Refuge seekers

Merriam-Webster dictionary helped me better understand the following terms, which everyone seems to use interchangeably and without distinction these days:


  • one that flees
  • especiallya person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution


  • a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence
  • a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown


  • one who leaves one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere

My family and I emigrated from India to Canada as immigrants, not as refugees. While writing my blog of August 18, I was reminded that my parents were turned into refugees, strangely, within the borders of their own homeland when it was partitioned in 1947.  They had fled to protect their lives as had their neighbors who went the other way, because a line was drawn to demarcate peoples and create two nation states.  This dividing line often times passed through courtyards of dwellings, allotting one half to India while the other was shown belonging to Pakistan, absent any consideration for their dwellers!

Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of India invited the English lawyer Cyril Radcliffe to India to manage its partition.  Arriving in July 1947 on his maiden visit, Radcliffe did not bother familiarizing himself with the sociopolitical culture of the peoples or the lands he was entrusted with dividing.  In 5 short weeks, without ever leaving the comfort of his office in Delhi he went on to arbitrarily draw the infamous Radcliffe Line across the map of the country.  It split 450,000 square kms of territory, resulted in the displacement of 12 million people and the deaths of between 1 – 2 million people.  A day after officially announcing his accomplishment, Radcliffe left the country on August 18, 1947 never again to return and witness what his actions had set in motion.

My father was born in 1926 in a town called Shekhupura (near Lahore, now in the Pakistan-side Punjab) where the family patriarch, my grandfather owned a store and traded dry fruits, grains and other materials with Afghanistan and neighboring regions.  My dad was the 4th of six children with an older brother and four sisters.  The family lived comfortably off their farm lands, livestock and a stable that housed a few horses.  Before the country’s partition in 1947, the paternal branch of my family did not have a foothold in what was to later become “Indian” Punjab.

My mother’s hometown was Bhera, less than 150 kms from my father’s place of domicile.  Born in 1932, she was the youngest sibling of a brother and three sisters.  My maternal grandfather worked for the Railways and each year, the family would spend the summer months in Shimla, which was the official “summer capital” of British India. The administration offices of the Raj would relocate from Delhi to Shimla annually, in an attempt to beat the summer heat of the sweltering northern plains.

Similarly, my wife’s paternal and maternal grandparents also resided in parts of the Punjab that are now located in Pakistan.  Her nana (maternal grandfather) was the Principal of Government College, Lahore while her dada (paternal grandfather) was a civil engineer with businesses across undivided Punjab.

Our parents endured the trauma of the partition. My father’s family escaped with nothing but the clothes on their back.  Decades later, my grandmother would shudder when persuaded to share her painful memories of their flight to safety; the savage butchery as they journeyed by train to India and the timely arrival of an army contingent that saved them from being slaughtered.  Her heart ached for the homestead she left behind, convinced that they would return “once things settled down”.  Like a throbbing toothache, this pain refused to subside, even to her final breath.

It can be argued that family and social networks enabled them to avoid the “typical” (whatever that might be!) refugee experience, allowing them to settle in their new homeland.

Today, it is not unusual to detect derisive tones running down refugees.  When friends indignantly raise their voices to tell me how refugees being brought in are getting all the benefits that should rightfully accrue to landed immigrants who pay taxes, I really have nothing to say.  I can only think of my own folks and wonder what they would have been made to endure, merely 70-odd years ago.

In closing, I would like to share this poem, aptly titled “Partition” which was penned by W.H. Auden to censure Cyril Radcliffe:

“Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.”


8 Replies to “Refuge seekers”

  1. Hi Pankaj
    That is written beautifully. You have narrated a snippet of history by sharing the history of your family. My paternal grandfather also called Lahore home for a few years working with the postal service. His family was lucky as they were transferred to Nagpur well before the partition. Your story certainly makes us think of our past and emigration, refugees, immigration and the rights and duties of each individual affected.
    Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks, Sonali; much appreciated.
      It is but a small slip from being right to becoming self-righteous. In trying to understand why someone would pick up her toddlers and brave a journey over swirling, chilly ocean waters to unknown lands one can only learn through empathy.


  2. Partition nahin. Ghaav. Nasoor. Every story talks about a wound that never healed. Sorry to hear your family had to endure this. As usual, a blog that never ceases to make one stop and think! Thank you!


  3. Wow! Pankaj, what an excellently chronicled and thought provoking piece. So apt and relevant for the times we live in. It certainly forces one think long and hard about our personal attitudes towards displaced persons, especially refugees who, generally, through no fault of their own, find their lives hanging in the balance. Thank you for making us think, reflect and attempt to become better human beings.


    1. Thanks a lot, Ajay.
      One of Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat’s states, “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on:
      nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
      Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
      So, I guess one must take pause to reflect on what we are going to do and hopefully avoid we have continued to do in the past without care.
      Your comments and the encouragement you have provided mean a lot to me!


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