December 5, 2023


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Short Story: The Veil

3 min read

By Manu Mahajan

The girl would have been more beautiful had she not been sobbing for breath. She was attractive enough, though. Maybe it was the fear in her eyes that added to her vitality.

He had slept badly as usual. It had been almost sixty years since he had slept more than an hour at a time anyway. The nightmares tired themselves out after a few hours and faded when he awoke, finally and in the dark, heart pounding and eyes wide in fear and rage. He was used to this, so he had waited a few minutes as the images in front of his bloodshot eyes dimmed, as the veil lifted, as the other girl’s screams receded into memory again. His sister. “Prah ji, mainoo bachaa lo!”

Brother, save me.

Outskirts of Lahore, summer of 1947. The colonial partition of India, deliberately hasty and calculatedly inept. Sounds of gunfire and mobs in the night, threats in the morning. Hindus and Sikhs used, for months, of seeing everything through a veil of fear. And hope, until it ran out the night the mob came banging on the door. Until the night the women, with dead accusatory eyes burning the souls of their dying men forever, jumped into wells to deny the attackers access to their living bodies. Until he escaped and ran, just one more boy joining the largest mass migration in human history, each refugee carrying a veil of hate and despair that would shadow their eyes for the rest of their lives.

“Prah ji, mainoo bachaa lo!”

This other girl, today, fifty five years later, had just appeared out of nowhere. She wasn’t there when he opened the door looking for the milk that wasn’t there in this suburb of Ahmedabad, and then there she was, suddenly, like a ghost in a white salwar kameez and a dupatta covering her face, a veil, an Indian hijaab.

“Sardarji, mujhe bacha lo, please?”

Ahmedabad, beginning of March, 2002.  The mob had set the train carrying mainly Hindus alight three days ago at Godhra, a hundred and forty kilometers away. Muslims were blamed. Riots across many areas of the city, Muslims were being raped and butchered; the bellies of pregnant women were being speared, people were being set alight. Hindu mobs roamed the streets or barged into houses looking for the next Muslim, blood in their eyes as the veil of civilisation slipped once again. But unlike in 1947, the victims had nowhere to run to, the old man had thought to himself. Except, apparently, this girl, who had run, uselessly, to the wrong old man. 

“Sardarji, mujhe bacha lo, please?”

Crimson mist in his eyes. At last. Revenge at last, after so many years. “Kaun hai tu?” he asked. Who are you?  And then, quickly, he opened the door wide, a reflex invitation made before she- or he- changed their minds. Momentary hesitation and then she darted in like a bird escaping into its cage.

He shut and bolted the door.

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