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August 10, 1918


I am Gitali Singh. Today I turn 14 years old, and my father gave me this book as a gift. But instead of being filled with stories, the pages are bare. I asked about this and was told that I am to fill them with my own stories. Well, I don’t have a story. I am not a fearsome pirate or a dying queen or a powerful sorceress, so what should I know about stories? I know how to read and write, but I absolutely prefer reading. Anyway, I will give it a try because it will please my father, who saved so much money to buy me this book with bare pages.

I have a mother, a father (whom I call bapa), two older sisters and a younger brother. My mother’s name is Lalita Singh, Lalita meaning beautiful woman. She has dark, gentle eyes, long black hair, and always smells of Arabian Jasmine and lavang, or cloves. She carries out her duties as a wife and mother, while my father, Kushanu Singh, is a farmer. He harvests rice in a paddy that he inherited from his father, which bapa says is the only useful thing that my grandfather ever did for him.
The paddy is an acre large and very wet, and bapa uses water buffalo to help with harvesting. After the rice is harvested, bapa sells it in a market, to merchants who then go to big cities. In the city, our rice is sold to wealthy British people, to those who fancy trying small plate of cinnamon fried rice before they eat lamb with yogurt and sip imported teas on satin pillows, charmed by the strange way Indians eat on the floor. They assume that we all drink coconut milk and ride jewel encrusted elephants everywhere, but I suppose they wouldn’t attempt to understand the real India even it hit them in the face. We are lucky to live so far from the thick concentration of the English, but it seems that their twisted laws can still reach us, even in Jandiala. We are lucky that the rice paddy has been in the family for many generations, because if not, we would be branded “tenants at will”, and we could easily be evicted from owning the paddy. But we bear the name “occupancy tenants”, so as long as we scrounge to pay taxes on the paddy, we may farm in peace. But the taxes stretch our money until you could see through it, and so bapa must work harder and longer if we want to keep the paddy, our only source of income. I simply despise it and I know it is unjust, but my father doesn’t complain.
His name means fire, but he is nothing like it. He is hard-working and laughs with his eyes and buys us children dates from the market, and sometimes when he thinks us children aren’t looking he kisses mother and looks at her with eyes that say he loves her more than the earth itself. I suppose my parents are satisfied with this simple lifestyle, but I want to know more, to learn new things and see what is out there. I have never left Jandiala Guru. My dream is to visit Amritsar, a city where anything could happen; it is enormous, beautiful, and positively magical! I want to see Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple. It is enchanting and golden and sparking with mystery, and I wish to explore it until I die. I bet even if I explored it my whole life I wouldn’t have seen everything. I would hide treasures there, and Anuj and I could play games and run around all day!
My sisters do not care for adventure, or if they do, they hide it well. Nishka is the oldest child, therefore she seems to think that she has authority over me, and it is all she can do to keep from correcting my every action. For example; “Don’t let the poori burn, Gitali!”, or, “You are going to break the bowl if you keep scrubbing that hard!”, or even, “Gitali, you dawdle as a stupid tortoise does; hurry up!” On the other hand, my second older sister, Nalini, is idealistic, romantic, and as vain as a peacock. She is willowy and looks just like my mother but younger, and is well aware of it. Her favorite hobby is to talk about men and husbands and marriage and the like, much to the annoyance of everyone. Then there is Anuj, sweet, boyish Anuj, who is my dearest friend. He was born with unusually dark skin, like coffee beans. He likes to send leaf boats down the Beas River, and he always comes exploring with me. We both love to have adventures and we sometimes playact like the characters from the books we read.
I know that my village is quite beautiful, but it is hard for me to see past the tedium of my everyday life. This is what I do each day:
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Wake up and dress. (I bathe once a week, at the wide stream that flows 20 yards from our home, off of the Beas River.)
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Make my bed and start our angithi, or stove. It is small and I also must always make a fire outside in a pit lined with rocks.
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Collect manure from the water buffaloes and dry it for the fire pit, and also, with help from Anuj, fill buckets with water from the stream. The animals live in a stock outside of the paddy. I hate collecting the manure because it smells for miles and the creatures moan and bellow thunderously when you try to walk around them and find the stuff.
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Come back and after starting the pit fire, I boil some of the water from the paddy in a large kettle over the flames. I put aside one bucket of water to save for cleaning the dishes and what is left I take inside for cooking.
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I help set out the dishes and when mother is done making the food, I serve it on the plates and we all sit down to eat.
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Then I help Nalini to clear and wash the dishes outside. Bapa leaves to farm and then mother tidies. She straightens things and removes dirt, and I must say that our home, however small, looks very handsome and clean enough for royalty.
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Nishka and I collect the natural fruits and vegetables of the forest for eating and cooking. Also sometimes medicine.
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Then we come back with large sacks filled with what we’ve collected. Mother takes the food and sometimes we use it right away or it is saved for later.
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Now I can do whatever I please while mother and Nishka cook dinner. I explore the forest with Anuj or by myself, and sometimes I read books.
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I come home and sweep before bapa arrives, then we all sit to eat after Nalini sets the table.
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I go to bed.
Today, I went with Nalini into the forest. It was warm and the sun showered light through the trees. We were fortunate to find a medium sized tree bearing bignay fruit. They are small and berry like, with a reddish-pink skin. I filled my sack to the top with them, for August is their prime fruiting season. Then we walk to the Beas River and found a java plum tree heavily bearing fruit. The tree has grown sturdy roots into the river bank so that it always has water. It is very, very, very tall and I cannot see the top of it. Nalini, though she acts like a princess, has a small streak of youthfulness in her, and swinging her hair over her shoulder, she began to inch her way up the tree trunk. She seemed unconcerned as she pulled herself onto a large branch that grew over the river. The branch was dripping with the dark purple plums, and Nalini spent a half of an hour picking from different branches until her sack was almost full. Then we walked back to the house and when mother saw what we had collected, she looked elated. She made pots of bignay jelly and made sweet liquor from the plums. Nishka made amla pickles and rice with hot lemons. Bapa came home, smiling, but he was weary, and we try to be quiet so as not to aggravate his headache.
At the end of dinner, as we drank the liquor, bapa pulled out this book and gave it to me. Then, mother brought out steamed dessert dumplings, filled with sweet coconut and poppy seeds, for my birthday. I tried to practice restraint so Nishka wouldn’t have reason to scold me but I couldn’t stop grabbing more. I marvel at how mother and bapa make holidays so wonderful, even when we don’t seem to have the means. I know that for all of my griping that I am lucky. This book may turn out to be a fine gift.



May 7, 1930


As I write, I marvel at how quickly time has come and gone, and how young I was when I first wrote in this “bare book”. At that time I didn’t realize it, but life was simple, and my problems were as trivial as flies. I thought that I knew what hard work was, but now I know it is far more than physical labor. In my teenage years, I constantly heard of a man named Mahatma Ghandi. I knew nothing of him, yet even then I was sure of his greatness, his influence, and that he was a beacon of hope for all Indians. I grew up hearing my parents say his name with the greatest reverence, and I had a strange feeling of wanting to do anything for this man. I thought it profound that he would give up wearing suits and nice things so that he could dress and live like me, like us.
Soon, I met Krishna Sen, a traveling merchant, and we got married a year later. We have two daughters, Rani, 4, and Vishva, 2. They both look like my mother and have an incorrigible appetite for adventures. We have a home near Amritsar, as I had dreamed for so many years, and it is still my favorite place in the world. But we visit my family in Jandiala Guru as often as we can. Recently we saw them on account that Krishna and I had to leave our daughters with my parents; we had to guarantee that they would be somewhere safe when we left for Gujarat. There was no telling what might happen when we left to participate in the event that will forever be burned into history.
Krishna and I traveled to Gujarat because we heard about the Dharsana Satyagraha, started to protest the unfair British-instigated tax on salt in India. We traveled to the Dharsana Salt factory, which was a cold looking place, even in the withering heat. The soldiers lined up in front of the gates, faces cruel and condescending, brandishing heavy wooden sticks. I was one of the many wives who came to take care of the inevitably injured men. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we had not been there to tend to the wounds. The men lined up, faces reflecting a confliction of fear and courage. As I stood amongst the cluster of silent women, I remember wringing my sari between my fingers, praying for the safety of the men. I must also admit that my thoughts kept flying to my two little daughters, and how they would live without a father. It was a terrifying notion.
The first line of satyaghrahis walked forward, eyes on the faces of the callous soldiers. Almost immediately, they received a brutal beating from the soldiers’ sticks. The men accepted the beatings without any fight, although they cried out in pain. The staggered over to the medical station, where several women began to clean their wounds. Again, the men, our husbands, sons, brothers, citizens, walked forward and received the harsh beatings, then left. Many women screamed, but I stood quietly, paralyzed with fear, as it was my husband who was then walking forward.
I shall always remember the image of his head being thumped with a stick, and his body crumpling to the ground. But what was worse was the distant, mechanical expression on the face of the soldier, every crease in his treacherous Indian skin carved out of stone and hypocrisy. Krishna pulled himself up from the dust and managed to stagger to where I was waiting. I grabbed him with all of my strength and sat him onto a wooden chair. I held his face in my cool palm and whispered soothing encouragements in his ear as I cleaned the gash with astringent.
The day wore on in this way, the dull thump of the sticks hitting skulls making a frenzied, irregular beat, while I helped to heal other injured men, keeping watch on Krishna out of the corner of my eye. But through the violence and injury, something grand has happened. The world has started to listen. There is much publicity about the event yesterday, all around the world. People are questioning why the British even have rule over India, and all of Ghandi’s efforts are paying off.
Things will change for us soon, I can sense it. My dream is for the British to leave, for India to become herself again. I think that I will do everything in my power to help India gain back her freedom. I never thought that I would ever have adventures but now I am in the very center of a great one! My husband now lays resting and recovering from yesterday’s events, but he is ecstatic with the results of the Satyagraha, and feels surprisingly cheerful and optimistic for someone who was brutally beaten just a day ago. But I am not so surprised, for I feel it too. Everyone feels it.

September 28, 1947


I think of the smell of wet curry leaves and fresh mango juice after the rain. I think of how children’s laughter moves like bird wings, and remember the sound of the water buffalo sloshing through the rice paddy. I try to remember what it is to sit in peaceful silence, and the way rainforest soil feels under foot. I do these things so that I can escape what is going on around me, what is happening right outside of my childhood home.
Years have passed, and I have an uncomfortable sense of loss as I think of my daughters who, at 21 and 19 years old, will soon leave me for marriage. My life since my last entry has been a tangle of sweet, terrible, dull, and exciting events. I notice how enthusiastic and hopeful I was at 26, and how, miraculously, at 43, I still have retained some of my youthful eagerness, and have not completely fallen into the clutch of stolidity. But this has not served much purpose but giving me energy to hope, for hope is what I have been floating on in this sea of violence.
On June 3 of this year, India finally gained her independence. This day my dreams came true. But it is not to be said that everything went fine from then on. In fact, things have been opposite of fine. Along with independence, India gained something called violence, disorder, and judgmental racism, better known as the Indian-Pakistani partition. My family and I have seen more violence in these past four months than ever in our lives.
Because of the partition, there is a massive migration of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus back into India. They walk past our house and when someone doesn’t fight you can feel the contempt between the religions. Being so near the Pakistani border doesn’t help assuage the situation. Now we stay inside mostly, to avoid the potential danger. The house is small and it is close courters with my mother and father, my family and I, Anuj, Nalini, and their families. When Nishka married, she moved to Bangladesh with her husband Bhaumik and they have a fine family there. We did not want them to come here just to put themselves in more danger. We all try to make light of the situation but there is not much to make light of when we see a Hindu man attack a Muslim man ten feet away from the house. Thankfully this small residence is covered by trees and the fabrication of insignificance. People don’t take much notice of the muddy little hut that looks abandoned, and we want to keep it that way, until this chaos is over.
I can’t fathom what we would do if we were part of this partition, walking for miles with the weight of all of our possessions and anger on our backs. There is no way to express my gratitude to God for being able to sit back and watch from afar the haunting reality of segregation. I saw a woman grabbed by a man twice her size, and he shook her like a rattle, cursing her and spitting on her face. She was screaming and trying as hard as she could to fight back, but she had no prayer. Finally, two men interrupted the episode and the women walked back to her family, shaken and understandably terrified. Sometimes, I see families, husbands and wives with children walking for miles and miles. The children seem to be unaware of why everything is going on, and they must be kept out of sight if there is any violence. I feel distinctly maternal thinking about my daughter being in that position. It is things like that that make me wonder if it will ever end, if this will ever be resolved, if Hindus and Muslims will coincide peacefully. From my view through this small, crude window, the future seems to have a dismal overcast and constant wind of disruption.
Listen to me, jaded and oh so serious, predicting the future of our country like a weatherman. What I really need is hope, and a great deal of strength. My family counts on me. Right now, my mother deep fries mouth-watering fritters, and Nalini sings to Anuj’s baby boy. My daughters make jokes and laugh while they brush their younger cousins’ hair. There is no question that my father is disturbed by the partition, though, having retained his passive nature, he does not share his beliefs openly. He has aged, as has my mother, but they seem to look younger, in a way, like a certain buoyancy is about them. Being back here with them is a strange feeling of reliving my childhood, and I pray daily that we will all be safe. The light outside is fading and I can scarcely see my pen. I should stop writing now, and help prepare for dinner. When I look upon this happy scene, with my family right beside me, it is hard not to feel a sliver of joy amidst the terrible state of things. I may just have to keep trying.




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