A short story by Ankur Barua
On a rainy afternoon in July, Reginald took a wrong turn at the busy intersection. Instead of walking in the direction of the noisy marketplace that would take him home in a few minutes, he accidentally stepped into a narrow lane that drew him towards a small garden shaded with leafy trees. As the golden sunrays were breaking free from their aerial prison of the grey clouds and flitting through the green leaves, he sat down on a slightly creaky bench, and stared listlessly in the direction of the passers-by who were rushing past him with their thick black umbrellas.
He suddenly noticed a young woman wearing a light green headscarf on a bench near the entrance of the enclosure.
For several minutes – five, ten, fifteen – Reginald steadily gazed at the sky that was slowly becoming an ethereal blue.
Slowly and steadily, the burden of history began to sink again into his tired heart.
He had left India many years ago, but India had refused to let him go. The India of the hundred contradictions and the India of another hundred salvations beckoned to him from the distance of several thousands of miles. Again and again, India had broken him, and from within those very fragments, India had given him a glimmer of hope to live another day.
After returning from the furnaces of Lahore in January 1948, Reginald bought a small house in the tranquil east end of Oldham. Finally, he thought, he would be able to give his wife Henrietta the comfort and security she had sought during the three decades of their married life.
Reginald’s family was filled with old India hands who had lived on the terrain for three generations. Reginald himself was born in Mussoorie, in the misty foothills of the Himalayas. Sent to Harrow at the age of thirteen, he arduously worked his way to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Law and cleared the Indian Civil Services examination.
But Henrietta belonged to the other England which starts precisely at London and ends unfailingly at Dover – beyond her sceptred isle lay the black waters that can only bring disease, destruction, and death. Stoically she followed her husband across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, from Madras to Lucknow to Jaisalmer to Calcutta to Rawalpindi to Kathmandu, and raised their two children, Edward and India. Bravely withstanding mosquitoes, strange sounds and smells, and, above all, the fury of the summer heat, she mastered the fine arts of mulligatawny soup, kedgeree, and kofta.
Through her placid demeanour it was quite impossible for anyone to tell how distant she felt from the people around her. Deeply did she yearn to return to her childhood village in Surrey with its medieval church spire, pretty cottages, and trimmed hedgerows. Everything was laid out in perfect squares and rectangles, and everyone followed the proper etiquettes of “Please” and “Thank You”. In her mind, India was the very embodiment of the great anarchy from which God had mercifully preserved England.
And yet, in her father’s home of perfect order and unruffled serenity, Henrietta was but an inconsequential daughter, subject to the whims and fancies of her two uncles and three brothers. But in India, she was a memsahib, the powerful lady of the manor whose command would send hundreds of natives scurrying about the kitchen and the gardens.
Reginald hobbled towards the woman and softly said something to her in English. She did not reply, and kept on reading her book.
Then he repeated his question in Urdu: “Madam, are you from India?”.
She turned towards him at once with a look that was filled with both terror and astonishment.
“Can I sit here for a while? I am Reginald. Reginald Harrison. I have lived in India for sixty five years”.
With those words, Reginald started a friendship that would slowly develop over the remaining two years of his life.
On his afternoon walks, he would stroll into the garden, and Khaleda would often be sitting there, attentively reading her book.
Khaleda had recently arrived with her father from Peshawar. He had found a job in the local textile mills, and was mostly away at work during the weekdays. He believed Khaleda would receive a world-class education in England’s finest schools, and hoped that with the money he was earning, he would bring over his two brothers from his village in Pakistan.
But Khaleda felt homeless nearly all the time.
The weather was damp and dark, and she shivered through the long evenings. All the houses were painted the same dull colour. She struggled to speak English, and had to do with a brief “yes” or “no” when walking through the brightly lit marketplaces. Above all, the English did not know how to cook vegetables – their skills amounted to throwing some bits and pieces into a pot of boiling water, and casually sprinkling salt and pepper on the final product.
“But Mr Reginald. I do not understand you. You too feel homeless in England? But how is this possible? Is England not your real home?”, Khaleda asked him one day.
Reginald sighed deeply.
“I have become an island, you see ….”
He paused, searching for some Urdu words in the convoluted labyrinths of his tired mind.
Then he started again, “I have become an island in search of a mainland that today refuses to accept me. My wife died a few years ago, and my two children live in faraway London. My daughter, India takes after me – you know, Hindustan is her lifeblood. But for Edward, it was all a fanciful experiment that went horribly wrong, and we must never mention it again in polite conversation. And here in Oldham, the whole world looks at me and sees nothing but a relic from a past that it neither understands nor wishes to comprehend”.
“So, Mr Reginald, that makes two of us, innit? We are both trying to make a home within the strangeness of our inner hearts”.
Reginald smiled faintly at Khaleda. Then after pausing again, he softly hummed a tune to her.
Aye my naïve heart how did you become so undone?
Where shall I now find the medicine for this ailment?
Khaleda looked at Reginald with the wide-eyed wonder of an eight-year-old English schoolgirl in a corner shop filled with coloured sweets of a hundred different types.
“Why, Mr Reginald, you can even recite our Ghalib!”.
Ten thousand desires such as this one, and each one worth dying for
So many of them have been fulfilled, and yet I yearn for more!
Reginald’s eyes sparkled in the fading sunlight that was dancing on the distant treetops.
One day, Reginald invited Khaleda to have tea with him at his house. Khaleda arrived with her father promptly at five on the next Sunday afternoon.
He was mesmerized by Reginald and complimented him profusely.
“Wah, you are a pukka sahib, but you speak perfect Hindustani! How is this possible, Mr Reginald?”
In a fit of self-forgetfulness where I did lose myself?
Alas, I have been waiting for him all these years!
When Reginald was about to rise from his chair, Khaleda stopped him at once with a gentle firmness in her voice.
“Mr Reginald, you sit here and talk to my father. Please show me the way to the kitchen”. “Yes, yes, little daughter, now go and make some tea for uncle Reginald”, her father insisted.
Ten minutes later, Khaleda returned with three cups of steaming tea, with small bits of ginger in them.
When visiting Reginald a few weeks later, Khaleda realized that there was another person in the household – Nitya.
Some years ago, Reginald had received a phone call from an old friend in Lucknow. The son and the granddaughter of Chhotu Ram, his orderly at Azamgarh, had recently arrived in Oldham. Could Reginald find some employment for Nitya?
Every day, Nitya went to Reginald’s house at ten in the morning and left at four in the afternoon. She washed the dishes and dusted the furniture collected from different parts of the world.
Khaleda never stepped into that house before four. And yet, she would feel the miasma of Nitya pervade the living room and suffuse the filaments of her being.
As the months passed, Khaleda became a volatile cauldron of turbulent emotions – relentless waves of spite, fear, and anxiety dashed on the vast shores of her agonized heart.
When a Hindu villager killed her mother in the great fires of 1947, Khaleda vowed eternal enmity towards everything Hindu in this world. And here was another Hindu, in the very home of her uncle Reginald to whom she became more devoted with each passing day.
One evening, Reginald lamented to Khaleda that he had lost his umbrella which his dear wife had gifted him on their tenth wedding anniversary.
Before she realized what she was doing, she blurted out, “Oh uncle Reginald, it is this girl you have employed. She is not a good character, I tell you. I saw her with this umbrella some days ago in the marketplace. Who knows what else she must be stealing from your house!”.
In astonishment, Reginald gazed at her.
Then he said to her calmly, “All right, Khaleda, tomorrow morning, I shall tell Nitya that her services are not needed in this house any longer”.
Khaleda’s heart skipped a beat. Then she looked out through the faux wood blinds at the sunrays entangled with the brown branches of the great oak.
Five months later, the old man’s heart stopped beating completely.
Khaleda was inconsolable. The dark winter days became even darker. The cold mists entered the marrow of her bones and congealed all her blood.
For the second time in her life, she felt that her heart had been torn apart in two pieces.
Her father tried everything he could to pacify her. He told her how he had felt when he lost his uncle as a young boy.
When that did not help, he recited a verse from the Qur’an. But that did not help either.
“No, father, don’t say all this to me. Keep your wisdom to yourself. If it is to Allah that we must return, I want to return there right now along with my uncle Reginald”.
“Hush, daughter, you must not speak that way!”.
In her blue eyes lies sleeping a gentle hint of fragrance
If she but glances at me this garden will awake before spring.
On the day of the burial, she ventured out to the other end of the town. The sky was overcast with dark clouds. She could smell the cold rain in the air.
She was received at the freshly painted church gate by India.
“Oh, you must be Khaleda. Please excuse my rusty Urdu. Father often spoke about you on the telephone”.
But Edward would have none of it. He took India to one side and made it emphatically clear that people of the type of Khaleda were not welcome at the burial.
“You mean the Muslim type?”. She looked him at quizzically.
“Oh, the name doesn’t matter. Does it? The them type. Don’t you think, India, we have had enough of them in our lives? Why do they keep on following us even after we have left them? Where will they reach next – the Prime Minister’s cabinet?”.
When the heartbroken sky pours down its tears on the world, you too can cry profusely, if only to check who will win the race – you or the sky.
So, Khaleda sat down at the edge of the church wall, and sobbed profusely.
Through the pouring rain, she saw a frail-looking figure steadily walk towards her with a sturdy green umbrella.
Nitya stopped a few inches away her.
Then she sat down next to her, with the expansive green canopy of the umbrella sheltering both of them from the iciness of the rainwater.
Through the din of the rain on the red rooftops, Nitya hummed to Khaleda.
Such is the miracle of your absence –
I kept on endlessly searching for you.
“Oh Nitya, you too know our Ghalib!”.
“Of course, sister Khaleda. Let them not allow us to be with uncle Reginald, so what? On the highways and byways of this new world, we will live in the shadows of these words”.
The rains stopped as abruptly as they had started.
Across the valley, there was a hint of a rainbow.
Slowly, Khaleda and Nitya walked down the rainswept road towards the town.
Ankur Barua is University Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies at Cambridge University. He read Theology and Religious Studies at the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge. His primary research interests are Vedantic Hindu philosophical theology and Indo-Islamic styles of sociality. He researches the conceptual constellations and the social structures of Hindu traditions, both in premodern contexts in South Asia and in colonial milieus where multiple ideas of Hindu identity were configured along transnational circuits between India, Britain, France, Germany, and the US. He studies how these ideas continue to shape the subjectivities of British Hindus across multiethnic environments and of the wider British public.
One response to “The Island of Remembrance”
Beautifully woven! Thank you, dear Ankur-dada!