A Promised Land Draws Us Into The Lives Of Refugees: An Excerpt

Khadija Mastur

An excerpt from the book, A Promised Land by Khadija Mastur.

She saw Salahuddin in her dream that night. She was getting ready to depart for Lahore, her bags packed, wandering about the camp, greeting people from her old street and neighbourhood. She asked each of them where they would go and expressed sympathy to those who were not leaving right away. As she comforted them, she noticed Sallu was there too, looking for something.

‘You haven’t left yet? How did you get here? Did you deliver your mother safely?’

‘Don’t worry about us. I’ve come to see you. Abba has decided we’ll all go to Sargodha, or we’ll live in a village nearby.’

‘In a village in Sargodha?’ she asked to reassure herself. ‘We’re going to Lahore.’

‘Don’t you worry. I’ll become a lecturer at a college in the city.’ ‘But . . . but how will I know, Sallu?’ she wept.

‘Don’t cry, I’ll find you somewhere or other.’ When he laughed, his dry lips cracked and began to bleed. She tried to wipe the blood away with her pallu, but Sallu suddenly disappeared.

Her eyes opened. It was a cold night, but she was bathed in sweat.

‘I’ll find you somewhere or other,’ she whispered. She was astonished at how real a dream could seem!

From far off came the howling jackals. There was no hint of dawn breaking in the bits of sky peering through the branches. Someone was wandering about holding up a lantern. First the jackals, then a mysterious wanderer: her hair stood on end. She covered her face. She wished she could wake Abba, but she couldn’t bring herself to speak. It must be some vagrant, there was no way thieves had entered the camp, she comforted herself. Then suddenly, the lantern light was filtering through the blanket and shining into her eyes. She pulled her blanket down slightly. A lantern swung before her. She closed her eyes and screamed with all her might.

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‘She’s here, she’s here—I heard her scream! My daughter, my daughter!’ The old man’s cries mingled with her screams.

Many people at the camp ran over to them when they heard the commotion. Then they went away again. She couldn’t hear what they were saying; perhaps they were angry at being woken up. Abba placed a hand on Sajidah’s head and glowered at the old man.

‘You’re causing a scene at night now too? Get out of here!’

Abba stared at the old man, who gazed at fearful Sajidah lost in thought. He paid no attention to what anyone was saying.

‘Baba, I screamed, I was frightened!’ she explained as she sat up in her bed.

‘Do all girls scream the same way?’

‘Yes, Baba!’

Sajidah reached out and placed her cold hand on his. ‘I thought  .  .  . I understood  .  .  . are you very valuable goods?’

‘Go on, Baba! Get away from here. Don’t talk nonsense now,’ said Abba. He placed his hand sternly on the old man’s shoulder and the lantern fell from his hand.

‘Pick up the lantern and put it away, daughter! Who knows who he took it from!’ said Abba, practically dragging the old man away.

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‘Go lie down on your bed and go to sleep quietly. Your daughter will come in the morning.’

Abba took the old man away, muttering as he returned, ‘He’s gone mad, disturbing everyone’s sleep.’ He lay down on his bed. ‘Go to sleep, daughter! Go to sleep. Half the night has already passed. May God let no man lose his mind.’

Sajidah did not reply to Abba. She didn’t even look at him. She was still upset by the way he’d dragged the old man away.

Abba had gone to sleep but she couldn’t sleep a wink. She watched the dark sky turn slowly white through the tangle of branches. She heard the clamour of birds as they fluttered away and felt strangely joyful at the sight of the tiny branches and leaves filtering through the blanket. She pulled the sheet wall to one side. Outside, people were bathing with lotas and small bowls.

‘Abba! It’s morning!’ she called out softly.

Morning always looked lovely to her. Abba turned over and gazed at her affectionately.

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‘You’re up? What were you doing, daughter?’

‘Asking for blessings.’

‘What blessings did you ask for?’

‘Just general blessings, Abba,’ she said, annoyed. ‘All I said was, “Oh, Allah! Please forgive us our sins,”’ she said automatically.

‘What sort of a blessing is that, crazy girl?’ asked Abba in a serious tone. ‘How have we sinned? After your Amma left us, I heeded nothing else in the world as I raised you.’

Sajidah laughed after he went off to bathe with his lota. That was the blessing Abba always asked for himself, but when he’d heard it from her today, he took it as an insult.

Image Credit: Penguin India

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Excerpted with permission from A Promised Land by Khadija Mastur, Penguin Modern Classics.