirt and smacks his dried lips. Thirsty and beginning to feel dizzy, he starts making his way toward the PA system. In some languid state of mind he assumes his journey in hope of finding a being in flesh and soul who would help him quench his thirst. Mohan’s dull and sullen movement only takes him so far as to reach the PA system. Exhausted and fatigued, he places his back against the system’s pole. He reaches down his pant pocket to find a shiny, rectangular object. He looks closely into it and keeps it away.
“Failed. Yet again. This will be painful.” he muttered to himself.
As he lays panting, Mohan observes that the earth beneath him had started shaking. the dry sand atoms lift themselves up in air and then ground breaks into numerous solid blocks, each shuddering and vibrating before his very eyes and beneath his tired feet.
“Here we go again” he said to himself as he was flung through time and space and found himself in a room. A hazy, greyish and quivering halo surrounded this room and Mohan found himself right in one of its four corners. In the middle of the room was a man addressing a girl who seemed like was his little daughter. “You should know better. It will be difficult for us to turn back and risk our lives for the sake of it. Please try to sleep Chanchal for we still have a long journey ahead. These temporary lodgings won’t do us much good since the boundary has been set up and we have to cross the border in order to reach India. All of our possessions have been lost and it is certain that this land can no more be called ‘home’. Perhaps there is no home anymore, anywhere. If only she were here...she would know what to do.”
Little did the man’s request or rambling do to placate the little girl’s insistence on turning back for something left behind. Mohan watched the scene, all the while looking at the same shiny object from his pocket which displayed the date ‘Aug.17, 1947.’
“The time shift is ripping my insides into shreds” he complained to himself as he shifted his gaze back to the woman and the child in the room. The girl was tugging on the man’s pantaloon and with a sudden agitated push from the man, a loud thud and the girl fell on the floor. The man rushed to pick her up but stopped in midway with his face contorting, he showed absolute signs of terror. A terror necessarily based in past thought Mohan as it were he had known the reason for his fright. The man lost in her own thoughts paid little attention to the girl’s wailing which seemed to be bothering Mohan to his great displeasure. The man had witnessed his wife being butchered in their own rice field when the migration was in effect, sacrificing herself, her body to the ravenous, devouring men and her soul for the life of her husband and their daughter who were sent to cower under a bed as the fields turned red. The mother had given the little girl a flip-open locket, filled with some rice grains as a present when they first crop was harvested. That was a day for celebration and everybody from friends, neighbours and even passersbys were invited for a hearty feast. Azruddin the trader, Pannu babu the oil merchant, Swapan the sugarcane cultivator etc etc. came to enjoy the evening with the family.
Fleeing and hiding away from the same neighbors and friends had been a cause for not only the mother’s death but also severed the pendant tether to her which had meant the world to the little girl. It is this locket she wished to retrieve. The same locket which was perhaps now lost forever. Mohan wanted to lift up the crying girl with his own hands, cradle her and comfort her but unable to do so he banged his fuzzying fist on the floor in vain at which moment his body began to twist and turn like smoke curling away from the scenery, the last sound his vaporous form heard was of multiple, loud thuds on a door and the same door going up in flames.
A copy of The Statesman lies on the stand. Mohan, right next to the stand, supporting himself on it. The Statesman reports of celebrations, communal amity, fraternity, festivities which involve dancing and singing, advertisements from Britannia and Modern Biscuits congratulating all of Asia, self respect of nation and an advertising calling the audience to the METRO theatre to watch the MGM musical ‘It Happened in Brooklyn’ starring Frank Sinatra. The date on the newspaper read ‘16th August, 1947.’
Mohan’s memory from this day was vivid. Like ink on the newspaper, the event had imprinted itself on his mind. He recalled the film’s tagline "Happy songs! Happy stars! Happy romance!". The theatre that evening was completely filled with audience enjoying Sinatra’s performance as Danny, the war veteran who returns to Brooklyn only to find that his Brooklyn isn’t so glorious after all and decides to compose, with his pals, some good swing music.
A day, post independent India, communal riots had broken out between the Hindus and the Muslims in the Sindh province from the newly created Pakistan from Bombay Presidency. Mohan, like the others in that theatre were enjoying the progression of the swing rhythm. From low to high, the tunes were in harmony with the mood inside the theatre. Outside the Metro the pitch grew louder and louder as it came closer to the auditorium. A quarrel between a Sindhi and a Muslim street hawker in relation to the position of their handcarts had allowed the population to choose sides, each trying to harm the footing of the other. At a moment’s notice the fight that ensued on the streets made its way to homes, schools and public places- a sindhi family of 5 burnt alive, a Hindu shopkeeper beheaded in a crowded Crawford market, households pilfered, students being picked on and harassed by their peers. Mohan was perceptive and quick to cognize the musical’s crescendo with the violence outside. Precognitive of the events that might follow, he made an announcement “There is fire in the auditorium. We have to vacate the premises. Keep calm and follow the exit signs,” found his own way out of the theatre, leaving the door open for an audience of 300 to make their exit. Little did he imagine that his act of heroism will only help exposing them to a voracious, uncoothed, villanious mob who launched themselves at the exiting audience as Mohan watched from a distance their lives fade away as Sinatra’s song ‘It’s The Same Old Dream’ is at last heard being played at the theatre. No more happy songs, happy stars or happy romances.
A teardrop trickles down Mohan’s cheek as the front page of The Statesman flies away in the gusto of the morning wind of that soon to be dreadful evening.
A cavity beneath Mohan’s resting place opened itself up, large enough to swallow Mohan inside as the drop rolls down his chin and hits the surface. Mohan is swirled and swooshed to a new geographic, outside a Fort, plastered with red, a radio announcement was repeating Nehru’s speech from the previous day, “At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom...”
Mohan let his mind fall back to his present.
‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will tear itself into two. Countless loss of lives and impeachment of fundamental freedom will follow... A curfew will be in effect...memories of partition still an open wound...citizens demand absolute caste hegemony’
‘In another news update the Indian Prime Minister has agreed to engage in a nuclear conflict if necessary’
‘..time to impact 59..58..57’
To travel down the memory path, vile and repulsive, was unbearable for Mohan but he continued to head down the train of thought to keep himself focused on his mission.
“It cannot end the same way again, no” he thought to himself.
He got up from his position and strutted quickly towards the fort. The speech was about to come to an end. He had to move fast if he had to reach the point of origin.
“This time things will go down differently” he promised to himself.
He crossed the patrol easily, evading every searching eye as if he were a ghost in a shell.
At the top of the fort Mohan, witnessed the hoisting of tri-colored flag. If only these colors could be representatives of their symbolic meaning the future would have been perhaps different. Millions of heads visible from the top of the fort, collected in unison looking up to a newly liberated nation, free from the British Raaj made Mohan realise that these people, each with their unique background, their bleak future needed saving. They will be subjected to torture, death, embarrassment, greed, hunger, displacement, abandonment and depression. “I will save them” he said as he took out the same shiny trinket, turned a few dials and plunged down through the top of the fort, diving straight towards the earth, descending at a great speed almost about to hit the ground, he vanished in thin air as time froze around him.
He found himself seated on a wooden chair being introduced to a round metal trinket called the ‘Timeshifter’ by a man in a gray suit in a glass room inducted within which were rotors, cogs, gears, springs and crystals The timeshifter will allow him to travel back in time as a specter. He fidgeted through his pockets and took out a picture from it. A picture of what looked like a Mohan, his wife, as the records mentioned crudely, was “Found blown to bits”. . He kept it inside and swore to himself “I will save them.”
- Gautam Aggarwal