Editor's note: Lakshaya has written this account of his family at my request. This account is based on what he has heard from his older family members.
My great-grandparents. Lyallpur, Punjab, Undivided British India
Lajwanti had been in the throes of emotion for the past few days. She was certainly not one to lose it all and cry, and yet, her life had already made its first tryst with utter despair. The family she had so assiduously built was lying in shambles. Everything had been so phenomenal, so miraculous. She had given her husband Tarachand, Tara, as she called him, a reason to rejoice. She was able to fight fate and occult powers, she had broken the curse laid upon her ‘Tara', she had defied the prophesies of pundits and maulvis alike.
Lajwanti, the hero of this story, the protagonist who could not survive the suffering inflicted upon her by chance, as if God was playing dice with her life, and the lives of millions of people like her, who were about to become refugees, or were going to be slaughtered en masse. A flurry of memories floods my brain as I write this, trying to make a cohesive story by stitching together dispersed anecdotes passed on to me by my late grandfather, who survived India's Partition in 1947, and lived to divulge the ghastly intricacies hackneyed catastrophe.
Shri Tarachand is my great-grandfather, and Lajwanti, the fierce woman I could not meet, is my great-grandmother.
Tara had died of an unknown illness, leaving Lajwanti bereft and wanting of support. Ever since their wedding, Lajwanti had pushed Tara to exhibit courage and to speak up for himself. Block by block, she had built a man out of him. She had supported him when he got into property disputes with his cousins. She had transformed Tara the loafer into Tarachand the zamindar.
What I have heard is that my great-grandfather was a guileless man. It was only after meeting Lajwanti that he had taken his life seriously. He began going to the fields to supervise the tilling, sowing, reaping, cutting, et al.
The plots of land were small. Earnings were modest. But, it was enough to sustain Tara's small family. Besides Tara and Lajwanti, there were two sons in the family. Both of them were born in spite of prophesies predicting that Tara will die childless.
In a way, the birth of my grandfather, Tara's son, and in turn my own birth, is nothing short of a miracle. Tara went to the fields in the day and spent the nights in the company of his toddlers. He felt humbled to have got a magnificent woman like Lajwanti as his wife. Life was looking peaceful. There was the promise of a pleasant future. Tarachand despised those who were asking for freedom from British rule; he had premonitions that bad things could happen. He was also concerned about the profits in the trade going down.
Amidst all this merry-making and concern, Tara passed away. Nobody knows what killed him, no one wants to contemplate, people died like flies in the coming years. Tara's untimely but peaceful death was a ludicrous harbinger of sinister things that were to come.
Lajwanti had been the boss all her life. She was a woman of purpose, never mincing words and got everything done. Her presence was enamouring, her posture domineering and her voice magnetic. Every person who met her was left in awe of her demeanour. My grandfather, her son, was filled with poignant emotion whenever he talked about his mother, Lajwanti.
Once Tara had gone, Lajwanti had the humongous task of feeding her two blabbering babies. She had to resolve the numerous disputes that Tara had left behind. She did not know what could she possibly do. She contemplated the idea of looking after the fields, but the monsoons were failing and the crop business was becoming unsustainable. Many of the village urchins who worked in small farms like hers were being drafted by the Goras (English) to fight their wars. There appeared to be no way out, and her time was limited.
Lajwanti had been hearing rumours that the Goras were fighting a war in a distant land. While other womenfolk were lamenting the fact that their sons will have leave the homeland and ride the tide of seven seas to never come back and how they might take to debauchery in the wretched company of the Goras, Lajwanti was planning her resurgence from the mess she was in.
After a lot of backbreaking efforts, intense negotiations and facing the admonishment of villagers, Lajwanti built her way out of misery, like she always had. With the help of a few men loyal to Tara, Lajwanti started a shoe-making business. This venture turned out to be profitable. Soon my great-grandmother was supplying shabby, hand-stitched shoes to underpaid soldiers in the British Indian Army.
[It is strange how histories of two distinct people intertwine themselves. I would not have imagined that my great-grandmother made the shoes worn by Indian bravehearts who gave their lives for an alien cause.]
With the money from the shoe business, the debts were cleared gradually and the children went to a good school. They took Persian classes in the evening from a master. The family even bought two buffaloes, and a gas stove, a novelty in those days. Things were looking hopeful. Lajwanti had trumped the difficulties yet again. She fought tooth and nail to secure what was hers. She became deaf towards the daily humiliation she had to face in a man's world. She stood relentlessly in the way of goondas and extortionists. She ignored the catcalling of fellow women who named her mardana, or man-like. She didn't get bogged down in that morass. She had bigger things on her mind. She had retained her imperiousness towards hardships, so far.
Communal troubles and Partition
‘They were just careless rumours, nothing of that sort could actually happen. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had been living side by side for centuries. The Muslims had cheered for the Mahatma when he toured Lahore, and Hindus had supported the cause of Khilafat. How could the Muslims even think of breaking away from the Hindustan they had fought for?'
It was mind bogglingly difficult for the Hindus and Sikhs of Lyallpur, neighbours and relatives of Lajwanti. The air was filled with dread. Community meetings became fewer. Neighbours talked about each other in hushed tones. Friends of the past viewed each other with a newfound suspicion, owing to the difference of faith. There were imprudent talks of saving the community by carrying out a blood-bath on the ‘others'. Blood curdling rumours exacerbated the horror. [I am sure the Muslims in India lived in the same pervasive fear.]
Lajwanti was annoyed. She had meticulously created her cornucopia, bit by bit. The toils and planning had yielded results. She was winning, clearly. Until life played its cards, her inescapable destiny was here to devastate her life again.
All of this made her ... annoyed. There was another fight being thrust upon her that she wasn't prepared to enter into. She took counsel from her close confidantes, all of whom advised her to be carefree. Until she was persuaded by a Muslim tannery worker to leave for the newly bifurcated India, the Hindustan. She was willing to believe the boy, who claimed that his community was planning a massacre to wipe out the kafirs. She made arrangements to send her thirteen-year-old and-eleven-year-old sons to Ambala by train. Why did she choose Ambala? My grandfather explained years later to me she chose it because Ambala was the nearest major city away from the border, unlike Amritsar.
People in the train were laughing, initially at least. Most of them were leaving so as to be safe in case violence breaks out. All of them hoped to return eventually, when the skirmishes would have subsided. My thirteen years old grandfather had tugged with himself - along with his brother - a few clothes, eatables, identities and details of his family.
The seemingly innocuous journey turned into a macabre encounter, when some rogues pelted stones at the compartments accompanied with loud, hateful chants of terror. The rest of the journey was marked by all-round fear. People shat in their pants. Toughest of men broke into tears and children went silent despite, being hungry. That was my grandfather's first rendezvous with fear, trepidation, and hate. Unfortunately, there were many more such encounters in his fate.
Situation was worsening with every passing day in Lyallpur. The realities of people were turning grim. It was time for Lajwanti to flee for her life. She was forced to relinquish her home, the memories of her Tara, the toil of her sweat. And yet she wasn't afraid of anything. An entourage of Hindus and Sikhs was going to cross the border on carts. Nobody was willing to travel by the rail in the wake of horror stories of train massacres.
Lajwanti, true to her nature, took the chance, and went along with three hundred odd strangers. This journey turned out to be far more tumultuous, far more life altering than she had expected. On a ghastly night, somewhere near Amritsar, a ‘well wishing' Sikh man raped her. Before she could ruminate upon what happened, a few village elders deemed it fitting to proffer their unsolicited counsel. They called the rapist ‘a fine young man', and that Lajwanti should marry him. In turn, he was made to promise that he will raise her children as his own, a promise he reneged on later.
The upright Lajwanti swallowed the humiliation, and made an earnest attempt to live with the man. I have been told that she never really recovered after that. Her domineering posture had left her body, and she remained hunch-backed for the remaining part of her life, as if deeply ashamed of herself. She never emerged triumphant from this challenge, robbed of her pride, her autonomy. Lajwanti the mardana was not seen again.
Survival, defeat, recovery. India
Meanwhile, Lajwanti's sons were trying to survive in the refugee camps in a town called Abdullahpur, which was later named Yamuna Nagar, for obvious reasons. My grandfather started working in a timber merchant's facility, where he was given six rotis in exchange of a day's work. The work was often backbreaking, and there were repeated beatings from the owners. His younger brother contracted rabies and died. My grandfather learnt to live in filth. He mastered the art of not squirming when he was being beaten. He learnt to retain the same expression all day long. This expression didn't leave his face even after he died - it seemed to us that his dead face was trying to supress anger, or frustration.
After some years, my grandfather met his mother, the upright Lajwanti, whom he could not recognise at first, for her mother was a fierce woman and he was a complete stranger to this meek, ashamed woman. He was enraged when he got to know her fate, but the rage was meaningless. He became ambivalent towards the Sikh but made a point to stick to the name and religion of his forefathers.
Lajwanti died in oblivion. Nobody lamented for her. Everyone who cared for her existence knew that Lajwanti had stopped living on that fateful night in 1947.
My grandfather passed his matriculation at a considerably late age. Then, he secured a position in the new railway workshop set up in Yamuna Nagar as a part of Prime Minister Nehru's industrialization efforts. He married a woman from a refugee family of jewellers. This is the reason I believe that if Partition hadn't happened I wouldn't have been born.]
The people of my grandfather's generation had left their gregarious nature and vivacious, vigorous Punjabiyat in Lahore. They were probably the most grumpy bunch of Punjabis to ever exist. They were not loud and bright, but they learnt to bury their pain in soft laughter and snide remarks. The threshold of suffering was extremely high in these people. For instance, nobody mourned for the younger brother who died of rabies, people were dying every day, and you could not claim your suffering to be greater than that of those in your company.
My grandfather worked tirelessly to make sure that his children were fed and educated. He built a modest house in Yamuna Nagar, much smaller than the one he was born in. But, he cherished this one much more than the one in Lyallpur. He buried the corpse of Partition under in his heart, the pain and suffering immortalised in the lines of his face.
When I pestered my grandfather with questions about partition, he reluctantly divulged the tales to me. But there was something odd. The nonchalance with which he told me these stories still haunts me. The nonchalance was there, I realise now, because he did not want to associate himself with the scary reality. He didn't have the courage to be bogged down in that mess again.
As he recounted the horrific events and unravelled his turbulent life in front of an inquisitive grandson, the only cure he had was to distance himself from the truth. I found the resulting callousness about his own life scary, to say the least.
What can you say to a man for whom the reality is so grim that he chooses to substitute it with a slightly pleasant nightmare? The phantom of partition still looms over those who lived it, and their families.
He was a man of few words and held his beliefs close to his heart. I saw the faint glimpse of Lajwanti's fervour in him, but subdued and diminished by the horrors of what transpired along the hastily drawn lines for ambiguous reasons.
My grandfather passed away in the August 2016.
© Lakshaya Grover 2018