By Rakhi Dalal
Since last year I have been following an instagram page titled thesingingsingh which is run by Harleen Singh, the founder of The Lost Heer Project. The page essentially tells stories from India and Pakistan through pictures and video clippings, narrating stories of people and places, recounting the Partition of 1947. On June 8, 2021, Harleen posted a short clip of a video, from the archives of the British Film Institute, showing street scenes from Rawalpindi before Partition. The film was shot in 1930.
When I saw the clipping, I couldn’t help but cry. It showed a shop, some sign boards carrying names in Hindi, Urdu, and English, and a street scene in front of a temple in Rawalpindi. A fellow instagrammer said that it showed Mohan Temple which was in the vicinity of his ancestral home in Rawalpindi. I wondered if my late grandmother’s home was nearby too. The video filled me with an intense desire to see the place as it actually was during the years Ammaji had lived there. I am sure she was there in the 1930s. She would have been around nine or ten years of age then. Could the photographer have captured her as well?
As I expressed my desire to discover the streets and alleys of Rawalpindi, Haasan, an instragrammer from the city, offered a tour. I was left pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, I know nothing about the whereabouts of her home and so I knew it would not work. But his gesture moved me very deeply. I couldn’t find enough words to thank him for his kindness, couldn’t help but think how we are more the same people on different sides, separated only by the circumstances of difficult times, similar perhaps in our longings for times gone by and in our desire to make things somehow better.
For years, I have wanted to see the place my grandmother was born in. The place which was her first home, the place she had so many good memories of, the place she had to escape during the Partition but the place which had possibly never left her thoughts.
It is difficult for me to say with certainty when it was that I had started feeling a sense of nostalgia for the city of her birth. Was it after her demise in early 2008? Was it for the reason that I couldn’t be with her in her last days or that I hadn’t spent as much time with her as I wished I could because we stayed in a different city?
On hearing the news of her passing away, I was subsumed by a sense of emptiness. I loved her, though I had little idea at the time that some of her memories would haunt me for years to come.
As a child, I would sometimes sit by her side and listen to her talk. The nights that we spent with her, I would love to curl by her side to sleep. She was of a short stature. I found it amazing that apart from Hindi she could read and write Urdu as well. Fingers of her left hand were turned permanently inwards because of an accident she had as a child. Her eyes were kind and now that I think of it, they were also always sad. Maybe I was nine or ten years of age when I had first noticed her looking at something absentmindedly. I do remember being stuck by that look in her eyes. For many years after her death, I could not understand why that particular moment had held my attention and why I had continued recalling it in my mind. And then slowly, I started recollecting an incident.
I think it was the year 1986 or 1987, when I was sitting with her at our home in Jalandhar. While replying to one of my questions, she had started to talk about her childhood. The memory of that conversation is still etched in my mind, for her eyes had lit up and even as a child, I could sense the change that had suddenly come over her. Excitedly, she had told me about her childhood home in Rawalpindi.
“We had a very big house. It was like a big palace with big glass windows.”
“Glass windows?” I had uttered while imagining them.
“Haan, aur kya. Our entire home furnishing material was from phoren. My Bauji owned a bicycle factory at that time and we even had a motor car.”
I remember being much surprised because a car was a luxury even in the 1980s. When I glanced at her face as she said that, her eyes had that faraway look, taken as if by the remembrance of her distant past.
“When I got married, I had a lot of gold. Even my hairpins were made of gold,” she had continued nostalgically.
I knew about the Partition, maybe because the serial Buniyaad was being aired on DD National at that time. When I asked how she had come from Rawalpindi to India, she had told me the anecdote which has since then become the anchor of her memories for me, a story which has inspired and always reinforced my trust in humanity.
Her family too had faced the same fate as experienced by lakhs of families on both sides of the border at the time of Partition. One day when a frenzied mob had started attacking their locality, her Muslim neighbours had taken her Brahmin family to their house through the rooftop. They had given all of them Burqas to wear to hide their identity and had also helped them to reach the railway station safely. She told me they had to flee all of a sudden and that they couldn’t bring anything with them.
After she said that, she went silent, her eyes visibly sadder again. I don’t recall if I asked her anything after that or if I did, what she had said in response. But I do remember that she never told me about the incident or ever talked about her past with me again. As far as I know, she didn’t speak much about Partition with other family members. I have no clue how she had boarded the train and what her journey had been like. Did she witness some harrowing incident or faced violence of any kind? Nobody in the family knows. And it is this that has left me anxious thinking about her all these years. That I don’t know much about her life, about her travails.
When I look back, I am filled with gratitude for that one act of empathy and compassion that has made our lives possible. That memory has informed so many of my thoughts and I feel glad that it was shared with me.
Much later, while recalling that conversation, I had realised that it was the sadness in her eyes that had pushed me to want to know more about her life in her place of birth. I did ask my parents and close relatives to tell me as much as they could but they had not much to add to what I already knew.
Recently, I came to know that she was married off at 15 or 16 to my grandfather who was based in Jammu. And that at the time of Partition, she was visiting her parents in Rawalpindi, had two young kids and was carrying her third. My father was born later in 1949. I know she and my grandfather had to struggle a lot after Partition. They had moved to Jalandhar, Punjab. Financially, things weren’t good for many years for them and to look after their six kids, to sustain themselves, they had to labour hard.
It’s been thirteen years now since her death and I find myself increasingly thinking about her day after day. I miss her terribly. Often I look at her pictures that I have with me and my ears start ringing with her voice, her tone with which she used to call our names, the way she called us to ask things, and the way she laughed.
For reasons I cannot still comprehend, I miss having memories of her birthplace. Perhaps if the country wasn’t divided, if the borders weren’t drawn, I could have gone to her ancestral home in Rawalpindi during my childhood. I could possibly have seen the rooms where she spent her days and nights, seen the roof from where she had fallen as a kid. I could have met her neighbours and might even have made friends with them.
And I am sure she would have wanted it, too. Maybe she never felt at home anyplace else after that. Was this the reason behind the sadness in her eyes? Who can say. I just know I will always be haunted by the grief her eyes bespoke and the futile wish that Partition should have never happened.
About the authors
Rakhi Dalal 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’.