A professor of political science, Prabhakar,
comes upon a corpse at a crossroads, naked but
for the skullcap on his head. Days later, he listens
to a friend's stark retelling of a gang rape in a village,
as chilling as only the account of a victim
can be. And in a macabre sequence, he finds his
favourite dhaba no longer serves gular kebabs
and rumali roti, while Bonjour, the fine dining
restaurant run by a gay couple, has been vandalised
by goons. Casting a long shadow over it
all is Mirajkar, the 'Master Mind', brilliant policy
maker and political theorist, who is determined
to rid the country of all elements 'alien' to its culture.
In The Fate of Butterflies, Nayantara Sahgal
reveals, in masterly detail, the unraveling of the
idea of India. But she also offers hope — in people
speaking up for each other; reclaiming citizenship
with compassion and friendship; and
seeking the meaning of life in love. The following
is an excerpt from the book.
A suggestion came from Katerina at dinner
that night at Rahman's. 'Rafeeq's home must be
in one of the areas they're driving people out of
and setting fire to, like the village I was asigned
and other villages around there, or digging up
grounds like the graveyeard. They call it taking
back the land occupied by invaders.'
Rahman had been unlike himself, unnaturally
subdued since the excavation of the graveyard.
It was Salma who asked where the villagers
driven out of their homes had gone.
Katerina didn't know, but one of her colleagues
and co-writer on their book project had said that
in her country the policy of wiping out a religion
had herded whole families into camps, made displaced
people of them while it was decided what
to do next. These were very primitive makeshift shelters with no proper sanitation or water supply
or electricity. People had to rig up their own
electric wiring and scrounge around for wood to
Image Courtesy: Speaking Tiger
'How did she know? Did she see one of these camps?'
'She lived in one of them. She was one of the
herd driven into them. She said guards used to
come at night and separate the women from the
Katerina sensed violent recoil like a live presence
in the room and gave it a minute before continuing,
'We will have to find out where those villagers
are, if they've been put in a camp, and go
there.' Another second of silence told her no one
else's mind had jumped ahead to that course of
action. 'Of course, Rafeeq may not be there but
that's where he's most likely to be. We'll have to
go and see.'
She must not go with them, they protested.
Rahman, with his habitual tenderness for
mankind and more especially for womankind,
said it would be exhausting and emotionally too
much of a strain after all she had been through.
As if she hadn't heard, Katerina told them she
would make enquiries tomorrow morning and go
with them. She had never met Rafeeq and
wouldn't recognize him, but Rahman had said he
had a wife and two children so she would ask
among the women. It could be useful. It had to be
agreed she would go with them tomorrow afternoon
after classes, giving her the morning to find
out where the camp, if there was one, was located.
At the sprawl of tents, hutments and flimsier
shelters concocted out of tin and tarpaulin,
Katerina suggested they divide up for a thorough
search for Rafeeq, not just look around for him
but keep asking if anyone knew him or had seen
him. Prabhakar took the direction given. He had
not imagined quite this. There was a finality
about this mass removal, clealy no hope of escape
from it. There would be no going back to where
they had come from, or forward to elsewhere, for
those expelled from their village lands and their
livelihoods who now had nothing to do and
nowhere to go. This squalor had no shape or form
and no connection with anything he thought of as
human habitation. Yet human voices were telling
him they knew no one called Rafeeq; the sun was
beating down on barefoot children chasing each
other through the mud of narrow alleys between
shelters or playing marbles in the dirt; an infant
howling behind a makeshift curtain of cloth
thrown over a rope, was soothed, lulled, and
must have slept; cooking fires were being fanned,
hot sparks flying into the hot air. He walked on
through the sound of men's voices, the chatter of
quarelling children, a woman pounding clothes
in the scanty water from a tap—signs of humanity
obstinately alive in the nowhere of displacement.
In a patch of shade two old men squatted,
staring into space. They, at least, had recognized
the permanence of their plight. Coming to a tent
at the end of his area he called out and lifted a
tent flap by its corner, hoping to get some information
from those within, and let it drop, paralysed
by his transgression. A woman labouring
strenuously to give birth lay on straw matting on
the ground, her legs wide open, her body
writhing, her groans unmindful of all but the
merciless rhythm of labour. The woman keeping
vigil between her legs had paid him no attention.
He walked back, his stomach convulsed by the
sight and sounds of birthing, the ultimate act in
defiance of extermination.
On their way home, an hour's drive, Rahman
at the wheel, there was little to be said about the
failure of their mission. Their separate silences
bound them closer than talk. Prabhakar, sitting
beside Rahman, felt sickened at the thought that
Rafeeq might have been beaten to death and his
body left rotting on some roadside. Where could
his family be hiding and how long could they
hide? He understood why Rahman had nothing
to say. In deep mourning for the man he had
known, for the faith they had shared, and for
their brotherhood with all others under the
Indian sun, what is there to say?
Nayantara Sahgal is the author of several works of fiction
and non-fiction, the first of which, Prison and
Chocolate Cake, an autobiography, was published in 1954.
Her works include classic novels such as Rich Like Us,
Plans for Departure and Lesser Breeds. She has received the
Sahitya Akademi Award, the Sinclair Prize and the
Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
This is an excerpt from The Fate of Butterflies written by
Nayantara Sahgal and published by Speaking Tiger. Republished
here with permission from the publisher through Indian Writers