Partition Stories

70 years after Independence, we recall the trauma of the division of a country and culture - and of homes, families and lives. The story of Nafeesa Bano, as told to Mehar Rafi

Partition Stories
“My father was in the Railways and railway employees used to get rations, I remember, which we used to store in gharraas (clay pots). It was ample enough to share with the neighbourhood. There lived in the house opposite ours a family with many many children – with names like Wazir (minister), Badshah (king) and such. They used to come over and take rations at will: rice, lentils – whatever they needed.

One day I said to one of them: ‘Tum Farsi nahin parrhtay?’ (do you not read Persian?)

He said: ‘Nahin, Farsi barri gundi zabaan hae, uss mein Haath ko dast kehtay hain’ (No, Persian is a dirty language. In it, the term for hands/arms and dysentery is the same).

[Here she laughs like a little girl.]

Our area was near Billi Maaraan and Nehar Saadat Khan, a mohalla named Islamgunj in Delhi. That is where we lived. There were two lanes lined with a dozen or so houses either side. Everyone was Muslim. We used to go to Kharrar (in the countryside – district Ambala, Punjab) in summer. Dilli (Delhi) to Kuraani, Kuraani to Kharrar by tonga. There was just the one tonga: daak ka (of the postal service), it went once in the morning and got us there by 11am and headed back at 4pm.

Kishwar Sultana in 1946 - the author's grandmother

I had never been to Lahore or anywhere - buss Dilli se Kharrar, Kharrar se Dilli.

When, on a rare occasion, we used to step out of our mohalla, past Nehar Saadat Khan on to Billi Maaraan, I distinctly remember these cabins where Brahmins would be giving cool water to travelers and wayfarers. I really liked that.

Our neighbourhood was our world. It had a large gate that was shut at night. I remember a lock being put. We lived well there.

After Partition, what started mounting was the fear: it had become impossible to sleep at night. Riots had begun. There was just senselessness. If children were sitting in a tonga, a passing Sikh would kill them all without a thought. There’d be showers of blood, slain bodies. We seldom went out. In fact, once I remember I was at school when we came to know that there’s been a row in our neighbourhood. We were having a party in school and as soon as we heard, we dropped everything – even the ice cream – and ran home. We just had to get home somehow.

The haveli in Kharrar, district Ambala, Punjab - which would have been familiar to Nafeesa Bano

One day, in the upper portion of our building, one of the daughters of that family – she must have been 16 or 17 – nearly jumped off her balcony. Her mother held her just in time. Fear. We were told tales of girls jumping into wells on their way to and from the newly divided land. So many girls suffered. As a twelve-year-old, all I remember is the fear – I’m talking about the sound of killing...and being killed.

There was no option but to leave. Our Abba (father) was in the Railways, so arrangements were made for us to take a flight. The day that the last plane was coming, we left Islamgunj at 7 am for the last time. There were ten of us: my parents, four sisters and four brothers. We took the tonga to Paalam Cantonment where everybody was gathering.
"As soon as we heard, we dropped everything - even the ice cream - and ran home"

I was the eldest, my mother really loved me – she had kept clothes that were meant for my dowry. There was a neatly packed sizeable package of unstitched cloth and saris that would be undone and redone at times when new things had to be added. So I remember we carried that with us as well. As fate would have it, when the tonga got there, we took that blue bag (with the one outfit each) and the lota... Allah has his ways... there were so many little kids, and me, and just that bag got left behind in the tonga and off it went with our little treasure. We were terribly sad about that: my mother had collected those clothes one by one with a lot of love and care. Those saris are not to be found nowadays — there must have been 17 or 18 suits. Those were all that we carried as ‘valuables’ and those were what got left behind.

It’s not about the things, really...

On the way, a Sikh with his kirpan cut off a woman’s hand and she bled before our eyes. Our father went to the railway station where he was to meet someone who would give him his pay, but he did not return; not for a long, long time and we had no way of knowing whether he ever would. I remember my mother sitting with her punjsurah (a compilation of five surahs from the Quran) and us, huddled around her – she’d say, ‘I won’t go if he won’t come. Where would I go with these small children?’ And he finally came. We had been waiting since morning and then it was almost 7 pm. The last plane was to leave at 4 a.m. the following morning!

He related that when he got to the station, he couldn’t enter it because all doors were shut and blood was flowing out in the drains. It was learnt that a train had arrived at the station from Shahdara and the people were being taken out of the train and killed mercilessly.  A Hindu friend of my father advised: ‘Mir Sahib, do not come inside, stay out.’ My father waited and waited, till a Christian friend who used to live near Kashmiri Gate – a certain Mr. P. Brown, who was a coffin-maker – hid him in a truck headed for the airport.

You cannot imagine our relief when we saw him! We took the last flight out that was carrying the muhajireen. It was also our first plane-ride.

We landed at Lahore airport and took a tonga and came to the house of our uncle and aunt, our chacha Syed Waheed-ul-Hasan and our chachi Kishwar Sultana, in Tezaab Ahaata. He was also in the Railways and was posted in Lahore at the time. We stayed there for a week and then, since we had opted for Rawalpindi for a transfer on the suggestion of a neighbour who’d said there’s respite from the heat there, we knew that we had to go to Rawalpindi but could not imagine how.

On our train ride from Lahore to Rawalpindi, all along the way people gave us water, things to eat, tea – in the spirit that ‘muhajireen aaye hain, inn ki madad karo’ (the migrants have arrived, help them).

After two days at a library in Rawalpindi where the bulk of muhajireen came and stayed, we went to my father’s relative’s house who, then, found an arrangement for us. There was a mohalla Gowalmandi, where a Hindu family had a big house. The owner, an engineer, and his son (Khatri by caste), had sent their family and belongings but were still residing there. We agreed on a rent of Rs 22 to live there. Despite the fact that it was a big house, all of us stayed in one room upstairs and they slept in the one downstairs, both in mortal fear of the other. They stayed with us for a week. We ended up living in this house having pledged them our own house in Ambala: the one we had left behind.

The Hindus and Sikhs were killing there, the Pathans were killing here - kisi ko koi poochne waala nahin tha (who to hold accountable?)

A young Hindu couple and their toddler waiting at the railway station – dragged out, killed, thrown in the street...

Shahdara, that big Kashmiri family my aunt used to speak of – men, women and children with little to defend themselves with. They entered the house in a drunken stupor and swung their children on spears and eventually killed all of them.
"A young Hindu couple and their toddler waiting at the railway station - dragged out, killed, thrown in the street..."

My uncle, fleeing with his three-year-old son in his arms, put him in the cart of a woman ahead of him and never saw him again.

A friend’s 77-year-old sister, they attempted to kill her and threw her in the street in front of a Christian woman’s house. That woman took her in, nursed her back to health and then had it announced on the radio; upon which she was reunited with her family six months later. Many such announcements were made on the radio.

Those who had no place to go stayed in camps. People would go to these camps to ask for their lost loved ones: ‘Do you know of so-and-so from this mohalla, that area?  Did people from that locality come? What became of that neighbourhood?’ Everyone was a seeker.

We brought nothing. We started a new life when we came here. We came with our lives, the most precious thing.”