The pain of separation: Recalling India and Pakistan's birth traumas

Women release oil lamps and candles in the Ravi River during the Shab-e-Barat festival in Lahore on May 11. The grand Badshahi Mosque, with the mausoleums of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun Dev, illuminated on Laylat al-Qadr, or
The grand Badshahi Mosque, with the mausoleums of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun Dev, illuminated on Laylat al-Qadr, or "Night of Decree", during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Lahore on June 22.PHOTO: REUTERS
Women release oil lamps and candles in the Ravi River during the Shab-e-Barat festival in Lahore on May 11. The grand Badshahi Mosque, with the mausoleums of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun Dev, illuminated on Laylat al-Qadr, or
Women release oil lamps and candles in the Ravi River during the Shab-e-Barat festival in Lahore on May 11. PHOTO: REUTERS

As Pakistan and India this week celebrated their 70th anniversary as independent nations spun off from the British Empire, there is a certain nostalgia in remembering the opening lines of one of the most famous novels on the the great Partition of the sub-continent, amid much bloodshed. It is a tale spun around a Sikh villager's love for a Muslim girl and his ultimate sacrifice in giving up his life to save the train carrying his love away into newborn Pakistan.

In the months preceding August, as Britain prepared to cleave the sub-continent for the birth of Pakistan, communal riots had broken out in Calcutta, spreading to Bihar, then the Punjab. Hindus and Muslims who had lived together for generations turned on each other in a pogrom of looting and killing. Millions fled in either direction to what they considered the relative safety of a mostly Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan, depending on their religion.

They left on foot, on bullock carts, in cars. Many went by train and there were times when an entire trainload of people arrived at their destination dead, killed on the way by murderous bands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

Twenty-five years ago, before moving to Singapore, I went to Pakistan on a slow train from New Delhi, to relive that journey and for a first-hand look at the spots that form a slice of history. Looking down the list of names I interviewed, I realise that most are now dead.

Before leaving for Pakistan, I drove a few hundred kilometres along Grand Trunk Road - that sepulchre of a civilisation's memories - to meet two Indians who had lived the Partition.

My first call was in Chandigarh, Punjab, to see old Mr M. S. Khanna who arrived with his family as refugees in 1947, in a Model-T Ford car across a freshly-created international border.

Sitting amidst his beloved fruit trees, "Daddy" Khanna recalled the contours of Khanna Building he left behind in Lahore's KrishnaNagar, now called Islampura after it went to Pakistan.

"All we had was what we packed into the car. My wife spent her first two days in India stitching clothes for our daughters on a friend's sewing machine," said the then octogenarian, who, as president of the Asiatic Students in Hitler's Germany, had refused him their support when the Nazi leader asked for it, while preparing for the Holocaust.

"The rains were terrible that year. It was as though India was in tears. Agreeing to Partition was Jawaharlal Nehru's greatest blunder, especially when Gandhi was so opposed to it."

My second call was on another man of equal vintage.

The grand Badshahi Mosque, with the mausoleums of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun Dev, illuminated on Laylat al-Qadr, or "Night of Decree", during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Lahore on June 22. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Dev Vohra was unique in many ways. Steeped from birth in the culture of the Indian National Congress - the party of Independence - he was chased by the British Raj's police when as a six-year-old, he held aloft the Congress tricolour atop the famous clock in Lyallpur, the Pakistani town now called Faisalabad. As a teenager, he watched his father, under sentence of death for sedition, led off in fetters. As an undergraduate at Lahore's Forman Christian College, his hostel room became a centre for anti-British activity.

To no one's surprise, when the Congress fixed Lahore as the venue for its historic session in 1929 that would call for full independence from Britain, he was named Camp Commandant to head the 700-strong volunteer force.

"I remember as though it was yesterday. Nehru riding a white stallion. The people in Lahore's Anarkali bazaar showering rose petals from rooftops. That was when life began for me."

I told him I planned to take a train to Lahore. Had he ever considered going back to his roots ?

"No!" he said. "If I have stayed in good health, it is because I kept nostalgia out of my life."

Without a trace of irony, he added: "But I tell you, there will never be another clock tower as impressive as the one in Lyallpur."


All of New Delhi seemed to be celebrating Deepavali as I headed out on a late autumn night to Old Delhi's railway station, the taxi crawling past Chandni Chowk, the historic silver bazaar that harks back to mediaeval times. I booked the Attari Special that will leave me on the Pakistani border the next morning. With the illiberal visa regime between the two countries, the train was half-empty. Vendors plied a brisk trade in betel nut leaves from Varanasi that are so popular in Pakistan. A young man strode abreast and invited me to share a cabin. I demurred but he persisted.

"Where are you headed?"

"Attari, obviously."

He was keen to keep me engaged: "I hope you know you need to have a passport to be in Attari."

Women release oil lamps and candles in the Ravi River during the Shab-e-Barat festival in Lahore on May 11. PHOTO: REUTERS

I nodded and walked away, dimly aware he must be from an Indian security agency. My several trips to the Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi had already triggered a quiet check on me from India's Intelligence Bureau.

I chose a well-lit cubicle occupied only by a teenage girl and her father, both escorted to the train by well-heeled gentry who stood out amidst the grubbiness of the other travellers.

As the train began to roll, he introduced himself as a visa attache from the Pakistan Embassy. As we chatted, I realised I was being probed gently, and I marvelled at my companion's own intense knowledge of India, even its tiniest Muslim enclaves.

He said he is from Sind, the Pakistani province whose restiveness is often blamed on India's nefarious intervention, and asked if I planned to visit there.

I laughed at the ruse: "I'll think of Sind next time you fellows give me a visa to Pakistan."

At 5am the next day, I awoke to see him peering into the darkness as we hurtled through Indian Punjab, which unless in a train like this, is out of bounds to Pakistanis after the insurgency of the 1980s and early 1990s.

For an Indian railway station, Attari turned out to be surprisingly clean as we trundled in. There was no hurry to disembark, the connecting train was due only seven hours later, and my companion warned me that I will not reach Lahore before late evening. He himself would take a rickshaw to the road border at Wagah which opens at 8am, and then a taxi to Lahore, only a 40-minute ride away.

Wandering around, I was attracted to the light from a little tea shop in the distance. The man who intercepted me on the Delhi platform fell into step and introduced himself as an immigration official. "You mean, the Intelligence Bureau," I retorted, and we laughed together.

We arrived at the little shop to find the Pakistani attache and his daughter there. I made the introductions and the talk centred on fake visas and smuggling - a journalist and two rival intelligence officers waiting for daybreak in the crisp cool air of approaching winter.


The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers. Even the weather had a different feel in India that year. It was hotter than usual, and drier and dustier. And the summer was longer. For weeks, the sparse clouds cast only shadows. There was no rain. People began to say God was punishing them for their sins.

KHUSHWANT SINGH, in the historical novel Train To Pakistan.

With little to do until the afternoon train arrives for the crossing into Pakistan, I hired a rickshaw to the Wagah border, 5km away. We crossed a ditch, meant as an obstacle to battle tanks, past checkpoints manned by the Indian Army and the Border Security Force (BSF), and alighted to walk up to a short white line on the other side of which is Pakistan.

Wagah's 1,300 coolies are mostly unemployed, then and now. Thanks to the mutual suspicions, there is little trade across the border. An Indian BSF jawan (soldier) and a Pakistani Ranger stood on either side of the line, without speaking. I stood on the deserted road, wondering for a moment whether Indians and Pakistanis would some day cross into each other's territories with the same ease as Singaporeans cross into Johor and Malaysians into Singapore.


Back on the Attari platform, life was stirring again. Just past 1pm, the green and yellow carriages of the Pakistani train pulled in. Another two hours and the journey began, with Indian BSF troops on horseback riding parallel with us right up to the border, peeling off at the electrified barbed-wire fence strung 5m across along the Punjab boundary.

Less than half a kilometre into Pakistan and the train juddered to a stop. It is Wagah Station and on its only platform we had to clear immigration. Only the faint tingling in the nostrils - from the greater use of onions in Muslim cuisine - made me aware that I was in a different land from India.

There were separate lines for Indians and Pakistanis. A man, clad in salwar-kameez, exuding authority, muttered to an underling who then headed towards me: "Saheb wants to talk to you."

The saheb was not interested in my papers. Instead, he looked at the bulges in the various pockets of my Banana Republic travelling jacket.

"Why do you carry that bag all the time?"

"I have expensive cameras which I cannot leave in the train."

"Why do you travel by rail? Don't you know it's not a comfortable journey?"

"My mission is to describe such a journey."

The questions continued and again, I was impressed. He knew details even about my home state, Kerala, 2,500km away in the south of India. Then, convinced of my bona fides, he ordered his junior to stamp my passport and ensure I do not have to return to the queue.

As I headed back, he called out: "I shall see you in the train."

The experience was a little unnerving. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence has its eyes and ears everywhere. Indians travelling to Pakistan often complain of crude and intrusive surveillance, but for the next few days, this would be the only time I would be aware of it.

I returned to my window seat to find it occupied by a young man who was getting a lot of solicitous attention from Pakistani Customs.

Unfazed by my cold glare, he stuck out a sturdy hand: "I am Rashid Khan from Uttar Pradesh. I am going to Lahore for a wedding. Half my family lives there, you know."

His uncle in Lahore was a senior Customs official. As we chatted, the countryside gave way to the first settlements. It was Mughalpura, once an enormously wealthy suburb, but the view from the train is only of small houses set amidst piles of trash. Another 10 minutes and we were in Lahore.

Anywhere on the sub-continent, it pays to know authority. Thanks to Rashid, I was waved through Lahore's Customs, seeing nothing of the harshness and corruption they are accused of. Indeed, Customs staff carried my bag and plied me with soft drinks. Rashid was insistent that I join the family gaieties on the morrow, but I declined.

"Your uncle is a civil servant. Why invite trouble on him by hosting an unknown Indian, and a journalist at that?" I said, as I dropped him off in fashionable Gulberg, before going on to my hotel in the Shahrah Quaid-e-Azam, the elegant boulevard the British knew as The Mall.


And so, finally, I was in historic Lahore! Few cities in Asia can match Lahore's charm and feel of history. Sher Shah Suri, who built Lahore in the 1540s, placed it on the trade route between Kabul and Calcutta. Its success made it vulnerable to the covetous eyes of plunderers and its fortunes seemed to often mirror the shifting banks of the Ravi River that runs through it. Not for nothing is Lahore called the Pearl of the Orient.

Its architecture today is mostly Mughal and Victorian but its glory stretches to the 11th century's Hindu rulers. The Mughals called it dar-ul-sultanat, "the seat of empire". In the late 18th century, Lahore fell to Sikh rule and Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled from there, with Amritsar, 50km south, as the spiritual capital of the Sikhs.

From the embankment of the Old Ravi bank, the eye takes in Lahore's past in one panoramic view. There is the Pakistani Monument, an Eiffel Tower-type structure. Ahead is the grand Badshahi Mosque with the mausoleums of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun Dev, just outside with pennants fluttering atop. Ten years after Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the British Army was in control.

Lahore's reputation extended to its nightlife as well. Alcohol was banned in public, but its clubs were still popular.

Standing in the middle of the 43ha Lawrence Gardens and looking at the public library that used to be the magnificent Lahore Gymkhana Club, I asked my driver Mohammed Ibrahim what the city was like in his youth.

"What can I tell you, saheb. There was much coming and going between all three communities. The Indians and the angrez thought the club was their whole existence." Angrez is Urdu for "British".

How quickly relationships between a people change, I mused, kicking the sand on the Ravi banks. The spot had been indicated to me by Chaudhary Abdul Hamid, octogenarian proprietor of Lahore's Caravan Books, who too was present to witness the Congress asking for full independence that day in 1929.

I looked for a marker, a stone, a sign - anything that marks the place for posterity. There was nothing.

There is good reason for that. Lahore's most important modern building is the Minar-e-Pakistan, marking the spot where, on March 23, 1940, the Muslim League under Mohammed Ali Jinnah passed the Lahore Resolution calling for the creation of Pakistan. To many, that is when Pakistan's modern history began, not in 1929 - a sacred date for India.

Of the Congress session itself, the Chaudhary recalled that where Jawaharlal Nehru's father, Motilal Nehru, was content with Dominion Status, Jawaharlal held out for full independence. At one point, said the Chaudhary, Nehru's father burst out: "I do not know why my own son opposes me."

Sipping thick creamy coffee, Mr Khan, an uncle of the Pakistani cricket hero Imran Khan who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, did not think Partition was such a bad thing.

"Even by 1935, the feeling for a 'separate home' was taking root. At least Partition gave half the Muslim population of India a home."

That is a view I would hear among Pakistan's elite, but not necessarily among common folk.

History tells us that communal feelings would begin to grow in the intervening years. In the middle of August 1946 erupted the Great Calcutta Killings after the League called for Direct Action Day on Aug 16.

Hindus and Sikh toughs hit back. In Hindu-majority Calcutta, the Muslims bore the brunt. On Sept 1, Bombay saw communal riots. A month later, mostly-Muslim East Bengal would see massive attacks on Hindu landlords which would fetch a backlash against Muslims from Hindu peasantry.

It was only a matter of time before the Punjab succumbed to the madness. In Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi, Amritsar... the violence waxed and waned through narrow little streets and small villages.

Lord Mountbatten, the new Viceroy, decided to speed up the transfer of power and the Partition, bringing in Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a highly-regarded London lawyer, to demarcate the boundaries.

Seeking out Faletti's Hotel, which Radcliffe had used during his stay, I sat on a wicker chair on the lawn, looking at the hotel. Every stroke of Radcliffe's pen would split families, villages, a people, I muse. Looking at the little curtained alcove fronting the rooms, I pictured a harassed Radcliffe peering out at unwelcome visitors.

The files in the dusty library of the Pakistan Times chronicle the days leading up to Independence, including Jinnah's triumphant arrival in Karachi on Aug 7, accompanied by his sister Fatima. His wife Ruttie had died in India and Jinnah's daughter, Dina, had chosen to live on in India. On the day Jinnah arrived in Karachi, Mahatma Gandhi had been in Lahore trying one last time to stop the violence.


Driver Mohammed Ibrahim, slowly circling the 10km belt of Lahore's ancient Walled City, recounted to me his days as a municipal employee. "At first, we used to find one, two bodies a day. Then it became a flood, and there was no burial space. So we dug pits and buried people 15 at a time," he told me.

There were heroes too. Mr Akhtar Ali Qureishi, who runs a taxi fleet on the Mall, told me he had been stranded in the Indian town of Hissar and was shoved into a train into Pakistan by Jiwand Singh, a police constable and fellow soccer enthusiast. The sub-inspector, Baldev Singh, had taken many Muslim scalps but Jiwand issued his superior a warning: "If you take his life, I shall take yours."

Mr Qureishi told me: "People here say Sikhs were killers. I remember them a little differently."

Mr Mohammed Ibrahim drove me to Anarkali one last time and I climbed to the roof of a shop, picturing Nehru riding through the street below on his stallion.

The shopkeeper introduced me to a dignified old man, Mr Khwaja Ghafoor Ahmad, who grew up in Amritsar. "I still weep for all the friends I left behind. Sometimes, I simply draw an eye on my notepad and mail it along to say that I still look for them."

Hearing that Amritsar was my next stop, he borrowed my notebook to scribble a note to a friend. I looked down at the name and address of a man I too had known well, Dev Chand Mehra, the giant-sized proprietor of the Ritz Hotel whom friends called "Tiny".

"I have bad news for you, Ghafoor-saheb," I said. "Tiny Mehra died two years ago."

It was an emotional moment as I stood on the Lahore railway platform bidding goodbye to Mr Mohammed Ibrahim. For the past few days, he had driven me around, sharing the delectable but inexpensive food of the streets.

"Khudda give you tarakki and izzat," - advancement and fame - he blessed me in Urdu, the Pakistani national language. I handed him a large tip, then counted out 35 rupees owed him from miscalculating a previous fare.

He protested loudly: "You have been generous enough, malik, why do you do this?"

Still speaking Urdu, I repeated to him something I had learnt in the villages of Punjab years ago: "A hisaab is a hisaab."

A debt owed is a debt that must be repaid. Someday, I said to myself as I boarded the train, Indians and Pakistanis would settle their debts and get on with life.

Back in Lahore a few years ago and finding time to spare, I looked for some of the people I met on that nostalgia journey. None was alive. The driver Mohammed Ibrahim had died, so too his boss, Mr Qureishi. Caravan Book Shop was run by the Chaudhary's son, the Chaudhary having passed on. There was no trace of Mr Ghafoor.

Seventy years after the Great Partition, most of its eyewitnesses are now dead. Only the memories remain, passed on through the generations and in the notebooks of journalists in search of nostalgia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'The pain of separation: Recalling India and Pakistan's birth traumas'. Subscribe