The Real Horror Of Partition Horrors Day
As the oldest offspring of parents who were children when they fled one newly-formed country to another (my mother was born in 1947), the grief of Partition has always lived within me.
For Sindhi families, there was no mirror homeland in India. They were an endangered, and soon-to-be caricatured community the moment they left their Sufi selves on the banks of the Darya or Darya Shah, the royal river as they called the Indus, according to a reference in a book by Saaz Aggarwal, my favourite collector of Sindhi memories.
My father’s mother never recovered, she carried the anger and bitterness of this deep loss of home and livelihood for the rest of her life. When my mother was upset with me, she would sometimes tell me in frustration, “you’re just like your grandmother.”
I liked to think I was. I know I instinctively understood the older lady’s loss and pain. In flashes, her anger coursed through my veins too. She was incredibly stoic. My elder cousin remembers her gifting her grandchildren pistols loaded with tiklis (firecracker pellets) for Diwali in 1974, around the time her husband passed away. We ran screaming through her house shooting each other as she grappled privately with her grief. I learned the vanishing language only so I could communicate better with her and my maternal grandmother.
I’m envious when anyone tells me their ancestors have lived for generations in the same home or in the same neighbourhood. It was only when I first saw the Indus River in Ladakh in my 40s that I finally felt connected to my roots.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that we should commemorate August 14 as Partition Horrors Day was an axe hacking through this decades-old sorrow, its carefully-nursed pain now on display for all to see. The spectre of a second, modern-day Partition, a “doosra batwara”—a phrase widely used during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests across India in 2019—loomed closer than ever before.
I know I was not alone. “By marking a day to remember this horror feels as if someone is making an Utsav (festival) out of our collective pain,” tweeted screenplay writer Harneet Singh, also a former colleague. Family histories of loss and sufferings were spilled on Indian Twitter. Read some that touched me here, here, and here.
“Rather than remembering the horrors endured at Partition, I wish there were efforts to recognize the shared losses Indians and Pakistanis bore—of home, family, friendship, education,” author Anchal Malhotra tweeted. “An entire way of life fractured. The realization of shared loss may lead to shared healing.”
In fact, this is exactly how we have remembered the Partition until now. From oral histories housed in archives such as 1947 Archive to the many books written about this traumatic time (the one that impacted me the most is Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s Borders & Boundaries about the terrifying cost Partition extracted on women on both sides of the newly-drawn border), we have always focused on the shared losses of twin neighbours whose citizens, in many ways, are still more same than different.
Malhotra’s own book Remnants Of A Separation, with poignant chapter titles such as ‘The Khaas Daan of Nargis Khatun’ and ‘The Hopeful Heart of Nazmuddin Khan’, was an attempt to capture the essence of Partition refugees by revisiting their material memories, in this case, the things they carried across the border in the Great Displacement.
She tells the story of fellow author Gurcharan Das’ maternal grandmother who carried a bunch of 51 keys. “She was so convinced that they would return to their home in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan, that before leaving for Ludhiana, she locked every single almirah and every single room including the kitchen, making sure the house was safe and secure,” Malhotra writes. “Fifty-one locks for fifty-one keys.”
If you wander through The Partition Museum in Amritsar, you will encounter stories of how we lost Noorjehan and Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand, whose family were the last Rababis to perform at the Golden Temple before they left; and how the legendary Indian cricket team was split.
You’ll meet everyone from Waris Shah (immortalised by Amrita Pritam in her poem Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu) to Upendranath Ashk and feel the pain Satish Gujral poured into his early canvases about the Partition. You'll understand (just a little) how our ancestors lived through this time, how our artistes captured this moment in history—and, of course, the magnitude of our loss.
It’s not surprising that a government that used the Covid-19 pandemic to spread Islamophobia would come up with the idea of repackaging our historic tragedy into yet another weapon of hate. This same government blatantly dismissed our latest shared sorrow in the pandemic when its elected representative told Parliament in July that no deaths were reported due to lack of oxygen.
Seventy-five years after Independence, this is the nation we have become. Will we mourn alone or speak up together?
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.