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Earliest Memories - Part 16 - Trying To Leave Amritsar

Viewed 385 times 2015-1-4 20:28 |Personal category:StoryTeller|System category:Life| Trying, Leave, Amritsar

Trying to Leave Amritsar

He remembered: The father returned from work unusually early the next day – it was late next evening. There was no electricity and the house was dark. The children were playing outside, just before going to bed. The children greeted him and went along with him to their mother.

“How was your day? How come you are back early?” she asked right away, noting that something was not normal.

“Let’s pack up and get and you the children to the railway station, he said “I heard that there might be a train leaving tonight.”

It was one of those times when there was no point trying to book a ticket in advance or reserve a seat or anything. Nothing was on schedule. One just showed up at the railway station, waited for any announcement of a train leaving out of Amritsar, bought a ticket when a counter was opened, rushed into the train along with hundreds, hoped to find a place to sit, if lucky (even getting standing room was considered lucky). There was little or no room for luggage. Sometimes the train was announced, everyone jumped on to it and purchased a ticket while it was moving. Many did not even have the money to pay for the ticket. There were no strict rules and the authorities were quite flexible.

The mother asked the father to get the children ready and put on 3 layers of clothing on them, instead of the usual two. She set about packing their clothes and some food for the way. The house-owner’s family gave them a fair bit of food, good enough for a day or two. They simply packed their own dinner – rotis, rice and ‘dry’ sabji (cooked spiced vegetables) and some daal (cooked lentils) in a container. They wrapped it all in a sheet of cloth and made it so that it could be slung over the shoulder like a bag. They decided to cook more for themselves later.

The mother had another bag with some medicines and water.  She packed a small beautiful biscuit tin too. Her childhood friend had gifted her when they had parted after her wedding. The tin contained some important documents and family treasure – the dried the umbilical cord of her two children, that falls off a few days after the birth (the length from where it is clipped near the navel and where it is cut).  Usually, the dried umbilical cord is packed into a tube of gold and worn as a talisman. The little boy’s family could not afford to make a gold talisman then. They saved it for the future, when they could perhaps do it.

The mother also packed some supplies to cook some more food on the way. The journey to Delhi would likely take more than 2 days since the train would mostly travel only during the night, slowly, crawling at running pace most of the time. There was no certainty or little possibility of getting food on the way – since many stations and food businesses were entirely shut down and deserted due to the bombings.


While they had no stove or utensils to cook on the train, they knew some enterprising people were on the trains and virtually lived on them all through the war. Their ‘ticket’ was that they had stoves with them – both those that burned wood, coal or kerosene. Some passengers too carried them, though it was normally illegal. They made their living by cooking food for the passengers with the supplies they brought, if the train was stranded or stopped for a long time. In return they got money or a share of the food.

The mother decided to carry some food grains for a day or two until they reached Delhi. It was to prevent them from starving. If the train should encounter some danger or damage, the family would still have some food of their own to use, even if someone helped them. The helpers too would be struggling for food and supplies in these times.

He remembered: The mother put some rice and lentils in a bag along with some salt, sugar and, being typically Indian, a small set of spices!! In the darkness and hurry as she packed, she got the lentils and rice mixed up in the same cloth bag. As she desperately tried to fix it, the salt packet split and it too spilt into the mix. She felt very embarrassed, but everyone simply laughed. They would have no way to separate them but would have to eat them mixed.

She also packed some snack food - biscuits, dry fruits and nuts that she had and the house owners gave some of their own, from the little store they had. They could not pack too much since the mother was the only adult who could carry any weight. This too was difficult in her pregnant condition. The little boy and girl were each given a small packet of the snack food, wrapped in a belt like cloth to be worn around their waist.

They decided to take with them only what they could carry. They would leave all the remaining stuff behind. The father knew someone in that house could surely use his bicycle. They said with a note of optimism that once the war was over, they would come and meet them. In reality, it would not have been affordable for the family of the little boy.

The old grandfather said, “Come and get your belongings when the war is over! Don’t leave us owing you.”

Unsaid, were their greatest fears, which they hid in such talk. The little boy’s family and the house-owner’s family, both, knew that they could not be sure that either of them would survive the war. It was all said in hope in front of GOD and the little children.

The father wrote a note in paper and put it into each child’s pocket. The note contained their names and addresses to contact, if they were lost and found by some good soul. There was even a phone number to contact at the father’s office.

“Are you done packing the food and clothes?” asked the father.

“Yes, those are done,” replied the mother.

“Show me all that you plan to carry,” said the father.

He looked at the two bags that the mother would have to sling and the bundled up children. He picked them up and felt they were heavy, but perhaps manageable, if he could carry them now and load them up on the train.

“OK, I shall go and try to arrange a taxi to take us to the station. Get the children to go to the toilet and all of you put on your shoes. Say your goodbyes to the landlords too,” said the father. He then went out into the darkness to try and get a taxi.

They wisely decided to wear shoes with two layers of socks instead of being barefoot or wearing slippers/sandals that they normally wore. It felt awkward and unusual, but was a good decision. They were still fortunate, many went around barefoot!

The mother and children put on their shoes, scarves and went to say their final goodbyes to the family of the house owner.

He remembered: It was hard and emotional. They all hugged each other. The little boy and girl were cuddled, hugged, blessed, given treats and much advice on how to take care of their mother on the way.  They touched the feet of elders who stood up and blessed them and wished them well on their journey. All the grownups had tears in their eyes. The little boy and girl realised something new and exciting was going to happen, but suddenly felt so important and loved. They did not feel like leaving! They were also getting sleepy and were tired.

There was a curfew outside on the roads, many leading to the railway station, but one had to somehow make it. The father had curfew passes because he worked with the authorities in his job. So, they could get through.

There was no public transport, autorickshaws (the typical 3-wheeled wonder of Indian roads) or even regular four wheeled taxis running. Most were immobilised for one reason or another. Even if you spotted one, you could not be sure they were willing or able to drive you. One had to hunt around the area for anyone willing to take you. They would have to risk their own life and limb too. There was no fixed fare, one negotiated and paid what was agreed upon. The fares were exorbitant. Many could not leave Amritsar, only because they could not afford or manage to get to the railway station.

The father walked down the road and further up ahead found that a side road that led to the railway station was cut-off due to an accident near the trenches. A big truck had slipped and fell into a trench and had turned to its side. It was stuck and blocked the road entirely. There was another truck, presumably one who had come to try and tow the one that was stuck. It could not manage it.

He went around the truck by carefully walking around the trench, through someone’s front steps. He searched far and wide and could not find a taxi. There were several taxis parked near their usual haunts and shops that were all closed down. No one was willing to go to the railway station at that hour.

Finally, as he turned towards home, he saw the driver and assistant of the truck that had come to tow the stuck truck on the side road that he had passed. They were planning to drive off soon across town. They agreed to make a little detour out of their way and drop the family of the little boy at the railway station, for a price which the father agreed to pay. They wanted to leave soon though.  The father asked them to wait while he fetched his family.  They demanded an advance payment for waiting which he paid and hurried back home.

When he reached the house, he saw the children all ready and sitting outside, with all the bags they needed to carry, next to them. The mother was still inside the house.

He called out to her, “Come on, I could not get a taxi but a truck driver has offered to take us. Hurry, we need to leave now.”

“I will be there a moment. Just a minute!” the mother replied.

Soon, she emerged, with a big long package wrapped in cloth, at her side. It was bulky and not light.

“What is this?” the father asked.

“I did not have the heart to leave this behind.  Just could not. Can we please take a chance and take it? I know, we may not make it to Delhi with it. But I want to give it a shot. Please?” she pleaded.

“What IS that thing,” the father asked picking it up from her.

“The radio,” she replied quietly. The children perked up and they seemed quite happy. The little boy had been a bit sad to say goodbye to it. It was the single most expensive possession of theirs, the bicycle being the next one. The radio easily cost the earnings of a few months for the father. The mother knew they could not afford to come back just for the sake of the radio even if they survived the war. She just wanted to take the risk and give it a shot, at taking it with her.

 The neighbours and the family of the house-owner were there to say goodbye too. Everyone was a bit surprised.

The father thought about it for a moment.  He said, “Come on. I will carry it carefully.”

They set off, down the road. The house-owner’s son had come to help them with the luggage. He was young and strong and carried the two bags containing the food and supplies. The father carried the radio in one hand.  The two children each held the hand of a parent. They waved goodbye and walked down the road, careful to keep away from the trenches.

They passed the house of their friend who had repaired their radio set and approached the corner of side-street where the truck was broken down.

The air-raid sirens suddenly went-off. Everyone went for the nearest trench. Soon there were planes in the air, tracers flying, anti-aircraft fire was heard everywhere.  It lasted about half an hour.  When the all-clear blew, a little later, it was dark, cold and damp with a fog settling in. They slowly made their way past the broken down truck. They could not see the tow truck anymore, anywhere nearby. It had driven off!

While the mother was upset and expressed some disappointment, the father seemed quite unruffled.

“They must have left since the air-raid. These things happen. Let’s head back to our radio friend’s place,” he said, “perhaps you can all stay there until I find another taxi or something to get us to the station.”

They walked back slowly to their friend’s house, knocked on his door. It took him a while before he came to the door. Before he opened the door, he asked, “Who is it?”

The father spoke up and identified himself.

The door opened into the dark room. The lights came on after everyone had crowded into the room with the luggage and shut the front door fully.

The father explained what had happened. He asked if his family could stay there until they could arrange transport to the railway station.

“No! I am sorry, but you cannot stay here. I would have liked to let you stay, but I don’t think it is a good idea, with your family and children,” said the friend.

The parents did not say anything for a while. They simply looked at each other and seemed to communicate soundlessly.

“OK, we will go. Can we just rest for a while?” asked the mother.

“Behenji (sister), I don’t know how to tell you this. I hate being in this situation, but I would suggest you not stay here even for a little while. Rest if you need to, but please leave as soon as you can. This place is a target for bombing. I have to remain here and work. I would not feel good if something happened while you were staying here,” he said in a tone of regret.

He continued, “I am happy you are trying to leaving Amritsar and I hope you make it out safely with your children. I wish you all the best.”

The mother and father quickly grasped the situation without any demur.

The father said, “I understand, my friend. We will go back to the house now. We will go to the railway station tomorrow. I know you were busy at work. I will see you later, another day, when the wife and kids have left. Please get back to your work.”

The friend said goodbye to the children, he gave them each a candy. He turned out the lights, opened the door to let them out. He quickly went back after they had left.

The family trudged back home with their helper from the house-owner’s family. They were a bit surprised to see them, but understood that the situation could quickly change and plans could easily go awry.

They all went back to sleep as they were, just removing their shoes.

 

To be Continued

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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