After 75 years, witnesses to Partition describe the trauma of seeing a land cleft asunder

Four UAE residents who lived through the traumatic events share their memories

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When the clock struck midnight on August 14 in Pakistan and August 15 in India, people celebrated the end of British colonial rule and the dawn of independence.

For millions of others, it marked a long journey across a new border, leaving them with emotional scars that took decades to heal.

The celebrations of 75 years of independence are tinged with recollections of the fear that gripped people during the Partition of India that can never be erased for those who lived through the turbulent times.

When British colonial rulers hastily drew a border along religious lines to split India, it triggered the largest mass migration in history outside of famine, leading to war that left 15 million people displaced.

The new boundary carved up the country along religious lines so that Muslim majority provinces would become part of the new nation of Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh dominant areas would remain in India.

This sparked the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs moving south to India and Muslims crossing into Pakistan.

People who never held a knife in their life, they thought about killing
Narindra Singh Pujji, 93, a Dubai resident who was a teenager when India was divided

People were uprooted from land they knew as home for generations and fled by rail, road, boat and on foot.

The division resulted in violence across the subcontinent, with riots reported on both sides that killed about a million people.

The National spoke to four UAE residents who crossed the border, to hear their stories of uncertainty and bloodshed, as well as hope as families started anew.

They look back on the challenging road they travelled and tell of how they rebuilt their lives with the meagre possessions they were able to carry.

'I cannot forget the scenes and those stories'

Narindra Singh Pujji in his Dubai home and some photographs as a young student in Lahore before the partition 75 years ago. Victor Besa / The National

Narindra Singh Pujji was an 18-year-old college student trying to leave Lahore in August 1947.

He lived there as a child and knew cities such as Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad, and Rawalpindi through his father's work as a bank manager.

When his father moved to southern India on a posting with the air force in early 1947, the teenager stayed back to study at Forman Christian College, considered one of the best in the country.

But as news of strife and upheaval spread, Mr Pujji prepared to leave as it was unclear if Lahore would remain with India or be aligned with Pakistan across the demarcated border.

Now 93, the Dubai resident remembers clearly an encounter with a tonga, or horse carriage, driver.

“The riots had started. It was critical that I leave. Every day there were pictures in the news of people killed. It was a terrible period,” said Mr Pujji from his Dubai home, his backdrop a wall filled with black and white photographs of family gatherings in India and Pakistan.

“The tonga driver who took me to the train station was Muslim. When I saw him, he was kind of scared of me and I was scared of him. Nobody knew what to think or believe then.

“So, I started talking to him and as we talked, we were not scared of each other any more.”

Once he reached India’s capital Delhi, as part of the requirements of his college, the teenager helped refugees in camps and listened to their stories of loss and tragedy.

“People were spread all over India, wherever they could get food and jobs,” he said. “They told us about their family members who were killed.”

Mr Pujji recounted the tales he had heard at the time, from massacres of passengers on trains from Pakistan and then on those going the other way.

The atmosphere became toxic, he said.

“People who never held a knife in their life, they thought about killing. I met people in refugee camps who told us about the atrocities they had seen.

“I can’t forget these things, those scenes and stories. It is something I will always remember.”

Similar reports of mayhem have been repeated by survivors on both sides of the border.

Newspapers published photographs of bodies lying on streets and mass cremations after devastating riots.

News reports carried interviews with people who survived attacks on trains. Archives recorded the suffering of women who saw suicide as the only way to prevent being assaulted by mobs as millions crossed the new border.

After college, Mr Pujji found a job as an air traffic controller and later worked with British Airways.

About a year before his retirement, at the age of 57, he took on a job in Dubai with Emirates Airline as it was being launched in the mid-1980s.

As overseas development manager, he set up more than 30 offices for Emirates around the world, including Pakistan, and also visited his old college in Lahore.

After the upheaval of Partition, he said it was once again time to experience the warmth of the people in a country he knew as home.

Seeing a Sikh visitor from India, taxi drivers declined to charge him for the ride and shopkeepers gave him the best rate.

“They consider us their own people. People would keep saying, ‘You are our guest, our friend',” Mr Pujji recalled.

He echoes the sentiment that politicians stoke the globally recognised hatred and that the residents of both countries are opposed to conflict.

“There is no animosity between people; it is because of governments,” he said.

“For the 75th anniversary of our independence, it is a great occasion to celebrate. The negative part is that many people had to sacrifice their lives.”

From living in a shed to becoming a gynaecologist

Dr Rafeeya Sultan Pasha with some earlier images of her life in India, Pakistan and the UAE. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Dr Rafeeya Sultan Pasha was nine years old in 1947. Amid rumours of an imminent assault on their home, her family boarded a train in the middle of the night to Mumbai and travelled onwards to Pakistan.

Before that day, her childhood years were happy, spent in a stately home surrounded by extensive farmland in central India’s Jabalpur.

“We had everything we needed to be comfortable. My father loved hunting and I had many friends,” said Dr Pasha, now 84.

But the fissures between the two religious communities that escalated in the months leading up to the Partition left the young child with unforgettable memories of the violence that unfolded around her.

“Though I did not understand much, I knew my parents were upset about something. We were very young, so they never spoke of it in front of us but I could see them look very concerned and upset.

“One night, one of my father’s friends came over and told us our house would be attacked. In the middle of the night we packed and went to the station and a train arrived … it had blood and [dismembered] body parts.”

The images she saw as a child are now too overwhelming for Dr Pasha to dwell on, even decades after the event.

Her family travelled to Mumbai, then boarded a ship to Karachi, where she was thrilled by the colourful welcome that newcomers received.

“They had a garland for each person, even children, who arrived,” said Dr Pasha.

She remembers her mother often crying as she missed her two brothers who decided to remain in India.

Dr Pasha said the forced separation left a mark on all families.

“We had no place to go and no house to live in. We stayed in a shed which had a common kitchen and bathroom,” she said.

“It had such an impact on people … to move from a settled place had its challenges.

“Although my family lost everything and came empty-handed to Pakistan, we were happy. We had hope that God would open new avenues for us.”

Dr Pasha's father was a lawyer who had left his practice and the land he owned in India. He gradually gained new clients and the family moved into a rented apartment in Karachi.

They opened their home to relatives who arrived from India, offering them a place to stay until they could afford to move on.

“Everyone was hopeful. They did not think they had lost everything,” she said.

“I will always remember those moments. It is an inspiration to move forward and take everything in life as a challenge.”

The young girl would eventually decide to study medicine. In 1968, Dr Pasha moved to Al Ain to work as a gynaecologist before later relocating to Abu Dhabi.

The obstetrician has delivered hundreds of babies over the past 50 years. She treasures the friendships with her Indian colleagues and neighbours in the Emirates.

“When I moved to Abu Dhabi there were 15 to 20 villas [in my area] and so many Indian doctors,” she said.

“It was not a compound, it was an extended family. We lived in harmony and shared with each other.”

Fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs

Muljimal Chachara treasures old photographs of his community taken in their ancestral town in Pakistan before they left for India during the 1947 partition. Victor Besa / The National

Muljimal Chachara has no photographs of his childhood in Pakistan.

He treasures only two images dating back to the mid-1930s that his son unearthed. They show male members of the community, as well as children seated cross-legged in front of an ancestral home in Karachi.

Mr Chachara, 84, is not in the grainy shots but these are the only visual links to a place he once called home.

He carefully removes the two copies from plastic covers, reads out the names of people jotted down, and points out family connections he recognises.

The Chacharas belong to a tightly-knit Thattai Bhatia community that was in the pearl trade, who were known for their mercantile skills and entrepreneurship, and lived in Thatta district near Karachi.

Elaborate preparations for his sister’s wedding had to be postponed and Mr Chachara, then nine years old, fled Pakistan by boat with his family as news of rioting spread.

“We were kids playing one minute and then everything changed,” he said. “There was a lot of fear of what would happen.”

Leaving spacious homes, they lived in a shared space with relatives before moving to a small apartment in Nashik in western India’s Maharashtra state.

“We left with the clothes we wore and some utensils to cook,” he said.

“My mother had silver utensils to store water and we sold [them] to feed ourselves. There were a lot of mouths to feed. My brother had to do this to support our family.

“But this is not sad. By the grace of God, we are a thousand times better off now.”

His brother secured a job in Bahrain. Mr Chachara followed and worked in the country for about 30 years as an accountant in the aviation and construction business.

He moved to Dubai in the late 1980s and set up a general trading business

The lack of financial security left its mark and Mr Chachara is prudent about spending to this day.

“We didn’t lose family and didn’t experience the trauma of many who came by train,” he said.

“But it was a difficult time for a few years to take care of a big family. Even now, I’m very cautious about spending. I have seen those days.

“My children tell me, ‘why are you worried’ but I know how quickly things can change. You can have money one day and then it is gone, so I’m very cautious.”

'I hope relations between the countries become normal'

Vinay Varma and some memories of his childhood. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

The common thread that runs through those tumultuous times is how people had to start from scratch in new cities, ensuring their families were secure as they created a strong foundation for the next generation.

Vinay Varma was two years old when his family left Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and relies on stories from relatives.

He was born in the northern Pakistani city, as was his mother. His father, who worked in the military engineering services, was among the last to leave Rawalpindi.

“I know that his friends in the armed forces told him there was a last plane going to Delhi and he must be on it,” said Mr Varma.

“My father thought things would go back to normal. Like everyone else he left all his assets there. He [eventually] gave his house and car to the Holy Family hospital there.”

The hospital became a meaningful symbol for the family. It was where Mr Varma was born in Pakistan and, decades later, he made sure his daughter was delivered in a hospital by the same name in India’s capital New Delhi.

Mr Varma studied in Mumbai but after moving to the UAE, he has spent the past 50 years opening several restaurants in the Emirates.

“My father was very close to the people in Pakistan. My parents and family had great memories. We were lucky we didn’t go through the hardship and bloodshed so many people experienced,” he said.

“I do have the desire to go to Rawalpindi and see our house and hopefully I will someday.”

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since becoming independent from British rule. Relations are customarily tense, with tough visa restrictions making it difficult for family and friends to visit on either side of the border.

The horrors of the 1947 Partition have become a shared history that has influenced and affected the lives of generations.

Residents share a mutual wish that the discord would end and bring peace to both sides.

“I hope that relations between the two countries come to normal so one can travel without fear or worry,” Mr Varma said.

“I don’t know in my lifetime if the situation will change but I do pray that things should change for the better in future.”

Updated: August 12, 2022, 7:43 PM