It was past midnight when Salim heard some commotion outside in the street, there was nothing new about it, he was sure it was some Hindu mob attacking Akbar Marg, an all muslim street in the interiors of old Delhi. Hindus often came to attack the residents, they proclaimed Delhi to be theirs and wanted all the Muslims to go to in Jinah’s words ‘the moth-eaten nation- Pakistan’. The thought of fulfilling this wish of Hindus had come across Salim numerous times, but his mother, had dismissed the very idea of leaving Akbar Marg let alone Hindustan. He found it strange but didn’t want to leave behind his mother and therefore they stayed back. He thought he and his family could have a better future in Pakistan, a Muslim state, but his chances of migrating were bleak. The voices outside grew louder, they were nearing. He could hear a woman scream somewhere, probably some of the mobsters had got inside one of the houses. It was all an amalgamation of sounds-the mob, the screams of women, the protesting men and squealing babies.
Salim wished he could block all this and sleep peacefully for a night. The candle on the window sill had nearly burnt out, the light from it was flickering and in the shadows Salim could see the sleeping faces of his wife, Zeba and next to her their three year old son Sulaieman. Their faces peaceful, oblivious of the noise outside. Amidst all this he could also hear the soft snoring of his mother from some corner of the room.
Their house was one of the many one room ones in Akbar Marg, most of the Muslims had started living here after the partition. Even the rich ones who had lost everything had come here, every evening when they weren’t being attacked or attacking all the men sat at Farookh’s chai stall, discussing the political situation of Hindustan and Pakistan and some lamented leaving behind their past life.
Zakheer Khan, the potbellied man who was in his early forties, lived two houses away from Salim’s, proclaimed to be a mughal descendant. Few believed him, he found faults with everything he came across and grabbed attention quoting Ghalibs poetry in Persian. Salim, was used to living in this downtrodden way, this is how he had lived his entire life. Before Delhi, it was Ramgarh, a small district in Panjab where he along with his mother and her brother’s family somehow managed to eat two square meals a day. Her mother’s younger brother Rehman mama, had died and left behind two girls, three boys and a wife. Salim and his mother had come to Delhi after he got married to Zeba, leaving behind. Rehman mama’s family had insisted to live in Ramgarh, since he was buried there after his death and now they had gone missing, probably they had gone to Pakistan or were killed in a massacre.
He moved in his makeshift bed, adjusting himself to a more comfortable position. The noise outside could not be ignored any more, he knew he had to go outside to help his neighbors fight the mob, the only other alternative was watching his house being plundered and his family killed without putting up a fight. He would never let the mad mob overpower the people of Akbar Marg. “What a bunch of cowards they are, to attack at this time of the night” he thought to himself as he wore his shirt. He put on his skull cap, picked up the sword and without caring for the noise he made he closed the door and left. As he closed the door, he saw Zeba stirring, he was sure she was awake, just pretending to sleep.
The street was lit by the lamps, house number ten, where the Ahmeds lived was on fire. Salim now knew why there were the sounds of babies and women. He couldn’t believe that those son of bitches had put a house on fire and were gaining entry in their houses. How could the bastards stoop so low? Why were they targeting the women and children?
“Salim Bhai, quick they are heading there” he heard a voice with a hint of emergency in it , he looked back to see Kasim running and pointing to the south end of the street. Kasim had a lantern in one hand and a piece of wood in the other.
The noise was coming from the end Salim had just come from, where his house was, where his wife was pretending to sleep, his mother was snoring and his only son in a deep slumber. Salim began to run blindly, he had to stop the mob, kill every single man part of it. He surpassed, two brawling men, one had a weapon, the other was bare-handed, the former looked like a Hindu and to Salim’s horror the second one was Zakheer Khan, helpless, being brutally hit. Salim wanted to help but he had to go in the direction of the mob, make sure his family was fine and nobody entered his house.
In one corner, he could see a group of men huddled up, planning their next move, their new plan was to destroy the already plundered Akbar Marg, add a new trouble to the never-ending woes of its residents. He was about fifteen meters away from his house, when he again heard his name being cried out loudly, it was an outcry of a helpless man, it was Zakheer, he wanted to Salim to come to his rescue. He was bleeding profusely from his temples, his white ‘kurta’ the one he wore most of the times, was now red. It has hard to see a man of his size look so hopeless and helpless. His attacker was still kicking him, the weapon lay abandoned on the ground, he seemed to determined to kill. Salim couldn’t watch anymore and ran to save Zakheer’s life. The attacker in his zeal to kill, didn’t see Salim approaching them, he continued kicking Zakheer all over his body, his mouth too was bleeding now and he lay on the ground unable to move even a little. His screams had reduced to mere groans, all his strength gone.
Salim ran at a speed he never had, without a thought, without re-considering, forgetting all about humanity, he in the spur of the moment raised his sword and stabbed the unaware attacker right in the chest, where his heart was. The attacker fell on his knees, shock evident on his face and then he collapsed. Salim, to make sure he was dead kept stabbing him, till he was absolutely motionless. Zakheer was laying beside the now dead attacker, his breathing heavy but alive. He required immediate medical help. Salim had committed his first murder, he stood there looking at the dead body for a few minutes, disbelief on his face.
He soon dismissed all the thoughts gushing into his brain and dragged the unconscious Zakheer to a sheltered area and rushed to where the mob was, the residents of the Marg were trying to stop them, they were fighting a losing battle, he could see two houses on fire, the occupants with assistance from their neighbors trying to douse the fire. Salim was outraged to see all this happening, with his sword, now stained with the attacker’s blood he ferociously walked to the other end.
The noise of the mob was getting louder, they were screaming slogans, “Bharat Chorho” (leave Hindustan) “Hindustan hamara desh hai” ( Hindustan is our land). Salim joined the revolting Muslims, hitting anyone he didn’t recognize, he knew all the people who lived in Akbar Marg. It was easy to differentiate a Muslim from a Hindu, they were devoid of the mandatory beard the Muslims sported and most of the Muslims wore skull caps. He was dueling with a man who looked not more than twenty years, when he heard his name loudly,third time in the night. Then someone pulled him away from the quarreling mob. Before he could figure out who had pulled him away, and who had saved another man from being murdered by him, his eyes fell in the direction of his house, he was feet away from it. Dumb struck he looked at what was supposed to be his home few hours ago, the fire had engulfed it now. The flames rising up and down like a monster, challenging him to come near and fight with the sword he still held in his hand, his strength was diminished in front of the mighty fire.
He blindly, joined the people throwing buckets of water, all noises blocked now, he knew if he went inside to save his family, there was no chance of him coming out alive. The fire was behemothic, it had spread from the first house and nearly all houses in the row were ablaze. Most of the people, were now trying to put out the fire, someone was screaming to call the fire brigade, but they would take their own sweet time. One of the only two fire stations in Delhi was a half an hour drive away and it had a staff of less than 100 fire fighters.
Congress in their agenda had included improving the services, but right now they had to handle more grave issues. The fire was ravenously eating up the entire neighborhood, everyone was now out of their houses, trying in vain to douse the fire. It was only at the crack of dawn, the fire engine was heard. It took twelve men and three hours to put out the fire.
Half the houses in Akbar Marg had reduced to ashes, at eight in the morning, when everything had cooled down, Salim went to what had been his home nine hours back only to find the three badly burnt and dead bodies.