A Child's Memories of the Partition
Professor Uma Chakravarti
In this essay, reputed historian and Professor Uma Chakravarti graciously shares with us her research findings and thoughts about the interviews she conducted with survivors of the Partition. Through this essay, we get a close insight into the life of eight-year old Satinder and her family caught in the thick of the politics of 1947. Towards the end of the essay, Prof Chakravarti also shares with us episodic accounts of other interviewees, laying out a series of vignettes of Partition memories.
The accounts of the now old, but at that time very young children of the partition, has a particular kind of recall, at times almost idiosyncratic, whimsical, and episodic, even as some accounts are structured and could build a sequence of events leading to the great departure from “home” to an unknown destination. I will use only one of the narrative here, that of Satinder, who was part of my own childhood.
Satinder was eight at the time of the great departure to this side of the border in 1947. Her childhood was spent in Mandi Bhawal where her father ran a factory spinning cotton thread; labour came in from UP and Afghanistan, the factory was a gated area and the children played on the mounds of cotton that was in the premises. Satinder and her sister were being readied to go into boarding school because the school in the factory town was not very good; all seemed happy, the father made a ritual of his evening tea, and the kids bathed in the afternoon at the pump to cool themselves after the heat all day. It was an idyllic childhood; there were lands the family owned, and a beautiful house and garden with English flowers. When Satinder and her sister went to visit nanaji, the mother’s father, as they would go off to school soon, the Partition was announced. What nonsense, said the father, we have been here for generations and this is “our” land, and he carried on as before. In Lahore, trouble had started earlier –there were fires and killings, but father remained adamant. Through all of this, the kids were in the thick of politics as it was demonstrated on the streets. The kids, Satinder and her siblings, repeated the slogans on the streets being shouted by the Muslim League. At first the slogans were against Khizr Hayat Khan, who was a Unionist party man and was against the Muslim League so he was berated for being a betrayer (to the cause of the Muslims). But then he went over to the Muslim League after which the slogans celebrated his crossing over; the new slogans were: “taazi khabar aayi hai, Khizr sada pai hai!” which translates as “fresh news (or breaking news in today’s language) has come, Khizr is now our brother!” Satinder and her siblings treated the whole thing as a game in which they went around repeating the Muslim League slogans.
Since the factory was a gated one, the family felt quite safe but then fires began in the town near the factory. The inmates of the house and factory began to prepare bombs which they hid under the quilts in the large trunk that everyone in Punjab had in those days. The police then went around making searches but could not find anything because the bombs were hidden under the quilts at the bottom end of the huge trunk. Their father had a gun which was licensed so it was legal to keep that.
At some point, the decision was made to move to a camp in the main town some distance away. Preparations were made: father killed a chicken while saying: “chal main teri Pakistan banana va”(come I’ll make Pakistan out of you). They made a lot of parathas, and took a jar of pickle and got ready to go to the camp. All the animals were given away to the neighbours and they finally left for the camp. But by nightfall, when the food was eaten the father said: this place is not so secure as the factory so let us move into the gated factory. There they set up the camp and everyone in the other camp also moved into the new campsite.
In this way, they all stayed on till September end when Satinder’s uncle left for India. The mother now began to exhort the father to also leave but he would have none of it saying all these people in the camp inside the factory were dependent on him so how could he abandon them? Mother then began to work through the children, asking them to cry and beg the father to leave saying “we will not go without you,” but to no avail. Finally the family moved into a camp at Mandi Bhawal in October and stayed there for a few weeks. They ran short of food, said Satinder, so guess what fetched a good price? The gun! They got Rs 800 for it but it caused a dilemma for the father as it was clear whom the gun would be used against. But he told himself, he had no choice as his children’s needs decided the issue for him. (When I asked about jewelry that they might have had Satinder said it had no value, a ring only fetched Rs 10.)
When Satinder’s mother had left for the camp, she was in her high heel shoes as these were her prized possessions and the children wore their best clothes. But everything had worn out in the weeks they were at the camp. Finally, the family left the camp for India in the last truck leaving the town in the month of October, which was an army truck and travelled on it for 24 hours, passing many convoys coming in the opposite direction. As they passed each other, people including the kids shouted out “we are leaving palaces for you, but you are only leaving earthen pots for us.”
Another popular slogan they all chorused was, “hamko kaun bachayega: Major General Chimmni saheb!” (who will save us? Major Gen Chimmni saheb.) Many years later Satinder met Maj Gen Chimmni’s granddaughter and told her about this invocation of his powers to give them life, of him being their very own saviour.
The most moving slogan, if it can be called that, as the convoys crossed each other, was what people in their truck chanted: “har har har, iko kar rab”, which I understand as “har, har, har” which was one of the calls that resounded in response to "Allah Ho Akbar" in the days of turbulence, “make it all one God” so that there would be no killings in the name of the different Gods. Or, could it have meant make everyone’s suffering the same? I have not been able to get a clarification on this. No one else among my interviewees mentioned this chant.
Even in the course of this one day journey in a military truck, unexpected things could happen; Satinder’s little sister strayed away from the family as everyone got down to perform their ablutions; there was panic for while, but then she was found. There was a lot of rumour mongering; people believed that the water was poisoned—this came up in 1984 too as there were rumours that the Sikhs had poisoned the main water tanks in Delhi—that some substance gave everyone diarrhea—but given the health and sanitary conditions at camps and en route that was very likely to happen without any calculated intent on anyone’s part. Finally they reached Amritsar the next night, it was the day Princess Elizabeth was married to Prince Phillip, maybe November 1, 1947.
A highlight of the journey was the difficulty of carrying a very special Granth Sahib belonging to the mother: it had gold drawings and pious traditions required a special elevated place for the Granth Sahib which was impossible to achieve in the jammed truck. The children convinced the mother that “babaji,” i.e. Guru Nanak would understand the special circumstances in which piety was impossible to achieve in such abnormal times. For about three months the family was housed in houses in Amritsar and Ambala something that the father was bnot happy about so they left for Delhi where there were some relatives who would help them tide over the difficult times they were in. Additionally it was a big city with good schools and educational facilities which was so critical for the children's future as only education was an asset that could not be taken away. The family arrived in Delhi on the day Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral was taking place. In Delhi, Satinder had to go back to KG because now English medium was required for entering a good school. Satinder lost two years in the process. But all the children then pursued their education with seriousness as that was the best resource, which one carried within oneself, unlike land or factories or riches which could go up in smoke in a jiffy. Satinder’s closing remark to my question about recalling any fears they experienced during those troubled times was “as children we felt no fear; if there was anxiety, it was the concern of the parents.”
Among the last interviews that I/we did for writing this essay was of two brothers, one who was 13 at the time of Partition and the other was under 4. When the partition became a reality, the older of the two brothers was studying in a school at Narowal. The family decided to join the exodus of people seeking to cross the border into relative safety. The progress was hampered by the grandmother's refusal to leave home saying "this time will surely pass" causing the father to have a terrible senses of guilt so after the first day's journey the family turned back. The next day they were persuaded to make another attempt to leave, hampered now by torrential rain. They tried to cross over into Jammu but the Maharaja's guards would not let them through—the Maharaja was still biding his time to decide on his future course of action. The group then returned and spent another night in the village. The following morning they set course again and finally managed to cross the river which was still in spate but now they were in the safety of their new country and they never did go back.
Meanwhile the grandmother was still on that side and remained in the village along with a few other old women. She had refused to believe that they were going to have to break with the old home/homeland. About four months later the army came and rescued all the old women left behind and left them in a camp in Amritsar. Meanwhile the rest of the family had moved to Delhi and were trying to survive there. Some of their relatives found the grandmother in the camp and alerted the son and in the end the family was finally re-united. The telling seemed to be complete but suddenly the younger of the two boys in the Sharma family added a charming, quirky anecdote. This brother was only four when partition happened. He understood and registered little but he remembers insisting on wearing his new shirt as they left home. He also insisted on carrying his prised walnuts even though the family scolded him for his plaintive cries but he had his way. After days of carrying his walnuts he dropped one of them as they tried to crossover. Now he cried even more piteously and so the father went towards the rushes in search of the walnut where they suddenly found a man with a knife crouched among the rushes. For a minute they thought that he was going to stab them but he stayed quiet: the floating walnut was retrieved and the family proceeded to complete the crossover to safety. For this brother this is the only story/incident he remembers: the rest was only hearsay.
I want to end this essay by recounting the brief narratives of very young children between the ages of 4 and 6 who have only snatches of memory that may be regarded as incoherent in terms of experiencing the " trauma" of the partition. These "memories" are of incidents which made for snatches of memories, stray acts carried in a memory bank as it were to be recalled years later when someone asked them formally about what they remembered of the Partition. Sometimes these were recounted as an add on to another recounting of a slightly older person, and carry the quaintness of a childish mind remembering a detail that had little to do with violence, impending or actual, that the child experienced. Prabha Bhog, who was 4 at the time of the Partition added to her husband Major-Gen Bhog's account cited earlier. Prabha remembered the days and nights before they left their village in disjointed memories: for a few nights before the family actually tried to cross the border all the children would be put to bed wearing their best clothes. One day Prabha said to her mother: "why do we wear these new clothes every night? No one comes to see us!" Finally one night they left their home to cross over to the Indian side and came to a small river which was in spate as it was raining incessantly through the weeks following the Partition. Prabha was terrified of the river and refused to cross: she could not be persuaded even though she was told that she would be carried across by an adult. She still refused setting up a wail till she was assured that a strong man would carry her across. Finally she herself "chose" her ferry, the tallest Pathan among the ferriers: then hoisted onto his shoulders she clung to him and finally reached the other bank of the swollen river. Later they got into a goods train to reach Delhi from the Jammu border. She also remembers that they had to keep their heads down lest they be discovered when the train passed the fields and stations along the track. Prabha's wails that she wanted pickle with her parathas met with tears from her mother and reassurances that she would soon get parathas with pickle as always when they got to their new home in Delhi.
Uma Chakravarti is a renowned Indian historian, filmmaker, and activist. Beginning in the 1980s, she wrote extensively on Indian history highlighting issues relating to gender, caste, and class, publishing seven books over the course of her career. She has been associated with the women’s movement and the movement for democratic rights since the late seventies.