Sword, Fire & A Book

Freedom of India in the North had two faces – one of Independence, and the other of Partition of the country. It was Independence for those who were not disturbed from their homes and hearths. It was Partition for those who were uprooted from their moorings and became refugees. For 16 million people in the North it meant Partition. Undergoing a personal unforgettable trauma, they set a record of the biggest human migration in history.

We were in Rawalpindi in 1947. It is now the older twin city of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. I was about 14. The year started with communal riots, which increased in frequency and ferocity as the Independence Day drew close. We stayed in a locality which was separated from a Muslim – dominated area by a small seasonal stream. Sporadic attacks on our locality had started. We heard the incessant sounds of exchange of gunfire. All able-bodied males even of tender age like me were asked to do night petrol. They were ‘armed’ with broken swords and sticks. There were small covered wells in the courtyards of some houses and the instructions to women were that in case of death of the men-folk they should jump into well and commit suicide. That would also contaminate the water for the ‘enemy’!

By August the situation had worsened and we could no longer hold out against the other side. We moved into the heart of the city in an area called ‘Bazaar-e-saraffan’ (Jeweller’s Street) which was mostly inhabited by the Hindus. One of our relations had a jewellery shop and a house close by and he took us in.

It was in that house that we heard the midnight speech of Pandit Nehru on 14- 15 of August 1947. We shivered with emotion – and fear about the future. Outside there was no celebration. Only an eerie silence.

Before Partition, all government servants had been asked to choose between the two countries. My father was a liberal person who used to translate the verses of the Quran and compared them with some of the slokas of the Geeta. He opted for Pakistan believing that it would only mean a change in the Governor-General. His option was soon nullified by riots and arson. When life became difficult even in the city, the Muslim head – clerk in my father’s office offered that the families of Hindu officers might shift to his son’s house. He was an army officer and stayed in the cantonment. Three families grabbed the invitation and moved into his small house. We ran a common kitchen and boys had strict instructions that anyone who moved out of the house should assume a Muslim name. We stayed there for a month.

Every morning our father went out to try for seats in the planes which were evacuating Hindus and Sikhs but came back disappointed. His savings also were running out and we often heard our parents conferring with each other about what to do in case the funds were exhausted.

On 17th October 1947 my father came and said that a special train for government servants would be leaving the next day. We packed up our meager belongings in no time and when we reached the station we saw a surging, struggling sea of humanity with all their bag and baggage near the station. I don’t know how we managed to get into a small compartment. It was meant for 14 persons and over 40 men, women and children with all their earthly belongings were stuffed into it.

From Rawalpindi to Amritsar, ordinarily an overnight journey those days, the train two nights and three days. The train was heavily guarded by Gurkha soldiers who had a reputation for being fierce soldiers and were not affected by communal feelings. Most other units of the army had become openly partisan and so they could not be relied upon for escort duties. The train was attacked thrice on the way. The Gurkhas repulsed the attacks and I the dark of night we only heard slogans and gunfire. We could see burning houses and smoke billowing out of habitations which we passed by.

The last attack was after we had crossed Lahore. The train halted there for some time. It was dusk. By that time all our provisions that we had carried for the journey were exhausted. The children started crying because there was nothing to eat or drink. Unable to bear the sight, my father stole out of the compartment under cover of darkness and filled a small bucket of water from a nearby pond. The pond had been sprayed with DDT and the water was contaminated. But we were dying of thirst and so everybody drank that water. Resultantly, most of us started suffering from nausea and vomiting and seemed to be dying. However, such is human ability to spring back to life that as soon as the train crossed the border and we heard the shouts of ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ most of us recovered. But, due to the earlier trauma and tension, my father fell seriously sick.

As the train steamed into the Amritsar railway station on the afternoon of 21st October 1947 a group of volunteers peered into every compartment and asked was if there were any dead bodies. There was a makeshift cremation ground at some distance from the platform and some bodies were being burnt there. Nine bodies were recovered from our train. While they were taken to one side of the area which had been converted into a cremation ground, those who were alive were led to the other side and given something to eat and water to drink. We ate food in full view of the bodies being cremated.

In Amritsar there was a maternal uncle of mine and we moved into his house for about ten days till my father recovered. After that we moved to the city of Jalandhar which was temporary headquarters of a number of departments. There we stayed with a cousin of my father whom he had brought up, educated and even married off. He gave us a very cold reception.

There we were reunited with my eldest sister and brother who were already on this side of the border and had given us up for dead.

My father got posting orders to Garh Shankar, a sub division of the district of Hoshiarpur about 20 miles distant from the district headquarters and so we moved there. By then winter had set in and we were entirely unprepared for it. All that we were able to bring with us for a family of six were two trunks and three bedding. The government gave some blankets and one pullover and one pair of trousers for the whole family from the army disposal and that is how we managed to live through our first winter in free India. The rule was that whoever went out would put on the pull over and the woolen trousers and the rest would stay warm by the side of the hearth.

One day it was announced that all the refugees could collect some household effects from out of the property left behind by Muslim evacuees. The local magistrate set up his office outside a huge building and the refugees assembled there. I represented my family and was asked to pick up utensils and anything I liked. I hadn’t brought with me any bag or basket and had to manage with my bare hands and shirt. I picked up some essential items and also some others that took my fancy. One was a steel tumbler on which an Urdu couplet was inscribed:

“Aabe angoor ne to aag lagaa di saaqi
Baraf pila ke kalejaa meraa thandaa karde”

(Wine has burnt my innards, O’ cup-bearer, Give me some ice water to cool them)

I also picked up a copy of the Quran as a gift for my father since his own had been left behind.

At home everybody laughed at the choice of the tumbler which was due to my interest in Urdu poetry. It had obviously belonged to a tippler. Then, noticing the copy of the Quran, my eldest sister asked somewhat agitatedly why I had brought a copy of the book that had brought so much ruin upon us. By that time my father had come. He admonished her and said that it was because of that book that we were all alive. “Do not forget that we were given asylum by one of those people who followed this book and went by its teachings.”

That copy is still safe with me.

(Original published in the Deccan Chronicle, Hyderabad in November 1997)