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In June 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Governor General of India, announced the partitioning of the Indian Empire into two separate independent countries, to take place in August.
My grandfathers were both highly respected barristers in the city of Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier province. It was a predominantly Muslim area bordering Afghanistan. My grandfathers spoke several languages – Hindi, English, Urdu, Punjabi, Pushto, and had clients from all faiths. They even dressed for court in the traditional Pathan way – baggy trousers, loose shirts and turbans. Later my paternal grandfather moved to practice in the High Court at Lahore.
Before ’47, my family had lived on friendly terms with our Muslim neighbours in Lahore. There was no question of hostilities. We shared in each others’ religious festivals Dewali or Eid, and other family occasions. A Muslim tongawallah was trusted enough to take us children to school every day (tongas were traditional horse drawn carriages). But all that changed with the demand for Pakistan becoming closer to reality. My paternal grandfather had died long before independence, so was spared the trauma of being displaced. My maternal grandparents fled from Peshawar to Lahore first, as four of my grandma’s nieces and nephews were stabbed to death. I was very upset over that because we had spent a happy holiday with these cousins in Kashmir only the year before.
As the communal situation in Lahore also deteriorated, my extended family decided to leave for India just days before independence to wait and see if Lahore would be in Pakistan or India, Peshawar would definitely go to Pakistan, being predominantly Muslim.
Though upset at the thought that their homes might be in Pakistan, my grandparents and parents had decided that even if that happened, they would continue to live there. After all, they had lived under British rule, why not continue living there, but in a Muslim state.
But the communal riots and massacres soon made it plain that the only way to stay there would be to convert to Islam. Our Muslim neighbours advised us to move out of our homes as they couldn’t guarantee to protect us from the hysterical mobs. We went to stay in a Hindu area of Lahore where some friends had already left their homes. The remaining Hindus formed vigilante groups to keep out the Muslim mobs. The police used to impose curfew from evening onwards but still a lot of houses were set on fire under cover of darkness. Being kids, we didn’t realise the enormity of the situation, every morning we used to go up to the rooftops to count the columns of smoke still rising from smouldering houses.
Eventually my parents decided to leave Lahore and bought train tickets to Dehradun in India even though train travel had become very risky, whole trainloads of people used to get massacred. On the 10th August my parents with four young children boarded the train, hoping to arrive to safety in India. But in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, the train stopped. The lights in the train flickered on and off, as it remained stationary. We were scared that massacre was imminent, but the train started and chugged its way slowly, arriving 24 hours late. We found out later that a convoy of British military tanks going past the train had deterred the mob from their evil intentions.
At the midnight hour on the 14th August 60 years ago, Pandit Nehru gave his fateful independence speech from the Red Fort in Delhi. India was independent, but partitioned into two, at the cost of a million lost lives and over 10 million people displaced.
After independence it became clear that we could never go back to our home in Lahore. Our whole extended family parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandma drifted to Delhi as refugees. We managed to squat in a Muslim’s house – he had fled to Pakistan. With the help of a minor government official we managed to stay there legitimately after a while, and paid rent to the government. At one time, there were 20 of us altogether, living in cramped conditions, sleeping on the floor.
It was hard after a life of luxury to get used to life as poor refugees. My mother and aunts had never cooked in their lives, having a cook and an army of servants in Lahore. They had been ladies of leisure, spending their time knitting with Patons & Baldwins wool, doing embroidery and eating Huntley and Palmers biscuits. (Yes, you could get all these English goodies before partition if you had the money to buy them.) All that had vanished. Now my mother had to cook herself and it took her a long time to learn to make decent chapaties. My father did all sorts of odd jobs for pitiful wages. My grandfather could never start a legal practice again. Money was tight and my mum used to often skimp on food for herself so the children wouldn’t go without proper nourishment. But my parents were determined to provide good education for their daughters, in a country with very little free education, and where boys got the best deals. So we all went to university even though it meant great sacrifices by my parents.
My mother was advised by her father to sell some of her gold jewellery to buy a plot of land 180 square yards to build a house on, as the Muslim’s house where we lived would be auctioned eventually. It was a wise move, though my mother had misgivings at the time, because it is now a prime location and a much sought after area of Delhi.
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