This is a question that we all have to answer. Shia, Sunni, Catholic, Protestant, Bengali, Marathi, Brahmin, Jathav, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, do we all mark our territories and drive away everyone, who is anyway different? Where is our home? Where can we feel safe from persecution? Soumya, our humourist, takes a somber view at the issue of homelessness, the refugee problem, returning to the roots, memory, and identity, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
This story was told to me on a piecemeal basis by my father-in-law over a period of time, and I have tried to string it together here. This is the story of numerous Punjabis, Bengalis and other people uprooted and traumatised by ethnic and religious strife.
Mr. Singh was stranded in the transit lounge of Karachi International Airport. The year was 1985. The news of pogroms against the Sikhs in India allegedly orchestrated by the ruling party had made him try to rush to India. The demand for a separate homeland for Sikhs and the subsequent assassination of our prime minister by her Sikh bodyguards had led to this insanity. His family was there. There were no direct flights to India from Baghdad, where he worked, for the next few days. Changing flights in Karachi was the fastest way. But Pakistan made him uncomfortable. It evoked memories he had been trying to erase. Visions of a massacre, of flight, of terror, of the permanent loss of childhood, innocence, and the sheltered idyllic existence. Memories of the struggles of trying to find roots and livelihood in a new land. Now the news of riots was bringing them back to the mind. Will this mean another uprooting? Will he lose his family again? He had lost his home once and thought he found a new home in India. Now, where could he go to find a home?
He had many hours to kill and went over to the coffee shop for refreshments. The proprietor asked him where he was from.
“Delhi “he replied gruffly.
“Yes, but I mean before that”
“Where in Pakistan, Sir?”
“Really! Where exactly?”
“Church wali gully”
“Welcome, sir! I am from Sangla too! We lived by the Shah Kot Road”
The four hours went by in reminiscence of the mohallas of Shah Kot, the landmarks, how it used to be. Long-suppressed memories came flooding in. The uncomfortable thought that this man’s parents may have been in the mob that killed his family surfaced too. When the Delhi flight was announced, he felt relieved. The cafe owner refused any payment from his onetime fellow townsman.
He remembered Sangla. The spacious Kothi of the General Manager of the Cotton Ginning Mill, his father. The canal where he learned to swim. The peepul tree whose shade was the afternoon siesta spot, and where visitors to the town rested, before proceeding to their destinations. His sister’s wedding and the baraat that had rested there before going on to the Gurdwara.
Those days were inexpensive. He smiled to remember that the overseer had refused to accept his salary of Rupees Fifty, as the war had created inflation, and was mollified when he got a one rupee increment.
There was no electricity in the town, and dinner was at dusk, to save oil in the lanterns. The kitchen was in the open and had a wood fired clay tandoor. Bedroom in summers was the terrace.
While boarding the plane, he remembered that in Sangla he had never seen a motor car. There was one bus that came once daily from Shahpur. The only means of conveyance was walking. Goods were transported on bullock carts. The only private transport belonged to the Sheikh, owner of the neighbouring mill, and it was a horse cart. Horse carts also took people to Shahpur from the station but did not come to Sangla.
Then the Sheikh imported a bicycle for his son, and that was the first time he had seen this wonder. They both went for a spin together but didn’t know how to stop the thing. He still carried the scar from that fall, and their first ride was the last.
The flight attendant asked whether he would prefer a vegetarian meal. He remembered that those days. mutton was cooked on special occasions, only by the men folk, only for dinner, and that day the women would eat first, and the men would cook, eat and sleep outdoors, welcome indoors only after a bath next morning.
He picked up an Urdu paper and found that he could easily read it. That year in 1947, his school, the Khalsa High School for the Sikhs, didn’t open after the summer vacations. His second language was Persian. They used the Urdu script, the only letters he knew. The happiness was marred by the long faces of the elders, poring over the Urdu newspapers Pratap and Milap, talking about Independence and Partition. The Muslim neighbours were happy, but he did not quite follow. The English were leaving India, but leaving what? He had never seen an Englishman. So who was leaving? There was a talk of them leaving for India. But they were already in India. When the English left this will be Pakistan he was told. It was all very confusing. There was no radio in town, but the market had a shop with a transistor radio. The grownups huddled there for the news.
Reading of Sikhs barricading themselves against rioters in Delhi, he remembered August 1947.
On 12th August they learned that, two days later, Sangla would be in Pakistan, as would Lahore, where they had planned to move in case this eventuality came about. There were reports of rioting all around, including Lahore, but Sangla was so far free from this madness. But their Muslim neighbour, who had an oil mill, came with the news that an attack was planned that night, so he and his younger brothers and cousins were sent off to Churkaana, twenty miles away, which was a Sikh stronghold, and with an active RSS Sakha and surrounded by Hindu villages. The ladies took shelter in the Muslim neighbours’ Zenana, till such time as it would be safe for them to move. His father, uncles and all males above fifteen fortified themselves in the mill compound.
That was the last he saw of his father or any older male relatives. He learned that at fourteen, he was the head of the family, and his childhood was over.
When the mobs came and did not find the women, they surrounded the neighbour’s house. Their neighbour faced the mob and said that they would have to enter his zenana over his dead body, as his wife and daughters were inside. Thus, my grand mom-in-law was saved, and later reached India and found her family.
On 29th August, they were herded into open wagons of a goods train, the entire surviving Hindu and the Sikh population of the town, crammed together like cattle for slaughter, and sent off for the two-hour journey to the nearest border, Attari. The journey took three days. Frequent stops, going back and forth to avoid marauding mobs, not always successfully, playing dead to avoid death, after three days of terror, without food and water, they, at last, crossed the border. Finally, there was a feeling of freedom, freedom from fear. The survivors found the strength to scream, “Bole So-Nihal…Sat Sri Akal…Hindustan Zindabad”
Now, as the flight landed in Delhi, he was left wondering, isn’t this our homeland either? Then why did we have to leave Sangla?
This is a question that we all have to answer. Shia, Sunni, Catholic, Protestant, Bengali, Marathi, Brahmin, Jathav, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, do we all mark our territories and drive away everyone, who is anyway different? Where is our home? Where can we feel safe from persecution?
This time, however, Mr. Singh found his family safe and secure, and also learned in time to accept a member of an alien community as a member of his family, and that is how I came to be narrating this story.
Photos from the Internet.
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Soumya Mukherjee is an alumnus of St Stephens College and Delhi School of Economics. He earns his daily bread by working for a PSU Insurance company, and lectures for peanuts. His other passions, family, friends, films, travel, food, trekking, wildlife, music, theater, and occasionally, writing. He has been published in many national newspapers of repute. He has published his first novel, Memories, a novella, hopefully, the first of his many books. He blogs as well.