It was going to be a special day.
Gudiya couldn’t sleep the night before 13 April 1919. The lantern had burnt off hours ago, and she found herself looking at the sky from her window. Winter had gone and summer was slowly starting to set in. She didn’t need to drape herself in her mother’s holey shawl anymore. She tried to count the number of stars she could see, but realised it was very difficult. So, she decided she should count the number of moons instead. It was easier and it made her feel intelligent. She needed all her wisdom for the next day. Because the next day was going to be special.
“Gudiya, stop staying up all night like an owl and go to sleep,” her mother yelled at her before falling back to sleep herself. Her younger sister Roopa rubbed her eyes, turned around and continued to snore. Gudiya saw her mother and sister sleeping blissfully on the floor in the dim moonlight from the window. Her family didn’t have much. The three of them lived alone in a tiny hut and couldn’t even afford basic necessities. But there was one thing the British couldn’t take away from them, the love that kept all three of them together.
When her mother asked her to go back to sleep, she stopped looking out the window and obediently lay on the floor next to her sister because she didn’t like making her mother angry. She saw Roopa shivering even though it wasn’t very cold. She wrapped Roopa in her arms tightly and continued looking out the window since she couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. She wondered what would it feel like to be free, what would it feel like to do whatever she wanted to do and not seek permission from her mother. Her mother didn’t let her do anything; she didn’t even let her go outside to play. When she asked her mother why, her mother said, “Are they distributing laddoos outside that you want to go? It’s not safe for young girls to go outside; just go to the kitchen and peel the potatoes.” Gudiya hated peeling potatoes.
Since she wasn’t allowed to go outside, she would just sit by the window with her only friend, her doll named Kamla, and gaze at the world outside after she finished all the household chores she was supposed to do. From the window, she could see the colourful bazaar and different sorts of interesting things. Often Roopa would also come and sit with her. Once they saw a beautiful baby elephant who winked at Roopa. And once they saw a man who only had one leg. She sometimes would even see the British soldiers walking down the road. They had white-and-pink skin but they never smiled. They seemed angry about something Gudiya didn’t know.
She even saw Suresh sometimes. Suresh was the milkman’s son, and Gudiya didn’t know why but just seeing him from her window made her feel funny inside. Suresh would go to everyone’s house and deliver milk. Except Gudiya’s house. When she asked her mother why Suresh never came to their house, her mother said, “Did your father leave a fortune for us that you would spend all the money on milk?”
However, Suresh would see her sometimes through the window and would come to talk to her. He told her everything about what was happening outside, things her mother didn’t tell her. He told her how the British were destroying everything, and how he and his friends were going to protest against them. “You should come to one of our meetings sometime,” he casually told her. Gudiya wanted to go but she knew her mother would never allow that.
From her window, Gudiya even saw different kinds of birds. She liked birds and wished that she could fly away like them. She had noticed there was a different kind of bird in the sky these days, one she had never seen before. It was flying much higher than other birds but the bird didn’t make her happy; it made her feel scared of everything around her. She had heard Suresh say that it was called an ayro pane and one of these days it was going to drop a ball and destroy everything. She didn’t understand how a ball could destroy them; she in fact had always wanted a ball to play with. She hoped the flying birds would drop many, many balls on them very soon.
If there was anything Gudiya liked more than playing with her doll and Roopa while looking out the window, it was dreaming. Gudiya liked to dream a lot; dream about things that seemed they were never going to come true. But isn’t that exactly what dreaming is for? She dreamt of her father and how if he was alive, he wouldn’t have let her mother scold her for silly things. And he would let her go and play outside. She dreamt about sleeping under a warm blanket without feeling like there were little mice in her stomach. She dreamt about not being forced to marry their wealthy landlord, Makhanlal. And she dreamt of Hindustan being free.
Gudiya’s mother had arranged her wedding two weeks ago.
“I don’t want to marry,” Gudiya protested.
“Did anyone ask if you want to be married or not? You are going to get married to Makhanlal whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t want to marry,” she repeated.
“Are you planning to stay unmarried and sit on my head for the rest of my life, you witch?”
“I will not marry until Hindustan is free from the British,” she told her mother.
“Stupid girl, what if we never get our freedom?”
“We will be free someday, I know that,” she said bravely even though she wasn’t completely sure whether that was true.
“Oh, really?” her mother kept her hand on her hip and asked, “and who will bring freedom to us?”
She thought for some time then said, “Me.”
Her mother laughed at her. “Your rotis aren’t even round yet and you say you will set Hindustan free?”
This made Gudiya so angry she wanted to cry. But she didn’t; she wasn’t going to cry in front of her mother.
Her mother continued, “You better learn how to make round rotis soon. What will you feed your husband after your wedding if you can’t even cook?” Her mother looked away and she was quiet for such a long time that Gudiya felt she would never speak again. But she spoke. “This is not our country anymore; this isn’t our home. Death is better than living here.”
Gudiya didn’t understand why her mother was saying that.
“You will get married to Makhanlal and you will make round chapatis. He owns our house and if you do anything stupid, he will throw all of us out and we’ll be homeless. So, don’t do anything you should not do and do whatever he asks you to do,” her mother said and that was the end of the conversation.
Gudiya started feeling hungry because of so much dreaming and remembering. After making sure that her mother was really asleep, she tiptoed to the tiny corner they called the kitchen to find something. She found her own burnt roti that she made during the day, dipped it in water and took a bite. She saw Roopa had woken up and followed her to the kitchen too.
“I am hungry,” she said. And so Gudiya broke her roti in half and gave the bigger half to Roopa. She fell asleep while munching it.
Gudiya tried to remember the last time she didn’t have little mice jumping in her stomach when she went to bed. It was the last time when Makhanlal came to meet her. She didn’t like him at all even though her mother told her that she needed to do everything she could to make him happy. He was four times her age but she didn’t know enough maths to figure out how much that was. Makhanlal always wore a kurta that smelt bad, and Gudiya had even caught him picking his nose at times. When he came to see her for the first time, her mother suddenly left the hut to go to the bazaar with her sister. On that first visit, Makhanlal brought special delicacies for her from all over the world. He also offered her chicken, something she had never tried before. She ate it quickly and asked for more. She liked it more than what her mother cooked on Roopa’s birthday even though she thought aloo puri was the most delicious thing she had ever had in her life.
“Look what I got you,” he told her when she was done eating and didn’t have tiny mice in her stomach anymore. He took out a shiny new doll from his bag and showed it to her. The doll was very different from all the dolls she had ever seen in her life. She didn’t wear lehenga choli and didn’t have two black braids like her Kamla. She wore a dress like those she had seen British women wearing sometimes. She had yellow hair and was much thinner than her doll. She even had blue eyes; she had never seen a doll with blue eyes before.
When she tried to hold the doll in her hand, Makhanlal took it away. “I will let you play with this doll but only after we play a little game. Do you want to play?”
She nodded. She had no friends to play with, so she was excited somebody was agreeing to play with her. Makhanlal picked her in his arms and made her sit in his lap. She didn’t understand what happened next but she cried a lot when their game was over, and she just hoped her mother would come back soon.
“Stop crying. Do you not want this doll?” he asked her.
She wiped her tears and shook her head to say no. She didn’t want the doll anymore; she just wanted him to go away.
“I got it especially for you from Delhi. Take it.” Even though the man was smiling, Gudiya didn’t like the way he was talking to her. So, she took the doll and hoped he would leave.
“Will you tell anyone about this?” he asked her and all the sweetness in his voice had gone away.
She was too scared to respond.
“If you tell anyone about this, I will not buy more dolls for you. I will not come to meet you and I will never offer you tasty food.” He smiled at her again. “Next time I will come and visit Roopa.”
She never told her mother what had happened. Makhanlal came to play with her several times afterwards and she would cry each time. Her mother rarely left home, but somehow she was never at home when Makhanlal came. Gudiya was thankful for these coincidences.
While her mother would scold Gudiya sometimes for asking for an extra roti at dinner, she would sometimes bring her lots of gifts for no reason. This happened especially on the days Makhanlal visited her. Her mother bought her a new kurta, a set of bangles, packets of bindi, and she even bought her a new saree once. Even their kitchen would magically have her favourite vegetables and fruits after Makhanlal left. Her mother would make them a huge feast and both she and her sister would enjoy it, and Gudiya would try to forget what had happened during the day.
Remembering this, Gudiya must have fallen asleep. When she woke up, she had a half-eaten roti in her hand and a trickle of drool leaking from her mouth. She wiped it off and got dressed quickly for the special day. She wore her new kurta with her new bangles and bindi. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she realised she looked very much like her mother. She planned to accidentally run into Suresh that day.
“Where are you going?” her mother asked her when as she looked at herself in the mirror.
“Ma, it’s Baisakhi today. Did you forget that they are to going to have a special meeting in the bagh?” she asked. She looked at her mother who was not dressed for the special day. Her mother was so forgetful.
“You idiot. You aren’t going anywhere today.” Her mother was angry.
“But I heard Suresh say that it is a special day.”
“What I have said is final; you will not even think of going outside today. You will stay inside and learn how to make perfect round rotis. Or I will hit you with my broom and make your butt round like dough. Do you understand me?”
She didn’t understand her mother at all. She had heard Suresh say it was a special day, not just because it was a festival but also because they were taking a step to fight the British and make them leave Hindustan. Suresh had asked her to come to one of the meetings, and Gudiya wanted to fight the British too. She was hungry for aazadi and wanted to save Hindustan, so that her mother could be happy again and not scold her anymore. She wouldn’t have to marry Makhanlal then, and she wouldn’t have to let him hurt her. She could even get married to Suresh maybe, but she blushed at the thought.
So, for the first time in her life, Gudiya disobeyed her mother and went out to the bagh when her mother was busy. She was glad she did, because Jallianwala Bagh was full of people when she reached it. She had never seen such a huge crowd before. The garden was vast and Gudiya remembered how she had gone to that bagh only once or twice before. She saw people sitting peacefully and an old man standing on a high podium in the middle of the ground who seemed to be an important leader. He was talking about things Gudiya didn’t understand, but she tried really hard to understand what they were talking about. It was important for her to understand to save Hindustan.
Everyone’s attention drifted away when someone pointed towards the sky. Gudiya, like everyone else, looked up in the sky to find that different bird again. The people around Gudiya looked at the bird and started shouting. They seemed scared but Gudiya couldn’t understand why. The bird went away soon enough and people seemed to feel much better when it was gone. There were murmurs of relief.
Gudiya was still trying to find the bird in the sky when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She immediately thought of Suresh but when she turned around, she found her mother instead.
“What are you doing here?” Her mother was angry. She had sweat on her forehead and her hair was falling out of her bun. Gudiya had never seen her angrier than she was right now and she was scared. Her mother spoke too fast, “Why did you come here when I asked you not to? I have been looking for you all over the village. Now come with me, and fast.”
“No,” was all she could say when her mother held her hand and started dragging her. She protested, “I will not go back; I am here to set Hindustan free.”
But her mother wasn’t listening to her. She was in a hurry and when Gudiya protested, her mother started pulling her by her braid. A loud sound brought both of them to a standstill. Everyone who had been sitting on the ground so far stood up and looked towards the only exit in the garden. There were British soldiers with white-and-pink skin. And they had big guns with them.
Gudiya heard a loud noise like that of a firework. She didn’t know there were going to be fireworks as well, so she gleefully started clapping. But not everyone seemed to enjoy the fireworks. People around her were screaming and she didn’t know why. She was too tiny to see what was happening amidst the crowd. Her mother’s grip around her wrist tightened and she heard her mother repeatedly saying God’s name. Her mother held her hand, and they both started running but she didn’t know where were they going. Not just them, but everyone in the garden was running around frantically. Some people fell down and others stepped over them. But where was everyone running to?
Gudiya knew that there was only one exit from the park and it was exactly where the British soldiers were standing. Maybe everyone around her was playing a game and she was the only one who didn’t know the rules. She hated that game because it made her feel scared. Her mother took her to a corner and kept her hand on Gudiya’s eyes so she could only hear what was happening. The noise of the fireworks was loud, but even louder than that were the voices of people. People were crying, they were shouting for their loved ones. Gudiya felt as if the world was ending. Her mother hugged her tightly and told her, “I hope you will forgive me someday.” Gudiya didn’t know why her mother was apologising, but just being in her mother’s arms felt nice because she couldn’t remember the last time her mother had hugged her like this. Gudiya suddenly heard her mother cry out her name and felt something in her stomach. It wasn’t tiny mice this time; it was one big mouse.
Gudiya wasn’t hungry anymore.