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Where are those heroes of Partition?

ILLUSTRATION: SATWIK GADE

ILLUSTRATION: SATWIK GADE  

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Is there a Sikh family in Amritsar that was told the story of one of them who helped save a Muslim family?

My Muslim family had lived in Amritsar for generations. The Pals were carpet-sellers and weavers who became lawyers and joined British India’s educated class in the early 1900s. Our family owned property and were active in the community life of the Sikh holy city. Both my uncles had clients from all faiths in their legal practice. My grandfather wanted to stay on in Amritsar after Partition. But this was not to be.

In June 1947, rioting erupted involving Sikhs and Muslims. In the Muslim neighbourhood where my family lived, gangs of Muslim vigilantes demanded protection money. As violence escalated, my grandfather decided that the family had to be ready to weather the storm in Lahore, 20 miles away, soon to be part of Pakistan. A house was rented in a Muslim neighbourhood there.

On August 8, a Sikh friend of the family came to warn them that it was no longer safe. It was time to leave Amritsar. A few hours later, the Sikh friend was back, driving a hearse. At great risk to himself, he drove the hearse to the Amritsar railway station. Inside were eight veiled female members of my family, including my grandmother. My father and his two brothers went to the station separately, meeting the women there. My grandfather and great-uncles planned to join them in Lahore in a couple of days.

Taking only what they could carry, my family boarded the train to Lahore. They carried no food, just some water. My grandfather’s library, clothes, furniture, the detritus of family life, were all left behind. They sat silently on hard third class benches in the crawling train as it made its hot and dusty way to Lahore, a trip that usually took 35 minutes. My grandmother, weeping silently, clutched a flour sack containing a samovar and some pots. One of these pots is now in my house in Canada.

After two nerve-wracking hours my family reached Lahore. Later my family learned that theirs had been the only train from Amritsar to Lahore that was not attacked that day. My father went to the Lahore railway station countless times trying to find his father and uncles. Most trains arrived laden with bloody corpses, rotting in the monsoon heat. Several days later my grandfather and his brothers showed up at the rented house. The Sikh friend had again driven them to the border at Wagha, from where they continued their journey to Lahore. The Pals were lucky — and safe.

My family never returned to Amritsar. They learned their home had been ransacked by thugs and burnt to the ground. Eventually, my family moved into a house in Lahore that had been abandoned by a Hindu lawyer. They rebuilt their lives; my grandfather re-established his law practice and my father, having escaped the terror of Partition, nearly died of cholera in 1948. Eight years after Partition, my father left Pakistan for Canada, where he lived for 58 years until his death in 2013.

Writings about Partition invariably tend to focus on the victims. Little mention is made of the many unknown heroes who helped save lives. Who was that Sikh man, a friend of one of my father’s uncles, who came to forewarn our family, and without whose help I might not be alive today? I asked my father, but he shook his head sadly and told me he couldn’t remember the name.

I often wonder about him. What did he look like? Is he still alive? Is there a Sikh family in Amritsar that had been told the story of their relative who helped save a Muslim family during Partition? Did he save others as well? Maybe the hero who saved the Pals is out there. If he is, I would like to simply say ‘Thank you’ on behalf of my family.

palmariam@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2018 8:15:53 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/where-are-those-heroes-of-partition/article7496224.ece