When the news first arrived people were only curious. So they talked, told all they had heard, heard all they were told.

Will it happen?  It won’t.

Could it happen? It can’t.

At first it was a pastime. Men, bored from work, would gather on chai shops and gulp sugary tea off their glasses and lick its brown from the corners of their cracked lips. Infiltrators have already dropped, someone would say. Then they would talk of the partition, of neighbouring countries, of influx in the border areas and go home not knowing what was true.

The chatter travelled as men did, to their homes, and offices, and roads, and trains, and markets, and to places with not many of these. It was in such places that women went crazy first. But that would be later. Much later.

When the notices appeared and the camps really came up, the first to form queues were men. They brought all they had to prove their relation to the land.

Camp officers sat on their tables and smiled as they scanned papers and matched the weary faces in front of them with monochrome document photos. Sometimes they would ask abrupt questions: Where were you when 1972 happened? Your father owned fields? What did he sow?

“It’s to identify real citizens,” the news channels blared day and night.

Sometimes the officials would check everything with stoic expressions, lift their brows into suspectful arch, and comment: Your surname doesn’t sound Indian.

Then they would fix their gaze at the faces in front, ready to catch the slightest flicker of nerves.

Their questions, aimed to break the outsiders, would stun people into silence. They would come out of it not sure of even their name.

“It’s for the larger good,” they were told. Not all could understand how. They still stayed in queues, because they had to, and some of them had to again and again.

As the queues got longer the pile of applications on officers’ tables grew taller. The occasional smile on their lips disappeared and their expressions contorted into permanent scowl.

“Proper papers,” they would demand as the queues moved.

Panic grew and the men scrambled for all they could. Ledgers and contracts and land deeds and water bills and school records and voter cards and all other documents they could find and arrange. They needed proof of their lives on the soil.

The men stood in queues for hours, some of them again and again. When their legs ached they sat at their place and, as the queue moved, shuffled forward like chickens.

They went home tired and cranky to scared children, and wives who massaged their legs and brought them food and stood silently as they blew off steam.

Then the wives were not there, not to rub their feet or cook their food or wash their clothes or clean their house or to look after their kids. They were in queues, a day and the next and the next.

“Proper papers,” the clerks demanded, and the officers too. But not only the women didn’t have proper papers, some of them had nothing at all. No land, no property, no house, no share in father’s will, no school certificates.

Officers across camps were surprised. It was happening everywhere. Untrained for this they did what they knew. The women were asked questions: Your name? Where did your father live? Date of birth?

But the women didn’t have answers, they had stories and that’s what they offered to give:

Kaki was called Daughter at her parents’ and Bahu at her in-laws’. She doesn’t remember how, but now she’s known as Kaki by half the town. The officers could write that as her name. Date of birth? She was never told. 

Rani was given a name, but that’s all she has from her home. Land deeds mention her father, and brothers. Your life is at your husband’s, she was told.

Lalita Kumari has a high school certificate. She married Mehmood two years ago and became Lalita Mehmood. Lalita Kumari’s family cut ties with her. Now Lalita Mehmood has no proof that she once was Lalita Kumari. 

Granny who paid a cart driver to take her to the camp is older than her house. Her husband knew where the papers were and he was dead. Now she has no husband and no papers. 

Sumedha, the bride bought by her husband some years ago, has no school certificate because she had no school. She also doesn’t have a home or parents. Where were her parents born? She guesses a new state every time she’s asked. 

The women stood in queues for hours, some of them again and again. When they got tired they sat at their place and shuffled like chickens when the queues moved.

They went home tired and hungry to crying children, and husbands who needed them to cook their food and wash their clothes and tidy their house and to stand silently as they let off steam.

As time passed the husbands grew suspicious. The women were unpredictable. Sometimes, they would come home and when the kids came running they didn’t push them away but held close, unless the kids, unable to breathe, wriggled themselves out and ran away. Other times, they didn’t care. When children cried for food they didn’t cook, when husbands grew cranky they weren’t there.

One day tailor Yusuf saw his wife sifting through the old bundles of family documents that were buried deep in a trunk, rolled and held together with a rubber band. Some days later, during lunch break, he told his electrician friend from the next shop, “Yesterday, she didn’t cook dinner. These women have to be reminded to be women”.

Yusuf’s electrician friend recalled his wife turning her dowry trunk upside-down the other day. These days he found things all over the house, “As if she keeps searching for something.”

That day after work they both head straight to their homes to find out what was going on. And the next day during their lunch break they tell each other what their wives say the camp officers told them to bring: Proof that they belonged.

Then the two men ate in silence, the furrow between their eyebrows grew with every bite they took.

“Only the real citizens would stay,” the channels blared.

The women began dreaming of exile. At night, they would wake up crying, their throats dry, their bodies drenched in sweat, and their voices whines and whispers.

Deadlines were extended but the women knew, and their husbands too, that what isn’t there can’t be found. They stopped crying, they began searching. For proof of their existence.

Across villages and cities men woke up to scraping sounds at night and found women digging floors, tearing covers, throwing things. Everything they once spent their days arranging lay broken.

When they were done searching their homes, they stepped out on the streets. They walked and walked, to the woods, and hills, and rivers, and oceans. When husbands reminded them of their houses and families and duties and work, the women laughed and laughed and asked for the proof, suspicious of their own existence, like camp officers.

Officers put up notices and issued warnings but the women wouldn’t show up. Camp clerks heard of a forest far away that wailed at night and sobbed during day. They told the officers who tracked the husbands and hurried to the woods.

The husbands would later say that that’s how they found the women, their feet roots, their hands branches. A forest of women swaying like trees.

Officers looked at them with stoic expressions, lifted their brows into suspectful arches, and said: You don’t look like you belong.

The trees swayed and swayed.

Later, the officers would swear that the trees laughed, and their branches were gone and the roots too. Then they saw women where the trees were, sitting still like stones.

Officers looked at the husbands, husbands looked at the officers, and they waited for the women to sob and yell and wail. But the night came and the next and the next; the women didn’t move. They sat at their place, their eyes marbles, their bodies still.

No tears, no cries, no screams.

Then the women weren’t women, they were rocks. Dark and desolate and imposing.

Rocks were rocks. Rocks belonged.

Rashmi Singh a Delhi-based journalist. Her work has appeared in India Today, News18, and CNBC TV18 among other places.