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Shedding the Past as a Way of Embracing the Future

My family’s silence on their experiences after Partition was not about repressing, but looking ahead.

A photo of Elphinstone Street, Karachi, 1940

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.


The word Partition wasn’t heard much in my household when I was growing up. For one thing, though my parents had both experienced it in full intensity, by the 1970s it was something that had happened a long time ago. There were stray mentions of how life was for my parents when they were young, but I detected very little enthusiasm to talk about how Partition had robbed them of their youth. I was studying about India’s independence at school and could have gained from some first-hand information, but little was forthcoming.

What little trickled out in casual conversations was about Karachi, a much-loved city in which both had spent their younger days, or the odd bit of trivia – my father recalling that one could buy ‘Muslim water’ or ‘Hindu water’ on railway stations. Once I learnt that my grandmother, tasked with looking after her own children and those of a relative, had come across by a ship to Bombay and then taken the train to Delhi, all the while tightly clutching a cloth bag with money and jewellery in it.

The refugees from across the border were accommodated in camps on the outskirts of cities – in Bombay, this meant places like Kalyan, Mulund and Chembur, all distant and unconnected to the main centres of commercial activity. Tented accommodation was set up to provide rudimentary shelter to the newly-arrived hordes from Pakistan – I now realise it must have been the peak of the Bombay monsoon; how did they cope? The rich moved into sea-front flats in Marine Drive, because it reminded them of Clifton in Karachi, but the rest had to make do with either the camps or the munificence of a relative.

My father’s family got a small plot in Delhi and, because they could prove they had a business earlier, another tiny bit of land was given to construct a shop in the Sadar area.

What was life like in these camps in the early days, I wanted to know. There was no answer. The ship voyage must have been difficult, what with thousands packed on the vessel – yes, but no details were offered. Did you get to see or hear about the trains full of bodies that arrived across the border? Can’t remember. After a while I stopped asking.

Years later, I tried to analyse this memory lapse and my first thought was that it was their way of shutting down unpleasant recollections of a life uprooted and of the unfairness of it all. But I think I was wrong. It was not about forgetting to repress, but to shed and to look ahead. Partition was unfortunate, it was horrible, but there was no point becoming prisoners of the past. There was a life to be made.

Among the others who my father knew, either from Karachi or from the refugee trail, there were many who became ‘kattars’ (hardcore), the word that described their deep conviction about and hatred for those they felt had been responsible for their misfortune. This was a short list – Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru topped it. The vast numbers of Muslims were enemies too, but they had behaved in character. It was Gandhi and Nehru who had facilitated this disaster, of not just causing hardship to millions of Hindus but also tearing asunder ‘Mother India’.

This was (and is, to this day), a fairly common belief, and even as a young school boy I heard about it. But never at home. Somehow that virus never reached us. Again, it is only upon growing up and re-looking at what stared us in our face for years can one fully understand the implications of such a simple fact – my parents had resolutely kept any notion of communalism at bay.

Their methodology was simple. They neither brooded over Partition nor let us come into contact with those who did. There was no dearth of associations and organisations of former Karachi residents, of Punjabis and ex-refugees of religious and ‘reformist’ persuasion. They met not just to celebrate culture and tradition or even to network or help each other to get jobs or set up a business, but to carve out a space for themselves in their new home. Often it was to keep memories alive, a task that became more and more difficult with every passing year. But there was little question that some of these bodies were also being used for religious propaganda of the worst kind.

The Sindh high court at Kabootar Chowk, Karachi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Sindh high court at Kabootar Chowk, Karachi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For my father, they were all of the same ilk and he very well knew what that was. He had seen enough of it even in Karachi. He knew the message could be poisonous. Besides, his main goal, for himself and for his family, was assimilation. He had moved to Bombay, the great melting point where assimilation was easy and effortless, and despite a very difficult beginning (of which he happily recounted his days as a failed salesman, selling pens at Churchgate station), he had managed to get a job. Soon, my just married parents got sucked into Bombay’s cosmopolitan swirl and began building their new lives.

As I write this I think of the many people who tell me how their ageing parents talk about their lives in terms of Before and After Partition. Quite often, these stories consist of the vast properties they left behind and how things in their new home – India – were no patch on life in Lahore, Karachi or indeed the village they came from. My parents had little desire to revisit Karachi – when I went, they told me to swing by the Sadar area to see it, but little else. Some years ago my father wrote a piece about his younger life in the city which a Pakistani newspaper was happy to publish. But for all practical purposes, the past was another country.

I cannot say which is better or even healthier – moving on with nary a backward glance or remaining rooted in a memory that is dead and irretrievable. Certainly drawing lessons from the past is important, but wallowing in it can be debilitating. It holds one back and it incubates irrational anger and hatred. Partition narratives come in all sizes and shapes and nostalgia — and pain — are part of it, but the greater story is how millions of people made the journey and then became useful citizens of a new nation. Seventy years later, that is what really matters.