"There’s nothing for us here any more": An Excerpt from "Today's Pasts"

27 December, 2015

Born in Rawalpindi in present day Pakistan in 1915, Bisham Sahni was an iconic Hindi writer, playwright and translator. He participated in the Quit India movement of 1942 for which he spent time in jail. Sahni's most famous novel Tamas, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975, depicted the harrowing aftermath of the Partition. He received a number of awards, including the Padma Shri (1969), the Padma Bhushan (1998), and the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 2002.

In the following excerpt from his memoir, Today's Pasts, Sahni describes his abrupt departure from his ancestral home in Rawalpindi and the subsequent journey to Delhi in the wake of the Partition.

On 6 June 1947 the government announced that the state of Pakistan was going to be created. I was standing on the roof of my house in the morning when a man from the alley out front came running to the end of the street—that was Barrister Mahmud—and he spoke loudly, with wild gesticulations, and bouncing uncontrollably. "The decision has been made! There will be a Pakistan! The news is on the radio. Long live Pakistan. Celebrate, my fellow Muslims! Long live the Qaid-e-Azam. Live long."

This hurt me deeply. It was unexpected. Yesterday there was no news of this. How had this happened? The declaration had been made, but no one knew what would happen next, how would we enact in practice the details of that announcement? I remember Father and I were standing on the porch of the house when Trilok Singh and his brother emerged from the neighbouring alley and went down the street, pulling a cart. Household items, bundles, boxes, sacks of pots and utensils, and in addition to the two brothers, an elderly mother and father sitting on the cart. Trilok Singh’s wife and four-year-old child walked behind the cart.

This was the first family from our neighbourhood to leave the city. When Father asked Trilok Singh, he said, "There is nothing for us here any more, Babuji," exhausted. "People who left their villages after being beaten up and then came to the city cannot turn around and go back to the village. There’s nothing for us here any more," he said and returned to pulling the cart. The cart was headed in the direction of the railway station. Soon, scenes like this would be seen frequently. But at that moment, Father shook his head. "How could anyone make him understand? The times keep changing. If they are going one way today, they will go another way tomorrow. Do people abandon their homes just because the times have changed? Has that ever happened?"

And Father held on to this belief for a long time. Until that time when the city was nearly emptied of Hindus and Sikhs, and he was alone in his home in November. It’s possible that he held out hope that the people who had left their homes would realize their mistake and come back. Another reason might be that Father had invested much of his earnings in property. He had purchased some shops, some houses, some plots of land. Perhaps he wondered how he could leave all of it.

It was at this time that a letter came for him. The letter was from my father-in-law. He had a high position in the Ferozepur police force. It read, "I have rented a bungalow for all of you in Ferozepur. I’ve heard that things are going to get worse. You folks should come here." Father read the letter and laughed. Did anyone abandon their home so? Governments changed all the time, but people never left their homes.

I had similar ideas in my head when I boarded the Frontier Mail on 13 August and said to Father that I would be back in a week. I was going to see the Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, and to see the Indian flag fly over the Red Fort for the first time. I hadn’t yet reached Delhi when I learned that it was not going to be possible to go back. The trains had been stopped. The entire situation changed immediately for me. And not just for me, for the whole family. I got to see this historical moment, sure. I saw the pomp and circumstance of the flag being raised over the Red Fort. I also saw Lord Mountbatten depart outside the Sansad Bhavan. I even saw the excitement on the streets. I saw little children flying kites with the colours of the national flag in tiny alleys and lanes. The Indian flag was flying instead of the Union Jack on government buildings, at police stations, and crossings, which made one feel that the nation really had become independent. At the same time, I also saw the crowd of refugees on the streets. On the one hand, there was a celebratory mood, but on the other was the misery of the homeless, but when taken together, the wave of independence had a greater effect on the atmosphere.

Because I’d not been able to reach Father from Delhi, I began to worry and I went to Bombay. My biggest concern was how to get him out of Rawalpindi. I’d come up with all sorts of impossible plans, including one to charter a plane. Someone told me that there was a businessman in Kalbadevi with a private jet who flew his goods to Lahore. I even went to Kalbadevi to meet with that Gujarati merchant. I couldn’t come up with a single decent plan and I was cursing myself.

When I got to Delhi, I would meet with the people I was familiar with, sometimes close friends, sometimes I would find old acquaintances that I knew from Rawalpindi, but they were in dire straits themselves. How could they help me? Still, I met with this one and that one, and this gave me a little insight into the real state of affairs, but never more than that. To foil the raid by the Kabaili tribesmen, planes carrying soldiers and military equipment were being sent from Delhi. I learned that the planes carrying soldiers and military equipment to Kashmir returned empty. But one day, instead of returning empty, they were bringing back families of citizens from Kashmir with them.

Father stayed in Rawalpindi until November 1947. Our long-time servant remained with him to make meals and the like. By then, all the Hindu and Sikh families had left the city. The ones who remained had been collectively moved to another street by the Pakistani government. But Father remained in his own house until the end. And when he left, it was all of a sudden. There was an empty seat in a hired car going to Srinagar. The owner of the car agency was Father’s cousin. He sent word of this plan to my father that he should immediately get ready, that the car would be in front of the house in a few minutes. For protection, he sent father a Turkish hat to wear before getting into the car.

Father had just locked up the house with only the clothes on his back when the car arrived. The servant was let go, and he went to visit various people in the city. This is how my father left for Srinagar. We later learned that as soon as the car turned the corner, someone broke the lock on our house. We also learned that our servant, who was wearing a turban, left for his village in a group of forty people, also from his village, when the group was surrounded on the road and everyone was killed.

Years later, when Balraj visited Pakistan and went to visit the ancestral home, he found that a Muslim family that had moved to Rawalpindi from eastern Punjab was living there at the time. That day, the family was preparing for a wedding. They were very friendly. Balraj excitedly joined the preparations. And when the wedding procession arrived, he helped in feeding the groom’s party. Balraj told me that our family’s dishes were the ones being used. Many of the dishes had Father’s name engraved on them.