How did they leave? Why did they leave? Did they consider going back? What was the trek across the border like? How did they make it out safely given so many others died? Did they encounter any trains laden with corpses or was their exit planned and easy? What was the transition like in their ‘new homes’? How did they go from having nothing to establishing a full-fledged business and life in India? There are just so many unanswered questions…
It’s been 70 years since my grandparents packed up and left their hometown in Sindh. 70 years! That’s a long, long time… so long in fact that three out of my four grandparents are not around anymore. It is the time in which an entire generation has disappeared (or is slowly disappearing)… a time in which our phones can now do amazing things beyond just make calls and the time in which the Internet has been invented and completely revolutionised our lives. During this time empires have disintegrated, walls have fallen and new countries born. Yet in this time, the stalemate at our northwestern border, the hostility and the animosity that has dogged two neighbouring countries, has remained unchanged… it’s almost as though that part of partition and political rhetoric continues to live… in 1947!
My grandparents, who made it across that very border one sudden evening in 1947, are not around to tell us about their experiences anymore unfortunately, pass on their stories and regale the next generation of our family with their tales from their original hometown. With them has disappeared a part of our family, our tradition, our culture and our history… something that we will never be able to get back or truly know about. For my children and their generation, Sindhis will be what we are, a disappearing language spoken sparsely at home, and Sindh will be a fabled land in a country that we can never see… a part of a ‘hostile’ neighbour rather than a land where their ancestors came from.
As we approach 70 years of independence, there is a growing realisation in both India and Pakistan that my grandparents’ generation is disappearing, and with them firsthand recollections of the events of partition. This is the generation that lived through it all and saw it all firsthand! And yet for some reason – emotional or otherwise – their stories were never told and never recorded. The focus was always on the politics of the partition, and not on the people that went through it.
How did they leave? Why did they leave? Did they consider going back? What was the trek across the border like? How did they make it out safely given so many others died? Did they encounter any trains laden with corpses or was their exit planned and easy? What was the transition like in their ‘new homes’? How did they go from having nothing to establishing a full-fledged business and life in India? There are just so many unanswered questions… to which now we will never have all the answers or facts anymore.
I missed the chance to document my grandparents’ experiences. Being away from India and in a demanding full-time job prevented me from truly digging in to hear their stories and get some of these questions answered, particularly as I became a keener observer of history and more interested in my family’s origins and stories. Besides, like most other people, I never expected them to go so soon… ‘there’s always going to be time’, I thought. And so, by the time I started seriously looking into it, it was already too late. What I did then start to do was to quiz my uncles and aunts, some of whom were born just before and just after partition to hear their stories, or their versions of the stories… Did my grandparents ever talk about partition? Did they tell them stories of how they made it across the border? Do my aunts and uncles remember anything about it?
And unfortunately, the answer to most of these questions is no. My grandparents remained generally tight-lipped about their experiences during partition. Growing up, we would hear the odd story from my grandma about their house in Hyderabad, Sindh, their horse carriage (Wooaah! They had a horse carriage!), and the good stuff that she missed… we never, ever heard about their pain and of the difficulties of packing up and leaving at short notice, of struggling to set up and start afresh in a new country, of shuttling through refugee camps in Baroda and then Bombay… hardly ever. Maybe it was an emotional scar that never healed? Maybe they hoped they would go back? Maybe it was so difficult that they never wanted to recall it ever again or maybe, just maybe, they had moved on and built a happy and prosperous life in their new home that they never ever wanted to think about the past again – it was just too painful. Not talking about it may have just been their way of protecting their family and not burdening them their own difficulties and traumas.
Because surely, it must not have been easy! But in all my early years, we never, ever heard of the difficulties they faced… and oddly neither did their children. Now, with them gone, and most of the vestiges of our culture slowly disappearing, I’m just sad that my son will never know about his background and his true roots. I don’t read or write in Sindhi (although I made a brief attempt at learning the language in 2010); I hardly speak the language at home and have little or no connection with my true ‘culture’ (whatever that is)… as I said before, Sindhi for him is going to be a language that is spoken at home infrequently and Sindhis are going to be those funny speaking, papad eating, stingy businessmen portrayed in Bollywood movies.
Who knows the true reason of my grandparents’ lifetime silence about their partition experiences; but in doing so they unknowingly left a large void in our past that we will never be able to fill or know about. Maybe I am just nostalgic or maybe there is genuine regret there… or maybe I am just hopeful that the next 70 years will not be spent living in the past, in hostility and hatred and those that want to visit their past or see the place of their origins will be given the chance to do so!
As author Saaz Agarwal puts it in her piece for The Wire, ‘After Partition, Sindhis Turned Displacement Into Determination and Enterprise’ – “Nowadays, there is widespread regret for the loss of the mother tongue. Some are bemused by occasional spurts of yearning for a lost indefinable something; some assign their existential crises to ‘trans-generational’ partition trauma. And some are surely gathering the courage to look beyond the shaming stereotype and feel proud of their seamless integration into global communities and of the numerous Sindhi refugee success stories that abound.”