Violence beyond borders: What the Partition narrative has taught me

By Priyam Moonka

The trains taking refugees across the newly created borders in 1947

For those of us who read extensively about the Partition of India and Pakistan, the pain that it comes with becomes a part of us. This pain, which is usually considered a thing of the past, has an overwhelming presence in all our days, and rightly so. It reflects in our choice of movies, books, conversations, and thoughts. This is how we attract more pain, knowingly and unknowingly, and before we know it, the pain that belonged to someone else becomes ours. But do we stop? We don’t. We cannot; letting go of what’s our own has never been easy. So everything that comes with this ownership continues to linger. As writers, we often romanticise pain, but let’s just say it is because we feel too much.

The series of events that led to, followed, and continue to follow the vivisection of the Indian Subcontinent evoke a sense of pain that feels very personal. It is this personal nature of my pain that has led me on a journey of documenting the stories of the survivors of the Partition in 1947 and their families. Violence in the name of religion has been common to all the Partition narratives that I have documented to date. Throughout this ongoing documentation process, I have seen myself transforming- new opinions, emotions, and perceptions of everything around me. It took an awfully ugly dream for me to realise the impact that the horrifying memories I was now privy to were having on me. In this dream, I find myself in the shoes of a victim of the terrors of communal violence. All of us have so many dreams, but we forget about most of them as soon as we wake up. But there are a few that stay with us forever. Allow me to take you through all that I saw, heard, and felt.

In that nasty, imaginary space in my head, I find myself in a room full of people. I know two of them. They are my friends from college. We are in my hometown. A discussion is on one between my friends and me and the other between everyone else. The three of us are like that. We’re always talking, giggling, and sometimes we forget about everything around us. This is one such case. We are in our own world. Suddenly, I feel a strange tension in the air. A split second later, I hear an unfamiliar voice. ‘RUN!’ Someone pushes me towards one of the two exits of the building in which we are stuck. My friends are nowhere to be seen. I do not think I’ll be able to make my way out alive. But somehow, I do. My house is around a hundred metres away on the same street. But I can not take this straight route; it is all but safe. There is no time to think. I take another route- longer but safer, and I run for my life. While I’m still running breathlessly, I realise that I’ve lost my way. I have come far from home. I am panting; I can’t do this anymore, but I want to live and so I keep going. I take a rickshaw. I am petrified; I want to be invisible. I ask the rickshaw-wala to hurry, to take me away from my horrifying surroundings. I pass by a street where fruit-sellers have their stalls lined up on both sides. I see a few ruffians approaching. They have knives in their hands; some of them have guns. One of them goes up to a fruit-seller, lifts his brawny arm to slit the poor man’s throat. The man dies with his eyes wide open. My heart hurts; I stretch my hand towards them as if trying to stop this, but in vain. I pull it back immediately. I do not want to be noticed. There were no questions asked, nothing was said. The soorma in his eyes had spoken for itself. The other goons follow suit, and in a heartbeat, they’re all gone-those innocent men who will never know what their fault was. As far as the human eye can see, I cannot spot a single man with a soorma and a skullcap. Not one of them was excused. I cry with my hands covering my mouth; I don’t want to be heard. This is unfair. They did not deserve to die. By now, I have understood that this is about religion.

 A Sikh being attacked by the mobs in 1984

On reflection, I recall an episode similar to this one. My grandfather had once told me about the communal riots that had happened in our hometown many years back. Hindus had been subjected to violence in Pakistan, and that had infuriated the Hindus in India. Hindu fundamentalists had burned down the houses and stores belonging to Indian Muslims, who were innocent and had nothing to do with what had happened in Pakistan. But the feeling of vengeance had taken over, erasing the line between right and wrong, good and bad. My grandfather had also mentioned going to a refugee camp that was set up for a community of Muslim fruit-sellers who had lost their homes. The contents of the dream were now making sense. 

The rickshaw keeps moving. My eyes witnessed a sight, ghastly and barbaric beyond measure. A middle-aged Sikh is being forced to cut his hair. His eyes are full of tears, his heart is full of misery; he seems lifeless. In losing his Kesh-symbolic of his devotion to God, he is losing himself. The world stops making sense. Is this what religion is for? Does religion decide who lives and who does not? This world, devoid of humanity, should cease to exist. All these men with hearts of stone should cease to exist.

It took little thinking to comprehend why something like this was a part of the nightmare. In 1984, reason had lost its way when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, both Sardars. The Sikh community in the rest of the country had nothing to do with it, and yet thousands of them were mercilessly burnt alive, killed, raped, murdered. The world calls it the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. Riot is not the right word, massacre and genocide are. A few of my interviewee’s families had lived through both- the Partition and the 1984 Sikh Massacre. Their stories, and so many others that I have heard, read and watched, have stayed with me and continue to make my heartache and my blood boil.

Victims of the violence in 1948

What happens to me, a Hindu, in the dream? I am still alive. I feel like all of a sudden, ‘A Hindu’ has become my new identity, and it has started to seem like my only identity. Should I thank my stars because being a Hindu would probably save my life, or curse myself for being a mere spectator while there is so much suffering around? Before I can decide, I hear a loud thud. A few of those wicked, bloodthirsty men stopped my rickshaw. They get in. I tremble in fear. I try to explain that I am a Hindu. How do I prove it? I show them my Durga locket. They pay no heed. These inhuman creatures do not wait to ask one’s religion, only destruction quenches their thirst. This cannot be the end. I am so young. My entire life is ahead of me. I want to go home. I cry; I scream. But in the end, violence and hatred spare no one. Not a Muslim;not a Sikh; not a Hindu. Where there is hatred, extremism and the motive of destruction, no one is safe, whichever religion they may belong to. 

Another interviewee reading to me a few lines from his book in Urdu

As I think about the relevance of the dream, and how accurately it connects various events from the past and the present and gives them an order that makes sense, I am not surprised. It is a perfect example of how what we consume, in any form, constantly shapes our subconscious mind. Every time I listened to someone share their story with me, I remember being in two different time zones at the same time-the 1920s/30s/40s and the present. Selective memory plays a significant role here. My interviewees would not remember what they’d had for breakfast that morning, but would still go on for hours about an incident that took place seventy years back. Tears would roll down their cheeks for the nth time, because of the same poignant memory of an event, decades old. Similarly, out of everything that I have heard, read, and seen over the years, my subconscious mind has chosen to become the permanent home to a few elements that I now believe will stay with me forever, and that is evident in the experience that I have shared. Memory is fascinating; I am constantly learning and unlearning, remembering and forgetting, forming new ideas and discarding old ones.I find myself destroying the borders that once existed in my mind, and that is the most I may do. If only destroying ‘actual’ borders was this easy. But these borders are temporary, unlike memories, which are borderless and become permanent once passed down. 

Each time someone shares with me their story, which has stayed in the depths of their heart forever, my heart becomes fuller. It becomes heavier with gratitude for the gift of memory, the most prized possession of all. And what do I have to offer in return? The promise of safekeeping. 

Author bio:

Priyam is an independent researcher and an aspiring writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. Through her writing, she condemns violence in the name of religion. She is a history buff who loves to read and study South Asian history and culture. She believes that there are umpteen stories around each of us, waiting to be found and told. Her work is an attempt to find these stories that were always around, yet unheard or forgotten.

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The Palmystery of Homecoming

By Ayesha Begum

The rehearsal of loss is almost always accompanied by an unanticipated turn of events; it catches you unaware, and you may find yourself chronicling the different stages of grief. Stage 1 is denial, where you reckon the futility of a seeming sense of wariness in the face of the cataclysmic turn of events. Stage 2 is more visceral where almost everyone experiencing loss resorts to nostalgia after bouts of melancholia and copious shedding of tears. And then there’s stage 3, of (bargained) serendipity when you recognise the bitter-sweet taste of memory and how life-will-always-go-on. 

Earlier this year, losing my grandmother after prolonged months of illness, I realised how almost involuntarily, I had begun to partake in collective grief, when India was grappling with the crisis of the second wave of the pandemic. My nani, fortunately, didn’t die of covid, but her demise was still tragic on the personal front. Coupled with this loss, was an unforeseeable event, which made me return back home to Siliguri (a small but bustling town in North Bengal) after almost a decade. 

For me, whenever I talk about leaving a city behind, I always run the risk of sounding a little too sentimental as if losing a loved one. But my story begins with the third stage of grief, when the bitter-sweetness of memory had amalgamated; turned tangible one evening as the intoxicating whiff of the bitter fruit, or the ripe Palm fruit entered my nostrils and enveloped my senses.

It was just the day before Janmasthami when my father had got hold of a pulpy football-sized Palm fruit or what is known as Taal in this part of the country. Ma raised a hysteric outcry of disbelief at the alarming price (she almost always does this) at which Baba got home the Taal. But given the cultural association of the food with the festival of Janmasthami, the increased rates were expected. It is quite amusing to see how certain foods have a special cultural and religious connotation. While growing up, I remember how many of my Hindu-Bengali friends used to get Taal-er-bora or sweet fritters in their Tiffin, post the day of Janmasthami. It was then I realised how this fruit is almost sacrosanct when it comes to the festival of Janmasthami. The sweet delicacies, however, have had a strong connection with the public memory of Bengalis at large, irrespective of their religious identity. Growing up in a Bengali-Muslim household, mine was no exception.

The ripe fruit in particular has a special association with my childhood. And when I say that, I recount there have many seasons left behind when I tasted the innumerable variety of sweet delicacies made out of Taal, like the Taal- er –pithaTaal- er- ruti, and my personal favourite, Taal-er-bora. I still gloat over the fact that the boras(sweet fritters) in my home are the tastiest because it’s the softest kind that I have ever had; that it retains its softness even after some days. The Palm in its ripe form has always been a seasonal variety fruit, found in abundance during the Bhadro-Ashin months corresponding to the Bengali calendar. But now with the large-scale availability of fridges in almost all middle-class households, the pulp, if properly refrigerated, retains a longer shelf-life.

The Taal, in its ripe form, unlike most other common fruits cannot be eaten in its natural form, but interestingly its pulp can be used to make a variety of dishes. The way the pulp is transformed is an alchemy of sorts. First, the outer covering is removed with hands, and inside this socket are the seeds with a large fibrous covering. The fruit is washed thoroughly and then it goes through a rigorous labour-intensive deseeding process by grating it against a wire mesh sieving utensil and the pulp is slowly extracted. The pulp is then poured in another utensil, mixed with generous spoons of sugar, and put on a low flame while stirring it continuously. This ritual of cooking the pulp over low heat as it thickens and changes its colour to a tint of brickish-orange is a rite-of-passage in itself and requires the labour of love. The viscous pulp is then used to make the sweet offering by mixing it with flour or milk. Sadly, despite its popularity in Bengali households, its demand is increasingly fading. You will almost always never find these dishes served along with the more popular sweets even in the local sweetshops but you may perhaps sight it during the Melas or some Pujo.

Moving back to my story, returning back home after a chequered journey of changing cities and moving out to a 1BHK rented apartment, finding myself suddenly, in the heady-presence of the strong aroma-filled palm fruit was a subtle but deeply moving experience. It was as if somehow, my olfactory nerve had transported me to yesteryears but my memory somehow seemed to turn into a cul-de-sac, opening to that one particular scene before my eyes. I would like to believe that this is not a redacted memory but the scene somehow shifts to that one evening in my maternal grandmother’s house, where a large part of my childhood was spent. Seated in the dining room were my two aunts filling the palm dough with grated coconut, folding the edges of the pitha with precision, under the guided supervision of my hawk-eyed NaniNani,though embodying the figure of the matriarch, had by then almost partially retired from the kitchen but retained her pernickety attitude about food and its flavour. She was particularly fond of Taal and would always nudge my uncle to get it, often to the displeasure of my aunts. Belonging originally to a small village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, she married at a very early age and mothered 8 children, before Nana migrated to Kolkata with his entire family. Nani in the last few years began to miss her village but given her health and other circumstances, she returned back to her village only with her death where she rests peacefully under the shade of many palm trees.

Ma, quite like her own mother has always had a soft corner for Taal and with time her hands uncannily resemble Nani’s. She retains the deftness she inherited from her genes making magic that we savour even today. Tasting the sweet delicacies after so many years evoked the absent presence of Nani but strangely it wasn’t the nostalgia-instilled moping sadness, but the fortuity of life where we stumble upon a silver lining or end up inventing it. Reflecting on myself and the kind of fast-paced lifestyle I am accustomed to, often surviving on Maggi or sometimes skipping a meal, thinking of taking the ordeal of making those dishes someday would require a leap of faith. Writing about it is easier. Or perhaps not.

Author Bio

Ayesha Begum: She is a part-time reader and full-time dreamer, always thinking about the grand possibility of the third story while wading through the second. Originally based out of Kolkata, her migratory experiences since a very early age have enabled her to make a home out of everywhere she has been. She is also a mom to two sassy cats and is currently an English educator at Vedantu.