India and Pakistan again celebrate the end of the British Raj and the conception of independent homelands. With a difference of a mere 24 hours, millions in both the countries rejoice with fervour, pride, and nationalism.
However, to some, August, after 70 years, is a shadow of the nightmare that they lived through at the time of the great divide and reminds them of the dear ones they lost on the way to their new abodes, places they still can’t relate to as their homes.
On the corner of Sonehri Masjid, Mohallah Shah Chan Charagh, sits 86-year-old glasses repairman, Hameed Ali Shah, from Firozpur, India. He recalls Partition as it happened yesterday.
“I was born in Firozpur Cantonment. We were a middling family with a small house and were living well,” he told me, while showing old family photographs from his drawer.
“The striking brick streets, jamun tree in front of my house and the scent of tamarind in our veranda – I still can recall the flavour and how fulfilling it was,” he said with a smile.
Partition came unanticipated for the Muslims of Firozpur. “One night, our Hindu neighbours told us to leave the house to save ourselves from the mob. We left everything behind and embarked on the journey to Pakistan, a place we had heard of only in slogans.”
When asked about the journey, Ali Shah looked up with empty eyes and replied, “They killed my sister in front of my eyes. Our family had nine members; only two survived.”
However, it wasn’t just Hindus and Sikhs who committed atrocities and looting. Ali Shah saw carnage and prowlers on the way after crossing Wagah and even as far as Rawalpindi.
“The place we finally settled was Bhabra Bazaar and this is where I sit today. It was an affluent Hindu neighbourhood but the residents were forcibly moved to camps and their havelis were looted and burnt. It was heartrending, particularly seeing the elderly who spent generations at this very place, departing their homes and the shops they had built with their fathers and grandchildren.”
“Puttar, purkhon ki nishanian aur qabrain chornay se behtar hai banda mar jae [Son, it is better to die than to leave the reminders and graves of your forefathers behind],” Ali Shah said with tearful eyes.
Less than a kilometre from Ali Shah’s business stands the desolate Soojhan Singh Haveli, lamenting the times when its residents were elites of the region. Built by Rai Bahadur Soojhan Singh, the magnificent structure was once the centre of politics and a monument to opulence of those who built it.
Partition wreaked havoc on its once-beautiful architecture that is now nothing but a decaying ruin. Renowned for its grandeur, darbar mehal(king’s court), and gold carvings, it was looted and burnt to erase the identity of its Sikh owners, whose links to Rawalpindi have been buried like they never existed.
The story of Gulzar Ahmad from Ambala is no different from Ali Shah’s. Now 84, he runs a shop in Saidpuri, Rawalpindi. Luckily, his family migrated early and were spared the agony of the loss of life. He has a faint memory of his old neighbourhood and friends
Ahmad and his brothers settled in Rawalpindi and started a new life; however, their parents could never recover from the tragedy of leaving their lives behind.
He said they would always be thinking of their house, the neighbourhood, the city, and their friends. “We all thought the bedlam would last a month or two and we would return to our city; however, every passing year made them bleak and ill, and they passed away after 10 years of Partition,” Ahmad told me.
For a millennium, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived side by side in Punjab. But The great divide made brothers thirst for each other’s blood.
Not many know that Rawalpindi was one of the starting points of the massacres. The first train that reached Amritsar with corpses from what became Pakistan was from Rawalpindi and its surroundings.
In his book Rape of Rawalpindi, notable scholar Prabodh Chandra gave a detailed account of the carnage in the villages around Rawalpindi, which later took over the urban areas and spread across NWFP and Indian Punjab, killing thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
Gurpreet Singh Anand, a resident of Delhi, has no memory of Partition but he proudly calls himself Pindi waal (hailing from Rawalpindi). His family had a thriving clothing business in Rawalpindi and Murree when suddenly, one day, they found themselves on the wrong side of the border and their business was looted and their shops burnt.
His family stayed in their home near Banni, Rawalpindi following Partition, believing the mayhem would end shortly. But they soon had to flee to avoid coming under attack. Moving from one city to another, they finally settled down in Delhi, where in claims they got only a fraction of what they had left behind.
I interacted with Anand through social media in a heritage group. Now an established businessman, he has visited Rawalpindi twice, and the urge to see his ancestral home again is never sated.
To him, visiting his father’s house in Saidpuri was an emotional ride. The house was almost in the same condition as his family had left it in 1947.
“I kissed the door’s frame and the stairs when I entered the house. It was quite a poignant experience holding the banister leading to the room that was once my grandfather’s,” he recalled, emotionally.
“I am visiting Rawalpindi again soon with an old friend Kunwarjit Singh who wishes to see his native place before he dies,” he informed me in his last conversation.
They later visited the city and Singh, at 85, finally got to see his birthplace for the first time since Partition. He reminisced old times and revived his Pindi waal spirit.
Unfortunately, while I was writing this piece, I learned that Singh passed away after returning to India. Perhaps the thirst that made him restless across the border for decades was finally quenched after visiting his forefathers’ home and where he hailed from – the place where he took his first steps and where he uttered his first words.
It is this yearning that is presented as dina in every writing of famous poet and scriptwriter Sampooran Singh Kalra, popularly known as Gulzar. In every interview, he talks about his home in Dina, Jhelum, and the memories he had of his house. One of his verses goes like this:
Chand Pukhraj ka, raat pashemene ki
Zikr Jhelum ka, baat ho Dinay ki
Or the longing for Lahore that is evident in the literary works of Bapsi Sidhwa.
70 years on, both India and Pakistan, despite their daggers drawn, have people who continue to cling to their past, a whole generation carrying in their hearts the love of their birthplaces. People who were once told “You’re no longer wanted; go away before it’s too late.”
They wish for a thaw in the icy relations between the two countries so they could see their ancestral homes, pay respects at their forefathers’ graves and finally feel the joy their parents had felt in their once-idyllic neighbourhoods.
Today, regrettably, it seems like an ever-distant dream.