One of my favourite poems penned by legendary Amrita Pritam is the one she wrote to express her deep anguish and heart-felt pain over the bloody partition of India in 1947. The highly moving poem titled, “Aj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu…” till this day speaks of the horror that partition brought upon people of Punjab.
When it comes to poems and partition, here is another one. But it tells a different story, a behind-the-scene action that resulted in such horrible pain for millions of innocents who lost their lives, homes, and all human dignity.
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
~ W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, 1976, p. 604.
“The task of settling the fate of millions” was done in seven weeks. But the memories of the people whose fate was settled linger for decades to come. As a daughter and granddaughter of refugees from the partitioned India which came to be known as Pakistan, I have always been interested in learning more about Partition. But it is not the ‘official history’ about the events that led up to the Partition that interest me. It is the narratives of people whose fates were decided by a line drawn on a map. More specifically, it is the narratives of people that are closest to me that interest me the most.
Growing up I heard many stories from both my grandmothers about what their lives were like in what is now Pakistan. Some of these stories were also about Partition and their families’ journeys to India. I wish I could remember much about those stories but memories about the past slowly fade as children grow up and get busy with the mundane and not-so-mundane of the present. I remember hearing some stories from my aunts and uncles, but sadly I don’t remember much about the pain in those stories.
What I remember most are the stories I heard from my parents, because these were often repeated and discussed as details would often vary from one telling to the next. In these tellings and re-tellings, my parents who at the time of Partition were only 13 and 7, constructed their stories from their selected and fading memories of that time and from the selected and fading memories of what they had heard from their parents and other relatives.
Listening to these stories would bring up different images for me – of an imagined home where my mother played gitte with her younger sister in the aangan, of the nicely scrubbed black slate she would carry to her school, of my naniji walking daily to the mandir and then gurudwara in the morning, of the old haveli with a dark basement that my naniji grew up in, of my naniji trying to steal a handful of kaju and pista from the large gunny bags that my great-grandfather would store in the basement.
Listening to these stories would also bring different feelings in me – of loss and displacement, of wondering if I would ever be able to see the place where my father was born and learned to play gilli-danda, where my mother first learned how to cover her head properly with her dupatta when she went out, of wondering if my parents missed those ‘homes’ in any way, of wondering if they still carried any pain about what they had lost.
I wanted to ask them more, but I couldn’t. I want to ask them more, but I can’t. These are not easy memories to bring to the forefront. These are not complete memories (which memories ever are?), these are perhaps not even truly true memories. These are memories that take shape as people tell them and then tell them again; these are memories that are incomplete, fragmented, and constructed. But these are part of my history, my story. And as I write them down, I too weave an incomplete and fragmented web of constructed memories from my listening and re-listening of, my remembering and forgetting Partition Stories.
My Mother Remembers….
I was not even eight. It was just few days before August 15, can’t remember the date.
Bau-ji (my father) told all of us to pack our things. I remember we had these four big trunks, we packed our clothes and some utensils. Jhai-ji (my mother) had these big copper handis that she brought with her from her father’s home at the time of her wedding, she didn’t want to leave those behind in case they got stolen while they were gone. But what to do? She could take only those few and smaller utensils that could fit in the trunks, after all who was going to carry those heavy trunks? She hid some of those under the charpai (cot) when we left the home. Bau-ji told us that we would be gone only for a little while and then we would return to our home. I think he didn’t want us to worry that we would have no home where we were going.
I remember Jhai-ji tying this piece of cloth around her waist. She had hidden some cash and her jewelry in the layers of that cloth. She also convinced Bau-ji that they must carry her sewing machine. It was also something from her dowry. When we started living in Jalandhar, she actually sowed clothes on that machine for about two years for many people living in our mohalla. The money she got from that really helped. But she also felt bad that she didn’t have much education, otherwise she could have done some other work. She always used to tell all of us sisters that we should at least have a B.A. and if possible also some professional or vocational training. I remember her strongly arguing with Bau-ji when he didn’t want me to go and live in the hostel for my teacher training course.
But I am getting ahead of the story.
Back to that day…I remember this feeling of excitement that we were going on this journey. Jhai-ji (mother) had told me that it would be a long journey. I wore my new salwar-kameez. My bua-ji (father’s sister) and her family also came with us in the same bus. There were seven or eight buses that left at the same time.
I slept for most of the journey. One time I thought I heard these strange, loud noises. Ho-ho-ho. Dhum, dhum, dhum. Loud banging on the outside of the bus. Darvaza kholo, sab bahar niklo (Open the door, come out all of you!). Angry noises. I was hardly awake. I remember Jhai-ji’s face…she looked very scared, she and other women were shouting. Shouting in fear. Too much noise in the bus. Too much noise outside the bus. Noise of fear. Noise of fury. I wanted to sleep.
The mobs didn’t do anything, or maybe they couldn’t. The bus drivers and the passengers were shouting at the mobs. It was just too noisy, I was very frightened. I started to cry, cry real loudly. There were many children in the bus, some were still sleeping, but many were crying. I still remember all the noise and shouting, it was so scary. I don’t want to remember all that now.
The bus left us at some place near the border. We had to still walk for a very long time, I think we walked for about two hours. There were all these kafile along the road. People carrying heavy luggage. But we also saw so many pieces of luggage just abandoned on the roadside, things being burned, things that people couldn’t carry on their shoulders, or heads, things that couldn’t be easily dragged. We also saw some people sitting on the side of the dirt roads, some just lying there, don’t know if they were dead. We heard stories later that so many women killed themselves by jumping into the wells – also difficult to be carried along.
We had to cross some sort of canal to reach the Indian side. There were men there who were giving directions to people on how to get to the camp, where to register names etc. We lived in this camp for about a month. There were all these kids running around all over the place. Women cooking outside the tents, men just standing, talking or walking around. It seemed like a picnic but it was not. Even I knew that. There was a strange kind of quietness there, even when people cried.
Bau-ji went somewhere on most days. Sometimes he would go with other men from the camp. One day he came back and told us that he had found a house. We carried our luggage and went with him. But when we reached there, we saw that some other people were already living in house he had ‘selected’ for us. In those days, people were just occupying the houses that were abandoned, no claims or proper registry was being done. All that happened much later. Bau-ji went running, and found another house in the same street. We just started living there.
I remember what our house looked like in Pakistan. We had two rooms in the house, it was a two-storied house. All the buildings in that row looked similar, with shops below and houses above. I also vaguely remember the path I used to take to get to my school. The school was inside the Sanatan Dharma Mandir. I didn’t have many friends, but I used to walk to school with some other girls from our mohalla. I didn’t have any Muslim friends, but some of our neighbours were Muslims. In those days a lot of people kept cows at home for milk. When we were about to leave for India, Jhai-ji asked one of the Muslim neighbours who lived next door to take care of our cow.
I don’t remember anymore.
My Father Remembers…to be continued….