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Such a long journey: Remembering Rawalpindi, Lahore and tin boxes of memories

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 August 2017, 19:35 IST
September 1947, Muslims waiting to leave for Pakistan as they seek protected transport to Purana Qila, an ancient fort in Pakistan, where many refugees had gathered (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

This green painted tin box remains the most prized possession of my family. Along with its small and meagre contents, this was all that my family had with them when they crossed the Radcliffe Line like millions of others in that bloody monsoon of 1947.

Along with a small bundle of clothes tied in a bed sheet, this box was all that the family had managed to salvage from the madness that took away their home, hearth, culture, language, livelihood, friends – everything except the resilience to survive.

Today, I am the third generation with whom this box co-exists. It may be a lifeless object for many but my family has always kept it with great care – as a symbol of those hard days that were overcome with a massive struggle.

The family has a yarn of tales and tales that I have heard only in bits and pieces over the last four and a half decades of my existence.

This side or that

My family had fled Mohanpura locality of Rawalpindi in late July of 1947 just when the communal violence was at its peak. It is a well-known phenomena that the people who came from that side of the border had only two ways to go – politically speaking.

Either they became staunch Hindus and their descendants today form a vast support-base of Hindutva groups, or they went to the other extreme retaining their strong faith in the concept of 'secularism' that was later to be enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution.

My family came from this latter stock.

At one point of time, my grandfather had dismissed my question on a Hindu-Muslim riot in a newspaper report saying, “People are never bad. It is the times that are bad and those who create such times.”

He had once narrated a part of my family's ordeal at the time of Partition describing how the Muslims from the neighbourhood had defended the Hindu families for three nights from the arsonists in the thick of gun fire.

“In the end, they had come to us with folded hands saying that the arsonists were increasing in number, they were coming from other areas. But they ensured a safe passage for us promising to take care of our properties till we returned. But that was not to be,” he said.

Known for his bad temper that had somehow toned down after my birth, I saw my grandfather livid only on one occasion – and that was 6 December 1992, when the Babri Mosque was demolished.

As the news played out on television he kept on repeating, “It is a black day for this country. How could they do this? And if this is what they always wanted to do, then why did they do that (the Partition)?”

People over possessions

My family had fled from Rawalpindi to Lahore with that box and the bundle of clothes. “Those were the times when people used to throw away their possessions to make place for others trying to get on to the trains,” my father relates. But this box survived.

My family had occupied an abandoned house in Lahore for a few days before moving on to the east.

“We were confident that Lahore would be a part of India and we would come back but that was not to be,” says my father as he recalls that how over the next several months the family had to move from one place to another in search of livelihood. These places included Dhuri in Punjab, Moradabad, Haridwar and Delhi.

Survival was a day-to-day affair with my grandfather, thanks to his vast knowledge, doing odd jobs ranging from writing accounts to small-time trading. My grandfather was very well versed in Urdu and Persian apart from Hindi, English and Punjabi.

Of trains and borders

Our green box has been a witness to so many experiences of human madness. The train in which my family crossed the Radcliffe Line was the last one in which all the passengers came in alive. Thereafter, the trains, from both the sides, had carried mutilated bodies. There was also an occasion when the engine driver of a train had run amok and had fired at people at random on the railway platform in Haridwar.

As a child, I used to ask my grandmother about the valuables that this box contained. She told me that the precious belongings included some gold ornaments, a tawa for making chappatis, a pair of scissors, a vessel to carry milk and other small things. This box has always been protected. It was carried on the lap when the family moved.

“Somebody always sat beside it while others went out for different tasks as the family spent months on a railway platform that was both our home and hearth. The daily essentials were packed into it and it was placed next to a tea stall every morning,” recalls my father.

He also recalls how the family was once compelled to eat chapattis with salt because the dal was lost when the stone below the pan in which they were being cooked gave away due to the heat.

Till her death at the age of 102 in 2014, my grandmother never replaced the tawa and it continued to be in use. Maybe for her, it was the symbol of her struggle and resilience. We still retain it along with the pair of scissors with the name of the manufacturer in Lahore embossed in Urdu on it.

Severing ties

My granny could never come to terms with a thing or place called Pakistan and the reasons that led to its creation. It was something that snapped the cord from many things she held close to herself. She could never come to terms with the two nation theory and why communities could not co-exist.

After all, she, coming from a Hindu household, had learnt the Gurmukhi alphabet from a Maulvi. For her festivals had always meant a visit to Nankana Sahib or Panja Sahib. Good old days, in her memory, were about my grandfather coming from Peshawar with bagfuls of dry fruits and pomegranates. About cooking rotis in a common tandoor where the community gathered every evening and sang Punjabi songs.

Till her death, she strove to view things from the Pakistani point of view. Once when I had lost my job, she had tried to encourage me by saying, “Don't worry. After all, we also left everything back in Pakistan to stand up again.”

This feeling summed up her struggle and the fighting spirit.

A new history, but not so new after all

As I grew up, I heard and read many tales about the Partition. I also vaguely remember the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as a school-going child reading about the developments in the newspapers and listening to radio bulletins of foreign radio networks.

But my personal experience with the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom helped me put things in a perspective.

It made me realise what it means to lose your home, hearth and livelihood while one is being hounded in the name of religion or caste identity. It is then that I learned what a tin box full of articles of bare survival meant in times like these.

I also learned how political elements spew venom to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, the vile process has not stopped at Gujarat. It is continuing and I can see many more people fleeing with such tin boxes across the country.

In my house, initially, my grandfather used to store his important papers in this box. My mother and grandmother, both of whom have also departed from this world, had later kept new bed covers and table covers in this box. They were something of a luxury for them.

Today my father and I also keep articles that spell small-time luxury for us and these articles also mean some high-end liquor bottles.

No matter what who keeps in this tin box – it always comes up for a discussion on every Independence Day.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 14 August 2017, 19:35 IST