By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: They met in a motel parking lot under the light of a full moon.
They met in a motel parking lot under the light of a full moon.
It was the first time in a month—since the last full moon, really—that they’d met. Too much had happened. Too much kept them apart.
A fire burned in the distance. They stood in the moonlight and watched as the flames consumed another building. The entire town had remained ablaze for the better part of a fortnight, and they had watched and wondered and worried about one another.
Now they stood within arm’s length of one another with the light of the moon mingling with the light of the fire.
“How is your family?”
“We’re managing. Yours?”
“What do you think about all this? Do you really think what they say is true?”
“Who, the foreigners?”
“They have certainly fulfilled their promise. Our country will never be the same.”
The whistle of a train blared in the distance. It arced over the sound of snapping and crackling from the buildings. A small explosion caused a flare-up, and the sound of exploding glass pushed toward them. They heard the train whistle again, and they both wondered whether it had come closer.
One of them had to get on that train. Neither of them wanted to. It meant death, surely, but worse: it meant the end of everything they’d ever known.
They’d grown up next door to one another. Life was hard sometimes, but everyone knew to stay clear of the foreigners. The people with pale skin and even paler hair. The ones who had come more than a century earlier promising easy trade and friendship and had instead taken the life of those who had inhabited the country for millennia.
The people who, upon their leaving, had rent a single country into two jagged pieces.
They stood under the full moon and thought about it all. Yes, they’d gained independence, but it had come at a steep price. They no longer belonged to the same land. To one another.
The whistle sounded again.
“What if we were to run away?”
“Run away. Leave all this behind. Find a new life.”
“But…our families. My mother. Yours. Our siblings. Our fathers. They taught us to have pride in our country, to stay and fight for it no matter what.”
“How can you say that? There’s no our anymore! Don’t you understand?! If we don’t leave, they will force us against one another!”
“Do you understand what you’re asking me to do? You’re asking me to leave everything we’ve ever known, to forsake everything to turn away from the people who have loved us, the only life we’ve ever known—”
“All I understand is that nothing will ever be the same. Nothing. Will be. The same! They’ve burned our cities!”
“They didn’t burn anything! It was our own people, our own—”
The other paused, shocked into silence for the moment.
“How can you say that?”
“Because it is our people carrying the torches and throwing the rocks. Our people who have allowed themselves to be blinded!”
“By them! Please, Ravi, do not allow them to win like this! We need to get out, get away from here. We will find a way to come back for our families, to make sure they are safe—”
Ravi laughed, and his incredulity at the thought sounded louder than the train whistle.
“Do you know what you are saying, Ashraf? You sound as if you are stuck inside a movie. This is not Bombay Talkies. There is no happy ending! Partition is happening, and our people are paving the way with our own blood. We need to stay here and make sure our families do not become a part of that sacrifice.”
With his hands on his hips, Ashraf hung his head and then looked back toward the city as it burned.
“Don’t you understand, they will make us choose sides,” he said, imploring his closest friend. “They will force us against one another!”
He flung a hand toward the city that now represented one side of a border.
“This will destroy our friendship! You have always been my brother. Do not allow them to do this. Do not you understand, this is their real victory!”
Ravi glared at the boy who he had stolen mangoes with in the blistering heat of summer and who had shared short glasses of tea with him on the train station platform in the teeth-chattering cold of winter as they waited to return to the university.
“You may find it easy to abandon your family. I will not! You are my brother in name, but they are mine in blood and blood will always run thickest. I cannot leave them for some ridiculous, childish notion that everything will have a happy ending. You are blind, Ashraf!”
Ashraf inhaled sharply. He tried to remember that Ravi had suffered the same things he had: the same sleepless nights listening to gunfire, to the shattering of glass as looters threw rocks against windows and stole at will. He forced himself to focus on the tension they had all felt in the last year. Everyone knew something was coming. Gandhi had gained so much support it was impossible to ignore the man’s cry for the British to “Quit India.”
They’d all wanted the same thing. But not like this. Surely Ravi didn’t want it at this cost.
“Ravi, please, listen—”
“Just go home, Ashraf. I have nothing more to say.”
Ravi turned and left the parking lot without another look back. Ashraf stood there a long time looking at the sign that advertised the place…what was left of the building and its sign, in any case. They had heard the stories of the men who came here, and even some boys, to discover and relish the pleasures of manhood. Once they had even joked about it themselves.
Before my nikaah, Ashraf had jested.
Before I take the saat phere, Ravi had responded.
They had spoken like boys on the cusp of manhood, jibing about a final hurrah before their respective weddings. Boys who had nothing else to worry about. Ravi’s parents had even approached a girl’s family about a prospective match. But that was before.
Before the rioting and the confusion. Before the blood and the trains crossing the border that started with passengers and arrived full of bodies. Before a foreign country declared that one land should become two.
Ashraf fought down the burn of tears in his throat, then turned toward his own home.