Holidays at Nana’s house in Sialkot were fun. The summers would be hot and sweaty, but the air smelled of monsoon rains. The winters smelled of wood smoke and the cotton from heavy quilts. That wasn’t all they were about. Other than the regular residents of the house, we would have the occasional visits from Maasi. Many would consider the use of the word “Maasi” derogatory, but the key is in breaking down the word – Maa Si – (translated as “Like Mum”) – but it’s actually the proper Punjabi word for your maternal aunt or khala.
Maasi was a very important family member. She had been the household help way back in the 80s. She retired when her children grew up and were able take care of her. Maasi lived in nearby Ugoki, a town close to the city of Sialkot. Her visits were fun and lasted a few days. Sometimes, she was asked to come when extra hands were required, like if there was a wedding. But sometimes, she arrived on her own and I swear, those appearances were like rubbing a magic lamp – all we had to do was think about her and she would arrive in the evening with no magical fanfare. She had magic hands. Her head massages were heavenly, and she could make stomach aches go away within minutes.
Maasi was also completely illiterate. One fine day, as she sat giving me her magical, healing head massage, I thought we should make small talk. Maasi, spoke only Punjabi and sometimes, she had difficulty understanding Urdu. Those times, I would lapse into my broken Punjabi so we could get somewhere. Very causally, I asked where she was from. She responded equally coolly “Jila Gurdashpur”. For ease of readers, that’s translated as District Gurdaspur, on the other side of the border. Ever the curious one, I had so many more questions. “When did you come to Sialkot, then?” I asked. With her hands dexterously working through my hair, she said a handful of words in Punjabi, that – to this day – never fail to give me goose-bumps:
“Jadon jameen aider odar hoi”(When the Earth Moved)
Those few words were simple and complicated at the same time. Those few words held so many worlds within them. Those few words made my heart lurch in a painful way. Over the course of the next few days, I asked her so many questions. Thinking back to the time, she was always very calm when she answered my questions. It was as if she spoke of someone else, may be a character of some long forgotten story. Like thousands of women on either side of the border, who had to live through the ordeal of Partition, Maasi’s story was no different.
The Partition of India and of Punjab is a painful chapter in South Asian history. We celebrate 14th August each year as Independence Day – the day we were able to attain a separate homeland. While we are busy celebrating achievement of this great task, we seldom think about the blood that went into it – quite literally. Books on history are full of praises of political figures – the role of this Doctor, the donations of that Nawab, but we never once think about the millions of people who were forced to pay the price. And honestly, the price was too steep.
And then there are the women. Other than those directly attached to the politics of the whole situation, one hardly thinks about the role of women. And yet, it was the numerous nameless, faceless women who shouldered the burden of the division, through loss of home, identity, family, their sense of self and even their lives. I remember reading the dreadful passage from dear friend Salman Rashid’s book “A Time of Madness”. He shared the fate of his young aunts in Jalandhar in very few words. One can easily imagine what became of them. Here, I’ve shared a an old photo of his grandfather, Dr. Badruddin (with Salman Rashid’s permission).
Maasi recalled that she was 13 or 14 when Partition happened – like many people of her age, she didn’t know her exact age. Her father had died and she had a sister. One evening her paternal uncle came to their house and told her to get ready. She did as she was told. Within two hours the teenaged Maasi was married off to a man more than double her age – Munshi Khan, her husband was at least 40 and already married. 1947 was an explosive year. There are stories of plunder and pillage and attacks of the balwaris who were known to not only loot and destroy but also rape and abduct women. Families – such as Maasi’s decided that it would be better to marry off the girls. Better for whom, though? Did it matter to the balwaris whether a woman was married or not? No it did not! What it truly achieved was that it absolved the families of their perceived burden of having a daughter in those treacherous times. Maasi was just one of the throngs of women whose lives were toppled during the course of that fateful summer. Being married wasn’t the only thing she had to worry about – the day she got married was the last day she saw her mother and her sister. She didn’t know what became of them.
I don’t know whether to call Maasi fortunate or unfortunate, on one hand she survived the ordeal, but on the other hand her life was upturned completely. At an age when one should be concerned with gossiping with close friends, Maasi was left to the mercy of the circumstances. Had her family not foisted her off, I can’t say what her fate would have been. Maasi was just one of the uncountable women who became the faceless, unremembered victims of Partition. But hers wasn’t the only story. There were all those girls and women, Muslims, Hindu, Sikhs – who never made the journey to the other side just because their families begged them to help retain their “honour”. And being dutiful daughters, sisters, nieces, grand-daughters, they jumped into wells and committed suicide so that their family could live with their heads held high. Or they were killed by their own kin, an act of “mercy and honour”. For a nation whose collective honour resides in the person and bodies of the women, we have made poor show of it. If I could go back in time, I would love to ask this question: was their honour satisfied? Did they ever feel guilt? – because I hope they never got to sleep a single night after that.
Over the course of a few years after Partition, there was a very misguided attempt at repatriation of the women who were left behind or abducted. This was decided by the two Prime Ministers. They couldn’t have thought of the consequences. While one sin against the women had been committed when they were abducted, forcibly converted and even married off, the second one was to make the effort of repatriation, knowing that it would rehash old wounds and that those women would never be accepted by their families again.
A long time ago, I heard a painful story. A family who had to migrate to Pakistan lost one daughter to the balwaris. Years later, the said daughter – by then married to her captor and forcibly converted – was able to locate the address of her remaining family in Pakistan. I can only imagine her feelings as she found her long-lost family. What I can’t imagine is the cruelty of her family who wrote back only to disown her for the “dishonor” she had brought on them.
The struggles of women immediately before, during and after partition have occasionally been covered on media. There was a movie called Silent Water (Khamosh Pani), about a girl from a Sikh family left behind in Pakistan, who is forced to endure her worst fear – namely the village well for what it represents. Amrita Singh wrote her account of one such woman caught between the madness of men in Pinjar. But the best and the worst of the lot was Manto’s “Khol Do”, the plight of a young girl is so raw and chilling, that I still get goose-bumps to this day – I say worst because it made me feel things I never wanted to feel. Dastaan was yet another drama. It was based on Razia Butt’s famous eponymous novel “Bano”. I think I would be correct when I say that this was the first TV show that actually moved me to tears as we follow the exhausting and mind-numbing journey of the titular character Bano.
For something that has left a deep impression on our collective psyches, the harrowing tale of countless women was mostly just forgotten. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate pictures of Maasi that I had. And there weren’t people who could share photos from the 40, particularly of the women.
More than 30,000 women had been repatriated in the years following partition. Muslim Women were sent to Pakistan, while the Sikh and Hindu Women were sent to India. No one could have written a better black comedy. Lightning had struck these poor souls twice. Just when things would have started settling down, men in high offices made these decisions, no one bothered to ask the affected women what they wanted to do. They were treated like cattle, loaded into trucks and shuttled across borders and more trauma heaped upon them.
We’ll never know how many women were abducted, forcibly converted and married to their captors and those who were raped and killed. All there is are estimates meant to dehumanize the situation. No one ever talked about them, it was as if they never existed.
Seventy-three years’ worth of silence is quite enough. This year, I wish to honour the women who were forced to pay the ultimate price.
PS. Maasi, who was also my namesake managed to educate her 3 or 4 daughters. All of them were happily married. One daughter became a teacher after she completed her B.Ed and another was related to the medical profession (I think she was an LHV). Maasi’s courage and determination to give her daughters a life she never got was laudable. She educated them so they wouldn’t share her fate.
Maasi passed away a few years ago. Sadly, I couldn’t locate photos that I had of her.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many who have in their possession images from the summer of 1947, specifically of women. I checked with a few people but was unable to gather some.
Should anyone be interested in sharing their families’ stories and/or images (particularly of the women in the family), this blog will remain open to edits in the future as well.