3.1 Free Form
 Bhaagya Takes a Hand
 Karachi, 22 December, 1933

Words by Stuti Sareen

June 2021

A child narrates her memories as she comes of age during the Second World War and  Indian independence movement. The memories start from 1935 in present-day Karachi and take us to Bombay, Calcutta, Shantiniketan and Delhi over a period of twelve years. 

‘Bhaagya takes a hand’ is about sharing hope in dark times and finding strength in collectivism when those in power fail to lead.

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Illustration  by Jishnnu B

Bhaagya is sitting on her favourite couch, thumbs touching index fingers. Her soft pale skin hangs in graceful folds along her neck. Her eyes are closed, head tilting upwards. She is in deep meditation, when her granddaughter barges into her room and lands with a thud on her bed, laptop in hand. Bhaagya doesn’t mind being disturbed by Khushi, looks forward to it in fact. She sees a fiery spirit in her eyes, just like her own. She looks down at her young hands, typing away on the laptop, skin as pale as hers. So pale, you could see the blue and red nerves in places under the skin. Bhaagya closes her eyes again but instead of meditating, she starts remembering. For some reason, her memories today are the very first ones she can recall.

SUPPORT SWADESHI & BEND THE WILL OF THE BUREAUCRACY
Indian Express, July 5, 1935

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Dada places Bhaagya on a big sheet of newspaper. She is moving her feet as fast as she can, her feet cycling in the air and the newspaper rustling beneath her. Dada looks at her, a quiet smile on his crinkled face. Bhaagya closes her eyes, giggles and cycles away.

*

Bhaagya is swinging on the wooden jhoola in the verandah in her new frock. Ma sews a new one for her everyday. Dada is on his chair in the lawn by the verandah, reading his newspaper and glancing at her before flipping to the next page. He is wearing the clothes he always wears, a dark coloured wool coat with special pockets and a matching turban. Bhaagya is distracted by a movement to her left. There is a long and thick black snake slithering towards her. She looks to her right and sees another one. She starts screaming now. Dada looks up from the newspaper and looks at her with his quiet smile and asks her to jump off the jhoola and run towards him in the lawn as fast as she can. So, Bhaagya runs into his arms.

*

She wakes up one morning. Pa and Chachu are carrying her Dada away on a stretcher. His face is covered with a white sheet. She tries to stop them. Ruko, Bhaagya says. But everyone is crying. She starts crying too.

WAR DECLARED IN BRITAIN AND FRANCE

Daily Herald, September 4, 1939

Bhaagya is living with Pa and Ma in Bombay now. They live in a square-shaped, cream-coloured building, next to the house of a big film producer. The big film producer’s house is surrounded by cashew-nut trees which border the left side of their yard. On the other side, there are rice fields and a hillock where crabs come and laze in the sun. The rice fields end abruptly at her school.

She is running again. This time across the rice fields full of water – her preferred shortcut to school. Bhaagya’s shoes are laced together, hanging around her neck, she is lifting the edge of her frock, so that it does not get wet. Maya is running with her. She looks exactly like Bhaagya, only smaller with longer hair. They reach school after ten minutes of running and jumping off crabs, and wear their shoes before entering class. Ms. Lobo doesn't mind that she is late. Bhaagya is the star student of Ms. Lobo’s standard one class and she gets to sit on Ms. Lobo’s table sometimes. 

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Pa is playing the radio while having breakfast. He has the same thing every day – two scrambled eggs, one banana, coffee with sugar and toast without butter. Bhaagya is getting ready while morning flute  music plays on her Pa’s radio. They usually hum it together before he goes to work and before she starts her run across the rice fields. Today is a bit different. Pa seems distracted and does not finish his breakfast. He is not humming. He is an important person at the radio station and he needs to reach there earlier than usual. Later that day, Bhaagya overhears Ma and Pa talking about something called war. They look worried so she understands war is something bad.

One day Ma says they have to live apart because of war. Pa and Ma will drop her and Maya at their Nana’s house in Lahore and leave for Calcutta. It is only for a few days, Ma says. They will leave Floofy with the big film producer and his cashew-nut trees and Bhaagya has to say bye to Ms. Lobo and the lazy crabs in the rice fields. She runs across them right before leaving for the train station. She does not lift her frock anymore and Floofy’s barks grow fainter. Bhaagya feels scared and sad for the first time. Along with Pa and Ma, she and Maya leave their square shaped, cream-coloured building.

She says bye to Ma and Pa and gets off the train with Maya. Bhaagya pretends to be brave while Maya cries. Nana is at the station and takes them to his village. There is an empty temple in the centre around which many houses are built. Most of these houses are abandoned and surrounded by orchards where horses are grazing aimlessly. Bhaagya joins her cousin Prem who is playing in one of the orchards. Prem is wearing a yellow-coloured frock that creates its own sunshine. This is the first time they are meeting Prem, but they become friends instantly. Maya stops crying soon after.

She spends her days in Lahore rereading Ms. Lobo’s Science and English books while Maya and Prem play in the orchards. Bhaagya likes to read alone and go for walks with her favourite horse, Brown, in the evenings. 

A week before she leaves Lahore, some people in uniform come and take away Brown and a few other horses. Bhaagya thinks of Floofy and pictures him chasing squirrels under the cashew-nut trees. She pictures Floofy and Brown playing in her Nana’s orchards together. 

It is Diwali and Bhaagya is lighting candles with Maya around her dollhouse on the top staircase of their square-shaped building. They begin racing up and down the stairs: a mission led by her, followed by Maya and Floofy, their tiny white dog. Bhaagya’s new frock brushes against one of the candles and is on fire now. Maya runs and calls their Pa. He smiles like Dada used to, carrying her outside to dip her in the water tank. Bhaagya focuses on counting Floofy’s barks when she goes underwater.

*

CALCUTTA HIT IN JAP'S FIRST DAYLIGHT HIT

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 20, 1942 

Bhaagya is living near Kidderpore docks in Calcutta with Ma, Pa and Maya. The house has black windows, and their main door is hidden behind a brick wall. There is a jasmine tree right outside on which flowers bloom only at night. There is a big hole in the road next to her home. It is very deep and looks out of place but the people passing by have gotten used to it.  In fact they have gotten used to many things that seem out of place around her new home. There are always injured people on the sidewalk and unfriendly people in uniform riding stern-looking horses on the roads. She wonders if Brown is now one of these horses.

The many big holes are a part of every week’s headline and deafening sirens a part of every day. The school Bhaagya was supposed to go to is being occupied by the people in uniforms, so she continues rereading Ms. Lobo’s Science and English books. Pa and Ma keep getting many books with colourful pictures for her and Maya. There are pictures of people laughing together, children playing at school and animals resting in the forest. The pictures look like familiar memories that Bhaagya keeps flipping through. 

They spend a few nights in the underground cave in their home. It is cold and dark there. On some nights they eat only egg powder with water for dinner. Ma calls them camping nights and reads out stories about brave people till Maya falls asleep. Bhaagya keeps waking up to the sound of more big holes being created and the distant screams of people.

The ‘you can go out and play’ siren goes off in the morning when it is safe to come out. It sounds like someone screaming at a loud volume and pitch but it makes her and Maya happy. It means they can stop camping, at least for now. 

Bhaagya wakes up at 4am everyday and sneaks past the door hidden behind the brick wall to collect flowers from the jasmine tree. Smelling jasmine reminds her of the flute music on Pa’s radio they used to hum together in their cream-coloured home in Bombay. She is reading her book in her room when the ‘go camping' siren goes off again. It is different from the ‘you can go out and play’ siren because the pitch keeps changing and is somehow very loud. Bhaagya cannot find Maya anywhere. She is not in the underground cave or inside the house. The  people in uniform do not let her go outside to look for her. She starts shouting for Ma and Pa. They spend what seems like hours looking for Maya. Bhaagya is crying by the time they spot her. Maya is playing in the space between two big holes in the road. Pa carries her and they spend another night camping while listening to stories, this time by Pa. Ma is too tired for storytelling that night.

It has been many months since Ma made new frocks for her and Maya. Ma spends most of her time telling them stories, getting groceries, and making rotis. She makes rotis for injured people on the streets now too. On some days she breaks her roti in half and shares it with them.

Bhaagya goes with her Ma to pick up groceries one morning and spots injured people fighting with dogs over potato peels from the garbage outside their house. In the next lane they see people drinking drain water overflowing into the big holes. They go straight and she sees a man with his rib cage sticking out, as if it failed escaping from his body. He is not moving and his eyes are closed. Bhaagya places jasmine flowers on his body. It is her ninth birthday. 

WHO LIVES IF BENGAL DIES?

People’s War, 1943

Another year has passed. The people in uniform are still storing their bombs in the classrooms of

the school she was supposed to go to. Ma and Pa decide to send Bhaagya to a school far away. It is so far away that she has to make two train rides and one long bus ride to reach it. War is going to make her stay away from Ma and Pa again. This time even Maya is not coming with her. The house with black windows and big holes on the road outside has been home for three years now. She did not want to go. She even promises to finish her egg powder for dinner that day.

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*

Pa drops her off at her new school and gives her some square-shaped soft toffees. He does not say when he will come back and leaves without saying bye. Bhaagya is standing in a big courtyard with a stranger who is going to take care of her. She is confused and decides to throw her toffees at the stranger. The stranger smiles while chewing one of the toffees and starts collecting the rest from the white marble floor. The stranger is wearing a sari and has round glasses that make her face look very round. She looks a lot like Ms. Lobo, except her name is Matron. Bhaagya wonders if Matron would let her sit on her table too. 

Bhaagya’s new school has no black windows or doors hidden behind brick walls. In fact, there are very few walls because they go to different trees instead of classrooms to learn. For storytelling they sit in a semi-circle under the mango tree, for learning math they sit under the bakul tree, for history they go to the banyan tree and so on. When it rains all classes are cancelled because the trees cannot host children then.

*

Bhaagya is in a bright yellow sari and dancing with her friends in a room made of glass. This room is called the temple but there are no idols. They end the dance by singing their favourite songs about hope and humanity. They are Visva Bharatis after all. There are no rules for singing except one: they had to sing in unison; so, they spend all afternoon dancing and singing in the room made of glass.

She is jumping off the windowsill in her Gurudev’s house. His garden is three times the size of his house and the big windows have no grills which makes it a bit difficult to play hide and seek. So Bhaagya spends hours smelling his old books and sitting near his desk. She wonders if Gurudev composed her favourite song, Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata, there. 

The dining hall at her school is a large room with open windows and always smells like food. They usually have dal with rice for lunch and soup with finger chips for dinner. Every evening they stand in line to get one rasgulla or a portion of chiwda in curd. Sometimes Bhaagya finishes her rasgulla and goes back in the line to sneak a second one. Matron never catches her.

She wakes up to birds chirping and Matron humming one of her familiar tunes. Pa is standing outside her room with toffees. He says Bhaagya can come back home now. She says bye to Matron who gives her a big hug and more square-shaped toffees. They look just like the ones Bhaagya had thrown at her on her first day. Then she goes to each tree and thanks it for teaching her. Then she runs to Gurudev’s house and touches his desk one last time. Finally, Bhaagya goes to the room made of glass and says bye to the other Visva Bharatis. She is so excited to go home that she forgets to take her laundry with her. 

Most big holes in the road have been covered and there are lesser injured people on the sidewalk. They are not having egg powder and water for dinner and they hardly have to spend any nights in the underground cave. The windows are still black but the brick wall hiding the doors is gone. The jasmine tree blooms all the same, maybe more. Her home with black windows seems less dark or maybe her colourful sari is making things brighter. Bhaagya understands why cousin Prem always wore bright coloured frocks in her big empty village in Lahore.

INA TRIALS OPEN IN RED FORT 

The Hindustan Times, November 4, 1945

Bhaagya is living in a red fort. Most people call it the Red Fort. 
 

Her new home is in the middle of acres and acres of land protected by thick red walls on all sides. Inside the walls, there is a bustling bazaar selling colourful things from all across Bharat. Bhaagya loves running her hands over the clothes made of brocade but never really gets to buy anything from the bazaar. Ma says it is very expensive and meant for tourists. There is also a palace made of mirrors, that some call Shish Mahal, where the maharajas of Bharat watched dance performances some years ago. Bhaagya still prefers dancing in a room made of glass so she does not really understand it when noisy flocks of tourists visit the palace of mirrors just to look at it. Moving past the bazaar, there is the Red Fort radio wireless station where Pa is in charge.


There is also a trial court where very few people are allowed. Bhaagya knows this because she tried sneaking in once and was caught by a very angry looking guard. Then there are offices and a food hall for the people in uniforms. She is used to having them around everywhere she lives now.
 

To enter the fort, she crosses a rampart and then goes past a big iron gate. Like tourists and shop keepers at the bazaar, Bhaagya does not need to get a pass. Her family is one of the two families living in the Red Fort. She does not know much about the other family except for the fact that they are also in charge of an important building in the Red Fort.

She wakes up at 5am everyday to catch her school bus which comes at exactly 5.30am. Bhaagya wears a salwar kameez with a dupatta to school which makes her feel very grown up. She also decides to have a fixed breakfast like Pa does. For her it’s lots of Ma’s special marmalade on toast with milk. Ma braids her hair into one ponytail instead of two for school. For some reason, the number of ponytails seems to reduce as Bhaagya grows older. Maya still has two ponytails. Sometimes even three.

Her third school has a small wooden door at the entrance. After going past the door, there is a library on the right and the school office on the left. There is a courtyard in the centre with stairs that go up to a big hall which is surrounded by many classrooms. There are random but somehow organised patches of grass between the classrooms. Sometimes Bhaagya stands in straight lines with the rest of her schoolmates to sing songs by the Indian National Army in the big hall. Her favourite Qadam qadam badhaye ja, khushi ke geet gaye ja. Singing it makes her feel weak and strong at the same time.

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Bhaagya is standing with a crowd of people in the bazaar. Based on some unsaid understanding, the crowd suddenly paves way for a big car with a tiny  window. Some of them are hooting or saluting as the car passes them by. Ma tells her that the car is taking three members of the Indian National Army, Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sehgal and Gurbaksh Singh for their hearing to the trial court. She cannot really see what they look like from the tiny window, but she knows they are singing Qadam qadam badhaye ja, khushi ke geet gaye ja.

*

BIRTH OF INDIA‘S FREEDOM

The Times Of India, August 15, 1947

Bhaagya is living in a red-coloured and square-shaped building this time. It is in a place called Karol Bagh. There is nothing too interesting about Karol Bagh. There are rows and rows of houses with parks and a graveyard not too far from her building. Pa is working with something called civil aviation now. It is related to flying aeroplanes. She does not really understand the things Pa talks about but he seems to like it more than the wireless station.

She washes and irons her cleanest white salwar kameez and dupatta one early morning. It is 15th August and she is going to be one of the ten students to represent her school at Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s address to the nation. Bhaagya is crossing the ramparts to the Red Fort again, this time with a pass. She is standing in line with hundreds of children in neatly pressed clothes in endless straight rows. They are facing the spot where Pandit Nehru is standing. His familiar voice is echoing in the open ground. For some reason, Bhaagya is not able to focus on his speech at all. She is distracted by a few other thoughts. For one, she does not really understand how they were getting independence in the first place. She had also heard some rumours about Lahore becoming part of a different country called Pakistan. She wonders what that would mean for her cousin Prem and Nana. Was independence from those people in uniforms going to separate the people of Bharat from each other? Bhaagya jolts to the present from her thoughts when twenty-one-gun shots are fired and everyone sings Jana Gana Mana. She of course still sings it as Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata just like Gurudev originally composed it. She looks around at the tired and confused faces around her before they start getting on their school buses and wonders what the other Visva Bharatis are doing right now.

*

The roads around Karol Bagh start seeming like the ones around the Kidderpore docks. There are no bombs but there is almost always an angry crowd of people on the streets. They are different from the people in uniform, they are Bharatvasis, without uniforms but are still killing each other without guns and horses. Bhaagya is not allowed to go out and play with Maya in the parks again. Her school bus stops coming. She wonders if the people without uniforms are occupying her school now. She pictures people with open rib cages in her school’s open courtyard.  

Bhaagya spends all day listening to the radio, and nights patrolling the terrace with a flashlight. There is a curfew and every building in Karol Bagh has one person patrolling their roofs or buildings at all times. There are no sirens so they have to warn each other about angry crowds of people by blinking their flashlights twice. On her tenth day of patrolling, she starts reading her book to keep from falling asleep. Bhaagya is leaning against the terrace boundary wall and reading when she feels something heavy fly through her hair. There were orders for anyone violating curfew to be shot at sight.

EVACUATION OF ALL NON-MUSLIMS FROM W. PUNJAB & N.W.F.P. 

Indian Express, October 21 1947

Pakistan and India are ‘made’ by leaders of Bharat. There are orders for all Hindus from Pakistan to come to India and all Muslims from India to go to Pakistan. Bhaagya does not quite understand the point of this whole decision. Everything seems like it did in Calcutta during war. She wonders what the difference between independence and war is, if it feels the same.

The angry crowds of people grow bigger. Some of them are living in homes left behind by families who have been forced to leave Karol Bagh. Others are making homes in the graveyard near her red-coloured house in Delhi. It seems wrong to be living above the dead. Maybe they have no other option.

Every morning Pa makes a list of relatives he needed to pick up from different camps. They are called refugee camps. Bhaagya wonders what the point of ‘making’ Pakistan and India was if its people had to become refugees of a land they called their own just a few months ago. Some of her relatives stay in their Karol Bagh home with them for many days. 

She is sharing her room with five cousins and there is no room to walk on the terrace. Her relatives are everywhere. Some like cousin Prem are living in nearby refugee camps. Bhaagya visits her a few times but she is not wearing bright-coloured clothes anymore. Prem does not wear anything bright even when she gets married at the refugee camp.

ONE YEAR OF LOCKDOWN LIVE UPDATES: SECOND WAVE GRIPS INDIA

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The war in Bharat never really stopped but no one really talks about peace anymore. The Red Fort is still there but its ramparts and iron gate are not standing proud. There is no famine but there is a pandemic. Everyone is in masks and white or blue uniforms.

Bhaagya is living in a cream-coloured, square house with big open windows. She spends her mornings under the mango and banyan trees with Floofy, her ten-year old dog and Brown, her three- year old horse. In the evening, she prays in a room made of glass with no idols. She wakes at 4am and wears one of her bright coloured saris. Then Bhaagya strides as fast as she can with her heavy walker to collect flowers from the jasmine tree that blooms only at night.

Bhaagya: Destiny

Bakul: Spanish cherry 

Visva Bharati: Children of the world, students at Shantiniketan 

Gurudev: A guru or spiritual teacher, here refers to Rabindranath Tagore

Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja, Khushi Ke Geet Gaye Ja (keep moving forward, keep singing songs of happiness): the regimental quick march of Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army. It was banned by British in India after World War II as seditious, with the ban subsequently being lifted in August 1947.

Jana Gana Mana: national anthem of India

Bharoto Bhagya Bidhata: original composition of Jana Gana Mana in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore

About Mysticeti's friends:

Stuti spends most of her time writing stories with artists from different ages, regions and identities.

Jishnnu B creates visualization,  illustrations and immersive narratives