As soon as he came, he rushed out of the room to the site of the accident again, but all the volunteers stopped him.
"There is nobody alive there," they told him. "The rest are all dead."
"No! no! he screamed, "My innocent little Sohini is - NOT – dead!"
His sobs were choking him.
"Kindly remove the patient, we need the table for the next one," the doctors said impatiently.
He dashed outside, and stopped a taxi. "Take me to the train accident." He did not have his wallet with him: it had been washed away by the river.
"Hey, pay the fare!" the taxi driver shouted after him, but he had run with furiously flying legs to the water edge.
The site was encircled by uniformed policemen who, batons in hand, were beating back those who tried to go nearer.
"Move back! Move back!" they shouted. Looting and stealing had commenced in the submerged compartments, which was why they had been called in.
They would not let him pass. "My child! My child!" he kept shouting, "I must save my child!"
"You cannot save anyone now," they said kindly but firmly, "Anyone who could have been saved has already been saved, and each one of them has by now been claimed by their families. They are dredging the river for dead bodies. A few have been found, but unfortunately most of them were washed away in the water."
An ambulance took him back to where he had left the still semi-conscious Minnie.
He was the last (supposed) parent there, and they were waiting impatiently for him to take the little girl home.
"But she is not my child! I want my Sohini! This is not my Sohini!" he screamed madly, "I do not want her. Give her to her parents!"
But there were no claimants.
A veiled woman came up to him, and placed her hand on his shoulder.
"My son," she said gently, "You say this is not your child. But she is someone's child. She is an innocent victim. Apparently her parents are drowned. Take care of her. Perhaps the All-Knowing has given her to you in place of your own daughter. Let her be your child."
He could not take in what she was saying. But the ambulance driver was honking the horn, and the paramedics picked up the senseless child and bundled him out with it into the waiting vehicle. Mechanically, he gave them his address.
Slowly he climbed the worn stairs to his littlel flat. He heard the loud prayers of his aged mother and younger sister, interrupted occasionally by hysterical screams of agony.. They had frozen with terror when they had learned over the radio the news of the train catastrophe. Since then they had been praying incessantly, the holy Garanth open in front of them, stopping only sometimes to scream and beat their breasts and dash their heads against the wall.
Hours later Mahindar came in. They rushed screaming in inexpressible, unbelieving joy to embrace him, his mother weeping hysterically in her happiness. She was thanking the great Guru again and again for his infinite mercy in saving her only son.. Without looking at it, she took the limp child from his arms, and passed it on to her daughter. Hugging her son to herself, she covered him with kisses, then again stopped to thank Him for his infinite mercy in saving her beloved child...
She did not immediately think of Sohini..
But the aunt, who had clasped the wet child to her breast, suddenly cried out, "But this is not our Sohini! Where is our own little Sohini? Who is this that you have brought?"
It took Mahindar some time to explain in incoherent sentences what had happened. The grandmother and the aunt both burst into loud, wild weeping at the fate of their beloved little one. The older woman kept thanking God over and over again for giving back to her her strong, dutiful son, even as she mourned over the death of the little darling of the family. "He has heard my prayers," she sobbed, "He has saved my loved one, my own son, the support of my old age." And then she would wail, "My Soni, my pet, where are you? You cannot leave us. We cannot live without you."
Mahindar Singh staggered into his own small room, and with water still oozing from his shirt and trousers, fell face downwards on the maroon plastic covered couch. He was not fully conscious, but neither did he have the relief of complete unconsciousness.
Little innocent sentences and actions of Sohini, most of them from her early childhood, were echoing in a confused roar in his ears. "Pitaji, my doll wants you to hold her. Pitaji, do up my buttons at the back. Pitaji, will you bring me some hot jalebis on your return from your office?" She of course could not remember her mother, who had given up her own life bringing Sohini into the world.. Mahindar had been both mother and father to her.
Where was she now? What had been her terrified last thoughts, her screams? "Pitaji! Pitaji!" He had always been there to help her, to protect her. But the heartless water would not have even let her shout. It must have choked her little soft mouth, blinded her pretty, dark, almond-shaped eyes. She must have struggled with all the strength of her four and a half years, searching for the fond father who had never failed her, who could not, could not have left her to face danger – death – alone.
He was roused from his semi-somnolence by a child' unceasing weeping. He sat bolt upright. But searing remembrance returned... It was not Sohini. His Sohini was dead, unbreathing and lifeless, trapped down, hundreds of yards, thousands of tons under the dark unpitying waters.
His own sobs matched those of the little girl in the other room.
His mother came in, concealing her tears behind the sodden corner of her cotton sari. She put her wrinkled arms around him, and held him tight to her as if he had been a child. "There, there, my son, my child. She is watching us, she is with us, though we do not see her. She is at peace. Do not hurt her little heart by crying. She will be unhappy if she sees you unhappy. What was fated has happened. At least you, my own son, my only son, have been given back to me."
Her intended words of comfort were cut short by her own uncontrollable sobbing.
"Maji. Maji," like a little boy he clung to her for support. "What was the meaning of our God in sending the wrong child to me? How can she ever take the place of our own little one? "
He freed himself strongly from her embrace as she said slowly and sadly, "What I am thinking is that she seems to have been sent deliberately by fate to comfort us for our terrible loss. Maybe, Mahindar, she has been sent to us because her own parents are dead, and she needs a home and protection. Let us give her all our love and care. Let us try to make her forget her own family. Maybe she will one day come to look on us as her own. Maybe we will start loving her like our own little lost one."
He could not speak. He knew the father had not been with her, and must be safe and well at home. He had also seen her mother being rescued, though whether she ever regained her sanity he could not say.
But it was his own Sohini he wanted, not a substitute, though ever so pitiable.
For several days Minnie – whom they had started calling Mohini – refused to eat anything. With difficulty Mahindar's sister, while lulling her with a story, would slip some spoonfuls of sweet milk inside her mouth, then induce a few mouthfuls of soft rice between her terrified clenched teeth.
They were unceasingly loving with her, showering her with new toys, picture books, all kinds of sweets. Occasionally she spoke a few words. The grandmother was trying hard to make herself love the little changeling like her own darling Sohini. Mahindar tried to comfort his sad heart by occasionally letting himself believe this was indeed his little lost one..
But often he heard her sobbing at night, burying her face in his mother's kind bosom.
Was it right to keep someone else's child? Was it right to make the heartbroken mother and father mourn all their lives for one who they believed was gone for ever? For one who was alive and well? one who was crying and breaking her heart for them?
His religion did not teach him to hurt another.
Was it fair to deprive a little innocent child of the love of her real mother and father, of the security of the home she had been born into, the centre of all affection and closeness for her since her birth?
A few nights later Mahindar had a disturbing dream. He and Sohini, his own Sohini, were playing hide-and-seek, and she had hidden somewhere for him to find. He searched and searched, but could not discover her hiding place. He was laughing and joking, when suddenly he came face to face with a wild woman, her hair in mad disarray, who was screaming insanely, "Let me go into the water with my little one! Let me drown with her! I cannot live – I will not live without my child!"
He sat up. He could still hear her heartrending screams: "Minnie! Minnie, Come back to me! My own Minnie! I cannot let you go!"
He paced about the room till it was dawn. Then he quietly dressed and went into the adjoining room. His sleeping mother had her wrinkled arms lovingly round the little child, but the latter was awake, and when she looked at him, the tears welled up in her round eyes.
"I want to go to my Ammi," she pleaded with him.
"I will take you to her, I promise," he said.
He got his sister to make him some breakfast. Then he went to the railway station. He was hoping the booking office would not be so crowded at this early hour, but it was.
"I need some information, please," he said very politely, but they could hardly hear him above the din.. He repeated his question twice, and a clerk said, "You should go to the information office. We only book seats here."
He waited before explaining courteously, "I want to know the name of a lady passenger who was traveling in the Second Class compartment with a little girl, on the train that met with the accident."
"There were several passengers, we don't have the time to look up the names of all those who traveled."
Mahindar held out his hand as if to shake the other's, and quietly slipped a hundred rupee note in it.
"Come back in the afternoon," said the clerk, relenting.
But in the afternoon he was absent. The others said he had finished his shift, the Sardarji should come back tomorrow.
Next day again he could not meet him.
Mahindar had had to take another week's leave from office. Added to what he had already taken ahead of his aborted trip to Delhi, and which he had spent looking day and night after Minnie, he had, he was told, used up all his leave entitlement. He would now have to avail of his unpaid emergency leave.
He spent almost the whole week making trips to the elusive railway clerk. Six days and another hundred rupee note later, the clerk called him into an inner office.
"See, this is the register. Now what date are you talking about?"
To him it was just a date in the calendar, to Mahindar it was the end, the destruction, of a happy, serene loving family life.
"The twenty-second of July."
"In the Ladies Compartment there were six passengers. Shall I read out the names?"
"I am not talking about the Ladies Compartment, The general compartment, Second Class. "
"Then she was with her husband. Let me see the names of the couples listed here."
"Please, Babu Sahib," Mahindar tried hard to control his temper "I told you I am talking not about a couple, but a woman traveling with a little girl."
"What was she doing alone in the general compartment? -- Oh, yes, here is a name.
Mrs Ijaz or something. No, it is Imtiaz. And with her there is a child, half fare, which means below five."
"Does it give the name and address of the father ?"
"No, -- but, look there is a telephone number. We always take this, in case there is a cancellation or change of schedule."
"A telephone number! I cannot thank you enough."
The clerk looked hopefully at Mahindar's hand, but the latter did not feel it necessary to spend anything more. He had got what he wanted.
He called the cell number. There was a strange noisy murmur at the other end. He rang up again and again. He waited fifteen minutes. No response. He rang up every ten minutes. Again the loud whisper.
Then finally he understood. The mobile phone was at the bottom of the river.
"Will you let me now talk to Ammi?" The little child had been hopping from leg to leg in excitement and impatience..
"No, Mohini, I can't reach her."
"But you had said you would connect the number! You had promised! " She was pummeling him with her little fists, screaming at him. "I want to go home! I will NOT stay with you! Take me home, or I will bite you!"
He remembered how Sohini used to throw the same tantrums sometimes. But this was more serious.
He had made a promise, and he had to keep it.
Next day he rang up the Pakistam High Commission in Delhi. They could make nothing of what he was saying, and told him impatiently to come personally and explain what he wanted.
He asked his office for another fortnight's leave, bus his officer ordered him to join within three days or consider himself dismissed.
He had no choice. Perhaps he would find another job.
"Make the child ready," he told his sister, "I am going to the railway station to book two seats for us. I will go with Mohini by train to Delhi."
But at the word 'train' the little child started screaming wildly. "No! no! I will not go in the train! No! Don't take me in the train! No! The water will come in! It will drown me! I want my Ammi and my Abbu! I will not go in the train. Take me to my Ammi and Abbu, or I will kick and scratch you!"
He had to borrow some money from his aged mother to book tickets by Air India.
In Delhi he had an old friend who very hospitably gave him a room. That is where he had planned originally to stay.
Next day, accompanied by Minnie dressed in Sohini's best dress, which was only a little bit loose on her, and Sohini's sandals, which almost fitted her, he went to the High Commission.
They could not understand what he wanted, and made little effort to do so.
"Now tell us, Sardarji Sahib, is this your daughter or isn't she?"
"She is not my daughter, she is a Pakistani child, that is why I have brought her to you."
"So what are you doing with her? Why don't you take her to her parents?"
To be continued...