Sarhad Ke Uss Paar (The Other Side Of The Border)
The agony of partition.
“You joke about my history
Because I know it means nothing to you.
But how do I make you understand that we
Are all products of our ancestors
And not just their genes
But their culture
I have a piece of Ravi
Surging through my veins
That my great grandfather crossed
The ensuing massacre
He was spared from
But the pain of losing his home
Still makes a dwelling inside of me.”
One of the earliest stories that I remember hearing from my parents was that of the Partition. When I was young, the Partition seemed like a piece of fiction, something that my father made up, where he used his creative genius and added a lot of Bollywood masala into the gaps of the story. As I grew older, I realized that in most gatherings with Punjabi friends or relatives, the Partition would invariably crawl into the discussion. It was like a looming figure that dominated a huge part of my family history. It took me a lot of time to finally be able to grasp it. My cousins and I shared these stories about our grandparents with each other and every time that we did, it felt like we were handing over a family heirloom to them, one that was very heavy and cumbersome to keep safe, we gave it to them to touch, hold and feel and then we promptly took them back and wrapped them up in fine cloth to cushion and preserve them.
My great-grandfather was a landlord in Thall, North West Frontier Province in what is now Pakistan. Since he had whiff of what was to happen, he had sent his wife and my grandfather to India before all the violence began, but many families were not so fortunate. He stayed back because he owed some money to a friend, when all the difficult times had begun, his friend told him to stay back in “Pakistan” and he also offered to get him married off to his sister, but my great grandfather said that he had a family waiting for him back in “India” and so he came back. He came back? Is that even accurate? He was one of the millions who had lost everything, their homeland, their homes, their livelihoods and most of all, they had lost all sense of everything that was familiar to them.
“You can laugh at my history
Of blood and gore
And call it nothing
But it still rises inside me
When no one’s looking.
When I tell you about my history
Thall and Talwali their language
You say to me
“That’s a funny name.”
And my bones twist at your ignorance
Of my heritage
That reeks of only memories
From the other side of the border.”
In my opinion the most fascinating story written around the Partition is “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hassan Manto. It is a satire aimed to describe the absolute mayhem that common people faced after the Partition was announced. Most did not even know where the Radcliffe line went through which divided one country into two. As the story goes, India and Pakistan had decided to ‘exchange lunatics’. The central character is Bhishan Singh, also called Toba Tek Singh by his asylum inmates because of his preoccupation of whether his native place Toba Tek Singh was now in India or Pakistan. The story ends with him lying down in no man’s land between the border and he refused to move from there; “There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
It is a poignant piece that helps somewhat concretize the immense sense of grief that family histories of refugees are full of, it also aids those who are trying to fill the gaps between the losses that their families faced and documented history.
When I started getting interested in this particular period of history, I wanted to trace its various representations. I found stories like Toba Tek Singh, I found poems written by poets like W.H. Auden and I stumbled across numerous movies, but what really boggled my mind was that our syllabi (at least the ones I have come across/read about) rarely mention the personal memories of those who witnessed the partition, let alone talk about them, they fail to even acknowledge them. They only talked about the political history surrounding it. All they did was reduce people’s stories, their lives and their family histories to numbers- to the number of deaths, the displaced and the raped. That really bothered me. Unless a student was genuinely interested to know more, the syllabus doesn’t even introduce them to the painstaking work of many artists, poets, oral historians and filmmakers.
There was also a larger process that the alienation of the essence of the Partition in textbooks had set forth. I had my family history to delve into, to make my study of it truly three dimensional, but so many others in my class did not.
One land, which was previously one country, was now two, because of which began the process of losing important parts of centuries of shared history and culture. This started a dangerous process of ‘Othering’. I spent many days pondering over questions like, “Just because Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, does that make it a little less ‘Indian’?” Who has the prerogative over Punjabi? Whenever I would hear a Pakistani speak it, I found little difference in the Punjabi that I had grown up hearing.
We had the power to divide the land, people migrated based on their religion, the army was divided, money too, but what I am really trying to understand is how do we begin dividing non-tangible things like memories, like language and it leaves me flabbergasted as to how our governments are even fighting about the legacy of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Every time someone brings up the Partition, I make it a point to share my personal history that creates its larger one, my micro evidence that means something to its humongous legacy. I show them the few documents that my father has gathered related to it, but most of all, I share a part of me that I cannot erase or modify, no matter how much any force tries to make me.
“And I tell you again
To laugh at my history
While I gather the remnants of it
To keep it safe.”