By Renu Kakkar
I was born to a family, hailing from East Punjab, made refugee during the India-Pakistan Partition. They had escaped in near penury with just a broken skull of their youngest seven year old son Mulkh – my father – during the fateful days of Partition in 1947. Stunned by the unimaginable cruelty of neighbours and friends, my grandfather spurned repatriation to the closest Indian border city in West Punjab and went far into the interior of Punjab. I was born in the house they repatriated to, in Rohtak, 450 kms away from Amritsar, on top of a hill called Quilla Mohalla constructed in the tradition of Purdah, with the main gate opening into a by-lane and not the main street. My early childhood memories, that are the sharpest, are of winters spent under a white quilt that weighed 6 to 7 kgs, pushed up like a tent, with my grandfather Lala Hargobind holding a torch in the dark inside telling stories to me and his other grandchildren. Sialkot, Shorkot, Lahore – all story sessions would invariably touch upon these places. But soon the smile would fade away. He would throw off the tent, lit up a cigarette and brood. His eyes would darken and stories – of poisoned wells, marauding rioters, long queues of refugees, no food or water during the walk to the Indian side of the border, bloodied people or dead bodies, carrying his son with a deep injury in the skull and his own mother – would start pouring out of him. Mulkh, he’d say, had fallen down a terrace despite his elder brother Bhakt’s support, as the panicked family was sneaking out of their locality through the rooftop. Neighbours armed with mashaal (fire torches) and swords were breaking down their front door. The roofs of the houses were all stuck to each other in Punjab, so they lunged through the low walls and escaped a whole street unnoticed by rioters on the street down below.
The darkness in his eyes would give way to tears. He would beg forgiveness and confess that he told these tales to us, lest they be forgotten. I remember crawling into his lap over my teeming cousins, much elder to me – we would be nearly 20 at any given time – and wiping tears of this huge magnificent chain-smoking Punjabi. My tiny hands never did the job of stopping his tears but always brought forth a lopsided smile and my cousins would heave a sigh of relief of catching a break from the melodrama. Lalaji would then switch to stories about Quetta, a hill called Kakkar Range in Baloch. His dark memories of betrayal never were far behind though. Soon enough the mention of a friend, one of those who came to kill him and his family during Partition would creep in. So, all of them would make Lalaji cry.
Imagine an entire history of self wiped out to sorrow with not a happy memory left to remember! Imagine that! He still worked a day job as a Bailiff, the only job he could find in 1947 to support his family now living on the Indian side of Punjab. He cycled to and fro from the agricultural land that was allotted in repatriation at Gohana, about 40 km away from Rohtak as the produce fed the kitchen and was important. These areas became Haryana after the state of Punjab split into two. My grandmother, whom we called Beji, would storm in often, stopping the story sessions. She would wipe away Lalaji’s tears with her white pallu (scarf) saying ‘Bas vi karo Lalaji, hun viha saal to vadh gaye ne, chado hun,’ (Stop it Lalaji. It’s more than twenty years, leave it now at least). The women had made their support groups. They had found ways to cope. The men, like my grandfather, couldn’t come to terms with their grief and sense of betrayal. I wish there were ways then for everyone to make peace with what they had lost during India’s freedom, a freedom which I feel we all should respect so much more than we do.
A decade later, now in Delhi, my very successful father often sent ginger to, I don’t know who, in Lahore, Pakistan – apparently sold at Rs 125 a kg then in Pakistan – and often asked for ‘lawn’ to be sent back (cotton fabric of a certain kind is called ‘lawn’ in Pakistan). He and his brother Bhakt never went back to Pakistan to look at what happened to their house and lands. Indeed, my father at least had occasion to do so every year and he refused each year. The pain about what had happened and their father’s struggle to bring them and their sisters up, was just too much for them to forgive or process deeply. All they wanted was to move on and rebuild their lives in honour of my grandfather’s grit. The family earlier zamindars were now well educated prosperous service class. They were ready to leave the Mohalla to go to a marble laid bungalow they’d built in the ‘posh’ part of Rohtak. My grandmother would, however, not allow a move. She said she couldn’t stand another parting from another home in one lifetime and would stay where her husband had left her. She died happy after seeing her great grandson in the home she repatriated to from Pakistan. My great grandmother died many years before I was born. My grandfather, who had shepherded the family to a new life in India, never stopped grieving, and died of a heart attack at the age of just 59.
Indeed, the story of India’s freedom is as much of heartwarming joy as of tremendous hardship, sacrifice and tragedy, scarred by the trauma of loss and heartache. The coming to terms of millions of displaced people was necessary but like my grandfather not many got the means to.
So when Ms Priti Paul stepped in to support the Partition Remembrance day, the opening of the first completed Partition Museum in Amritsar on 17th August, I called my 80+ year old uncle who has now shifted from Rohtak to Delhi, “Bhaktji (we all call him by his first name), had you ever thought there would be a museum to house Lalaji’s and his peer’s memories? Now, there is one!” “About time”, he said, “The last generation that remembers is on its last leg like me.” Excitedly he asked, “Will there be one made in Bengal too? They suffered as much as we did. Mahatma Gandhi made the killings stop there.” I said I did not know if there would be a museum in Bengal and he said, “there ought to be one!”. I did ask him if he would like to donate anything he brought from Pakistan as a 11 year-old to the museum and he said, “No. You can give it to the museum when I’m gone. I can give it to you if you promise to go back to journalism or write books like Mulkh wanted you to, else not.” I was hoping to donate something from my refugee family to the Museum’s Chief Trustee Mrs Kishwar Desai, my alum from college – Lady Sri Ram College for women, New Delhi. She and the other trustees have painstakingly collected and curated the exhibits and memorabilia that are displayed at the galleries at the now completed Partition Museum housed at the historic Town Hall in the city of Amritsar marking one of the most cataclysmic occasions in the history of modern India which shaped its collective consciousness. It could do well with more donations and more memories in honour of those who died in the brutality of the aftermath of our hard-earned freedom and as a tribute to the indomitable will of the survivors like my own grandfather and my family.
The museum, a first-of-its-kind in the world, built with support from the Government of Punjab, inaugurated by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh, stands as a monument to the sacrifices of millions of people and reminds the country of those who went through unimaginable suffering even before the newborn nation had taken its first steps.
Set up entirely through private donations of memories and memorabilia, the Museum is supported by funds from both individuals and corporate houses. In 2015, Desai, Dipali Khanna, Bindu Manchanda, and Mallika Ahluwalia, the Museum’s chief executive, came together to form The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust (TAACHT) and set up the Partition Museum. They are supported by a group of patrons led by Kuldip Nayar, Lord Meghnad Desai and Prasoon Joshi, with others like Soni Razdan, Pinky Anand, Sunaina Anand, Ritu Kumar, Vikram Sahney, and Bela Sethi as trustees. They decided to have a series of events across Delhi, Amritsar and London to raise awareness and received overwhelming response in favour of setting up the Museum. Although it took around a year to zero in on a suitable site for the Museum, with the keen enthusiasm displayed by both the Government and the people of Punjab, the Trust was able to launch the first phase of the Partition Museum by October 2016 at the Town Hall itself. “We will remember the spirit, courage and resilience of those millions of refugees who were uprooted overnight, and yet dedicated themselves to rebuild the newly-independent India,” said Kishwar Desai, well-known author and the Museum’s Chief Trustee at the opening on 17th August. TAACHT has also formed an important partnership with The Teamwork Fine Arts Society, which was commissioned to help set up the Museum. The Museum, said Sanjoy K. Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts, is critical to their perspective on the corpus of art and literature which have risen from the ashes of the Partition.
According to both Desai and Roy, while the museum’s purpose is to be the custodian of memories and remember the millions who suffered during the Partition, particular focus will be on individuals and families who, despite losing almost everything, showed immense courage and resilience and never gave up. Even at the cost of foregoing their own sufferings, they dedicated themselves in rebuilding the lives of their loved ones and in the process, building the new India that we see today. The Museum, which has developed into a pivotal repository of India’s history, archives memorabilia, personal memoirs, letters and rare testimonies from survivors to weave a story and create an immersive experience, which not just talks of anguish and loss but also of hope. I too hope to contribute some of these in days to come. I hope Bhaktji will part with them sooner and maybe visit the museum.
Ms Renu Kakkar is Director, CSR & Communications, Apeejay Surrendra Group