Day was humid. The overcast sky had just let the sun to make its appearance. Puddles of mud and accumulated rainwater were here and there on the street of a village in Punjab. The first house on the street was of Rajesh Rao; Rao family, the Hindu family, had been living in that house for a century. People had come and gone in that house but the house stood strong; with minor wear and tear Rao’s house was still the best in the locality; the ladies of Rao house had taken care of that house more than anything.
‘Geeta! Geeta!’ cried Rajesh. But there was no sign of Geeta – neither in the house nor outside.
‘This girl! How many times have I told her to not to go outside without me or her brother! But she never bothers to listen to me.’ Rajesh slapped his forehead using his left palm. He was standing tall, near the Banyan tree, situated in the middle of the street, when he heard a voice- ‘Ohho! What would I do of this girl?’
Rajesh turned around to see whose familiar voice he just heard. 12-year old Geeta was standing at the house’s entrance door, mimicking her dad. Seeing her, the duo- father and daughter, laughed their hearts out; Rajesh forgot how pissed off he was few minutes back and the duo entered the house.
It was 1947. The month was August.
‘Papa! Sushma’s dad doesn’t allow her to even go out,’ said Geeta. ‘I was at her house this morning. I called her outside but her mom and dad asked me to come in as Sushma won’t come outside.’
‘It’s for her own safety only, Geeta. Even I also ask you to not to go outside but only if you’d listen.’
‘Ahaaan. I don’t know, papa. Sushma isn’t happy in there. She is 14 now and yet has never even been to school. What kind of safety is that?’ Sighed poor Geeta and dragged her feet to the kitchen.
15th August of 1947 came and went and India, except the families like those of Rao’s, rejoiced its official freedom from British rule.
Bustling roads, busy crowds, chirping birds, clear sky – such was the day in Delhi on 15th August of 2017. Shops were to remain close this day so the Purohit family had bought all the required grocery for the day in advance.
Geeta Purohit, now an 82-years old grandmother, was sitting in the balcony of her lower-middle class house. Years had passed and yet the memories of that day were as vivid as ever in her mind. She was lost in her chain of thoughts when darkness fell over her eyes; but Geeta didn’t panic.
‘I know Shweta, that is you.’ The soft palms, ring finger in the left hand, fingers so slender- such hands could only be of 15-years old Shweta, Geeta’s granddaughter.
‘Oh! Dadi.’ Shweta hugged Geeta. ‘How do you recognize me, always? Even mom fails to recognize me sometimes but you? Never.’
‘When your mom will be of my age then she’d recognize too like I do.’
‘Ah! You and your wisdom. You’re the smartest grandma of all of my friends’ grandmothers,’ remarked Shweta and hopped inside the house.
As Shweta, in her salwar-kameez, left the balcony, Geeta thought back of the day. That day of 1947, when she was playing hide-and-seek with her father; her father was to seek Geeta and Geeta had hidden herself in the hollow space of the street’s Banyan tree. The space was big enough to accommodate Geeta’s tiny frame.
‘Here I come, Geeta. This time if I find you, next will be your turn to seek and mine to hide,’ was crying Rajesh. Geeta could hear all her father’s voices and tried not to giggle hard. She was able to see her father who was pretending too hard to look for his daughter. Geeta knew her father would find her, like always. But with her luck, she succeeded in staying hidden for good five minutes. Now, Rajesh was right in front of Geeta; with his back towards Banyan tree, Geeta thought that she could win that time. One last time, perhaps.
The moment Geeta planned to come out of that hollow space, blood splattered in front of her eyes, and her father fell lifeless on the street. Three men, in black outfits, tapped on Rajesh’s shoulder from back. Before Rajesh could turn, one of those goons covered Rajesh’s eyes from his back and slit his throat. The other one stabbed his back using his sword. Geeta rubbed her eyes, pinched herself hard, only to realize that she wasn’t dreaming, that she really had lost her father, that Geeta was alive only because she was hidden in that tree, that her father was dead only because she had forced him that day to play with her outside, that the father who never forbade her for anything had lost his life because of his own love for his daughter. Geeta stayed in that tree for long, long time. It was only in the evening when she came out that she noticed the intensity of, now dried, dark maroon blood around and on her father.
Geeta knew those three men. They weren’t unknown, they weren’t strangers, they weren’t British; they were her father’s friends who had also come to their house once for dinner.
‘Dadi! Dadi! Mom isn’t allowing me to go to my friend’s birthday party. Ask her to let me go. Please!’ cried Shweta.
‘Don’t be a baby, Shweta! I won’t allow you to stay out late-night. Those aren’t decent hours to stay out,’ said Shweta’s mother in her defence.
Meanwhile when this argument was going on, Shweta’s brother, Akhil, informed that he won’t come to home tonight and before anybody could process what he said, Akhil was already gone.
‘Akhil can stay out, but I can’t even go out. How is this fair to me?’
‘Don’t argue, Shweta! Do you see that ring in your finger? You better look at it and remember that the day you get married will be the day you may stay out for as long as you want.’
‘I didn’t ask you to get me engaged right on the day I was born. Nobody would ever ask for that, in fact. You didn’t do the same with Akhil. I hate you!’ yelled Shweta and fell in the arms of her grandmother.
‘Don’t be so dramatic, Shweta! It’s Independence Day. Don’t you want to see the parade? Come. Cheer up!’ said her mother.
The pigeon on the banister was the witness to the whole drama of Purohit’s family. It used to come and sit with Geeta almost daily and when not – it soared high, high in the sky until it reached to where it wanted, until it rejoiced its freedom, until it made a point that nobody could inhibit its liberal self.
Geeta caressed Shweta’s hair; Geeta was aware of what was happening around her, only that she didn’t want to be aware of, only that she wanted to cry out loud that India got freedom from British only to get shackled down by one’s own fellow Indians.
‘It’ll be alright, Shweta! Your grandma is always with you. Calm down!’ said Geeta, who herself had never found any calm after that day of 1947, who knew that even after 70 glorious years of freedom India is still as independent as a cage for many.
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