Runner-Up of Bound’s Dystopian Fiction Short Story Competition

Her gaze returned once again to the pashmina nestled between her lap and the floor. She had been working on an embroidery pattern for this shawl since a while now, and then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere it had all just fallen into place – a gossamer-like, filigree pattern of Chinar leaves in the resplendent colours they acquired during the fall season – rust-gold with barely perceptible flecks of green and brown – exactly how she remembered the leaves carpeting the mud-caked paths of the hillside during this season. And once the pattern started to manifest it was as if an uncanny energy were plying her needle in and out of the cloth, almost as if the pattern were seeking release from the recesses of her mind, eager to find expression onto this soft, warm piece of pashmina.

What a potent memory of home those leaves had proven to be, a home she had forsaken long ago, long before the trouble even started; but ever since the embroidery began to take shape – commissioned for a buyer in Delhi, she found herself delving deeper and deeper into times past, moments she though she’d long forgotten or at least since the counsellor at the Jammu Centre for Women’s Welfare had counselled her into believing that all that had happened, had all happened to someone else – not her. She was not the one to have suffered, not the one who went through the pain and the
rejection of it all. But today, three decades since, she felt no less than the sturdy Chinar, so accepting of it all, whether it be the laying bare of its branches during the fall or the resurrecting freshness of spring, for had it not born the heaviness of the winter snow and survived?

But today, three decades since, she felt no less than the sturdy Chinar, so accepting of it all, whether it be the laying bare of its branches during the fall or the resurrecting freshness of spring, for had it not born the heaviness of the winter snow and survived?

Just a few finishing touches now and then her initials MS, on a corner and the shawl was ready for dispatch she mused, folding the finished piece into a soft mul mul before putting aside the tools of her trade – embroidery frame, needles, threads and such like. Rafiq, the shawl-wallah from Srinagar had sent message that he would be arriving today. She had embroidered eight shawls this season and truly felt no less than would a Michelangelo. These finely embroidered shawls were artefacts too, and deserved to be treated as such even though unlike painters who acquired fame on account of their names being emblazoned across their art, embroiders such as herself remained largely obscure. But then, she preferred it that way. Fixing her dupatta to cover her head and slipping her feet into sturdy walking slippers she readied herself for her customary early morning darshan at the Darbar Sahib. Looking out of her wooden-parapet-window-balcony onto the narrow lanes of the walled city where she’d lived out most of her life now she gazed a while at the inky-blue night sky and the visible planetary formations therein, elated to be imbibing the freshness of the amritwella, a time of immersive harmonious calm just before sunrise… the recitation of the shabat-gurbani from the gurdwara wafted through the air accompanied by the azaan from the mosque yonder – humankind rendering shukrana for the gift of yet another day… even as a slumbering silence hung over the vicinity, it was like the early-morning winter mist soon to be dispelled by the crimson-orange of the rising sun… intoning the shabad she quickening her steps to reach the sanctity of the temple to join the prabhat fairee …

Entering the precinct from the langar kitchen just behind the clock tower she placed her slippers in the adjoining jorah ghar and exchanged customary greetings with the sewadars. She, the bespectacled, waif-like figure with silver-grey tints in her hair was a familiar and respected figure, having lived here for nearly five decades now. Early morning devotees were engrossed in taking the customary holy dip despite the below freezing temperature of the waters of the talab and at the centre of the water was the golden domed akal takht- the Vatican for the Sikh faith, one of the earliest proclaimers of Sufism. She stepped onto the patterned marble floor of the parikrama preferring the cold stone to the prickly jute mat laid out across for devotees. By noon the temple would be swarming with people. Villagers from the surrounding areas usually gathered here on one or the other pretext, either a namkaran or fixing marriage alliances or just for a days outing. Children played with small stones on the chess boards engraved onto the stone work around the talab.

Looking out of her wooden-parapet-window-balcony onto the narrow lanes of the walled city where she’d lived out most of her life now she gazed a while at the inky-blue night sky and the visible planetary formations therein, elated to be imbibing the freshness of the amritwella, a time of immersive harmonious calm just before sunrise

But it was not always like this… time was when debris had littered every nook and cranny of the temple compound and a chaotic energy had held sway over this century old holy place where saints had sung praises of the almighty, a place where high and low assembled without distinctions of caste or creed and broke bread together thereby acknowledging the humanity that bound them as one.

…time was when it seemed that the dust would never settle… nor for that matter the desolation that surcharged the air even as municipal workers with rubber globes scrubbed at the stains of human gore, and villagers found alive were rounded up
and watched with shifty eyes as stacks of AK-47’s and such like were carried into trucks covered with military green tarpaulin. No parshad was offered as lamentation rent the air. The House of God had been desecrated, some called the defenders shaheeds while others said they would be tried for the spread of terrorism…none partook of the langar being distributed by the men in uniform. A sense of mourning emanated from the pillars, walls and even the pietra dura embellishing the marble walls since the fourteenth century. It began with all access to the temple being cut off by the army. For nine long days the area of the Guru Bazaar adjoining the temple resembled a ghost town. Nothing stirred, nobody moved and even the stray felines roaming the streets migrated to the comparatively safer areas of the civil lines. Sounds of gunfire punctuated the air as army tanks ponderously plied the road from the Haati gate to the various entrances of the temple and then the loud, vaunting speeches issued as the hukumnamna were heard no more as the tanks carried fodder for the battle soon to ensue.

…time was when it seemed that the dust would never settle… nor for that matter the desolation that surcharged the air even as municipal workers with rubber globes scrubbed at the stains of human gore, and villagers found alive were rounded up
and watched with shifty eyes as stacks of AK-47’s and such like were carried into trucks covered with military green tarpaulin.

She and her neighbours bolted the entrances to their homes – sturdy structures made with the nanakshahi bricks and lofty wooden doors with adamtine chains once intended to secure the entrance of the homestead against the armies of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali. These lodgings inside the walled city had initially housed artisans employed to embellish the marble walls of the Durbar Sahib with lapis lazuli and other precious stones, for the dome it was decided would be covered with gold sheet. Soon a lucrative jewellery trade had caught on in the environs and even to this day jewellers in the city traced their lineage to the vicinity of the Guru Bazaar with its shops on the ground floor and living quarters above. Somehow this area had been bypassed by the new developments taking place in the colonies outside the walled city and so it had retained a quaint, crooked, fourteenth century look. Also, architectural changes were expensive, it was easier to purchase a plot of land in the new development outside the Haati gate than renew these old structures, and so Guru Bazar remained lost in time past, at least architecturally.

When that final battle raged they had barred the window balconies too, lest sounds of human agony made them rush towards the precinct. Even sunlight barely flitted across, such was the prevalent fear during those days, and more so of the newly arrived army lads rather than the Bhinderwalla boys who’d strutted around, their faces covered with a handkerchief, demanding fealty. Shibani and Rajan, her son and daughter had been most alarmed by this unusual living arrangement whenever they visited her and had even offered very magnanimously to modernise this quaint house she now called home. During that fortnight of trouble, the mohalla had lain immersed in the darkness of a qabarstan and nobody dared switch on as much as a light bulb for fear of detection but when the boys came a knocking, even in the dark, demanding money for the cause, none dared refused. They had eyes everywhere, and knew everything, that Bhinderwalle lot – which jeweller had how much money, which businessman was shifting the money out of Punjab and more such details. They robbed a bank at gunpoint- the Bhinderwalla brigade did- and soon rumours began to take shape that Hindus were not safe here anymore – the idea of Khalistan, as an independent, militant Sikh homeland appeared to gain credence by the day. Women stopped throwing down purchase baskets from their wooden-parapets preferring to remain as invisible as possible. When the troops arrived followed by the trucks and then the tanks made their way none of the locals ventured outdoors. She existed patiently on dry fruits preferring to offer her rice and atta to those with families and little children. Her kitchen jars were by gods mehr well-stocked, and she shared unflinchingly with the community during this time of need. Not born a Sufi she most certainly was a practitioner now.

Not born a Sufi she most certainly was a practitioner now.

It was during those days that she took to embroidery even as the voices blared from loudspeakers either warning devotees to leave the temple before the operation began or one of the Bhinderwallas shrieking indictments against blood-thirsty
goorements. This was inevitably followed with ear-rending cries of “Boole So Nihal”, answered by equally heroic             “Sats ri akal”, from those inside. The atmosphere crackled with expectancy of adventure. Heroism was surging, they, the Bhinderwallas had finally acquired centre stage and were determined to afford the world a befitting performance.

“They have a Janrail directing the training of the Bhinderwalle boys… Shahbagh or Shahbegh is his name”, at least so the pappad-waari mahajan informed her and then he just simply took to calling him “Shahji”. “He’s the one who’s trained the boys on the inside and now he’s positioning them on the rooftops around the gurdwara and hanging them from giant nets to attack the Indian army”, the Mahajan said, and he also proudly informed all those gathered during those initial days at the inner chawk that the Janrail’s eyes lit up when he ate his pappad-waadi”. “He’s the one who won the Bangladesh war for the goorement… but they cheated him – the goorement, they cheated him and now he hates the goorement even more than the Bhinderwalla boys”. And then the government’s army, they started to cut all food and water supply into the temple but yet the Mahajan maintained, ”Inside, they’re very well-stocked…. all the godowns are filled with sacks of wheat and channa dal and the villagers all brought butter and gur enough to last the granthis for months”. Sounds of gurbani were heard no more from the loudspeakers, only blood curling cries as random bullets struck. She recited the shabat indoors and refused to
shift to Delhi when Shibani and Rajan worried about developments in Amritsar and told her it was time to move, “We can’t leave our mother there, can we?”, they’d intoned day after day… but she was not one to be uprooted again, not at her age anyway, when she should be preparing to meet with her creator and not adjust to new neighbours. She resisted, and they accepted her decision, and also the fact that she’d instructed them not to tell her about the news they heard on the television or in their elite Delhi circles about the “smoking out of militancy from the Punjab”. Their news was always a day late
anyway. She’d seen gorkhas in solar topis and uniforms troop down the road towards the temple and Shibani had not believed her.

Heroism was surging, they, the Bhinderwallas had finally acquired centre stage and were determined to afford the world a befitting performance.

The walled city had become quite a hub during those months before Bluestar – journalists from across the globe had descended there, interviewing everybody and anybody, and the Mahajan’s wife learnt to make pizza and burger for them. The Bhinderwalla troupe hung around, dressed as Nihangs and posing for pictures, and now and then the occasional politician from Chandigarh would zip past in a cavalcade, announced with sirens and red lights, moving towards the temple, “to pay obeisance to the Sant”.…and this continued until the final debacle, after which all guns fell silent. And then after nine days and nights when flares from grenades had lit the night sky and they’d given up on all hope, the temple doors opened once again. Centuries of accumulated Sufi energy had triumphed after all. The Nishan sahib towering high over the temple precinct indicating from afar that this was the house of the guru and all were welcome here, was however not visible and the flares, they said, could be seen as far as the Batala district, so intense had the fighting been. She, and women of the neighbourhood wanted to pay obeisance at the shrine as they were wont to do all these years. The army permitted them.

The temple was a picture of utter desolation, as if a devastating earthquake had completely ravaged the area. There was dust everywhere, brick, mortar and chunks of marble littering the parikrama and the water tank indicating what had transpired there and that this was the aftermath of the violence. The fish from the talab had floated to the surface, their bodies bloated. Nobody spoke of Bhinderwalle or his Jenrail anymore, least of all the Mahajan. And then one day they took the Mahajan’s family for questioning into the army camp. He knew the inmates best and would be able to identify those dead and those alive. After that they just disappeared, the Mahajan’s family. Another papad-warri seller took over their place and lucrative trade. Their house was sold and no forwarding address was shared with their neighbours. Women with their heads and faces covered visited the temple in droves, stifling their sobs and dropping their gold ornaments into the donation boxes.

And yet, today one would never imagine that such like had ever happened here, all was so peaceful, so harmonious. Had it not been recorded in books and army annals, it would all have been dismissed as myth, as old-wives tales, and this cool, morning breeze its rejuvenating calm taken as the only truth that had ever been. The prabhat pheera was ready to start, she quickened her step to join them.

And yet, today one would never imagine that such like had ever happened here, all was so peaceful, so harmonious.


Simran Chadha is a Professor of English literature with Delhi University. An avid trekker and scuba diver she lives with her two daughters ,one dog and the firm belief that there are stories and stories out there just waiting to be told.