Stories of Partition: Memoirs of a Hindu
by Swati Sharan
Swati Sharan is an Indian-origin freelance writer and peace activist who resides in Canada. She has written this short story based on the account of a partition refugee or “survivor” who migrated to India due to partition and then eventually to Canada but while he was compelled to move, he could not move away from the memories, the pain and trauma of loss and separation that accompanied the event of partition that divided the subcontinent and displaced millions of people not only physically but emotionally. The story was originally published at Booksie
In author’s own words:
I wrote this around 2000 at a point when I noticed that many of the second Indo-Canadian generation at large had grown up and little was being written about them. While Jhumpa Lahiri had won the Pulitzer in the U.S., we in Canada were bereft of an identity or presence in Canadian fiction though Indians had been inhabiting the country for almost 100 years. Figures like Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Vasanjee or Shauna Singh Baldwin had made their mark on a highly prestigious level and I was a great fan of all of them. But these guys were mostly not writing about Indians in Canada whether they were first or second generation. Whereas I grew up witnessing even the little things that the first generation, who largely migrated to Canada or the U.S. in the 1960s, go unrecorded. I was also being told by some to not bother focusing on work within the Indian milieu because it was seen as being impractical because it wouldn’t be marketable at large and I may not gain acceptance from the mainstream. But I chose to write a series of short stories anyways over the years even if I couldn’t find anyone to publish them or win any contests with them. I was not here to please. I was here to write.
But on the same token, I had to wrestle with the fact that for some of my stories with desi flair, I had to include an explanation about every second thing for both the second generation Indo-Canadians as well as the non-Indian public at large. On the other hand, there were many partition refugees in Canada and some of them were passing on. Yet many of them rarely spoke about it and would tell their children or grandchildren little or next to nothing about it. I later learned in the late 90s in an article in India Today about how untouched the stories of partition actually were and they were just starting to come out more. So while it seemed fine to accept that people were choosing what was in front of them, it was just as important to know what was behind them from atleast a historical purpose. Otherwise, a great manipulation of history risks occurring as we are seeing in the present time. Based on my conversations with different refugees, I found that sometimes they were not the ones who were holding grudges against Pakistanis or Indians inspite of all their suffering. If anything, they wished for both of these places to progress. But much misinformation has dictated otherwise when it comes to Indo-Pak relations and it’s sometimes by those people who had nothing to do with partition. So herein hangs my tale.
MEMOIRS OF A HINDU
Epilogue – The Year 2000 – Hospital Cafeteria, Toronto
“Amitash, have you read the newspaper today?” asked Susan James as she filed through a national newspaper while sitting in the staff cafeteria.
“There seems to be an obituary about an elderly Indian man from St. John’s. Some man who went through partition and then came here to live with his family in Canada.”
Amitash immediately jumped to look at the paper. “That’s my grandfather! But how did it get published here?” He read further down until he saw the name. Alisha Sood is Ravinder Prakash’s granddaughter and lives in Newfoundland. “This is written by my kid-sister Alisha! I don’t believe it!”
He read on for more details about his grandfather. He was shocked to realise how much he probably didn’t know about him. “…left Lahore which is now in Pakistan… went through Birla House where he met the then Indian prime minister Nehru addressing everyone… came to India through Delhi… went to Patna and started with a tea stall near the train station… moved to Canada when his wife died… and lived with his son’s family, including grandchildren…”
Amitash didn’t know what to believe. He left for home immediately where just as he entered, the phone rang. It was a stranger who had read the column and tracked him down through his mother.
“I got your family’s number through directory assistance and spoke with your mother. I just have to meet with you. I am old and don’t know how but I know I must. You are a legacy of your grandfather.”
“But who are you?”
“My name is Pervez Hassan and I live with my son here. Your grandfather was one of my close friends before he left Pakistan. I had no idea what became of him and lost him in the crowd when he was leaving for India. Things were very crazy then. When I learned about his experiences, it really made me cry.”
“Do you want to get together then? I can drive over.”
Plans about where and how to meet were made and executed. Before Amitash stood the last remnant of a life his grandfather never spoke to him about and in some ways his only living connection to that old world. And before Pervez stood his last chance to embrace his deceased friend’s legacy.
Prologue –The Year 2000 – Ravinder Prakash’s deathbed in St. John’s, Newfoundland
Om, or the name of God (e.g. Hey Ram), should be the last thing uttered before passing on as per Hindu beliefs. This is believed to make the transition to the hereafter smoother.
“Hey Ram,” he uttered lying on his deathbed recalling both old and new memories. Caught between life and the hereafter, he started visualising his life before the division of India and Pakistan. He remembered his youth in Lahore and the lessons his mother had given him for remembering God.
These stood at the very core of what helped him survive the tribulations he faced throughout much of his journey in the present body his soul entertained. From his arrival in India as a refugee to his move to live with his son in Canada, this childhood faith is what helped him get through it all.
He looked at each challenge as an opportunity for developing this faith. It was, as far as he was concerned, perhaps why God put before a given situation in the first place. It was a way to be brought closer to the Almighty.
His last days had been spent reading the works, including Bhagvad Geeta. Ravinder Prakash spent most of his time in his room doing this. His grandchildren peeked in periodically to see how he was. The Bhagvad Geeta had not appealed to the likes of them.
Toni Braxton CDs and pants with tapered waists were more like it for Abhilasha and Alisha at their age. The Barbie-sized stretch tops only added to the picture. Amitash, who was a bit older than the girls, sported a goatee and a pierced ear. His clothes at one point appeared to be three times bigger than him. He also loved to play basketball in the driveway. But all that, as time and fashion passed, were out.
Amitash had got a degree in pharmacy from Memorial University of Newfoundland and left St. John’s for Toronto and was now working in a hospital there. He just came here to visit his grandfather.
Overall, Amitash and the girls were good kids, Ravinder thought. It was just hard for them to identify with the strife that made itself felt throughout much of his life. At points, he felt that the struggles of the sub-continent entwined with the toil of his own existence. He wondered if he should have told them all about it when he was younger.
But at that time, it seemed like too great a contrast in lifestyles. These kids were from a professional Canadian middle-class background where they had little or no interaction with India and her cultural bi-products. And when the 1985 Air India crash happened, Ravinder just felt it better not to say anything.
It was as if the destructive elements of India’s problems could not be left behind. In places like Toronto or Vancouver, because of the large South Asian population, Ravinder may have considered not shielding the kids from the problems. In Newfoundland, however, it was only too easy to.
So, when his son and daughter-in-law set out to live in a small outport area for a couple of years, it couldn’t have been better. In a place that was all white, India’s legacies could not follow them.
But then the family moved back to St. John’s. And now the kids were getting old enough to try to “fit in” with their counterparts in society. Ravinder dared not make them more of a misfit than what they already were by virtue of their skin colour and what they ate at home. Hence, they grew up knowing more about what was in front of them rather than what he hoped lay behind them.
Ravinder’s move to Canada came about in the late ‘70s when his wife died. The children had never seen him till then. In fact, Alisha, the youngest, was not even born.
“What’s left?” his son Sunil had said. “Mataji has passed on and now it’s just us. There’s nobody to look after you there.”
“Yes papa,” Shailja had echoed. “Come stay with us. The children have always wondered about you and Mataji.”
How lucky he was to have a daughter-in-law as sweet as Shailja. It was her infinite love and care that made settling in Canada easier. Without her, he knew not what he would do.
Resettling, all the same, had not come easily. It was one of the reasons why he had not wanted to leave India when the prospect came up. Ravinder did not want to have to rebuild at this late an age. On the other hand, he also didn’t want to be separated from his only son and their family. Ravinder had no one else.
Ravinder’s mind then flashed to Patna. It was the city he had been directed to as a young man after leaving Lahore to cross into New Delhi. What a farce his earlier life in Lahore seemed at that point. He and his sisters could never have imagined when they were younger that India would be split into two.
Their family had arrived penniless with nothing other than the clothes off their backs. They had slept on the open fields next to the train station for months with surrounding tin shelters until the family was able to secure enough of an income to move into a small two-room house.
What a contrast this was to the life they had known in Lahore in the ’30s. Ravinder and his sisters had lived in great comfort then with a compound to play in. And of course, that included the ayahs or maids to wait on them.
Such pleasure had they known then. So much so that they could never imagine that partition could take place. This was their home. Why should they be made to leave?
With the onset of the ’40s however, the picture became grimmer. The All India Muslim League was fast gaining momentum. Civil unrest was beginning to overtake them.
The horrors of the exodus still felt unbelievable even as Ravinder would sit to have his tea on his rope-strewn cot in Patna on many a late afternoon. Since moving to Patna, he had started selling tea from a tea stand.
As stability occupied him more, Ravinder began selling bread in the ‘New Market’ area. Some thought of this as being a part of the Refugee Market area because many of the people who did business there were refugees.
With the aid of his father, he eventually went on to open a confectionery goods store in the central area of Patna on Dak Bangla Road. The business now thrived and with this success, Ravinder helped finance his sisters’ marriages and provide for his extended family. Life had been a struggle but Ravinder’s faith in the almighty and the wisdom and guidance of his elders got him through this. The one constant he had was his faith which was remaining till his dying days.
The memory started fading out and a vision of his son Sunil started fading in until…oh yes… Sunil… the reason he had come.
Looking back on the series of events in his life and India’s, he wondered whether he had done the right thing by keeping his grandchildren in the dark about her as a culture and a politic. As much as he couldn’t understand Kargil in the summer of ’99 and why it had to be, Ravinder couldn’t help but think that he did the wrong thing by not talking about their heritage.
He felt that much guiltier when Alisha came home asking him about their family tree. It was a project from school she said. “C’mon Dadaji. You’ve got to help me.”
“But what can I help you with?”
“You can help me with a lot. I don’t know a thing about our family or where we came from. I mean I know we’re Punjabi but that’s about it. You never talk about these things and we never see mom and dad ‘cuz they’re always busy. So, why don’t you say something? My friend Vanessa’s got everything traced back to Ireland eight generations ago.”
At this point, he was overcome with tears. Though in his dying days, this was the chance that God gave him to make up for all that he hadn’t done.
Immediately, their lessons began in family history and the Indian sub-continental polity. This included being told about how her grandfather met the first Indian Prime Minister Nehru at Birla House as he and their family members had crossed the border. Religion, of course, also interspersed now and again from the readings of the Ramayana in Urdu to partition.
Like an intricately woven tapestry, Ravinder spun the threads of their heritage. Surges of weakness, however, had begun to claim him more and more.
He found himself returning to bed earlier. He also felt more inclined towards the chanting of the Santhi Pat or the chants of peace.
Though St. John’s lay in great contrast to his early days in Lahore, he all the more couldn’t help but recount those days as he lay in his bed. It was as if everything in between was starting to blur slowly. And then one day, when Shailja was doing her prayers, she blew the conch from the pooja or prayer room.
Upon this sound, Ravinder’s life flashed before him. The pain and tension from his body were slowly being released.
The words of the Bhagvad Gita were slowly recalled. You are the soul. You are never born and you never die. The births you take are like the old clothes you change. You leave your body like you would your clothes. Until of course, you merge with the almighty and free yourself from rebirth.
He then started easing into his final utterances for remembering God before making his way into the hereafter. “Hey Ram… Hey Ram… Hey Ram…”
With no feeling of anything further left to yearn for and with no grievances or regrets, Ravinder experienced a state of moksha or freedom of the soul. He was now ready to leave his body. A great life was left behind.
 Air India was bombed in 1985 by some Sikh terrorists to pressure the Indian government into forming Khalistan, a separatist Sikh homeland
 Mataji is a respectful way of addressing one’s mother in Hindi or Punjabi.
 In the summer of 1999, India and Pakistan faced strife and war in the area known as Kargil in the Kashmir area of India.
 A native of Punjab or whose cultural origins hail from Punjab
 Moksha or soul freedom is a high spiritual state of bliss when all your karmas (thoughts, deeds or actions) cancel each other out. Karma is believed by Hindus to be recorded something like a debit/credit ledger over lifetimes. (Karmas can prompt rebirth be they bad or good. I.e. you will need to repay your debts or people pay theirs back to you). Many Hindus mistakenly assume moksha to mean one has passed on and speak of it this way but you can’t get moksha after you die. You need to be alive for it. Moksha is seen as being an ultimate aim and grants one freedom from rebirth. At this point, one has no unfulfilled desires, grievances or regrets or a yearnful attachment to another person or thing. Therefore, there is no cause to be reborn then.