I was a college student in the early ’90s, still in my teens, when I went to Pakistan for the first time. I was unaware then that my life ahead as a journalist would involve many reporting trysts with the country whose very birth had thrown my family’s life into violent upheaval. As we headed north of Lahore to our ancestral city of Sialkot, my sister and I were overwhelmed at the thought of visiting the home our father grew up in and was forced to leave.
Our story was not unique. In August 1947, departing British colonialist Cyril Radcliffe used a poison knife to draw a blood-splattered line across people and cities, resulting in the largest forced human migration in the world. By the time “Partition” was complete, and Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan were two separate nations, 15 million people had been displaced and between 1 million and 2 million people are estimated to have died.
In 2017, the painful memory of that violent rupture remains persistent and unforgiving, despite attempts to bury and block it: Partition is testimony to the damaged love — which can often feel like hate — between India and Pakistan. Partition is our sameness and our difference; Partition is our common history and our distinctly divergent future. Partition, as Gandhi saw it, was the “vivisection of a living organism” akin to asking for “its very life. It’s a call to war.” Partition also permanently rearranged structural notions of nationhood on both sides of Radcliffe’s border, leaving an indelible imprint on how India and Pakistan see each other and themselves.
I would argue that our wariness of truthfully memorializing Partition on either side has created a permanent dysfunction between our nations. In Pakistan, lamenting or questioning Partition challenges the very basis of the country’s existence. In India, we don’t want our proud dawn of independence to be eclipsed by its long shadows. Yes, the very different responses of our states to religion (Pakistan is a theocracy), democracy — and now terrorism — have put India and Pakistan on entirely different evolutionary tracks. But, as political scientist Ashis Nandy’s pioneering work on “Partition Memories” argues, the willful amnesia and the silencing of memory are a sure recipe for ensuring that the India-Pakistan relationship status will always be stuck in the same category. To borrow from current Facebook parlance, “It’s Complicated.”
The muddled and schizophrenic sentimentalism of Partition has wordlessly passed on from generation to generation, almost coded into our DNA. It leaves us as permanent occupants of the netherworld that lies between hostility and affection. And yet, even in our innate suspicion of each other, there is a peculiar familiarity, even intimacy. In Sialkot, my father found the way to his old house by mapping landmarks from his past life: the bazaar, the bridge, the sports store that sold rackets and soccer balls, take a left here, a right there — and we were at Pillar Palace on Paris Road, an intimidating but worn-down mansion of 50 rooms. We were unannounced visitors, and yet the family that now owned it handed over the keys of the bungalow to us without any questions. My father was only 8 when he left. Now he walked silently through the cold bare rooms regressing to his childhood, as if he could hear the piano that his uncle played, see the room where his mother slept, hear the bark of his pet dog howling for attention, remember the marble fountain that once gurgled peaceably in the lush green gardens.
And then he wept.
For a man not prone to any public display of emotion, he cried like a baby. I had only seen him like that once before — and that was when his wife, my mother, had died suddenly from a hemorrhage. Where he stood was both home and enemy territory.
This dualism is partly what keeps India and Pakistan trapped in the past. On my later trips to Pakistan, when I would call back home to India, my father’s eldest brother, who was our patriarch, used to be able to tell me the exact directions to his college in Lahore and the club where he played tennis, even at the ancient age of 90. Once, I offered to take him back. No, he snapped: “Over my dead body.” However, in his final years, he suddenly wanted me to know every last detail of how his father (my grandfather) — a freedom fighter and politician — escaped from Sialkot. He was a friend of the governor of an adjoining province who sent a truck armed with guards on the pretext of withdrawing money from the Imperial Bank in the city. It was atop this truck that my grandfather left with his family, in the clothes he wore that day, and with nothing else in hand, to arrive penniless and a refugee in Delhi.
My father still lives in the house allotted to us in a planned refugee colony, albeit one gentrified over time. His Sialkot home, I am told, is now a private school, which in the 70th year of Partition and our independence seems as happy an ending as you could hope for.