"THE LEAVES OF LAJWANTI* wither with the touch of human hands." A Punjah Folk Song.
After the great holocaust when people had washed the blood from their bodies they turned their attention to those whose hearts had been torn by the partition.
In every street and by-lane they set up a rehabilitating committee. In the beginning people worked with great enthusiasm to rehabilitate refugees in work camps, on the land and in homes. But there still remained the task of rehabilitating abducted women, those that were recovered and brought back home: and over this they ran into difficulties. The slogan of the supporters was "rehabilitate them in your hearts." It was strongly opposed by people living in the vicinity of the temple of Narain Bawa.
The campaign was started by the residents of Mulla Shakoor. They set up a 'rehabilitation of hearts' committee. A local lawyer was elected president. But the more important post of secretary went to Babu Sunder Lal who got a majority of eleven votes over his rival. It was the opinion of the old petition writer and many other respectable citizens of the locality that no one would work more zealously than Sunder Lal, because amongst the women abducted during the riots, and not recovered, was Sunder Lal's wife, Lajwanti.
The Rehabilitation of Hearts Committee daily took out a procession through the streets in the early hours of the morning. They sang as they went along. Whenever his friends Rasalu and Neki Ram started singing "the leaves of lajwanti wither with the touch of human hands", Sunder Lal would fall silent. He would walk as if in a daze. Where in the name of God was Lajwanti? Was she thinking of him Would she ever come back?...and his steps would falter on the even surface of the brick-paved road.
Sunder Lal had abandoned all hope of finding Lajwanti He had made his loss a part of the general loss. He had drowned his personal sorrow by plunging into social service. Even so, whenever he raised his voice to join the chorus, he could not avoid thinking—'how fragile is the human heart'...exactly like the lajwanti...one only has to bring a finger close to it and its leaves curl up.
He had behaved very badly towards his Lajwanti; he had allowed himself to be irritated with everything she did even with the way she stood up or sat down, the way she cooked and the way she served his food; he had thrashed her at every pretext.
His poor Lajo who was as slender as the cypress! Life in the open air and sunshine had tanned her skin and filled her with an animal vitality. She ran about the lanes in her village with the mercurial grace of drew drops on a leaf. Her slim figure was full of robust health. When he first saw her, Sunder Lal was a little dismayed. But when he saw that Lajwanti took in her stride every adversity including the chastisement he gave her, he increased the dose of thrashing. He was unaware of the limit of human endurance. And Lajwanti's reactions were of little help; even after the most violent beating all Sunder Lal had to do was to smile and the girl would break into giggles "If you beat me again, I'll never speak to you."
Lajo forgot everything about the thrashing as soon as it was over; all men beat their wives. If they did not and let them have their way, women were the first to start talking..."What kind of man is he! He can't manage a chit of a virl like her!"
They made songs of the beatings men gave their wives. Lajo herself sang a couplet which ran somewhat as follows: "I will not marry a city lad city lads wear boots And I have such a small bottom. "
Nevertheless the first time Lajo met a boy from the city she fell in love with him; this was Sunder Lal. He had come with the bridegroom's party at Lajwanti's sister's wedding. His eyes had fallen on Lajwanti and he had whispered in the bridegrooms ear, Your sister-in-law is quite a saucy morsel; your bride's likely to be a dainty dish old chap!" Lajo had overheard Sunder Lal. The words went to her head. She did not notice the enormous boots Sunder Lal was wearing; she also forgot that her behind was small.
Such were the thoughts that coursed round Sunder Lal's head when he went out singing in the morning procession. He Would say to himself, 'If I got another chance, just one more chance, I would really rehabilitate her in my heart. I Could set an example to the people and tell them—these poor women are not to blame, they were victimised by lecherous ravishers. A society which refuses to accept these helpless women is rotten beyond redemption and deserves to be liquidated.' He agitated for the rehabilitation of abducted women and for according them the respect due to a wife, mother, daughter and sister in any home. He exhorted the men never to remind these women of their past experiences because they had become as sensitive as the Lajwanti and would, like the leaves of the plant, wither when a finger was pointed towards them.
In order to propagate the cause of Rehabilitation of Hearts, the Mulla Shakoor Committee organised morning processions. The early hours of the dawn were blissfully peaceful no hubub of people, no noise of traffic. Even street dogs, who had kept an all-night vigil, were fast asleep beside the tandoors. People who were roused from their slumbers by the singing would simply mutter "Oh, the dawn chorus" and go back to their dreams.
People listened to Babu Sunder Lal's exhortations sometimes with patience, sometimes with irritation. Women who had had no trouble in coming across from Pakistan were utterly complacent, like over-ripe cauliflowers. Their menfolk were indifferent and grumbled, their children treated the songs on rehabilitation like lullabys to make them sleep again.
Words which assail ones ears in the early hours of the dawn have a habit of going round in the head with insidious intent. Often a person who has not understood their meaning will find himself humming them while he is about his business.
When Miss Mridula Sarabhai arranged for the exchange of abducted women between India and Pakistan, some men of Mulla Shakoor expressed their readiness to take them back. Their relatives went to receive them in the market place. For some time the abducted women and their menfolk faced each other in awkward silence. Then they swallowed their pride, took their women, and re-built their domestic lives. Rasalu, Neki Ram and Sunder Lal joined the throng and encouraged the rehabilitators with slogans like "Long Live Mahinder Singh...Long Live Sohan Lal". They yelled till their throats were parched.
There were some people who refused to have anything to do with the abducted women who cam back "couldn't they have killed themselves? Why didn't they take poison and preserve their virtue and their honour? Why didn't they Jump into a well? They are cowards, they clung to life...."
Hundreds of thousands of women had in fact killed themselves rather than be dishonoured...how could the dead know what courage it needed to face the cold, hostile world of the living in a hard-hearted world in which husbands refused to acknowledged their wives. And some of these women would think sadly of their names and the joyful meanings they had..."suhagwanti..of marital bliss" or they would turn to a younger brother and say "Oi Bihari, my own little darling brother, when you were a baby I looked after you as if you were my own son." And Bihari would want to slip away into a corner, but his feet would remain rooted to the ground and he would stare helpless at his parents. The parents steeled their hearts and looked fearfully at Narain Bawa; and Narain Bawa looked equally helplessly at heaven—the heaven that has no substance but is merely an optical illusion, a boundary line beyond which we cannot see!
Miss Sarabhai brought a truck-load of Hindu women from Pakistan, to be exchanged with Muslim women abducted by Indians. Lajwanti was not amongst them. Sunder Lal watched with hope and expectancy till the last of the Hindu women had come down from the truck. And then with patient resignation plunged himself in the committees activities. The committee redoubled its work and began taking out processions and singing both morning and evening, as well as organising meetings. The aged lawyer, Kalka Prasad, addressed the meetings in his wheezy, asthamatic voice (Rasalu kept a spitoon in readiness beside him). Strange noises came over the microphone when Kalka Prasad was speaking.
Neki Ram also said his few words. But whatever he said or quoted from the scriptures seemed to go against his point of view. Whenever the tide of battle seemed to be going against them, Babu Sunder Lal would rise and stem the retreat. He was never able to complete more than a couple of sentences. His throat went dry and tears streamed down his eyes. His heart was always too full for words and he had to sit down without making his speech. An embarrassed silence would descend on the audience. But the two sentences that Sunder Lal spoke came from the bottom of his anguished heart and had a greater impact than all the clever verbosity of the lawyer, Kalka Prasad. The men shed a few tears and lightened the burden on their hearts; and then they went home without a thought in their empty heads.
One day the Rehabilitation of Hearts Committee was out early in the afternoon. It trespassed into an area near the temple which was looked upon as the citadel of orthodox reaction. The faithful were seated on a cement platform under the peepul tree and were listening to a commentary on the Ramayana. By sheer co-incidence Narain Bawa happened to be narrating the incident about Rama overhearing a washerman say to his errant wife: "I am not Sri Ram Chandra to take back a woman who has spent many years with another man"—and being overcome by the implied rebuke, Ram Chandra had ordered his own wife Sita, who was at the time far gone with child, to leave his palace."
"Can one find a better example of the high standard of morality? asked Narain Bawa of his audience. Such was the sense of equality in the Kingdom of Rama that even the remark of a poor washerman was given full consideration. This was true Ram Rajya—the Kingdom of God on earth."
The procession had halted near the temple and had stopped to listen to the discourse. Sunder Lal heard the last sentence and spoke up: "We do not want a Ram Rajya of this sort". "Be quiet! ...Who is this man?...Silence" came the cries from the audience.
Sunder Lal clove his way through the crowd and said loudly, "No one can stop me from speaking..."
Another volley of protests came from the crowd "Silence! we will not let you say a word." And someone shouted from a corner "We'll kill you!"
Narain Bawa spoke gently, "My dear Sunder Lal, you do not understand the sacred traditions of the Vedas."
Sunder Lal was ready with his retort: "I understand at least one thing: in Ram Rajya the voice of a washerman was heard, but the present-day protagonists of the same Ram Rajya cannot bear to hear the voice of Sunder Lal."
The people who had threatened to beat up Sunder Lal were put to shame.
"Let him speak," yelled Rasalu and Neh Ram. "Silence! Let us hear him."
And Sunder Lal began to speak: "Sri Rama was our hero. But what hind of justice was this, that he accepted the word of a washerman and refused to take the word of so great a Maharani as his wife!"
Narain Bawa answered "Sita was his own wife- Sunder Lal, you have not realised that very important fact."
Bawaji, there are many things in this world which are beyond my comprehension. I believe that the only true Ram Rajya is a state where a person neither does wrong to anyone nor suffers anyone to do him any wrong."
Sunder Lal's words arrested everyone's attention. He continued his oration. "Injustice to oneself is as great a wrong as inflicting it on others...even today Lord Rama has ejected Sita from his home...only because she was compelled to live with her abductor, Ravana...what sin had Sita committed? Wasn't she the victim of a ruse and then of violence like our own mothers and sisters today? Was it a question of Sita's rightness and wrongness, or the wickedness of Ravana? Ravana had ten heads, the donkey has only one large one...today our innocent Sitas have been thrown out of their homes...Sita...Lajwanti." ...Sunder Lal broke down and wept.
Rasalu and Neki Ram raised aloft their banners: school children had cut out and pasted slogans on them. They yelled gLong Live Sunder Lal Babu. Somebody in the crowd shouted "long Live Sita—the queen of virtue." And somebody else cried "Sri Ram Chandra ."
Many voices shouted Silence." Many people left the Congregation and joined the procession. Narain Bawa's months of preaching were undone in a few moments. The lawyer, Kalka Prasad, and the petition writer, Hukam Singh, led the procession towards the great square...tapping a sort of victory tatoo with their decrepit walking sticks. Sunder Lal had not yet dried his tears. The processionists sang with great gusto.
"The leaves of lajwanti wither with the touch..."
The dawn had not yet greyed the eastern horizon when the song of the processionists assailed the ears of the residents of Mullah Shakoor. The widow in house 414 stretched her limbs and being still heavy with sleep went back to her dreams. Lal Chand who was from Sunder Lal's village came running. He stuck his arms out of his shawl and said breathlessly: "Congratulations, Sunder Lal." Sunder Lal prodded the embers in his chilum and asked, "What for, Lal Chand?"
"I saw sister-in-law Lajo."
The chilum fell from Sunder Lal's hands; the sweetened tobacco scattered on the floor. "Where did you see her?" he asked, taking Lal Chand by the shoulder.
"On the border at Wagah."
Sunder Lal let go of ,Lal Chand. It must have been Someone else," he said quickly and sat down on his haunches.
"No, brother Sunder Lal, it was sister-in-law Lajo," repeated Lal Chand with reassurance. The same Lajo."
"Could you recognise her?" asked Sunder Lal gathering bits of the tobacco and mashing them in his palm. He took Rasalu's chillum and continued; "All right, tell me what are her distinguishing marks?"
"You are a strange one to think that I wouldn't recognise her! She has a tatoo mark on her chin, another on her right cheek and..."
"Yes, yes, yes," exploded Sunder Lal and completed his wife's description: the third one is on her forehead."
He sat up on his knees. He wanted to remove all doubts. He recalled the marks Lajwanti had had tatooed on her body as a child; they were like the green spots on the leaves of the lajwanti, which disappear when the leaves curl up. His Lajwanti behaved exactly in the same way; whenever he pointed out her tatoo marks she used to curl up in embarrassment as if in a shell—almost as if she revere stripped and her nakedness was being exposed. A Strange longing as well as fear wracked Sunder Lal's body. He took Lal Chand by the arm and asked, "How did Lajo get to the border?"
"There was an exchange of abducted women between India and Pakistan."
"What happened?" Sunder Lal stood up suddenly and repeated impatiently. "Tell me, what happened then?"
Rasalu rose from the charpoy and in his smokers wheezy voice asked. "Is it really true that sister-in-law Laio is back? "
Lal Chand continued his story...-At the border the Pakistanis returned sixteen of our women and took back sixteen of theirs...there was some argument...our chaps said that the women they were handing over were old or middle. aged...and of little use. A large crowd gathered and hot words were exchanged. Then one of their fellows got Lajo to stand up on top of the truck, snatched away her duppatza and spoke: "Would you describe her as an old woman?..Take a good look at her...is there one amongst those you have given us who could measure up to her?" and Lajo bhabi was overcome with embarrassment and began hiding her tatto marks. The argument got very heated and both parties threatened to take back their "goods!". I cried out "Lajo! ...sister-in-law Lajo"...There was a tumult...our police cracked down upon us."
Lal Chand bared his elbow to show the mark of a lathi blow. Rasalu and Neki Ram remained silent. Sunder Lal stared vacantly into space.
Sunder Lal was getting ready to go to the border at Wagah when he heard of Lajo's return. He became nervous and could not make up his mind whether to go to meet her or wait for her at home. He wanted to run away; to spread out all the banners and placards he had carried, sit in their midst and cry to his heart's contend But, like other
men, all he did was to proceed to the police station as if nothing untoward had happened. And suddenly he found Lajo sanding in front of him. she looked scared and shook like a peepul leaf in the wind.
sunder Lal looked up. His Lajwanti carried a duppatta worn by Muslim women; and she had wrapped it round her head in the Muslim style. Sunder Lal was also upset by the fact that Lajo looked healthier than before; her complexion was clearer and she had put on weight. He had sworn to say nothing to his wife but he could not understand why, if she was happy, had she come away! Had the government compelled her to come against her will?
There were many men at the police station. Some were refusing to take back their women. "We will not take these sluts, left-over by the Muslims," they said. Sunder Lal overcame his revulsion. He had thrown himself body and soul into this movement. And there were his colleagues Neki Ram, the old clerk, and the lawyer, Kalka Prasad, with their raucous voices yelling slogans over the microphone. Through this Babel of speeches and slogans. Sunder Lal and Lajo proceeded to their home. The scene of a thousand years ago was being repeated; Sri Ram Chandra and Sita returning to Ayodya after their long exile. Some people were lighting lamps of joy to welcome them and at the same time repenting of their sins which had forced an innocent couple to suffer such hardship.
Sunder Lal continued to work with the Rehabilitation of Hearts Committees with the same zeal. He fulfilled his pledge in the spirit in which it was taken and even those who had suspected him to be an arm-chair theorist were converted to his point of view. But there were many who were angry with the turn of events. The widow in number 414 wasn't the only one to keep away from Lajwanti's house.
Sunder Lal had nothing but contempt for these people. The queen of his heart was back home; his once silent temple now resounded with laughter; he had installed a living idol in his innermost sanctum and sat outside the gate like a sentry. Sunder Lal did not call Lajo by her name; he addressed her as goddess—Devi. Lajo responded to the affection and began to open up, as her namesake unfurls its leaves. She was deliriously happy. She wanted to tell Sunder Lal of her experiences and by her tears wash away her sins But Sunder Lal would not let her broach the subject. At night she would stare at his face. When she was Caught doing so she could offer no explanation. And the tired Sunder Lal would fall asleep again.
Only on the first day of her return had Sunder Lal asked Lajwanti about her "black days"—Who was he...? Lajwanti had lowered her eyes and replied "Jumma." Then she looked Sunder Lal full in the face as if she wanted to I say something. But Sunder Lal had such a queer look in his eyes and started playing with her hair. Lajo dropped her; eyes once more. Stander Lal asked, 'Was he good to you?"
"Didn't beat you, did he?"
Lajwanti leant back and rested her head on Sunder Lal's chest. "No...he never said anything to me. He did not beat me, but I was terrified of him. you beat me but I was never afraid of you...you won't beat me again, will you?"
Sunder Lal's eyes brimmed with tears. In a voice full of remorse and shame he said "No Devi..never...l shall never beat you again."
"Goddess!" Lajo pondered over the word for a while and then began to sob. she wanted to tell him everything but Sunder Lal stopped her. "Lets forget the past; you did not commit any sin. What is evil is the social system which refuses to give an honoured place to virtuous women like you. That doesn't harm you, it only harms the society."
Lajwanti's secret remained locked in her breast. She looked at her own body which had, since the partition, become the body of a goddess. It no longer belonged to her. she was blissfully happy; but her happiness was tinged with disbelief and superstitious fear that it would not last.
Many days passed in this way. Suspicion took the place of Joy: not because Sunder Lal had resumed ill-treating her but because he was treating her too well. Lajo never expected him to be so considerate. She wanted him to be the same old Sunder Lal with whom she quarrelled over a carrot and who appeased her with a radish. Now there was no chance of a quarrel. Sunder Lal made her feel like something fragile, like glass which would splinter at the slightest touch. Lajo took to gazing at herself in the mirror. Arid in the end she could no longer recognise the Lajo she had known. She had been rehabilitated but not accepted. Sunder Lal did not want eyes to see her tears nor ears to hear her wailing.
.. And still every morning Sunder Lal went out with the morning procession. Lajo, dragging her tired body to the window would hear the song whose words no one understood.
"The leaves of laywanti wither with the touch of human hand."