Memories of Partition

Even in the middle of the mayhem that saw millions pour into Delhi as refugees, there was still some camaraderie

Published - August 07, 2022 12:01 am IST

Growing up in Delhi during Partition, I had a ringside view of momentous developments. Though I was a child and the full import of those incidents did not sink in till much later, my memories, as I recall them, are vivid, even over seven decades later.

“Don’t go to dance class today. I see the sky over Bengali Market is all aglow. That area must be on fire,” my mother said one morning in August 1947, as I was preparing to go to my Kathak class, a five-minute walk from our house. Rampaging mobs were roaming around the city, shouting slogans and setting fire to shops and houses.

My father’s name was Raman. One afternoon when he was out, a frenzied mob stopped him as he was cycling home, and asked for his name.

When he told them his name, they again asked, “Raman or Rahman?” They next asked him to recite the Gayatri mantra and show his sacred thread. He did not know the mantra and did not wear the thread. It was not clear whether the mob was Hindu or Muslim. “I came close to being stabbed,” he told us later. He was lucky to escape and return home.

I remember the day there was a frantic knock on our door around midnight. “Don’t open the door,” my terrified mother said to my father, but he could not let someone in distress wait outside our door, pleading hysterically, for help, crying “Bachao, bachao” (save me) and probably facing an irate mob out to take his life.

My father let him in and he lurched into our veranda, tears streaming down his face. He was distraught with terror. My father gave him a blanket (it was already cold, though winter had not set in) and the man lay down in a corner of our enclosed veranda. We heard the frenzied cries of the mob throughout the night, looking for victims.

In the morning, the man had disappeared. And with him, the blanket that my father had given him. It was a new blanket that my mother had just purchased. She was furious that the man took it away. “Let it go,” my father said to appease her. “Poor fellow must have walked all the way from Lahore or Karachi…”

Compassion mattered, not whether one was a Hindu or Muslim.

My father had a garden and loved working in it, digging and weeding. A stranger walked up one morning, watched my father tending to his plants, and began a conversation. “Aap bhee refugee hain, kya? (Are you also a refugee?)”, he asked assuming that my father, clad in a vest and khaki shorts, was working in our garden to earn some money. Where have you come from, the man enquired, perhaps hoping to get an introduction to the malik (owner) to earn some money too. My father felt sorry for him, so he told the man to join him in clearing up the garden, and paid him when he was done. Perhaps that man presumed that my father was sharing his day’s wages with him. It did not matter whether one was a Hindu or of another faith; even in the middle of the mayhem that saw millions pour into the capital as destitute refugees, there was still some camaraderie.

All lost

Another vivid, unforgettable memory is that of an old, portly woman in a faded salwar-kameez turning up at our door and begging for work. “I do nice embroidery” she said. So my mother gave her new plain white silk material of six yards length, and asked her to embroider a border to turn it into a sari, which I have still preserved. For her work she asked for “three rupees” (after working for a whole day!) and while leaving, eyed our garden and the papaya trees with longing. She had, she said with tears, left a big bungalow with a large garden back in her village beyond the new border. “We had four cows,” she said, amid sobs. “My children never drank water, only fresh milk.” She had no idea where her children were; they had got separated during the long and arduous trek to Delhi, along with thousands of other refugees.

Our office peon said, excitedly one afternoon, “The shops in Connaught Place are being looted, shall I grab some gadgets, table fans, immersion heaters and cameras?” My father forbade him, and he was cut up about it. My father explained to him how the shop owners were also human beings, terrified of loss and ruin. We later overheard the peon advise his friend against taking advantage of the riots, and the importance of helping another human being in this time of unrest.

Sure, there were horrendous riots, but in the middle of it all, insaniyat (human values) still mattered.

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