Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Memory, Justice, Healing

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On 10 August 1947 my uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman left his parents’ home in Jalandhar to rejoin work after a few days’ break. Having graduated the year before from King Edward Medical College, Lahore, he was then an intern with Irwin Hospital, Delhi.

Memory, Justice, Healing Evening at Making Democracy Real 2014 with Rajmohan Gandhi, Archana Rao and Rahul Bose

A week earlier, he had received a letter from his youngest sister Tahira. Having completed her higher secondary school exams, she was visiting with her older sister Zubaida whose husband was then a surveyor with the Survey of India and posted at Solan midway between Kalka and Simla. Tahira had written that Solan was rife with communal tension and that she wanted to be with the parents in Jalandhar. She asked her brother if he could come for her to take her home.

Having escorted his sister home, my uncle left Jalandhar on 10 August. That was the last he ever saw of his parents, two sisters, a grandfather, the family’s servant, his wife and five children. For nearly three months after that, when my father, my uncle and their surviving sister reunited in Pakistan, everyone lived in the hope that the others had somehow survived the holocaust of Partition. Only now did they know that the worst had occurred.

Growing up in the 1950s, or even after, I never heard either my father or his two siblings ever talk of the terrible time of Partition. Not once, was there any mention of the childhood in united India, the schools they went to or the house in village Uggi and the one in Railway Road, Jalandhar. It was as if a dark veil had descended upon the past. But even as a child I could feel the grief that seemed to riddle the very soul of my aunt. There was a palpable sadness about her; it surrounded her like a thin mist.

In 1985 a cousin of my mother’s visited Jalandhar for a few days and came back with a picture of the house in Jalandhar. Everyone saw it. Still that did not elicit a flood of memories and conversations of that time before Partition. Strangely, this relative who had just returned from India had made no attempt to find out how the holocaust had occurred.

In March 2008 at age fifty-six, I travelled home to India for the first time in my life. With me I carried a blow up of the image of the house in Railway Road and showing it to friends in Jalandhar learned that it was situated in Bhagat Singh Chowk. As I approached the crossing, I recognised the house at first glance. On the side facing the road was a hardware store run by a young Sikh. Iqbal Singh, whose own parents were refugees from near Sialkot, was warm and welcoming and I spent about an hour just sitting across the counter from him watching the world go by on a street where once my family too had walked.

Of a sudden, Iqbal put his hand on mine and asked, ‘Was your grandfather a doctor?’ When I said he was, he said he had heard everything. And after a few moments of thought, he added that it had come from an elderly customer of his. I asked to see this person, but Iqbal could not recall who it was. To cut a long story short, it was on the penultimate day of my visa that he remembered. I must point out that by this time I was beginning to feel Iqbal feared I might become violent upon meeting a witness, possibly even the perpetrator himself, of the deed all those years ago. I had to reassure him. But it turned out that he was actually unable to recall who the narrator had been.

I eventually met Mahindra Pratap Sehgal on a warm sunny 28 March 2008. He took me by the hand and led me first into my grandfather’s home where the ill-tempered woman would not permit me a few moments with myself. Then he walked me into Krishna Gali and, pointing out a side door in the house, said how Eidu, the servant, had bolted from it with his two year-old son in his arms. He had been spooked by the howl of the mob entering the street that was predominantly Muslim.

The bevakoof (foolish) tung-dil (small-hearted, cruel) saw him and went for him, said Mahindra Pratap. Eidu was seen dashing into the home of the Chopra’s in the side street where Mahindra Pratap also lived. The mob followed. At this point I had to stop the teller of my story whose narration seemed coming straight from the lips of an eye witness. How, I asked, could he have been in the violent mob when he was just thirteen at that time.

Mahindra Pratap stood back and glared at me. ‘You’re not listening to me!’ he said almost angrily. ‘I am telling you it was my father!’ And then I realised he had been referring to his long-dead parent as the foolish and heartless person.

Inside the Chopras’ home, Mahindra Pratap showed me the stairs Eidu had sprinted up with his son with the senior Sehgal in pursuit. Then he took me to the room where my family would have huddled together, with the bitter taste of adrenaline in their throats, thinking, hoping they would somehow be spared. Upon my insistence, Mahindra Pratap said my grandfather was shot through the head. The rest were cut to death with swords and knives.

My aunts were young. The youngest, who had rejoined the family from Solan, was just shy of her eighteenth; the older about ten years older. There was a possibility that one, or even the both, had converted and were living somewhere as Sikh or Hindu women. I yearned for a reunion with family I had never known. But that had not been the case. The people inside the room were all killed and Eidu, who had run up the stairs to the roof, was stabbed to death there while his infant son was tossed into the courtyard below.

For me the several minutes past had been like a fast-paced film. But later that evening in my room at the Desh Bhagat Hall, listening to the recording of Mahindra Pratap’s voice again and again, I realised that we had a common legacy: if I had inherited grief from a family that never spoke of Partition, he had inherited guilt. Mahindra Pratap Sehgal had inherited the guilt of a father who, by his account, was overcome with it within days of the passing of the madness.

‘He would rue joining the mob. He always said, sometimes in tears, that doctor sahib was a good man and what occurred should never have been.’ Mahindra Pratap said that until the time the senior Sehgal passed away in the early 1970s, the guilt of that terrible act refused to leave him and he frequently spoke of his own part in it as if to cleanse his soul. Meeting me and talking to me was as important to Mahindra Pratap as it was to me. We both had demons to exorcise and to come to grips with a past that tormented us. Today I am only sorry that before he passed away in March 2011, I did not ask him if he had wanted to meet someone related to those long-dead people in order to purge the pain of his own soul.

I understood too why my father and his brother had never mentioned Partition and also understood the grief that my surviving aunt lived with all her life. But I got to India many years too late. My father had been dead for three years at that time; his siblings for many years more. There was no one left to tell that Mahindra Pratap’s father was sorry for what befell their loved ones.

I am just a one among millions who have such stories to tell. That I felt no acrimony for Mahindra Pratap Sehgal, does not make me unique either. I saw him on three successive trips and taking gifts for him I was grateful for his presence. I am grieved by his death for he filled in a large blank in my life.

If I had found this kindly man in Jalandhar, there was ‘family’ also in the ancestral village Uggi. Sardar Saudagar Singh Josan, kinsman from a distant past for we share the same caste, had spent part of his youth in Shahkot near Lyallpur. In 1932, his father, a poor farmer from Ferozpur, was allotted farmland in the desert intersected by new canals. For nearly two decades, he put his back to the plough to make a prosperous life for himself and his family.

In August 1947, when Saudagar Singh was a pre-teen, the years of hard toil went up in smoke. With millions of others they fled eastward across the line unthinkingly drawn to cut the heart of Punjab asunder. Fate brought them to Uggi and poverty all over again. From scratch they started anew on land that was fertilised by the bones of my ancestors.

I met tall, clean-shaven and good-looking Bakhshish Singh in Desh Bhagat Hall, Jalandhar and he invited me home to the village. From that day in late March 2008, this family of simple Punjabi farmers is like family of our own to my wife and me. Their home is where we go and stay in the village just as any visiting relative would. When Saudagar Singh visited with a pilgrims’ party in 2011, I told the minders at the hostel in Lahore that we were related. No one doubted my statement.

We the people of this great and wonderful subcontinent have to increase people to people contact to permit our wounds to heal. And they will heal only by knowing the other. This is more relevant to the people of Punjab, the country that suffered the most in Partition. We have to meet each other in order to begin to see that neither they nor we have green skin or horns sprouting out of our skulls; that we are humans and, after all, are brothers. Too much blood has been spilled. Let us stop it now.

The people of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region can travel for up to fifteen days at a time to any part of Xinjiang province in China on a letter of passage issued by the deputy commissioner at Gilgit. Ditto for the districts of Balochistan bordering Iran. As for the border at Torkham in the Khyber Pass, that is a joke. During opening hours, people from both sides of the border saunter this way and that as if it was a crossing point between, say, Germany and Holland.

If we can have this on three borders, why cannot we have it at Wagah and Attari? What have we the people of Punjab on both sides of Radcliffe’s line done to suffer this almost seven decades after Partition? By extension, this injustice is true and relevant beyond Punjab to the entire subcontinent. We, on both sides, need fewer restrictions on cross-border travel. There is an immediate need to begin cultural exchanges with special focus on youth. People need to grow up accepting each other across this artificial divide.

We the people of India are not made of hatred. I say this in the light of history. Arrian, the principal historian of Alexander, writing his Indika (based on earlier sources now defunct) three centuries after the Macedonian notes that the Indians were imbued with a great sense of justice and that they did not attack others, nor were they attacked by outsiders. Other Alexandrine chroniclers tell us that Taxila was a very utopia where theft and fraud were unknown and where tolerance permitted three religions to co-exist.

Rewind to the great cities of the Indus Valley. Neither in Harappa nor in Moen jo Daro, the two most extensively investigated remains in Pakistan, do we find any evidence of defensive walls. The walls were clearly meant to demarcate the cities and the gateways to regulate the flow of visitors. They were singularly without defensive arrangements. Neither city turned up remains of monuments to kings and generals; nor too do they contain signs of glorification of warfare and the subjugation of enemies.

The people of the subcontinent were the quintessential Sufis of the ancient world. This was the country that produced a true religion of peace. Somewhere along the way, we lost the soul that made us human. It is time to regain what we lost. It is time to move on from animosity and belligerence to become what the Greeks noted us for.

Other partition stories: Across the Border, 'I have seen Lahore' and what brought me to Memory, Justice, Healing Evening at Making Democracy Real 2014

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 18:30,


At 11 January 2014 at 09:24, Anonymous Sadaf Hamid said...

Thank you for sharing this.

At 11 January 2014 at 22:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharing too heals. Thanks.

At 12 January 2014 at 19:38, Anonymous Nandita Das said...

Does sharing such memories help Salman. How people respond: those who have similar memories and those who are young and don't have any such experience. Many young people even don't remember partition.

And you have me as a new reader here.

At 13 January 2014 at 11:23, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 14 January 2014 at 13:19, Anonymous Ayesha Ali said...

Cherey te sochan te yadan likhyan payan nein.

At 14 January 2014 at 15:10, Anonymous Initiatives of Change said...

We'd love to hear your thoughts from the conference. What you learned, what challenged you!

At 14 January 2014 at 21:17, Anonymous Ramneek Mohan said...

I recall Salman, my friend, on that visit to Jalandhar, the town I had lived in for 13 years, refusing to take me as "escort" to his village, saying he had to travel this journey alone and exorcise the ghosts. And I salute this wonderful soul, a FRIEND if there was one, for the big heart that he has, forgiving even though not forgetting, in the true spirit of reconciliation.

At 15 January 2014 at 11:00, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat said...

Beautiful title "‘Memory, Justice, Healing’ .... Salman sahib I remember that sad incident u narrated when visited Gymkhana club last month, I understand it can never be easy for anyone to forgive and forget but I am glad that you will live with this satisfaction & peace ! ... Somebody once said, PART OF HEALING PROCESS IS SHARING WITH PEOPLE WHO CARE ! & I agree .....

At 15 January 2014 at 15:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ramneek, You are very kind indeed. We, both, value your friendship. And we hope to see you later this year.

At 15 January 2014 at 15:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Mahwish, Holding a grudge is the worst poison one can give oneself. My act of forgiving was helped by Mahnidra Pratab Sehgal with his readiness to share the guilt he had inherited from his late father.

At 15 January 2014 at 15:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ayesha Ali, Katha he aidi lummi tay aukarran vali jay.

At 16 January 2014 at 18:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nandita, my audience was mixed. There were many Indians, us four Pakistanis and people from Africa, Europe, the Americas, Australia, the Far East. the common link or bond, if you please, is the ability to feel and even experience the other's grief. Everyone did that. As if it were their own. In that way, every telling of my story lightens the burden. If it weren't for Rajmohan and Usha, I might have waited forever to turn the story of my 2008 yatra into a book. I promised them, I'll do it this year, 2014.

At 18 January 2014 at 18:50, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

This is unforgettable. But is this unforgivable?

At 18 January 2014 at 18:56, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

It takes so much to forgive.

At 18 January 2014 at 21:56, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Words are forgotten but memories remain still

At 19 January 2014 at 08:14, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nothing is unforgivable. Forgiving means moving on. Remember, the forgiving was easy for me when I saw Mahindra Pratab was ridden by the guilt of his long-dead father.

At 9 March 2014 at 05:52, Blogger Unknown said...

What a touching story and the meeting with Mahindra Pratap ji. Indeed a free passage needs to be allowed between East and West Punjab.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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