India’s freedom was won at a terrible price. Partition hurled ten million people onto the roads, the railways and the unharvested fields of Punjab in the greatest migration in human history. By every form of transporation available, Hindu’s and Sikhs streamed out of Pakistan and Muslims out of India in the terrible autumn of 1947. Their destinations like that of a despondent youth, were squalid refugee camps. Massacred by the marauding bands, assailed by heat, hunger, thirst and fatigue, countless thousands, like a man waiting to die by the roadside, never reached safely.
NOTE: This post is not an original creation.
Several ears later, a pair of Boota Singh’s nephews, furious at the thought of losing a chance to inherit his property, reported Zenib’s presence to the authorities trying to locate women abducted through the exodus. Zenib was wrenched from Boota Singh and placed in a camp, while efforts were made to locate her family in Pakistan.
Desperate, Boota Singh rushed to New Dehli and accomplished at the Grand Mosque the most difficult act a Sikh could perform. He cut his hair and became a Muslim. Renamed Jamil Ahmed, Boota Singh presented himself at the office of Pakistan’s High Commisioner and demanded the return of his wife. It was a useless gesture. The two nations had agreed than an inflexible set of rules would govern the exchange of abducted women: married or not, they would be returned to the families from which they had been forcibly seperated.
For six months, Boota Singh visited his wife daily in the detention camp. He would sit beside her in silence, weeping for their lost dream of happiness. Finally, he learned that her family had been located. The couple embraced in a tearful farewell, Zenib vowing never to forget him and to return to him and their daughter as soon as she could.
The desperate Boota Singh applied for the right as a Muslim to immigrate to Pakistan. His application was refused. He applied for a visa. That, too, was refused. Finally, taking his daughter, renamed Sultana, with him. He crossed the border illegally. Leaving the girl in Lahore, he made his way to the village where Zenib’s family had settled. There he recieved a cruel shock. His wife had been re-married, to a cousin, within hours of the truck bringing her back from India had deposited her in the village. The poor man, weeping and begging the authorities to “give me back my wife,” was brutally beaten by Zenib’s brothers and cousins, then handed over to the police as an illegal border crosser.
Brought to trial, Boota Singh, pleaded that he was a Muslim and begged the judge to return his wife to him. If only, he said, he could be granted to see his wife, to ask her if she would return to India with him and their daughter, he would be satisfied.
Moved by his plea, the judge agreed. The confrontation took place a week later, in a courtroom overflowing with spectators alerted by newspaper reports of the case. A terrified Zenib, escoreted by an angry and possessive horder of her relatives, was brought into the chamber. The judge indicated Boota Singh.
“Do you know this man?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the trembling girl, “he’s Boota Singh, my first husband.” Then Zenib identified her daughter standing by the elderly Sikh.
“Do you wish to return with them to India?” the judge asked. Boota Singh tured his pleading eyes on the young girl who had brought so much happiness to his life. Behind Zenib, other eyes were fixed on her quivering figure, a battery of them glaring at her from the audience, the male members of her clan warning her against trying to renounce the call of blood. An atrocious tension gripped the courtoom. His lined face alive with desperate hope, Boota Singh watched Zenib’s lips, waiting for the favourable reply he was sure would come. For an unbearably long moment the room was silent.
Zenib shook her head. “No,” she whispered.
A gasp of anguish escaped Boota Singh. He staggered back against the railing behind him. When he had regained his poise, he took his daughter by the hand and crossed the room.
“I cannot deprive you of your daughter, Zenib,” he said. “I leave her to you.” He took a clump of bills from his pocket and offered them to his wife, along with their daughter. “My life is finished now,” he said simply.
The judge asked Zenib if she wished to accept his offer of the custody of their daughter. Again, an agonizing silence filled the courtroom. From their seats, Zenib’s male relatives furiously shook their heads. They wanted no Sikh blood defiling their little community.
Zenib looked at her daughter with the eyes of despair. To accept her would be to conderm her to a life of misery. An awful sob shook her frame. “No,” she gasped.
Boota Singh, his eyes overflowing with tears, stood for a long moment looking at his weeping wife, trying perhaps to fix forever in his mind the blurred image of her face. Then he tenderly picked up his daughter and without turning back, left the courtroom.
The despairing man spend the night weeping and praying in the mausoleum of Data Gang Baksh, while his daughter slept against a nearby pillar. With the dawn, he took the girl to a nearby bazaar. There, using the ruppes he had offered to his wife the afternoon before, he bought he a new roob and a pair of sandals embroidered in gold brocade. Then, hand in hand, the old Sikh and his daughter walked to the nearby railroad station of Shahdarah. Waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, the weeping Boota Singh explained to his daughter that she would not see her mother again.
In the distance, a locomotive’s whistle shrieked. Boota Singh tenderly picked up his daughter and kissed her. He walked to the edge of the platform. As the locomotive burst into the station, the little girl felt her father’s arms tighten around her. Then suddenly, she was plunging forward. Boota Singh had leaped into the path of the onrushing locomotive. The girl heard again the roar of the whistle mingled this time with her own screams. Than she was in the blackness beneath the engine.
Boota Singh was killed instantly, but by a remarkable miracle his daughter survived unscathed. On the old Sikh’s mutilated corpse, the police found a blood-soaked farewell note to the young wife who had rejected him.
“My dear Zenib,” it said, “you listened to the voice of the multitude, but the voice was never sincere. Still my last wish it to be with you. Please bury me in your village and come from time to time to put a flower on my grave.”
Boota Singh’s suicide stirred a wave of emotion in Pakistan, and his funeral became an event of national importance. Even in death, however, the elderly Sikh remained a symbol of those terrible days when the Punjab was in flames and he had thought he was blessed among the suffering because he had bought happpiness for 1,500 rupees. Zenib’s family and the inhabitants of the village refused to permit Boota Singh’s burial in the village cemetry. The village males, led by Zenib’s second husband, on February 22, 1957, barred its entrance to his coffin.
Rather than provoke a riot, the authorities ordered the coffin and the thousands of Pakistani’s touched by Boota Singh’s drama who had followed it, to return to Lahore. There, under a mountain of flowers, Boota Singh’s remains were interred.
Zenib’s family, however, enraged by the honor extended to Boota Singh, sent a commando to Lahore to uproot and profane his tomb. Their savage action provoked a remarkable outburst from the city’s population. Boota Singh was reinterred under another mountain of flowers. This time hundreds of Muslims volunteered to guard the grave of the Sikh convert, illustrating with their generous gesture the hope that time might eventually efface in the Punjab in the bitter heritage of 1947.