My father, Nadir Ali, writes short stories and poetry in Punjabi. He is in his mid-eighties now and has been writing his autobiography in Punjabi and my sister translated a segment that deals with his memories of partition. He was a little over 11 years old at that time. My grandfather was a lawyer in Gujrat city. There are more stories from that time that I hope we can translate at some point. For example, my grandfather rescued some Hindu/Sikh women who had been kidnapped by the rioters and my father was the go-between who was young enough to go into the women’s quarters during those negotiations; I hope to get that story written down someday.
Anyway, my grandfather never really reconciled with partition. He wrote to his Hindu friend Hari Singh regularly until 1965 and I remember hearing that he once lamented in a letter to his friend (they both wrote in Urdu) “what a tragedy and a travesty that you, who are more Muslim than me, are in India, and I, who am more Hindu than you, am in Pakistan”. He would also use Indian time (30 minutes ahead of Pakistan standard time) as his own “standard time” for decades after partition.
Memories of Partition. Nadir Ali
A severe drought prevailed in 1947. There was no rain till August 16th, the first of the month of Bhadon. However, blood flowed freely. Thousands had been killed in Bengal. Sikhs were killed in Potohar. Riots began to rock Lahore. The Sikhs never got over the trauma of losing their lands in Lyallpur and Sahiwal. Only one who has toiled on a piece of land and made it arable can understand how painful it is to lose it. Many were killed by Sikhs on that side of the border. But the other day I read a book by a Sikh friend who wrote that both sides were equally guilty of mass killings. I believe that more were massacred on that side of the border. But that side also produced more literature related to the partition. In Iqbal’s Pakistan, we gave up on educating our society. Even Iqbal was more widely read in the time before the entire upheaval for independence, than in the post-partition era. We are guilty of punishing him with the title of Allama. It is as if we had given him the capital punishment of days of old when the accused would be forced to climb a high tower and the ladder would be removed. He could die either by jumping off the tower or from thirst and hunger. What could poor Allama Sahib do, having passed away quite some time before the creation of Pakistan.
On the eve of 14th of August, a large number of us congregated at Swai Ram’s shop where people would often gather to listen to songs and radio programs. I was very young, but also clever. As soon as a song’s music started playing on the radio, people would ask me, “Chaudhry, which song is this?”. From just the first note or so, I could identify the tune and the song. Someone would ask me: “What are the lyrics?”, and I would repeat the entire song. But today, we were there for the midnight news broadcast. At exactly twelve o’clock, the voice on the radio announced, “This is Pakistan Broadcasting Service!”. We clapped our hands. But the Hindus among us, such as Chota Postmaster and Swai Ram and his brother, looked anxious. In our family, only my dad and myself were in Gujrat. My youngest sister was to be born soon, and summer vacations were on, so all my brothers had gone to the village. Like a typical peasant, my dad had the habit of going to bed early. But just like a peasant, he would wake up quite a few times during the night. He would make sure the cows were fed. When I reached home, he woke up. “Aba, Pakistan has been created!”, I announced. My father cursed Pakistan till the day he died. Earlier, he was a devout believer. He would recite the Quran daily upon returning from his work at the courts. Once Pakistan came into being, he slowly lost his faith. In 1963, he taught himself Persian and read the Mathnavi of Maulana Rumi. His favorite poets to recite were Ghalib and Rumi, particularly the following lines from Rumi:
Shab, ze zindan, be khabar zindaniyan
Shab, ze daulat, be khabar sultaniyan
(In slumber, oblivious is the prisoner to his chains
Oblivious is the monarch to his wealth )
That night, my father remained anxious. Every once in a while, he called out to the Poorbi chowkidar – “Bal Ram, what time is it?”. And Bal Raam would chirp back – “Sir, it is two o’clock”, or whatever hour it was.
On the morning of the 15th, shops opened as usual. Swai Ram and other Hindus and Sikhs opened their establishments. Besides Swai Ram, the owners of Jaswant Singh Balwant Singh Brothers were also our friends. When I passed their shop on my way to school in the morning, they would call out, “Chaudhry, be our first customer of the day, that always brings us good luck!” I would offer my mom to shop for anything she needed before school, saying I would leave it home for her and then run off to school, things like DMC Thread, Sunlight Soap, etc. I was responsible for all our grocery shopping. A pound of mutton cost a little over a quarter of a rupee and every Friday the price of beef would be even less. My dad was fond of beef and vegetables and he would also bring home many kinds of vegetables- onions, tomatoes, mint, squashes and eggplant. I would even shop for women’s clothes.
At ten o’clock on the fifteenth of August, the Pakoriyanwala Sheikh, “the cripple”, came over to our place. “Fetch your gun Chaudhry Sahab!,” he exclaimed. “What is the matter, Sheikha?”, my dad asked. “Chaudhry, the Sikhs are coming! They have reached Wazirabad and are slaughtering everyone along the way. Their arrival in Gujrat is imminent!”. The entire market went into a frenzy. The head goon of the town, Dhurrey Shah, the tonga driver, ran to the shops and started looting things. I climbed the rooftop and could see the shops being shuttered hurriedly, one after the other. One Hindu tried to tackle a looter and got stabbed by someone. He died on the spot! Locks were broken and the looting grew. On the night of 16th August, heavy rains descended. Boxes labeled “Jaswant Singh Balwant Singh Brothers” washed up in the open area near our home.
All the Hindus and Sikhs gathered either in the one or two large houses belonging to HIndus in the middle of Kutchery Road or in the camp near the Hindu neighborhood of “Phatto Pur”. I went to inquire about Mohinder, Madan Lal and Girdhari Lal, my “chamar” (leatherworkers) classmates. The leatherworkers’ colony was close to the camp.
My dad went to visit his Congress-mate, the lawyer Bhatia Saheb. He was unhappy in the refugee camp. At night, he came over to our place with his wife and three kids who were around my age. During the night, my dad went to Bhatia Saheb’s home with a servant and the munshi, and they brought back some pots and pans and some bedding. They also brought the cow that used to give a lot of milk. For the first time in my life, I drank lassi made from fresh cow’s milk. Bhatia Saheb’s wife made me sit with them and I experienced eating daal and vegetables from tiny metal bowls as was the Hindu style. We were used to copious amounts of milk and butter. I noticed that his wife would take a tiny amount of butter, place it in one roti and rub the other roti with it and that was it! Bhatia Saheb was a man of simple tastes. I had grown up listening to a joke about his manner of speech. He would say, “This reminds me of some lines of poetry.” Then he would try to recall the lines, give up and say, “I don’t remember the poetry, but will tell you the gist of it.” Then after some more thought: “I cannot remember the meaning either. It was such a wonderful poem!” They stayed at our place for ten or twelve days. When it was time for them to leave, they cried a lot. Each of them hugged the cow, crying. For some time, we used to get letters they would write from Hindustan and each letter would enquire about the cow too.
Bhaag Shah arrived at our place from our village. Half the land in the village was in his possession. He prepared some papers and handed the land over to my father. Of course, the land did not really become ours, but the room on the upper storey of his house, the chaubara, did stay in our possession for a few years. At one time, his house was the only brick building in our entire village. It was across from my grandfather’s house. Nextdoor was the home of his brother Jameet Mal who died in the plague of 1924. His children lived in Karol Bagh in Delhi. My father helped Bhaag Shah and his entire family travel by tongas to the camp in Gujrat. In our village, no one touched these few families. But in nearby Kunjah, the area in the vicinity of the well that belonged to Sikhs was attacked. The mob had gone there to loot. Someone from the Sikh community threw a clod of hard earth at them and it hit our Imam of the mosque, Mian Sayyed Sahab. His nose started bleeding. He angrily called out, “Kill the bastards!”. My sub-inspector uncle fired a gun. Others attacked with axes and finished off the Sikhs. When my father found out, he held court at our village and cursed these “mujahideen”. For fifty years, I lived with retellings of this incident. Each narrator would describe what someone else did. Someone blamed Mian Sahab and mentioned how one person had attacked with a spear, to which came this reply -”Your own mother had set up a kiosk to provide water to those who set out for the attack!” At the meeting my father called in the village, a person mentioned that twenty people had been killed and the lone survivor of the attack was a Sikh named Fateh Singh (Phatta). Upon some searching, Phatta was located. He was wearing a turban but mentioned that he had cut his hair and embraced Islam. Abba said: “These damn villagers themselves are not real Muslims, how did they manage to turn you into one?” Someone chimed in, “He has even learnt to say the namaaz.” Phatta added -”Well, it is no different from exercise. You recite twice while standing, then twice while sitting down. And if you forget the motions, just look to your left and right and copy others!” Aba asked: “Do you remember your own religion at all? Ask for forgiveness from your Gurus and let us make you a Sikh once again!” Phatta broke down crying and fell at my father’s feet. He stayed with us at our home in Gujrat for two or three days. I would bring him his food and often he would be singing, “Bhagat Kabir has appeared in the guise of an ant.”
For fifty years, I heard multiple versions of the Kunjah attack from many people. But last year, sixty years after the incident, my cousin Hakim Ali narrated the part about Dhanna. Dhanna was well-known for his bravery and the Sardars had employed him as their guard. He fought back by throwing rocks and eventually fought with a stick. This was the total defense the Sikhs had on hand! When Abdullah Shah was about to kill him with a spear, Dhanna exclaimed in disbelief. “But the Sardars provided you with grains just a month ago!” Shah wasted no time in finishing him off, lest “he reveal even more secrets!”.
There were so many stories of these two deras (settlements) of the Sikhs. The Gondals’ dera was towards the south and the Warraich had a dera in the north. There is an old story associated with the well belonging to the Gondals. The Gondal Sardar broke his sandal while ploughing his land. He went to the Warraich’s as a cobbler lived there. When he reached there, the cobbler was busy with some task the Warraich had given him. The Gondal Sardar said – “Here, mend my shoe quickly as I have to return to my plough.” The Warraich taunted him. “Chaudhry, if you are in such a hurry, why don’t you employ a cobbler at your own dera?” One day the Gondal Sardar came to our village and narrated this incident. A shoemaker from our village decided to migrate with his family to the Gondal’s dera. He lived there for many years. One day he requested the Sardar for six months off so he could return to his village and arrange for his two daughters’ marriages. The Sardar offered to help with the wedding and suggested the shoemaker hold the ceremony at his dera. The shoemaker said: “I will not feel right holding the wedding here as my guests will expect to be served with hookahs and I will need to feed them meat dishes. I cannot dare to slaughter cows at your well and offend you!” The Sardar replied: “The weddings will take place right here and me and my family will be the hosts!” For the wedding, the Sardar had two of his own cows slaughtered. His own sons filled the hookahs and served them to the wedding guests! This is not the story of Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims. This is the story of a Punjab that once was. This is the story Shah Muhammad wrote about in his famous vaar, and Ibbetson wrote about in his book about the castes of the Punjab. How did all this change? This is the question Punjabis must ask in good faith and then write about. So far this has not been written about. Two culprits will be found – the governments that handed down orders and the newspapers that spread propaganda!