Speaking across borders

Chintan Girish Modi

aao-dosti-kareinPainting: Ellie Cross

When I try to recall how I learnt about the Partition of 1947 during my years at school, the only clear memory I have is of the phrase ‘divide and rule’, which we were advised to reproduce in summative tests if asked about the Muslim League or the rivalry between Team Gandhi and Team Jinnah. I am sure our history teacher and the textbook had more to say in terms of who drew the lines, who gave speeches, and who came to power. However, the focus really was on India’s transition from a British colony to an independent nation, not on the creation of Pakistan, or the large-scale violence in terms of rape, murder, and displacement.

I now see how limited our learning was. We were imbibing a state narrative that had no connection with people’s experiences. There was no opportunity to build our own understanding by examining different sources of information. The Partition was something that had happened in the past. It was a finished event, not a continuing process.

As a 29 year old now, my understanding of the Partition has grown from conversations, reading and travel. It has taken time to hold these things inside myself, to try and make sense. I hope the next generation of children who learn about the Partition have the good fortune to explore multiple sources of knowing. That can happen only if teachers too are prepared to embark on this journey. Instead of prescribing which resources are best suited to this exploration, I will just share what helped me. I trust that some of this sharing will be useful.

Another national anthem
I was surprised to discover that Jagannath Azad, a Hindu, was commissioned to write Pakistan’s first national anthem. I learnt this thanks to ‘Pakistan’s Lost Anthem’, an article written by Beena Sarwar, a journalist and filmmaker from Karachi. She describes how Azad, a well-known Urdu poet based in Lahore, is said to have penned this anthem at the request of M.A. Jinnah. Apparently, it was also played on Radio Pakistan on August 14, which is celebrated as Independence Day in Pakistan. Azad was deeply attached to Lahore, and stayed on even after many of his relatives had left for India after the Partition. He left eventually but with great sadness. He did visit Pakistan subsequently but the pain of being a ‘guest’ in what still felt like ‘home’ was too much to bear.

Alternatives to insanity
In January 2014, I met author Rajmohan Gandhi at the Making Democracy Real dialogue hosted by Asia Plateau, a centre of Initiatives of Change in Panchgani, a hill station in Maharashtra. Impressed by his work and humility, I picked up a copy of his new book Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. What moved me was his unwavering emphasis on the need to acknowledge that the story of Punjab in 1947 was not one of carnage alone; there were people who reached out to fellow human beings, offered refuge, and aided their escape. He and his wife Usha have interviewed people with memories of how Hindus and Sikhs had saved Muslims, and vice versa, amidst the violence of the Partition. In his writing, one finds a sincere attempt to salvage some humanity from what seems like an entirely hopeless situation.

Building a new home
Sixty seven years later, stories of what happened in 1947 continue to be told in families. There is talk of lost relatives, endless caravans, dead bodies on trains, days spent without food, and land left behind. Some of these are stories I have heard from children, who have heard these from their grandparents. These are grandparents who were children in 1947. They had to leave behind their friends, schools, toys – their childhoods even. A poignant film that depicts this experience is Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz, based on her father’s story of leaving behind his home in Karachi for a new life in India.

Reunion and reconciliation
I was stunned when I learnt how Salman Rashid made peace with the memory of a man who killed nearly half his family in the madness that had engulfed Punjab. This travel writer, who spends most of his time exploring remote places in Pakistan, has a heart-wrenching story to tell in an article titled ‘Memory, Justice, Healing’. In 2008, at the age of 56, he visited Jalandhar, the city his entire family lived in before some of them moved to Pakistan at the time of Partition.

Here Rashid met Mahindra Pratap Sehgal, the man whose father murdered Rashid’s grandfather and his aunts. Rashid visited the room where his family would have huddled together, trying to save themselves. This experience brought him closure, not anger. Rashid realized that he and Sehgal were bound by a common legacy; his of grief, Sehgal’s of guilt. Rashid met Sehgal on later trips to Jalandhar. He even took gifts along.

Power play
I used to teach at Shishuvan School in Mumbai when theatre director Gerish Khemani worked with our 10th graders to create a stellar production of Partap Sharma’s play Sammy: The Word That Broke an Empire for the Annual Day. While assisting with the rehearsals, I was able to watch repeatedly the dramatization of conversations between Gandhi and Jinnah, and between Gandhi and Nehru. Suddenly, I found new ways of thinking about the Partition – as a clash of egos, a thirst for power, an utter helplessness at seeing things fall apart.

From Left to Right Chintan Girish Modi, Ammar Khalid, Haroon Khalid, Anam Zakaria
From Left to Right Chintan Girish Modi, Ammar Khalid, Haroon Khalid, Anam Zakaria; Photo: Rida Arif

Resting in peace
It is rare to come across a Pakistani writer’s account describing a visit to MK Gandhi’s home; rarer still to come across one that frames the visit as a spiritual experience. In his article, ‘A Gandhi for Pakistan’, journalist Haroon Khalid writes about his time at Mani Bhavan in Mumbai, where Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934. Khalid shares how Gandhi’s philosophy has meant much to him since his student years, and how he thinks that the legacy of Gandhi’s teachings is as much his as that of any Indian. Tears well up in Khalid’s eyes as he feels the presence of Gandhi in quotations placed at his former residence. He admits to feeling unwelcome in the Mumbai of Bal Thackeray but quite welcome in this abode of Gandhi. He mentions how Gandhi mourned while others around him celebrated the birth of two countries – India and Pakistan.

Truth stranger than fiction
While studying at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, I took a course named Indian Writing in English. Our reading list also included the work of Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto in English translation. In Manto’s famous ‘Toba Tek Singh’, I saw at close quarters how unbelievably crazy the events of 1947 and the following years were. The story depicts the mayhem in a mental asylum following an announcement that the governments of India and Pakistan would exchange some Muslim, Sikh and Hindu prisoners. It revolves around Bishan Singh, an asylum inmate who is to be sent to India with a police escort. When he is told that his hometown Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistani territory, he refuses to go. The story concludes with an image of him lying down between barbed wire; with India on one side, Pakistan on the other.

Crossing borders
In 2009, I saw Shabnam Virmani’s film Had-Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir. Filled with soulful renditions of bhajans and qawwalis woven around the wisdom of 15th century mystic poet Kabir, it features interviews with the singers themselves. After journeying through Malwa, Jaisalmer, and Bikaner, it takes the viewer to Karachi where the filmmaker meets with a family of musicians that migrated from Delhi. Their sense of home is defined both by where they currently live as well as where their family is originally from.

Fariduddin Ayaz
Fariduddin Ayaz; Photo: Jackson Poretta

In the same year, just four months after the horrific terror attacks in Mumbai, Virmani and her team managed to secure visas for these singers to perform at a music festival in Bangalore. It was an incredible feat, especially at a time when India-Pakistan relations were strained because all the suspects were believed to be Pakistani. There was something precious about the act of gathering around Kabir, who along with many other bhakti and sufi poets, is part of the shared cultural heritage that Indians and Pakistanis cherish.

In her article ‘Walking with Kabir’, Virmani recalls an unforgettable moment in the final concert by qawwal Fariduddin Ayaz from Karachi who burst into the famous Rajasthani folk song ‘Padhaaro Mhaare Des’ (Come to my country). He invited the audience to walk with him to that undivided land, a country beyond India and Pakistan, a place that belongs to no nation, a place that welcomes all. Later, when I joined the Kabir Project for a year, and worked with Virmani, she shared that many eyes in that auditorium were brimming with tears, including those of Mukhtiyar Ali, a Rajasthani folk singer who also appears in Had-Anhad.

Somewhere in Bhabhra Bazaar, Rawalpindi
Somewhere in Bhabhra Bazaar, Rawalpindi; Photos: Shiraz Hassan
Searching for roots
I met Shiraz Hassan on Twitter after my first visit to Pakistan in 2012. A few months later, we began writing letters to each other, discussing music, art, history, politics, and the details of everyday life. These were published by Aman Ki Asha, a media initiative connecting Pakistanis and Indians. I hoped I would walk the streets of Rawalpindi with him someday. That happened. Hassan took me to Bhabhra Bazaar, which used to be the Jain neighbourhood in Rawalpindi. The Partition of 1947 changed that. People left. Today, there is hardly any trace of Jains in Pakistan, apart from the temples that lie in ruin.

A temple in Rawalpindi
A temple in Rawalpindi
Walking through those lanes was a powerful experience. The place felt familiar. I could suddenly see things come together. Since childhood, I had nursed a desire to visit Pakistan. I had no idea why. Though I was born in a Jain family, I had never heard of a Jain neighbourhood in Pakistan, or Jain temples for that matter. Being at Bhabhra Bazaar was the kind of experience one cannot explain adequately in words.

Hassan has been writing quite regularly about the pre-Partition heritage of Rawalpindi. Through his work, he is creating a rich repository of articles about the history of Sikhs, Jains, Hindus and Parsis in the city he calls home. He has also been taking photographs for people from India who are keen to see what the abandoned homes of their ancestors look like today.

Oral histories
It seems nothing short of a miracle to discover an Indian government textbook that discusses the Partition by introducing the idea of oral history to 12th graders. This is exactly what the National Council of Education Research and Training has done in the chapter ‘Understanding Partition: Politics, Memories, Experiences’, written by Anil Sethi, as part of a textbook titled Indian History III. Instead of concerning itself exclusively with key political figures of the time, the chapter emphasizes the harrowing experiences of ordinary people, and notes how the history of their experiences can be reconstructed by interviewing them.

The author offers three examples of oral history, collected by an Indian researcher from three informants in Pakistan. It is mentioned that the researcher undertook these interviews in order to understand how people who had lived more or less harmoniously for generations inflicted so much violence on each other in 1947. The fact that the examples featured here are from 1993, not 1947, is also an acknowledgement of how the legacy of Partition has continued.

The reader is also offered a chance to evaluate the strengths and limitations of oral history in learning about a society’s past. The chapter also draws on Urvashi Butalia’s excellent book The Other Side of Silence, which foregrounds startling cases of women’s experiences of Partition, especially how they were subject to suffering inflicted by men of their own community in the name of preserving ‘honour’, and how the governments of Pakistan as well as India caused grave damage by seeking to ‘recover’ women from the other side of the border.

What is the point of learning so much about the Partition of 1947? The answer is simple: because it did not end in 1947. It continues till date. Those in India who aspire to make it a Hindu nation demand that Muslims ought to go away to Pakistan, the homeland that was created for them. Those in Pakistan who suffer sectarian violence despite being Muslim wonder if the Partition brought any benefits to them. Those in Kashmir wait endlessly for their destiny to unfold. We learn about the Partition but we don’t learn from it.

Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence. http://www.amazon.in/The-Other-Side-Silence-Partition/dp/0822324946
Gandhi, Rajmohan. Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. http://www.amazon.com/Punjab-A-History-Aurangzeb-Mountbatten/dp/9382277587
Hassan, Shiraz. Maktub: It is Written. http://shirazhassan.blogspot.in/
Hassan, Shiraz. ‘The abandoned mandirs of Rawalpindi’. http://kafila.org/2012/09/15/the-abandoned-mandirs-of-rawalpindi-shiraz-hassan/
Khalid, Haroon. ‘A Gandhi for Pakistan’. http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20121026&page=16
Khemani, Gerish. ‘Sammy: The Play That Made Me Look Within’. http://www.shishuvan.com/wp/?p=719
Manto, Saadat Hasan. ‘Toba Tek Singh.’ http://www.sacw.net/partition/tobateksingh.html
Modi, Chintan Girish. ‘Comment: A Gandhi Pakistanis Will Love’. http://tribune.com.pk/story/693614/comment-a-gandhi-pakistanis-will-love/
Modi, Chintan Girish. ‘Finding Freedom In Friendship This Independence Day’. http://www.thealternative.in/society/read-with-me-finding-freedom-in-friendship-this-independence-day/
Modi, Chintan Girish. ‘If you could visit just one place in India, where would you go?’ https://medium.com/@chintan_connect/if-you-could-visit-just-one-place-in-india-where-would-you-go-bdf827298eb9
Modi, Chintan Girish. ‘If you could visit just one place in Pakistan, where would you go?’ https://medium.com/@chintan_connect/if-you-could-visit-just-one-place-in-pakistan-where-would-you-go-f4156452dcf0
Natarajan, Kalathmika. ‘Lahore is a lot like Delhi: Digital Discourse on Histories and Places Across the Border’. http://sarai.net/lahore-is-a-lot-like-delhi-digital-discourse-on-histories-and-places-across-the-border/
Rashid, Salman. ‘Memory, Justice, Healing’. http://odysseuslahori.blogspot.in/2014/01/IndiaSalmanRashid.html
Sabnani, Nina. Mukand and Riaz. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6C9HWVsNd0
Sarwar, Beena. ‘Pakistan’s Lost Anthem’. http://fountainink.in/?p=2397
Sethi, Anil. ‘Understanding Partition: Politics, Memories, Experiences’. http://kafilabackup.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/class12_indianhistory3_unit14_ncert_textbook_englisheditionindiapakistanpartition.pdf
Sharma, Partap. Sammy: The Word That Broke an Empire. http://www.amazon.in/SAMMY-Word-that-Broke-Empire-ebook/dp/B004EBTHPU
Shendurnikar-Tere, Nidhi. ‘Cross-border Friendships: A Dreamer’s Recipe For Peace’. https://campusdiaries.com/stories/cross-border-friendships-a-dreamers-recipe-for-peace
Vij, Shivam. ‘What I Learned About Partition’. http://tribune.com.pk/story/572482/what-i-learned-about-partition/
Virmani, Shabnam. Had-Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir. http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/2831/Had-Anhad–Journeys-With-Ram—Kabir–Bounded-Boundless-
Virmani, Shabnam. ‘Walking with Kabir’. http://www.india-seminar.com/2010/605/605_shabnam_varmani.htm

The author conducts workshops focused on creative writing and education for peace. He is the founder of People in Education and Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein. He can be reached at chintan.backups@gmail.com. Visit www.facebook.com/fabaaodostikarein.

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