Slowly but surely, the generation of partition survivors that was a repertoire of the gruesome event’s oral history is ebbing away. Historiography of the nation states in the post-partition period has glossed over the event, save for for cursory mentions.
Yet, the literary works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Bhisham Sahni, Khushwant Singh and Amrita Pritam that captured the pain and pathos of the period have lived on. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in reviving the oral histories of parties amongst academics and civil society groups – not just in India and Pakistan, but outside as well.
In my growing years, partition had different connotations between my two sets of grandparents. My maternal grandparents were reasonably well off, and resided in a palatial mansion in Model Town, Lahore. After partition, my maternal grandmother would reminisce the fabulous life she led in Lahore, and how unfortunate she was that she had to leave behind some of her treasured possessions, although she did manage to bring her teak chairs. I remember those carved chairs so vividly. She also missed her friends left behind, obviously.
My mother’s maid never wanted to go back. But, for her own safety, they went and left her at the border after partition. So, her pre-partition world that she conjured up for us – memories akin to looking into a crystal ball of luxury – was a fascinating paradise of the best of times.
My paternal grandparents were from Kahuta and Rawalpindi. So they had been witness to the gruesome riots, lost family members and fled with barely anything. This was an area where Sikhs, Hindu and Muslims dwelt harmoniously – a peace that was seared by communal violence.
As first-person witnesses to the gory violence, their perspective of the carnage was skewed and one-sided. So, for them, it was a horrific taqseem of extreme pain. Their reminiscences were different. There was nostalgia, but seething with angst of a finality that was endorsed with the loss of many known lives.
Later, I heard the partition saga from my in-laws who had experienced the trauma of a sudden departure when the horrific communal violence erupted. My mother-in-law came in a train teeming with refugees – a young girl fearing for her safety with an infant brother in tow. She would often remember how she clung to a packet of biscuits in her hand, lest her brother had to starve.
She landed up in a refugee camp and was luckily united with her family and her fiancé (my father-in-law) whom she thought may never see again. So, her partition memories were a nightmare that she lived through.
My father-in-law was so deeply afflicted by the loss of two siblings and a mother who had died of that shock, that he had become a morbid personality. Throughout his life, he never recovered from the emotional trauma of loss, although he rebuilt his life.
While there can be no closure to such a traumatic event, the recent efforts to bring to the fore unknown aspects of 1947, and attempts of sections of civil society to move forward despite political tensions between India and Pakistan are positive steps.
At a personal level, taking my parents back to Pakistan was one of my most memorable experiences. It gave them a sense of closure. They were received with utmost of warmth and bonhomie.
My father was a member of the Boundary Force during partition. He proudly recalls how he helped Muslims cross over. He never allowed anyone to be harmed and this was a matter of immense honour for me. Unfortunately, not many individuals on both sides have been fortunate enough to visit their erstwhile homes as a result of the stringent visa regimes in both countries.
On one side, Lord Mountbatten said that partition was “one of the greatest administrative operations in history”. On the other, Faiz Ahmad Faiz lamented the violence: “this is not that longed for break of the day, not that clear dawn in quest of which our comrades set out”.
Only if both the countries take the nagging partition issue to a closure, draw lessons from it, and build peace on our commonalities, will they embark on a path of mutual development. While a more harmonious relationship may seem like a pipe dream today due to the restraining geopolitical dynamics and the dominant discourse on both sides, there are enough lessons that we can draw from history and fight the scourge of poverty and illiteracy together. This is certainly a more progressive road to walk rather than being embroiled in conflict for eternity.
Dr Gurpreet Kaur Maini is a New Delhi-based historian, retired from the Punjab Education Service in 2009.
Views in the article are the author’s own.
Featured image: People wait to cross over to the other side of the Radcliffe Line | Flickr