MY father, a doctor, was posted at Manawala in Nankana Sahib tehsil (Sheikhupura) and was in charge of the local dispensary. Though just over nine years old in 1947, I could sense the tension in the air and an uneasiness that is difficult to define. The dispenser’s son was my only friend. A few days earlier, his name had been changed from Khizar Hayat to Bashir. That was because he shared his name with pre-Partition Punjab premier Khizar Hayat Tiwana, a Unionist who had opposed the creation of Pakistan and had fallen in the eyes of large sections of the Muslim community.
There was another boy, Anayat, the sweeper’s son, a rogue character who both of us despised. One morning, when I stepped out of the house to play with Bashir, Anayat came over and surreptitiously handed him what appeared to be a deck of cards. He whispered to him to show me the cards at a secret location and not to speak about it to anybody.
We went close to the boundary wall of the dispensary. The cards had indescribable pictures of naked women and men. We were aghast. Bashir blurted out what he was told by Anayat: ‘These are Hindu and Sikh women, and the men are all Muslims. These pictures are from Rawalpindi and surrounding villages.’
I was shaken to the core. As I returned home, I was shivering. I went straight to my room and covered myself with a blanket, as if hiding from the world. At lunch time when my father came home and asked my mother about my whereabouts, she told him that there was something wrong. My father caressed my head and asked me what the matter was. I told him about the pictures, which he figured out had been deliberately circulated to frighten Hindus and Sikhs.
That night, I overheard my parents conversing about the options they had to leave Pakistan. My mother said we could leave for Sacha Sauda Gurdwara in Faislabad, from where a caravan would probably move to India. My father reminded her that in between was Sekhwan village by the Sekhwan canal, originating from the Ravi river, ‘where marauders wait to loot, rape and kill every Hindu or Sikh crossing the bridge’. We were stuck.
At the end of the second week of August, the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr was celebrated. This time round, all the more fervently since it was the first Eid after the formation of Pakistan. Residents of a nearby village came out in their best clothes and there was great excitement. Goats were dragged towards the Eidgah to be sacrificed. That’s when a minor altercation over whose goat was bigger or who had brought more goats for sacrifice took a turn for the worse. The sacrificial weapons were used to attack each other and the fight stopped only after a woman lay on the ground with an axe embedded in her skull, a man had an almost severed arm, and another had a spear in the thigh. Many others were injured. All of them were brought to the Manawala dispensary on carts.
Father immediately got down to work. Slowly and carefully, the axe was drawn out of the woman’s head, which was shaved clean and stitched. She remained in a critical condition. A splint was used to tie the arm of the man. The man who had a spear in the thigh and the one who had been lanced in the arm had lost a lot of blood and both were in shock. No transfusion of blood was possible as there was no such arrangement. The only choice was to watch, care and pray.
While all this was going on, an Army truck with soldiers of the Sikh Regiment stopped at our doorstep. The truck had come to evacuate a Sikh family but since there was space, we were also asked if we wanted to go along. We were ready, but father could not join us. The relatives of the victims pleaded with him to stay on to treat the injured since the nearest civil hospital was at Sheikhupura, some 90 km away.
Father was bound by the Hippocratic Oath and decided to stay on.
Luckily, all the injured survived but father remained held up at Manawala, I, my mother, brothers and our little sister reached Amritsar safely. A house vacated by Muslims became our refuge. Two of my elder brothers daily went to the railway station and the places where caravans from Pakistan arrived in the hope of finding our father among them. They not only returned disappointed but were also disgusted by what they saw at the railway station and the condition of the people arriving from Pakistan. Only once could I gather courage to go to the railway station. There were two trains on either side of the platform, one that had come from Lahore and the other that was to go to Lahore. These were ghost trains, with passengers lying dead. The horrors are unforgettable.
Father fortunately reached Amritsar after a month-and-a-half as part of a caravan that had started from Nankana Sahib.
Not only the schools and colleges but almost all public places were occupied by refugees. A struggle was on to take possession of houses and shops that were once owned by Muslims. I would go to the famous Hall Bazaar and while away my time roaming on the streets.
Hall Bazaar, too, had faced the vagaries of Partition. Half of its shops were open, doing business, and the rest had been looted and burnt.
One day, as I loitered around, I was startled to hear a loud shriek. A girl was running up the stairs of a double-storey building. She was shouting at the top of her voice, ‘I won’t be caught, you won’t get me.’ She had reached right at the top and I could a see a few men sporting turbans and with cropped hair a step or two behind her. She put her hands on the parapet and jumped over. In a split second, she lay on the road, a heap of broken bones, blood oozing out. After her came her floating veil. Somebody jumped up to catch it. Another man helped him cover the body. By then, passions had cooled somewhat and remorse had set in. Around her, Amritsar stood ashamed. The horrors of Partition were all-pervasive. That side of the border, and this.
— The writer resides in Delhi
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