The book “Hymns in Blood” by Nanak Singh has been translated from the Punjabi by Navdeep Suri. The book was first published in February 1948 as “Khoon de Sohile”.
In 1947 in Chakri, an idyllic village on the banks of the Soan near Rawalpindi, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs eagerly await the end of winter and get together to prepare for Lohri. Amidst this joyous bustle, Baba Bhana, the erudite village elder, worries about the future of his foster daughter, Naseem.
Life comes to a halt when news of a possible partition of India reaches the village. Amid a frenzy of communal violence, Baba Bhana and his family must reluctantly leave their beloved village. They embark on a long and dangerous journey, slowly coming to terms with the fact that their lives may be changing forever. The book provides a timely reminder of the grief and trauma that a religious divide brings in its wake.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
An hour went by, then another, and yet another as the girls danced the night away. Their legs were aching, and their tightly braided hair had shaken loose, swaying from the back to the shoulder and from the shoulder to the forehead as they danced to the rhythm of the claps. The faint twilight of dawn was making its appearance when one of the girls cried, ‘Enough! I don’t think I can lift my foot to take another step.’ Other voices immediately rose in protest, ‘Just one or two dances more, please. Lohri doesn’t come every day. We waited a whole year for these moments.’
A new song started and the girls were getting ready for another dance when a deep voice intruded upon their merriment. The girls froze in their tracks, the words of the song stranded mid-sentence in their throats. Like a volley of bullets, a dozen or so boys shouted in unison, ‘Assalamu alaikum!’
‘A plague on all of you,’ the embarrassed girls cried in dismay. ‘So, you were hiding behind the wall to watch us, you rogues?’
‘What else could we do?’ the boys replied as they entered the courtyard and joined their group. ‘You were refusing to sing and we didn’t want to leave till we’d heard your songs.’
‘Worthless rascals … should be ashamed of the way you were spying on us…’ the girls continued to curse the boys as they retreated towards their own bonfire.
‘What’s the problem?’ one of the boys queried. ‘You were listening to our songs and now we’ve heard yours. The skies haven’t come crashing down on our heads, have they?’
‘When did we listen to your songs?’ one of the girls pouted in a patently fake display of anger that did little to conceal a mischievous smile.
‘You had your ears turned towards us when we were singing, didn’t you?’ another one piped up.
‘Okay, maybe we heard you,’ another girl responded. ‘But not like thieves hiding behind a wall.’
‘There is no crime in stealing from a miser who wants to share nothing,’ one of the boys responded.
‘No crime in stealing, says he,’ a diminutive girl pushed her way forward to confront him. ‘And who are you to be issuing these fatwas?’
The arguments might well have continued for a while but the same melodious voice that had previously vanquished the foe rose once again to make its presence felt.
‘He leers at his own, the scoundrel’s habit is bad.’
The other girls quickly picked up Naseem’s line and the chorus rose to a crescendo:
He leers at his own, the scoundrel’s habit is bad.
He leers at his own, the scoundrel’s habit is bad.
‘Okay, sisters,’ one of the more mature boys spoke in a respectful tone. ‘The Lohri is over, so how about making peace now?’
‘Make peace with my jutti,’ the same diminutive girl shouted as she pointed at her foot. ‘With Allah’s blessings, we will get our revenge at next year’s Lohri or you can change my name!’
Who could have known that an evil djinn had been secretly observing the revelries and getting infuriated? The girl’s comment about getting ‘revenge at next year’s Lohri’ was perhaps the last straw. The djinn told itself, ‘How dare this girl make such brazen promises about the future? If I allow these people to stay together till next year, I don’t deserve to be called a djinn.’
One of the girls had heard the djinn’s ominous words. That same girl, the one who had been called the fairest one, the same gentle Seema. She stepped forward to restrain her aggressive compatriot and chided, ‘Be quiet, Santo.’ Turning towards the boys, she said, ‘Let bygones be bygones, my brothers. Who knows which one of us dies and which one survives until next year’s Lohri!’
Her measured words were spoken with a genuine warmth and the boys respectfully lowered their eyes. There was no trace of the mischief that they had displayed all evening.
As the two groups began to make their way out of the haveli, one of the boys—the same one who had initiated the tappa ‘I am the most handsome…’ turned around and shouted, ‘Boys! Join me as I say, “May our sisters…”’
‘Live forever…’ roared the boys in unison.
Naseem responded with the call, ‘And may our brothers…’
‘Live forever…’ cried the girls in one voice.
They exchanged cordial Lohri greetings and headed for their respective homes.