Tuesday, 14 August 2007

A child of Partition on the 60th anniversary

Partition - "a division of property among joint owners or tenants in common or a sale of such property followed by a division of the proceeds." Antonyms: unity, unite.

One word. Not often used in English, and then without emotional charge.

Unless you're from the Indian subcontinent, where the word packs as much power as nuclear fission.

Partition. Always with a capital "P".

"There can be no question of coercing any large areas in which one community has a majority to live against their will under a government in which another community has a majority. And the only alternative to coercion is partition." --Louis Mountbatten

With those words, and with a stroke of the pen from Cyril Radcliffe (a man who had never lived in India, and was thus seen to be 'neutral') the Indian subcontinent was granted its freedom on 14 August 1947 as two separate nations - India and Pakistan, divided along religious lines.

"This concept of a divided India was based on the fantastic concept that nationality was based on religion. That made no sense to me." --Nyantara Sanghal, Jahawarlal Nehru's niece

Lines on a map cut right through the middle of people's lives. And nowhere was this truer than in the state of the Punjab, which was split in half, where Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lived peacefully in integrated communities. Fifteen million people had to move; at least one million died. The Punjab went from a state of tightly knit communities to five rivers running red with blood, all with the stroke of a fountain pen.

Only once has anyone in my large [5 sibs on dad's side, 8 on mum's] family EVER talked about Partition except to celebrate 14 August, or to say briefly that they left Jalandhar for Lahore/Sahiwal/Hujra etc.

So the first time I really understood what had actually happened was whilst watching a 2005 programme on the series 'Dispatches' called 'Young, Angry and Muslim' about the Pakistani Muslim community here. It was well-done, narrated by a Pakistani Muslim [Navid Akhtar], unsettling, for all the reasons one would expect - radicalisation, the anger of the communities, and so on.

Then I looked up to see the trains.

Never, ever had I seen any footage of Partition, of the resettling over the border - until that day, when they showed three minutes of footage. The fear on the faces, the sick children, the elderly on the backs of wagons packed with people, or on trains that looked eerily like ones that had left Germany not 10 years before.

But this time, *I* was the one looking for familiar faces. My grandparents, in their 40s. My parents at 10. My uncles, aunts...they all looked like family...

And I heard my father's voice, at a family gathering a few weeks before I left the States to come here, speaking for the first time about Partition in my hearing, about a cousin who had promised to get them out, but took his girlfriend's family instead...and pushed them off as they tried to get on the truck. The fury and bitterness in his voice frightened me even as it made me want to put my arms around him. But our family has never been a close one, and my arms remained by my side.

My father's is only one story amongst millions. There were the trains that crossed the borders full of corpses; the houses that were burned; women who were raped or killed so that they wouldn't be raped; the refugee camps and children dying of disease; neighbours turned to enemies.

"I miss my friends. I didn't understand why they had to go. They didn't want to go. They were pushed away. And I thought "Why?" Sixty years later, I still think, "Why?" What did anyone get out of it?" --A Sikh reflecting on his childhood friendships with his Muslim neighbours

"The girls in the Muslim school [in Amritsar, on the Indian side] were stripped, marched out and systematically raped. I looked in the faces of those watching on to see if there was any compassion. I found none." --a Sikh in Amritsar

Muslim gangs destroying the Hindu quarter in the stunning, cosmopolitan city of Lahore, described by those who lived there then as tolerant, vibrant and the height of fashion; Sikhs attacking Muslim villages; Muslims and Hindus at eachother in the Punjab and Bengal all stand as proof that religion doesn't restrain our animal urges; when used by politicians to create fear, nothing is so effective as religion at unleashing them.

"Lahore used to be such a beautiful city, a tolerant city...there was a saying in the Punjab, 'You haven't lived until you have been to Lahore.' We [Lahore] have become more intolerant, more backward, more pseudo-Islamic." -a Muslim now living in Pakistan

One 80-year-old asked Shobna Gulati, a British Asian star who had gone back to India to trace her roots, "They had one language, one land. How could they do this to eachother?"

One land. Muslim, Hindu and Sikh it may be, but the Punjab is one land. One is Punjabi first, then their religion, and only THEN are they Indian or Pakistani. We farm. We are people of the land.

And so, even amongst this horror, there were stories of hope - Hindus hiding Muslims in their homes when the mobs came; Muslims knocking on their neighbours' doors to tell them the mobs were coming and they needed to leave.

This summer, the BBC has put together an "India-Pakistan 07" series, and the archives, including radio programmes from the past, can be found here. It has provided me with much food for thought, and surprisingly, a great deal of healing.

I've watched stories about schoolchildren in Kalkotta teaching street children how to read and write; I've grinned at the joy of people throwing coloured powder at strangers on the street during the festival of Holi; I've listened as British Asians traced their families' paths through Partition and seen them choke up when they arrived at their parents' childhood homes. I wept when people who had been through unimaginable violence said that they didn't blame those who perpetrated it; that they were only troubled when the memories returned. Watching people who could be my aunts, uncles and grandparents in dusty towns like the ones I used to visit as a child; feeling my shoulders drop the moment someone spoke Punjabi felt like coming home. Something dislocated snapped back into place.

Finally, I understand. I understand why my parents, who left Jalandhar with only the clothes on their back, were so desperate to hoard things and buy a bigger house AFTER I moved out. Why they wanted us to become doctors so we'd always be financially secure, whatever happened. I understand why I could never turn away from the subcontinent and be completely Western, even though I was born and raised in the States. What 'white boy' means when he gives me that half-smile and a twinkle when he says, "You are so Pakistani." And why I could never feel at home in Roman Catholicism.

I am Punjabi. Not Pakistani; Punjabi. And one day, I will make that pilgrimage to Lahore, Hujra, Sahiwal to visit those I love, then cross the 'border' by foot and go to Jalandhar to see the home my ancestors knew.

Partition marked our parents, and it has marked us. We are Midnight's children.

I should have grown up visiting relatives in a Punjab where travel between Lahore and Amritsar was commonplace; where the neighbours I called "auntie" and "uncle" and the children I played with could just as easily have gone to a gurdwara or a Hindu temple to worship. A world in which 14 August 1947 was a cause for unmitigated celebration of freedom and the word partition meant nothing more than a divider between two rooms, or a division into portions and shares.

And was always spelled with a lowercase 'p'.