The bloody violence and chaos of Partition has been recorded with painstaking detail in history books for posterity, in part so that future generations may never forget the staggering scale of human suffering that followed- the displaced millions, the countless dead and deformed, the untold horrors that frighteningly laid bare man's propensity for sheer, animalistic barbarism. But for those that lived through that dark period in the subcontinent's history, it was much more- a stark reality which left them marked, immeasurably changed, their existence altered forever.
My mother-in-law, Santosh Kumari Khanna (now Singh,) was a young girl living in Lahore at the time- her father, a well-heeled, successful and highly respected businessman- and her family enjoyed all the trappings of a lifestyle filled with material comforts including the kind of "haveli" depicted in Jis Lahore. In classic communal harmony, she and her siblings intermingled happily with the neighborhood Muslim children and learned to read and write Urdu alongside Hindi. With the announcement by the departing British that Indian independence would be accompanied by the creation of Pakistan, and Lahore would now be a part of the new Muslim majority state, life as they knew it changed.
As the riots and violence around them began to escalate, her maternal grandfather pleaded with his son-in-law to leave for India. Her father flatly refused, stating that this was his ancestral home, and that while the world around him had lost its senses, nothing would force him to give up that which was his birthright. So the family watched as their near and dear packed up their belongings and left for an uncertain future in an unfamiliar land. Until one fateful night- a Muslim family with close ties to her maternal grandfather warned them that there would be an attack on their home at night, and cautioned them not to sleep outdoors. (Normally, many of the family members would sleep out on the verandah under the stars to enjoy cool breezes which provided a much needed reprieve from blazing hot summer days.) But that night, sure enough, a group of thugs set fire to the verandah, which went up in flames, but thanks to the Muslim friends who had been kind enough to alert them, the family was spared a terrible tragedy.
Following this incident, her maternal grandfather once again beseeched his son-in-law to reconsider his decision for the sake and safety of his many young children and begged him to leave Lahore. This time, her father relented and the family fled in the dead of the night with very few things. They headed for Lucknow, where they would start life again from scratch. They had literally nothing- not even their identities- they had not had enough time to gather their birth certificates when they left. To this day, my mother-in-law and all her siblings can only guess at their ages and their birthdates. Her father had to start from the ground up, and established a carpet business in Lucknow, which generated just enough income to provide for his family adequately, but never again did he achieve the heights of wealth and status that the family had been accustomed to.
Even today, as she talks about those times, the intensity of my mother-in-law's emotions is palpable- she speaks of young girls who were raped, had their breasts cut off and then sent home to their families, and the subsequent refusal of their parents to accept them now that they were considered "tainted." Her voice shakes as she describes her own mother's depressive mental state at having to leave home and hearth, and the multiple shock treatments she had to undergo before she was able to regain control of herself. There are many more atrocities- probably some that she will never share to spare us the knowledge. But the sad irony is that on balance, theirs was a happy ending, a near best-case scenario, considering the fact that millions of others in similar circumstances were not as lucky.