India and Pakistan have recently celebrated their respective independence anniversaries. Self-declared pundits took it upon themselves, again, to re-examine the context and outcome of the Partition in 1947. In Northern areas of either country nearly every family is able to relate personal tragedies from this period. “It was”, as Dickens had written much earlier, “…the best of times, it was the worst of times…” There were individuals who willingly risked life and limb to protect others, while others succumbed to inner demons and readily turned on their erstwhile neighbours and friends.
My father’s family migrated from Shekhupura (near Lahore) while my mother’s side had relocated from Bhera, in Pakistan. Only rarely could either of my grandmothers be persuaded to share all that they had witnessed and experienced in 1947, as they did not wish to risk reopening old wounds, even decades later. My paternal grandmother (“Beji,” a short form of “bebe” with the “ji” suffixed as an acknowledgment of elderly respect) was made of sterner stuff and would occasionally relate stories of her life “back in Pakistan.” She would fondly remember the shop my grandfather had owned, their stable of horses, the granary where she had hidden all her jewellery and other valuables in sacks of grain as they had hoped “to return once things settle down”, her daily routine of churning fresh butter and occasionally burning her hand when taking out “val vāle” (multilayered) parathas from the hot “tandoor”, etc. She would end her monologue each time with “sab reh gayā Pakistan” (“All that is now left, in Pakistan.”) This expression was turned by us into a comic punchline around the family dinner table. When asked how a particular dish like, say, Kheer (rice pudding) had turned out, there would be a chorus of, “Acchhi hai, lekin asli kheerān reh gayiān Pakistan!” (“It is good, but the real Kheers remain, in Pakistan.”) I wonder if our counterparts in Pakistan use a similar riposte.
My father had just finished his Engineering and landed in Delhi like millions of other migrant hopefuls, remaining jobless. He proudly recalled much later, how he eked out a living in those troubled times. He would wake up at 3 am, rent a bullock-cart and go to the local ice making factory. Carrying slabs of ice on his back, each three feet square and nine inches thick, he would load up the cart. Bags of jute, drenched in water would be spread over the top of the ice slabs to slow down their melting in the summer heat. He would take this load and deliver ice to the neighbourhood restaurants and other business establishments, completing the rounds by around 6 am each day. This process was then repeated at 3 pm each afternoon, when he would also collect payment for the morning deliveries. After several months of this routine, he got the much-awaited break and was employed by India’s very first “Public Sector Undertaking” fertilizer factory, a most prestigious job in those days! He never complained about the cards life had dealt him, nor did he hold a grudge against the people who had forced his family out of their home.
August is a month that has other, bitter-sweet memories for me. It was during this month several years ago that someone cut short a beloved life – that of my mother. It is ironic that while she had managed to survive the travails and troubles in what was to become an “alien homeland,” she died a violent death in the safety of our house in Delhi, her “own homeland”. Ce la Vie. Life carries on.
Violence is country and religion agnostic, it seems.
In his comments preceding the heart-felt rendition of Qateel Shifai’s ghazal below, Jagjit recollects similarities between his son who shared his date of birth (August 20) with Rajiv Gandhi (ex Prime Minister of India) and their passing on; Jagjit’s son was 18 when he died in a road accident in 1990 while Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991. Jagjit wonders whom he might dedicate this composition to. While crying out for universal peace, one wonders if this dirge is really a yearning for that elusive tranquility within his own grief-stricken heart.
Time bridges pain, even across borders, and, hopefully also heals it.
“Dard se merā dāman bhar de, Yā Allah
Yā phir mujhko deewānā kar de, Yā Allah
… Yā dharti ke zakhmon par marham rakhde
Yā merā dil pathhar karde, Yā Allah”
[Fill my garment (heart) with pain, O Lord
Then, if you wish, render me insane, O Lord
…Either provide salve for the lacerated world/earth
Or, make me stone-hearted, O Lord]