The Partition Story: Broken Borders, Unbroken Bonds

The yearning to reconnect with lost roots, embodied by artefacts and shared pain, transcends borders, affirming an enduring bond that time cannot erase
The Tree of Hope inside Amritsar's Partition Museum
The Tree of Hope inside Amritsar's Partition MuseumThe Partition Museum

The letter we have placed in a vitrine at the Partition Museum in Amritsar is jagged and torn; the edges of it are like shards of broken glass—the sharpness of which still wounds across the chasm of 75 years.

Kehar Singh longs for his wife, Zainab, whom he had rescued from a terrifying mob and had married. But later, Zainab was rescued from him by the government machinery, which ruled that Muslim women had to be sent to the newly formed "Pakistan" and Hindu and Sikh women had to be brought back, forcibly if needed.

He narrates how when he and Zainab were passing through Patti Town on January 1, 1948, while going to see some relatives, she was arrested by the police and placed in a transit camp in Amritsar. He adds that in the police station, "she was weeping and telling the police she was not willing to go to Pakistan and that she also had her contented wish to stay with me …"

But while we can hear the cries of Kehar Singh, who remained in Tarn Taran and Zainab, who was transported back to Lahore, their love story is one of far too many divisions and ruptured lives which dotted every blood-soaked step of the Partition. Most of the stories went undocumented because, for Partition survivors, love is another country which offers no refuge to the brokenhearted.

The Partition led to the immediate displacement of lakhs of people
The Partition led to the immediate displacement of lakhs of peopleShutterstock

Fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and children disappeared as though they had never existed—and that is why, till today, each generation born of those refugees cannot but long to go back in time and find that utopia, ephemeral though it may be.

The real dividing line that Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew was not on the ground but through a lifestyle, a culture, an identity, and millions of dreams.

The disruption was enormous as families and lovers struggled to remain together. Sometimes, they did manage to miraculously find each other.

One such story reflects this serendipity, called the narrative of "The Phulkari Coat and the Briefcase," also at the Partition Museum in Amritsar.

The coat and the briefcase belonged to 22-year-old Pritam Kaur and 30-year-old Bhagwan Singh Maini. She was from Gujranwala, and he was from Mianwali, both now in Pakistan. They had been introduced to each other for an arranged marriage, but the chaos of Partition wrecked their plans. And they were both forced to flee. She had carried with her a small suitcase which included the Phulkari coat—possibly meant for her wedding day—and he carried his degrees and some property papers in his briefcase. Searching for safety, they both coincidentally reached a refugee camp in Amritsar and then discovered each other while queuing up for rations. Their families decided that they must have been meant for each other.

The museum documents Partition through audio-visual stations across 
14 galleries
The museum documents Partition through audio-visual stations across 14 galleriesShutterstock

But lost loves haunted a whole generation of survivors, and these have searingly included the loss of homes. People had to get used to the idea that homes were no longer safe spaces—they could be burnt or looted, and their precious possessions could belong to someone else overnight.

When my grandfather, Basant Krishan Khanna, his wife, Lilavati, and four children were forced to lock their home in Lahore and flee to the safety of Amritsar in August 1947, while the city burnt around them, they never realised that they would not be able to return.

A lawyer by profession, my grandfather scoffed at the possibility and said it was unheard of that a country could be divided so that no one could return "home" permanently.

Bhagwan Singh Maini and Pritam Kaur
Bhagwan Singh Maini and Pritam KaurShutterstock

However, this nightmare came true. When he took a truck back to Lahore to bring back whatever assets he could manage, he found that a family was already living in their home, using everything. They, too, were refugees, so how could he ask them to return anything? Finally, he only brought back a few books, but it was a despair that would haunt him his whole life. And my mother, Rajini Rosha, who was 13 years old at the time, could only bring herself back to find that home 50 years later.

But it was another erasure of memory, as the home had disappeared due to some redevelopment that Lahore was undergoing. She could never find that oasis of time again—that "Paris of the East" which she remembers so well.

My father, who was 23 when he had to leave Government College, Lahore, kept many memories alive by becoming part of the "Lahore Club," based out of Delhi and where many refugees continued to meet over the years.

Others, like them, would cross over in the evening of their lives to find borderless memories left behind.

Lilavati and Basant Kisan Khanna
Lilavati and Basant Kisan KhannaThe Partition Museum

We have thousands of oral histories in the Partition Museums in Amritsar and Delhi. But because of time's passage, many of the Partition Survivors we are now recording are in their 80s and 90s. They were children when Partition took place, so while many go back looking for their homes, others still long to meet their childhood friends.

And if they cannot return, their grandchildren carry that desire, almost like it is an inherited love. I had read somewhere that holocaust survivors carry a memory of what had happened to their families and then pass it on to their children, almost like a mutated gene. Perhaps the same thing happened to the post-partition generation, and I may also carry that gene within me.

Indeed, it would explain why more and more younger people want to explore the roots of their families—and many grandchildren who have little knowledge of the Partition are drawn to an unfamiliar land.

For instance, Priyanka Mehta, featured in the Partition Museum in Delhi, went to Lahore to find the family home. But she found the old homestead had been renovated. However, the family living there had kept the electricity meter, thinking that whenever anyone came from across the border, they could take it back to India.

It is these small mementoes—a tiny collection of earth from the lost homeland, a stone slab with the house name written on it, a lassi ka matka, a favourite dupatta—that are emotive in every way, reminiscent of home.

But then borders fall before us as we have the words of shared pain and a common language of forced separation, which allows us to still meet—just as we did when there were no barbed wires.

Amar Kapur was over 90 when I interviewed him for the Partition Museum around eight years ago. His best friends had been left across the border, but Amar had never forgotten them, though he had to leave Lahore in 1947. He had preserved a letter from his friend Asaf Khwaja written in 1949.

Khwaja—whom Amar was not to meet for 33 other years—wrote in 1949:

"We in Lahore, your friends and former playmates, those who were in school with you and in college and whose first 20 years of life are inseparably linked with those of yours, assure you with the utmost sincerity that distance has not made the slightest difference in our love and affection for you …we had spent good times, our grand times together. We have common memories and common experiences that bind us so closely together in the spirit that no circumstances can wrench us apart."

Somehow, that sentiment persists no matter how much time has gone by.

Kishwar Desai is an award-winning author and playwright who writes fiction and non-fiction. She's also the chairperson of the Partition Museum.

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