Amil lay stretched out on the daybed in the living room, trying to balance a thick charcoal pencil on the tip of his nose, his sketchbook sitting open on his chest. He finally got the pencil balanced, and it stood proudly, extending into the air.
“Look!” he said to Nisha, trying to keep his head still.
Nisha’s head jerked up from her writing just as the pencil toppled to the ground. She was always writing something. She used to write every day in her diary. Now she wrote secret stories she wouldn’t let anyone see. She stopped writing in her diary because she said it hurt too much to think about the before. She didn’t want to think about the old India—before their horrible walk across the new border, before Amil almost died and Dadi almost died, before the man with the knife tried to attack Nisha, before they saw what they saw on the train.
“You’re distracting me,” she said when the pencil hit the floor.
“Aw, you missed it,” he said.
“Missed what?” she asked, absorbed in her writing.
“Forget it," he said, and sighed.
He got up, grabbed the pencil from the cool tile floor, and plunked himself back on the daybed. He decided to draw a quick self-portrait for his mama of what he looked like now. It felt like a message he was sending to her that was somehow different than what she could perhaps see of him in real life.
Amil had never known his mother. She died the day he and Nisha were born, and now, more than twelve years later, his family had traveled far from where his life had briefly connected with hers, one ending and one beginning. Did she wonder where they went—Amil, Nisha, Papa, Dadi, and Kazi? Or had she somehow traveled with them?
Maybe she was just gone, like the way a cloud moved across the sky, changing into something else and eventually disappearing into the atmosphere. He hoped she did watch over them, though. He wanted to show her what it had been like after everything happened, the way Nisha kept a diary written to her about what happened before. He wanted to capture what it felt like when the before
became the after
the second it went by. It was like catching air.
He liked drawing much better than writing. Writing was not his favorite thing to do, and reading was even harder. Nisha loved his drawings. She said it was like magic, how he could think of a thing and create it on paper so easily. Drawing set his fingers free.
It was hot for January, so they stayed out of the sun on this sleepy Thursday afternoon while their dadi wrote her letters and Kazi prepared dinner. Papa did his “paperwork.” Neither Nisha nor Amil knew exactly what that meant, but Papa sure seemed to have a lot of it.
It wasn’t just any old day, though. It was New Year’s Day, January 1, 1948. Last night, on New Year’s Eve, Papa had let them stay up late so they could walk to the pier at Apollo Bunder just before midnight. Amil was surprised that Papa wanted to do this. He never seemed to be in a mood to celebrate anything lately, but something about last night felt different. Even Kazi and Dadi came.
Amil saw a few other people gathered along the harbor, mostly young men and a few families with older children. Two boys around his age were holding sparklers. When Papa’s watch struck midnight, the boys called out, “Happy New Year!” and someone set off a firecracker into the inky sky over the water. He watched the boys’ sparklers light up the harbor and send sprays of gold into the air. He turned and saw Papa, Kazi, Dadi, and Nisha also taking in the glow, their faces bright and happier than he had seen them in a long time.
He couldn’t help but think of another midnight, the one last August when the first prime minister of India had announced India’s independence. Amil had heard Prime Minister Nehru on the radio in their old house. He’d only listened to part of the speech because it had gone on and on, and Amil had grown bored. But he’d never forget what Nehru said in the beginning: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
That’s when India became free from British rule, partitioned into two countries, and Pakistan was born. Many people had to flee their homes like Amil’s family did because they weren’t safe anymore. Most Muslims went to Pakistan. Most Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Muslims went to India, and everyone started fighting and killing one another. Many starved or became ill and died on the journey. Many people did not awaken to life and freedom.
This midnight felt different, though. Amil knew it wasn’t anything other than a new year on the calendar, but there was something that did feel like the beginning of a new life. It was so strange to think that only a few months ago they had thought they’d never see another celebration. Now here they were, somehow okay and starting over once more. Nothing could wipe away the past, though.
The partition wasn’t really in the past anyway. Amil saw headlines in Papa’s newspaper and heard reports on All India Radio when Kazi and Dadi listened about people still fleeing over the border and communal riots continuing to happen. He couldn’t always understand everything he read or heard, since it was mostly in English, but he understood enough.
He had once seen groups of people coming off the steamship from Karachi at the Alexandra Dock. They looked dazed, squinting into the sun, their bodies limp and tired. He knew how they felt. Papa said there were many refugee camps now for the people who had left Pakistan and didn’t have anywhere to live. Amil had seen the one not too far from their flat in the old military barracks close to Cuffe Parade.
So far, though, their new life in the new India had been peaceful. He
hadn’t seen any more fighting with his own eyes. They had their flat and enough food and a school to go to. He probably wasn’t the only one who hoped 1948 would bring better things. He decided to draw a picture of the night before and freeze it forever.
That’s what he hoped to fill his sketchbook with—better things. He first thought about it when one day, back in Jodhpur, Nisha found him sneaking a look at her diary. He had only meant to read the first few pages, but he kept going. It was like watching their lives unfold again. He was a very slow reader. Sometimes the words looked different to him from one day to the next or were hard to sound out in his mind. Reading the diary, though, made him feel like his sister was speaking just to him, and it was his story too. It also made him imagine his mama.
“Amil,” Nisha had said, “why don’t you draw to let out your feelings? That way Mama can see what everything looks like.” As always, she seemed to know what he was thinking. That’s how it was for them as twins.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What if it doesn’t make sense?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, how will a bunch of pictures make sense like a story?”
“It only matters that it makes sense to you,” Nisha said.
Before he could start his new drawing project for Mama, they had to leave Jodhpur and head to Bombay for Papa’s new job as a substitute for another doctor. Papa’s cousin had written him about the job, and the money was too good to turn down. Amil had put away the drawing idea until a few days ago, when he decided to ask Papa for money to buy a proper sketchbook.
Papa hesitated at first. He told Amil he wanted him to pay more attention in school instead of drawing. That’s what his teachers told him too: that he needed to focus and be serious about his work. No matter how hard he tried or how serious he felt, it didn’t seem to make a difference. A lot of the alphabet looked the same to him. Many of the characters or letters, depending on whether it was Sindhi or English, looked either very similar or like flipped versions of others. Drawing was different. His mind saw the whole thing, every side. When he looked at a ball, it was still a ball no matter which way it turned.
Or, better yet, a scorpion.
Nobody would mistake a scorpion for anything else, no matter which way it faced.
Reading and writing were much easier for Nisha, and sometimes this made Amil jealous. Then again, Nisha continued to have trouble talking—not with him or Kazi or Dadi, just with everyone else. She even had trouble with Papa if he was in a strict mood.
Drawing for Mama, though, felt like he was pretending to know her when he didn’t. In fact, it was the way
he was born, feet first, that made her die. He knew it wasn’t his fault, because how could he help such a thing? He never knew her, she never knew him, and that gave him a sad, empty feeling. Nisha said it helped her to write to Mama during those horrible days when they had to leave Mirpur Khas. Nisha said if he wanted to try drawing for her, he should.
So here he was, trying. Sometimes, on a calm day like today, he even wondered if their awful journey had really happened. His bad memories wouldn’t let him forget, though. They crept up on him and rippled through his body when he least expected it.
Amil got up and looked out the window at the crowded city street. He missed the wider spaces of their old home in Mirpur Khas. He didn’t mind the buzzing energy he felt here in Bombay, though. In a way, it was an outside that matched his insides more. Maybe they would stay here and maybe they wouldn’t. He had learned that things could change as quickly as a glass of water falling to the floor and smashing to pieces.
He wondered if this was how their lives would always be, suddenly moving from one place to another before something bad happened. All he could do now was show Mama some of these moments, like snapshots from a camera—snapshots of what it was like to start over when your old life had vanished and the road ahead was new and strange and always changing.
He could show her what happened after. Chapter Two
Amil felt lighter the next day on the way to school. The breeze that morning had a freshness to it, like the air had been washed clean. The way he felt was also because of the drawings he had done for his mama, like he was taking small stones out of his pocket and giving them to her to hold, one by one.
On the way home, he touched Nisha’s arm and pointed at his favorite chaatwala. She nodded and they headed toward the cart. The vendor knew them by now, and his onion pakoras were the best, the perfect balance of crispy, salty tang. Amil was also starting to get used to everything he saw on his walk home. There was the mithai shop with the window display full of tempting sweets in all shapes and sizes, and the café where Papa got his newspaper and sometimes stopped for chai. There was the junk shop and the tiniest store selling saris—the fabric, in every color he could imagine, stacked high against the wall.
“Two onion pakoras, please,” he said, holding up his fingers and looking at Nisha.
She nodded again in agreement. He always did the ordering. Nisha hated ordering for herself. She said it was even scarier than talking to her teachers at school.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the two anna coins he’d snatched yesterday from the loose change Papa kept on his nightstand. Papa never seemed to notice. Handing over the coins made Amil think of how grumpy Papa had been lately, saying that the hospital was too busy and disorganized, rubbing his forehead, knitting his brows. Amil wanted things to be good for Papa so they would stay put. He was getting used to life here even if he didn’t have any friends yet.
“Do you think Papa likes his new job?” Amil asked Nisha as they nibbled slowly on their small bundles of pakora.
“I don’t know. He complains about it a lot.”
“He said that the doctor he’s covering for might not come back,” Amil said. “I hope he doesn’t.”
“Didn’t Papa say if things went well, they’d keep him on anyway?”
“I think so,” Amil said. “But what if Papa doesn’t want to stay?”
The other doctor was supposed to return by the end of the month. This knowledge felt like the rumble of thunder Amil could hear in the distance before a big storm.
“I try not to think about it,” said Nisha.
They crossed the busy street, and a boy on shiny black bicycle whizzed by, causing them to jump out of the way. They heard the boy laugh as he continued down the street, wind blowing his hair back, his bicycle moving faster than some of the cars on the street. They watched until he rounded the curve of the road, out of sight.
“How rude! He almost hit us,” Nisha said, smoothing her braid, which peeked out from below her dupatta.
“I know,” Amil replied. Inside, though, his chest hurt for a different reason. He wished he were that boy. That boy didn’t have a care in the world. That boy could go anywhere he wanted to go on his shiny bicycle and no one could stop him.
Amil and Nisha decided to take the long way home by the harbor. They sat and looked out on the water, eating slowly. This was his favorite part of Bombay, the shimmering blue Arabian Sea hugging the city. He had never seen water like that before. He took a deep breath, inhaling the salty sea air, and watched the seagulls swoop and dive. He thought about the ship he’d seen last week with hundreds of people coming off from Pakistan and hundreds on the dock waiting to leave. He turned to Nisha.
“Do you ever wish we could reverse time?”
“What do you mean?” she said, and wiped some crumbs off her mouth.
“I don’t know, just go back. It seems so easy, looking at these boats.”
“Maybe we’ll go back someday,” she said. “Not back in time, just home. Things won’t stay this way forever. Dadi seems to think we’ll go back.”
“Papa doesn’t. When he says we’ll never go back, Dadi says he’s not old enough to understand. But I think Papa’s pretty old and seems to understand everything,” Amil replied. Everything except for me,
Amil didn’t think they’d go back either. He still didn’t understand why India had to become two countries. It had only turned everyone against one another, especially Muslims and Hindus. He wondered what they would have done if Mama had been alive. Would they have stayed, Papa converting to Islam to be like Mama? Or would she have left that part of her behind when they came here together, Mama acting as a Hindu like Kazi had to when he was outside? Maybe someday Amil would understand.
After they finished eating, they headed toward 1st Pasta Lane. Amil couldn’t stop thinking about the seagulls flying and the boy flying by on his bike. He watched their new chappals hit the sidewalk, flip flop
, flip flop
. He knew he shouldn’t wish for extra things like a bicycle. Right now, he was lucky to have new chappals on his feet. Right now, he and Nisha had a school to go to. Right now, they had a flat with three rooms instead of one. Right now, they were safe. Right now, they were alive.
They ran upstairs, racing each other like always, and Amil won like always.
“It’s just because you have longer legs,” Nisha said, out of breath.
“If you say so,” he said, smirking, and opened the door.
Kazi greeted them from the stove. Dadi wasn’t in her chair, so she was probably taking her afternoon rest. Though the flat was bigger than the one in Jodhpur, it got hot. The sun poured in through the big windows. The small building stood only three stories high. Bombay had much taller buildings, some of the tallest Amil had ever seen. The taller buildings must have had lifts to take people up and down.
He and Kazi slept on the two daybeds against either wall in the main living room. Papa had a small room behind the kitchen area near the washroom. Dadi and Nisha shared the bigger room off the living room and slept on two cots. At least they had more furniture now. In Jodhpur, they had only a table and four chairs and their bedrolls.
Back in Jodhpur, Kazi would eat near his bedroll after he served them. In some ways, it was the same routine they had in Mirpur Khas, but there Kazi had his own cottage. Papa had insisted he sit with them at the table, but Kazi wouldn’t. Kazi had always been much more to Amil than a servant, though.
It was here in Bombay that Kazi started sitting at the table with them. It just happened. It was as if Kazi had not only crossed the new border of India to find them, but had crossed another line, too, in their home. He continued to cook, clean, and shop for them every day, and Amil wasn’t even sure if Papa still paid him. He thought Papa should because Kazi did all that work, but did that mean someday Kazi could go and work for another family who paid him more?
The thought made Amil feel a little queasy. He shook it away as he and Nisha put their schoolbags down. Kazi gave them a plate of papads and two steaming cups of chai.
“Thank you, Uncle,” Amil said, emphasizing the Uncle
part. They didn’t used to call Kazi Uncle
. That was another thing that had changed.
They ate and drank their papads and chai and afterward settled on the daybeds with their schoolwork. Instead of working on the composition he was supposed to be writing, Amil took out his sketchpad and looked over his drawings.
He could hear Dadi snoring a little from the bedroom. Kazi banged about in the kitchen. The noises distracted Amil. He could never tune them out the way Nisha could.
“I wish we had our own room like before,” he said to Nisha, who was organizing her things on the other daybed. Some days he longed for the before more than others. Today was that kind of day. Papa said it wasn’t proper anymore for them to share a room. Nor was it proper for Dadi to have to sleep in the living room with Kazi, and that, Amil understood.
He looked at Nisha and whispered, “Kazi snores too. Like an elephant.”
Nisha started to laugh and put her hand over her mouth.
“Dadi doesn’t sound like an elephant,” she whispered back.
“No,” Amil said. “She sounds like a cat in the rain.” “
A cat in the rain? A cat in the rain doesn’t make a sound at all,” Nisha replied.
“Oh yes it does, Nisha. Meeeeeuuuu, meeeeuuuu, meeeeuuuu!”
Nisha laughed so hard that tears began to fall. He started to draw her.
It was first time he had seen Nisha laugh like that since the before. They didn’t laugh a lot these days. Although Amil was hardly ever alone, he felt lonely. In a way, he felt lonelier now than he had in Jodhpur.
At dinner that night, he stared at his mound of aloo gobi and rice, and at the palak paratha stacked up on a plate in front of him. He wrinkled his nose. He liked plain or aloo paratha the best. The palak made it too green and depressing, like moldy bread.
Nisha had seen his face when she put down the paratha.
“Don’t be so picky,” she said in a low voice. She had no tolerance for him not liking certain foods.
“Eat,” Papa said, and pointed to the paratha. “We’re blessed to have this food.”
Amil took a deep breath and put half a paratha on the side of his plate. Then he mixed the rice and aloo gobi together and stuffed a pinch into his mouth. Papa stared at him, then eyed the paratha, so he used a little corner of it to scoop up more of the curry.
“Papa, I have a question,” Amil finally said, to distract his father.
Papa paused his own eating and leaned back in his chair. Amil knew Papa was tired from the hospital and didn’t usually like to talk much at dinner. The silence, though, made Amil want to climb out of his skin.
“Yes,” Papa said. “What is it?”
Amil cleared his throat. “I was just wondering who we’re blessed by,” he said.
Papa waited a few seconds, and Amil shifted in his chair.
are we blessed by?” Papa asked.
“Um, yes,” Amil said, deciding to continue because anything was better than the silence. “I was thinking about how Dadi prays one way and Kazi prays another way and you don’t pray. At least I don’t see you pray. So who do you think we’re blessed by?”
Dadi made a small sucking noise with her teeth, softly shaking her head. Nisha raised her eyebrow at him. That was Nisha’s signal for him to stop talking. He knew she hated when he asked questions like this, questions she thought were too personal and would irritate Papa or make him go into some sort of lecture. There was so much Amil needed to understand, though, especially now.
“You know how I feel about these things,” Papa said after a few seconds.
Amil wasn’t sure. “I forget. Tell me again?”
Nisha kicked Amil under the table. He ignored her and kept his eyes on Papa.
Papa sighed and continued. “We’re blessed by anything watching over us. What’s bad is telling anyone else who they should pray to or thinking one religion is better than the other. That’s what gets us into a lot of trouble.”
“Back in Mirpur Khas, people seemed okay with different ways of praying. We went to the Sikh temple,” Amil said.
“Yes,” Papa said. “Many Sindhi Hindus pray with the Sikhs. Some Hindus went to Sufi shrines too. Our community had Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains all going about their business. There was even the Jewish synagogue in Karachi. I have no perfect answer, Amil. Just be an honest member of society; that’s the most important thing, not prayer.”
Dadi put her cup down heavily. Then she got up from the table and shuffled to her room.
Papa called out, “Ma.” She kept going and disappeared behind the closed door. He glanced back at Amil, anger flashing in his eyes. “Now you’ve upset your grandmother,” Papa said. “Just be quiet for once and eat your supper.”
Amil swallowed hard. He tried to eat even though his stomach felt funny. What he wanted to say was that Papa had upset Dadi, not him. He looked at Nisha and Kazi for help. They kept eating, their eyes cast down at their plates. He knew Dadi wanted him and Nisha to be taught how to be more serious Hindus. She didn’t like when Papa said things like that.
Amil couldn’t remember a day she didn’t spend time praying in front of her altar in the corner of her room.
After dinner, Kazi came up to him when Papa had left the kitchen.
“Do you want to know my answer?” he asked.
“Oh,” Amil said, lighting up, “yes!”
He was surprised that Kazi wanted to talk about it. Kazi tended to keep more to himself lately. Amil wondered if it was because the outside world in Bombay made him feel unsafe and unwanted. They were supposed to call him Kavi in public, a Hindu name. Papa was probably right that if there wasn’t religion, India would have stayed whole. Yet Amil wondered if people would have just chosen something else to fight about.
“I agree there’s no right way,” said Kazi. “However, practicing Islam helps me see the good in people. It’s the way I respect the memory of my parents. It’s something I can always count on, and that’s why Dadi’s Hindu practice is important to her. Different religions, same reasons.”
It was hard to imagine Kazi as a little boy with parents. “You can count on me, too, Uncle,” Amil said.
Kazi laughed. “Why do you think I risked my life to join you here? We’re family now.” He reached out and patted Amil’s cheek like he used to do. Amil nodded, relieved.
With Papa retired to his room and Kazi busy washing the dinner plates, Amil sat next to Nisha on the sofa.
“Why do you have to ask Papa these kinds of questions?” she said.
“Isn’t it worth the risk? Don’t we always learn something?”
“Not when Papa gets mad or Dadi gets upset,” she said.
“I don’t want to upset anyone. But I don’t only want to learn about fractions and geometry and correct grammar either,” he told her, feeling upset himself. “I’m not going to read heaps of books like you, Nisha.”
“Now, don’t you
get angry,” she said, wagging her finger at him. “I’ll help you read anything you want.”
“Sorry,” he said, and sighed. He felt so tired. Before they left Mirpur Khas, he often thought only about how he would have the most fun—would he play some cricket, hang out with his friends, get his hands on some sweets? Now his mind swirled with complicated questions. There wasn’t enough to distract him. He wished his mama could help him understand. Somehow, he believed that she would know the answers.
His thoughts returned to the bicycle he’d seen. A bicycle would help get his mind off things. Other kids would admire him, ask for rides, and want to be his friend. Because if there was anything in the world he wanted more than a bike, it was a friend. He decided then and there that if he couldn’t get Papa to buy him one, he’d find a way to buy one himself.
Copyright © 2024 by Veera Hiranandani. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.