75 years on haunting memories of partition of India and the afterlife

The truth is that Kahuta never left my grandfather, he never failed to remember, the memories haunted him.

By Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry

As we celebrate 75 years of Independence entering the 76th year, memories of partition have not faded away, rather for many, these memories resurface whenever 15th August returns.

This year our family was more nostalgic and the sense of loss more hurting. All this seems very strange.

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We lost Harbans Singh, my grandfather 103 years of age, this January 2022. With him, an experience of a lifetime was lost. Amongst us, he was the one who had witnessed and experienced partition horrors.

At 97 years of age, he was recorded by the partition archive, but the archive had lost his recording. I was at a complete loss when I got to know this, and then I decided to write about him, his life, and the times he belonged to. Since then, in one way or the other, I am trying to record him in various ways. This became more difficult for me as he grew older. He chose not to speak about the troubles of those times.

When my grandfather turned 100, we sat around him to listen to his experiences of life, but he was extremely selective in choosing what to speak.

My grandfather spoke about all the good times, his experience with the British officers at work, how systematic and organised they were, how kindhearted their wives were, and his tours with them. But then he cheekily mentioned how the white men abducted the women in the remote areas of the hilly estates of Punjab then, now Himachal.

Secretary S.K. Paul addressing the employees at my grandfather’s retirement as Undersecretary, Secretariat of Himachal Pradesh, 1977 (Image: Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry)

My grandfather spoke about setting offices in the free and new India, working with the Red Cross initially, then the newly formed secretariat of Himachal Pradesh. He spoke about the important positions he held during his lifetime, and finally his retirement as an Under-secretary with the Himachal government.

What my grandfather didn’t speak was about partition or his experience with partition violence.

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We were all expecting him to tell us the story of his return to Shimla from Lahore on a train that was full of dead bodies, how scared he was if he’ll be able to make it or not, and how he kept falling on the bodies smeared in blood. I triggered him a bit when he retorted:

“What is the point in remembering all this now?”

My grandfather then talked about his native village Kahuta in the Rawalpindi district, Pothohar region of Pakistan, and told us that it had a mountainous terrane, a river flowing beside, and the river was the life-giving force for the village. He often said that the air of that place was very pure. He talked about everyone visiting Gurdwara in the mornings and evenings.

People of that village were mostly merchants and had shops in the central market that catered to several villages around as Kahuta was a tehsil. Then suddenly, my grandfather sighed:

“All is left behind, no more ours, we all should move on, I don’t see any sense in reminiscing the past … for what should we do it … nothing will change now … yet a lot has changed in the last 100 years.…”

These words resonate in my ears even today.

But the truth is that Kahuta never left him, he never failed to remember, the memories haunted him.

Last year when my grandfather was 102, someone in our circle expired. He asked me where my parents were, and I told him that they had gone to attend the cremation of the deceased. My grandfather asked, “Who has expired? Did I know him? Was he from Kahuta?” I couldn’t stop my tears and told him that Kahuta was long lost, no one from Kahuta was around now, many people had expired, while his long life had left behind a long queue of memories and the deceased was not from there … he didn’t know him.

Today, when he is not amongst us, his association with Kahuta haunts us, his people, his family who are rootless, who have never associated with any village, whose clan scattered to many urban towns and cities, and those who have remained dislocated for the last 75 years and will remain so for many more.

Author: Dr Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry is an Assistant Professor at the Center for English Studies, Central University of Gujarat, India.

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