As I start my initial research I come across an article that mentions the Amritsar train massacre. I’ve heard of the violence that took place on the trains during Partition, a very vivid memory of watching Jinnah, a film depicting the life of the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah comes to mind. I remember being a very scared 11 year old looking out from behind sofa cushions and seeing Jinnah standing as a train pulled up into the station, the door of the train opened and bodies fell out. They were mutilated and rotting so badly, that for some it was hard to see that these were once living, breathing humans.
This was probably the first time I understood how absolutely ruthless Partition had been, but I remember thinking it was a film at the end of the day, so that couldn’t have been true, could it?
The bloodshed and violence as well as the thoughtlessness by the British that I am now coming across in my research, now leaves no place for such wishful thinking. Like, I knew it had been bad obviously, but this bad?
I now realise how I have avoided Partition, not blatant avoidance, but subconsciously closing news articles when I see the word. When writing about partition for school or anything else, my stories have always had some semblance of a happy ending. A desperate attempt to add some good ending for trauma that lives in my bones, for it to be worth it.
My grandfather tells me a story that his Ammi used to tell him. She said when the killings between the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims had gotten especially bad, the elders of many surrounding villages started discussing actions they should take. In the village that this particular event takes place the Sikh male elders knew that the Muslim and Hindu men of other villages would target their wives and daughters to seek revenge for killings and violence that had taken place. They decided that rather than letting these men take their women, their honour, it would be better that they kill their own womenfolk. She used to say that the women would come and line up with their own knives and move their hair to the fronts of their bodies so that it would not be an obstruction to them being killed.
I think of the loss of women. The loss of friends, the loss of daughters, of a purer love. A love sacrificing happily, duty at its throat, love running into the fire, shouts of a war cry.
Historically in parts of Asia, when a kingdom was defeated, conquered by another force, the women of the kingdom would run into lit fires, a sort of mass suicide. This was called Jauhar; immolation with your head held high. Running to their death with utter sense of duty to their tradition, pre- planned in the event of defeat.
Come as the victors, knowing your victory. Or die at your own hands.
A lost life for many people. Losses I haven’t fully computed until now. Losses that I am barely just touching the very tip of the iceberg of.
I think of the immense fear these people must have had to kill their own daughters and wives because they knew if they didn’t, they would be raped, humiliated, and killed in the worst ways imaginable. I think about how, as a woman, being untainted, untouched by another, was so incredibly important.
In every conflict, every war, women are the bargaining stock. Men know that targeting the women of the tribe will lead to the opposition crumbling. And due to this fear if they are not killed by the enemy, they are slaughtered by their own and they willingly let this happen, knowing that any other scenario will be much worse.
There is a feeling in the pit of my stomach, a niggling ache ever present now.
Researching the wrongs done to my own, to my apnay, hits this part of me again and again and again, until really grief is all that I feel.
I think we grieve people in different ways, different ways for neighbours, for fathers and mothers, for children but how do you grieve people that are only joined to you by the soil you were born on? People dead long before I was even a possibility.
When do they teach you how to grieve people you don’t know?
My grandfather’s young sister died when their family was travelling from India to Pakistan. As I am writing this part of the story, I feel the tears and an ache in my chest. I have heard the story of her death so many times but including it in my storyline, knowing this isn’t fiction or me taking poetic licence is hard. I think of lost opportunity and of a sister who was never visited by her family. A daughter whose grave is unmarked to this day. Maybe someone lives over it now, maybe it is a park or an industrial estate. How do you dull the pain, the grief of never knowing someone yet seeing the potential of that individual?
I never knew my great aunt, yet I see what she could have been to me. I am someone she doesn’t even know exists, yet I can’t help thinking of the family she was robbed of, an education, a career.
She is one of the many unmarked graves, a body not visited for 70 years. A child who was a victim to the white man and his scheming, ruthlessness. A child robbed of what could have been.
As I look back on this project, I feel that there is so much left out when the history of Partition is told. Finding out this history through my research has led to me understanding much more about our community. The way we operate and decisions we make and the influence of Partition on us, the trauma that surrounds it still impacts us now in so many minute ways.
I am so extremely grateful for this opportunity, and I think in the future I will look at Partition very differently and in a more developed way. I hope through the research and work I have put in more people will understand how horrific this event was.
I hope that by telling these stories, the generations after me will understand the impacts of Partition long after its survivors are gone.
Maybe in this way we can finally start to heal, and build better lives for the descendants of Partition survivors, and not repeat the mistakes of our past.
Apnay: A person’s own people, usually used by South Asians when referring to other South Asian people.