When fear reigned: 64 years since the flight of Partition
My wife shivered in the cold night. We lay on a sheet, spread out on the pavement in Amritsar in northern India. We had no pillows so I had put some bricks under our heads. We lay there in the dark, wide awake, wondering what would become of us.
We had reached Amritsar at 7pm. We did not know anyone there (or anywhere in India), we did not know where to go and we were penniless. So we decided to sleep in the street. That was our first night in free India on September 12, 1947.
An army convoy had brought us there from the newly formed Pakistan. The entire journey was punctuated by the sound of gunshots. It was the first time my wife had travelled outside our hometown.
The next morning I needed money to organise accommodation, clothes and food. But because we had been forced to leave our home abruptly, we had been reduced to the plight of beggars. But while beggars can at least beg to fill their bellies, we could not even extend our hands for alms. Who could we approach for support? Everyone around us was a refugee.
Fortunately, my wife was still wearing her gold bangles. When I suggested to her that we sell them, she was horrified. "These are my wedding bangles," she protested. I promised to buy her new bangles later and the good lady agreed.
Long before the actual divide, conditions had been deteriorating in British India. Fear and tension reigned: bullets were fired in residential neighbourhoods; knives and swords were wielded freely; women were abused; parents lost their young children; children lost their parents; and houses were looted and set on fire.
My parents had insisted on staying at home. My father believed that the storm would blow over and my mother would never leave him.
Later our house was ransacked. I never saw my parents again. I did not even have a photograph. Just 26 years old, with a heavy heart, I had watched this fierce storm of Partition dismember our family.
In Amritsar, community kitchens (langars) served us a basic meal. Roti (bread) and daal (lentils) were the staple meal, three times a day.
Just the day before, it seemed, we had owned a large villa, an office and farms across the countryside - in what had become Pakistan's province of Punjab. Our world had collapsed in just one night. On January 15, 1948, we were officially registered as refugees.
It was not just my family, but the country that was torn apart by violence. The home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, rushed to Amritsar. "The butchery of innocent and defenceless men, women and children does not behoove brave men," Mr Patel beseeched the crowd at the city's garden park. Sitting cross-legged on the bare ground in the front row, I was among more than 200,000 bereaved refugees at that meeting. At the same time, Mahatma Gandhi had undertaken a fast to protest against the pervasive violence.
Eventually, I was able to stand on my own feet and find work as a tax adviser. It was winter and bitterly cold, but I did not even own a blazer to wear. With the money left from the sale of my wife's gold bangles, I purchased an old black wool coat for 12 rupees (Dh1) and a tie for 2 rupees more from a used-garments vendor.
It was a hand-to-mouth existence. We were lonely but, awake late at night, I swore to do well in my life. Thus began our new odyssey.
Much later I learnt that Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the British lawyer who oversaw Partition, had sliced off an Indian territory of 88 million after only five weeks of consideration.
The Radcliffe line ran through the middle of villages, dividing neighbours and friends. It ran through homes, splitting rooms on either side. Then the exodus began by train, bus, truck, bullock-cart or foot. Mayhem, brutality, cholera and dysentery reigned.
Today - India's 64th anniversary of independence - is a chance to reflect, as I often do, that if leaders had defined pragmatic boundaries, instead of simply red-inking a line across a map, many of the one million who perished might have survived. Moreover, 14 million refugees would not have had to begin their lives afresh.
And yes, decades later when better days came, I did buy my wife new gold bangles. She was happy, and after a long time in darkness, the sun shone again.
Hari Chand Aneja is an 89-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work
Published: August 15, 2011 04:00 AM