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Maruf Khwaja, 19. august 2004
As a small child, Maruf Khwaja’s life was transformed by the carving of his mother country into two nations, India and Pakistan. He recalls a time of terror, and a journey to survival.
1947, the year India was divided, was a bewildering time for everybody – a little less for the “beneficiaries” of partition, a lot more for its victims. Like millions who found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the Hindu-Muslim divide, most of my family were among the victims.
The “right side” was a part of the land that we did not know, had never been to, and which became our country; while the “wrong side” we had known, lived in and loved turned overnight into a foreign country from which we had to flee for our lives. People who had previously never hurt a fly turned upon each other. Friends and neighbours became enemies. Attacks by one community followed attacks by the other hundreds of miles away.
People sank to levels of depravity they didn’t know they were capable of. Mothers lost children, children their fathers and wives their husbands. Millions lost their homes, their livelihood, their hopes for the future and their reasons for living. All of us – Hindu or Muslim – forfeited something irreplaceable in our lives. Every few years the wounds would be opened afresh by wars across borders or by internecine conflicts and sinister forces that the logic of partition had unleashed. A generation of my relatives carried their bitterness to their graves.
The sky is falling
But like most children of my age I had one great advantage over the grown-ups. The worst of the traumas passed me by. A slow learner, I couldn’t understand what was happening and why. By the time I did, we were across the other side, safe from danger.
I now have to focus hard to get a mental image right. The naked Ghatti girls of Delhi’s Reading Lane stand out clearly; so does the house at Hastings Square we had moved to just before migration, with its sumbul trees strewing little cotton pods on the grassy verge. I vividly remember the flying visits to Connaught Circus where among the colonnades my maternal uncle ran a typing school; he would order ten omelettes from the neighbouring restaurant every time we came.
There were kebab-paratha picnics at Qutub Minar, the tallest structure of medieval northern India; the attack of bees at Humayun’s tomb, from where we ran screaming to hide in the bhulbhullayan (the catacombs built under Mughal forts and palaces to hide in during emergencies). I can still see mother scooping green “holy water” from the stagnant pool at Nizamuddin Aulia and pouring it down my sickly throat, while children of my age and less dived into the water from a platform six metres high to retrieve hole-in-the-coin paisas that pilgrims threw.
These places and faces I had loved faded into the distance, as reports arrived of the killing of Hindus and Sikhs in the predominantly Muslim cities of west Punjab and the Frontier Province, and of Muslim slaughter in the Hindu majority areas of the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh as the region would become), east Punjab, Bihar and Bengal.
The Hindu militants, trained in all kinds of combat, went into action when the movement for Pakistan began to look like succeeding. I’d seen them in the compound on evenings and Sundays. Their parades weren’t very impressive, though they made a frightening noise with their gatka (combat) drills. All local units, I later learned, played a key part in organising and leading the slaughter of Muslims in Hindu-majority areas. I was glad my best friend and classmate, Satpal, was not among them.
Satpal was an only child. His father was a low-caste Hindu and for reasons that I could not then fathom, regarded my father – and grandfather (Dada) whenever he visited us – with a reverence bordering on awe.
“How’s Pundit-ji,” he’d ask whenever I caught his eye leaving or entering his house. Satpal was dumbfounded when he found out.
“I always thought you were Muslims,” he exclaimed.
“Then why does my father call your father Pundit-ji?”
“My father is not Pundit-ji,” I explained. “It’s my Dada who is called Pundit-ji.”
Satpal and I left it at that, for the time being.
Satpal’s mother was a kind and generous woman but always stayed at the door when she came round, barefoot, to chat to my mother. Mother would ask her to come in but she’d just smile and stand there, chattering merrily. They had become good friends, to the disgust of my Dadi (father’s mother) who didn’t approve of getting too close to kafirs (infidels). Whenever my mother cooked a nice vegetable dish, she’d send a sample to her friend next door, careful always to use a kooza (small clay bowl) they didn’t have to return. One day, while she was ladling out kheer (rice pudding), I asked her why she never used a crockery plate of the kind we used for our Muslim neighbours.
Soon after starting school, I was made aware that the world outside the home was full of people who were not like us, even though they looked the same. There were Hindus and Sikhs and Christians and Jains, each with a different god and different notions of heaven and hell or none at all. They had taboos just as we did – things they could and couldn’t eat, things they could and couldn’t do. Their entire lives, like ours, revolved around these do’s and don’ts. Of the twenty-five families that lived in Hastings Square, twenty-one were non-Muslim.
The first bad thing I learnt about non-Muslims was that none of them were going to be allowed into Paradise. This was not because they were evil, my mother explained, but because they did not believe, as we did, that there is only one God, whose name is Allah. Those who did not believe in him were going to go straight to hell.
But the subject never came up again because the sky fell down on us. It was partition time.
The eye of the storm
“There has been some trouble in Multani Dhandha,” the guard commander told mother, halting our trek to our old tenement home which Dada had taken over to use as a business base. We had gone there to stop him and Chacha Amin from travelling to our ancestral home in Ludhiana. “It is not safe to go any farther. Go back home.”
We could hear people shouting Allah-o-Akbar (“God is great”) in the distance.
“But that is my home over there”, mother pointed out. “Let us go, please. We have to join our family. We will walk. I know a way through the back alleys”.
The head of the guard looked doubtful. Although Multani Dhandha was a mainly Muslim neighbourhood, we did have to pass along some Hindu galis (alleys).
“All right, but you’ll have to take an escort.”
The escort, not much older than my brother and half the height of the lathi he carried, seemed as frightened as we were and trudged warily in our wake, his lathi dragging noisily behind. We wound our way through deserted galis, past windows shuttered tight, doors locked and only the odd face peering over the parapets.
When we got home it was too late. Dada and Chotey Chachaji (younger uncle) had already gone and Dadi was alone in the house, already fearing the worst. From the window overlooking the main Multani Dhandha-Paharganj Road with the dusty Paltan Maidan (army parade ground) in the distance, she had had a grandstand view of the grisly encounter below. A Hindu tongawala, conspicuous in his bodi (the tuft of hair left uncut on an otherwise shaven head, a religious symbol for Hindus), had blundered into a group of Muslim demonstrators protesting against a reported slaughter of Muslims in Gurgaon. Panicking, he had tried to drive through the mob, in the process trampling one or two of the demonstrators underneath. The animal escaped the fury of the mob, the driver and his passenger did not.
From our second-floor window, we could see the mob milling around a bloody mound of flesh and entrails where the deed had been done. They were about to march on to Pahar Ganj, another Muslim locality, to gather reinforcements when a jeep bearing English soldiers bristling with weapons drove in from the Paltan Maidan side and took aim at the crowd. It scattered like flies. Within minutes the street below our tenement block had cleared.
We all made our escape in the lull that followed – Dadi with her bundles of clothes, jewellery and regulation paan-daan (container for carrying betel-leaf and its wet and dry accompaniments); my mother and brother, and even our escort from the Muslim League National Guard who’d burst into tears when we clambered without him onto the tonga for Hastings Square. We dropped him off at the guard roadblock. Soon after, a curfew was imposed on the entire area.
Massacre at Gulchaman Gali
Meanwhile, back in Ludhiana, Dada and Chacha struggled to reach the ancestral home in Gulchaman Gali hoping, praying they’d find the family still there. Instead they came upon a scene of bloody devastation.
A Hindu-Sikh mob had taken over most of the gali. Bodies with heads or limbs cut off lay at doorsteps. Congealed blood filled the gutters. Chacha, young, well-built, and a good wrestler, leapt forward when a gun-toting stranger appeared at the doorstep of our old home. The gunshot went off as Chacha grabbed hold of the barrel. Slugs pierced his arm but he succeeded in yanking the weapon out of the intruder’s hand. In minutes he and others in the party had beaten the man to a pulp.
By now other intruders had come out of the houses. Towards the end of the gali, Dada’s party could see friends and relative desperately waving and shouting at them to join them behind the barricades in the compound of the Naulakhas’ haveli (big house). Five of them ran the gauntlet of gandassa and sword waving raiders. Three, including Dada and Chacha, made it to the top. The others were hacked to pieces. The raiders couldn’t follow the survivors to the gate, for it was well guarded by rifle-bearing retainers of the Naulakha clan.
The Naulakhas of Gulchaman Gali were the richest family of Ludhiana. Their wealth put them beyond religious divisions. Everyone admired the Naulakhas – so called because they had broken the nine-lakh (900,000) rupee wealth barrier. They sponsored every major charity in Ludhiana – be it the Urs of a Muslim saint, the birthday of a Sikh divine or a Hindu atma (deity). They regularly fed the poor, maintained several widows and paid for the education of orphans.
When hell came to Gulchaman Gali that mid-July day in 1947, those who survived the first wave obtained sanctuary in their haveli at the bottom of the gali. Until then, not many had seen it from the inside. A sprawling compound contained the main haveli structure and half a dozen outhouses that accommodated a small army of servant-families, stables for horses and customised tongas, a gilt carriage (or “victoria”) and a garage that housed a superior car, probably a Rolls or a Bentley. The main complex backed onto the east bank of Buddha Darya, normally a dry riverbed but during monsoons a river in spate. On that particular day and night of genocidal insanity its foamy waters ran red with blood.
Years later Dada would marvel at how the Naulakhas were so well-prepared to receive the survivors of the Gulchaman Gali massacre. Every emergency was anticipated – a well-equipped first-aid post, a dozen tents including separate shelters for women, an ample supply of bedding and army-style groundsheets, supplied as if from nowhere. Chacha was taken straight to the first-aid tent to have his wounds attended to. He carried the scars and many of the gunshot slugs in his arm to his grave decades later.
A family in flight
Our family lost its ancestral home and, within it, four family members. Of the three women one was blind and couldn’t leave the house without a guide. Two were nieces of my grandmother’s sister who had stopped off in Ludhiana on their way back to their village.
We never found out what became of them. They were almost certainly abducted and forced into marriage with their abductors or, worse still, sold off to brothels. Dadi mourned their loss for years and wept bitterly whenever her sister came visiting. The old man was a distant cousin of my Dada, and a veteran from the days of the first world war. He was deaf in both ears, a legacy of his time at the front with an artillery regiment, which was probably why he never heard the alarm raised when the Jan Sangh marauders came.
The survivors – Dada’s daughter (my aunt Hamida) and son-in-law, Shafi, their four children, my uncle Amin’s in-laws, his own wife, Saeeda and their infant daughter, my cousin Maimoona – all reached the safety of the Naulakha haveli. That was as far as the story got in the letters Dadi received from survivors. It was much later, when we had finally reached Pakistan, that we learnt that aunt Saeeda didn’t make it either, falling to a cholera epidemic that swept through their refugee camp on the border.
There was hardly time to mourn. Dadi rushed through a dish of vegetable pulao, after waiting for two days for my father to offer the sacrifice of a black-skinned goat as thanksgiving for the safe delivery of the survivors. It was the first time that I saw my father lose his temper with his mother. “Hasn’t there been enough slaughter already, and you still want to shed blood!” he shouted. “And where on earth in this dawn-to-dusk curfew am I going to find a black goat?”
Besides, as mother explained to Dadi, there was hardly anyone left to give the pulao to. Our Hindu neighbours suddenly had a newfound aversion to Muslim food as well as to those who cooked it. Three of the four Muslim families in Hastings Square had already gone. We were scheduled to leave on 9 August when the first special train carrying the future staff of the future governor-general’s secretariat would travel to Karachi. There wasn’t much time left to pack.
The train to Pakistan
Mother worried herself sick over how to arrange the furniture’s conveyance to Delhi station, what with the shortage of lorries and total curfew during daylight hours.
In the end we managed it. The train to Pakistan, guarded by a detachment of the 14th Punjab regiment, made it to the border past many dramas, seen and unseen, mute and audible. A passenger train from Lyallpur headed the other way bearing Sikh refugees and tell-tale signs of many a gauntlet passed: battle-weary sardars (“chief”, another name for a Sikh male) hanging on from handrails, the boldest riding the bumpers of the steam-engine itself; swords out of scabbards, polishing cloths, sharpening stones and cutlasses to cut-throat razor sharpness.
Was it all shown for our benefit? Was it a train or the ghosts of Gulchaman Gali trundling past? Our own train slowed almost to walking pace. We looked for reassurance at the Punjab regiment escort. They smiled nervously, itchy fingers on rifle triggers. The train would move a foot forward then a foot back. What was going on? What were the drivers up to? Were the signalmen in on it? The signals were blood-red, crimson as the gutters of Gulchaman Gali.
I could read my mother’s lips reciting the Ayat al-Qursi, the Qu’ranic verse that guarantees delivery from evil. The child-sceptic turned believer. I too began mumbling the prayer. Father and my brother were doing it too. Would there be, any second, an onslaught by survivors of one disaster upon those of another? We won’t go to the India we don’t know, you won’t go to the Pakistan you don’t know. Let us fight and die here.
We did not. The trains passed each other. At midnight on 10 August we crossed the border at Bahawalnagar where the whole town had turned up to greet the first official train to Pakistan. Father leaned out of the window to accept a clay pot of pulao and zarda, one of aloo gosht, a cool surahi of Rooh Afza, and a garland of the sweetest motia I had ever smelled in my life.
This is an edited extract from Maruf Khwaja’s extraordinary, picaresque memoir of an eventful life, Being Pakistani – which is currently looking for a publisher