The small drawing room was crowded. An aunt, an uncle, the grandmother who had come all the way from Lahore, and two cousins, were there, and a small group of Minnie's little school friends bunched together, feeling shy and like strangers in that mainly grownup family gathering.
A little knot of Minnie's Ammi's friends were also there – Shehnaz aunty, Bilquis aunty, and Rabia aunty, as Minnie had been taught to call them, and Rabia aunty's sister. Almost all of them had their children with them, which is what filled up the room.
The grown-ups knew each other, and Minnie had on more than one occasion met their children also, though she was feeling too self-conscious and shy to talk even to her own schoolfellows. Everybody had praised her pleated pink frock with tiny embroidered little rose-buds, causing her to become even shyer and shyer.
There was one guest, however, whom nobody seemed to know, and all the friends of Minnie's mother, Roohi, were discussing his presence.
"I wonder who he is, and what he is doing here."
"I didn't know there were Sikhs in Karachi anymore."
"Oh, yes, there are, quite a few in fact, here and in Lahore, and they have important businesses in the city."
"I've never seen him at Roohi's house before. We'll ask her who he is."
"Come along, everybody, to watch the cake cutting ceremony. Make room for Minnie, she's the one who has to do it." Roohi was gathering everyone around the table, on which stood the pink and white iced cake.
The Sikh gentleman was the first to get up and go near the table. "But my Mohini is too little," his face creased into an affectionate smile, "to reach to the top of the table. Let me lift her up."
Minnie struggled in his strong arms, but he just muzzled his nose lovingly in her curly hair, and said, "I won't drop you; you can cut it easily now."
Minnie's father saw she was going to cry, and hurrying up he took her from the kindly gentleman and held her up himself. The cake was cut, to a ragged chorus of "Happy Birthday to you" from the children, and unsynchronised clapping from the grown-ups.
"And now let me give Mohini her special birthday present," said Sardarji, beaming happily. "Come here, my little pet, and see what it is."
Minnie had to be wheedled and pushed by her parents before she would go anywhere near the smiling guest. He unpacked a huge carton, and out came a giant dolls house.
"See," he showed her, "the lights come on like real lights and the doors actually open and close."
All of her friends were crowding round to see the wonder house, and Minnie said pettishly, "It's mine. Don't touch it, all of you, you will spoil it." But then she picked up the lovely doll he had once, earlier, given her, and saw it could not go through the neatly-made curtained entrances. She spoke for the first time to her turbaned guest, who had been waiting with a rapturous smile for her smile of pleasure, "You've given me a house into which the doll will not go. Can't you see the doors are too small to let her enter?"
"Oh dear, how silly of me! I am, after all, a Sardarji, and I might have bought it at
12:30 in the afternoon," he joked cheerfully at his own expense. "I'll give my little one another, smaller, doll, early tomorrow morning, as soon as the shops are open."
"Well, he has a sense of humour," said Shehnaz, "but why is he being so overly sweet with the child?"
"I didn't like the way," commented Rabia, "that he was holding Minnie. She is, after all, a girl, even if she is only five, and not his own family member, I don't think he should have lifted her in his arms and kissed her the way he did."
"There are many perverts, I have heard," said Bilquis darkly, "among these people."
"Well, I believe we have plenty of perverts, perhaps even more, in our own society, too," conceded Shehnaz. "But we should make it a point to talk to Roohi about this: maybe she didn't notice."
He was the last guest to leave, and that too regretfully.
"We would have insisted on your staying with us," said Imtiaz, Munni's father, "but it is such a small house, and as you can see, my mother has come down from Lahore to attend the party."
"Oh, that is all right. I am staying at a small hotel down the road. (I chose it to be near you all.) If I can come again tomorrow, I shall be very happy. Or if you would allow me to stay over in the city some three or four days, I would be really grateful."
"The city is not ours, for us to allow or disallow anyone to stay," Imtiaz laughed, "but it is we who will all our lives be grateful to you. Please stay a week, a whole month, for ever. As soon as my mother is gone, you can move in with us."
"We would love to have you," joined in Roohi.
"I just wish I could, but I have my job over there."
"He is such a nice man," she said after he was gone "and we can never thank him enough."
She had met him last year. Her husband and she had both gone together with little Munnie to visit her parents and brother and Imtiaz's two married sisters, living in India. Imtiaz came back after three weeks, she stayed on another month. She had to return by train to Delhi to catch her flight, and because her mother and father and her old college class fellows had kept persuading her to prolong her stay, the train reservations Imtiaz had got for her had had to be cancelled. Her brother found no seats in the women's second class compartment on the day she planned to leave, nor for a whole week after, and had had to settle for the general one.
"There is usually no one there," the booking office clerk said, and it was indeed empty up to the first two stations. Then a pleasant Sikh gentleman came in. He had with him a little daughter, who seemed exactly the same age as Munni, but Roohi learned later that she was actually six months younger.
He struck up a conversation immediately, though it annoyed her. Couldn't he see she was alone, without any escort, and didn't really care to talk to a stranger?
"We are both alone, with our children," he stated the obvious. "I am alone for a very sad reason."
"What is that?"
"My loving wife died just when my Sohini was born, during childbirth. I have had to bring up my daughter by myself, of course helped by my mother and younger sister. What is the reason for your being alone? I hope your little child's father is well and healthy."
"Oh, yes, by the grace of God." She answered rather sharply. What business of his was it? "He is absolutely well and happy. He had to return a month before me to rejoin his office."
"My name is Mahinder Singh," he introduced himself. "Please do not hesitate to ask me if you need anything."
She thanked him perfunctorily and turned her face to the window. She must discourage him from being too frank.
The gentleman endeavored to call Munni to him. "Why don't you two girls play together? It will make your trip pleasanter."
Despite Roohi's persuading, Munni would make no move towards Sohini, the Sikh girl, nor would the latter come towards the former.
The Sikh gentleman took out a bag of sweets. "Now, let's see who is going to have these?" But there was no response from either side.
At one o'clock he prepared to go out with his daughter. "I am going to the dining car," he said, "You and your child may also like to come with us."
She was about to do so, but suddenly realized the awkwardness of going together with an unknown man. Everyone would surmise they were connected.
In any case, she did not need to go to the dining car, because she had lunch with her. It was only proper to reciprocate his politeness by asking him to join in.
"Actually, I have much food with me. You and Sohini can join us."
He did so very informally when he saw it was indeed in good quantity.
"But I am afraid all the kebabs are made of beef. I am sorry, I do not know if you take it. Maybe you would like the sandwiches instead."
"Oh, don't worry about me. I eat everything. For my little Sohini I have some pooris and halwa."
He was such a humble and kind person that she hushed away all her resentment towards him. Little by little the two little girls, too, had lost their shyness, and by now were engrossed in dressing one of the dolls Imtiaz's sister had given her little niece.
Mahindar Singh ordered tea at five in the evening, for himself and for Roohi.
He kept trying to interest the girls in the scenery they were passing through, even though they paid little attention.
"It is getting dark," he said, "so you will not be able to see the river we are going to cross. But you will hear the dhuk-a-dhuk as the train rushes over it, between the iron railings on both sides."
It was when night fall that even the Sikh felt that it is not appropriate to be in the same compartment with a single strange woman sleeping even though they both were accompanied with their children.
"Bahenji," he addressed her, "I am going to see if I can find some place for myself for the night in another bogey. Maybe in the third class they might give me some room to squeeze in. I can sit for the rest of the journey. We will be reaching in a very short while."
She did not know whether or not to protest politely. It seemed a possible solution. He straightened his turban, and checked his wallet, and prepared to get down at the next stop.
But he never made it.
There was suddenly a terrifying shriek of brakes and a thunderous jolt, then the floor of the room rose up higher and higher in the air, hurtling all of them from one corner to another, then it crashed down.
Next moment the whole river, as it seemed, poured in through the windows and door. The latter was pushed outwards and in a moment wrenched off.
There were screams, shouts, horrendous crashes, nightmare cries. There was water, water everywhere. The bridge had broken, and their bogey, along with two others, was in the water.
In a split second, before the horrified parents could do anything, both the children had been sucked out by the raging tide, and were gone.
"Munnie! Minnie!" Roohi was shouting like a mad woman. She had, at the first jolt, caught hold of the overhead bunk, and was hanging there with the waters raging around her. The Sikh had also somehow saved himself, and his unbelieving terrified calls for his Sohini echoed her hysterical screams.
Hundreds of people were thrashing around in the dark night waters. Some could swim, and were trying to help those who could not. Broken spars, items of luggage, could be discerned sporadically in the pitch dark, bobbing on the surface of the inky dark water. Those who saw the planks were making for these, and clambering on to them, or just holding on.
Agonized, terrified wails filled the night air.
He pushed past the still hanging form of the ceaselessly screaming Roohi, and plunged into the dark waters outside. He swam without direction this way and that, gasping as from time to time he lifted his head above the swirling water and shouted, "Sohini! Sohini! Answer me, Sohini! Where are you?"
His hands encountered a head. It was lolling strangely under the water. With violently trembling hands he succeeded in dragging it above the surface. To his intense relief he discovered the lifeless head was that of a drowned man, not his little girl's.
Dozens of volunteers had converged from the unbroken bogies. He turned and saw they had rescued Roohi, but she was struggling insanely, screaming incessantly, "Let me go! Let me go into the water with my Minnie!"
That is what he would do, drown with his little one in the same consuming water.
Then he saw dimly in the dark that on one bank they had laid down, unattended for the present, a number of near-drowned passengers whom they had managed to pull out. He swam towards them, where they lay moaning, crying, lighted dimly by a distant hurricane lamp.
By the time he reached them, a small crowd had swooped down on them. Some, shrieking with relief and happiness, were already clasping to their breasts the limp, supine figures.
"O great Guruji," he prayed as he had never prayed before, "Oh, grant me this one prayer, I shall never, never ask you for anything again. Not for money, nor for a job, not for my own health. Give me, oh, I beg of you, give me back my little motherless child."
Had the Guru really heard?
"There's a little girl over there," someone answered in response to his wildly repeated queries, pointing to a little slight form lying by itself in the dark. "We pulled her out from the water, near the second class compartment, where you say you were. She was alive then. I do not know whether she still is."
His heart hammering, he dashed, tripping, stumbling, over the uneven river bank towards the indicated child, lying far from the others, in almost total darkness. But he was sure she was his.
He caught hold of a doctor roughly by his sleeve, and said, "Attend to her. Tell me, she is of course alive, isn't she?"
The doctor had just time to confirm this before another man had caught him and dragged him away.
He pinioned the little helpless unconscious form to his broad chest and raced towards a departing ambulance, his long wet hair, deprived of its lost turban, streaming in the night air. He sat in a dark corner of the overcrowded vehicle, clasping his precious burden to his heart.
The paramedics waiting at the other end snatched the child from him and raced her towards the Emergency. "She's breathing," they reported, "she needs urgent resuscitation."
He paced outside the room, unmindful of his own soaked garments, till they called out to him.
"You can take her home now. She is not completely conscious, but she is out of danger."
With limbs trembling so violently he could not control them, he moved towards the table on which the little child was lying, his arms outstretched to caress her.
And then he stopped still.
It was not his Sohini. It was Minnie.
The room whirled around him. He tried to keep his balance, but he fell to the floor unconscious. "It was the joy of finding her alive that was too much for him," the other occupants of the ward were saying sympathetically, as they rubbed his hands and chafed his temples.
To be continued...