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One Generation Trauma?

There's a lesson in Partition that may hold little meaning for our children

One Generation Trauma?
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Partition came to my father's village like flood waters from a collapsed bund, waves of refugees coursing through it in either direction, creating a swirl that uprooted and destroyed even as it muddled everything. For several weeks, my father tells me, his village, Khalra--in Lahore district, part of the badlands of Majha-had held its collective breath while light years away an award was deliberated whose karmic pencil threatened to redefine their lives. Khalra was largely Hindu, and my grandfather and his three brothers, a bullying quartet, the dominant pandits of the area. As in virtually every village across the subcontinent, the local rules of communal harmony and hierarchy were in place: and in small Khalra the quartet were among the key arbiters of the peace. In any case, it seems, while there was an uneasiness about impending dislocations there was no fear of real trouble.

Also, curiously, the worries and hopes such as they had were not of an unmixed kind. They wanted their village to be part of Hindu India, but what of Lahore? Closer than Amritsar, a mere 18 miles away, it was the grand urban shangrila where everyone headed for business, refinement and pleasure. It was not unusual for the village youngsters to, on impulse, jump on to the saddles of their cycles and trundle off to Lahore for a day or two. My father recalls that it seemed far closer than even the 18 miles because the cantonment would appear much before, generating the excitement of arrival. In comparison, Amritsar was a hick town. To get India and lose Lahore was a tough proposition. To cede both would've been catastrophic. As it turned out, Radcliffe's finger barely squiggled Khalra in, leaving it literally on the border: plumb in the battle zone each time India and Pakistan go to war, and in times of peace the playfield of smugglers.

In the monsoon of 1947, it became one of the many gateways to heaven and hell, depending on which way you were headed. My father tells me that the village ensured that the local Mohammedans-for some reason he never refers to them as Muslims--were safely escorted across the canal. Some families even hid in our ancestral home, till it became cleat there was to be no forgiving or salvation. But the logic of mutual safety failed to extend itself beyond the borders of the village. Especially as the weeks wore on and straggling lines of refugees began to intersect the landscape. At Khalra, my father tells me, the villagers set up committees and groups to feed and house the incoming caravans of Hindus; and, more clandestinely, groups to massacre the outgoing caravans of Mohammedans. Both apparently functioned with smooth efficiency. A studious, introverted teenager the most dramatic thing my father did during those weeks was to act as a courier for the local RSS shakha, transporting a dozen grenades in a bag slung on the handlebar of his cycle, crucially past a checkpoint of the Baluch regiment. He also remembers being taught how to remove a grenade pin and fling it; a lesson he was to re-learn years later when he enlisted in the Indian Army.

I doubt my two siblings know any of the above. They know that both sides of our family suffered Partition, but it is not an event that has ever impinged on our lives, and perhaps they've never bothered to enquire. Does it mean then that Partition is essentially a one generation trauma, its scars limited and transient? Is it possible that the defining event of one generation can become completely peripheral for the next? Clearly it can. I cannot imagine the Emergency--which in a way was the defining event of my generation--holding much meaning for my daughters or their peers, children of the eighties and after. Of course the Partition cannot be compared with the Emergency: after all death and exile are of a different order from temporary incarceration and vasectomy. But the point being pursued is the same. That of generational amnesia. And the further judgemental query: is this good or bad?

Our survey among under-25s has demonstrated the startling levels of ignorance among the young. The purists among us are bound to gag with rage. The responses of the young insult both the sufferers of Partition and the martyrs of Jallianwalla Bagh. Yet there is a school of thought that perceives this as a good sign. It reckons that the present must steer clear of the traumatic colouring of the past, and shape itself without historical prejudice. Anything else, they claim, is fruitless sentimentalism. What is to be gained by recounting stories of gruesome rape and murder, thereby cutting open new wounds and stoking communal passions? There is some merit in their arguments. After all, why should a period of madness, a huge aberration, continue to hold us at its mercy?

But on the flip side, forgetting can be a dangerously blanket exercise, burying the good with the bad. What we need is understanding. Unconfronted, unnamed, ununderstood, our fears and our past can unexpectedly raise their talons in ugly ways. In our family, we grew up mostly without any taboos and prejudices of food, drink, gender, caste, creed, religion. Except one. The idea of marrying a Mohammedan was anathema. Ditto for my wife's family. It was the one legacy of Partition that insidiously crept into our lives. But in one generation we've shed that. In our lives it is no issue. My daughters can marry who they will. Defined by the Emergency, I will probably hand on a different neurosis: dishing them sermons on the critical virtues of free expression.

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