The benign man next door could be a butcher.
It's the stories of women, children, of everyman, that bring home the tragedy, the horror, the brutality of a subcontinental holocaust that left a million dead, ten million displaced, innumerable wounded, in its wake. Each statistic a person. Usually numb, bewildered. Almost always, apolitical. A victim rather than an agent of history. Sometimes, a child of six summers like Jeet Behn.
To coax her and innumerable others to look back at the violence, to fashion into words the fragmentary language of their pain, to visit the ruins of their memory; to somehow understand that limlnal period when all distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, were sometimes blurred, other times effaced, was my burden as chronicler, reporter.
It wasn't easy. Seeing people crumble never is. Jeet Behn talked to me all morning, face impassive, voice drained of any emotion. Talked of seeing her mother killed, her father, uncle, cousins, grandmother slaughtered before her very eyes. Of being stabbed by a male cousin, being left for dead along with her kinswomen so she may escape dishonour. She showed me the 50-year-old kirpan-inflicted gash on her head. And then she remembered. It had happened today, almost at the same time, 50 years ago. And then she wept. It was a primal sound. The sound of loss. The cry of a human being before language is learned. I just stood there. I said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Not victims alone. One met perpetrators of the violence too. Like Kulwant Singh Sahni of Patiala. My own filmmaker friend's uncle. He went "hunting" with friends as a 16-year-old. Not fowl. Only Muslims. "Slaughtered whole trainloads of Muslims near Sirhind," boasted the frail 66year-old. Why? "Panth di pukar si" (It was the call of the panth), he replies. I tried to reconcile the stooping avuncular man he is now with the maniac he was then. I couldn't. And an oft-heard axiom revalidated itself: violence does not always have a vile face. The benign man next door could be a butcher.