Three years ago my mother died. Since then I’ve been unable to write anything more than short bursts. These words that she longed to share with the world, that she shared with me, have been stuck inside of me. So now I am sharing them.
These memories should never have been created but they must be spoken.
The story is not my own but what my mother told me for many years on the anniversary of what happened. She never wanted to speak of those days but could never forget them. They were on her mind every day from September 1947 until her sudden death in 2016. A few days before she died, she had visited the Holocaust Memorial in Krakow, Poland. She had broken down there, recollecting the never forgotten but largely unacknowledged pain of Partition.
Her name was Adarsh Kumar. She was raised in Pind Dadan Khan, Jhelum District in the Kapoor family. She created a beautiful life over many decades, but with a pain inside of her from having survived unimaginable horrors. Every September, we would have a havan (Hindu fire ceremony) for her parents and brother who were killed in those days. Not every time, but often, she would sit down with me and tell me of those days before and after Partition. I can still see her now, feel her presence, telling these words that she struggled so hard to say.
Life in undivided India had, for all intents and purposes, come to an end several months before India and Pakistan became independent. Pind Dadan Khan back then was home to Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. It was deep in Punjab and so many miles from the new border. Their Muslim neighbor, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, was the head of the town. He was a believer in an undivided and diverse post-independence India until the political realities dictated otherwise. He faced opposition from members of the Muslim League and his own household for his views.
My mother tells of growing up in this town where neighbors celebrated every religious holiday together. The Raja would celebrate rakhi with her mother. Rakhi is a ceremony that’s usually only celebrated between brother and sister, but the Raja and my maternal grandmother were close friends. When the Shia Muslims would walk in bloody processions on Muhurram, my mother and her family would watch from their balconies as they cried out “Hai Hussein!”, in memory of their fallen imam from so long ago. Hindus would celebrate Eid, and Muslims would celebrate Diwali in their neighbors’ houses. They met together in the markets, used the same communal tandoors and washed in the river, together. Everyone was united, various religious communities that were also part of neighborhood communities.
This peace was shattered in February 1947. Someone threw a rag soaked in kerosene into my mother’s house in the middle of the night, when everyone was sleeping and there was a limited water supply. The fire was put out by the family and neighbors, including my mother who was around 10 years old. An uneasy feeling began to spread around the town. There was word of religious strife in other parts of Punjab, but until then Pind Dadan Khan had felt safe. It still felt like home.
In March, as my mother watched from her balcony, a Hindu man came running down their street, bleeding profusely from his head. A Muslim family had arrived from India and moved into the now vacant house next door that had once belonged to a Hindu family that had left to India. The new neighbor decided to use wood from his Hindu neighbor’s roof beams for cooking fuel. When the Hindu neighbor protested, the wood was used to club him. The Raja was enraged that the fire that was burning all over Punjab had now spread to Pind Dadan Khan. As the neighborhood watched, the Raja declared that no Hindus should leave the town, and everyone would have his personal guarantee of safety. “Not a hair on their [Hindus] heads will be touched in Pind Dadan Khan!”.
The most serious blow came shortly afterwards in May. My grandfather’s cousin, Anant Ram Kapoor, was traveling home to Pind Dadan Khan by train and bringing a box of pears and dried fruit. He was harassed by some Muslim youths who began eating the fruit and tossing it off the train. The teasing quickly escalated, and he was stabbed to death, disemboweled right there on the train. The other Hindu passengers could only watch helplessly. His body was then tossed off the train. After his cremation, my mother says that a gloomy atmosphere enveloped the town. It didn’t feel safe. It no longer felt like home. No one knew then what horrors still lay ahead on those train tracks for millions more.
The Kapoor family knew they had to leave. In the summer, someone had dug a hole into their ground floor pantry to rob the house. The ground floor was a pantry and storage area, so it made easy access. Most disturbingly, the hole was made in a common wall that they shared with the Raja. He surely was not responsible, but it was a sign that law and order were deteriorating. Hindus could find no justice in Pakistan. The same was happening across the border in India to Muslims.
By August 14 and 15, when Pakistan and India respectively gained their independence from the British, my mother had family members scattered across the border in Jammu, Pathankot and Delhi. Her parents, herself, and her younger brother and sister were all still in Pind Dadan Khan, awaiting the return of her brother Raj from British military service in Iraq. There was no celebration for Independence. There was anxiety, fear, and a foreboding sense of gloom. They were refugees, and they knew it.
Once her brother returned, they packed up what they could and left their house. While they awaited their chance to board a train, they went to a large refugee camp that had been made near the railroad station in Pind Dadan Khan. This was the same train station they had used so many times to visit the family run coal mining business in Dandot to the west. India, however, was to the east. My mother didn’t speak much about life in that camp. She told me there was a virtual town there. They could only bring a few things with them—a rolled-up mattress, some bedding, and a few belongings. My mother would navigate the narrow unpaved roads in the camp holding her mother’s hand, bringing food and other supplies to their father and younger siblings.
The evacuation of Hindus and Sikhs from west Punjab and Muslims from east Punjab took many months. At first it was done by trucks, but they were easily stopped and their occupants killed. Fearing the trucks, many chose to flee on foot. This was just as perilous. The next obvious choice was trains. These proved to be even deadlier.
According to another resident of Pind Dadan Khan, the first train for evacuees, that departed on September 20 or so, was filled mostly by Sikhs. No Hindus wanted to board this train because they expected it to be targeted due to the intense animosity and bloodlust flowing between the Muslims and Sikhs of Punjab in those days. My mother’s family was supposed to ride on the train departing September 22, but instead left a day earlier, on September 21.
The steam train arrived at the station and was loaded. The family was told they could not bring any large belongings, only what they could carry. Anyone who was armed was disarmed, including Sikhs carrying their ritual daggers and swords. There were a few closed passenger train compartments which they were unable to board. Like most Partition refugees, they instead sat inside flat cargo cars. My mother would use the term “coal” cars, but I think she meant “cargo” because there were no seats, and the cars were open on all sides.
Men sat in one car and women in the other, facing each other. My grandmother was sitting with her younger children: my mother (who was around 11 years old) and her younger sister and younger brother. They sat close to each other, protected from the elements by my grandmother’s blanket or woolen shawl. Eventually, as night began to fall, the train pulled out of the station.
After it picked up speed leaving town, it came to a halt near Chalisa, not very far away. I’m not sure if the pause was initially due to the rail gauge being different past Chalisa junction. My mother always said someone had cut a tree and placed it on the track to block further movement. A crowd gathered around the train, armed with farming tools, machetes and swords. They were chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is Great!) and “Kafiro ko maro!” (“Kill the infidels!”). The slaughter began systematically with the men, including her father and eldest brother Raj, in the cargo car in front of theirs.
The details at this point would become spotty from her tears and the sheer agony of the memories that were burned into her heart.
Her mother hid the young children under her shawl. There was a brief conversation between her and her mother.
“Adarsh, say the kalaam [become a Muslim], they’ll spare you if you do.”
“I won’t become a Muslim, they’ll have to kill me!”
The slaughter continued under the night sky. I don’t know what else she heard or saw. It was too painful for her to share. Her mother was either wounded or about to be. They all knew she was dying that night. I have reason to believe my mother witnessed my grandmother being struck by a weapon, but was hidden enough under cover that she and her younger siblings were spared.
My mother was handed some 500 rupees by my grandmother. “Take care of your sister and brother. Go.” These were the last words my mother would hear from her own mother. The advice was taken to heart.
The line of killers either had moved further down the compartment, were exhausted from manual slaughter, or were consolidating their loot when my mother quietly led her sister and brother off the blood-soaked train. They jumped off the car and into a neighboring corn field. They ran some distance away and hid. The train eventually started again and delivered the cargo of death and slaughter to Amritsar, where my aunt Hans collapsed in horror upon its arrival the next day.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to witness the total destruction of all that she knew, alone in a field, the bodies of her parents and older brother moving away quickly into the night as she moved toward an uncertain fate. The three young children—my mother, her sister and her brother, were soon discovered in the corn field by a farmer who recognized them as the Kapoor children, and was horrified at the role he had played in aiding—perhaps participating—in the slaughter of his neighbors.
With much lamentation, he took them to his simple house. There, they were to sleep. My mother didn’t sleep. She overheard the farmer and his friends—accomplices?—debating what to do. Marry the girls off for a decent price? Convert the boy to Islam and use him as a servant? There was much discussion. Finally, the decision was made to inform the Raja; he would decide.
The Raja was horrified to learn what had happened. He took his own horse and rode over to Chalisa to personally bring the children to his house. My mother makes it sound like the journey took hours, but on a map the distance is not that significant. I cannot imagine the exhaustion and trauma she had experienced. Certainly, from the moment she set foot on the train, even in her storytelling, time would seem to slow to a crawl.
When they got back to Pind Dadan Khan there was much mourning. The Raja was horrified at what had happened to the train, and at the fact that his beloved neighbors had been killed. Yet, ironically enough, it could have been worse. The train that left the next day, on September 22nd, the train they were supposed to be on, fared much, much worse. That slaughter took place in the urban area of Gujranwala and was almost complete. There was no escape there for young girls and boys on that train.
As much as the Raja wanted to help them, there was little he could do. This would become a recurring theme until my mother was married, even after. There was no home for her anymore. Raja had his own family with grown children who were agitating that having Hindus under their roof now put all of them at risk and that Hindus had no place in the town anymore. So it was decided that my mother and her siblings would go to the camp in Pind Dadan Khan for Hindu and Sikh refugees. I don’t know for sure if this was the same camp she had left from, and whose narrow alleyways she walked with her mother just days before. She didn’t talk about the camp, and what must have been unbearable sorrow and agony, not to mention terrible conditions after a heavy monsoon season.
The three children stayed there for some time. As the weeks went on, some semblance of law and order was restored, and it became relatively safe to travel. Her older sister’s husband came to fetch the children from the camp and took them to Delhi. She stayed with her eldest sister and her family in Delhi for many months, but due to the overcrowding in the house she spent the summers in a refugee camp where she had some access to supplies.
Within a couple of years, she obtained a scholarship for refugees and displaced persons sponsored by the Birla family. This enabled her to attend a boarding school in Pilani, Rajasthan. She distinguished herself academically and thus was able to fulfill two wishes that her mother had for her—to become educated, and to take care of her younger siblings. Her grandfather, had, after all, founded the only girls’ school in Pind Dadan Khan some years before.
A decade later, she met my father while in graduate school. Thirteen years after the horrible events of Partition, they were married. She went on to become a mother of three children while pushing forward her career as a researcher in studying neuroendocrines, with a seminal research project on music therapy. For decades, she felt the obligation to take care of her sister and brother well into their older years.She spoke often of the joy of living in a diverse society with different religions and languages, memories that glowed with the warmth of her childhood in Pind Dadan Khan and came full circle in the cultural melting pot of south Florida. And always, the memory of being with her mother in the house when it felt like home.