Happy Independence Day Pakistan & India! Today, most people I know of Indo-Pak descent are marking the 65th anniversary of the departure of the British Empire from the Indian subcontinent. And while I also mark this event with a certain amount of happiness, there is a part of me that is sad.
In the spring of 2010, when I was finishing my undergraduate studies in English at Elmhurst College, I took a class that delved into the history of my heritage. It was not a history class or a religion class. It was a class about Post-Colonial literature. That class opened up a part of my cultural history that I had only heard bits and pieces of in passing conversation.
I knew this class was going to touch on some sensitive issues with me. I already had some hatred for colonial powers, especially the British Raj, because of the snippets of what my parents mentioned in passing and what stories I heard from my Nanee and my Nana’s younger brother, my Chotay Nana (Little Grandfather because he was my grandfather’s younger brother). What they had mentioned in passing had only served to reinforce what I had surmised from reading in history. Wherever the British Empire went, chaos and destruction followed in their wake. But my love-hate relationship with the British Isles is a different story for a different day. Today is for the British Raj, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
Today, as I do sometimes on other days, I thought of a story that I wished I could have blocked out of my mind because it was so utterly devastating to read. It was a story titled “Peshawar Express” written by Krishan Chandar, translated into English from the original Urdu. Chandar is famous for his many stories and novels, and was also well-known as being a radical thinker. I read this story for my Post-Colonial Literature class and it made me view the Partition in a very different light.
The Partition of India and Pakistan was an event that occurred after Pakistan and India gained their independence. People had to move to provinces doled out to India if they were Sikh or Hindu, or to Pakistan or Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), if they were Muslims. It all depended on what their faith was. In some cases there was no choice and people had to leave, either because they would be killed for staying or because their principles demanded that they go. Millions of people moving, chaos, hatred running rampant along with bloodshed, violence and sorrow. A recipe for disaster.
Before I read this piece, the Partition of Pakistan and India was this thing that happened long ago. It was sad but it needed to happen. One of my Great Grandmothers perished in the journey. My Father, who was a small child when it happened, remembers it like it was a dream, where sometimes he walked on his own but sometimes his oldest brother carried him on his shoulders.
After reading this story and others like it, the enormity of the event overwhelms me. Millions of people lost their homes, their property, and thousands of unfortunates lost their lives. It is a story full of blood and tragedy and the full horror of the Partition told from the perspective of the train helping to move people from one side to another, based on divisions of faith.
Whether or not the Partition should have happened is something that people of Indo-Pak origin can and will debate for years to come. The question about whether it could have been carried out in a more civilized, less hate filled fashion can be answered with a “possibly”. The British Empire divided and conquered for while, but left an angry group of people in its wake and did not help to fix a problem it had created.
I can’t explain what this story made me feel. But I can try. It made my soul cry. It twisted my heart because I see myself in those people who died during that chaotic and terrible time. And it made me furious that no one remembers them. So while I am happy for Independence Day, I grieve for those nameless, long dead countrymen and women, regardless of what faith they held.
The divisions between the countries on the Indian subcontinent remains to this day. As my family chose to go to Pakistan, I may never see Delhi or Ferozpur where my family’s ancestoral lands are. I was speaking with a Indian gentleman a few weeks ago who was from Lahore in Pakistan before the Partition, who longs to see that beautiful city having left it when he was too young to remember it. We all lost something in the Partition. But I suppose that is the essence of division.