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.
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.
When 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!
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].
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.”