When a seven-year-old girl made her way through Punjab on a clattering, wheezing train in 1947, smoke rose from villages in the distance. Mustard and wheat fields, usually peppered with farmers tending to their crops, were empty. Long lines of bedraggled refugees were a common sight on the landscape, some moving west, to Pakistan, and others east, to India. Soldiers escorted some, others hitched rides on carts, trucks, anything they could find. Some were escaping the violence. Others were trudging toward violence. Partition was imminent.
The little girl, Nasreen, along with her mother and sister, had tried twice to catch a train out of India. On August 9, 1947, they reached the Delhi train station hoping to join the rest of their family who had already left for Pakistan. At the time, thousands of people, many of whom were Muslims trying to go to Pakistan, were jostling for spots on the trains, desperate to leave as news of unrest grew. The irritable, overwhelmed station manager in Delhi curtly informed them that since they had no reservations, they could not take this train to Lahore.
A state away, Saeed was awaiting the division of the British Army. The future of the young Indian soldier was uncertain. Although he expected to leave and join his family in Pakistan, he had not received his orders yet. In October 1947, he would receive a form from his British superiors, asking him to choose his country.
The first time my grandfather crossed the India-Pakistan border was that winter of 1947, when he departed the country of his birth for northern Pakistan as a cadet in the first officer-training group of the newly formed Pakistan Army. The next time he crossed was in the winter of 2007, with me.
The past is present at Wagah-Attari, the border between India and Pakistan. Soldiers with bristling, bushy mustaches face each other across barbed-wire fences and iron gates. Every evening, Pakistani soldiers clad in black shalwar kameez and Indian soldiers in their khaki uniforms battle each other in a contest of wills. Hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis visit this checkpoint every day—a mere thirty-minute drive from my home in Lahore—to watch the soldiers strut and twirl their rifles, stamp their metal-edged boots, shout and spray spit at each other, and finally race to fold the flags fluttering above them all day. This tableau is repeated every day, the revelry belying its bloody history.
I stand under a wide brick arch one cold morning in 2007. Later in the day, loudspeakers will blare nationalist songs that grow louder and louder, drowning out the other side of the fence. Seventeen family members, and my grandfather, Saeed, wait their turns at the checkpoint.
The entrance to Pakistan from India reminds me of a castle rampart, white minarets on either side and flat domes along the battlements, pointing to the sky like milky breasts. Bab-e-Azadi , “Gateway to Freedom,” flashes above our heads in gold letters as we walk.
Punjab, both east and west of the borderline, is Punjab. Mustard fields, a vast sea of yellow flowers peppered with bobbing farmer’s heads, stretch for miles. On an average summer day, Punjab feels like a desert. Driving through the fields, the road expands, flattens, and shines in the heat, a vision of water blossoms into view. Pushing forth to find this water is a lost cause. It recedes farther and farther away.
Today, the winter fog slowly rises to reveal another Punjab, from another world, mere feet away. Gone are the stalls selling flags, and groups of schoolchildren and families thronging the seats at the border. Porters stand in an endless human chain, tossing sacks of onions, dried fruit, and other goods across the border. They are adroit, careful not to step over the thick white line marking the other country.
Nana, being a Pakistani military man, a three-star general, was obviously a threat to Indian security, my uncle said. His jokes don’t seem to bother my grandfather, who waits calmly as our passports are pored over by disgruntled border officials.
As we cross the border, we pause briefly in no man’s land. The early morning fog settles down behind us as Bab-e-Azadi is shrouded in a veil of gossamer. When we finally step onto Indian soil, I expect a cataclysm of some kind, a voice roaring from the heavens. “You are now entering enemy territory!” What I get is an irritable customs official and Gandhi’s kindly face smiling from a perch on a sandy archway.
Partition holds a strange place in our memory. On the one hand, it was a tragedy, a tearing asunder, a rejection of religious coexistence. On the other hand, it led to the creation of Pakistan, a nation for the persecuted Muslim minority, as I was taught in school. It created my home. I was taught pride in belonging to a country of underdogs. We prevailed against British imperialism and Hindu nationalism, or so we believed.
Tales of the early days of Pakistan, days of hope and courage, of government offices equipped with no pen and paper, of young idealists making do with very little, abounded. Faces of military heroes who fought and died in wars with India plastered our roads, our billboards, and our textbooks.
The story of Partition was much more complex. In August 1947, Cyril Radcliffe, a British official, drew a line through Punjab and Bengal right before the British planned their departure from India. Slowly simmering tensions bubbled up into full-blown violence. Hindus and Sikhs left in Pakistan scrambled across the border to the new state of India, leaving behind their homes, farms, and worldly possessions. Many Muslims made the same migration to the new country of Pakistan. In all directions, these groups engaged in violence, looting, and rape.
A New Yorker profile of German writer W. G. Sebald’s work describes the need to be nearer to the past in order to understand cataclysmic events in history. We must go “in search of places and people who have some connection with us, ‘on the far side of time.’” My grandfather’s generation is our last connection to this crucial moment of history, to a world being erased from our collective memory. In a way, he was part of this erasure. Until we made this journey, I rarely heard narratives of Partition from him.
As we approached the sixtieth anniversary of Partition, my great aunt, through Indian friends, managed to pinpoint their old address in Jalandhar. We excitedly planned our trip there, but Nana was a silent spectator in the proceedings. For Nana, India had changed. He was an estranged returnee, distant and removed. His past belonged to someone else, and his children were simply tourists in a foreign land.
The train Nasreen missed on August 9, 1947 never reached Lahore. It was bombed at Amritsar. Many trains were attacked on both sides of the border, arriving at their destinations with blood running through the compartments, women’s bodies lying prone with their breasts cut off and thrown into gunny sacks, babies hacked to pieces. Yet they persisted and hurtled forth with the dead, perhaps hoping that they would be afforded a decent burial.
My grandmother finally left on August 11, 1947, during the holy month of Ramzan. The stations were prepared for their arrival after the bombing at Amritsar. A pilot engine ran ahead, sending back wireless messages saying all was clear. As they neared Pakistan, the sense of unease was replaced by euphoria. It was the month of fasting, and at each stop during sunrise and sunset, nearby villagers sent pots of food for the weary travelers.
My grandmother is not alive to remember those days. Her sister Safia, who traveled with her, recalls how their hearts swelled with fervor and empathy as they approached Pakistan. Under the Punjabi sky marred by smoke, Safia watched others on the train open their fasts and pray. They made it to Lahore on August 14, 1947, the day Pakistan was born.
I recently discovered a picture of my grandmother, taken exactly a year after she arrived in Pakistan. She stands in front of a group of women and soldiers on the tarmac of Karachi airport. They greet Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who has just landed. Jinnah is half-smiling; his hand raised in salute but his cheekbones are sharply visible; he is dangerously thin. My grandmother is frowning against the sun. Barely a month after this picture was taken, Jinnah would be rushed to a hospital in an ambulance, which would subsequently break down amidst Karachi’s heat and traffic. He would breathe his last breath there and the young country would be thrown into turmoil.
My family’s proximity to history, their close shave with tragedy, often colors their perception of Pakistan. Their world is defined by good fortune, a stark difference from the majority who suffered immeasurably before, during, and after Partition. Where I view the past with curiosity, they look back quickly before moving on with their days.
The morning fog lifts to reveal fields that look suspiciously like the ones we left behind. I blink a few times, not sure if I am back in my Punjab. I have entered an alternate reality, a mirror of home. Small differences clear the air. India the concept is now the country. The newness and oldness of it overwhelms me.
Turbaned Sikh men work in the fields. Their long beards drag across the crops as they bend over their work. Some have even artfully divided their beards into two sections and tucked them over either shoulder. The billboard signs are different. Gone are the long elegant Urdu letters in Nastaliq; in their place are rounded, blossoming Gurmukhi and Devanagari scripts. I see a smattering of Urdu on the white stones welcoming us to new cities. Hooks and straight lines cut through each word, and the quick curves race past our eyes as our bus hurtles deeper into a new Punjab.
Jalandhar is now a bustling, noisy, and run-down city that produces sports goods. Nana marvels at the roads. We cross thousands of buses and motorbikes, potholes, ditches, manufacturing plants, garages, and sports stores selling cricket bats, hockey sticks, and balls.
We are not prepared for our hotel’s welcome. The manager stands excitedly with a photographer and a reporter from a local daily. Half a dozen men bound forward to shake hands with Nana as if welcoming a celebrity. Nana, with a bemused smile, wonders aloud what brought them here and they laugh and say, “You, sir!”
“Sir, we are so excited to welcome you back with your wonderful family.”
Our Indian contacts alerted the owners of Jalandhar’s daily newspaper about the rare arrival of a large group of Pakistanis. Jalandhar, a town generally disregarded by tourists, was once home to many Muslims who crossed over to Pakistan. Muslims still live here, we are told, but Nana’s former neighborhood is now largely a Hindu residence.
The next day, our bus driver hands a newspaper to my uncle with a flourish. Our smiling faces look up at us under indecipherable script. “What does it say?” my uncle asks.
“ Dharti da puttar ghar aa gaya hai. ” Son of the soil returns home.
Nana is pensive, overcome by the chatter around him, cocooned by the largeness of our family that leaves little room for reflection and silence. He is like a new student, aware that this Jalandhar is no longer his Jalandhar. This belongs to another, an alien Saeed who once ran through these streets chasing his kites, and getting into fights with his elder brother.
Our guide is a young Sikh man who invites us to his home, where his wife waits with a feast of pakoras, samosas, and tea. She engages my maternal grandmother in a serious conversation, where much to my consternation I hear her lament her inability to conceive a child. My grandmother asks about her contraception. The sudden familiarity, the immediate bond catches me off guard.
Our hostess looks at my family gathered around their plastic-covered coffee table and exuberantly proclaims in Punjabi, “ Tussi saray bauhat sundar ho! ” All you [Pakistanis] are so beautiful!
My grandmother, not to be outdone, retorts, “ Twadey kul tau Aishwarya Rai hai! ” But you have Aishwarya Rai! (A popular, beautiful Indian actress.) I cringe.
But our hostess beams, pushes her long braid back, and gives what my grandmother considers the ultimate compliment: “ Twadey te har kudi Aishwarya Rai hai. ” But all your girls are like Aishwarya Rai.
The compliments continue for a while, each person trying to outdo the other, building to a crescendo until it is time to leave. My grandmother promptly invites her new best friend to Pakistan.
We follow a narrow, waterlogged lane, surrounded by a smattering of bare, gnarled trees. Dense colonies of houses are clumped together in the distance and heavy fog shrouds the sky. Upon closer inspection, we see newer structures, simple, square brick homes alongside the older houses with wooden doors almost hanging off their hinges with intricate carvings.
Today, the Sikh temple and graveyard still stand, serving as the best markers to find Haveli Nabi Noor, the mansion of Nabi Noor, named for my grandfather’s grandfather, my grandparents’ birthplace. The lanes get smaller, and the potholes larger. The houses are built tightly together, with high walls in narrow lanes.
We take a number of turns through endless corridors before our guide pauses at a tall building with a wooden door bordered with intricate flower carvings. Most of the carvings have faded away, but square panels in the center of the door stand out with faint Persian inscriptions just above the door. A large brick archway with half of a Quranic verse painted above is visible. We stare at the door and the familiar script inscribed over it.
I glance at Nana, and see his face brighten. His gaze moves up and down the door.
We knock and a disheveled young girl with a child hanging on her shirt opens the door. She is surprised to see such a large group. Our guide speaks to her, tells her where we are from, and she smiles and lets us in, inviting us to walk around the house. We step into a courtyard with high walls surrounded by stairs that lead up to a roof bordered with arches. A number of Hindu families reside in separate rooms around the courtyard, rooms that are small and dark, with dusty floors and old, creaking doors. A few small heads peek through the arches on the rooftop, grinning at us. Another older man and lady greet us shyly. They say we can look around for as long as we like.
Nana, after glancing around the courtyard with a sad smile, climbs the stairs to the roof. I find him looking over a small drop onto a lower platform.
Flat rooftops with varying heights are grouped around the house like a mismatched pile of bricks. Nana pulls off his spectacles and rubs his eyes with his handkerchief. When he lowers his hands, I glimpse a hint of tears, but he is smiling.
My mother turns to Nana with concern. “Abbu, are you all right?”
“I just remembered something,” he said, as we gather around him. “I remembered my brother and I were flying kites on this roof once. Waheed pushed me and I fell there.” Nana points to the lower level, a few feet below.
“I remember I hurt my head quite badly, I was bleeding right there. Waheed was horrible, he laughed at me and our mother . . . she was furious,” his eyes widen, his face breaks into a large smile and he laughs. “She was so angry, she even shouted at me. She hated it when we flew kites up here. I sat under a water tap and cried as someone washed away the blood. I got no sympathy.”
Nana continues laughing. His eyes, normally so small and wrinkled around the edges, are large and bright. I have never seen him laugh and cry at the same time. My mother smiles and grasps his arms before leading him back down the steep stairs.
Across the rooftops, the sun darts through rising fog and more houses come into view. Nana starts chatting with the older residents of the house. He asks them how the neighborhood has changed over the years, the names of each lane. Outside the door, he looks up at his grandfather’s name.
Eventually, we bid the families in Haveli Nabi Noor farewell. I keep looking back at the old house, before we turn a corner and it vanishes from view. Nana is deep in conversation with our guide; he doesn’t look back at the house.
A few Indian soldiers at Wagah grin and wave, and I smile back. They look as large as our soldiers, who we often joked are stronger than their Indian counterparts. Perhaps because I have never seen the Indian soldiers up close. They prepare their rifles as they wait for the ceremony to commence.
I want to watch my home from the other side of the border, observe the ceremony from behind enemy lines, but we are hustled across through the green-and-white gates before it begins.
Before I can blink, I am back on home territory. A veil drops once again over India. Even the music seems muted as we step over the white line and familiar sights and sounds settle back within us. Nana had shrugged off the moment soon after we stepped out of Haveli Nabi Noor. He hugged each of us, looked around with shining eyes, before resuming his cheerful demeanor. I pester him frequently, asking him if he will ever go back.
Why should I? he says often. It’s in the past; it was a nice visit. I got to see it all once, and I am happy.
I remember a small moment, however. Across from Haveli Nabi Noor sat a simple square brick structure. We glanced at it as we left.
“That used to be a house,” Nana said. “Nasreen was born right where that brick structure sits.”
We stared at the sad, lonely structure. Nothing of the past remained there. A few dried up trees surrounded it, but there was no address, no mark of anything to indicate that once a little girl, who narrowly escaped death only to have it claim her later, took her first breath here.
Indeed, we had been lucky that Haveli Nabi Noor was still standing. But right now, as he crosses the border back to Pakistan, Nana is not weighed down by these thoughts as we walk away from the border to the parking lot. He is laughing, flanked by his grandchildren, and he does not turn around.