Independence through the eyes of a child

The independence day, 75th year, reinvigorated the spirit of patriotism, joy and pride across the country. Most of us proudly hung our Tricolour from our windows, balconies, patios, or wherever we could, to join in the festivities.

The Independence Day, 75 years back, had a very different atmosphere in our country, specially in the north-west and north-east frontiers, though. For people of that era, young or old, the word independence is synonymous with the word partition. While the first word brings in a sense of joy and pride, the other brings a shiver down the spine. For them, partition and the calamities that they faced far outstrips any joy they would have felt at that time. Children born into the homes, specially of Punjab and Bengal, have been told stories of horror and hardship along with tales of ingenuity and survival amongst the turmoil.

My parents’ families were not in these two provinces but the ripple effect were felt in the lands in between, and as very young kids at that time, my parents, specially my mother, has some stories and scenes, indelibly marked in her memories.

My mother was very young, just nearing school going age, when the country started trembling with the horrors from the two fronts. Being in Delhi, her family were in the midst of the storm. Refugees kept pouring in from the frontiers and bringing in stories of utmost horror, betrayal and hopelessness. Stories of neighbours stabbing each other, of looting and burning, of stealing and forcibly evicting properties, of humiliation, depravation and viciousness.

Not everything were reported in newspapers, but someone living through this time, remembers everything, even now. And so does my mother.

She was old enough to understand that things were horribly wrong, but too young to understand why or what. She did not understand why her mother would not allow her to play outside anymore or go to some homes which she frequented earlier. She and her siblings could not fathom why they couldn’t switch on any lights during the evening or be locked indoors during the day time.

Her memory is scarce about the sequence of events but she remembers what she saw and sensed and the palpable fear all around.

One morning she and her siblings woke up to a stench which they did not fully understand of what. There was black smoke bellowing from round the corner, right where the vegetable seller lived and had his vegetable stall outside his shack. My mother never saw the vegetable seller and his family ever again.

During the evenings, my mother would see her father getting ready to patrol the neighbourhood. He was no policeman, but it was the call of the hour. Every able-bodied men, would do that in turns. They would swath stoles or bedsheets around their heads and bellies, carry a stick and a lantern, dimmed just enough to see the ground in front, but not bright enough to attract any miscreants. These men would walk in groups of 2s and 3s as neighbourhood watch for a couple of hours and then turn in for the next set of men. If they heard any clamouring sounds nearing the area or sights and smells of burning, they would quickly alert the families to take shelter.

The shelter meant scurrying to another house which was surrounded by a huge boundary wall and thus was considered safer and where all the ladies and children would hurdle till all was clear.

There were many nights where families would have to rush for shelter and my mother remembers one very vividly, because of what she encountered.

My granny had just got the message of a rowdy mob headed their way and she hurriedly picked up the youngest and asked my mother to follow her and run with her to the shelter house.

My mother, half asleep, was doing just that. Running a step behind granny, she suddenly remembered that she had not locked the front door. She called out, but my granny, in that din and panic, did not hear her. My mother turned back, came back to her house and locked the door and then started running as fast as she could to catch up with granny. The mob was close by now and she almost ran into one man. She remembers a huge man, with a blood dripping knife and bloodthirsty eyes. That image is etched in her mind. She was momentarily stunned. The man didn’t stop, he had his own mission. My mother quickly came back to her senses and ran towards her mother, who was frantically looking for her. My mother was too shocked, and it would be days before she could talk to granny of what had happened. 

At one time, my grandparents were sheltering wife and daughters of a colleague, as they were preparing to leave the country. As dusk fell, there was a knock on the door. The colleague’s wife blanched visibly with fear and fell to my granny’s knees, beseeching her not to open the door. She feared it was a mob and my granny would give them away perhaps. My granny was moved to tears and assured her that it was my grandfather returning from work.

There were many families who crossed the chaotic borders from the other side too and had moved in with relatives or were put up in refugee camps. One such family came to stay in the neighbourhood.  

Stories of such depravity were told left everyone shocked. Families, who for centuries were neighbours and had taken part in each other’s celebrations, had not flinched a bit in stabbing, looting or evicting and seizing properties. It did not end there, there were stories of rape and other heinous crimes. On the other hand, there were stories of bravery and sacrifice as well, where neighbours would risk their lives to protect their friends. And stories of some families who walked hundreds of kilometres over rocky mountains, treacherous springs, swam through rivers, through rain, heat and cold, with little or no food or water, in search for safety.

The family, who moved in, had also travelled through such tortuous path, until they were escorted by a friendly military convoy and had finally boarded a train. But were stopped at many places and every time were questioned about their religion. They were held up in one remote place for 2 days and news came in that an earlier train was stopped, every passenger murdered, and the bogies set on fire. The family was lucky to have escaped and reach safety. The matriarch talked about how she hid gold in her mouth every time they were stopped. The younger females and kids were hid under the bunk and what used to be a two days journey took seven days. Each minute filled with anxiety and terror.

I have heard these stories often from my mother and now they are etched in my mind.

As that generation, who withstood this appalling horror, move towards their twilight years, I felt that such stories should perpetuate, through generations, not to rekindle the horror or hatred, but to keep the pages of history ripe, lest we fall for such depravity and moral destruction again.

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