An excerpt from the book, Manto and Chughtai by Penguin Books.

OPEN IT!

The special train left Amritsar at two in the afternoon, taking eight hours to reach Mughalpura. Quite a few passengers were killed along the way, several received injuries, and some just wandered off to God knows where.

At ten in the morning, when Sirajuddin opened his eyes on the bare, ice-cold ground of the refugee camp, he saw a surging sea of men, women and children swirling around him, and whatever little remaining ability he had to think and comprehend deserted him. He stared at the murky sky for the longest time. Despite the incredible din, his ears seemed to be deaf to any sound. Seeing him in this state anyone would have concluded that he was deeply engrossed in thought. That, of course, was not the case. He was totally numb. His entire being seemed to be suspended in space.

Gazing blankly at the dull sky his eyes collided with the sun and a shaft of intense light penetrated every fibre of his being. Suddenly he snapped back into consciousness. A series of images flitted across his mind—images of plunder, fire, stampede, a train station, gunshots, night, Sakina . . .

Sirajuddin jumped up with a start and made his way through the seemingly endless sea of humanity around him like a man possessed.

For three full hours he scoured the camp calling out ‘Sakina! Sakina!’ but found no trace of his teenage daughter. The whole area was rife with ear-splitting noises. Someone was looking for his child, another for his mother, still another for his wife or daughter. Finally Sirajuddin gave up and sank to the ground off to one side from sheer exhaustion, straining his memory to retrieve the precise moment when Sakina had separated from him. However, each effort to recall ended with his mind closing up at the sight of his wife’s mangled body, her guts spilling out, and he couldn’t go any further.

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Sakina’s mother was dead. She had died right in front of Sirajuddin’s eyes. But where was Sakina? As she lay dying, Sakina’s mother had urged him, ‘Don’t worry about me. Just grab Sakina and run!’

Sakina had been with him. Both of them were running barefoot. Her dupatta slipped off and when he stopped to pick it up, Sakina shouted, ‘Abbaji, leave it!’ He retrieved it anyway. Thinking about it now, his eyes spontaneously drifted to the bulge in the pocket of his coat. He plunged his hand in and brought out a piece of cloth. It was the same dupatta. There was no doubt about it. But where was Sakina herself?

Sirajuddin strained his memory but his tired mind was muddled. Had he been able to bring her to the station? Was she with him aboard the train? Did he pass out when the rioters forced the train to stop and stormed in? Was it then that they carried her off?

His mind was bursting with questions, but there were no answers. He needed sympathy, but everyone around him needed it too. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t; his tears had dried up.

Six days later, when Sirajuddin had recovered somewhat, he met a few people who were willing to help him. Eight young men equipped with a lorry and rifles. He blessed them and described Sakina to them. ‘She is fair and exceedingly pretty. She takes after her mother, not me. She is about seventeen, with big eyes and dark hair. She has a beautiful big mole on her right cheek. She’s my only daughter. Please find her. May God bless you!’

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The young volunteers assured old Sirajuddin that if his daughter was alive he would be reunited with her in a few days.

The volunteers didn’t spare any effort. Putting their lives in harm’s way, they went to Amritsar. They rescued several women, men and children and brought them to safety. Ten days passed but they found no trace of Sakina.

One day they were heading off to Amritsar on their rescue mission aboard the same lorry when they spotted a girl trudging along the road near Chuhrat. The sound of the lorry startled the girl and she took off in a panic. The boys stopped the lorry and ran after her. Eventually they caught up with her in a field. She was stunningly beautiful and had a big black mole on her right cheek.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ one of the boys tried to reassure her. ‘Are you Sakina?’

Image Credit: Penguin Books

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Excerpted with permission from Manto and Chughtai by Penguin Books.

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