For our series on exile with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, Kavita Puri writes on partition, memory and exile.
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Across June, PEN Transmissions, in collaboration with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, is publishing a series of essays on the theme of exile. This series speaks to Edmund de Waal’s library of exile, currently housed at the Museum. English PEN’s event series for the exhibition has been postponed due to COVID-19, and these essays – from writers in the events programme, or with books in the library – touch on issues that will be discussed at the rescheduled events.
There is a jam jar that sits on a shelf in a study in a suburb of North London. It contains stones. They are the colour of earth; smooth and round. Raj Daswani takes them out and holds them in the palms of his hands. He brings them to his lips and kisses them. ‘I keep these stones’, he says, ‘to feel connected to my soil’.
Soil, earth, land – Raj means Karachi. He feels a profound connection to it, yet he hasn’t lived there since September 1947.
Raj, then thirteen, was one of the many millions of people who were part of the largest migration ever to occur outside war and famine: the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in August 1947. Fearing being a minority in a new land, Hindus and Sikhs went to India, and many Muslims to Pakistan. An estimated 12 million people left land that generations of their family had lived on for a new country. It was accompanied by horrific violence as people of the “other” religion turned against one another. All sides were victims and perpetrators.
Karachi, in Sindh Province, became part of Pakistan. Raj’s family were Hindu. They didn’t want to leave, but felt it was no longer safe for them. Their Muslim neighbours all came out on the day they left, in tears. They begged the Daswanis not to go, saying they would protect them. Raj’s parents felt there was no choice. They left by boat for India. The only items they were allowed to take from that life were a large tin of wheat flour and ghee.
Raj arrived in Bombay, now Mumbai, never having spoken Hindi. His mother-tongue was Sindhi. He lived in an old British military barracks with many hundreds of other Sindhis, where they slept in a large room with hanging bed sheets as walls to divide families. There was one toilet between five hundred people. Things improved, eventually, in the refugee camp and Raj ended up staying there for twelve years. India never welcomed him he says, and it certainly never felt like home. He then came to Britain, where he has lived for many decades with his wife Geeta. He has four children and grandchildren. He still speaks Sindhi to them.
Yet, after all these years, it is Karachi that feels like home. ‘This is not my soil, England or Bombay or India’, he says. Raj has been back to visit Pakistan three times. The first time he arrived in Karachi, he took dust from the earth, and put it to his forehead, and said ‘Mother, I have come home’. On his final visit, he wrote a poem. The first verse reads:
In the end have realised this.
In exile or forced to leave you
Imagine the agony suffered by me
Our flesh and blood, our kith and kin
Suffering, in the name of religion
I’ve spoken to many people who lived through the tumultuous events of partition and subsequently came to Britain – who lived through a dual migration. Many had been forced to flee – first as refugees around 1947 – and later chose to migrate to Britain, their former colonial ruler. Yet the deep connection to the land of their birth has remained, despite the decades.
For the generation who lived through 1947, they do not think of borders, division, partition. Of course they recall the horror and bloodshed when the subcontinent was divided. But they remember another time, too, before that. A time when people of different religions largely got along, and could live side by side, in places like Lahore, Amritsar and Karachi. That is now relegated to the history books. One man, who grew up in West Punjab in a mixed village in British India, told me that, when his Sikh aunt died, her best friend, a Muslim, became a wet-nurse for her baby. What could be more intimate?
That visceral attachment to the land long-left – where your parents were born, and your grandparents too – largely exists in memories. Unlike Raj, many never went back. Those I spoke to now say they want to return, before they die, to see their family home, or a tree they played in as a child; to find out if the best friend they left in a hurry, without goodbyes, is still alive. And if they cannot go in life, they want the journey made to have their ashes scattered where they were born. Officially, they do not belong in that so-called “enemy” country, but that is not how they see it. Bureaucrats may draw borders and politicians create new national narratives, but they cannot erase that generation’s stories and history. That generation does not forget.
Iftakhr Ahmed was seventeen when he travelled from Delhi to Lahore. It was no longer safe for him to be a Muslim in India. ‘India is mine too’, he says emphatically. He can recall the smells of his childhood in the streets of Gangoh, where he played with best friends who were Hindu. His mother is still buried in India’s earth, as are his grandparents. But will future generations feel that way too about the land left behind?
So many partition memories are shrouded in silence and have not been knowingly passed on. Those that came to post-war Britain were getting on with life in a new country where they faced hostility. Looking back on the past was an indulgence they did not have. There is an institutional silence in Britain, not only to partition, but also empire. It’s not taught widely in schools; there are no museums to it, or memorials to those that died as the British left India; for so long, there wasn’t the public space to talk about those times; and so many partition memories are bound up in dishonour and shame that they are easier not to discuss. The next generations, born here, may not have known much about the Indian subcontinent (or even have any knowledge of partition), and may not have asked.
Veena is a retired GP now living in the Scottish Borders. She always believed her family were from India. It wasn’t until she found essays and poems written by her recently deceased mother that she learnt her family were originally from Pakistan. She wants to go back there and stand on the earth that generations of her family are from. Her parents’ escape story was so traumatic that they couldn’t share their family history while alive. But Veena could always feel the trauma – she just did not know what it was.
Anindya is third generation. His family moved from East to West Bengal. He says that, though partition may not always have been spoken of directly, it was always there. His grandparents had first-hand trauma of having to leave; they had the memories of the house, the place they left. But his parents had an inherited trauma: ‘I don’t think they got over the memory of the suffering that their parents had to go through’. Anindya’s parents had, however, a connection to their desh, the place they were from – even though it was only part of the family’s mythology,. Anindya, too, says that this sense has carried on to him: ‘I am very conscious … of the importance of roots, of the importance of feeling that you belong somewhere that you have a place that you can call your home’. He admits that, over time, if he has children and grandchildren, there may be a diminished attachment to East Bengal – ‘But the longer the attachment survives’, he says, ‘the better’.
It is not just an attachment to a place that can persist through the generations, but also the sense that the place you thought of as permanent – your desh, your home – can be taken away. If it happened to family members in living memory, perhaps it could take place again. It’s compounded when your family uproot twice – first as refugees and then in migration to Britain, where your tie to the land is fragile. The imaginary suitcase at the top of the wardrobe is always there, just in case you have to move once more.
The consequences of political decisions taken so long ago are threaded through families long after, muddling notions of belonging. Home can be the place you are originally from, but to which you can never return. Can be the place you moved to on the Indian subcontinent. Can be the place to which you chose to migrate.
As long as people remember the time before 1947 – and tell their stories and pass them on – then they exist too, in all their complexity. Yes, terrible things happened in the name of religion in the fight over land. But so too was there love, friendships, shared culture and language, a history on the very land on which the border was later drawn. Though that generation have now long fled, ties remain deep. So next time you ask someone with South Asian heritage where they are from, and you note a hesitation before they answer, get the long response. It may be an extraordinary story of migration across countries and continents.
Kavita Puri is author of Partition Voices: Untold British Stories (Bloomsbury). She works in BBC Current Affairs and is an award-winning TV executive producer and radio broadcaster. Her landmark three-part series Partition Voices for BBC Radio 4 won the Royal Historical Society’s Radio and Podcast Award and its overall Public History Prize. Her critically acclaimed Radio 4 series, Three Pounds in My Pocket, charts the social history of British South Asians from the post-war years. She is currently making the third series. She worked for many years at Newsnight and studied Law at Cambridge University.
Created as a ‘space to sit and read and be’, library of exile is an installation at the British Museum by British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.