An extract from A. P. Firdaus’s debut novel, Remember, Mr Sharma, published by Sceptre in July 2023.
She is alone on the terrace and the light is bleeding out of the sky. She stands with her back to the setting sun, holding a pile of clothes in her arms, and looks towards the horizon that has already gone dark. In the distance, flickering orange fires dot the vast plains stretching as far as Adi can see, even with the vulture’s super sight. He leans in closer to get a better look at the woman’s face and finds his vision zooming in like a movie camera. He recognises her at once, remembering the sharp jaw, the pursed lips, the kind and radiant eyes that he has only seen in black-and-white photographs. It is Nani, Ma’s ma. She is young and strong and full of colour now, her green kurta printed with pink flowers glowing despite the darkness around her.
‘Toshi!’ calls out a woman’s voice. ‘Hurry up, come and help your derani.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Adi whispers, struggling to keep up with the Punjabi.
‘Please, Mr Sharma,’ the vulture shushes him. ‘Just pay attention, you will understand.’
‘But what’s a derani?’
‘Your Nani’s husband’s brother’s wife, or sister-in-law, as they say. Now, quiet please.’
Nani crouches under a clothesline to cross the terrace and looks down into the courtyard where an old lady is sitting on a rope charpai, leaning on a cane like a wise woman, or a witch. In the middle of the courtyard lies a glowering drum made of clay, like the tandoors outside restaurants, and Nani’s sister-in-law is busy sticking chapatis into it. Two little girls run in circles around the courtyard, chasing each other in turns.
Adi feels the shock, the heat of the explosion before he hears the thundering blast. At first, he wonders if the tandoor has blown up. But as he holds his breath for a long, slow moment, night turns into day, lighting up the courtyard where everyone stands frozen in place, looking up in confusion at the empty sky.
Then come the sounds — the roaring, the crackling, the screaming. Nani runs across the terrace and stares out to the other side with her hand over her mouth. A large building at the end of the street — a factory of some kind with a big yard full of wooden logs — is on fire. The very air around it seems to be burning in a bright halo, and orange flames grow higher with every heartbeat, leaping out of broken windows, snapping like hungry dogs.
The screams are not from people in pain, Adi realises. They are the cries of men. He sees them now, coming up the street in a tight group, chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. They sound just like the fans chanting ‘Ind-i-aaa — India!’ during cricket matches with Pakistan, but instead of flags and badly drawn posters, they are carrying flaming torches, waving swords that glint red and yellow in the firelight.
Nani runs down the spiral staircase, into the courtyard, and lifts one of the little girls in her arms. Her sister-in-law grabs the second girl. Just as the old woman rises from the charpai, the double doors of the house slam open and a Sardaar-ji walks into the courtyard, leaning on a crutch. The women look relieved on seeing him, but only for a moment.
‘Tussi kitthé si?’ says Nani, ‘Where were you?’ but the man does not answer. Despite his limp left leg, he stands tall and strong, broad-shouldered and bulky as a WWF wrestler. He is wearing an army uniform but instead of camouflage pants, he has wide khaki shorts over long socks that make him look slightly absurd, like a grown man in a child’s clothes. Like the British-era soldiers in the history textbook, Adi realises. He has a long rifle slung over his shoulder and he is carrying a sword that shines dully in the pale night.
Behind him, a lanky man comes up with two black canisters and drops them in the middle of the courtyard. It must be the big man’s brother, Adi reckons — the sister-in-law’s husband.
‘Bi-ji,’ says the big man to the old woman, bowing to touch her feet. ‘Take these.’ He points to the canisters. ‘You know what to do.’
He can understand a lot of the Punjabi, Adi suddenly realises. Perhaps all that eavesdropping on Ma’s phone calls was not useless after all.
The old woman nods and pats the man on his back, and the man turns to Nani, who is standing still. He has a great black beard and his eyes look glazed over, glistening with malice, and it reminds Adi of his father’s eyes from years ago, when he used to finish a bottle of Old Monk Very Old Vatted XXX Rum every night.
Nani, still holding the girl in her arms, shakes her head. She walks up to the man, yelling in such rapid-fire Punjabi that Adi struggles to pick up a single word.
The man smiles at her — a chilling smile that gleams like the sword he is carrying. He slaps Nani across her face, so hard that she nearly stumbles and falls. Nani looks at the man with fire in her eyes, and the girl in her arms begins to wail. Her sister-in-law rushes ahead and puts an arm around her, pulling her away.
Still smiling, the big man pulls his turban off and shakes his hair free, the thick curls falling down to his waist. He hands the sword to his brother, who has finished piling up broken wooden crates and newspapers and bedsheets in the middle of the courtyard, and is now standing with drooping shoulders, staring at the other little girl hiding behind Nani’s sister-in-law.
‘Bolé so nihaal, sutt-sri-akaal!’ the big man yells, holding his rifle aloft, as if he is a general and the women are his troops going into battle. Adi has heard the words, chanted softly in a gurudwara after the end of evening prayers, but he does not quite know their meaning. They do seem to energise the younger brother, who holds up the sword and follows the big man as he limps out of the courtyard and shuts the doors behind them.
‘Chhétti!’ The old woman waves her cane at the canisters. ‘Quick!’
Nani’s sister-in-law picks up one of the metal canisters, unscrews the cap, and tilts it over the pile of wood and cloth. A clear stream the colour of pee drenches the pile. Nani covers her mouth again — in shock or because of the smell, Adi can’t tell.
‘Santosh?’ The old woman walks up to Nani and speaks slowly, as if to a child. ‘We are Sikhnis. We have the blood of Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji. We can have our heads cut off but we cannot bow before these Mussalmans.’
‘But Bi-ji,’ Nani protests, ‘we can ask the neighbours. Doctor Ahmed will help us.’
‘Look at them.’ The old woman points to the house next to theirs, its doors shut, its windows boarded up. ‘Where are they? Can they not see what’s happening? Have they gone blind?’
‘But, but Doctor Ahmed,’ Nani stutters. ‘He, he said—’
‘They all said many things.’ The old woman wipes her eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter now. Don’t fear, my child, Wahé Guru Ji will protect us.’
The screams outside are getting louder and the smoke, billowing over the street, has taken on an eerie red glow. Nani turns to her sister-in-law, who is kneeling before her little girl, staring at her with great concentration, as if she is trying to memorise the shape of her face. Behind her, the makeshift pyre has lit up, the flames rising higher with every second.
‘Come now,’ the old woman says with a heavy sigh. ‘It’s time.’
Clasping her little girl, Nani begins to shake her head. ‘No. I will not do it.’
Looking closely at the child, Adi tries to make out if it is Ma, no more than five years old here, clinging to Nani.
‘Don’t you know what the Mussalmans will do to you? To your daughter? Is that what you want? Come now,’ the old woman takes Nani’s hand. ‘It has been decided. Do as your karvala said.’
‘What’s a karvala?’ Adi whispers.
‘Your Nani’s husband,’ the vulture says.
‘But . . . that Sardaar-ji was not my Nana?’
‘Quiet, please,’ the vulture hisses, and he shuts up. Another explosion, smaller than the last one, makes the ground shake. It stirs Nani’s sister-in-law into action. She picks up the canister and lifts it over her head.
‘No!’ Nani yells, but the woman is already drenched, her long black plaits flattened into dripping ribbons, shining blue-green-purple in the shifting light. She hands the canister to the old woman, who takes it slowly and does the same. Outside, the crack of a rifle rings through the burning air, bringing a moment of stillness.
Nani hears the voice and nearly jumps. It is a hoarse scream, somehow sounding like a whisper, and it is coming from somewhere close.
Nani runs to the metal door at the back of the courtyard, padlocked and blocked by sacks of flour.
‘Tariq?’ she calls out at the door.
Another shot of the rifle, another moment of silence. She looks up to see a man emerging on top of the boundary wall. She stares at the silhouette glowing orange against the smoky sky. As he turns to face her, she lights up with a smile. It takes a moment for Adi to place the man. He has seen this face too, in old photographs — an older version but with the same long, crooked nose and dimpled chin. This is Nana, Ma’s father. He looks like a college boy with a head of wavy hair and a sharply cut shirt that sparkles in the pale light.
‘Hurry up!’ says Nana. ‘Lift up Kammo first.’
Kammo. That’s not Ma’s nickname, Adi knows; it’s Munno. This must be someone else, then. Did Ma have a sister, he wonders?
Nani runs up to the wall and holds little Kammo up towards Nana’s outstretched arms. By the time the old woman screams and hobbles after them, Nana has dropped Kammo outside and returned, his arm held out for Nani. She grabs on to it and, putting a foot on the old woman’s charpai, heaves herself up to climb over the wall and into the smoky street.
They get on a bicycle — Nana churning the pedals with all the strength in his body, Nani straddling the rear carrier like a man with her legs dangling on either side, and Kammo sandwiched between them. As the cycle weaves through the back lanes, circling around the mobs and burning buildings, Adi tries to get a closer look at the little girl. It’s hard to tell in the darkness but he can bet that she isn’t Ma. Even though her eyes look somewhat familiar, there is something about her — the shape of her head, the curve of her ears, the aura of her? — that is nothing like Ma.
Unable to hold it in, he whispers to the vulture: ‘This Kammo is not my Ma.’
‘So, who is she? And where is Ma?’
‘Look at your Nani,’ says the vulture. ‘Like I said, pay attention.’
Nani is looking back at her house, the flames now starting to rise from the courtyard. She looks unbearably sad, but in her long, slow sigh, Adi can also sense a wave of relief. She has one arm wrapped tightly around Kammo, and the other is on her belly, softly caressing its bulge. It takes him a moment to realise what it means. He has only ever seen two types of people caress their bellies — uncles who like butter chicken and burping in public, and women who are pregnant.
Ma has not been born yet!
The cycle escapes the maze of houses and gets onto a broad road, deserted at this hour, lit only by the pale moon looming over the charred earth. Behind them, Adi can make out the lights of a city around the silhouette of a great fort, along with the glowing white domes of a grand mosque next to it. They look just like the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, he thinks — it must be Delhi — until he spots a white milestone by the highway. He has to lean in further and strain his eyes to read it. ‘Lahore, 3 mi,’ it says.
Lahore, in Pakistan?
Nana and Nani stop and stare at the horizon, at the plumes of grey smoke rising from the city and climbing high into the airless night, like pillars holding up the darkness. After a brief, whispered conversation with Nani that Adi can barely hear, Nana turns the cycle around and launches off with renewed determination, Nani holding tight behind him, hugging Kammo close to her chest. On the other side too, the horizon is blurred by a cloud of flickering smoke and Adi feels a desperate urge to yell out at them, to warn them that they are going the wrong way, away from the city lights and into a sea of fire. And then he sees the milestone on the other side of the road, pointing towards their new direction. ‘Amritsar, 28 mi,’ it says.
Amritsar, in India.
It is such a strange, other-worldly image that it takes Adi a moment to really see it. A little further up the highway, there is a small truck by the side of the road being swallowed by orange flames. On the ground next to it are two men, sitting side by side in a pool of water, their arms tied behind their backs. They are Sardaar-jis, but their turbans lie unspooled before them, covered in locks of roughly chopped hair. Their patchy heads hang over their chests, their lips loose and drooling, and their eyes are open but they never blink. In their laps they hold pale coils of intestines spilling out of their slashed bellies. The black pool that grows around them is thicker than water, he realises. He looks at their faces again and, for an instant, he sees them morphing into boys’ faces, into Sunny and Bunny, and he finds his throat choked up, unable to breathe. He opens his eyes and swallows. He leaps off the ledge to land on the terrace and away, from the shadows, he runs.