A One-Way Ticket From Quetta to Delhi

In Reena Nanda's From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story, the moment when Hindu Punjabis fled from Balochistan to Delhi is shown not as a tragedy foretold but as a shock as sudden as the earthquake had been.

There are many journeys in this book, through Punjab and Balochistan and Sind. There is one fateful journey by aeroplane, with a one-way ticket – the journey from Quetta to Delhi.

For most of us, Quetta was an earthquake, not a place. But it has meant so much for so many. At the ‘launch’ of the book in Delhi recently, the auditorium was filled with individuals who introduced themselves to each other with the simple words “I was in Quetta”.

Read this book to understand that for those people Quetta was not just a town –it was an assault on the senses. The colours of the trees and the hills, the fragrance of the earth, the taste of the naan, the strains of folk music and the tinkle of camel-bells, the tactile delight of silk and of soft wool…that evening in Delhi, these memories were shaken out from the mothballs by frail men and women with far-away eyes focused on a distant landscape.

Reena Nanda
From Quetta to Delhi
Bloomsbury India, 2018

Many had been through the trauma of 1935, when in a few minutes homes had been reduced to rubble, children orphaned. Twelve years later they were hit by something more terrifying than the earthquake – 1947. So many lives were affected by decisions made in distant Shimla. With shock and disbelief they realised that life could be in danger because of one’s religion. Many reluctantly agreed to migrate to the mulk of Hindustan, but their watan in Pakistan always had a special place in their hearts. They left material goods behind, but the searing sense of loss they suffered was about the land from which they exiled themselves. One thing they did carry with them was their language. Today the language unites, but the scripts divide, the political boundary separates. The boundary is not welcoming, though the people on both sides are. In Nanda’s account, the moment when the Hindu Punjabis fled from Balochistan to Delhi, is shown not as a tragedy foretold but as a shock as sudden as the earthquake had been.

The underlying strength of the book is the way it delineates the happy affinity of the Punjabis with the Balochis. Punjab’s bond with Balochistan is perhaps stronger and deeper than that between any other territorial units in the sub-continent.

We use the terms ‘North India’ and ‘South India’, even Eastern India; but I have not come across the use of ‘ Western India’ to describe Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. What was Western India is today’s Pakistan. Northern and Western India had close cultural bonds. ‘Punjabiat’, the common culture, is spread over a region transcending political boundaries. Punjab is the only region in South Asia named for a river, or rather a family of rivers. ‘Punjab’ was a subah under the Mughals, the core of an extensive empire under Ranjit Singh, which continued to be large as a British Indian province. But when one visualises its shrinking territory from then to 1966, and the teeming Punjab in North America, one wonders what or where ‘Punjab’ is? And which is the frontier? That with Haryana? That with Pakistan? That with Afghanistan?

Reena Nanda. Credit: Twitter/Bloomsbury India

Years ago, Prakash Tandon published the classic Punjabi Century. The book under review is in some senses a supplement to it, a woman’s account. In tracing the life of her mother, Nanda paints vignettes of two Punjab towns, Jhang and Lahore, as well as of Quetta; of the social life, unselfconsciously cosmopolitan, the lifestyle of vegetarian and devout women whose husbands rejoiced in meals of roast meat and tandoori roti shared with Pathan and British friends, of carefree childhoods and crowds of relatives. Decades later, sitting in large, ornate but empty living rooms in Delhi, the women compensated for their loneliness by obsessing with material goods, the men equally obsessively with acquiring property. YouTube brings hauntingly familiar songs into their homes, songs that united people in a way no national boundary can. But what has gone forever is the cloudless sky, the distant hills, the fragrances, the aroma of naan cooking in the tandoor, unbidden memories of which bring on waves of heimweh.                   

The mis-called ‘refugees’ were from four provinces in the then West Pakistan. But in the popular mind they were all subsumed under the term ‘Punjabi refugees’. They grit their teeth and got down to working with fiendish energy, with integrity, investing in a future. They did not wallow in stories of what they had lost, what they had suffered. Their exile in North India prepared the next generation to encourage their children to venture on the next exile –North America. It was only in 1998, half a century after Partition, that the pressure-cooker exploded with the publication of Urvashi Butalia’s book The Other Side of Silence .

Biographies are difficult to write. Nanda has done this before – in her superb biography (published in 2002) of a charismatic and enigmatic woman, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya.

But how hard it is to speak about people one loves, how much harder to write about them. She not only paints portraits, but also floods our vision with lost landscapes, the utter naturalness of friendship and kindness, of communities not divided by religion. Reading it made me feel suddenly grateful that India and Pakistan share so many landscapes, the open spaces of Kutch, the Thar desert, the fertile lands of Punjab, the Himalaya. Pakistan and India may be politically bounded, but South Asia is a culture.

And it is fitting that a woman whose father was in the army is the one to write

“The best monument to Partition would be to spread narratives of friendships

and bonds for future generations of Pakistanis and Indians.”

Nanda’s grandfather lived in a world that was wrenched apart. Maybe our grandchildren will put together yet another world?

Narayani Gupta is a historian.