Kids Corner

All images are details from photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1947.


The Border




The following is presented to you as part of's ongoing series, "The Partition & I":



San Jose, California, USA. October 1, 2001

"... Ek baar fir, atam ghati hamle ke baad, jismein iktalees log maare gaye, sarkar ne Jammu aur Kashmir mein suraksha daste bhejne ki ghoshna ki hai ..."


"Why can't he ever turn the stupid thing off?"

"... Ek maheene kai andar, sena pahonchnai ki sambhavna hai ..."

"I don't give a shit! He's freaking deaf and can hardly hear, so he blasts it at full volume ..."

"... Aur khabarein nau baje ke baad. Namaste News sun nai ki liye, shukriya."

"If we had never even gotten Nanaji that stupid radio, we wouldn't have to listen to it all the time, too. It's not even like he listens to anything interesting. Just stupid news updates from India - oh, big whoop!"

"Ni kuriye,  you need to watch your tongue! Why can't you be more respectful of your grandfather?"

The old man draws in a rattling breath, and lets it out slowly. He turns the blue dial on the side of the gleaming, grey radio until it clicks and the reporter's voice has slowly, slowly, droned down and diminished. He pops another cashew into his mouth and chews slowly, tiredly watching Kalwinder argue with her mother.

She's yelling in English and it sounds vulgar, almost painful to listen to. He knows it's probably about his radio again - ‘Kelly' can't hear her TV shows over the radio. But even more than that, she hates his ardaas, when he sits in the living room and prays.

He raises an olive-brown, wrinkly hand and pushes his radio towards the back of the dining table so that it is set against the wall. Then he stands up slowly and picks up his empty dish, hobbling from side to side as he slowly makes it to the kitchen. He sets the bowl down on the counter and shuffles out of the kitchen, hands clasped behind his back, into the cramped hallway of their apartment until he reaches his bedroom. He sits down and breathing heavily, takes out his asthma inhaler, pumping the artificial air into his weak lungs. Then, he looks at the other empty bed in the room, and turns off the lamp.

 * * * * *

 Lahore, Punjab.  August 18,1947

 The sharp, cold air is brisk and stings his face, but it smells delicious and is sweet to his lungs. He instinctively pulls his thick, cotton shawl closer around himself and his face. His head is warm from the tightly wound turban. The sky is darkening as the day comes to an end.

Apprehensively, he watches the dark sky for a moment; it is menacing and vicious. Tonight they will do it. They will leave behind this filthy, useless camp. They will leave behind the flimsy tent and dry food packages. They have already left behind their ancestral home, the one with the bougainvillea flowers that draped over the gate leading to the large courtyard in front. The one with a kitchen that was never empty of used dishes because of the continuous bustle of neighbors and family that came and filled the house with merriment ... that made the house a home.

But it's okay - a house is only property, only land. And once the land retracts its welcome atmosphere, once it has changed so much that one cannot simply look around and recognize anything or anyone for that matter, it's time to leave.

"Aajo," she called out from behind him. "Come - we should be ready to leave."

He turned around and headed back towards the small tent, leaning down closer to her so that he could kiss the infant cradled in her arms. Then he slipped under the tent's flap and glanced around at the few things scattered on the ground: a comb, a small pistol, an extra shawl for when it got cold, and in the shawl, a tied up rectangular block of 10,000 rupees. He picked up the pistol tenderly, a remnant of his few months spent in the real Indian military. Slipping it into his waistband, he grabbed the money and came back out to where she was standing and carefully slid the bundle of cash into the folds of the shawl the baby was wrapped up in. When he was sure that she had smoothed the shawl over and could hold the baby properly, he whispered to her, "Let's go."

* * * * *

The old man spends most of his day inside the bedroom. He naps and sometimes reads the Punjabi newspapers that Kelly and her mother bring him from the gurdwara. He also likes to sit in the living room and watch football - the real football that the Europeans play, not the American kind. Most of the channels don't work, though, so he has to watch it in Spanish. He likes to cut fruit and eat it while he watches television, but after he dropped his plate of papaya rind and seeds, Kelly's mom told him to eat in the kitchen.

But he likes listening to the radio the best. It is the one thing that has not changed over all the years. It is the one thing that will never leave him, because it is immortal and will be there forever. When he turns it on, he experiences the vibrance of the language he hardly hears spoken in the house now. Ah, but the radio is not ignorant and does not change like people do. It understands him better than anything else in America ever has.

That is, except for her. When she was still here, she understood him. She was much quieter than he, but she knew everything. She felt everything. She was more than just a part of him ... she was a bond united to him forever. But now she was gone. And she had broken the bond. She, too, had changed - that day six years ago when she had been knitting on the sofa beside him, and her hands suddenly stopped and began to quiver. One hand shakily found its way to her chest, where she tried several times to take a deep breath. After one last effort, she had suddenly become relaxed, like she didn't want to try any longer. And he, not fully realizing the situation, had continued to ask her what was wrong.

He didn't remember what happened after that, but somehow she reached the hospital. It didn't matter anyway; she had already crossed that border long before that point.

* * * * *

They pushed their way through the chaotic crowd till they had reached the front. Immediately next to the train stood a tall, British soldier, finely dressed and almost beast-like because of a large, brown mustache. Nine or ten sepoys were thrusting the butts of their rifles into the teeming crowd, attempting to hold them off from clamering on to the train. Careful to remain near the side of the crowd, he slowly worked his way until he was near a sepoy.

"Is no one allowed to board the trains today?" he asked.

"What do you mean ‘today'? No one is ever allowed to board the trains, you bewakuuf," answered the sepoy harshly. "The train is not meant for people like you to cross into Hindustan illegally."

As he watched then, a man pushed his way through the crowd to reach the Briton. Out of breath, he hastily pulled out a handful of rupee notes from his waistband and let it pass from his hand to the white man's outstretched fingers. Without even glancing at the small, malnutritioned man that was still panting, the British soldier beckoned a sepoy to come closer to him. Bending down because of his height, he whispered into the sepoy's ear momentarily, and the sepoy nodded. The sepoy then beckoned towards the man and helped him board the train along with his wife and three children that trailed closely behind.

He glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed or if only he had seen the exchange. Turning towards her, he fumbled through the baby's shawl until his fingers grasped the bundle of money. Feeling out a thick slice of the cash, he tugged on it gently till he felt a wad slide out. He flipped through it to make sure there were enough. Then, working his way back towards the front, he glanced around once more as sweat beads began to collect above his upper lip. Cautiously, he slowly brushed the money by the sepoy's hand. The sepoy turned towards him once again, and stared at him for a long time before finally walking over to the British soldier. After a polite salute, he handed the money to the white man in a sly manner. The soldier, who had been twirling his mustache with one hand while the other was held behind his back, glanced over at him with shockingly pale blue eyes. Then he looked away and nodded to the sepoy, who hurried back through the crowd to him.

"Chal, hurry! We don't have all day to wait for you," the sepoy snapped as he thrust the butt of his rifle into the crowd again.

Half-turning, he brought his arm around so that he was holding her shoulder, and they climbed into the train together. Sliding down into a long seat, he helped her get adjusted, and sighing, looked out the barred windows into what he could see of the darkened sky. Silently, a single raindrop fell outside his window, but no one noticed it in all their clamor. Then another came, and another, and another ...

* * * * *

April 13, 2002

He has just finished doing ardaas again, except this time, he did it inside the bedroom, sitting on the bed. He sits, cross-legged, and stares at her bed across from his. Kelly's birthday was coming up again, and it made him think of all the things she used to do whenever there was a birthday.

Their first child, a boy, was born merely four days before they had left. Their neighbors, Muslims, had come to help out. He remembered Saeda telling him how the small infant would grow to be a very strong young man - someone of the new generation that didn't know about the hate and violence in the world. And looking into his son's face, he had felt hope for the first time. He had felt a sense of escape from all the problems in the world, and a keen desire to keep all the problems of the world away from him.

But human beings cannot choose to live in the world at certain times, and opt out of it at other times. So when the news reached their community on August 15, less than four days after the birth, he knew they was no other option - they would have to leave everything they had ever known if they and the boy were to ever have a chance. He had seen what happened to the others that stayed. Even he didn't have much hope to change that.

It didn't matter in the end, anyway. The world proved to be too much for the infant and it, too, like its mother would many years later, took its last breath a few months after they left.

*  *  *  *  *

Suddenly, he keels over the side of the bed and gasps for air. His weak hands are upon his chest, and he can't breathe. It feels as though the breath has been knocked out of him, and he continues to clutch at his chest, his fingers curling around the collar of his own kurta. Kelly knocks on the door and then opens it to ask if he wants his afternoon chai, but she screams and instead runs outside.

"CALL 911!"

He hears the footsteps of Kelly's father pounding down the hallway. He looks up at his son's face once more, then blackness jumps from the corners of the room to meet in the center of his pupils and form a black mask. His body slumps against the ground.

* * * * *

The train has already filled up with people, desperate families that carry nothing but the clothes on their back. Eventually, the British soldier climbs aboard, too, and booms out in angrezi, that vulgar language of the farangi.

The sepoy he had ‘interacted' with before sidled up to the British officer's side and translated everything for the passengers; illiterate men and women and children who, despite living under British rule had no opportunity, reason, or care to learn their ways like the sepoy had.

" weapons of any sort are allowed - it's not like you'll be needing them anyhow - if you have weapons on you, please step to the front ..." droned the Briton.

"...koi bhi bandook ya aisi cheej ki zaroorat nahi hai - waise bhi, unki zaroorat nahi hai - agar koi hai, samne aa-jaayi-e ..."

Panicking, his hand moved to the pistol still hidden in his waistband. If someone discovered it, they could get into a lot of unneccesary trouble, and it would put them and the baby at risk. Rather than take that chance, he quickly stood up.

"I have a small handgun," he admitted.

The British officer glanced at the sepoy questioningly.

"Kahaan? Where is it?" replied the sepoy.

Slowly pulling out the pistol from his waistband, he held it out to the sepoy. The sepoy grabbed it and stashing it into his own belt, motioned for the other sepoys to get him.

"But I haven't done anything! I gave you the gun and ... and ..."

"And what? You paid a little more than the rest and you think that makes you special?" muttered the sepoy under his breath as he looked him straight into the eyes with his face less than an inch away. Turning away, the sepoy explained to the British man what was happening.

"Sir, you will want to take this man right away - he was carrying a weapon which I have now confiscated."

The British officer once again shot the sepoy a questioning look, as if to say what gave the sepoy the authority to do such a thing. The sepoy, well aware of the fact that a handgun could bring much profit, slid out a wad of currency and pressed it into the British officer's hand.

"Well, what're you waiting for? Get him out of here!" he exclaimed to the other sepoys.

Back in the seat, she began to cry silently. Her tears slid down her cheeks quietly as she pressed the infant closer to herself and rocked back and forth slightly.

"Toon fikkar na karee(n)," he called out as he felt multiple pairs of hands close in on his shoulders, arms, hands, and back. "Don't worry, you'll get there safely and everything will-"

His face spun in the other direction with a startling pain as he realized that one of the sepoys had just hit him in the side of the face with the butt of his rifle. But where was she? The rain had started to come down hard; the fat droplets felt like soft bullets as they attempted to beat him down. He was already off the train, and she was still in there, safe and all, but emotionally distraught, he knew. He needed to get back to her.

This time, blood dribbled out between his lips when the sepoy hit him yet again, closer to the mouth. Spitting it out, he looked up into the man's face. Nothing but inexplicable hate.

* * * * *

The hospital room is filled with family; every relative they have ever known, along with close family friends. They weep inconsolably and comfort each other as they receive the news. But he doesn't hear. He is already somewhere else, somewhere between the border of subconsciousness and unconsciousness.

"... We tried as best as we could ..."

His heart rate is climbing as he nears something in the distance, something imperceptible.

"... out of oxygen for too long. He's basically brain dead ..."

He felt different, like he was bursting to be released, but something was holding him back.

"... off the life support. His heart is still beating, but he won't be able to breathe for too long ..."

Why couldn't he just reach whatever it was in the distance? He grew frustrated and tried harder.

"Why is his heart rate so high?" A shrill voice.

Now he knew - he was almost there. Just a little harder -

*  *  *  *  *

He didn't know it at the time, but it would be seven long months before he would see her again. And the baby. And the new land. Seven long months to go in this place still.

*  *  *  *  *

His lungs convulse suddenly, drawing in a deep breath that rattles through his body. And then he is still and lies peacefully. He has crossed the border.

*  *  *  *  *

Patiala, Punjab, India. February 21, 1948

Stepping off the train empty-handed, he cautiously glances around himself. He had managed to use old army connections to get in contact with her so that they could meet once he was released from the government's ‘care.' She should be here.

Almost completing a double-take, he sees her. She is wearing a simple, light yellow and white salwar-kameez and walking quickly towards him. They embrace briefly before he pulls back and holds her at arm's length.

"Welcome ... to our new home," she whispers, tears pooling in her eyes.

And for the first time, he realizes that he has found that new home, that new source of hope. He has crossed the border.


[Somel is 17 years old and a senior at a High School in Cupertino, California, USA. She writes: "I love creative writing, so this past year, I wrote a story about my maternal grandparents and what it was like for them to cross the border between India and Pakistan after the Partition of Punjab and India. I was inspired to write the story after my grandmother passed away because I needed a way to give something back to her memory. After an "interview" with my grandfather, I wrote the story. Some of it is true, and some of it is fictional.]

April 8, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Harvind Kaur (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), April 08, 2010, 11:01 AM.

Somel, don't stop writing! This is a wonderful tribute to your grandparents and an excellent way to remember bits of our history through the experiences of our people!

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), April 08, 2010, 1:56 PM.

A new bight star now named Somel has burst upon us in the constellation, and with a renewed hope to chronicle that one dark part of man-made history of Partition that was eventually transmuted into what Guru Nanak intended when he said 'Tusee ujjarr jaa-o' and spread the Guru's Word with renewed faith. When we by chance settled down in Ludhiana just because that is where the train stopped and wouldn't go any further, we set out to roll up our shirt-sleeves to conquer, but we didn't have any sleeved-shirt to roll anyway. But we did have the usual Punjabi grit and faith and hitched up to the stars. Compared to the standard of Lyallpur, Lahore or elsewhere, it was relatively a backward area. The Punjabi spoken sounded rustic and like a foreign language. Even Ludhiana was pronounced as 'Ludhi- anna'. The only visible industry was Hosiery. Have a lot of stories to share, mostly funny, with the usual Punjabi zest and 'chardi kala'. For example: This Sardar ji with his torn and tattered singlet was sitting and eating a single chapatti with a bit of onion and achaar, when a passing friend remarked 'sunaa-vo ji, kee haal chaal hai?' His instant answer was that he had only two passions -'Good food, and to dress well'. It is 01:12 in the morning and I have to make that important connection when I try to look inwards. My grandson made a remark the other day: "Nanaji, why do you get up so early everyday?" My reply was: "Because the calls at that hour are at half-rate." This is a quick two-minute response to Somel's poignant story. I will be avidly looking forward for some more staple. - Nanaji

3: Balwinder (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), April 08, 2010, 3:44 PM.

This is an amazing piece of work. I hope you continue to write and explore the creativity that produced this.

4: Hardeep Singh (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), April 08, 2010, 4:50 PM.

Beautiful craftsmanship of the words in quantifying the emotions and feelings. Please write more about what you as a teenager feel and think about anything that interests you - including, I hope, community affairs - offering your perspective and solutions. Great piece!

5: N. Singh (Canada), April 08, 2010, 9:35 PM.

Somel: a beautiful and poignant piece ... May Waheguru bless you!

6: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), April 09, 2010, 1:15 AM.

Please do not stop writing ever. This is an awesome article. It brought tears to my eyes. A lot of us have had it too easy in our lives. We need to be reminded the price Sikhi has paid to get here. Somel, you are doing a great service by writing.

7: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), April 09, 2010, 8:31 AM.

Dear Somel: I read your article, albeit hastily. Yes, your expression is involving and does lead the imagination to paint the situation. Things have not changed over this long period, in fact at that moment what was in front was discernible, however today (like you have narrated the incident of the sepoy stashing the gun away supported by the British officer), the complexity has grown and oppression is practiced covertly. Modern Indian history may mention that a PM was shot down, but it would remain forever silent on who suffered in the pogroms and continues to be denied justice decades after the anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim pogroms. 'Satyamev jayate' is merely written but is never practiced.

8: Parminder Kaur Dhillon (United States), April 09, 2010, 10:18 AM.

Beautifuly written. Reminded me of the stories my parents have been telling me. My mom still remembers a lot. I cherish the pictures my dad took during the long walk across the border. One of me sitting with other women of the family on a bullock cart, while the men walk along, in the humid heat of August. Thanks for keeping these stories alive.

9: TIna Arneja (Milpitas, U.S.A.), April 10, 2010, 1:09 AM.

This is pure artwork! Beautiful. It inspires me to do what I love doing ... Follow your heart, girl!

10: Parmjit Singh (Canada), April 10, 2010, 1:55 AM.

Somel, you have a gift to touch others you have never met. In such a short piece, you took me back to rooms in my childhood and offered glimpses into the lives of my parents and grandparents. Thank you! Please continue writing and sharing. As you proceed, please consider various publishing avenues so my children can one day pick up a future book of yours and experience a tear from a visit to their great great grandparents.

11: Jodh Singh (Cheshire, England), April 10, 2010, 8:01 AM.

Somel, you have a gift. Use it well. I cannot believe that the above tale was written by one of such a tender age. I immersed myself in your words and could see my paternal grandparents in the exactly same situation. I wish you well in your life and, regardless of the occupational field you finally enter, never stop writing!

12: Aryeh Leib (Israel), April 14, 2010, 7:33 AM.

I was called away for extended periods five times before I got to finish this piece - and, it was the first thing I turned to every time I returned. Beautiful, beautiful work, Somel. Please keep it up.

13: Gurpreet Singh (Mumbai, India), June 16, 2010, 11:22 AM.

Excellent work ... I have always been crazy for partition stories and, as S. Sangat Singh ji has rightly said, with the usual grit and passion Punjabis - Sikhs in particular - have successfully carved out their lives having nothing when they came to the "rural side of East Punjab" after Partition. May Waheguru bless you, Somel, but this single piece won't satisfy our appetite for creative writing from you, Somel! Keep on going ...

14: Vaibhav Tomar (India), December 16, 2012, 11:26 AM.

Unbelievable that a 17-year-old can write such a masterpiece ... I bow to you!

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