The ghosts of 1947

In the streets of old Rawalpindi, traces of the city’s cosmopolitan, pre-Partition past can still be found. Crumbling mandirs, cavernous havelis, and time-worn gurdwaras harken back to an era in which Sikhs, Hindus and other communities shared this historic city with Muslims. As we are reminded in August each year, this was not to last.

Punjab, along with Bengal, was the worst affected by violence during the fateful months of summer 1947. In Punjab, as communal tensions reached a crescendo, they ripped apart communities which had lived together for centuries. Former bureaucrat and erudite gentleman Roedad Khan was a witness to the chaos. He has described for a BBC documentary:”Hindus and Muslims were the grip of madness, you know. Lunacy, lunacy.” The intensity of this vivisection was such that the pain caused by it has lived on. It occupies a permanent place in the minds of even those that did not witness it directly. Stories of Partition, passed down through families, have preserved the memories of the tremendous suffering that it entailed.

When I think of Partition, I am inevitably reminded of Bapsi Sidhwa’s immortal Ice-Candy Man, brought to screen by Deepa Mehta as the epic motion picture Earth 1947. Through the eyes of eight-year old Lenny, a Parsi girl growing up in Lahore, it captures the final moments before the “cracking” of India. Young and inquisitive Lenny is the only child of a respectable Parsi couple which resides in one of Lahore’s upscale neighbourhoods. Their household counts members of all religious communities amongst staff and friends. Though never far from her mother’s gaze, Lenny is brought up largely by Shanta Bibi, her Hindu ayah, played by the formidable Nandita Das.

Despite the passage of seven decades, the wounds of the soul inflicted by Partition remain unaddressed. Both Pakistan and India have taken little interest in healing the anguish of those who lived through Partition

In the afternoons, Shanta is fond of taking Lenny, who is afflicted with polio, to a nearby park. There she meets up with a regular group of friends, all trying to make a living in humble jobs and trades. The motley crew represents the eclectic mix that was pre-Partition Lahore. There is Hasan, the Muslim maalshi (masseuse), Sher Singh, the Sikh zookeeper, Ramji, a Hindu who works at a government building, and of course, Dil Navaz, the Ice Candy Wallah (ice-cream seller), who also doubles as an Islamic fakir or soothsayer. Played by Amir Khan, the Ice-Candy Wallah is fond of romantic poetry, spoiling Lenny with ice cream and bike rides, and jealous of Hasan’s affection for Shanta. In the park’s shady confines, the group gathers to exchange the gossip of the day, tell jokes, and vie for the attention of the unmarried and elegant Shanta Bibi.

As Partition draws near, there is a growing sense of unease amongst the group – that India as they have known it will cease to exist. Where will the border be? Will Lahore be a part of Pakistan, or India?

Once the flames of communal violence begin to rage towards Lahore, the group’s once innocent banter starts to take on an insidious, communal character. No longer just friends, religious allegiances start to take on prominence as fraternity is replaced by suspicion.

Like Lahore, Partition emptied Rawalpindi of its Hindu and Sikh populations. In the bazaars between Chandni Chowk and Saddar, one can find many a forlorn building which stands testament to that half-remembered era. One such structure is Haveli Sujan Singh, hidden away amongst the narrow alleys of Bhaabra Bazaar.

When I visited it on a hot, slow afternoon a few years ago, the haveli cut a picture of neglect. ‘Rai Bahadur Sardar Sujan Singh,” stated a weathered plaque. Once the lavish abode of Sujan Singh, a wealthy Sikh timber merchant, the haveli was built in 1893 in small brick, archetypical of the Mughal period. Its splendid carved doorways, airy verandahs, and the delicate diyar woodwork of its awnings had betrayed a glorious past. Families would have lived there, the aroma of food would have wafted through its corridors, and laughter and music might have ricocheted from its walls. It had now become a shell of its former self. Much of the stone and woodwork had been looted. In places, the walls had collapsed, and vegetation was growing through the brickwork.

At some point during the exodus, the Singh family migrated to India, never to return.

What would those old bricks have witnessed? On that hot summer day, this and other questions hung in the still, humid air around the old haveli. In folk tales that we were told growing up, it was said spirits often return to the sites of their former torment at the time of dopehr, the height of the afternoon. I had wondered whether any still roamed the desolate passageways of Sujan Singh haveli.

Despite the passage of seven decades, the wounds of the soul inflicted by Partition remain undressed. Both Pakistan and India have taken little interest in healing the anguish of those who lived through Partition.

If doing what is morally right still carries any significance, and it should, both countries should launch a special “Partition Visa,” allowing all from that generation to visit their former abodes on either side of the border.

In this action, Pakistan should not wait for reciprocity.

In addition to facilitating the survivors of Partition, Pakistan should also begin an internal process of remembrance and healing.

Finally, special efforts are also required to restore and preserve the built heritage of that period a
From behind the walls and within the crevices of aged, dilapidated buildings, the ghosts of 1947 observe us. They await our long-withheld empathy, and justice.

The writer is a London-based economic development professional of Pakistani origin

Published in Daily Times, January 18th 2019.