Rosie Sahni settled into the deck chair in her lawn, took a long sip of her tea and sighed. It was only 9:30 a.m., but she had been up since 5, completing her myriad daily tasks. Her husband, Brigadier Baljit Singh Sahni, had left for office, after a quick breakfast at precisely 9:00 a.m. He had switched to the corporate sector after retiring from the army, but his body clock, and consequently his household’s clock, still ran to a military schedule.
Rosie relaxed only after he left home. Opening the day’s Delhi Times, she browsed through the coverage of events in the city, before turning to her favourite pastime- the Sudoku puzzle of the day.
“Memsahib….”, a voice called out to her. She looked up, slightly annoyed at the interruption of her solitude. It was her driver Shafiq. He hadn’t turned up for work the previous day, without informing her, and his phone had been switched off.
“Kya hua Shafiq? Kal kyu nahi aaye duty pe? Tumhara phone bhi nahi mil raha tha? And you didn’t even bother to inform me!”, she loudly expressed her displeasure at his absence the day before.
As the memsahib of the house, Rosie preferred to adopt a firm and imperious approach with the household help. However, every member of the staff knew she was soft at heart and could readily be appealed to for help, when needed.
“Memsahib….”, he trailed off in a meek voice. It seemed he had lost his tongue.
Sensing his discomfort, Rosie used a different, more placatory tone, “kya hua Shafiq? Ghabrao mat, batao- kya problem hai?” (don’t worry, tell me what the problem is?)
A slow tear trickled down the man’s face as he bleated out, “Memsahib, Seelampur mein paagalo ki tarah maar rahe hai hum logon ko. Kal subah mera padosi sabzi lene gaya, to dange se bachte bachte bhaaga. Uss hi waqt, hum boriya-bistar bandh ke, Gurdware mein chupp gaye. Par mujhe darr he ki wahan se bhi dhoondh ke maarenge. Meri biwi aur do chotte bache bohot darre hue hai. Mujhe kuch samajh nahi aaya, toh mai unhe aapke paas le aaya hu. Aap hi humaare mai-baap hai, aap kuch kijiye…” (They are beating us mercilessly in Seelampur. Yesterday morning, my neighbour was almost caught and killed by the angry mob- he barely survived. We spent the day hiding in the Sikh temple, but we are worried they will find us and kill us there too. My wife and two young children are extremely scared. I didn’t know what to do, so I’ve brought them to you today. I trust that you will take care of us. Please do something…”)
Shocked into silence, Rosie took a moment to reflect. Last evening, she had heard her husband wax lyrical on the ineptitude of the police and authorities, in controlling the sudden outpour of communal violence in North and North-East Delhi. But she had never imagined it would hit so close to home, so soon.
“Kahaan hai woh?”, she asked, with concern. (where are they?)
He pointed to the gate, where she saw Shafiq’s diminutive wife holding their rolled-up bedding, with two terrified children clinging to her. The family’s collective luggage consisted of two mid-sized duffel bags.
Rosie immediately pictured that fateful day in November 1984, when she and her three young children, hid in a store room in her Muslim neighbour’s home, during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. While her husband patrolled the colony with his army-commissioned weapons to keep the rioting mobs at bay, they had thought it prudent to hide Rosie and the children, in case the mobs got through. A chill went through her spine as she saw that same fear in Shafiq’s wife’s eyes.
“Not on my watch”, thought Rosie, springing into action. She ushered them inside the house and instructed her cook to help them settle in. It would be a tight squeeze but everyone would have to manage somehow.
Once the luggage had been stowed away, she asked Shafiq details of the people causing the violence, “kaun hai yeh log?”
“Humaare area ke to nahi lag rahe the, memsahib. Pata nahi kahaan se aaye yeh log. Police ka to namo-nishaan nahi. Kisi ko bhi nahi choda- Hindu, Musulmaan- dono ko berehmi se nanga karke maar rahe the.” (They were not from our area. I don’t know where they came from. There were no police officers anywhere and not a single person was safe- the angry mob attacked both Hindus and Muslims, shamelessly disrobing them to check their religion, and then beating them.)
Shaking her head, Rosie reflected on the irony of the situation. “History just keeps repeating itself. How can human beings show such inhumane behaviour despite having lived through it in the past?”, she wondered.
For now, she decided to focus on her husband’s reaction. The Brigadier was due to come home at 1:30 p.m. for lunch, and she was worried he wouldn’t take kindly to the uninvited house guests. A few years ago, her cook’s family from Bengal, had arrived without notice and shifted into their servant quarter. He had assured the Sahni’s this arrangement was only temporary, till his wife and daughter found other homes to work in. However, the Brigadier, always suspicious of people’s intentions, had not allowed them to stay beyond two nights. Rosie had secretly handed over money to her cook to get his womenfolk rented accommodation nearby. She was worried that Shafiq’s arrival may receive a similar reaction from her husband.
On entering his home, the first thing the Brigadier did, was to neatly stack his shoes in their shelf, replacing them with his comfortable slippers.
Without preamble or even a friendly greeting, Rosie addressed his back with trepidation, “I have to talk to you.”
He turned around, alarmed at the tone she had used and asked, “what’s wrong, my dear? You sound really upset.”
She took a deep breath, and framed her words carefully, “my driver Shafiq and his family live in the riot-affected Seelampur area. Yesterday, they hid from unidentified mobs that were wreaking havoc on locals. This morning, he brought his wife and two young children seeking shelter at our home, till the situation calms down.”
She paused to let the information sink in, before continuing, “I have asked them to stay here for as long as they need to.”
The Brigadier was silent. He was not used to his docile wife making strong decisions that would affect them both. The division of their roles had been clear from the beginning. He brought the money home and was responsible for making big life decisions, while she ran the house, took care of the children and made all decisions with respect to those responsibilities.
He quietly asked his wife, “are you asking me this or are you informing me, Rosie? Do you know how dangerous it can be for us, if the situation becomes worse and the riots spread? What if the mobs come to our neighbourhood looking for Muslims to kill?”
Not one to give up easily, however, Rosie retaliated, “please jee, how can I turn them away? He has two little ones and a young wife. Have you forgotten what it was like for us in ’84?”
The Brigadier attempted to reason with her, “but Rosie, it’s not the same. For one, where will we keep them? We don’t have the space for it! Second, we are an old couple that lives alone. I am no longer physically capable of protecting all of us. I haven’t even oiled my gun in years!”
Rosie had been expecting his resistance. All her life, she had compromised on what she wanted- it was expected of her as a woman.
Her Papaji had married her off, before she could complete her Bachelor’s degree. She had been top of her class and every professor had hailed her academic abilities but that didn’t matter.
After marriage, her husband had encouraged her to continue studying, but the set-up at her in-law’s place had never been conducive to women’s education.
In the first few days of her marriage, while her bridal churra bangles still adorned her slim wrists, her formidable mother-in-law had made it clear that her duties lay toward her home and family. Pampered little Rosie, who had known only her books and vanities till then, was forced to grow up.
Her husband’s first military posting with family, had made them move from her in-laws’ home, to one they could call their own, in Allahabad cantonment. She could’ve pursued her studies then, but was too busy adjusting to life as an army wife.
Their three bonny babies arrived over the next few years, and though her husband adored them to bits, his professional duties kept him away during their formative years. Playing the roles of both mother and father, she ran the household, learnt to drive for school pick-ups and drop-offs, tutored her children through academic and personal problems, and remained tight-fisted at home in order to save money for their education. Hence, her studies and dreams took a backseat.
But this situation was different. Rosie knew if there was ever a time to take a stand for what she believed in, it was when people’s lives were at stake. She drew herself up to her full height, and replied to her husband, “courage is not measured by the state of your gun, but by the largeness of your heart. If you don’t stand up against the intolerance the religious minorities are facing today, then all your talk of seven decades of India’s greatness will count for nothing, and you know it!”
“You can keep complaining about everything that’s wrong with our country and the people in power, but if you can’t address a problem of this nature in your own home, then what’s the point of your lofty ideals? In fact, what hope is there for humanity in general?!” she announced with finality.
The Brigadier sat down. This was not the first time he had viewed a situation myopically, and been called out on it by his intelligent wife. There was a reason their marriage had worked as well as it had for 45 years. They balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and there was not a soul in the world who knew the intricacies of their personalities, as well as they knew each other’s.
Finally admitting defeat, he said, “you are right, my dear. We should give them shelter as long as we are able to. That is the best we can do right now, to stand up against the religious hatred being spewed by some parties.”
Addressing her by the nickname he had used privately for years, he said lightly, “now, General Sahiba, can I get some lunch?!”. She was, after all, the General of his heart and home.
“Coming right up!” she smiled, relieved at her husband’s change of heart.
Rosie Sahni was an excellent student, dutiful daughter, supportive wife, obedient daughter-in-law, caring mother, able housekeeper and compassionate human, and each of these unacknowledged roles had made her the extraordinary woman that she was.
Hi everyone, my beautiful city and its innocent people are burning in awful communal riots. I’m infuriated with the situation and the ruthless politically-driven instigation that has led to it. This senseless violence needs to stop and humanity must prevail over our political and ideological differences. I urge you to share this story ahead, and to spread the message of peace. Please- it is an urgent and necessary plea!
Though I’ve woven it as a fictional story, the incidents mentioned here are largely based on news reports that I’ve read over the last few days.
This work of fiction was originally an ode to the extraordinary strength of women, as well as a nod to the diverse roles they play in life. It was meant to be a tribute to womanhood on the occasion of International Women’s Day, but I could not ignore the circumstances we’re currently living in, and the story took its own turn.
Brigadier and Mrs. Sahni will appear in more works of fiction penned by me. Click here to read the previous short story “Seven Decades of Greatness”.