An excerpt from the book, Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory by Aanchal Malhotra
She held a small sepia-toned photograph of her husband in her hands, gently, like a souvenir. Careful to touch only the edges, she placed it on the table. “Sunne mein, kehne mein aur dekhne mein bohot farak hota hai,” she said, barely looking up. ‘Listening to the stories, speaking about that time and actually witnessing the atrocities of Partition are very different things.” eyes still downcast, she continued, “You can write this story, but we have seen everything with our own eyes. Hum yaad karte hain toh jaan chali jaati hai, mann karta hai zinda hi marr jaaye. Remembering that long, long walk to India makes me feel…almost lifeless now.” Finally, Ajit Kaur Kapoor looked straight into my eyes and it was not anger that I saw in them, but, rather, a quiet and aged fear. “Why should I remember it, kyu yaad karan?” I set my notebook down and looked around the room, where her daughter-in-law, Sukhmeet, and grandson, Gurshane, were sitting across from us. “For them, you should remember for your family, and…” I gestured to myself, having travelled from Delhi to Chandigarh just to hear her story, “…and for my generation, and those who come after, those who will have no way of listening to a first-hand account. It is important for them to know what happened.” Nervously, her eyes met those of her samdhan’s, her son’s mother-in-law, Satwant Kaur, who sat on the other side of the sofa, nodding knowingly. And so the story unfolded.
“The city we are from was called Mirpur,’ she said, raising her forefinger in the air and placing it as if at the top of an imaginary map. It was in the very north of Hindustan, on the western edge of Jammu and Kashmir State, and our maharaja was named Hari Singh.
“The city we are from was called Mirpur,’ she said, raising her forefinger in the air and placing it as if at the top of an imaginary map. It was in the very north of Hindustan, on the western edge of Jammu and Kashmir State, and our maharaja was named Hari Singh. My father, Sardar Singh Soni, was the secretary of the local Gurudwara. Secretary Sahib, he was called. The population was not large, but it was diverse – Musalmaan, Sikh, Hindu – people were happy and healthy. Each had different neighbourhoods. For instance, the Sikhs lived in a galli called Purana Qila and the Mahajans, a well-known trader community, lived in a place called Mahajan ka mohalla, or Buna mohalla. Par hume yaad hai, I remember having friends from all communities. The legend we heard growing up was that the city of Mirpur was founded nearly 600 years ago by two saints – Hazrat Ali Mira Shah Gazi and Gosain Budh Puri. “mir” was taken from the former’s name and “Pur” from the latter’s, together making “Mirpur”, a symbol of interfaith unity. The language we spoke there was a sweet form of Punjabi called Pothwari.” “Ghar mein kaun-kaun tha, who all lived with you?’ I asked. “Our father, mother, four brothers and a sister.” She then giggled and said, “Our 100-year-old grandfather lived with us too, I think his name might have been Jassa Singh – a sweet-looking man with Pahari features, whose eyesight was so good that he never had to wear spectacles.” I smiled. “Do you still remember what Mirpur looked like?” “It is difficult to forget…even if one wants to. Mirpur was surrounded by mountains, pahar hi pahar; it was beautiful but simple. We had no electricity; even radios were battery-powered. For light, we used only kerosene lanterns. And until the day we left, all our drinking water still came from deep-water wells. In the evenings, we would play games like marbles and skipping rope. Mirpur had Masjids and holy shrines, Temples and Gurudwaras. At the eastern end was Hazrat Ghazi’s tomb, and at the western end Gosain Puri’s temple. The city had a rich syncretic culture. Par ab, sheher bhi nahi raha, aur log bhi nahi. None of that remains now, and the entire old city is submerged.” her hands made a sinking gesture. “What do you mean, submerged?” I asked. “Old Mirpur is under the water of the Mangla dam constructed over it many years after Partition,” she smiled sadly. ‘Suna hai, when the water level decreases in the winter months, the city shows itself. You can see houses, roads and even graveyards.”
“In the years immediately after ’47, I used to want to, but not anymore. It’s become a tale of old times. There is nothing for us there, and I dread to even think back to that time, dread to even talk about it now.”
“But we will never get to see it again, Mirpur toh iss paar aur uss ke beech mein qaid hai. The city is caught between this side and that.” “Would you want to see it again, don’t you miss it?” “In the years immediately after ’47, I used to want to, but not anymore. It’s become a tale of old times. There is nothing for us there, and I dread to even think back to that time, dread to even talk about it now.” I uncapped my pen and put it to paper.
“I was married at the age of sixteen, while still in grade nine in the local government school. For grade 10, I enrolled into a high school affiliated with Punjab University, whose central office at the time was in Lahore. But because my husband worked in the bus service at Chaklala airfield in Rawalpindi, we lived there and would return to Mirpur only for exams. It was a full day’s journey, where one would travel by boat, train and bus. See, I remember clearly that in 1947, my husband dropped me to Mirpur in June, both for exams as well as because I was pregnant with our first child. We had heard that Punjab was no longer safe, katl-e-aam ho rahe the. In fact, the population of Mirpur swelled considerably because refugees from the Punjab began migrating there. They were confident that nothing would happen to them there because it was part of an independent princely state.” “Partition ka ailaan hua toh Mirpur mein kya hua?’ I asked, wondering what had happened when the division of the country was declared in August 1947, for Maharaja Hari Singh had signed the Instrument of Accession to India only in October that year. “Mirpur was quiet. At the time of independence, the princely states were given a choice to join either India or Pakistan, but the Maharaja chose neither immediately. On 14 August, the Pakistani green flag went up on Muslim shops, homes and mosques. The next day, Sikhs and Hindu waved the Indian tricolour. But though things were civil between the communities, tension had begun to build between those who were pro-India and those who were pro-Pakistan. We heard of terrible communal violence in other parts of Jammu and Kashmir. In Jammu district, many villages were destroyed and their populations, that once had a Muslim majority, brutally massacred. But still Mirpur was quiet, apart from some isolated incidents of violence. Sirf kuch log gundagardi karte the. Lekin, sab ek jaise nahi hote na, everyone is not the same, are they?
“Toh kabhi, kisi ne kisi ko maar diya, ya patthar phenk diya, sometimes someone would throw stones at the other, or abuse the other. But every Muslim, every Hindu and every Sikh is not the same, so we didn’t pay much attention to these incidents. But, all the while, more and more Hindu and Sikh refugees poured into the city and used it as a stopover on the way to east Punjab. They would come on foot, in buses, on carts, and sometimes even escorted by armed personnel. Eventually, a curfew was put in place, only the afternoons remaining free to roam outside. We had no idea at the time about the events that were unfolding outside of our periphery, outside of Mirpur. It was only later we learnt that the Pakistani army and militants had attacked several cities that bordered Pakistan. And we were right next to it all, Mirpur toh bilkul sarhad par tha. So, eventually, some troops of the Jammu and Kashmir army took up posts in our area.” “Had you made arrangements to migrate elsewhere by then?” “We didn’t think we would have to leave,” she said flatly. “Even after the army came in, even after they began handing out rifles to all the able-bodied men in every household, even after the men began keeping watch, we didn’t think we would actually have to leave.”
I looked at her, but she didn’t meet my eye; she just continued to stare ahead. The tale she narrated that afternoon was unlike any I had heard before, its fabric spun with a level of violence and terror that I was absolutely unprepared for.
I looked at her, but she didn’t meet my eye; she just continued to stare ahead. The tale she narrated that afternoon was unlike any I had heard before, its fabric spun with a level of violence and terror that I was absolutely unprepared for. It was harrowing to the extent that, at times, it seemed almost unreal, impossible for one family to have endured so much tragedy and continue living with the memory and burden of it. As I listened, I expected Ajit Kaur’s tone to gradually change, to become infused either with anger, horror or even despair, but it hardly wavered. The soft, supple Mirpuri Punjabi merely relayed what had happened, minute by minute, in a detached voice.
‘I still remember it clearly. It was November and we had been sitting in our garden all afternoon. Gurupurab was just a few days away,’ she said, placing her hands over her knees, creating soft folds in her baby pink salwar-kameez. ‘It was a day like any other, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, gunfire rained from the sky – goliyon ki barsaat – airplanes flying over Mirpur, shooting bullets everywhere.’ ‘Bullets?’ I asked, confused. ‘Ji haan, goliyan. They began firing and the whole village was suddenly caught in a frenzy.’ ‘Who began shooting?’ I persisted. ‘It could have been Pakistan’s military, Pathans, rioters, mercenaries! It could have been anyone. But they were shooting at everything, anything and anyone they could see. We never even had a chance to go back inside our house to take anything. Everything was left as it was. People left whatever they were doing, wherever they were and began taking cover from the downpour of bullets. Houses were set on fire, causing chaos all over. Screams and cries engulfed the city – they echo in my ears even today and I cannot forget them.
‘My husband had been keeping watch at his post with the other men and I had no idea how to find him. This was an organized attack. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs were killed, and those who weren’t made their way to the courts. I don’t know who told us to go there, but it had a basement and people decided it would be safest to hide there until the firing stopped. Amidst the mayhem, I was separated from my family, and those who were not as quick to escape were either killed or captured and abducted. So many women were taken, so many were abused and raped. Horrified by the infernos blazing around them, some people even took their own lives. My own father was shot and died right outside our house. My father-in-law was killed, my sisters-in-law were all killed, so many Sikh men and women were killed, even their children massacred. My mother, sister and two brothers were taken prisoners.’ ‘What did you think was happening when the firing began?’ I asked, still shocked. ‘There was no time to think about anything! I had no idea what was happening, or who was doing it. Everyone was just being herded into the basement of the courts, and so I followed. I had nothing with me, no possessions, no money, na paisa, na kapda. I was wearing a light cotton suit with no shawl – we had been sitting outside in the sun, after all. But everyone was in the same situation."
‘This was just the beginning, for when I reached the basement we realized that apart from the few soldiers who accompanied us for our safety, the rest of the army who had been manning the city had fled. But the bullets were still being fired, and so we waited."
‘This was just the beginning, for when I reached the basement we realized that apart from the few soldiers who accompanied us for our safety, the rest of the army who had been manning the city had fled. But the bullets were still being fired, and so we waited. No one dared leave the basement, and no one went back to their homes. The rest of my family had already been separated, but thankfully my husband found me in the basement. Janak Singh, that was his name. When he found me, he was carrying only two things – the gun that the army had given him, and this sword.’ She motioned to the long piece of rusted metal placed before us. It sat idly on the table, seeming rather out of context. The curtains of the living room had been drawn, and the yellow light from the ceiling created dark shadows on the sword’s surface. ‘This sword is from Mirpur?’ I asked, picking it up. Though I tried to be gentle, it was heavier than I expected, and I awkwardly cradled it in my arms, quite unlike the weapon it was meant to be and more like a baby. Longer than a regular sword, it was slim and frail. It was likely forged out of a combination of different metals, but due to sheer oxidation and weathering, it was difficult to figure out its make. In parts, the metal had been so laden with moisture that its layers had either flaked off or sat in pockets of air bubbles. Rust and black patches covered its surface, and the bottom of the sword had broken off. A single line, the fuller, ran across the length of the blade, darker and denser in colour. But the real beauty was the grip – it had been hand-carved in dark wood and bore a crosshatch pattern. Its metallic cross-guard had been welded in a way that it rounded on one side and dipped into a graceful curve on the other. Given its condition, I was amazed that it had survived the years. ‘Nahi, it’s from Rawalpindi,’ she said. ‘My husband received it when he was working at the airfield there and brought it to Mirpur when he came about ten or twelve days before we finally left. Look closely, you will see markings on it.’
Gurshane brought out a magnifying glass and offered it to me. ‘Look right underneath the cross-guard,’ he said, pointing out the place. Barely two or three inches below, where the blade began, one could see an engraving, like a code or a serial number. ‘R B B…S.’ I peered closely and, unable to make out all the letters, moved on to the next line. ‘R. PINdI…R. Pindi? Rawalpindi?’ my eyes grew wide. Gurshane nodded. ‘Rawalpindi.’ Under that was a small white gash, where the sword was slightly bent. The family told me that the point had broken during a particularly bad monsoon when they lived in Lucknow. Water had seeped into the scabbard, the case in which the sword was placed, and when it was retrieved, the tip had been so badly affected by rainwater that it broke off, leaving a jagged edge at the end. As I was studying its surface, Ajit Kaur placed a hand on it and said, ‘Toh yehi thi inke paas. This and the gun were the two things we had on us that day. I don’t remember how long we stayed in the basement, whether it was hours or days, but I remember being able to still hear the firing outside. I was scared, I didn’t know if we would get out of there alive or not. More people had collected underground with us, some had run to the army cantonment, and some had hidden in a gurudwara. But so many others had been killed. Houses had been set ablaze, stores and shops burned to the ground. The city was destroyed. Mirpur had fallen, it was gone.’ And as she said those last words, her eyes met Satwant Kaur’s.
"When the last of the soldiers left the basement, we followed them out, ran through the city and straight into the jungles. Not one person went back home, we all simply followed the uniformed men. We didn’t have any possessions."
"When the last of the soldiers left the basement, we followed them out, ran through the city and straight into the jungles. Not one person went back home, we all simply followed the uniformed men. We didn’t have any possessions. I think my husband only had three rupees and nine annas in his pocket, but there was no time to go home, and who knew whether our home still stood or not, so we just continued running. Aage jungle hi jungle tha, jisko jo raasta mila, woh wahi chala gaya. There were thorny shrubs, bushes and trees all around us. No one knew where they were going, and because the firing continued every now and then, people just ran in whatever direction they thought was safe. Some of the army men were on their khachar, the mules they used in the mountains, and suddenly, scared by the gunfire, one of the mules trotting close to me jumped, threw off his soldier and hurled me across to the other side…" She extended her right arm forward, showing us how far she had been flung. "And then it just ran off. But I was pregnant, and the violent movement made me unwell. In the fall, my dupatta, my slippers, everything had been thrown in different places. As we continued walking behind the caravan of people, the firing continued from the sky as well. So, from time to time, we lay on the ground and moved as and when we could. My husband had been trained at the Chaklala airfield, so he knew a little bit about such drills. We would lie flat and move with our elbows and knees. My movements were, of course, constrained, but he made me continue. We were not thinking straight about anything except getting to safety. We just kept walking, following, the whole day and night." "But where did you think you were going?" "India. But no one really knew the way…" She shrugged and then turned to Satwant Kaur, saying, "did you know where we were going, kuch yaad hai aapko?" Satwant Kaur shook her head. "Our house was right in front of theirs. Gali mein aamne-saamne hi makaan tha. So we knew one another even before our children got married to each other," she explained to me. "In 1947, I was barely four or five years old, so whatever I remember is what my elders have told me. I was the youngest sister, and my brother, who was younger than me, was barely eight or nine months old at the time. When the rioters entered our city, just like she said," she said, pointing to Ajit Kaur, "they began shooting everyone and everything. We ran in different directions trying to avoid the firing. They killed my mother, and were about to kill my father as well. But he gestured to my eldest sister, Inderjit – a beautiful eighteen-year-old, who was already engaged – and said that, before him, the rioters must kill her. He said he would rather she died in front of his eyes than have her honour besmirched in worse ways later."
Excerpted with permission from Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory by Aanchal Malhotra, HarperCollins.