- Ramanjit Singh
Often reading through the eye-witness accounts of the refugees migrating across the border during Partition, there is always a moment in their stories when they reveal the final conversations they had with the people they were leaving behind. It is in those parting words we can understand the enormity of the situation when people were being forced to leave their homes, their land, their friends, everything that they had built over the centuries.
The words spoken were simple, one would say "do not leave", "stay back, we will protect you", "we will take care of your homes until you come back". In each prevailing moment, one can sense the untethering of shared experiences built through generations of coexistence. They said their final good-byes to their friends and neighbors before making an arduous journey to a new country that was still taking shape. Their heart was never into leaving their birth place but they were forced to leave because the situation prevailing at the time was such that had they stayed, they too would have been caught up in the never ending cycle of violence engulfing East and West Punjab.
Most spent their entire lifetime worrying whether their friends reached the other side safely or not. That unknown was as big of a burden to carry for the people of Punjab as the anguish among the refugees who were struggling to gain a foothold in their new country. Muslims in West Punjab worried about their Sikh and Hindu friends, and in the east, Hindus and Sikhs worried about their Muslim friends.
In these conversations, you also get a glimpse of the despair that people had about the well being of those who migrated. In one of those stories, a Pakistani travels back to Jullundur in 1970 and meets an old acquaintance of his family who was still living in the neighborhood. Here is an excerpt from that conversation:
The old woman was very unwell but asked me to come inside and see her. "Andar bulao, maine milna hai," she said. "By the time I went into her room to see her, everyone from the mohalla had gathered around to see what was happening and who had come from across the border. As I sat down next to her bed, she held my hand and the first thing she asked me in Punjabi was, "Puttar, mainu dass, tussi khair naal pahunch gaye si?" She was enquiring whether we had reached Pakistan safely. She said she had heard stories of people from Pakistan coming back to the mohalla to see their old homes and retrieve belongings. But no one had come back to that palatial mansion. All these years, she had been waiting for someone to come, and then, still holding my hand, she asked me what had taken me so long."Beta, aan mien itni der laga di..." Imagine that, she had been concerned for our safety. These were the values of those days. This was the kind of love and compassion people had for one another, regardless of religion.
In one of the interviews, a Sikh goes back to Pakistan and meets his old friend, 72 years after partition. His friend, after hugging him, starts crying and says...
"Now I can die in peace knowing that you were able to make it safely to India."
It is in these conversations we are reminded of the humanity that is the underlying force uniting us as human beings. We may be living separately, divided by an unwanted line across the map, but somewhere deep down in our hearts we know we are one.
Religious bigotry may have poisoned the minds of many, but for us we can look beyond and see with clarity and realize that the success of our lives and those of our children depends on whether we have the strength to look past that hate and believe in what is right, not what someone else tells us how to think but what we believe is right in our heart.