Every Independence Day Comes with Haunting Baggage
‘So what? We left everything back in Pakistan. You will get a new job’
For people like me every Independence Day comes with an emotional baggage. It is the spectre of Partition that haunts, as memories of what happened in those bloody days of 1947 related to me by my grandparents and parents come rushing back. Over and above it is what I have witnessed during two and half decades as a journalist that scares me, as the same forces of darkness continue to be constantly at work.
I belong to the third generation of people who crossed the Radcliffe Line from both sides in that marauding August of 1947 and continue to be linked to the people and articles that are a memory of those times. Having lost my grandparents earlier and my father five months ago, the small articles they brought from Rawalpindi that lie in my house as souvenirs of those tough times have become all the more precious.
I cannot help but think day after day what would have been the mindset of those people who saw the madness of communalism unfold before their eyes, and what was their level of mental strength, to not only maintain their sanity but rise again from the ashes with whatever they had including their homes, hearths, language, culture, tradition and attire.
Just a few days back I stumbled upon something that accelerated the thought process in this direction. A childhood friend Tarun Sharma came up with something very precious when he had gone to take possession of an old property his sister had bought near Jaunaji in Solan in Himachal Pradesh.
“The previous owners had cleaned the house except for a small heap of papers that lay gathered in a corner as the rain fell. They would have disposed them off by burning but for the rain.
“When I started gathering the heap, I came across some pages of a pocket diary in which someone had written his daily activity in a very minute font, somewhere in 1940 in chaste Hindi.
“I picked them up and brought them home. I found that the writer was a teacher, a strict disciplinarian leading an austere life but keeping track of what was going on.”
This was pretty evident when the two of us read those pages at his place. On one page there was a mention of Udham Singh killing General Dwyer:
“A Hindustani named Mohammed Singh Azad opened fire in which the former Governor Dwyer who had ordered the firing in Jallianwala Bagh was killed and four to five other people were injured. It is surprising how he reached the venue where the programme was being held and why he did this. Probably it was revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh killings.”
Ram Mohammed Singh Azad was the name adopted by Udham Singh to signify the three major faiths practised in Punjab along with anti-imperial sentiment, which the diary writer may have been unaware of at the time.
On another page he made a very brief reference to Qaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, calling him a vichitra (strange) person.
Our spontaneous reaction was, “What must have been going though his mind as he wrote this?” Tarun intends to get these pages laminated and keep them as a treasure.
Then just a couple of days back I sat talking to Shakeela Begum whom I had tracked down after a huge effort. We sat discussing those days of 1947.
Although she was born in 1952, her father Noor Mohammad’s family was perhaps the only local Muslim family in and around my hometown of Solan who stayed back after the communal frenzy while all the other Muslim families were murdered or had fled.
She has many tales to share that she grew up listening to from her father and grandmother.
“My father stayed back because one of the five brothers who were allowed to settle on our land in Gan ki Ser village stood up along with his wife and children to defend our family while several other people were baying for their blood. My father stayed back despite the fact that my grandfather was killed in the frenzy. Those were very bad times,” she recalled.
The family continued to live in the same village as the attackers soon realised their folly. It was some years later that the family moved closer to town.
Shakeela Begum disclosed how the only mosque in Solan had remained shut for years because there was no Muslim left in town. “Imagine how traumatic it was when there was nobody from the community to celebrate festivals or perform post-death rituals.”
There are many such instances that compel one to go back in time. Around three years ago there was a piece in The Tribune that talked about one Professor Abdul Majid Khan, who chose to settle in Shimla after retiring from the foreign service while his family’s choice was Lahore: a partition of the family.
According to its author Rajaa Bhasin, “As the years went, one would see the slowly ageing, but still elegant man walk down from the still-a-suburb of Shimla, Sanjauli. Past the Lakkar Bazaar, he would reach the Ridge and there with folded hands, he would bow before the statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
“He would remain in that position for a few moments and then look up at the statue. We wondered what words they exchanged and what he told the Mahatma of what we were doing to the country whose independence they had wrested with such sacrifice.”
Professor Khan would then go to the Indian Coffee House, order a masala dosa and spread on it a small cube of butter that he had brought with him. It is said the Coffee House has a ‘masala dosa with butter’ on the menu because of him!
For my part, I continue to keep a green tin box and a tawa (griddle) that my family had brought from across the Radcliffe Line while leaving every other worldly possession behind. The granny refused to use any other tawa till the age of 100 (she passed away at 102) when she could still make parathas in the West Punjab style for her son and grandsons despite her failing vision.
She would recount an episode when the family had to eat just rotis with salt while staying at Haridwar railway platform as the deep pan containing the dal had gone flying when the cement gave way because of the heat, as it was being cooked on top of three stones. I still use the tawah for making French toast and omelets.
Talking of resilience, I am compelled to share time and again how she encouraged me after I had lost a job, saying “So what? We left everything back in Pakistan. You will get a new one.”
As for the tin box, I understood its importance when I came across scores of families displaced after the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. I understood what it means to flee homes carrying small belongings in such boxes. A friend has promised to make a short film around this box.