Thursday, April 09, 2009

Story of a refugee

These days I am reading Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi. The book is a perfect read during a time when country is preparing for elections. The book is a story of India's democracy and how it came to its fruition, right from partition to the creation of our consitution to the first elections to the present Great Indian Tamasha that our elections have become. As I was reading a chapter on refugees who came to India from present day Pakistan, it reminded me of the story of a refugee that I knew very well, my Nanajee (Grandfather).

My Nanajee was a shop-owner in a small village in the Rawalpindi district of West Punjab (present day Pakistan). These were the times when Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were living in harmony and infact inter-religious marriages between Hindus and Sikhs were very common. My Nanajee was a Hindu and he married my Nanima who was a Sikh. The story about their marriage goes like this. One day my Nanima's father came home from a marriage and told my Nanima's mother that he has arranged my Nanima's marriage during the wedding. When my Nanima's mother asked him, who the boy was, he replied "I didn't see him, only saw his back, he was wearing a turban and the turban looked very good" (Punjabi Hindus also used to wear turban during those times although different in style from Sikhs, something like Balraj Sahini wore in the movie Waqt). My Nanima's mother was horrified at hearing this but somehow went along. My Nanajee and Nanima got married and my Nanima still hadn't seen the man whom she had married as she was in a ghoonght all this time.

We would often ask Nanajee about their Honeymoon and he would always tell the same story to the amusement of all kids. He went to the room where Nanima was sitting, picked her up and took her to the rooftop. As he put her down on the mat on the rooftop, he gave her a jar of honey and said, "Ek reeya tuhada honey and uhh reeya moon, tusi manao honeymoon tee main chala sone" (Here's your honey and that's your moon, you celebrate honeymoon and I am going to bed)

My Nanima was one of the sweetest person and never asked my Nanajee for anything in her life but so was his love for her that he decided that all his sons and daughters will grow up as Sikhs. This was his gift to my Nanima for all the love and joy she had given him (even though the conventional wisdom of that time suggested that children took the religion of their father). If this is not the greatest love story then what is.

Then 1947 happened and suddenly Hindus and Sikhs from Western Punjab (and Muslims from Eastern Punjab) were told to leave their lives behind and go to the other side of the border.

(pic courtsey:

My Nanajee like most people didn't believe that partition would succeed. How can one day someone draw an invisible line and call it a border. But things were getting worse day by day, thousands of people were being butchered on both side of the border. My Nanajee decided to send Nanima and their kids to my Nanima's brother place in India. He told her that he will stay back and if things improve will call them back. Nanima moved to India with the kids and as we know things didn't improve, infact got worse day by day. For one month there was no trace of my Nanajee and everyone thought that they may never see him again except my Nanima who always knew that he will make it. And he did. But when he came back, he was in a pretty bad shape and didn't talk to anyone including my Nanima for atleast a month. Its obvious that he saw some things during partition that are better not talked about. With time physical and emotional scars healed up and he again worked hard to make a life for himself and his children.

My Nanima passed away before my Mom got married so no one from my Dad's side ever saw her. But Nanajee made sure that his grandchildren will never forget the love of his life. Whenever we would visit him, we would follow the same ritual every evening after dinner. All the grandchildren would go and sit on the floor in my Nanajee's room. He would first tell all of us a joke in Punjabi, some of which are legendary in our family, then he would tell a sakhi (story) from the life of Guru Nanak and finally end the katha-session (story-session) by telling us a story (or an anecdote) about our Nanima. He kept my Nanima alive through his stories, so much so that sometimes I feel that I know my Nanima better than my Nanajee. He was truly a remarkable man in every sense. His story is a story of one of the many millions refugees who left their lives on the other side of the border to create a new life on this side of the border.

He passed away more than a decade ago but his sense of humor, his love for his wife and kids will always remain with me as an inspiration.