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When the Moon Shines by Day

By Nayantara Sahgal

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Rehana wondered at the most remarkable days of her life going by unremarked, already a habit. Zamir, helped by Hanif and Hanif’s mother, unrolled carpets, hung curtains, placed furniture, books and possessions where day by day they would acquire the permanence they had lost in transit. A city’s breadth away she carried out the jobs she was assigned in the campaign against torture and its cult of human sacrifice, covering her face with her hands against unbearable recurring images. There was no interruption in either life, both prizing the continuity essential for work. The wind blowing across the nation was left to blow while they grounded themselves afresh in their occupations, his to write, hers to act on behalf of. The time they spent apart was a renewal of resolve, time together a land of discovery. They were lovers who knew what lovers know, that no love is carved in the image of other loves. It is itself, forsaking all others. Fortune had favoured them by accident or chance. Neither of them believed in fate, so their meeting being destined was out of the question, leaving each of them secretly wondering what else it could be.

The question arose whether Rehana should accept the DCT’s invitation to the gala opening of culture week. He was evidently still mindful of her drubbing and making up for it. Admit two, the invitation said, unnecessarily since Zamir baulked at missing precious hours of a whole morning’s work. But Franz’s impending arrival decided her and persuaded Zamir. Franz was looking forward to winding up his book with this climactic event on the path to cultural transformation. It would mark the announcement of Hindu nationhood, the Anno Domini from whence the new era would date, all else relegated to BCT. As always, it was following the well-established pattern. Our past is your future, he had written to Rehana.

***

Gangu was off duty and Rehana was in the kitchen cooking. Kamlesh’s description of his meaty lunch with his publisher had put her in mind of her Nani’s incomparable koftas. Abdul watched her fingers blend oil and curd, masalas and hingh into the mince. He was standing by ready to chop and slice as he did to help Gangu and was looking on in fascination. No onion, no garlic, then how meat?

Rehana introduced him to the secret of hingh. He watched her make sausage shapes of the mince in the palm of one hand and deliver them delicately to ghee and curd in the frying pan. He was an eager learner, taking the pan from Rehana and moving the koftas around with care. He asked if he could use one of the suitcases that had held her father’s books for his own belongings and give the other one to his friend Suraj who worked in his father’s shop of kitchen utensils in the market. Suraj could come and collect it after eight o’clock when his father closed the shop. Rehana knew Dhiru’s shop, invitingly stocked with stainless steel and shining brass. She worked late after dinner finishing a report for the group with her favourite ghazals as background music to keep out traffic and night noises, but all was peace and stillness when the music stopped and her work was done. She walked out into a moonlit brilliance that had the caressing mildness of late spring, the gentle interlude between winter and the harsh heat to come. The garden slept. Its fragrances floated up to receive her gratitude. She strolled out to the far end of the lane where the old flowerpot vendor lived under his tarpaulin shelter and stored his gamlas, displaying them on the main road for buyers when morning came. He was awake, sitting huddled and half hidden. On the ground opposite him the shock of a human mound held her rigid. At sight of her the old man gabbled, beseeching help. Eight of them came, she kept hearing, would come back if they had seen him, if they knew he had seen four of them tear the clothes off the boy, force him to his knees, swing their rods high and then down to break his back and crack his skull, shouting what leather is this, is this suitcase made of cowhide as if the dead can answer. Bright moonlight burnished the skin torn off the blood-reddened back. Greyish slime oozed from the split skull. Rehana had heard him and Abdul clowning in the kitchen while she was having her dinner.

Everything in her ground to a halt yet her brain worked, informing her this was no clumsy haphazard killing. Four had surrounded him. What of the other four? They had watched, memorizing which blows where and how many. The mathematics of it had been tried, practised and perfected somewhere else, and somewhere else before that. The act of killing had been fined down to a repeatable reliable recipe. It did what a single bullet or a spray of bullets could not do. Alive one minute, dead the next, was not the purpose. It was the interval in between that punished.

Rehana found herself on her knees beside the body, as paralyzed as he had been, confronted by deadly danger. She felt the terror of being encircled by weapons poised to strike, the helplessness of skin and spine against the savagery to come. Feeling went no further. In the unbridgeable chasm between herself and the sufferer, between one person and another, her flesh could not feel, nor ever know the agony his flesh had endured. She willed herself upright, straightened her buckling knees and walked back to do what had to be done. Suraj’s body, Suraj’s father, the police. At some hour of what remained of the night she said a requiem for the faith of her fathers. Sanatan dharma had been slaughtered in cold blood this night.

**

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