Kids Corner

Thumbnail image: the author's grandfather and father in Delhi.


The Partition & I: To Hell And Back




I was not around to witness it first hand, but the Partition of  Punjab and India in 1947 is no less real for me.

Like other Sikh households impacted by the event, the story of the Partition has been told and retold umpteen times in our family and never once has it failed to move me. The narratives of my grandparents, parents, relatives and family friends have left an indelible impression - they are woven into my psyche. 

My grandparents and parents are gone, as are many of the other actors connected to our family. But the family's experience and memory of the Partition of 1947 lives on in me.

The stories of generations of friends and neighbors living together, suddenly turning on each other and baying for blood; of forced conversions; of children left behind; of the sounds of Bole So Nihal and Allah Ho Akbar cancelling each other out; of murder, pillage and rape - all these disturb me immensely.

At the same time, stories of the kindness of strangers, and the generosity of friends; of lives rebuilt; of the indomitable spirit and Chardi Kalaa of the Sikhs - these have inspired me.

Usually, History for us is something that happens out there, to be read about in history books and documentaries. Rarely do we experience history so closely, where it becomes intertwined with our family and personal stories, impinging upon us in a very real and direct way. Indeed, in some perverse way, we were making history in 1947.

I believe that the Partition shaped my life even before I arrived on the scene.

I wonder what life would have been for me, had the Partition not forced my family to "migrate" to present-day India. Very likely, I would have lived in Sialkot, Pakistan - instead of Singapore, New Delhi, New York and Columbus (Ohio).  Who knows? Isn't it fascinating how events - even minor incidents - can change the potential course and direction of one's life without any active participation from us? Is something else running our lives?

1947 was like a tornado that literally uprooted my family - from Sialkot to Delhi. In the space of a few months, they had lived in Jammu, Amritsar, Jalandhar before  crashing in on a distant relative in Delhi, who generously offered up a room (half his living space) that became temporary housing for my grandparents, parents and older siblings.

For my mother and grandparents, the time leading up to Partition was also a difficult one. My father had not been heard from for about two years when he appeared in Sialkot - out of the blue - in early 1947. You see, he had a sporting goods business and was in Indonesia when World War II broke out. The Japanese invasion of Indonesia and Singapore cut off all communications with India, isolating my father and leaving his family to wonder about his whereabouts.

Father barely made it out of Indonesia. The Japanese Army had rounded up some Indians and other locals and lined them up for the firing squad. As it happened, the local Japanese Commandant, an avid tennis player like my father, appeared on the scene in the nick of time. He had bought a few tennis racquets from my father and instantly recognized him. His intervention spared my father's life.

Tennis racquets saved the day! What if he hadn't liked the racquet, I sometime wonder? I wouldn't have been around to write this!

Father's appearance in Sialkot was greeted with much thanksgiving and Ardaas. The celebration was short lived. Within a few months of his return, the family was - like millions of others - fighting its way out of newly formed Pakistan into newly re-formulated India.

Babe-di-Ber, a village on the outskirts of Sialkot where the family lived, was so named because of Baba Nanak. In his many sojourns, Sialkot appears to have been an important venue on the Guru's itinerary. On one of these trips, perhaps on a visit to his carpenter friend, Mool Chand (Bhai Moola), he is said to have rested under a beri tree, waiting on Hamza Ghous, a Muslim divine who had holed himself up in his tower, threatening to destroy Sialkot for some transgression.

The village was predominantly Muslim. There was clearly some segregation for I hear that my grandfather, despite having Muslim friends, never dined with one. It was an unwritten protocol that both sides appeared to go along with. The communities co-existed peacefully.

1947 changed it all.

Stones and rocks thrown at the local gurdwara by a bunch of local Muslims shattered the peace. A tit-for-tat followed, fueled by the politics of the day and the impending Partition. Sikhs organized night patrols to protect themselves against marauding packs of armed Muslims. Cries of Bole So Nihal would rent the air at night. My father told me that the sloganeering was more a way to reassure and calm their own jittery nerves than to frighten the Muslims, who were quick to respond with Allah Hu Akbar!

The next thing you know, all the Sikh families retreated to the gurdwara for safe haven - never to return home. Being in the minority, the shelter of the gurdwara was the more prudent thing to do, rather than trying to stick it out alone. There is strength in numbers. 'Hang together or be hung separately' has always been a good adage.

Getting out of Sialkot became an ordeal. Luckily for our family, a relative in the Army arranged for a truck that drove the family to Jammu, about 20 or so miles away.

Jammu was the logical first stop because one of my father's sisters lived there. For a few months after August 1947, my aunt's home became a veritable transit camp. There was our family, other aunts with their families and an assortment of relatives from both sides who converged on Jammu.

Trying to account for everyone became the order of the day. My mother worried about her sister who had not been heard from. Months later, when they were reunited, she discovered that my aunt and her husband had been captured by Muslims and coerced into conversion. They spent a few weeks as a Muslim couple, complete with Muslim names, until they were rescued by a Muslim friend who arranged their "escape."  When I was younger, my reaction on hearing this was, how could they? Now that I am older - and hopefully wiser - I wonder what I would have done in that situation. No easy answer lends itself.

Another relative was separated from two young daughters. As it transpired, they were sheltered by a kind Muslim who protected them. Through his efforts, the girls were eventually united with their parents, and subsequently married and had their own families. But here is the rub: the girls could never shake off the stigma of having lived in a Muslim home in the midst of Muslim men. There was always innuendo pointed at them, implying that they were somehow "unclean" as a result of the experience.

I don't get it. Do you?  We are so good at shooting poisoned darts at others.

Not everyone was lucky enough to cross over the border. One relative, we learnt, had preferred to kill his young daughter rather than let her be taken by the Muslims and be brutalized by them - as many had already been raped, mutilated, etc. Some relatives were killed and yet some others did some killing of their own. Some died grieving for others. Yet others lost their mental balance.

This must have resembled life in a Hobbesian jungle - nasty, brutish and short. Life can be so fickle.

My family was relatively lucky to get a truck ride to Jammu escorted by the Army. Financially, too, we had luck on our side. A business in Singapore and Indonesia made it easier to replace the house in Sialkot with one in Delhi. Other relatives were not that fortunate and had to struggle for years. Some never quite regained their old life style. Ironically, many who were struggling in the pre-1947 days made it big in Independent India.

The emotional devastation was harder to contend with, though it was not without its lighter moments. My grandparents were not that keen on Delhi. Like many others, they expected to go back and lived in constant anticipation of a return.

Sensing this, my father offered to take them with him to Indonesia and build them a cottage on a hill station (summer resort). Indonesia, he told his parents, was a beautiful country and the climate on a hill station would be hospitable. My grandmother, in no mood for further dislocation, snapped back at him saying, "HuN toonN saanooN pahaaR te khaR ke marnaa honaeh?" (You must be planning to push us off a mountain now!)

The pain of separation was felt on the other side, too.

In 1987, forty years after the Partition, a friend of mine was able to track down a childhood buddy of my father in Sialkot. My father had addressed a note in Urdu for his friend which my friend carried. I can never forget my friend's description of the old man's reaction to my father's letter. Then in his eighties, he wept like a child when he recognized who had sent the letter.

We are a resilient lot, thanks to a turbulent history and an outlook shaped by the ditty, "Khaday pinda laey da, Baki Ahmed Shai da," roughly meaning, live for the day and worry not about the future.

The Gurus have given us a strong work ethic and the chardi kalaa to overcome huge odds, but this does not absolve those in power - then and now - to shamelessly play around with the lives of millions.

Oh! The things we do to each other.


January 16, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Gurjit Kaur Khanduja (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), January 16, 2010, 3:15 PM.

Liked your article. I wish I could articulate as well as you the stories narrated to me by my grandparents and parents of their experiences during the Partition.

2: Poonam Kaur Neki (Dublin, Ohio, U.S.A.), January 17, 2010, 9:12 PM.

Ravinder, thanks for sharing. These important stories need to be told and recorded, for our future generations. By the way, even as a child you sported quite a dastar!

3: Gurpreet (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), January 20, 2010, 8:57 PM.

What memories! I so enjoyed your history and am reminded of stories my father tells of being a young man in 1947 and their difficult exit from newly-carved out Pakistan. When my Dada ji was with us, we would talk about that time of our family history. Thank you for reminding me of that extraordinary time.

4: Radha (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), January 21, 2010, 1:39 PM.

The story you wrote seems like something I would have seen in documentaries shown on the partition in India. Though it is more intense when the words come alive because of the person we know who is writing it. It definitely shows how much a human being can endure in the face of adversity and also strengthen human relationships where people are more giving and forget little differences they may have had earlier on. It shows how clearly important it is to live life with full enthusiasm and a sense of gratitude that we have so much and have not had to bear any major hardships. How our mind tricks us into remaining consumed with minor details which assume a larger-than-life picture! How easy is it to forget events and discard them as old stories that parents/ grandparents always talk about but their importance is known only when they are no longer available to tell us yet again. The burden is on the present generation to take the time to write about it to help future generations realize their roots. So glad you were able to write about it and share it with us. Thanks!

5: Tejwant Singh (Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.), January 23, 2010, 10:24 PM.

Ravinder, thanks for digging out the old treasures of memories like the archeologist of the soul. Just like any digging which looks for the events in the past, it brings back both pain and joy and also the realization that those little nuggets hidden deep under the dirt of life have helped you shape what you are today. We all, whose families lived in that part of the world now called Pakistan, have stories stored deep in our psyche, thanks to our elders who made this their mission to narrate them to us many a time, subliminally carving our characters of grit and determination while some of us were sitting in their laps. Thanks for sharing.

6: Jasdeep Singh Gill (Slough, England), April 07, 2010, 5:29 PM.

Thanks so much for posting your story. I just came across this website by chance! My grandparents on both sides have always been in present-day East Punjab, so I've never heard stories like this!

7: Suniti Mohindra (Chestnut Hill, MA, U.S.A.), January 28, 2011, 9:50 AM.

Ravinder: I was in Karol Bagh in 1947 when the mayhem broke loose and my Dad who exported sporting goods was close to his supplier, Ragbir Singh Juj. Dad advised him to come to New Delhi by going on radio and what a relief it was when we heard that he and his family had survived and then came to stay with us. Did your family know them by any chance? Thanks for the memories; those scenes are etched in my memory of what was related by the children of Ragbir Singh to us on their escape from Sialkot and the actual things that happened in Karol Bagh and the influx of the refugees that made Delhi's population of 900,000 swell to 2 Million overnight. Please contact and we can exchange some more memories ...

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