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Memoirs of Migration: A Personal Essay

By Numair Khan

Lahore is a city of beautiful architecture and excellent cuisine, yet few know of its diversity, both in the past and present. In Lahore, there is an old road called Temple Road. It gets this name from a Sikh temple (gurudwara) that used to be on the side of the road. During August 1947, a train arrived at Lahore, carrying Muslim migrants from the other side of Punjab. However, when the train’s doors opened, it was discovered that all of the passengers were dead. The Muslims on the train had been dismembered, disfigured, and mutilated beyond repair. At the sight of this, the local Lahori Muslims were infuriated. They proceeded to the nearby gurudwara, desiring vengeance for their unknown brothers and sisters. They surrounded the temple and spread oil everywhere and set it alight with all of the Sikh worshippers inside who were unaware of what was taking place outside. Not much later, the tale of the arsonists’ “achievement” spread among the Muslims of the city. Many were elated, and others were horrified. All that remained were the charred bodies which had previously been engaged in worship. The temple and the city of diversity was gone, such was the horror of Partition.

The present diversity of Lahore comes in large part from the people who migrated to the city at the time of Partition. My paternal grandfather was not born in Lahore, but he ultimately made Lahore his home. He was an Urdu-speaking Pathan from a small town called Farrukhabad in what was then the United Provinces. During his early life, he lived in many places across British India. Around the time of Partition, he was studying at Glancy Medical College in Amritsar. The principal was a Sikh man who adored him, though the man’s name has been lost to time. The Principal used to call him ‘Kaka’ (son in Punjabi), and he would always look out for him. During the turmoil in the final days preceding Partition, my grandfather’s friend Rahat was killed by his own roommate. Sensing what was coming, the Principal told my grandfather to flee for Lahore, but he would not listen. One day, a mob of Hindus came to the college looking for Muslims to massacre. Finally, my grandfather was swayed to leave Amritsar, and he quickly left his dorm for the train station as his principal held off the mob.

As he ran, however, bullets flew past him. Despite being shot at, he made it to the train station and ultimately to Lahore. After the partition, he completed his degree at King Edward Medical College in Lahore. He was joined in Lahore by his mother and sister, and his father stayed behind in what was now an independent India. My pardada (paternal great-grandfather) remained there despite the fact that his own cousin, Sultan Mohammad Khan, had been murdered in front of Imperial Bank Chandni Chowk. My pardaada wanted to protect his property, some of which had been in the family for nearly two hundred years. In addition to the issue of the property, he did not agree with the notion of Pakistan. “This country you call Pakistan is a nation built by hooligans. It will never last!”, he would say to my grandfather while visiting his family in Lahore. 

My maternal grandfather (nana) was a Punjabi-Kashmiri man from Amritsar. At the age of thirteen, his family left Amritsar for Lahore. While the politics of Tehreek-i-Pakistan and Partition were unfolding, there were many people who thought that Partition was a senseless concept that could never occur. My nana’s headmaster at school was a Hindu man who thought in a similar manner. He used to say that the Muslims would remain in Amritsar unharmed, and the Partition would never happen. Nana’s family ultimately left in the months prior to partition, but they did not escape the violence wholly. As they were leaving Amritsar, Nana saw his headmaster’s body lying in the street.

One of my grandfather’s brothers came to Lahore alone by train. At the time, it was very common for trains to be attacked by members of opposing faiths. While he was aboard the train, it came to a halt. Hindu and Sikh men with swords came and began slaughtering the passengers en-masse. To save himself, my great-uncle had no choice but to hide underneath the bodies of those who had been slain. He could barely see or breathe, but he saw the intruders stabbing dead bodies to make sure that they had not missed anyone. Luckily for him, no one checked the bodies that he was hiding under. He ultimately made it to Lahore unscathed, at least physically.

My paternal grandmother’s family came from Saharanpur, UP. Her family initially believed that Pakistan would extend to Saharanpur, encompassing all of Punjab and much of UP. They were mistaken, despite the fact that Saharanpur had a majority of Muslim population prior to the partition. Much of this population was Shia, though some were Sunni too. The Shia community was very much in favor of the creation of Pakistan and supported the Muslim League. As a result of this, nearly all of them left Saharanpur for Pakistan well in advance. This left a small Sunni Muslim minority in Saharanpur at the mercy of the more influential Hindus. In addition, Hindu migrants came to Saharanpur and told the remaining Muslims to leave so as to “rid the city of their impurity.”

My grandmother’s family consisted of her three brothers, her sister, her paralysed father, and her elderly grandmother. Hearing about the violence that many trains were facing, they were unsure of how to ensure safe passage to Pakistan. Saharanpur had been under curfew for some time due to riots, but one morning, the curfew was lifted. That same morning, a military truck crossed her house, and my grandmother’s eldest brother went to check it out. By chance, the officer in-charge of that truck was his classmate from Government College Lahore. He had been rudely pushing away other people who were non-military, telling them to die there. However, he made an exception for his classmate. He said that he would let four members of his family on the truck. It was obvious to the brothers that their father, grandmother, and sisters should go on the bus, but they could not be left unaccompanied. Their sisters were very young, their father was paralyzed and mute due to having a stroke much earlier, and their grandmother was a weak old woman. The eldest brother was allowed to accompany them on the truck, and he boarded it. There was no space on the truck for luggage as it was packed to the brim with humans.

They ultimately reached Lahore after two to three days. However, two brothers were left behind, and they still needed to figure out how to make it to Lahore. They went to Bareilly in October 1947, and after waiting for days, they were finally allowed to board the Military Special Train to Lahore. This too only came due to a connection with a Hindu army captain at the train station.

This is not to say that everything was ideal prior to the partition. My paternal grandfather used to tell us of “Hindu Puri” and “Muslim Puri” that used to be sold by the various shopkeepers in the bazaar. In addition, conversions to and from Hinduism or Islam were met with animosity from both communities. Muslims who converted to Hinduism, or any other religion for that matter, could be put to death. Hindus who converted to Islam were looked down upon by both their families and the communities within which they were raised, but they were also looked down upon by other Muslims who had been born to Muslim parents. My maternal grandmother’s grandparents were Kashmiri-Hindus whose parents converted to Islam. As children, they too converted with their parents, and fearing retribution for their conversion, the family all fled Shopian for Lahore. For the longest time, they avoided returning to Kashmir out of the fear that they may be mistreated or killed, though they missed their relatives and the town of their ancestors. With the advent of partition, they were permanently cut off from their homeland. All those who wanted to go back could never do so. Soon, Kashmir became nothing more than a distant memory. Speaking Kashmiri was replaced with Punjabi, and the oft-enjoyed nutty, raisin-filled Pulao was replaced with Biryani.

In these words, I have attempted to recount a glimpse of my family’s account of Partition. There has never been an ideal world, nor will one ever likely exist. However, there are memories of the past, some beautiful and some regrettable. It is ultimately up to those who remain today to decide both how we view the past and how we shall move forward from it. In addition, it is also 

quite important that the memories before Partition are not forgotten either.

Once something is forgotten, it can be difficult to remember.

About the author

Numair Khan is the winner of our short story competition.

The author of this essay contributed to our Essay Writing Contest, the theme for which was Partition. Theirs was one of the winning entries, selected by Aanchal Malhotra, author of ‘Remnants of a Separation’.

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