My Untold India-Pakistan Story

lahore railway station sign

The sign at the Lahore railway station in the 1930s or 40s in 4 languages: English, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi!

My father who grew up in Lahore, fled to India with his family, at the time that horrific bloodbath engulfed the two “new” countries in 1947.  His father (my grandfather), was among many of those families, on both sides of the border, who could not envision a divide, and had decided to continue living in the place they called home.  My father was 10 years old, and I am told the family had woken up in the middle of the night, and fled.  But other than that I have no idea what they endured or witnessed, for he never talked about it.  There was only one sentence that I heard him repeating often, “We escaped with only the clothes on our back.”  That unresolved inner turmoil surely was a factor in why he later joined the Indian army and fought in its wars against Pakistan.

Lahore in 1864

Lahore as I’d imagine it looked when my father lived there. That white building in the center may be a Hindu temple or Sikh Gurudwara

Though my father’s ancestors had their roots in Bengal, the cultural environment that defined him was the one that he grew up in, in Lahore.  And that was also the environment he raised us, his children, in—the food, the music, certain social sensibilities, and the language.  Till I was about 7, Dad spoke to us in Urdu.  It was the dominant Indian language at home since Mom spoke in English. But Urdu at home began to clash with Hindi in school.  In the 70s, schools in India, in a patriotic zeal, insisted on the ‘Sanskritization’ of Hindi.  There would be red circles around the offending words in my Hindi notebooks, with ‘Urdu!’ scribbled in the margin.  It’s funny, how then, I use to think it was like how the English teachers objected to the use of words they admonished as “American slang.”  I never fathomed then, that in the minds of my teachers there were religious and cultural divides between languages that seemed seamlessly connected to me: the Urdu words  ‘belonged’ to Arabic or Persian and Islam, and the Hindi words to Sanskrit and Hinduism! Later, Dad also began to speak to us in English.

partition-genocide-india-pakistan1When my father retired, he decided to settle down in Calcutta.  It was an odd decision, because after 1947, and even all through my growing up years, he lived in the north, mostly in Punjab, and in and around towns like Delhi and Lucknow, places that were culturally similar to the environment he grew up in.  But other than his last name, there was very little of the Bengali culture that was inculcated in him.  He spent his retirement years in Calcutta feeling alienated from his environment, and in absolute misery. At his age he was not ready for experiencing anything new either, and often responded with irritation to attempts to get him to try eating fish, or listen to Rabindra Sangeet or improve his Bengali grammar.  So why did he decide to spend his last years in a city he felt no connection with?  His response used to be “Everyone must return to their roots.”  That bizarre reasoning was a gift of the 1947 Partition no doubt!

partition dead on roads-7

Scenes people witnessed fleeing in 1947

Yet, six years ago, when my father died after a prolonged illness, in his last month he spoke incessantly about Lahore.  And not to us, but to his Bengali nurse, who barely understood him as he spoke in chaste Urdu! “Hum Lahore ke hain. Jante ho Lahore kahan hai? Pakistan mein…,” he’d go on and on without any reaction from her.  I realized those weren’t conversations; he was just trying get something out of his system.   But what that was, I  could not understand then. Then a few weeks ago I read a personal piece by poet and lyricist Gulzar who, like my father had also grown up in Pakistan but was forced by the partition to move to India with his family. This article was about how he felt when he recently visited Pakistan, and as I read it I felt an immediate resonance with what he was saying.  It was as if  I was hearing my Dad’s unspoken words at last!  This is what Gulzar wrote

“I left Pakistan with my father at the age of eight…[But] going to Dina, my birthplace, was a desire I held for a long time…I am 78 and I knew that this would probably be my last chance…Doing that would complete the circle for me. I wanted to cross the Wagah border on foot. Walking on that soil I felt like I was walking to my homeland, my birthplace. The feeling was extremely intimate…As soon as I reached the Pakistani border, I took off my shoes and wanted to put my feet on the soil.  It might sound childish, but I wanted to feel the ground. [While touring the city] my friends had a lot to talk about, but I just wanted them [to] let me be on my own. I only wanted silence. People say you feel happy visiting your childhood. I don’t think so. There is something nice but sad about it.” [He then fell ill and had to cut short his tour and return to India].


My father

What I’ve now come to realize is that the Silence about 1947 that I witnessed in my father extends across the board not just to the families and individuals directly affected by the partition, but most likely also to their descendants!!  When I lived in the U.S., I had many friends from Pakistan, some of who were from Lahore.  But even with the friends I was close to, as in college, with whom I had breakfast, lunch and dinner and chatted non-stop into the wee hours of the morning, I was never able to reveal that my father had grown up in Lahore or that he had fought in the wars against Pakistan.  And the truth is that my own silence had been a mystery to me.  Recently, I heard an interview with a South Asian art collector on the radio, and he was talking about this massive vacuum in the art of the 1947 partition.  He said that artists on the subcontinent from each period have always responded to various other major events – such as the Bangladesh war or the Bengal famine earlier.  But he talked about the strangeness of the utter SILENCE to the events of 1947, even from major artists of that period!

I do believe this Silence is unresolved trauma.  I also think there is a certain critical mistake in our collective attempts (where they do exist) at healing, where the focus has been to deny and obfuscate these aspects of the partition.  We are terrified that if we talk about it, it will fuel another catastrophe!  So we want to ‘leave it behind’ by not talking about what happened.  But the fact is that collective trauma needs to be dealt with just like individual trauma, by recalling and reliving the events, by allowing for an expunging of emotions—all of it, the anger, the bitterness, the negativity, the sadness, betrayal, and loss, so we make space for healing.

So my suggestion is directed to the hope-filled, existent joint efforts like ‘Aman ki Asha’ that are already involved in numerous artistic and creative projects to bring harmony between the two countries.  I hope they will consider creating ‘testimony’ platforms.  These could perhaps be personal written diaries or video diaries, or conversations, where families directly affected by the partition on both sides, can share the truth of their experiences, or what they recall from stories they heard and carried in their hearts in silence.  These should be public, definitely online, so it can be a collective process of sharing.  But these are not meant to be public trial forums, so there should be no space for public comments.  It would simply be an individual and collective release of the grief and trauma that people have borne silently for too long that we desperately need to let go, to move forward.

It is like Joan Borysenko had said, “The fears of the father are visited on the child, who forgets his birth-right to uniqueness and joy…The journey of awakening begins in the willingness to rejoice in our shadows as well as our light.”

Leave a comment


  1. Thank you for this moving and insightful post and the valuable suggestion about going forward.

  2. you are absolutely right Rita. it seems by keeping quite we will ensure it doesn’t happen again. more than half a million died in this man made tragedy and all we have done is keep quite about it. you are again right in pointing out artist should come forward, i would add academics should also do so and have a body of work on the partition. That will help the two countries deal with this tragedy as i still feel it is an unresolved issue among a large sections of the populations of these countries.

  3. Descendant

     /  June 18, 2013

    Great idea of a collective testimonial site. We are losing most of the people that lived through the partition and it would be great to hear it from them.

    • Exactly. There are so many people who have already passed away, and their stories are not passed on, but the unresolved emotions are sometimes.

  4. Very true and touchy.. In fact, there are only few people who are alive and already experience the partition of 1947 personally.

    World SILENCE matters a lot.. I totally understand the feelings expressed here..I hope together we can share some more stories and take out the silence …

    its time to express & share the feelings. Its time listen what they felt inside and what are the things that still left unsaid.

    Kudos and thanks for sharing this article… 🙂

    Jatin Kataria
    Co – Founder
    Parinday: Indo-Pak Friendship

    • Thank you Jatin. Sometimes I think the people who have the stories to share are silent. And the animosity is often coming from families who were not directly or indirectly effected by the partition, but who use assumptions about the partition as a board for propagating their unexamined intolerance.

  5. Just wanted to say “thanks” for writing this.

  6. patnaikt

     /  June 19, 2013

    Very poignant! Very well written piece! I have heard similar stories (unlike your father they always talked about their village in undivided Punjab and their blissful childhood) from some of my friends’ parents too and sadly non of them could ever visit that homeland till their death!

    • Yes, I think the families that moved early, before the 1947 riots, do retain that!

      • patnaikt

         /  June 19, 2013

        No, they all came during partition only but may be there were older (in their early 20 ties). But I have seen the pain in their eyes (and kind of disbelieve about what had happened was not true even after 20 years).

  7. Catherine Ghosh

     /  June 19, 2013

    Your story sounds very familiar to me. I have also observed the way the haunting silence has been crippling and the traumas of partition passed down to the next generations. I especially liked this prompting of yours: “…collective trauma needs to be dealt with just like individual trauma, by recalling and reliving the events, by allowing for an expunging of emotions—all of it, the anger, the bitterness, the negativity, the sadness, betrayal, and loss, so we make space for healing.” Yes! Let the healing begin! Thank you for this poignant piece.

  8. A touching piece, although my ancestors were from Amritsar and Patiala but they chose to settle in Lahore. right after the partition. I feel something ailed them all ,rest of their lives, they could never get over with the idea of leaving their homes, cities and friends. There was always something that kept them aloof at a certain degree. we must initiate a testimonial blog. or a site. so true,no significant artistic work on partition is there to be seen. bus chup he lug gaye..ah

  9. Rafique Islam

     /  June 20, 2013

    Wonderful blog. I have not seen many honest opinions about the partition such as this one. Before I started to read I imagined it would be similar to either Tagore’s Laboratory story or Train to Pakistan book. It turned out to be original.
    My family left Shiliguri in 1952 and I was never able to go back. I did visit Calcutta last year to see the mansions on Chitpur Road. The image of vultures devouring corpses on Chitpur Road during the communal riot victims haunted me. I wrote a travelogue about it too.
    Thanks for your wonderful blog. I wish more would write like this to heal the sad memory.

  10. Moving read. Do have a look at the work being done by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan with their Oral History Project, Ms Banerji. . I think something of this sort is what you’re talking about.

  11. Dr.Peter Riefenthaler

     /  July 12, 2013

    moving story , thank you
    Pakistan should (have ) follow (ed) the dream of Dr.Jinnah :

    • Yes, Dr. Riefenthaler, Both Jinnah and Nehru were cosmopolitan men with secular views. It’s odd where the two countries are headed.

  1. Rita Banerji: My Untold India-Pakistan Story - masalamommas

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