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My Partition Inheritance

15/08/2015 7:45 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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I begin this, my new entry for the 69th year of India's independence, with a memory of old.

A memory so old, in fact, that it predates me. It predates my father too, through whom I claim kinship with the event. It begins with my grandparents' wedding, on 8 August, 1947, in Lyallpur, West Punjab.

It was a traditional Hindu Punjabi arranged marriage, carried out in some style as it celebrated the union of two firstborns. Meanwhile, there was some concern locally over rising Hindu-Muslim tensions.

The date of India's Independence from British rule approached, and in the midst of the excitement, communal tempers were inflamed. There were calls for a separate country to be carved out for Muslims, but there was no indication of where the new borders might lie.

Besides, Punjab was different.

"The day of Independence came, and the festivities spilled out into the streets. Feelings approached, no, surpassed the feverish mania experienced at the crux -- at the successful crux -- of a hard-fought cricket final."

There had always been Hindus in Punjab, just as there had always been Sikhs and Muslims. Things would carry on as before. They would all live relatively amicably, with the demarcations of old maintained. Hindus and Muslims would not intermarry. They would pray to their separate gods.

And so, while there was rising awareness of pre-Independence tensions, in Lyallpur that sultry August evening, my family was celebrating. The bride's Muslim friends attended the wedding, though they weren't invited to partake in the wedding feast. That particular demarcation of old -- that no Muslim would eat, or be offered food, in a Hindu household -- proved resilient to the claims of revelry and hospitality.

The newlyweds departed for their new home in Karachi, where the groom had a commission in the Indian army. My grandparents settled easily into their new lives. This was their honeymoon period, and their neighbours, a young Muslim couple, were friendly. The new brides spent much of the day together, and in the evening, dishes were exchanged between the two young homes.

The day of Independence came, and the festivities spilled out into the streets. Feelings approached, no, surpassed the feverish mania experienced at the crux -- at the successful crux -- of a hard-fought cricket final. Sweet barfis in the tricolour were distributed in the streets. Strangers were embraced and congratulated. Dishes of food were passed from Hindu home to Muslim one.

It emerged that Karachi, and my grandmother's native Lyallpur, had fallen the way of Pakistan in the Partition. My family was now Pakistani. They were Hindu minorities in this new Muslim nation. They weren't too concerned by their change in nationality. Punjab and Sindh -- where my grandparents' new home of Karachi was based -- had always been states where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs coexisted. They were peaceful for the most part, but as is natural for a volatile, passionate people, tempers did sometimes fray, especially when a Hindu killed a Muslim, or when a Muslim married a Sikh. But these were exceptions, and in their new, hopeful world newly rid of their British masters, the peace between the different constituents of Pakistan was sure to endure.

And then, my grandparents were never sure when, the camaraderie between Muslims and non-Muslims ebbed. My grandmother's Muslim neighbour stopped sending over delicacies from her kitchen. There had been reports of trains carrying slaughtered Muslims pulling into Pakistanis stations. My grandparents' neighbour had lost a loved one in the exodus, and suddenly, everyone was wary of sharing their food. The Hindus were suddenly scared of being poisoned, the Muslims resentful of the murderous Hindus in the East.

"My grandmother's Muslim neighbour stopped sending over delicacies from her kitchen. There had been reports of trains carrying slaughtered Muslims pulling into Pakistanis stations."

Karachi became a city of whispers, of simmering echoes that hot, humid monsoon season. Plots were predicted, massacres planned. Lone Hindus and Sikhs were ambushed in narrow alleyways. And still the news of violence from the East -- from India -- grew. Muslim refugees from UP and Bihar arrived in Karachi. They were unable to speak the local language, but were full of the terrors they escaped in India -- the rapes, the abductions, the land grabs, the murders. The echoes rose in pitch until they became the cry of a street army. Local Muslim boys teamed with miscreants imported from the frontiers with Afghanistan, and began to wreak their bloody revenge.

Hindu and Sikh homes were invaded, entire families put to the sword. Women were raped and murdered, others had their heathen breasts hacked off. And there was no hiding.

In a city where people from different religions had lived so easily together, every Muslim knew where a Hindu home was, and where a Sikh one was.

Even for those escaping their homes and heading east, it was hard to hide their origins. People had been in the habit of tattooing the insides of their wrists with marks that betrayed their religion -- with the Om symbol, or with their names. It was just a matter of turning an arm up, and reading an offending word in an offending language; a Rakesh in the Devanagari script, and a Hindu was offered up for vengeful slaughter.

And what of my grandparents? They were fortunate. The debutant governments of the two new countries arranged an exchange of officers -- Hindus and Sikhs were sent into India, and Muslims who desired to go to Pakistan were dispatched to the West. The extended family, too, was airlifted out of Lyallpur, and found themselves safe, newly destitute but essentially unharmed, in Delhi. And Delhi, that capital of the Raj, the ruined bastion of the Mughals, that quicksilver survivor of a million conquests, changed once more to accommodate its new Punjabi inhabitants.

"I was allowed to go out -- in India and beyond -- without prejudice, and that, more than any land, was my unprejudiced, large-hearted Partition inheritance."

And so I was brought up, a third generation immigrant, without much sense of the horrors my family had witnessed. I was raised with the desire to succeed that typified these educated, previously privileged refugees. And those around me, relatives and friends, strove to overcome the handicap they faced for having been born on the wrong side of a line sketched in their -- in our -- land by an unknowing, uninterested representative of a waning foreign power.

I was left free of the paranoia, of the rage and the hatred that must have suffused my grandparents' last weeks in Pakistan. I was left free of the prejudice, or of the hatred they must naturally have begun to feel towards their aggressors. I was not taught to fear the symbol Om, though equally I wasn't encouraged to acquire any tattoos. This, of course, may owe itself to other instincts than ensuring religious anonymity, but their gift to me, their immigrant's child's child, was to let me choose my own destiny.

I was allowed to go out --in India and beyond -- without prejudice, and that, more than any land, was my unprejudiced, large-hearted Partition inheritance.

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