An empire is toppling. Years of brutal oppression, divide-and-rule, are culminating in terror and a tragedy of biblical proportions.
Param Singh mounts his horse. Looping the reins across a wrist, he turns and bends down to lift his little daughter from his wife’s hands, the child’s arms and legs already waving with excitement, loving these rides with her father. Placing her securely in front of him, he waits as his wife goes back through the hefty doors of their courtyard, where the family dog is lying patiently still as Param’s toddler son tries to grab his hair. Smiling, Param gently flicks the reins and they set off, the sun shining down, the familiar countryside opening before them… … blood bubbling through the soil…..
He wakes with a start and sits up, senses alert, heart thundering. Is that a mob? Murderers at his door? Should he flee on his horse, kept saddled every night?
As the seconds passed and dawn spread across the courtyard, as the silent walls and doors of his home came into focus, Param Singh’s breathing eased and slowed. Thank God that today, whichever way it fell, their question would be answered, at last their tortuous dilemma resolved.
They’d already endured months of turmoil, separations and increasing violence. Now, each August day took them nearer to its draconian dates and the urgent need for a decision. Before his mind could falter at the thought of what lay ahead of them this morning, Param flung aside the khes, woven with cotton from their own fields, and swung his legs over the manjha, patting his dog Sherjang, who’d immediately emerged from underneath, hearing his owner moving.
For many desperate days, amidst turbulence and danger, Param and the other three men, Nirmal, Ajeet and Jusmail, had talked, discussed, reasoned, debated, till their arguments went around in tired, threadbare circles. Conflicted, torn between their hearts and a treacherous unknown, they had nothing with which to make the most fateful decision of their lives. Fateful not just for them but also their families.
When their respective families had left, Param and the other three men had chosen to stay behind. To guard their homes and land, to continue with the harvesting and preparing the fields for the next cycle of sowing. To be custodians till their families could return, pick up the threads of their old lives, reconnect with all that was precious: friendships, attachment, affinity, memories, and above all, belonging. Param was around twenty-two, the eldest in his family. Nirmal, rather older than the others, was a practical man embedded in the routines of a farmer’s life. Ajeet, in his early thirties, methodical and analytical, was often called upon by villagers to disentangle arguments and disputes. The fourth member of their group, Jusmail, was both feared for his quick temper and admired for his singing of kirtan at the gurdwara. With mounting reports of vengeful militias, mobs and massacred villagers, their situation had become critical. A decision had to be made.
The four men faced a stark choice, stay or leave. Both options accompanied by mortal danger. Their hearts’ desire was to stay and protect all that their forefathers and foremothers had painstakingly wrestled from rough, hostile land: cherished homes, abundant fields, rooted lives.
‘If we’re attacked’ Param had said in one of their endless discussions, ‘we can’t expect the villagers to risk their lives for us, they’ve got their families to think of.’
‘We could hire men to help us guard our homes and land,’ Nirmal had suggested.
‘If we kill enough of them, they won’t dare come back,’ Jusmail had quickly added.
‘They’ll return in greater numbers,’ Ajeet the strategist had chillingly replied,
If they chose to leave, they could take their most valuable livestock, a farmer’s assets, perhaps helping their families make a new start. ‘But our homes and land are worth thousands of rupees,’ Jusmail had objected.
‘And there’s no guarantee we’d reach the other side alive,’ Param had said. They’d be embarking on a gruelling journey of almost one hundred and fifty miles, herding their livestock through wild terrain in a land become lawless with blood-thirsty mobs, roaming militias and bandits.
Late last night, the four men had finally agreed a way forward, settled on a method, a plan to break their tormenting dilemma. Accepting the result would take all their courage. Param lifted his head and listened for new, dangerous sounds from beyond the walls of his family courtyard. The tranquillity of the early morning hours appeared to be the same as ever, a cow lowing somewhere, a donkey braying in the distance. Nevertheless, nothing was the same. His own home was now blank and colourless: the kitchen area empty of his mother and wife preparing breakfast; the air vacant of his children’s voices and the hurry and bustle of his brothers getting ready for school and college; their courtyard doors no longer harbouring one of his sister’s friends, shyly coming to collect her for classes. No more the sight of his father-sahib, either casually dressed to oversee the work in the fields or more formally in a white turban and black achkan, if going on a business trip. During the day, there’d be none of the comings and goings of a busy household: neighbours dropping in now and then; a woman from one of the poorer families coming to ask for flour or lentils from his mother; the occasional official or police officer arriving from town wanting his father-sahib’s help with some task in the area, or a couple of villagers coming to ask his father-sahib to accompany them for a meeting with a lawyer or bureaucrat. When Param was older, his father-sahib had spoken to him about assisting others with formal matters, ‘Because you’re educated, people will ask for your help. Always do what you can. Afterwards they’ll want to take you for tea or dinner. Never accept, it’s unworthy. Politely decline.’
Although news of disturbances, turmoil and demonstrations had begun to filter into the village many months ago, no-one believed they would be affected. Politics was for people in the grand cities, not simple people like them, their lives tied to the seasons and the soil. Param was a man who liked to read. Whenever he rode to town he’d bring back a newspaper, and often read it to the other villagers, as they sat under the wide-spreading tree in the centre of the village. When he read them an article about atrocities in Rawalpindi, where Hindu women had been forced to kill their own children and other women had jumped into a well to escape rape, his voice had become dry with shock. Shaken, the villagers had looked at each other in disbelief and horror.
Late last year, in 1946, a few of the families from the village had decided to leave. This year, as the months of 1947 came and went, the exodus had increased. Most families believed they’d be returning, many hiding valuables inside walls or in holes dug deep into the ground somewhere on their property. One of the Sikh families had entrusted their copy of the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, to Param’s father-sahib, who had carefully stored it behind lock and key. As the months passed and more families left, they were entrusted with two more copies. Beautiful, grandly illustrated tomes, treasured for generations.
Shivering in the early morning chill, Param bathed with cold water. Going into his room, he opened the almirah to pick up a shalwar–kameez, the outfit worn by most men in that part of the world, and noticed as if with new eyesight, his wife’s carefully folded clothes; the colours of the suits and delicacy of the dupattas powerfully evoking her presence, underlining their broken world. Tying his turban, Param concentrated on his reflection in the mirror, but couldn’t control the faint tremble in his fingers.
Stepping back into the courtyard, Param called Sherjang, who ran eagerly towards him, knowing what was to come. Leaving the house by the back doors, Param quickly walked to where their animals were kept. Untethering his horse, he swung into the saddle and set off, relishing the crisp morning air, Sherjang loping at his side.
Riding along the paths surrounding their fields where Param’s family grew wheat, cotton and sugarcane, Param relished the beauty of the fields and achingly wondered if this would be his last sight of them. His father-sahib had also planted a mini-woodland of trees, enriching the ecology and offering welcome shade against the sun for whoever should want it. Turning his horse towards the open countryside, they raced through the fresh morning, hooves thundering over the ground, Sherjang exhilarated by running at full speed. The villagers had a saying about Param: “When the Holdar’s son goes riding, you can see neither the man nor the horse, only the dust left in their wake.” ‘Holdar’, being the colloquial version of Havildar, his father-sahib having served in the British Indian army and fought in the First World War, being despatched as far as Ypres, Mesopotamia and other countries.
Conscious of not wanting to be late in meeting the other three at the gurdwara, Param galloped back home earlier than normal and saw that Satraj, employed to look after his horse, had already arrived. Dismounting and handing him the reins, Param paused for a brief chat. Everything this morning carried a heightened aura, the light brighter, sounds clearer, Satraj’s presence more valuable. ‘Look after him,’ he said to Satraj unnecessarily, patting his horse.
Param hurried back into the house. Unlocking the room where they kept valuables, he lifted his father’s military bag from its hook and slung it across his shoulders. He’d already filled some of its pockets with heavy rupee coins. Just one coin could keep a family going for a month. While he was at the gurdwara, Aafa would come to feed the livestock, and in a couple of hours Ma Banti, quiet and efficient, would come to cook and wash for him. His life on a knife edge, fear and hope swayed inside him. Picking up a massive padlock and key, he swiftly crossed the courtyard and placed them on a small table.
Param closed the strong, heavy doors of their home and told Sherjang to stay back. For once, Sherjang made no objection and lay down in front of the doors, quietly alert. His world had changed, the bustling house had become empty, the people and children he loved had disappeared; he sensed turbulence and danger.
Near the end of May, barely three months ago, Param had galloped back from town even faster than normal. Searching out his father-sahib and finding him sitting at the table updating his accounts, Param had moved forward a manja, and sat down. He’d recounted the talk in town about the Punjab actually being divided and the new country of Pakistan being just for Muslims:
‘People are saying Sikhs and Hindus should leave or they’ll be killed,’ he’d concluded.
‘How can landowners leave?’ his father-sahib had expostulated, ‘we can’t pick up the land and carry it on our backs. Our lives are in this soil. We may follow different Gods, but we’re all Punjabis, sharing the same culture, language, stories, food, tradition, everything, our whole way of life. And where’re Sikh and Hindu families supposed to go? Some of them have been here for hundreds of years, through empire after empire: the Moghuls, the Sikh empire, the British. And Sikhism grew here, Baba Nanak and our Gurus walked this land. Our own ancestor from the Randhawa clan, Baba Buddha, accompanied Guru Nanak on his travels. We can’t run away at the first sign of trouble. These riots and agitation will die down in a few weeks. All the same, I can’t understand why the authorities haven’t taken stronger action by now. They could mobilise army units to help the police restore order.’
Param had nodded in agreement, ‘Even so, let’s get the younger women away,’ he’d proposed and his father-sahib had assented.
The next day Param was on a train, escorting his wife, little children, and teenage sister, to the eastern side of Punjab to stay with extended family.
On the first day of June, Param returned home, his mood grave and sombre. After the evening meal, he’d taken his father-sahib aside, ‘The violence is even worse over there. Homes, shops, government buildings burnt down. Frequent attacks on Muslims. On the station platforms, they’re selling ‘Muslim pani’ and ‘Hindu pani’, though they fill their buckets from the same water pump,’ he reported with dark irony.
His mild-mannered father-sahib had burst out in anger, ‘My regiment had Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. We fought side by side. When one of us was wounded, d’you think we asked if he’s Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, before helping? Look at our village, we take care of each other. After the rains, when that wall fell down on Manoj’s son, all the men, every man who could, helped dig him out. These political fanatics are a plague on us,’ he’d finished furiously.
‘There’s worse,’ Param had replied quietly, ‘Sikhs paraded naked Muslim women through the streets, who’d been raped and beaten. And much worse,’ pausing, preparing himself for the words he needed to speak. ‘Hindu men abducted Muslim girls from their school, took them to a stadium and publicly gang-raped them.’ Ice-cold silence enveloped both men: horror beyond endurance; iniquity beyond comprehension.
Two days later, a guillotine came to hang above them. Partition was declared on 3rd June 1947. To come into effect in a mere seventy-four days: the midnight of 14th-15th August.
Now, on this August morning, walking through the village, Param was focusing on the two tasks ahead of him. First a visit to his friend Samir’s house to ensure the discharging of an important responsibility. Secondly, the potent meeting at the gurdwara, his mind quailing at both the simplicity and the immensity of the outcome. Glancing towards the fields in the distance he glimpsed Farhan, the village’s most successful kabbadi player, leading his oxen out across the common area, where festivals were often celebrated. The working day started early here, much of the work having to be done before the fierce heat of the afternoon. Coming up to the well, Param saw Farah Bibi, strict matriarch of her large family, pulling up a bucket of fresh water, pouring it into her own container, then expertly lifting the large bulbous pot onto her head. Everyone used the well, it belonged to all.
Their village was medium sized, with a mixed population of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Life was textured by the passing of the seasons, the sowing and harvesting of crops; births, marriages and deaths; the rituals of religion and the feasting at festivals. The village’s invisible currents contained the good and the bad common to communities everywhere: happiness and unhappiness, the peacemakers and the quarrelsome, the stoics and the dreamers, the victims and the aggressors – including the tacitly accepted violence against women. Electricity, the new marvel, had barely reached towns let alone rural villages, kerosene lanterns providing light in the evenings. No-one in the village possessed a radio. The villagers rarely saw English soldiers, the nearest garrison being about forty miles away.
As Param walked on, the smoke from wood-burning home-made chulhas rose above the walls of courtyards, tea and breakfast being prepared. Param fought back the emotions threatening to flood him: the smell of cardamom and fennel simmering in water, parathas sizzling on a tava, had ever been the morning aromas of his life. An old man, leaning on a walking stick progressed slowly along the lane in Param’s direction. As they passed, Param put his hands together and greeted him, addressing him as ‘Babaji.’ Irrespective of their religion, the elderly men of the village were all addressed as Babaji. At the end of the lane, as Param turned a corner, a voice called out his name. Manoj, the village shopkeeper, from one of the Hindu families, was waving to him. Param lifted his hand in acknowledgment but continued on, wary of being delayed. A little further along he came to the village centre: the open space graced by an imposing tree, a broad platform running around its base where elderly men gathered during the day, and where those returning from the fields in the evening, would take a breather, stop and chat awhile. The women of the village, in the afternoon lull, would gather in each other’s homes, taking embroidery or crochet with them, their hands ever busy.
Param quickened his pace towards Samir’s house, the village schoolteacher and one of his closest friends, the two having grown up together, climbing trees, flying kites, playing soldiers. Arriving at Samir’s house, and seeing the courtyard doors half-open, he was about to announce himself when Samir, sitting on a mat spread on the floor, a thali with parathas and a glass of chai in front of him, noticed Param and immediately called him in. Samir’s mother unrolled another mat and told her daughter-in-law to make breakfast for Param too, which Param quickly refused. ‘I’m going to the gurdwara,’ Param said.
Noticing the military bag across Param’s shoulders, Samir stopped eating and watched him with growing apprehension. Opening the bag, Param took out a list of everyone who worked for his family and a collection of rupee coins. Placing them in front of Samir, he asked him to ensure everyone on the list was paid. Samir stood up, his voice locking in his throat.
‘Beta?’ Samir’s mother questioned Param, their world being such, no other words were needed.
‘I don’t know yet,’ Param answered, but that didn’t stop her eyes welling up and her hand holding onto his arm.
A month ago, in early July, sitting under the tree with other villagers, Param had read out a newspaper article about Sir Cyril Radcliffe coming from Vilayet, England, to draw a line through the Punjab and divide it in two; the western part to become the new country of Pakistan for Muslims and the eastern part to remain in India. The listeners had exploded in anger and outrage, ‘We’re all Punjabis!’ ‘We’ve lived together for generations.’ ‘What does this gora-sahib know about us?’ ‘We celebrate Diwali with you and you celebrate Eid with us.’ ‘We’re one people.’ ‘How can they tear us apart?’
Each day in July had dawned with greater tension. As reports of violence and the rampages of plundering gangs increased Param’s father-sahib had himself called together his household and told them, ‘If looters come to the village, they’ll attack this house first, it’s the largest. If that happens, don’t hesitate, drop everything, run for your lives, save yourselves.’
Param’s father-sahib had also become concerned about the holy books entrusted to their care, including their own family copy, ‘We don’t know where the division line’s going to be and I can’t take the risk of the holy books being desecrated’ he’d told Param. ‘They’re heavy, but your horse can take the weight. A day’s ride from here, to the east, there’s a mainly Sikh village. Because it’s further east, it may stay in India. An army friend of mine, Varinder Singh lives there. He’ll take care of them.’ The following morning, by first light, each copy of the Guru Granth Sahib had been carefully wrapped, placed in its own bag, loaded and secured onto Param’s horse. As Param rode off, his father-sahib, the ex-army man who’d fought in a terrible world war, had stood and gazed after him till he disappeared from sight.
At the end of July, as Partition moved ever nearer, a Muslim friend of Param’s father-sahib, came to the house to warn him the authorities were going to impose a curfew that very night and advised him to get his family out while he could. Urgent, desperate decisions had to be made at speed. ‘I’m younger and stronger than you,’ Param had asserted to his father-sahib, ‘you take the family and I’ll stay behind to guard the house and land. You can return when the violence dies down and everything settles.’
Ahead of Param, the small gurdwara came into view, its white walls gleaming in the morning sun. In his mind’s eye, Param saw himself coming and going from this holy place, from childhood, through his teenage years, to being a married man. To-day, with his world become perilous and dangerous, he and the other three men were gathering here for the most significant decision of their lives.
Only yesterday, a kafila, a refugee convoy had stopped by their village. Families from the village had donated food and clothes, and in the evening many of the villagers, including Param and the other three had sat and talked with them. Weary, starving, suffering humanity. Who would ever choose to be a refugee? Traumatised people carrying terrible tales of atrocities and barbarity; describing mutilated bodies, every limb hacked off; others beaten to death or beheaded.
‘God himself must be crying,’ an old woman said, ‘if you’re a Sikh or a Hindu, run for your lives, leave. This land is only for Muslims now.’ The Muslim villagers had protested vehemently, declared they’d never turn on their neighbours, it was unthinkable, impossible. The old woman had shaken her head, ‘It’s happening, people become afraid or greedy, neighbour turns against neighbour.’
‘Not always,’ a voice had interjected, ‘we were sheltered by our Muslim neighbours, they risked their own lives and helped us to escape.’
‘Yes,’ replied a voice, ‘there are people like that, Hindus and Sikhs have saved lives too.’
‘There’re more killers than saints,’ interjected another, ‘Sikhs and Hindus killing Muslims, Muslims killing them. When the mob attacks, it’s like a black storm…’ the voice died away, burdened by memory.
Another spoke up, grave with horror, ‘We’ve seen young girls and women, carried away screaming … and other women, left on the ground, whose…’ searching for veiling words, to cast some dignity on the violated and slaughtered, ‘…whose upper bodies were sliced away…’ An appalled shiver had run through the listeners.
‘They’ve killed conscience,’ said the old woman who’d first spoken, ‘where there’s no conscience, there’s no safety.’
Param, Ajeet, Nirmal, and Jusmail, had walked away from the camp, kerosene lanterns swinging in their hands, minds heavy with thought. They’d reached the well, when Jusmail had burst out, strained beyond endurance at having to choose between his home and the unknown.
‘My family are waiting in a refugee camp, waiting to come back here, to their own home, their own land, their own lives. I took on the responsibility of guarding and protecting our property, not giving it away. I’m staying.’
‘Your family needs you to stay alive,’ Nirmal had replied quietly.
‘Are we going to run away like cowards? Betray our duty?’ Jusmail demanded belligerently.
‘I have a suggestion,’ said Param, ‘come back to my house and I’ll explain.’
As they were walking through the darkness, Param had been thinking about a conversation with his father-sahib, and an idea had occurred to him; an idea to shake him to his core, its finality daunting and implacable. A couple of years ago, having come across an article about the battles at Ypres, and the horrific conditions soldiers endured in the First World War, he’d asked his father-sahib how he’d got through it all, what had given him the strength to persevere.
His father-sahib had been quiet for a moment and then started a longer story than Param had expected, first going into family history. ‘You know that your grandfather, my father, died at a young age. Suddenly we lost the man we loved and the one who provided for us. My mother was left with five children to bring up. I was just old enough to join the army. Every paisa I earned would help feed and clothe the family. I may have been a young recruit, but I made sure I worked harder than anyone in my regiment. When others were taking a break, I’d go off on my own and practice marching, rifle training, other lessons. When my father died so suddenly, I realised the unknown is always there; we can control our own actions but not the unknown. My guiding thought became this: my responsibility was to work as hard as I could – everything beyond my control I would leave to Guruji. The English officers started to notice me and gave me extra duties. Promotions didn’t happen automatically, only when there was a vacancy. So, when a Havildar post became available, I was lucky enough to be promoted. You asked about the battles in France,’ his father-sahib had paused, ‘it was hell on earth. Our Indian regiments fought to the hilt. In October it rained for a month, the whole area was drenched, we lived in trenches with mud, rats, disease; constant attacks from gas, grenades, machine guns …. we didn’t know if we’d live to see the next minute let alone the next day. I did what I had always done, the utmost I could: looked after my men, fought with all my strength – and left the rest to Guruji.’
When the four men reached Param’s house, Sherjang sprung up excitedly, delighted to see them. As the men made themselves comfortable on a couple of manjhas, Param hung his kerosene lantern on a hook and surprised them by moving the table nearer to them, then disappearing into one of the rooms leading off the courtyard. Returning with four glasses and a bottle of whiskey.
‘Isn’t that uncle’s military-pension whiskey?’ Nirmal questioned uneasily. Every month, when Param’s father-sahib went to collect his military pension he’d buy a bottle of whiskey for himself and a huge bag of sweet jalebis for the family, much to the delight of all. As for the whiskey, his father-sahib being a disciplined man, would restrict himself to a single nightly peg.
Param poured out the whiskey, handed round the glasses, sat down and took a deep breath. ‘I have an idea for a way out of our deadlock,’ he began, and recounted the nugget of his old conversation with his father-sahib.
‘Time’s running out, we can’t come to a decision, we don’t know what’s best, stay or leave. We can’t look into the future. Let’s ask Guruji what we should do?’
‘How?’ Ajeet the analytical immediately demanded.
‘If it means abandoning our homes, we mays as well invite looters and thieves to help themselves,’ Jusmail countered sharply. ‘As long as we’re here, we’re still an obstacle. They know we’ll fight back. We’ll fortify the doors, hire men, buy weapons.’
‘There’s no guarantee of safety anywhere,’ Nirmal answered, ‘that’s why we’re stuck. I’ve got children to look after. I need to stay alive, but I don’t know how.’
‘It’s the same for all of us,’ Param said.
‘Explain how your idea would work,’ Ajeet asked, leaning forward.
Taking a deep breath, knowing each word may be the most important he’d ever utter, carrying life and death, Param began, ‘We write on two slips of paper: the word ‘Go’ on one, and ‘Stay’ on the other. And ask Granthi-ji to throw them towards the Guru Granth Sahib, our living Guru. The slip landing nearest the holy book…’ he went silent, his heart stopping mid-beat. ‘…the slip landing nearest the holy book is our decision. Final. Binding.’
No-one spoke. They had no more leeway, no more time, no more information. Jusmail buried his head in his hands; Nirmal sat very still, eyes closed; Ajeet got up and began to pace around. An age passed in that courtyard. The dark sky above them, the moon and stars looking down, as they had for billions of years, watching humans wrestling with their agonies and conflicts. Blood had thinned, longing and anguish had struggled with each other.
In the end, it was Jusmail, the hot-head, the singer, whose radiant kirtan captivated the sangat, who lifted his head and spoke first, ‘The Guru Granth Sahib is our eleventh Guru, our living Guru. I’ll accept the Guru’s decision.’
Nirmal, whose fierce concentration pulsed from him, spoke two simple words ‘I agree.’
Ajeet stopped pacing and sat back down. ‘Reason can’t work when there isn’t enough information and where we can’t control the result. Our world is broken, torn apart and our hearts are breaking. A decision is needed, else we leave ourselves open to chance, dangerous in itself. Considering all the factors, I also agree.’ He paused, letting the words sink in. And then resumed, immediately planning and preparing, ‘If the answer is ‘Stay’, we’ll organise to defend ourselves with everything we have, we’ll prepare for battle and fight for our lives. And if it’s ‘Go,’ I’ll take eight of our most valuable livestock. Herding animals over a hundred and fifty miles, across dangerous territory will take all our strength and willpower, everything we have. Neither answer is going to be easy or guarantee safety.’
Param had hurried to the gurdwara through the darkness to talk to the Granthi, Sherjang trotting at his side. Param’s steps echoing all the steps of his life, coming and going, crossing and criss-crossing, on this tiny piece of the earth he called home.
This morning as Param stood before the gurdwara, one by one, the other three arrived. Each man meticulously dressed, their faces solemn and resolute. Leaving their footwear outside, they went in. The Granthi sat on a small dais, the holy book open in front of him, reciting the Japji Sahib, the regular morning prayer, with which every day began in many Sikh homes and gurdwaras. Param and the men bowed and made an offering, noting the silver tray with two squares of folded paper. (They were not to know how meticulously the Granthi had cut a piece of paper into two equal pieces, written a word on each, and folded them with the precision of an origami master, ensuring neither could be distinguished from the other.) Sitting down, the men seamlessly joined the recitation.
When the Granthi stood up and moved to stand in front of the holy book, Param and the others also rose to their feet. Here they were, in the early morning hours, awaiting destiny in a time of blood and murder, in an act of faith and acceptance. And so began the Ardas; a prayer and a petition, where their four names were spoken and their request articulated. The four men remained standing, their gaze fixed forward, barely breathing, as the Granthi scooped up the folded pieces of paper and walked to the end of the prayer hall.
Where he took a deep breath, stepped forward with a cricketer’s energy, swung his arm high and fast and sent the notes whizzing through the air.
The Granthi himself couldn’t control the shake in his hands as he picked up the square nearest the holy book and unfolded it. A word sizzled up at them: ‘Go’.
The men rushed back to their homes. Sherjang jumped up as Param arrived and flung open the courtyard doors, ran to the table, picked up the huge padlock, stopping for a heart-beat, taking one last look at his home: glancing up at the decorative parapet, skimming his eyes across the doors, the various rooms, catching fleeting glimpses of a shoe, a shawl, a photo. Their lives had carried a silent music, unspoken happiness had been theirs. A deep shuddering breath, then he and Sherjang were out of the house, closing the doors tight and turning the key in the padlock.
Racing to where the animals were kept, Param untethered most of them and shooed them away, so they’d be able to wander and feed themselves. Gathering together his chosen livestock, with Sherjang at his side, he led them rapidly away.
Meeting at the trees planted by Param’s father-sahib, each man arrived at a swift pace, herding their livestock. As soon as they were all together, they set off. Leaving behind their homes, their village, their past.
Thus began an epic journey, arduous and punishing, which would last over three months, where they’d face gnawing hunger, hardship and danger.
Param’s greatest loss on the trek was Sherjang. The men joined the refugee convoy which had stopped by their village, imagining there’d be safety in numbers, only for it to be attacked a few hours later, causing chaos and panic as everyone ran for their lives. ‘Follow me,’ Nirmal had shouted to the others, amidst the fear and tumult, leading them into trees and shrubland. It was only much later, when they felt a little safer and paused for a respite, Param noticed he couldn’t see Sherjang.
Decades would pass before Param learnt how that loyal, protective creature had found his way back home, and barely a day later, battled a looting mob to his last breath, their weapons battering and beating the life out of him.
The four men had continued on, herding their livestock through rough and rugged land, enduring exhaustion and starvation; passing through ghost villages, wading across flooded areas where they slept in trees. Once, coming across a field of chillies, they ravenously ate the burning fruit, scorching their mouths and shocking their weakened bodies.
Param never forgot the kindness of strangers. Reaching the outskirts of a village, Param was despatched to ask for food. He came across a house where a woman was making chapattis for her husband and the workers in his fields; on hearing Param’s request, she immediately packed them all up for him, assuring her husband she’d quickly make some more. In times of extreme need, such generosity becomes mercy and salvation.
Also remembered was the poignant encounter with the tailor. During their trek Param’s clothes had become torn and tattered. Halting near a small town, he found a tailor and ordered a new outfit. When he went to collect his clothes and offered payment, to his surprise the tailor refused it, saying, ‘In our old town, I used to watch you riding by on your horse, you were always well-spoken and stylish. When the killings began, I put my sewing machine on my shoulder and ran for my life. But you, you’ve lost everything. I can’t take your money.’ The empathy of one refugee to another was ever remembered as solace and sharing of hardship.
They came to a point where the only way forward was to cross a swollen river, the waters daunting and threatening. Gathering their resolve and herding their animals, the four men plunged in, water battering at their bodies and sweeping away some of their animals. Param thought he was going to die, the river swilling as high as his lips, the struggle seeming to last a lifetime, taking every bit of mental and physical energy. Eventually, as the men helped each other out at the other end, tears coursed down their faces, wrenchingly grateful they’d all survived. Dear God, let there not be another obstacle like this.
As the gruelling days came and went, the mutual guardianship of each other, became their only defence against the harsh and brutal environment, each other’s lives as important as their own.
After what seemed like an eternity of struggling, trekking, pain and bone-aching weariness, looking as wild and skeletal as their livestock, the men came to a village and stopping the first person they saw, asked ‘Is this India?’ ‘Yes,’ came the answer like a benediction.
They were escorted to a refugee camp, where they could rest and let their bodies recover, before setting off again. This time, in various directions to rejoin their families, the Indian government having provided free transport for Partition refugees.
Dedicated to my parents:
Sardar Pakhar Singh Randhawa and Sardarni Kartar Kaur Randhawa
I miss you.
‘The Question’ is based on true events in the life of Sardar Pakhar Singh Randhawa
I hope you’re galloping through the countryside, the wind rushing past you, Sherjang racing at your side
Background: The character of Param Singh is based on my father, Sardar Pakhar Singh Randhawa, and father-sahib is based on my grandfather Havildar Bir Singh Randhawa. Although the story is based on true events, when I began to write I felt the need to fictionalise the main characters, to allow for the imaginative elasticity needed to weave the narrative. Ajeet, Nirmal and Jusmail, are the fictional names of real people.
The representation of a rural village from that period and the depiction of a shared Punjabi culture, have been put together from family stories, books on Partition containing interviews with Partition refugees and on-line sources.
Samir is also a fictional creation, however, he’s based on a Muslim friend of my father’s. After decades had passed, not only did this friend manage to trace my father to the UK but also acquired his phone number. The two men had an emotional conversation.
Regarding the copies of the Guru Granth Sahib entrusted to the family’s care, and later loaded onto Pakhar Singh’s horse to be delivered to a safe place: the copies were eventually donated to a number of gurdwaras.
After Partition, Pakhar Singh wrote mostly in Gurmukhi, the Punjabi script, but Urdu remained embedded in his fingers from his pre-Partition days. Often when having to quickly write a note or take down a message, Urdu would unconsciously flow from his hand.
Partition: Christopher Beaumont, a district officer in Punjab, wrote on 28th July 1947: “Neither the Punjab nor Bengal were ever intended to be partitioned, and it will not be possible to do it otherwise than by leaving nearly everyone with a grievance, more or less legitimate. The position of the Sikh in Punjab will be particularly hard.”
The Partition displaced around 14 million people, the largest mass human migration, creating one of the greatest refugee crises in history. Over a million people were massacred in violence perpetrated by every side. So much blood was spilled into the earth, tree branches seeped it out; rivers were filled with corpses, their waters turning red.
The savagery of men against women was deployed as a weapon by all sides: abduction, forced marriage, beating, raping, mutilation and murdering. No single event can sum up the barbarity and bestiality inflicted on women. Nonetheless, the story of the young Muslim schoolgirls has haunted me ever since I heard it in a documentary, recounted by the artist M. F. Hussain. Language doesn’t contain words strong enough to condemn human evil. Perhaps Iqbal Qaiser, in Walking With Nanak ( by Haroon Khalid) comes nearest. When Khalid recounts a hair-raising visit to Nanak’s Gurdwara situated in a dangerous area, next to Rohtas Fort (in Pakistan), Khalid marvels at Nanak and Mardana’s stay there, given the perils, particularly the danger of being attacked by wild animals. Qaiser replies: “Animals are more scared of humans than humans are of animals. Humans are the worst kind of animals. Nothing is worse than humans. Remember that.”
Many of those who went through the trauma of Partition rarely talked about it. My father’s story emerged in anecdotes or as part of other conversations. It may be, as Aanchal Malhotra comments in her book Remnants of Partition, “Fathoming and untangling memory demands a form of retreat from reality. …I, the interviewer, became the point of retreat, as it were…” Malhotra goes on to say Partition hasn’t yet become absorbed into the past, “…for its consequences are still very much alive today…Its heaviness continues to weigh down those who inherited fragmented stories and memories of it.”
The story of Sparsh Ahuja, in Partition Voices by Kavita Puri, brings alive this generational, visceral connection. After finally hearing his grandfather’s full Partition story, Sparsh knew he had to go back to the family village. “I didn’t feel like our family story could be complete unless one of us saw the place again.” Tracing the ancestral village in Pakistan, Sparsh travels there with a friend. When he’s shown the land where his family’s house had stood “Sparsh instinctively falls to his knees, prostrate, both palms touching the dusty cracked earth. Kneeling, he then puts his hands together, in a namaste, kissing them and raising them to his forehead.”
Later, in collaboration with colleagues, Sparsh went on to create the innovative Project Dastaan, enabling Partition refugees to “revisit” their old homes through VR.
Migration to the UK: The migration of Indians to the UK, including from Punjab, is still a growing area of research. I’m adding a brief version of Pakhar Singh’s migration story for those who may be interested.
After Partition, Pakhar Singh decided he needed to migrate so he could properly provide for his young children. Having to go to Delhi to have his passport made and get a visa, with very little money to support himself, he spent weeks sleeping in doorways and in the open air, subsisting on one snack a day from street stalls. After receiving all the documentation, Pakhar Singh returned to his family in the village to await a message from an agent. And when it came, he had to move as swiftly as when he’d left his old home across the Radcliffe Line, having to get to a distant airport as quickly as he could, with no time for proper goodbyes. Another abrupt departure separated him from his home.
Arriving in England, he made his way to the address of a man from the village, who lived in a shared house with other Punjabi men, and was immediately taken in and looked after. These men had devised a system of helping each other. The system being that the last arrival looked after the newest arrival, providing food, rent and help for a month. Pakhar Singh received the benefit of this system and naturally fulfilled his obligation when the next man came.
Pakhar Singh took any work that was available, from clearing the snow off streets to working on the building of a wall at Tilbury Docks, standing knee deep in water, without any protective footwear or clothes. Moving from job to job, one of his friends wrote to him, suggesting he come to Leamington Spa where the factories were looking for workers. For a genteel spa town, Leamington possessed several major factories at the time, including Ford, Lockheed, Flavel and others. Like most migrant men of whatever educational background, Pakhar Singh worked amidst the smoke, heat and metal of a factory, opting for night shifts, because they paid more.
Working diligently and saving money, a few years later, he and a friend pooled their money and bought a small house with cash, knowing they wouldn’t get a mortgage due to the prevalent racism. At that time, the early fifties, many streets only had a standpipe to provide water; Pakhar Singh and his friend asked a plumber to run a pipe from the standpipe to their house and became the first house in the street to have running water. Creating such excitement, many families followed suit. Later, Pakhar Singh bought a Victorian house and sent for his family.
Education was always prized and encouraged. Pakhar Singh himself made it a point to watch the news and maintained an interest in politics, including events in India and the Punjab. I recall we discussed the historic Indian farmers protest when it was on-going, and in another conversation we talked about the ebbs and flows of social change. For years he subscribed to a Punjabi literary magazine, Preet Lari, despatched from India.
The Question: I heard the story of ‘The Question’ and the two slips of paper, from my father many years ago. From that moment on the story lodged in my head. I’ve always wanted to write about it, but never felt equal to the task of expressing its orphic, almost-mystical nature: comprising insoluble quandary with faith and courage. When my father passed away in August 2022, ‘The Question’s’ pivotal role in his life, and the fact that August 2022 marked the 75th anniversary of Partition, it was compellingly clear the story must now be written.
Dreams: Many Partition refugees have expressed an abiding sense of ‘uprootedness,’ of never regaining that ‘same sense of belonging.’ In all the passing decades, only once did my father use the word ‘refugee’. In a conversation about the family and Partition, he ended a sentence with the phrase “…and then we became refugees.” The fathomless desolation of that word had lived inside him for a lifetime.
In his later years Pakhar Singh suffered from ill health. In one of our phone calls, I asked him if he was sleeping well.
‘Yes,’ he answered.
‘And do you dream?’
‘I do,’ he replied.
‘What do you dream about?’
‘I dream I’m back in the old country, our home, with father-sahib…’
This story can be read in conjunction with the following two blogs:
‘Sikh Soldier Storm’ and The 25th Punjabis Havildar Bir Singh’s regiment’s history.
Once This Dust Was Ours An unexpected visit to the old home.
Partition Voices, Kavita Puri. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Remnants of Partition, Aanchal Malhotra. Hurst Publishers Ltd.
Walking With Nanak, Haroon Khalid. Tranquebar Press, an imprint of westland ltd.
© Ravinder Randhawa August 2023