By Sheela Kapur
There used to be a saying in Punjabi, “If you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t seen anything.” Before Pakistan was created, my birthplace was called the ‘Paris of the East’. What a mighty city it was. The fashionable women, the sophisticated dialect, the decadent feasts, the twinkling lights of Anarkali Bazaar. Only the fortunate were destined to be born here.
I was 10 years old when my family set off from Lahore to Mussoorie. The date was July 7, 1947. I have vivid memories of those years – of the lavish multi-storey house that we had to abandon in Lahore, of fleeing in a hurry, our prized possessions left behind as we selected only the basic necessities for our train journey into an uncertain future.
And we were only one among 7.2 million Hindus and Sikhs who left behind their homes in Pakistan to move to India, in one of the largest mass exoduses in world history. An equal amount moved in the other direction. A million never made it.
After spending a few months living with well-wishers in Mussoorie and in the foothills of the Himalayas, we moved to Delhi in March 1948. It was the chaotic period just after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, as our bleeding, ravaged new nation struggled to find its feet.
Our family of six had to make do with a small room and a makeshift bathroom in the lanes of what is now called Old Delhi. Friends and family would come and go, seeking respite in our cramped domain in the midst of their own difficult journeys.
But we never grumbled because we knew we were among the more fortunate refugees: we had a network of relatives across India, and a decent amount of savings tucked away in our bags.
At 20, I married a fellow migrant from Lahore. He was three years older to me, a jeweller’s son, and worked with his father in their hard-earned new Chandni Chowk shop.
Today, Punjabis are known for their generous nature and love for good food, song and dance. But we are also tenacious and gritty. The trauma of Partition taught us bitter lessons: Anything can happen at any time. Even the earth can be pulled away from under your feet. Family is precious. Money matters.
With God’s grace, our business flourished over the next half century, and our homes and properties grew as our two sons and later grandsons took forward our legacy.
In 1989, as part of a Rotary Club trip, we visited Lahore again. I went to my childhood house after 42 years, and then decided to visit my father’s old shop. I told the strangers there, “Main apne peke aaiyaan (I have come to my father’s home).”
I was given a welcome fit for a queen. Lahori hospitality is legendary. The son of my father’s old business acquaintance insisted my husband and I stay with him in his home: “You’ve come to your brother’s home, how can you stay in a hotel?” he asked with tears in his eyes.
My husband and I were awestruck at their kindness, and we became friends for life. He and his family later visited us in Delhi. We even went back to Lahore in 1998 for his son’s wedding after he called and said, “How can my son’s bua (father’s sister) not attend his wedding?”
There, someone insisted I sing a folksong. I became sentimental and said with a tear in my eye, “India is my country, but Lahore is my homeland,” and sang an old traditional Punjabi wedding song for them.
From then on, we were treated like film stars – shopkeepers refused to accept money when we bought goods, and we were showered with gifts on our return to Delhi. I doubt any Indian would do the same for a Pakistani guest.
Then the borders closed, and our governments declared us enemies of one another, once again.
I turned 80 this year. When I look back, I can see how my parents’ decision to give up everything and move to the ‘other side’ in 1947 was monumental for our family’s destiny, and I glad they did it. I am proud of being an Indian.
And yet, I cannot erase my birthplace and language from my life’s story. We may be two nations now, but the heart knows no borders.