By Moni Mohsin
The Friday Times: 11 Aug 2017
70 years after Independence, we recall the trauma of the division of a country and culture – and of homes, families and lives. Stories from Moni Mohsin, Muneera Salahuddin and Jaya Thadani
Aitchison College, 1911
In the early 90s, I went from Lahore to Delhi to attend a wedding in the family of some Hindu friends. At one of its many events, I bumped into a friend from Lahore who was also visiting the city. We were chatting in Punjabi when we noticed a well-dressed, middle-aged man lurking nearby, apparently eavesdropping on our conversation. Noticing our discomfiture, he apologised.
“When you mentioned Lahore, I couldn’t tear myself away,” he said. “You see, we are Hindus, but my family was Lahori. We had a house in Model Town and I attended Aitchison college. We left at partition. I have never gone back. When my wife passed away, 17 years ago, I thought that even though I had no children or siblings I would get by. But now I feel the creeping loneliness of old age and what I think of most is the happiness of my childhood. I have a yearning to return to Lahore. I want to see it once before I die.”
Moni Mohsin’s father, Syed Mohammed Mohsin
Everywhere I went in Delhi I heard similar stories, but that is not surprising. At partition, Delhi received a huge influx of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Punjab. Some moved on to other parts of India, but most stayed and put down roots. In the 90s, many of those elderly migrants were alive; whenever I bumped into them and they heard I was from Lahore, they crowded round, asking me to speak in “real Lahori Punjabi”. Others asked after childhood haunts they hadn’t seen for almost 50 years – Anarkali Bazaar, Shalimar Gardens, Mayo School of Arts, Model Town. “Our home was on Queen’s Road. It had a semicircular driveway and black, wrought-iron balconies. Is it still there?” “Do the fireflies still dance on the canal on summer nights?” “Do you ever go to Faletti’s hotel? And its famous cabarets?” When I told the late writer and historian Khushwant Singh – a Delhi wallah who was once a Lahori – of my encounters in Delhi, he smiled and said: “You should see them at the cinema. Whenever Lahore gets mentioned, they all burst into tears together.”
Seventy years ago, on 14 August 1947, as 200 years of British rule came to an end, India was divided into two independent states, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. It was one of the most painful births in modern history. More than 12 million people were displaced as Muslims in Punjab and Bengal fled across the hastily drawn borders into Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs made the opposite journey into India. In the sectarian violence that ensued, 2 million people were killed, tens of thousands of women were raped and abducted, homes were plundered and villages were torched.
“Do the fireflies still dance on the canal on summer nights?” “Do you ever go to Faletti’s hotel? And its famous cabarets?”
My father, who was then at Aitchison college, an elite boarding school, remembers being summoned by the English headmaster to an extraordinary assembly in April 1947. School usually broke up for summer holidays in the first week of June, but the headmaster announced that, this year, term would end sooner – in fact, the school would close the following day. “Partition was expected in 1948, but the date had been brought forward and riots had already erupted in parts of the North-West Frontier province and some areas of Punjab,” recalls my father. “Since he could not guarantee our safety, our headmaster had decided to send us home.” My father took what he thought was temporary leave of his many Hindu and Sikh friends and left for Shergarh, his village in Okara district, 70 miles south-west of Lahore.
Luckily, the line that was drawn two months later, severing Punjab in two, allotted Shergarh to Pakistan. My Muslim father had the great fortune of not having to flee his ancestral home. Nonetheless, three months of pure terror followed. “I have never known a period of greater fear and uncertainty,” he says. Shergarh was surrounded by Sikh villages. Once killings began, the villagers braced themselves for an attack every day. “Wild bands of marauding men armed with sickles, axes and swords roamed the open countryside, killing and mutilating anyone they found of the opposite faith.”
Yet my father’s grandfather had been on good terms with his Sikh and Hindu neighbours. This closeness was not unusual in pre-partition Punjab. “There was no intermarriage between the communities and we tended not to eat at each other’s houses, but we were fast friends,” recalls my mother’s brother, Syed Babar Ali, now 91.
When my father returned to school in September, he was one of only 30 of the 300 boys who had left in April. The rest, Hindus and Sikhs, had gone. The school had also lost many of its staff. “There were more cows in the school dairy than boys in the classroom,” he remembers. “Aitchison was a haunted place.”
True, political tension had been rising inexorably in the two decades preceding partition, as leaders of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League bickered over the terms of the bitter divorce. But the suddenness, scale and ferocity of the violence that erupted in 1947 was still shocking. As historians and writers such as Nisid Hajary and Saadat Hassan Manto have noted, it was a time when the normal mores of civilisation were suspended and neighbours massacred each other without a thought.
The figures speak for themselves, but it was the barbarity that was unleashed that was terrifying. Trains filled with refugees crossing the border were stopped and every man, woman and child on board slaughtered. Only the engine driver was spared, so he could take his grisly cargo to its destination. Women – some as young as 10 – were captured and raped, and pregnant women’s bellies were slit open. Babies were swung against walls and their heads smashed in. My great aunt, then a married woman living in the walled city of Lahore, told me she had seen a man crossing an eerily quiet street littered with corpses. He was halfway across when someone shot at him. Scooping up the body of a toddler, he used it as a protective shield as he raced across. “I don’t know if that man was Muslim or Hindu,” she told me 30 years later. “It was dreadful either way.”
Partition, as Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has observed, was “the central historical event in 20th-century south Asia”. It scarred those who lived through it and permanently soured relations between the two countries. “It is impossible to understand relations between India and Pakistan without looking back to partition,” says Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and the author of Indian Summer, a history of partition. “The wounds have never healed.”
I was a teenager and living in Lahore, near the railway station. Though we Muslims were in the majority, ours was a mixed area, with Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs living in close proximity. To my knowledge, there hadn’t been any trouble before. Yes, we didn’t eat at each other’s houses, but otherwise we lived on amicable terms. Opposite our house were a number of shops owned by Hindus. As partition neared, most of them left for Delhi. But a grocer, having sent his family on for safety, had stayed back to wrap up his business. Our Muslim servants frequented his shop and were friends with him. When the killings started, they smuggled him into our home for safety. And there he stayed, while the city burned and the streets piled up with dead bodies.
“Before I could call out, a mob descended on him. One minute he was carefully closing the gate and the next he had been torn to shreds”
One day, I was standing on the veranda fronting our bungalow. Since the house was on a plinth, I had a good view of the street outside and saw the shopkeeper creep out of the gate. I think, because he was a strict Hindu, he had a problem sharing a toilet with our Muslim staff and was going out to relieve himself. Before I could call out, a mob descended on him. One minute he was carefully closing the gate and the next he had been torn to shreds. I must have screamed, because my elder brother charged out, clamped a hand over my eyes and dragged me back into the house. But it was too late. I had already seen everything: when they slit his throat, a fountain of blood shot up, and they ripped open his stomach so that his intestines spilled out. It has been 70 years, but I can’t forget that sight.
We had a beautiful house on Empress Road in Lahore. Built in 1933, it was the first “modern” art deco house in the city. There was a sweeping marble staircase, a fine library, parquet flooring and a garden spread over three acres. There was also a swimming pool and an orchard of fruit trees. In addition to my father’s library, the house was full of treasures my mother had collected – Sèvres china, Venetian glass, antique silver. My father, Kanwar Dalip Singh (a grandson of the Maharaja of Kapurthala), was a high court judge. My mother, Reva, was a bon vivant and a famous hostess. There would be formal dinners at our table that could seat 18, plus dancing and live bands and music recitals and amateur dramatics. Although our ancestors were Sikhs, my father was Christian and my mother was a follower of Brahmo Samaj, a reformist Hindu movement. They had many Muslim friends, who were constantly in and out of our house.
I was born in Lahore and educated there. In July 1947, I left for England. I was there when partition happened. My parents were in Lahore. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, my father had already decided to sell the house to the US consulate. My father’s closest friends were two Muslim gentlemen, Feroz Khan Noon (later Pakistan’s prime minister) and Khizar Hayat Tiwana (premier of the Punjab until 1947) and they pleaded with my father not to leave. He was a Christian, he would be safe. But my father was adamant. He said, presciently, that there would be no place for minorities in Pakistan or India.
As we had family in Delhi, he thought we would go there. When the murders and the plundering began, Feroz and Khizar provided Muslim sentries to protect us. But all around was mayhem. My parents lingered until the beginning of August, when another dear Muslim friend, Ishat Habibullah, told my parents: “Go now, while you can. Don’t worry about your things. I’ll look after them.” My parents packed two suitcases and left. I think it was the hardest thing they ever did. My father never recovered. It wasn’t the house – Maharajah Harnam Singh, my grandfather, had walked away from the state of Kapurthala when he converted to Christianity, so what was a mere house? It was the attack on that community of friendship, the plural, liberal values he lived by, that broke his heart.
The Thadanis’ home on Empress Road, Lahore
Delhi was like going to another planet. My parents couldn’t read the street signs, which were in Hindi, not Urdu. They had lost their community. Then came a surprise. A few months later, they received a letter from Ishat telling them he was sending their things. Trucks duly arrived from Lahore, filled with everything they had left – down to the notepaper in my mother’s desk, stamped with our Empress Road address – except for my mother’s Sèvres dinner service, my father’s edition of Shakespeare’s folio that he had received as a wedding present (I later discovered both had been purloined by the Americans) and our dining table, which was too big to put into the truck.
I was born in that house on Empress Road. I had thought I would die there. Like my father, I never recovered. The one thing that displaced people know is that they will never go home. Save for a brief period of my life when I lived in London and managed to find some like minded people, I have never felt at home again.