Reena Nanda’s new book From Quetta to Delhi traces the path of her family as they migrated to an uncertain future, and is as much about the pain of India’s Partition as about Punjabi customs and lore that survive even today in parts of both countries. Here’s an excerpt reproduced with permission from Bloomsbury.
Even in the midst of turmoil, Maanji thought only of her children, her Vahe Guru, her gold, and food. She anxiously clutched her two potlis: one was filled with fried partridges and quail (sprinkled with her special spices) for the journey, and the second contained her small gutka (condensed Guru Granth Sahib), gold ornaments, and sovereigns (quite a fortune, since her husband held the traditional distrust of banks, and would always convert his money into gold).
Fighting their way through a frantic, jostling crowd, they managed to board the aeroplane mainly because of Captain Soni’s army uniform. Trying to cheer the weeping women with his typical Punjabi humour, he said that he was guarding the dry cleaners’ shop on Bruce Road just because it had his best English suit!
Inside the vintage Dakota, Shakunt felt cramped and confined. People were shouting and pushing to get in, impeding the removal of the steps leading to the aircraft. She could see her father at the barricade, and realized with a sudden shock that he was not coming with them. She felt a gut-wrenching pain, as though a limb had been severed from her body.
She wanted to cry out and stop the plane and pull her father on board, but she sat there silent and dry-eyed; the responsibility of her entire family was on her. As the eldest, she had been mature beyond her years since her childhood, a universal Behenji: mothering her siblings, caring for her parents, aunts and uncles, and considerate of her servants.
Absorbed in her jumbled and chaotic thoughts, Shakunt realized with a sudden jolt that the Dakota was airborne. Quetta was receding below her. Her body shook and trembled.
Would they ever return to Quetta, the city of vineries, of vine creepers clinging to walls with bunches of tempting greenish yellow grapes hanging off them, of apple blossoms and trees laden with fresh green almonds and pistachios!
No. They would never see Quetta again.
Meanwhile Maanji, having overcome her fear of the aeroplane, started to wail and moan loudly, “Hai mera Kota. Hai Kota chala gaya,” (my Quetta is gone). Embarrassed, her daughter tried to hush her, glancing apologetically at the other passengers, but no one noticed. They, too, were sunk in their own grief, shell-shocked at losing their homes.
Shakunt felt their pain. Losing one’s home was like reaching the end of a familiar road and standing at the edge of a cliff, staring at the abyss below. This migration was final; the way back would always be closed. But Quetta would never leave them; it was embedded in their minds and hearts.
The stunned, bewildered expressions of her fellow refugees in the plane suggested that a cruel blow of fate had struck them. Partition, however, was not the work of fate, but of human beings: of an elite class of leaders born out of the freedom struggle.
People had trusted Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, and other ‘statesmen’, but no one, not even Mahatma Gandhi, had bothered to consult the people before ruthlessly uprooting them from their native soil and flinging them into this state of limbo, homeless and penniless.
The Partition of India was one in a long succession of events since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the end of the First World War. The imperial and colonial powers had carved out nations in the Middle East that had separated religious, linguistic, and ethnic communities by new, artificial and arbitrary borders, dividing them from their brothers.
The British repeated the same in India. My family, and other West Punjabis, naturally considered their traumas and travails as unique. But in fact, they had joined the worldwide brotherhood of refugees. And they would not be the last.
Future struggles for power and conflicts would continue to ruthlessly crush the ordinary people, who were helpless before their egomaniacal leaders. ‘Refugee’ would become the leitmotif not only of the twentieth century, but also of the twenty-first.
In the anguished, hopeless faces of the Palestinians, Syrians, Kurds, and Yazidis, I see my grandparents and parents.
Lead image: Pixabay. First published in the March 2018 issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here.