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Through their Eyes

Ramanjit Singh

Of all the stories about the partition violence, ones that stand out the most and have a lasting impression are the ones that are narrated by those who were eight or ten years old and remember what had happened to them, to their parents and siblings.

Children remember things. They carry these mental markers which they try to come to terms with throughout their lives. These markers are about events that have affected them personally, that have molded their thoughts about others, that have influenced their views about the past.

These events are personal. Small things about who said what or who did what remain as ever lasting moments which they try to relive in their dreams for the rest of their lives. These children who are now in their late seventies or eighties have become old men and women but somehow when they narrate their stories, it is as if it all happened yesterday. As if they are going back in time to relive those fateful days as a child. And for a fleeting moment it seems as if their lives are permanently frozen in time. They may have gotten old, but they have not yet been able to escape from those horrific moments.

I'm reminded of a story where a child sat for weeks in front of a vacant burnt-out house waiting for his friend to come out and play, not realizing that his friend's entire family had been killed by the mob. There are countless stories about children, after seeing their parents being hacked to death by the mob, ran and hid in corn fields for days with no water or food. And there are stories about those children who saw their elder sisters being killed by their own father to save them from being dishonored.

In one story, all of a sudden the mother took her son and ran towards a nearby house. There were other families hiding there and when the mob was done killing all, the child somehow got buried among the dead bodies. He got up and ran towards the street. He was held up by a soldier and brought to a camp. As a five year old that's all he remembers. He does not remember the face of his mother or father. He does not remember his real name. Only thing he remembers is that he was holding onto his mother's white dupatta.

Through their eyes we finally get a glimpse of what the adults were doing to each other. Their narration of stories is an unadulterated truth of what happened in the small towns and villages across Punjab. They stand witness to history's worst social rupture that teared apart centuries of coexistence, destroyed any hopes of reconciliation. According to them, they were menacing looking men with rage attacking anyone, sparing no one that didn't belong to their own.

In some stories there are glimpses of the type of nightmares that still haunt them to this day. As young children hiding in those fields, looking at the stars in the sky, crying, hungry, holding onto each other, hoping to survive the night, they never thought that they could escape. After so many years, one person said he still gets nightmares looking at a wheat field. He thinks there are children still waiting to be rescued.

As one said, in every dream, he tries to relive those events and fights to correct the wrong. And each time he fails. In every dream, he tries to save his parents but he fails. In every dream, he tries to see his father and mother but he fails. This constant battle has been raging in his mind for more than seventy years.

Partition may be distant event now when we look back at it after seventy odd years. But I believe that what happened then had a lasting impact on the generations that followed it. Punjab looks empty, orphaned, its people and especially the younger generation has lost what it meant to be a Punjabi. A Punjab that once existed from Attock to Delhi is now merely a shadow of its former self.

We are just lingering on for the sake of just lingering on.


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