“Summer had not begun yet but already the days were dry and hot, and the overhead sun like fire on the skin. The villagers were predicting a long, merciless summer. ” Vishal Markandey’s “Salim’s House” is a coming-of-age story set in India, 1947, the year of Partition. The young protagonist bears witness to what this new reality holds, as his friend’s family fall under the gaze of his older brother Biru and the other young men in their village.
It was early that year of 1947 when we heard that the English were leaving at last. At last we were to be free. I was only eleven then, now that I count back the years. And yet everything has stayed with me as if it had just happened.
I saw the English when my mother Maaji and I had gone to the nearby town of Mata di Sharan to buy provisions. We were on the way back home in the hired bullock cart, the cart loaded with our bundles of wheat flour and rice and sugar, various dry dals and spices. A large jute sack full of coal lay at my feet.
The bullocks were walking slowly on the narrow dirt road, occasionally swishing their tails against the buzzing flies in the afternoon heat. With both hands I held a new surahi, a long- necked water pot made of burnt red clay. I was imagining the first cold taste of water from the pot. Water that tasted of the earth. You only got that taste when the pot was new.
Maaji was sitting beside me in the cart. She had covered her head against the sun with the loose end of her white sari. A dark-green truck came from behind, suddenly swerving close to the cart as it drove past. The bullocks were startled. They bellowed and broke into a slow clumsy run.
I lost my hold on the surahi and it began to roll. I lunged after it and caught it by the neck just before it tumbled off the cart. When I looked up, several men dressed in khaki uniforms were leaning out of the back of the truck, staring at us.
I had never seen anyone who looked like that. So tall, so big, their faces glowing red and pink in the heat. Some had hair like ripened wheat shining in the sun. They shouted “Lal bibi salaam!” at us and began to laugh as the truck sped away in the dust.
Maaji said they were the English. She said, Don’t look at them.
Later I told Salim that I had seen the English. We were walking through the fields outside our village, to the river in the distance. Sugarcane and wheat grew in the fields, and in season there was corn, and when the mustard flowered yellow the fields would glow as if the sun itself had come to visit. During harvest the village women worked in groups in the fields, bending at the waist to cut the wheat close to the ground with sickles. The farmers slashed at the red sugarcane with long-handled knives, their lips pulled back from their teeth as the sweat ran down their faces into their dark beards.
A dusty track led away from the village and the bullock carts would go by, the bullocks in pairs pulling carts laden with harvest from the fields. Salim ran after the carts, a thin little boy with tumbled black hair and large dark eyes. We tried to climb the backs of the carts, but the man in the cart would turn and raise his stick at us and we would fall back laughing.
It was late in the day now as we approached the river, the sun low in the sky ahead of us. A train was going across the river, its black engine puffing clouds of gray smoke high in the air.
“Chetti…Chetti……Chetti…Chetti……Chetti…Chetti…… Aaja,” we sang to the chuffing sounds of the train. ……Quickly…Quickly……Come to me. A nonsense song that we had made up. That we called our train song.
“I wonder where the train is going,” I said. Mata di Sharan had a small train station, no more than an open platform with a single rail line. I thought perhaps the train had come from there. Whenever Maaji and I went to the town we would pass the station. Sometimes a train was stopped there and a longing would come over me to go on the train, to go wherever it would take me.
“Maybe it is going to Amritsar and Lahore,” Salim said. “And all the way to Pindi.”
The cities of Amritsar and Lahore were not far. And Maaji often spoke of the far garrison town of Pindi where her sister, our Ratan-masi, lived with her husband.
“Maybe we could go on the train someday,” I said. “To see those places.”
We had reached the riverbank and the river was moving slowly, with a never ending kal- kal-kal-kal- sound. Grass was growing right to the water’s edge and we sat in the grass, gazing at the sunlight bouncing on the water, at the darkening sky streaked with gold. I closed my eyes and the sun was warm on my eyelids and my ears were filled with the sound of running water. A gentle calm came over me then and sleepily I thought that I want to stay like this forever, that I want nothing to ever change. I often think of that moment. I think perhaps I fell asleep then, that everything that came later was only a dream, and someday I will wake up and find myself still by the river.
* * *
Summer had not begun yet but already the days were dry and hot, and the overhead sun like fire on the skin. The villagers were predicting a long, merciless summer. My brother Biru was almost a man now, tall and thin with sparse beginnings of a dark mustache and beard. He came home one day, crashing the front door open, shouting at us that he had news, big news.
It was late in the evening. Maaji and I were sitting on a jute-string cot in the small paved courtyard at the back of our house. Biru was pacing the courtyard from one end to the other.
“The English are dividing our land before they leave,” he said, his voice high. “Creating a new nation.”
“That day has come then,” Maaji said.
“Did you know?” he asked.
“Some have called for a division for years,” she said. “Different nations for different religions. Hindus and Sikhs on one side. Muslims on the other.”
“But why?” I asked.
“Perhaps the culmination of what the English call divide and rule,” said Maaji. “But what do I know of such matters.”
“At least part of Punjab will go to the new nation,” said Biru.
“Where did you hear the news?” asked Maaji.
“Some men had gone to Mata di Sharan to sell their harvest. Everyone there is talking about it.”
The news soon spread across the village. Near the center of the village was a Devi temple with a big peepul tree outside. Under the shade of the tree’s spreading branches the menfolk gathered to discuss the news. They squatted on the ground with their elbows on their knees, talking in low voices, chewing paan and spitting out streams of red that stained the ground. The women of the village used to go to the well near the temple to fetch water in earthen pots. They lingered at the well now, whispering about what they had heard, about what may happen.
The coming division seemed to light a spark. At first the villagers could not believe what they were hearing. They did not even have the words to describe what was happening. They called it raula—uproar, they called it mara-mari—killings. There was news of Muslims killing Hindus and Sikhs in Pindi, Hindus and Sikhs killing Muslims in Amritsar, looting and burning one another’s homes, burning entire villages.
Maaji said it was the result of divide and rule. She tried to keep the worst of the news from me, but I heard it from Salim, I heard it in the village, Biru and Maaji whispered about it when they thought I was not listening. There was a shine in Biru’s eyes these days, that I had never seen before.
It was late in the evening. Maaji and Salim’s mother, Ammi, were sitting on the string-cot in our courtyard. The woven strings of the cot sagged heavily beneath them.
“My heart trembles at the news,” Ammi said. She was soon to have child and sat awkwardly, her mounded belly low in her lap. “I think the border will be on the other side of the river. There are not many of us on this side.”
“Will you move then?” asked Maaji.
“Salim’s father does not want to leave. He says we have nowhere to go.”
“I pray to God the raula will not come here,” said Maaji.
“Any news of your sister?” asked Ammi.
“No,” Maaji said. “I have not heard from them.” She looked away. “I hear there has been a lot of mara-mari in Pindi.”
“I will pray for their safety,” Ammi said.
After Ammi had gone home Maaji and I stayed in the courtyard, relishing the slight cooling of the air as the sun set, reluctant to go to the stifling interior of the house.
“Are Salim and his parents going to leave?” I asked.
“It is not safe for them here,” Maaji said. “Not anymore.”
“Where would they go?”
“The other side. Far across the river,” she said. “Beyond where the border is likely to be.”
“Is it safe there?”
“Safe for them. But not for us. That is how it is now.”
“What will be on the other side of the border?” I asked. “Will it still be Punjab?”
“I suppose so,” she said.
“Will the train still go there?” I asked.
“I don’t know, my child,” Maaji said, rising from the cot.
* * *
Days passed and now the heat was constant. Summer had come early that year. Maaji had given me the daily task of making lassi, made by churning curds with water, drunk for its cooling effects. Some even said that it reduced intoxication. Every morning I sat in the courtyard with the water and curds in a large earthen pot, rolling the wooden churn back and forth between my palms as fast as I could. The pot of salted lassi would then sit in the kitchen and we drank from it throughout the day.
Biru was sometimes gone from home these days. When I asked him where he went, he laughed and said little mouths must not ask big questions. One day he was not at home and Maaji
looked in the pot of lassi and said we would not be able to finish it. She asked me to take the extra lassi to Salim’s house.
I held the large bowl close to my chest with both hands, and walked carefully along the street, taking small steps. I did not have to walk far. Salim’s house was nearby—you could see its door from the window of our front room. As I handed the lassi to Ammi she hesitantly asked if I would help her bring some water from the well.
“I cannot carry heavy things,” she said, touching her rounded belly.
She gave me a water pot made of black clay, with a wide mouth. It was smaller than the one Maaji usually carried to the well. Salim was with us, holding a similar pot. Ammi and I were walking beside each other, and Salim was behind us. The sun was directly above, bearing down on us in all its wrath. Ammi walked slowly, swaying side to side. She said her feet were swollen and it was difficult to walk. It was not long now, she said, before Salim had a little sister or brother. My little brother or sister too, I said impulsively. Yes, she agreed with a laugh.
“But are you going to leave us?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” she said. “We don’t want to.”
“We are not leaving,” Salim said.
“We may not have a choice,” said Ammi, turning to look at him.
“No!” cried Salim. “We are not leaving.”
And he flung the pot to the ground where it shattered.
“Salim,” called Ammi, as he ran back the way we had come.
I wanted to go after Salim but stayed with Ammi. “What days have come,” she sighed.
We continued walking and suddenly I realized that Ammi was not going to the well near the temple. We were going almost outside the village. It was a long walk in the heat, the sweat running down my back.
“Ammi, why don’t you get water from the well where Maaji goes?” I asked.
Ammi shook her head. “It is not for us.”
* * *
Ammi used to make the most delicious atte da halwa, wheat flour pudding, sweet and rich, fragrant with ghee, studded with browned cashews and plump raisins. Whenever she made the dish, Ammi would bring a big bowl to our house. Biru and I used to look forward to the treat but now when she brought it over, he would not touch it. We were in the front room and Ammi had just left.
“We should not eat that,” said Biru.
“You have always liked it,” said Maaji.
“Maaji, everything is different now,” he said. “Throw it away.”
“Son, don’t say that,” she said.
“You shouldn’t be friends with that woman,” said Biru. “Tell her not come to this house. That Salim shouldn’t come here either.”
“Who are you to tell me what to do?” Maaji suddenly shouted at him. “Tell your wife when you have your own house.”
They stood in silence glowering at each other. I left the room quietly and went to the kitchen.
The kitchen was at the back of the house, adjacent to the courtyard. In a corner of the kitchen, on a low shelf, Maaji had a collection of small brass idols and pictures of gods and goddesses. There, every day in the morning and in the evening, she would offer worship. She sang prayer songs and I used to sing along with her in a low voice. Sometimes there were flowers on the prayer-shelf: orange and yellow marigolds, pale pink oleander. When she lit jasmine incense its sweet rich smell would fill the kitchen. And there were times when she prayed in silence, sitting cross-legged on the floor near the prayer-shelf with her eyes closed.
The next day Maaji cooked Biru’s favorite, parothe. She sat on the kitchen floor, rolling oiled wheat dough into layered triangles and cooking them on the hot griddle over the angithi coal brazier. Heat from the brazier filled the kitchen, and Maaji’s face and throat were shiny with sweat.
“Come children, eat the parothe while they are hot,” she called.
Biru and I sat near her on the kitchen floor and ate the parothe with salted curds. The parothe were crisp on the outside but inside was a soft and moist layer that I ate first. Biru showed me how if you opened the parothe carefully, you could stand them up on end and they looked like little brown hills.
“Soon you will be eating your wife’s cooking,” Maaji teased Biru. “I should be getting offers for your marriage soon.”
Biru looked awkward and ate in silence.
* * *
As the villagers had predicted, the summer was long that year. Hot gusty winds called luu blew in the afternoons, leaving the wilted fields covered in fine dust. There was no respite from the heat even at night. We slept in the courtyard where it was a little cooler at night than inside the house. We had dragged our string-cots from the sleeping room into the courtyard and they barely fit in the small space.
Biru was now often not at home during the day. He would be gone by the time I woke in the morning and would return late at night. One night he came home when I was already in bed.
“Son, I hardly see you.” Maaji was sitting on her bed near mine. “Where are you all day?”
“With some of the men,” he said. “We have gatherings.”
“What gatherings? You are gone all day.”
“We are learning to fight,” he said. “Stick fighting. Fighting with spears.”
“I don’t want you to fight. Who is in these gatherings?”
“Some men from outside the village. They were soldiers for the English.”
“You get together every day?”
“Yes. They are teaching us to defend ourselves.”
“I don’t understand. What is the purpose of all this?”
“You know what is happening on the other side. There is talk of revenge.”
“What other side? Revenge against whom?” Maaji said. “Son, I have a bad feeling. Stay away from these men.”
“How can I stay away?” said Biru. “There is going to be a reckoning soon.”
“No. Don’t go to these gatherings.”
“Think of Ratan-masi and her husband,” said Biru. “Your prayers did not help them.”
“No,” said Maaji. “We don’t know, they may be safe.”
“How could they have survived what happened in Pindi?” said Biru, his voice rising.
“Don’t speak so loudly. The child will wake up.”
I had been awake all along, lying still with my eyes closed. They moved away into the front room and I could hear their low voices but could not make out what they were saying. Now and then Biru’s voice would rise and I would hear fragments, “…water wells…clear the village…”
* * *
Early the next morning, while Maaji was busy in the kitchen, I went to Salim’s house.
“You must leave immediately,” I said when Ammi opened the door. “Something bad is going to happen.”
“What have you heard?” Salim asked, coming to the front room from the interior of the house, his voice heavy with sleep.
“Biru mentioned something is being planned,” I said.
“Perhaps they are just rumors,” said Ammi. “There are a lot of rumors these days.”
“If you don’t believe me, come talk to Maaji,” I said. “She knows about it.”
“Not this early in the morning,” Ammi said. “She must be busy with housework.”
“No! Now!” I cried. “You have to leave quickly.”
“Stubborn child,” she laughed. “If it makes you happy, let us go see Maaji.”
And she and Salim accompanied me to our house.
“Maaji, Maaji,” I called when we reached our house.
Maaji came out of the kitchen, her hands covered in white flour. “What happened?” she asked when she saw Ammi and Salim with me.
“Tell them what you heard from Biru,” I said. “I tried to warn Ammi. I told her they must
Maaji looked at me for a long moment and then she turned to Ammi. “I was going to come talk to you later in the day,” she said. “Perhaps it is nothing, but it may be best if you did leave.”
“So it is true,” said Ammi. “But how can we just leave? Where would we go?”
“Go across the river. Beyond where the border may be,” said Maaji. “Just to be safe.”
“Go where across the river? We don’t know anyone on that side,” said Ammi. “We don’t
even know where the border is going to be.”
“Go to Mata di Sharan and take the train across the river,” said Maaji.
“But how will we get to the train station?” said Ammi. “I cannot walk that far.”
* * *
Biru was not at home the next morning. Maaji was in prayer in the kitchen. The worst of the day’s heat was yet to come and the window of the front room was open. In the courtyard I set about my daily task of making lassi with the wooden churn. My hands and lower arms tired easily from rolling the churn and I had to stop often.
Presently there was a low roaring sound. I wondered whether it was the train. But we had never heard the train from our house. I continued with my task, and as I worked the sound grew louder. I went to the front room window and looked out. Outside Salim’s house a crowd of men had gathered. They carried spears and sticks, sickles and long-handled knives. Some were armed with rocks and stones.
They were shouting “Open the door!” and “Come out! Come out!” Many of the men were familiar. There was the man who sold vegetables in the village market. Some of the men who gathered under the peepul tree were in the crowd. There were some of Biru’s friends—no more than boys—who often came to our house. And there were others I had never seen before. There was a sudden shout of “Break the door!” and then the mob began to clamor “Break the door! Break the door!”
Someone threw the first stone and it shattered the window by Salim’s front door. Even with all the noise I heard the tinkling sound as the broken glass fell to the ground. Then more rocks and stones were thrown. The door was set upon with spears and sticks, with the backs of the handles of sickles and long knives. Sweat glistened on the men’s faces and their teeth were bared in grimaces as some of them ran up to the door to kick it. The cries of the mob and their high-pitched laughter mingled with the hollow thudding sounds of the attacks on the door.
For an instant I saw Biru in the crowd, holding a long spear, shouting and striking the door. “Biru! Biru! No!” I cried but the words never came out and were strangled in my throat.
Then the poor door gave way and the mob surged into Salim’s house.
Above the other sounds I now heard Salim’s cries of “Ammi! Ammi! Ammi!”
Then Maaji pulled me away from the window and pushed me into the kitchen.
“Biru! I saw Biru! He was in that crowd.”
“There is nothing I can do now,” said Maaji.
I tried to run back to the front room. I wanted to rush to Salim’s house. But Maaji held me by the upper arms in a hard grip. She pushed me against the wall and stood close facing me.
I tried hard to free myself but Maaji was strong. Eventually I stopped fighting her and was overwhelmed with tears and she held me close. Then she went back to the front room and closed the window. We heard shouts and cries for a long time.
“No one would take them to the train station,” said Maaji, her face in her hands, as we sat on the kitchen floor. “I tried to hire a bullock cart. Salim’s father tried. But who wants to risk their neck these days?”
Hours must have passed as we sat there in silence. The heat of the day was at its peak but my hands and feet were turning cold. I placed my hands in my armpits for warmth. Then there was a knock at the front door.
“Open the door, Maaji,” shouted a voice. “Are you hiding your friends?”
“Stay in the kitchen,” said Maaji as she went to the front room.
“Come in. Come in.” I heard her say. “We have nothing to hide from you. Come in and search the house.”
I could hear movement in the house. Then two of them looked into the kitchen. They were just boys. Like Biru. The whites of their eyes were heavily threaded with red. They saw only me and went back to the front room.
“You should not be out in the luu,” Maaji said to them. “Have some lassi before you go.”
She came to the kitchen to take the earthen pot of lassi. I followed her to the front room, carrying shallow cups of burnt red clay. There were four of them standing in the room and the front door was open. Their implements were outside leaning against the wall by the door.
“Have you cleared the village?” Maaji asked as she handed them cups full of the half- made lassi from that morning.
“There were not many,” said one of them. “Now we are searching for those who may be hiding.”
“Where is my Biru?” she asked.
They looked at one another and shook their heads. “We don’t know,” said the one who had spoken earlier.
“Have some more lassi,” she said.
I looked past them, out through the open front door toward Salim’s house but could not see much from where I stood. Later, after they were gone and Maaji was in the kitchen, I looked out again from our front room window. The door of Salim’s house stood ajar. No one was there.
Maaji prayed in silence late into the night, huddled on the kitchen floor near the prayer- shelf. Eventually she came to bed, to where our cots were next to each other in the courtyard. I was already in bed but could not fall asleep. When I thought she had gone to sleep, I got up and quietly made my way to the front room in the dark. Slowly I opened the front door, stepped outside our house, and ran along the street toward Salim’s house. I don’t know what I expected to find. Perhaps I hoped they would still be there. I don’t know why I went. I just had to go there. To see for myself.
Salim’s house was in darkness. But then all the houses were dark at this hour. A sickle- shaped moon was in the sky, casting a dim light over the village. Outside Salim’s house there was shattered glass on the ground, glinting in the moonlight. I looked through the broken window but could see nothing in the dark interior of the house. The scarred and gouged front door was closed now. A studded iron padlock hung from the latch. Was somebody still inside, I wondered. I felt a rush of hope that someone had survived, had not been found. I raised my hand to knock on the locked door, but then I went back to the broken window.
I put my face close to the window and whispered, “Salim. Salim.”
There was only silence.
I raised my voice and called again, “Salim!”
Still there was silence.
Then suddenly there was a noise of footsteps in the street. In a panic, afraid I would be caught, I ran back to our house as fast as I could and flung open the door. Maaji was standing in the darkened front room, in the white petticoat and blouse she wore to bed. I threw myself into her arms and she clasped me to her chest without a word. But her heart was beating fast.
* * *
Biru did not come home that night or the next day. Then late at night, after we had gone to bed, there were light taps on the front door. Maaji opened the door partly and from my bed in the courtyard I could vaguely see them in the dim light. He stooped to touch her feet. She reached down with her hand but then pulled herself away. They talked in low voices and I strained to hear them.
“Maaji. Forgive me.”
“Your companions were in my house,” said Maaji. “To see if I was hiding anyone.”
“Maaji, listen to me a little,” said Biru.
“My own son. God forgive me. My own son.”
“Those men,” said Biru. “They gave us something to drink.”
“Yes,” said Maaji. “I saw your companions.”
They stood in silence looking at each other for a long time. She was holding the door and he was outside.
“I told you to stay away from those men,” said Maaji. “I told you.”
“Forgive me, Maaji.”
“Forgive,” she exhaled.
His eyes glistened in the weak light. Behind him Salim’s house was in darkness.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “You are not my son. Not anymore. Don’t show your face here.”
And she closed the door. I wanted to rush out to Biru but I could not move. I wanted to plead with Maaji to forgive him. Where would he go? He was only a boy. He was all we had. But then I thought of him at Salim’s house. My mind was in conflict and I could not sleep that night. Maaji did not sleep that night. She lay on her cot and I could hear her restless movements throughout the night.
“Maaji,” I called out to her but she did not respond. She was up well before dawn.
* * *
During the days that followed Maaji and I stayed home. I thought Biru would come back. I wondered where he was. But he did not return. No one came to see us. I tried to talk to Maaji several times but she would not respond. She hardly talked at all. Mostly she spent her time praying in silence.
After several days I finally went outside and the village felt unfamiliar. Everywhere there was silence. A few people hurried by and would not look at one another. I went past Salim’s house and its door was still closed and the iron padlock still hung from the latch. Similar locks were at the doors of some other houses. Later I learned that a military truck had come to our village the evening of that day, to investigate what had happened. They had repaired some of the damage and had locked the houses. Then they had left.
I went to the well where Ammi and I had gone. No one was there. The well had been filled with soil almost to the brim. Some broken clay pots lay beside the well, and a black dog was curled up next to them. It opened an eye and looked at me as I walked by.
I walked on to the fields and the fields lay barren and empty in the heat. Dried stubble from the withered crops was like shards of broken pottery beneath my feet. I went to the river
and the river was muddy and low in its banks. It was late in the day now and the dying sun had spilled its blood across the sky. The earth was exhaling the heat of the day, heat rising up from the ground, enveloping my feet, my legs, rising higher, as I closed my eyes.
From the distance came the sound of a train and I whispered our song, “Chetti…Chetti…… Aaja……”
Vishal Markandey lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. His fiction has been published in Consequence Forum. Follow him on X (formerly known as Twitter) @VishalMarkandey