A faint knock on the door stirred the family of Vimla Malhotra. It was the spring of 1947 and she was all of four. That year was different for the city of Bannu in what was then the North West Frontier Province (now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan); there had been no Baisakhi festivities that year and the spectre of India’s impending partition was looming large.
The man who had knocked was their neighbour, Khan bhai, who stepped in and hastily shut the door behind him. He told her father Mukandlal Uppal that it was “not safe to stay here any longer”. He said, “Take all your possessions, your jewellery, and come with me to the station. Get on any train that is going to India.”
For Ms. Malhotra (marital name), it would be an unforgettable train journey. The 74-year-old retired professor and Mumbaikar for over three decades made countless train trips thereafter, but none of them could compare to the one that not only changed her life, but also changed the course of history of the subcontinent.
“I slipped into a salwar kameez and slippers,” she recalls. “My father gathered my six-month old brother in his arms and held my two-year-old sister. Khan bhai took the trunk my mother had readied earlier. My mother wore a salwar suit. She threw a dupatta over her kameez. Khan bhai told her to ‘wear it like we do.’ My mother draped the dupatta such that only her eyes could be seen. My father wore a ‘kula lungi’ (a turban) on Khan bhai’s instructions to make him look like his brother. Khan bhai led the way. At a square, a mob stood with guns. On Khan bhai’s request, they let us go. At the next square, he told another gun-toting group they would have to kill him first. Though adamant at first, they let us go. We took a train from Bannu station. Crowded platforms greeted the train at each stop. No one knew which city or town the train was headed to. They only knew one thing. We were all going to Hindustan.”
There was a time when the idea of India and Pakistan meant nothing to the millions of people living on the Indian subcontinent. Partition came suddenly upon them, pushing them out of their homeland to newfound countries, whose Independence they could not comprehend in the face of mass violence and displacement.
The current hostility between the two neighbours is yet another addition to their 70-year-long history of animosity, showing that the pangs of separation continue to shape the geopolitics of the South Asian region.
While history books looked at Partition as a political event, there are countless stories of common people which form a rich narrative of lived experience. A Delhi-based project called ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’ is collecting stories of former Partition refugees on both sides of the border. Three of them, based in Mumbai, spoke of their experiences at an event ‘Voices of Partition – Mumbai Chapter’ at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on Friday.
“Life histories of people are completely missed out in history,” says Srishtee Sethi, a PhD scholar at TISS and the coordinator of the Mumbai chapter. “Memory, nostalgia and camaraderie are absent in the political thought process. We always talk of Partition in binaries, but the event was associated with deep-seated emotions and socio-cultural realities. These are the last people from whom we can get firsthand perspectives.”
Ms. Sethi feels the oral history method employed for this project enables the recreation of lost or suppressed narratives, which, taken together, “complicate the idea of a single historical narrative”. She adds: “What stands out is that, in their stories, people want to recreate what they left behind.”
The memory of a hometown
In his suburban Mumbai flat, Peshuram T Bulani paints a vivid picture of the grand havelis of Kot Sabzal town in Pakistan’s Bahawalpur State, which housed 20-30 houses each. He remembers the structure of the town, its multicultural influences, the festive celebrations, and the sights and smells of his childhood.
In this idyllic town of his memory, problems began creeping up in 1947 as the home radio set began relaying news of tension and carnage on trains. Refugees were coming in hordes. The Bulanis, who were from the land- and business-owning Sindhi community, gave the house keys to their trusted neighbours in the hope they would return after the storm had passed.
“We distributed some assets among our domestic helps,” the 79-year-old says. “We packed two bags with some clothes because we thought we would go back.” They hired musclemen to take them safely to a bus to Sukkur in Sindh. From there they came via Hyderabad (Sindh) to Marwar in Rajasthan by train. After staying in transit camps in Marwar, the first stop on the Indian side, they made their way to Bilaspur, formerly in Madhya Pradesh and currently in Chhattisgarh.
In 70 years, Mr. Bulani had no wish to visit Kot Sabzal, though his daughter Kavita yearns to see the place. “I have no roots as such. When people ask where I hail from, I am faced with the question of identity. Once I felt hurt when a colleague remarked that Sindh should be dropped from the national anthem,” she says.
For another survivor, Shamlal Chawla (78), growing up in Gujranwala in the Punjab province of Pakistan, was replete with experiences of carrying the lunch tiffin for his father, who ran a ‘revadi-patasha’ (sweet) shop, distributing them on the first day of school and being transfixed by the rhythmic movement of the piston of a local flour mill. Like Mr. Bulani, he too began his schooling in the Urdu medium. “The boys went to Urdu schools and the girls went to Hindi schools. We often joked about how they would exchange love letters,” he says.
In mid-1947, as word spread about the impending Partition and trouble started to brew, his father Diwanchand Chawla’s Muslim friends reassured him. However, a street cobbler warned, “Mera dharm nahi manta, mera iman nahi manta, lekin aap is sheher se chale jao. [With my religion and faith, I am unable to believe what is happening, but you should leave this city].”
One day Mr. Chawla’s father discovered acid bottles and test tubes at home, smuggled home by his elder son as a security measure. Shocked, the senior Mr. Chawla flushed the acid at a hand pump and decided to leave.
He disguised the migration as a family picnic. Before leaving, the father gathered the family around in a storeroom. He dug the ground, unearthed a pot of gold and said, “Whether or not any of us remains here, I am showing you I have kept this gold here.” In July 1947, the Chawlas left their house on Street No. 8.
The early exit was perhaps a lucky move for the Chawlas. Six months later, on January 10, passengers leaving on a train from Bannu, Pakistan, were massacred in an ambush at Gujranwala. It sent shock waves in the refugee camps in Ambala where many Bannu migrants had taken shelter.
“The January 10 train was supposed to be the last. Many lost their entire families. My grandmother’s family was on this train; only one or two members survived. Grandma would count the dead on her fingers,” recalls Ms. Malhotra.
Her granny’s sister who survived returned with spine-chilling accounts of the carnage. “They killed the young one by one. The women were taken into the jungles and raped in the open,” narrates Ms. Malhotra. The old woman would often say, ‘Why did I live? I saw my daughters getting raped with my guilty eyes. I saw men being butchered. Why didn’t they kill me?’ Her daughter’s young son had to flee for his life. Every morning her daughter would sit at Faridabad station and ask passengers alighting from trains, ‘Have you seen my Manohar?’”
Abducted, raped, abused, and shunned, women were among Partition’s worst sufferers. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan signed a bilateral treaty (also known as the Delhi Pact) on April 8, 1950, to ensure freedom and security to refugees in transit.
Following this, many abducted women returned to their families, but were not accepted. Later, some of them reportedly appealed to Nehru. After government pressure, families took them in, but were never treated as their own. They were rejected by both, their maternal and marital families.
“My grandma’s sister described the condition of her niece Gulang: she stayed in a segregated area of the house. Her utensils were separate, her husband did not even look at her, her only task was to sweep the house, if she touched house utensils they were burnt, food was served from far, her children were not allowed to go near her,” Ms. Malhotra narrates.
Her book Vibhajan ki Peeda (Partition’s Woes) details the suffering of women, whose realities do not figure in history, who never got justice. She says, “Those women had only one question for their families and the society, ‘What was our crime?’”
She and Mr. Bulani feel Partition should have never happened, given the scale of suffering. “I pray that such a situation never occurs in any corner of the world,” Ms. Malhotra says. Mr. Chawla has mixed views, though.
Years went by and towns kept changing before the migrants could gather scraps of their shattered lives and settle in one place. “Between 1948 and 1953, we were constantly moving. Everything was totally unstable and uncertain,” recalls Mr. Bulani.
His father Tarachand Bulani was killed in the riots and his mother Ganeshibai Bulani died of grief. Not wanting to depend on his uncles, he sold betel leaves for a living.
He would sit outside the steps of a municipal school till the teachers noticed him and admitted him. Thereon, Mr. Bulani’s education was funded by scholarships earned through stellar academic performances. “When I completed my engineering degree, I was left with only a few rupees in my postal account,” he says. He got a job with the Steel Authority of India Ltd in Rourkela, Odisha, later branching into a marketing role.
Mr. Chawla’s academic record was equally stellar. He got his first job as Class 1 gazetted officer with the Department of Atomic Energy at Tarapur in Palghar in 1961. Before that, he did his bidding working at a hosiery and silver ornament factory.
For Ms. Malhotra, getting an education meant dealing with patriarchal taboos on girl’s education at a time when women were not allowed to step out of the house or even read newspapers. She graduated in Hindi from Agra University and later taught the subject at Mumbai’s KJ Somaiya College. She still nurses a desire to visit Bannu.
Repository of knowledge
The archive of Partition stories is slated to be released in November 2017. “These stories will serve as a repository of knowledge for an upcoming Centre for Refugee and Statelessness Studies in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). TISS has a long association with Partition. The institute had set up a refugee camp at Kurukshetra in 1948,” says KM Parivelan, Associate Professor, TISS.
Partition refugees are older than India or Pakistan. They are common people who bore the brunt of grand two-nation theories and rival political ideologies. They boarded trains in 1947 and they made history. With this archive, they will also become an immutable part of it.
The writer is a freelance journalist
Corrections and Clarifications
>>The above article wrongly refered to a U.S.-based project called ‘1947 Partition Archive’ collecting stories of former Partition refugees. It should have been the “1947 Partition Archive”. The organisation is based in Delhi, India, and not in the U.S. “It started in the U.S., but now it is a properly registered and functioning NGO in India,” says Guneeta Singh Bhalla of the 1947 Partition Archive. She clarifies that the story gives a wrong impression that the archive is being set up at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “Though we may collaborate with TISS, no such plans are in place currently,” she said.