By Priyam Moonka
Margaret Bourke-White/Time Life Pictures
The Partition of India in 1947 brought with it immeasurable pain, damage, loss of identity, and uncertainty. For some of us, our grandparents or elderly relatives were children at the time, and remember those feelings. Uncertainty about what was going to happen next, whether their home would fall on the right or the wrong side of the border, and not knowing what would happen if it fell on the wrong side. Would they live? And if yes, where? How would they deal with the pain of letting go? Of leaving behind, and being left behind? Of losing, and of being lost? What was better: to die in the land where their heart was, or to live with their heart left behind in a land that they could no longer call their own?
Amidst the hustle of life-altering changes and endless unanswered questions is Radha, a nine-year-old girl who deeply loves her city, her home, Lahore. The home she can never imagine leaving behind.
August 1947, Lahore, Undivided India
“They called me a Hindu!”
“The older boys from the gali.”
As my six-year-old brother came home, his eyes were not just filled with tears but questions too.
“What is a Hindu?”
“Who is a Hindu?”
“Why did they call me that?”
I had no answer. My silence prompted another question. “Are you not telling me what it means because you know it is a bad word?” he asked. “Yes, you think I am too young to know such words. That is why you are silent. That is why. I know.” Repeating his own words, he left.
Why did Nandu come to me with those questions? Why did he not go to Bauji or Chacha? How could I possibly know? I am just nine, and that too, a girl. It is always the elders, the men who know everything. But what does ‘Hindu’ mean? I must ask Zeenat Khala. She has an answer to all my questions. The other day when I had asked her to teach me how to write my name, she wrote it in not one but two languages, Urdu and English. “What is your surname?” she asked. “What is that?” I responded, as I didn’t know what a surname meant. “Arey, what do you add to your name, Radha? Like I am Zeenat Hussain.” Puzzled, I said,“I don’t know. Bauji never told me. But it must be Lahori. Yes, you write, Radha ‘Lahori’. That is my name.”
Maa says that I cannot meet Zeenat Khala from now on. In fact, I cannot even think of going out. But why? I don’t know why! Khala is the only woman in the entire Mohalla who knows how to read and write. Who will teach me now? They won’t let me go to Nandu’s Masterji either. They say I can study only under one condition. My tutor should not be a man.
It feels like every day something or the other is changing. Yesterday, while gazing at the stars, I suddenly witnessed hues of red and orange in the dark night sky. It isn’t Diwali yet. I overheard Chacha and Bauji talking. They are making arrangements to send Maya Didi and Leela Didi to Amritsar. “They are not safe here”. What could happen to them in the streets and the house that they grew up in? I would have been sent off too had I been a year or two older. They take young women away, I’ve heard. Who are ‘they’? The other day, Chacha had a skullcap on while going to the market. He was dressed like Zeenat Khala’s Abbu. Why? Maybe he was taking part in a fancy dress competition like I did last year. Or maybe not? I didn’t know, but I could feel a tension rising.
August 1947, Lahore, Pakistan
“Maa, why can’t I have it too? All the other children in our gali are running all around with it. I love its green colour. Even I want to join them, and scream at the top of my voice, “Pakistan Zindabad!”
“You say this once more and…”
“And what Maa?”
“Oh, enough of your endless questions! You say this one more time and you’re not coming with us!”
“Where are we going?”
“To a place where we can be alive and worship Devi Maa at the same time. That is, if we ever make it there, alive.”
“Okay, but can we go after the celebration? I’ve heard it’s Independence Day today, and I want to see the fireworks.”
“We’re dying here and this girl talks of Independence. Go join them while they celebrate Diwali as they burn our houses and play Holi with our blood.”
“What does that mean?”
“We are leaving in an hour.”
“I’ll go pack my dolls then. How many pairs of clothes do I carry?”
“Just the one you’re wearing. And no dolls.”
Why did Maa talk to me the way she did? What is she so angry at? Dadi used to say that behind Maa’s scoldings is her love and that it is her way of protecting us. But what could she possibly be protecting us from? This is our land, our home. Why should we flee our home? Who are the people she talks of, and why would anyone burn our houses? We’re just an ordinary family.
I had so many more questions. Who would bother to answer them for me? Should I ask Bauji or Chacha? But they would not tell me; these days they talk behind closed doors so that we don’t hear them. They are hiding something. But what? I overheard Chacha saying that the Bal Mata Temple at Shah Almi was attacked and destroyed and houses belonging to ‘Hindus’ in the neighbouring areas were burnt down. He was saying that if we don’t leave Lahore, ‘they’ will kill us. Nobody understands. How can I leave like this? My Gudiya was supposed to be married to Azma’s Gudda. I’ll get them married as soon as I am back. Which Dupatta do I wear? The one that Dadi gave me before she left for Devi Maa’s house? Or the one with Phulkari, which Zeenat Khala had stitched for me? It’s such a tough choice. Whom should I take with me? Dadi or Khala?
When fleeing their homelands in 1947, people were leaving their hearts behind-hearts that were too heavy with pain. They were also leaving behind material objects that they had gathered all their lives and the many memories wrapped around them. But if given an option, what would one carry with themselves knowing that they might never return? Radha is faced with a similar dilemma. At a time when carrying oneself across the border alive was all one had the liberty to care about, she was faced with a choice too hard to make. Two people, two objects, countless memories, one choice.
Separated from Lahore, separation from where she lived, everything she loved and knew, and having to make a choice.
About the author
Priyam is an independent researcher and an aspiring writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. Through her work, she condemns violence in the name of religion. She is a history buff who loves to read and study South Asian history and culture. She believes that there are umpteen stories around each of us, waiting to be found and told. Her work is an attempt to find these unheard and forgotten stories.
This submission was part of the PITD x TLP collaboration.
The Mistry Pages:
An ode to one's of TLP's favourite titans of indie Lit, The Mistry Pages are a series dedicated to the stories we tell each other over the last sips of a cup of tea, the ones you overhear while standing shoulder to shoulder on the train; while hanging yesterday's laundry in the balcony window; while mumbling to yourself as you trace patterns of chipped paint along the walls. They are stories of the lives happening all around us - big and small, chaotic and whimsical, the profound and the mundane, all rolled into one.
Stories, as the moth flies by. Clipped, short, uneven, interrupted, imperfect. Appearing and disappearing, sometimes mid-sentence. Overheard in passing, and filtered at last by that special, yellowed, dusty quality of light. The Mistry Pages are stories about the magic of everyday life.
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