The exodus that took place in 1947 between India and Pakistan has been one of the largest mass migrations in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Millions of lives were lost, and millions more were uprooted. The event was so powerful that it continues to mark many lives in the region even now.
The competing political narratives surrounding the Partition have continued to keep the root cause of the historical event a matter of dispute. However, personal memoirs are clear-cut, as all of them – without exception – are full of stories of shock, loss, grief and acceptance.
One such story is that of my maternal grandmother who, along with her parents, was forced to migrate to Delhi.
My grandmother was born to a wealthy businessman residing in Multan, Pakistan. Her family stayed in a palatial house, owned horse bogeys and spent summers in Shimla. They harboured a dream of an independent India – but being aloof, apolitical, and smug in their prosperity, the family believed that talk of Partition was just rumours.
As a result, when the gory events unfolded and the bodies started to pile up, they were caught unprepared. A raging mob entered my grandmother’s home, looting and killing anyone and everyone they could find. My grandmother and her parents survived as they took refuge at a local temple. At night, when the mob slept, they returned, hoping to reunite with my grandmother’s two brothers. Instead, they saw their bloody, naked bodies lying in the verandah.
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The next morning, the police entered and threw out the surviving members of the family in a manner one would chase away a pack of stray dogs. Maggots had begun to devour the bodies at the house, but the family did not get a chance to pay their last respects.
That gory sight haunted my grandmother till she breathed her last.
The birth of new borders had butchered their once settled lives. They had heard that newly-created India would give them refuge and had no option but to walk barefoot in the same direction as the teeming crowds.
The long journey was marred by ghastly violence and nature’s fury in the form of sweltering heat followed by torrential rains. It seemed as if there was a competition of cruelty between nature and mankind, she told me. There were bodies everywhere – on the road, in trains and trucks, and floating in the pregnant river. The sight became so commonplace and ‘matter of fact’ that beyond a point, the dead lost their power to evoke any emotion.
However, my grandmother remembers breaking down completely when she accidentally stepped on a human foetus lying on the road. The body of the mother lay a few meters away. Yet, she continued to walk mechanically alongside her parents.
After traveling hundreds of kilometres over 15 days, they found place in a refugee camp in Delhi. Those who had crossed the border shared the solace of being able to survive the bloodshed and the journey. All had lost at least one family member. They were together in misery for they even lacked the bare minimum required to survive. Most also silently wished to go back to the lives they had left behind, my grandmother told me.
Yet, such commonalities failed to translate into empathy and kindness always. There was a dearth of essential resources like food and water in the camps, leading to daily incidences of loot, theft and violence. My grandmother would say – as is the case in every hostile environment – women were the most unsafe. Men from slightly well-off families would even ask for sexual favours from downtrodden women refugees in exchange for food and sometimes even water.
As part of the resettlement plan, the government offered jobs to migrants and only one member from each family was eligible to be considered. My grandmother would say that such was the race for survival and scramble for doles that, at times, even brothers did not spare each other.
Time changed. The migrants were shifted from transit camps to colonies especially built by clearing forest land. Each colony consisted of multiple lanes of single-storeyed asbestos roofed houses of 55 yards.
My grandmother’s family was allotted one such house in Rajinder Nagar. Beginning from zilch, they built new lives with through hard work. Pride in their once-prosperous lives did not deter them from utilising any opportunity – no matter how menial or petty. As a result, in no time, these colonies buzzed with a liveliness and energy that is synonymous with Delhi’s boisterous character.
The credit of peaceful resettlement also goes to the native families settled in India who accepted and accommodated the migrants with open arms and minds. One such instance of large-heartedness, she told me, is when they let migrants sell goods on empty spaces in front of their shops to earn a living, even if it meant compromising their profits.
My grandmother often said that it took two generations to bounce back. Yet, at a personal level, she could never recover completely. Bouts of anxiety and panic, which had roots in her harsh experiences during the migration, often struck her. She was over-possessive about her family and lived in the constant fear of losing them once again to circumstances not of her own doing.
Before she passed away recently, she developed severe amnesia. One could often hear the murmurs of her gruesome memories in her sleep.
Nevertheless, she was grateful for the second chance that destiny bestowed upon her. She says the ordeal taught her the importance of education. With the family wealth gone, which otherwise would have trickled down generations, education was the only way out of poverty. She drilled it into her children’s minds that they would be nowhere in life if they did not study hard.
It is not a mere coincidence that my grandmother was illiterate, my mother is a first-generation graduate and I am a first-generation civil servant.
Kanika Dua is an IRS officer and is currently posted as an Assistant Commissioner (GST) in New Delhi. The views expressed, if any, are personal and not of the department/organisation.
Featured image credit: Vinod Chandar/Flickr (representative image)