She knew the pigeons would be waiting for her, so she quickly rushed up the narrow staircase. She was already late and this annoyed her. Dilawar had still not returned and her wait this morning had been in vain too.
“Go home. We’ll talk when I get back”, Dilawar implored. “Let me stay here with you”, she cried, holding on to his hand. “Things could get out of hand. Trust me! I know I haven’t given you reason to, as yet, but let this be a new start”, he assured. “I will wait”, she said, squeezing his hand tightly as he pulled it away and hurried off. Series of crackles reverberated just as she turned to leave. For a split second, she balked, her very core exploding into smithereens. There was an uproar and the crowds around her went into a hysterical frenzy, but a mystical serenity spread over her and as promised, she wound her way through the throngs. At the gate, she turned back to look at Dilawar, but there were too many people blocking her line of vision. She walked back home, knowing that he would keep his word….
And here she was, still waiting. A throaty welcome greeted her as she reached the terrace- the singsong cooing of the pigeons. Her feathered companions hovered around her, flapping their wings incessantly, uplifting her spirit and making her smile. Their adoration calmed her and for a brief moment, her blanched face beamed- beamed like the face of a young bride. As the pigeons settled down, she walked across the terrace and looked at the spectacle that lay before her.
The courtyard was in a state of disarray, with overgrown shrubs and wild grass. Seasonal mangoes hung low from the trees, their sweet scent permeating the air around. Further away, beyond the tall eucalyptus trees that marked the end of Sardar Bahadur’s estate, the golden dome of the gurudwara shimmered in the morning sun. The faint sound of kirtan drifted in the air, giving the morning a surreal feel.
The city had been founded in the sixteenth century and its clustered houses and narrow by-lanes had innumerable tales to tell. The haveli too had its story.
“How long do I have to wait?”she sighed. This was not what she had dreamed of. Making her way to the door, once again she hoped that the wait would end. The tread down, brought back the feeling of despair. She was all alone and the haveli haunted her…
Meher had entered this haveli as a young bride of eighteen, with great fanfare, hope and expectations. The only daughter of Baba Sahib, her betrothal had been fixed at birth to Dilawar, the only son of Sardar Bahadur. Both families were well known and there was no question of deviating from what was pre-decided.
Halwais from Lahore and Amritsar had been engaged. Day after day, delicacies churned out; barfis made with almonds and pistachios, mathis and shakarparas, all piled high on silver platters, covered with hand made phulkaris. The humdrum of activity, the spontaneous burst of the dholki and folk songs, had teemed the atmosphere with an electrifying buzz. The whole universe had revolved around her, with Biji pampering her with mehndi and Darji tearfully blessing her with his smiles.
The ceremony took place on a beautiful morning, with the fragrance of tube roses filling the morning air and the sublime recitation of the sacred verses. Each verse gave Meher the confidence of a beautiful life ahead.
“Har peh-larr-ee laav par-vir-tee karam drirr-aa-i-aa bal raam jeeo…
Har dooj-rree laav satigur purakh milaa-i-aa bal raam jeeo…
Har tee-jarr-ee laav man chaao bha-i-aa bai-raag-ee-aa bal raam jeeo…
Har chou-tha-rree laav man sehaj bha-i-aa har paa-i-aa bal raam jeeo…”
Dressed in a bright red shalwar kameez, she looked beautiful. The colourful threads of her intricately embroidered phulkari veil, shone brightly in the morning light. Sitting beside her, was her future- Dilawar.
They had met- only once, when he had visited with his parents to finalise the details of the upcoming wedding. A fleeting glance had convinced Meher that those were the brown eyes she wanted to drown in. Had she looked longer, Biji would have admonished her for her bold move.
Bidding farewell to her parents was the hardest and with trepidation, amidst the beating of the dhols, she crossed the threshold into a new life. Her new home welcomed her. Built using the principle form of Sikh architecture, it had a high portico that lead into the central courtyard. The lush green expanse within the walls was unique, especially since it was one of the few havelis, amidst the labyrinthine and ever-expanding network of lanes and closely clustered buildings.
But something was amiss and she realized it immediately. Dilawar, who should have been by Meher’s side, had walked away as soon as they had settled down in the courtyard.
The various ceremonies continued and Dilawar’s family carried on as if everything was fine.
They all fawned over her, but something continued to nag her.
And as soon as Meher had been taken to her room, the mystery had unraveled…
“So this is destiny! A match made in heaven! You don’t know a person and then one day you are put together in one room and you live happily ever after”, Dilawar said, looking apathetic.
Not knowing how to respond, she simply sat quietly.
“Meher means blessing. That is what you are to your parents. Let’s see how it works out for me. By the way, Dilawar stands for one with a daring heart.”
Their eyes met and Meher tried to read Dilawar’s. What she saw yet again was a deep abyss. She would have continued staring had Dilawar not moved to draw the curtain aside.
Cold breeze scented with the fragrance of marigold came into the room.
“I know we were betrothed even before we knew what it meant. And because of the family honour, both of us could not go against this. But did you even for a moment want something else?”
The direction this conversation was taking, discombobulated Meher .
Dilawar was waiting for her answer and she didn’t know what she was expected to say.
“ Meher, I don’t know what your expectations are. I on the other hand, have none. This decision was taken for me by my parents as it was in your case too.”
“Is there a problem?” asked Meher, expecting to hear the worst.
“I don’t know!” With that, Dilawar went into the adjoining room and Meher was left alone, sitting on the bed, with all her hopes and expectations lying broken all around her.
Silent tears rolled down her cheeks and it was then that she really wanted someone to hug her tightly and squeeze away, all the pain that erupted inside her.
This was not the way she imagined things would be.
Never had she felt this alone.
Dilawar came and quietly sat down on the chair and started reading. Meher was totally lost as to what she was expected to say or do. Never in her wildest dreams had she thought that life would take such a devastating turn.
Everyone who knew Meher always talked about her exuberance, her smile, her ability to always have hope and the happiness she spread.
The Meher who sat on the bed that evening was unknown, even to her own self.
She had known that she would miss her parents and her familiar surroundings, but the excitement of a new future with someone, who she would learn to love, had made her step into this life with propitious expectations.
She could feel Dilawar watching her again, but she did not care. At that moment there was nothing that could be done.
Various options raced through her mind; speaking to her in-laws; running back home.
She could ask to go back to her parents, who would be there for her, but she knew that they would be completely shattered.
‘Now what?’ she thought…
The chirping of the birds woke Meher up. She looked around at her unfamiliar surroundings and sat up immediately.
All that transpired the evening before came back to her, and her eyes flooded again.
Dilawar lay fast asleep on the chair, the book held lightly in his hand.
With his brown eyes, that Meher had hoped to drown in, and his regal bearings, he was what every girl would have dreamed for.
A fleeting glance, when he had visited Shikarpur with his parents, had made Meher fall in love with him. Meher wondered if the first attraction could be called love. The way things had turned out, she didn’t know what had made her look forward to this union. Both were strangers. Did Meher really love him without knowing him?
Last night she had resolved to be strong about this situation.
This morning she was a bundle of nerves again.
‘This is just a bad dream’, she thought.
Part of her wanted to be with Dilawar. She stood at crossroads and there was no one she could ask for help.
The burden seemed to be weighing her down.
‘Ay man mayri-aa too sadaa rahu har naalay.Har naal rahu too man mayray dookh sabh visaarnaa…’
There could not have been a better thought coming to her, than this beautiful verse from Anand Sahib.
She knew things would take their own course and whatever the outcome, she would accept it as her destiny.
Not wanting to disturb Dilawar, she got up quietly from the bed and went to change. She put away her wedding finery.
The day may not have proved auspicious for her, but she would tread strongly ahead, even if alone!
She got ready and quietly went back into the room.
Dilawar was still fast asleep and Meher resisted the urge to touch his face. Was he real? Was she still in the middle of a nightmare?
She gently took the book from him and looked at it.
She had seen Soz-e-Watan by Munshi Premchand, but hadn’t had a chance to read it.
In college, some of her friends, who were sympathizing with the revolutionaries, revered the book.
Darji had forbidden her from getting involved. One of his cousins Ajit Singh, was on the run, and this had caused some problems for the rest of the family. There had also been an uproar when Darji had heard about the Gaddar Party. There were many who supported the revolutionaries, but Darji did not approve of their ways.
She wondered what her father would say if he got to know about Dilawar’s reading choice.
Quietly putting the book on the table, she walked away…
“ Meher, Dilawar left early morning for Lahore”, Maaji sounded apologetic.
It was already two months since she had been married, though only in name. Meher had decided not to worry her parents and play along with destiny.
The visit back home had been a short one and with a heavy heart, she had returned to Amritsar.
Dilawar’s parents had been very welcoming and Maaji, his mother, had tried to keep Meher busy. There was always an endless stream of visitors, added to that were visits to the bazaars and the running of the house.
Every morning Dilawar and his father left for work, only to return in the evening, when they would all sit together for their evening meal.
Meher only spoke when spoken to and this was attributed to her supposed shyness.
What helped her keep up the farce was her indifference, which now seemed to require lesser effort than a few weeks earlier.
Maaji, knowing well that the couple had not settled down, stayed alert. There had been times when Meher had heard her arguing with Dilawar. There was something which she could not put a finger on…
“ He didn’t mention anything”, Meher said, feeling slightly let down.
Maaji went about doing her chores and having nothing to do, Meher decided to go up to the terrace.
It was the most beautiful part of the haveli and this was where she had started coming everyday. A flock of pigeons fluttered around, disturbed by the intrusion. With their nests in every nook and cranny, the terrace was their domain. Walking past them, she went and settled down on the ledge. The birds settled down too and their gentle cooing made her agitation dissipate. From the terrace she could see the courtyard. The place was abuzz with activity, everyone seemed busy. Beyond were the grey shadows of the city with its domes and parapets and the distinct golden dome of the gurudwara.
Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Guru Ram Das, fourth Guru of the Sikhs, on a site granted by the Mughal emperor Akbar. The Guru ordered the excavation of the sacred tank and called it Amrita Saras , from which the city’s name is derived. A temple was erected on an island in the tank’s centre by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs.
During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the upper part of the temple was decorated with a gold-foil and since then the building has been popularly known as the Golden Temple.
Amritsar became the centre of the Sikh faith, and the focus of growing Sikh power.
The city flourished and gained prominence.
The terrace was where she let down her guard, crying to her heart’s content…
Dilawar apprenticed with the well known lawyer, Malik Khan and Meher knew that he was preparing for a very important case at the Lahore High Court. There were days when he stayed back in Lahore.
When home, he was cooped up in the library and that was where he had found her one day, lost in her book. As soon as he came in, she got up to leave.
“Stay, it’s okay”, he said, coming towards her. The sudden interest and proximity made her nervous and as she tried to move away, her book fell from her hands. Dilawar’s laugh made her indignant.
“Relax! I was just curious about your reading interests”, he said, picking up the book. “Didn’t know you could read Urdu”, he said, handing back Bulley Shah’s poetry.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me”, she said, taking back the book and walking out of the library.
Dilawar looked out of the window and saw her going up to the terrace. She was beautiful, her dark black hair tied up in a snake like plait, with light brown eyes that lit up when she smiled.
But that smile had become a rarity.
He wished he could turn back the clock…
“It’s been a week since Dilawar came home. What sort of work is this? Doesn’t he realize he is married now?” Dilawar’s father was furious. Meher had never heard him raise his voice.
“Give him some time”, Maaji said, trying to calm him down.
“He wasn’t ready…”, she stopped mid-sentence, realizing that Meher was seated close by.
“Meher, why don’t you go and rest. It’s late and I don’t think Dilawar will come home tonight. He must be busy with the case”, she said, coming up to Meher and holding her hand lovingly.
Not wanting to be part of the discussion, she quietly got up went to her room. She was too distracted to read, so she turned on the gramophone and lay down on her bed. Sleep eluded her, but she lay there listening to Gauhar Jan’s melancholic voice.
She heard the door opening and gathered that Dilawar had entered the room. Her back was towards the door, but she heard his footsteps approaching the bed.
Her heart was pounding, but she lay still, eyes closed.
“I wish things had been different”, he said softly, before moving away.
Silent tears rolled down her face…
“Meher, why don’t you come to the college tomorrow? Mrs. Besant is giving a lecture on Home Rule”, Bani said, enthusiastically.
Meher had met Bani a month ago, when she was out shopping with Maaji.
Dilawar and Bani’s husband apprenticed together and Bani spent her time writing for The Tribune.
The couple’s revolutionary ideology was well known and at the time of the wedding, both had been in Lahore, attending a rally in honour of Lala Lajpat Rai.
Maaji had encouraged Meher to meet up with Bani.
Twice a week, she had started going with Bani to the Khalsa College library.
The library was being extended and Bani and Meher had volunteered to help with the catalogues.
“I don’t know if Maaji will agree”, Meher replied, without looking up.
There was a stack of books in front of her and she wanted to finish listing them as quickly as she could.
“I don’t think it should be a problem. After all, Dilawar is one of the organizers”, Bani piped in.
“Really? Are you sure?” Meher asked.
This bit of news surprised her. She wondered why no one at home ever mentioned this. She had seen the books he read and had heard him talking passionately about the politics of the country.
“What do you mean? I am sure because I go for the rallies too. Dilawar is very active. Initially his parents were not very happy, especially since your father-in-law has a lot of British contacts”, Bani said, looking at Meher quizzically. “Don’t tell me you don’t know this! Anyway, just ask him and come.”
Dilawar was taken aback when Meher asked him about the lecture.
At first he was hesitant, but then he had agreed.
This was the first time Meher went out with him. Maaji had not been very happy with Meher wanting to attend the lecture, but had given in when Dilawar asked. S
eeing them leave together, she said a silent prayer for their happiness.
The lecture was well received by the audience and Meher was surprised to see the large number of women in the audience.
Dilawar was caught up behind the scenes, so Meher found a place next to some missionaries from the Theosophical Society.
Bani had been unable to make it as her son had taken ill.
Annie Besant spoke articulately about Home Rule.
The whole experience had been exhilarating and for a brief moment Meher forgot her problems.
“Thank you”, she said, with a smile, which caught Dilawar by surprise.
A brief connection and then the constricting disconnect. The exhilaration from a few moments ago was replaced by the dull ache. She wanted to reach out and beg for love.
They had driven home in silence and as soon as they had gotten back, Dilawar headed to the library and Meher went to her room.
She lay on the bed for a long time, lost in her thoughts, wondering what lay ahead. She wondered whether there was someone else. There was only one person she could ask…
“So how was the lecture?” She was in the library with Bani and as always, Bani could not work quietly.
“It was all very new for me. What Mrs. Besant said makes sense. I wonder what Darji will say? He has always taken a very strong stand against those who rebel”, Meher replied.
“This is not a rebellion. What the people want is self-governance. Why can’t we decide how our country is run? Why can’t our money be used for our people? Why should our people die? So many lost their lives fighting Britain’s war”, Bani argued.
“I understand what you are saying. But this is for the Viceroy and the members of the assembly to sort out. Anyway I have something important to ask”, Meher said, not wanting to get into a heated debate on politics, “But you have to promise that you won’t say this to anyone”, she continued.
Bani’s curiosity was piqued and she was all ears.
“Bani, is there someone else in Dilawar’s life?”
It took Bani a few seconds to grasp the intensity of Meher’s query. “Someone else? Why would you ask that?” she asked.
Much that Meher had resolved to handle this strongly, she found herself bursting into tears.
With her voice quivering, she poured out her heart to Bani.
Visibly distraught, Bani held on to Meher. “Why didn’t you tell your parents?”
“I know they will be shattered if this was true. Maaji knows that things are not right between us. She hasn’t said anything, but I can sense it. But I didn’t want to ask her”, Meher continued, relieved that she could share her burden with someone. “I need to know. I don’t think I can go on like this.”
“I really don’t know what to say. I can check, but I think you should ask Dilawar directly”, Bani replied. “And do it as soon as possible.”
“I will. Soon”, Meher sighed…
Dilawar had been in Lahore when the riots broke out and he was advised to stay back. The authorities had strict orders to enforce a curfew and no one wanted to take a chance.
The city was abuzz- a peaceful protest outside the Deputy Commissioner’s residence had taken a bloody turn when security forces had fired at the protesters. The unfortunate incident was followed by some dissidents retaliating against the British nationals in the city. The ensuing violence, a day before Vaisakhi, shrouded the city in gloom.
That evening when Dilawar got back home, he confirmed that there would be more trouble, especially if the authorities imposed martial law. “But you don’t need to worry. Commissioner Hayes has assured me that it’s all under control. And anyway, tomorrow’s Vaisakhi celebrations will carry on. They are keeping an eye on things”, Dilawar’s father said.
“And you believe him? At least thirty people have been killed. Had they not fired at the protesters, all this would not have happened”, Dilawar replied.
“Let’s not get agitated. You must be tired. Go and rest”, Maaji interrupted, trying to diffuse the spark.
“I have to go out for a bit. Will be back in an hour”, Dilawar said as he got up to leave.
Meher knew she would have to wait.
Tomorrow was in any case a blessed day; a new day…
Vaisakhi morning was hectic.
Meher had overheard Dilawar talking to his father about the protest being organised at Jallianwala Bagh. His parents had tried to discourage him, but Dilawar had been adamant.
“It is an opportune time to reach out to the masses. Thousands are in town for Vaisakhi and since there is a fair, some of the leaders will put forward their ideas”, Dilawar assured.
“Why don’t you take Meher with you? She will get to see the Vaisakhi festivities too. Am sure Bani will be there too”, Maaji suggested.
“Baani won’t be there today”, Dilawar answered.
“Maaji, I forgot to mention that I have to go to the library today. Even though it’s a holiday, we decided to complete the listing”, Meher added.
Dilawar had seemed uncomfortable taking Meher with him and Meher had sensed it. Though deeply hurt, she knew she had to take the first step. She needed to speak to him and ask what the real problem was. If there was someone else in Dilawar’s life, she would leave. Divorce was a taboo, but not as bad as staying in a loveless marriage. She knew she had to unravel this mystery.
‘And today is the day’, she affirmed.
Going to the library was an excuse, a justifiable one according to Meher.
As soon as Dilawar left, Meher left the house too.
The streets were crowded so she tried to keep up her pace. The bazaars were an explosion of colour and sound; dupattas and turbans of all shades imaginable, the ringing of the bells, an assortment of wares being hawked, the sizzle of delicacies being churned in the stalls, music and speeches blaring from the mikes.
There was enough police presence to remind everyone that the normalcy they saw was flimsy. As they approached the centre of the city, Meher tried her best to move closer to Dilawar. She didn’t want him to know that she had followed him, but she didn’t want to lose him either. The entrance was narrow, allowing limited access into the park and as Meher got inside, she realized she had lost him.
She looked around frantically, and was almost on the verge of tears, when she saw Dilawar staring back at her. He was furious, his shoulders stiff and eyes glaring. Covering the distance in a couple of strides, he held her arm and pulled her to one side.
“You should not be here”, Dilawar said, his tone laced with disapproval.
“I have to speak to you. Since you haven’t been home as much, I thought I could use this opportunity”, Meher replied.
“This is not the right place. Go back home and we will talk when I get back. Do Maaji and Darji know that you are here?”
“They don’t know. They thought I was going to the library with Bani”, Meher said guiltily.
“I just need to speak to you. This is very difficult for me”, she pleaded.
“Meher, go home and we will speak when I get back. Please!”
“Just hear me out”, she pleaded.
Tears streamed down her face and in her heart she hoped that Dilawar would understand her pain and reach out.
“What is it? I really don’t to get into any lengthy discussions right now”, he relented, though halfheartedly.
With all the courage she could muster, Meher poured her heart out; her dreams and how they had been shattered, her loneliness; her fears. Dilawar was silent.
Something had shifted and Meher felt a connection.
His shoulders were slumped and his eyes, which had earlier been hard and cold, seemed sad.
“I had no idea. There is a lot that I have going on. I didn’t want to get tied down, but the pressure had been immense. Sad that we are in this situation and I have no idea how we can move on”, he said. Meher felt let down.
“Is there someone else?” she asked, hoping against hope that his answer would be a negative.
“Sorry?” he questioned. Meher repeated the question. “Is that what you thought? No there is no one. But it’s not that simple. Let us talk when I get back home”, he sighed.
“Let me stay here with you”, she cried, holding on to his hand.
“Things could get out of hand. Trust me! I know I haven’t given you reason to, as yet, but let this be a new start”, he assured.
“I will wait”, she said, squeezing his hand tightly as he pulled it away and hurried off.
Both Meher Kaur and Dilawar Singh died on that fateful April morning.
A self-governed India had been Dilawar’s dream.
This dream came true on 15th August 1947.
Many lives were lost, hundreds and thousands displaced and destroyed.
Meher, like most of the people in Jallianwala Bagh that morning, was unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Her last thoughts had been of reaching home and waiting for Dilawar.
When Dyer’s fury was unleashed, she had been walking towards the entrance, with dreams of a fresh start, of finding love and staying happily ever after.
(This story was first published on http://www.storymirror.com in July 2017)