As told by Shashi Talwar, to her grandson Advitya Suri.
As Independence Day is approaching, I can see perched all over on the flat rooftops of houses, our national flag, especially in Delhi. I hope people realize the cost of Independence. It should not only be a day for celebration, but also for a time of reflection. People of this generation should treasure our independence because of the hardships and the bloodshed to attain it. We can be a stronger and united nation if we were to be respectful of people of another race, gender, and religion.
The vibrant, fluttering flags bring me to August 1947. I was four years old, but remember in vivid detail what transpired in those hot and sultry days of August. We were stationed in Peshawar, (present-day Pakistan). My father worked in the Land and Records Department. His work used to take him to remote areas where he used to hear and resolve land disputes. He was showered with blessings from Hindus and Muslims alike. It was an idyllic time, my family enjoyed good relationships with people from work and the neighbourhood. I remember we had a helper, Abdullah, who used to ferry me to school on his shoulders. He would cheerfully sing and dance in Pashto. I never understood the words, but they filled me with joy. I looked up to him as an uncle and called him Chacha.
People of this generation should treasure our independence because of the hardships and the bloodshed to attain it. We can be a stronger and united nation if we were to be respectful of people of another race, gender, and religion.
It was a typical morning one August day. My father had left for work. My mother had bathed me and my nine-month-old brother. She had left him sleeping on the terrace. My mother was getting ready for her bath, being in her linen nightclothes. My grandmother was heating the tandoor to bake fresh roti. Suddenly, the peace of the morning was shattered by loud cries of “Bhaago, bhaago!” and “Jaan bachaao!” My simple four-year-old mind was so frightened, I froze. I thought to myself, who and why would anyone want to kill us?
I still remember my grandmother running to the cowshed, and freeing the cows. My eleven-year-old sister scooped me up and ran alongside my grandmother. We realized in the frantic frenzy, we had forgotten my little brother, still sleeping on the terrace, but we could not come back. My uncle, who warned and helped us escape, offered to help. The rioters had already broken the door and entered the house. My uncle managed to climb up the stairs and jumped from the second floor with our infant brother. Miraculously, they both emerged unscathed.
We realised in the frantic frenzy, we had forgotten my little brother, still sleeping on the terrace, but we could not come back.
We sought refuge with a poor Muslim family, who promised us safety for five tolas of gold for each family member. Women of that time typically had lots of gold on them, and we were lucky that our mother had been wearing a lot of gold. We stayed with them for three days and three nights, along with thirty people, huddled in a room half full of cow dung cakes. There was no food or water for three days. Despite these conditions, the poor family did its best to keep us out of harm’s way. They would swear by the Koran that they had not seen any Hindus in the neighborhood. At that time, we all used to hold our breaths in anticipation, and children’s mouths were covered to prevent screaming. We are still grateful to that family for saving us in our time of hardship.
At last, my father was able to obtain air tickets to come to Ambala Cantonment. The tents were erected for us where three families were assigned to one tent. From Ambala we had to choose our destination. Our family had never visited this side of the country before, so it took lots of time to make ends meet. Those left behind in present-day Pakistan were still waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. There was a radio service that told about which loved ones had arrived in the camp. It was an emotional roller coaster of both hope and despair. I must say I salute to the people that have settled in India from Pakistan. The way they have come up financially and emotionally is quite remarkable. These people are now holding top positions in the government and never once begged for food. I am proud of these people. They believe in the dignity of labour.
Happy Independence Day.
Shashi Talwar is 76 years old and resides in New Delhi. She loves to knit and spend time with her grandchildren. Advitya Suri, ‘Adi’ to his friends, is 12 years old. He loves to play soccer and his trumpet. The views expressed are the authors’ own.