I have always been afraid to deepen my knowledge of Partition, for reasons I cannot articulate. My approach to the Partition and Partition literature can be compared to a thin, shallow stream of fast flowing water, splitting into tiny but equally fast flowing tributaries, and then immediately joining back up again in a second.
I would read or watch something; my emotions and thoughts would break and divide into many levels but then rush back together again, like the ribcage protecting the lungs. I would dip a toe into this body of history waiting to be explored but withdraw every time I start to feel that deep, searing pain when I would think of the ruthlessness of Partition and of Punjab.
I would have thought that I have numerous stories about Partition waiting at home, considering both sides of my family hail directly from Punjab. My paternal great grandfather was Colonel Naranjan Singh Gill, a founding member of the INA, a PoW and later an Ambassador, from Majitha, near Amritsar. Despite the trauma and torture he went through and the death and rebirth of India that he saw, he only focused on the creation of the INA and his relationship with his fellow soldiers in his book. He has mentioned the Partition in his book, in a very matter-of-fact manner, “…we were amongst the most disappointed when the partition of the subcontinent took place on communal lines.” That is mostly it. This ambiguity and veil around his feelings on Partition for his own reasons could perhaps be connected to why my grandmother, who was seven at the time, has nothing to say about it till today.
My mother told me what her father, Devinder Singh Garcha, Congressman and MP who passed away a long time ago, had told her. He said the only time he was ever scared in his life was during Partition, when, at the age of fourteen, he had to keep watch on the roof of his home in the village of Dhandari, and was instructed to fire a gun into the night sky as a warning if he saw mobs with fires on sticks approaching the area. These mobs would trawl areas in Punjab, looking for Muslims and the villagers would stand on roofs, doing what they could to protect their Muslim brothers and sisters.
The most personal connect I feel with Partition is through something that happened in 2013. A very long time ago, my maternal great grandfather, S. Shamsher Singh Dhandari, had met a man by the name of Mohammad Haroon in Multan, in undivided India. He established a deep friendship with Mohammad and his family, introducing his son, my grandfather Devinder Singh Garcha, to them, as well.
After the Partition of India, every year, the Haroon family would visit the Rosa Sharif Sufi shrine in Sirhind, near Patiala, to pay respect to their ancestors, on a permit that only allowed them to go from Pakistan to Rosa Sharif and back. So deep was this friendship, built on the foundation of love, generosity and warmth, that each year since Partition that they visited Rosa Sharif, the Haroons would ask people at the shrine from India about the “Dhandari wale Garchas” and each year, they would return to Pakistan, not having been able to locate my grandfather or his family.
Finally, in 2013, my uncle in Ludhiana received an email from a man we now call “Chachaji” apologising if he had overstepped himself but asking if it could be that my uncle was the son of Devinder Singh Garcha. Chachaji had been told by his ancestors about the love and friendship between Chachaji’s father and my grandfather’s father, and in their living room, he had the same photo as we had in ours: of Chachaji as a young lawyer with my even younger grandfather.
My mother, aunts and uncle described receiving this message as something that almost brought them physical pain and joy. They idolised their generous grandfather and idealistic father and to receive an email from across the border that spoke of the love that the two families had experienced, allowed them to reconnect with these two great men in their life, and get a chance to celebrate their love and honour their legacy. Since then, we have found a second family across the border and have had the pleasure to host them numerous times in India, as well as visit them and their family in Pakistan.
This bond that till today exists as an invisible but breathing lifeline between two countries has brought to light my own commitment to honour these connections and keep the legacies of my ancestors alive. I am fortunate that my family stories do not feature bloodshed, heartbreak, poverty or blatant trauma but I cannot ignore that this was the reality for the country. Partition is something I choose to refer to with the intention to focus on the humanity that inevitably overpowers the cruelty, celebrating joy, courage and resilience. I focus on my friendships, on creating memories with my family and valuing the connections I make with people. In times of distress, what would remain most important to me would be what shines through in the anecdotes above; love, destiny, courage and everlasting friendship.