28 May 1997 National Special Issue: Partition

Sufferers & Survivors

These are the stories of women, children, everyman; of the pain and trauma of being uprooted--an account of our holocaust
Sufferers & Survivors
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NOT media magnates and prime ministers. Theirs are not the stories that constitute the real tragedy of the Partition. It's the stories of women, children, of everyman, that bring home the tragedy, the horror, the brutality of a subcontinental holocaust that left a million dead, ten million displaced, innumerable wounded, in its wake. Each statistic a person. Usually numb, bewildered. Almost always, apolitical. A victim rather than an agent of history. Sometimes, a child of six summers like Jeet Behn.

To coax her and innumerable others to look back at the violence, to fashion into words the fragmentary language of their pain, to visit the ruins of their memory; to somehow understand that limlnal period when all distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, were sometimes blurred, other times effaced, was my burden as chronicler, reporter.

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It wasn't easy. Seeing people crumble never is. Jeet Behn talked to me all morning, face impassive, voice drained of any emotion. Talked of seeing her mother killed, her father, uncle, cousins, grandmother slaughtered before her very eyes. Of being stabbed by a male cousin, being left for dead along with her kinswomen so she may escape dishonour. She showed me the 50-year-old kirpan-inflicted gash on her head. And then she remembered. It had happened today, almost at the same time, 50 years ago. And then she wept. It was a primal sound. The sound of loss. The cry of a human being before language is learned. I just stood there. I said nothing. There was nothing to say.

Not victims alone. One met perpetrators of the violence too. Like Kulwant Singh Sahni of Patiala. My own filmmaker friend's uncle. He went "hunting" with friends as a 16-year-old. Not fowl. Only Muslims. "Slaughtered whole trainloads of Muslims near Sirhind," boasted the frail 66year-old. Why? "Panth di pukar si" (It was the call of the panth), he replies. I tried to reconcile the stooping avuncular man he is now with the maniac he was then. I couldn't. And an oft-heard axiom revalidated itself: violence does not always have a vile face. The benign man next door could be a butcher.

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I remember the chill in my heart when the Punjabi cleaning woman in my Jaipur home happily revealed how as a young girl in Narnaul she'd looted Muslim homes abandoned by their panic-stricken inhabitants. Put her whole dowry together with that loot. "Saanu ki? Ladai te Hinduan di Mussalmanan naal si. Pehli baari Harijan hona saadey kaam aaya" (How did we care? The fight was between Hindus and Muslims. That was the one time our Harijan identity helped us). Did she ever feel guilty looting? "Kyoon?" she flashed back, "assi na lende koi hor le lenda." (Why? If I hadn't taken the stuff someone else would have). Those were times of massive onslaughts on the moral assumptions of everyday life. Yeatsian times: when things fall apart, the centre does not hold.

One uncapped a lot: simmering hatreds, searing sorrows, rank prejudice, talking to those who suffered and survived that inferno. And those that might visit it upon us yet again. I recall my cringing distaste at the heavy breathing, chest-thumping, nostril-flaring, unintelligent, inchoate communal ranting of B.L. Sharma. Remember subconsciously registering Uzra Apa's bristling defensiveness about her Mohajir status in Pakistan, her guarded put-downers on Hindu-Muslim marriages in India. But most of all I remember the look of sudden pain in Sardar Jafri's eyes when I asked him if he regretted staying on after witnessing the communal carnage of 1984, the division of hearts post-Babri Masjid. That's when he remembered and recited what he'd written in 1947. And remembered over and over again when history repeated itself here. I recognised the same sudden desolation within the septuagenarian Kaifi Sahib when he haltingly recounted how the Partition meant him missing on his mother dying. The man is old. His pain was young.

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There were moments of joy too. As when Kiran Gujral (Satish Gujral's wife) affectionately herded her Dynasty-style, designer-draped, diamond-dripping, family flock together saying "Ao bhai refugees. Photo khincha lo". She was happy. And proud. The past with all its trauma was behind them. The future stretched bright, glorious, before them. This was definitely one refugee story that had a happy ending. They'd made it.

Jeet Behn didn't. Hers was the despair Faiz summed up in those lines that are the veritable anthem of apocalypse: Yeh daagh, daag ujaala/yeh shabghazida sehr/tha woh intezaar jiska/yeh woh sehr to nahin (This dark, dappled light/this morning, yet overwhelmed by the night/what we waited for, anticipated/it wasn't this dawn: dark, dessicated).

The mobs came for Jeet Behn in 1947. She expected that. They came for her again in 1984. Nobody expected that. In the crushed glass gaze of those eyes I saw the reflection of the shattered hopes, the mangled masjids, the tumbled domes of our dreams. Of the fractured dawn that has been our collective fate.

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