The last of my grandparents, my paternal grandmother Sheila Devi, passed away this year, in the 70th year of Partition and Indian independence. While mourning her death, I realised how the lives of both sets of my grandparents were completely altered by Partition.
Their lives, pasts, hopes, dreams, identities, interpersonal relationships – everything – was shaped by what seems like just an event in history. It was not just few months of disruption, it fractured their whole existence. The trauma of leaving lives, and dead family members behind, never left them.
I grew up listening to their stories and reading the myriad emotions in their eyes as they narrated their lives, their past. My maternal grandfather, Baldev Mehta, left his home behind in Western Punjab’s Jhelum district. He was a tall, idealistic man, who grew very uncomfortable around any movies or documentaries concerning Partition or violence in general. It never made sense to me till now, when they are all gone.
Any pictures from Partition archives make me terribly fearful of seeing their faces in them. Having always imagined those photographs as past, it strikes me he was scared to see what he had lived through.
My paternal grandfather, Balram Bakshi, came to India before the riots. His own grandmother, however, had disappeared in Rawalpindi before they could reach this side. She was travelling back from a family function by train, accompanied by a male servant, who upon reaching their destination could not find her in the women’s compartment, where he had left her. It is still not known whether she left the train, or if there was some scare in her bogey, or if she was abducted. A few months later, they did her last rites, adding her to the list of dead ancestors.
Before the riots started, and the general atmosphere was tense, my paternal grandfather and his younger brother were coming back home and saw a crowd, and sensed trouble. He asked the younger brother to just keep saying ‘ho’ (yes, in Pashto), and he continued a conversation in Pashto as they continued walking confidently. The crowd was convinced that someone speaking such fluent Pashto must not be a Hindu, and both boys reached home safe.
My maternal grandparent’s family on the other hand, faced the full blow of Partition. My grandparents – Baldev and Savitri Mehta, then newlyweds, came to Mirpur. It was nani’s parental home, where things seemed a little better, but it faced violence a little later.
Nani, along with her husband, parents, four sisters and a brother, walked for 12 days, before crossing the border, hoping that they will soon be back to their homes. She feared for her infant sister, who she thought won’t survive the journey. The family would try and feed her milk from corn kernel, as they hid in the fields.
Her father, who was carrying a gun, had repeatedly reminded the women that if he ever feared for their ‘honour’, he would kill them. It must have certainly added to the trauma of already scared women. Swarnakanta, nani’s sister who was just a year younger to her, and was slower in walking, was really scared of all that was happening. All the screams, seeing all the bodies on the way and add to that fear of her ‘honour’.
She did reach this side alive, but her fear got the better of her, and she died of heart failure once she was here. They named the infant who survived against all odds Swarnakanta. Nani never got over from that loss. Everything else could be rebuilt, but not the one they lost to trauma.
Nani’s anecdotes around Partition made me wonder how wars and political unrest affects women. They bore the brunt of it all during Partition not only because they were displaced, but they were also seen as the honour of communities by both sides. Their bodies become communal, both for violation, or for protection. I wish I had asked her if apart from feeling helpless, tired, fearful and uncertain about their lives, did she also feel angry that she, and other women were turned from loving daughters to carriers of morality, who were better dead than alive?
Urvashi Butalia has discussed how “an understanding of agency also needs to take into account notions of the moral order which is sought to be preserved when women act, as well as the mediation of the family, community, class and religion.’ A lot of the fiction around Partition attempts to bring the personal to mainstream discussion, highlighting how women were bracketed as bodies, or family or religion, as and when required.
Whenever Partition narratives are repeated, the selves of these women are turned into their community, religion and nation, without telling us who these women were. As one reads the interviews of families, trying to create their existence through oral histories, the silences of, and about women come across so loudly. Its sometimes in fiction that these women redeem themselves as their stories are told.
In a comparatively recent film Khamosh Pani, we see Ayesha, who chose to live over saving her family’s honour by jumping in a well. Whereas many real life stories, like that of Boota Singh and Zainab, who wasn’t allowed to re-unite with her new family, were converted into an over-the-top Hindi film like Gadar (there are also books, and other films depicting their story, but Gadar was hugely successful). Theirs was the story of the lack of woman’s agency in deciding for herself, even post-Partition. Post-independence, women’s bodies did not just represent their communities, but also the new nations.
The narrative of Partition hasn’t gone away with my grandparents. It has become a part of my family’s lived history, and mentality. As a historian, I understand it as a phase of nation building, and as an insider, I carry the stories of women of my family, and all those who experienced trauma of that phase on their lives and their selves.
This article was originally published in The Wire, India.
Ruchika Sharma teaches history at Gargi College, University of Delhi.