My Grandparents Survived The Partition, And When I Dug Into Family Memories Of That Time…

As a 3rd generation Partition survivor, I've heard of how my grandmothers and other women of the family carried poison to end their lives in case of 'anything awful' happening while fleeing their homes.

As a 3rd generation Partition survivor, I’ve heard of how my grandmothers and other women of the family carried poison to end their lives in case of ‘anything awful’ happening while fleeing their homes.

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings”– Henry Ward Beecher

As a Punjabi born and brought up in Delhi, I have often come across stereotypical comments about my community being obsessed with money, property, and show off. Although over a period of time instead of it being a stereotype about us, it became a well deserved truth in my own head as well, and I fully accepted it with no questions asked.

Until one day as a part of my research for a Heritage walk on Partition of India and its impact on the people of Punjab, I came across a chapter in the book Capital by Rana Dasgupta.

Rana in that chapter on Partition talked about the plight of the ‘Punjabi culture’ which the Partition refugees had brought to Delhi. He called it the ‘post traumatic culture’.

He says, “It is the diametric opposite, in fact, of the Sufi outlook that so influenced the culture of this part of the world in the previous times, for which only the inner life was authentic and everything else- power, money, possessions- was to be treated with detachment. Things had turned upside down. The population somehow resembled one of those trauma patients who adopts a personality opposite to their own so as not to be susceptible to the same hurt again.”

This article urged me to give up my superficial views about my community, and develop a deeper understanding as to why we are, the way we are. This also resulted in a journey down memory lane, as part of which I started to research about my community’s history. I also searched for stories about my grandparents’ life at that time from people who knew them, or revisited my own memories about them, especially with regards to Partition of 1947 .

I took help of art forms like poetry, books, stories, plays, songs, or paintings as tools to recreate in my head the life experiences of my ancestors who experienced the Partition, none of who are alive now to answer my questions. So what started out as a research for a heritage walk, soon turned into a personal quest to understand my own family history.

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“When our hearts turn to our ancestors, something changes inside us. We feel part of something greater than ourselves.”Russell M. Nelson

A sense of uprooted-ness

Prof Priya Satia (of Stanford University) talks about how Partition created this Divided Self or the Split Self.

Similarly oral historian Aanchal Malhotra writes in her book Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, “Apart from a physical displacement, there would have been a traumatic mental displacement, a sudden uprootedness, an unlearning and relearning of identity.”

Very often when I would sit with my paternal grandmother and talk about Delhi (her hometown since 1947) v/s her childhood hometown of Lyallpur (now in Pakistan, and known as Faisalabad) she would often say in Punjabi “Lyallpur warga koi sheher hi nahin si” (there was no city like my Lyallpur). So the discussion would often then move towards whether she ever wanted to go back and visit or stay in Lyallpur? The answer to which was a long drawn silence, or a sense of ambivalence about being here or going back there.

It all made sense when many years later I heard Pakistani writer Anam Zakaria’s interview wherein she talks about the partition refugees, and the fact that a majority of them don’t know where they belong, here or to the homeland they had to abandon. This confusion, she says, is their only truth.

This ambivalence and refusal to choose is the central theme in Manto’s story Toba Tek Singh. In the story, Bishan Singh’s character, a lunatic refuses to choose between the two countries and stubbornly stands between the Wagah and the Atari border in the no man’s land.

Driven out of our land

The same idea gets reiterated in Ismat Chugtai’s story Roots wherein her leading character Amma asks “what’s this strange bird called our land? Tell me where’s that land? This is the place where one grew up in body and mind. If this cannot be one’s own land, then how can the place where one simply goes and settles down for a couple of days be one’s own? And who knows whether one won’t be driven out from there as well?”

Today I can empathize with my grandparents’ sense of dilemma with regards to the ‘real homeland’.

(The only pre Partition era photograph of my paternal grandmother Harbans Kaur Arora, clicked in Sialkot, now in Pakistan)

Making a life in a new, alien land

Since my maternal grandparents had passed away long before my mother got married, I had to elicit their stories from her.

I’m told that my maternal grandfather (Krishan Lal Verma) opened a ‘temporary cinema hall’ called Krishna Talkies when they moved from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) to Delhi post Partition in 1947. It was a very ambitious project, given that they had come here empty handed as refugees. He bought a double projector for his cinema hall and the last film to be screened there was Nagin (1954) starring Vyjayantimala.

The opening of the temporary cinema hall was only enabled due to a big sacrifice made by my maternal grandmother (Rajrani Verma), who willingly gave up all her gold jewelry to give wings to my grandfather’s dreams and let them soar high. In fact my mother and her siblings were famously called “cinema walon ke bachche”! (i.e. children of the cinema hall owner). He died very young at the age of 42, otherwise he would have definitely owned a few permanent cinema halls in Delhi, given his big vision and entrepreneurial skills.

In my view my grandparents didn’t allow the trauma of Partition to weigh them down; rather they harnessed all their pain and anger to fuel their dreams; as they say “take your broken heart and turn it into art.”

Life in the refugee camp in Delhi

Similarly, I’m told that while living in the refugee camp in Delhi, soon after coming from the Punjab in Pakistan, my paternal grandfather (Jagan Nath Arora) refused to live on government support, and started to do whatever menial chores were available in order to feed his family. It was a real life example for me on self respect and resilience in the face of hardships.

I was told by my parents, that many relatives in our extended family who had been doing very well for themselves in Pakistan, became paupers overnight due to the Partition. They were never able to re-achieve the same level of success and prosperity across the border here in India. No wonder that a lot of people in my father’s generation have had no access and inclination towards arts and cultural pursuits. ‘Survival’ was the main concern, for their parents’ as well as for their generation.

It was this urge to rebuild what was lost, that made the Punjabi refugee community in Delhi into a very industrious one.

Rana Dasgupta sums it up well in his book Capital. “This is because ‘resolving’ trauma is not the only way to prevent it from incapacitating you. You can also use its energy to fuel an entirely different, and far more vigorous response. You can become- since all of history, since all the world, is a battlefield- a warrior.”

(One of the few belongings carried across the border by my paternal grandparents, an iron lock and key, that we still hold close to us as a memory of their life in Akalgarh, now in Pakistan.)

“The object expands to transcend its own physicality, creating a tangible link to an intangible place or state of being”- Aanchal Malhotra (artist and an oral historian).

Surviving horrific violence against women

My grandparents survived what was the biggest forced human migration of the 20th century, a time when over 14 million people moved across the borders, and over 1.5 million died in communal violence. With over seventy five thousand women being raped and several thousand killed by their own families to save them from dishonor.

I have heard how my grandmothers and other women of the family carried poison with them, to end their lives in case of any ‘awful happening’ while fleeing their homes. This story shared by my mother about her mother and aunts filled me with a sense of horror, and brought alive the words of Amrita Pritam’s heart wrenching Punjabi poem on Partition “Aj akhan Waris Shah nu” wherein she says

“When one daughter of Punjab did cry
You filled pages with songs of lamentation,
Today millions of daughters cry
O Waris to speak to you.”

An understanding of the ‘money minded’ Punjabi community

In hindsight looking at my grandparents’ lives, and what the Partition and its repercussions meant for them and our community at large, a lot of their not so palatable behaviours or thought processes make perfect sense to me.

One is the Punjabi community’s so called ‘obsession’ with money and materialistic things, because in those ruthless times money was the only thing that worked to save a loved one’s life. As in my father’s case who was unwell at the time of the Partition, a 3 or 4 year old child. My grandfather paid a huge portion from his meagre savings to fetch a seat for my grandmother (Harbans Kaur, whose pic is above) next to the driver, so that she could comfortably carry my father in her lap on a long journey across the border.

Or be it their very vocal condemnation of India’s new neighbor, because for them, creation of that country was synonymous with losing everything they called ‘home’.

Or the miserly nature of my paternal grandmother around money or food items like ghee, milk, and fruits, because there was a long time when all she could feed herself and her children were some dry chapattis with nothing but salt.

Thus understanding their lives allowed me to put in perspective a lot of the unresolved questions I had about myself, my family, our community, and even our subcontinent. Most of these questions evade easy answers, as the issues concerned are rather layered.

Bruce Feiler, in an article for the New York Times, summarizes a study about the resilience of children: “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. [It] turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

I believe there are several other aspects of my grandparents’ lives, imprints of many of which I’m also subconsciously carrying forward. They might slowly reveal themselves to me over the years. Yet having unraveled this one very challenging phase, from my ancestors’ life journeys, has left me humbled, and filled me with a sense of deep admiration for them.

Nitika, a 3rd generation Partition survivor

Image source: a still from the film Tamas

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About the Author


Nitika, a history & heritage researcher, is one of the Co-founders of Darwesh (a heritage walks based organization) along with Yuveka Singh and Madhavi Menon. She can be reached at [email protected] read more...

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