A history of the Partition of India through objects and memory
How does a country acquire its coordinates, its border? How does it decide where to end and who draws that line?
The year 1947 saw the end of the British Raj, the division of India and the subsequent creation of Pakistan.
In the summer of that year, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, an English lawyer, was sent to India with the responsibility to partition it. He was expected to carve out another country from within India, to draw a line that would exist not just physically, but become a mark in the hearts of people affected by it as well as many generations to follow.
The very weight of the word, the way it sounds as I say it out loud, how I enunciate its every syllable with clarity and care in a way that has been subconsciously ingrained within me.
How I use it with an almost extreme fragility, considering at all times its innate heaviness in the context of the Indian subcontinent – what it means to be Indian, to be Pakistani, to be Bangladeshi. The entire concept of a cultural identity enveloped within a single event, a single line, a single word: Partition.
One generation removed from the Partition, I would often think closely about the refugees crossing the border in 1947, and what they might have brought with them. Depending on the circumstances of their evacuation, would they have taken what was in sight or something of sentimental value?
If such an object still existed today after decades of independence, it would no longer be ordinary, but serve as a physical reminder of a true home and of belonging. It might even be considered an heirloom.
The physical weight of the object would be outweighed by the emotional weight put into it over the years. In some ways, they would carry the weight of the past.
On this premise, I began my search for such objects...
In a beautifully crumbling home in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area, I chanced upon an old family photo-album. A couple sat before me in a living room whose structure seemed frozen in time, reminiscing the days of old.
“This is all we have from then", she announced.
“Where are they from?”
“ Karachi , mostly. You can see my brother and cousins going swimming”, she pointed to the photograph. “This is all we have to keep alive the memory of what our home used to look like”
Her father had brought this with him when the family crossed the border. Her husband, a quiet man from Jhang , only brought his memories.
This maang-tikka travelled from Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan, to Delhi in India. It was concealed within the clothes of a single mother with five young children, struggling to make it across the border.
The head-piece consisted of a large pendant with a ruby flower at its center. Being handmade, there were certain imperfections about it, that made it more endearing to touch. Someone had worked on this with their own two hands, delicately carving and melting the gold, laying in the jewels and polishing the surface. It was a combination of stones that could only be found in the Frontier region. Specks of blue stone brightened up the pendant between the shades of red ruby and gull garnet, dusty gold, pearl and diamond.
The extraordinary setting of the stones made it an ideal piece to use as collateral. But it being the only reminder of her life in Pakistan, she neither parted with it, nor ever wore it again.
Instead, she presented it to her daughter on her wedding day. Now it lives with her in Delhi, serving as a physical reminder of strength and determination her mother embodied in crossing the border and wanting to give her children a safer life.
This ghara was given to a Hindu woman, born and brought up in Lahore, as a part of her dowry. She would use it to churn milk in.
It was a medium sized vessel, round at the bottom with a graceful neck. Engraved into the metal were delicate patterns of foliage and line work typical to the Indian subcontinent.
The woman brought it with her from Lahore to Amritsar and finally to Delhi. It is still used by her son today, also to churn milk in, reliving in some ways, the everyday chores performed by his mother.
Similarly, her husband, who owned a clothing business, brought with him from Lahore, to Amritsar and finally, to Delhi, a gaz.
Used to measure fabric, this yardstick looked completely ordinary at first glance – not even straight, slightly bent in places – but upon closer inspection, there are markings at set distances that indicate specific measurements – 1⁄2, 1⁄4 and so on.
It was smooth and cold to touch, made of a dark metal, maybe iron or lead. It was lightweight, as expected, since it would have had to be maneuvered through layers and layers of fabric quickly.
In pre-partitioned Lahore, there existed a female money- lender who lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood with her family.
Their house was full of expensive items that people mortgaged in exchange for money. At the time of the riots, they found themselves on the wrong side of the border and had to flee to India.
Among the items they brought, which mostly comprised of other people's valuables left at their disposal and very few of their own, was this old-fashioned silver glass.
The only thing that still survives from the money-lenders’ house that actually belonged to her is this: a simple pair of tailoring scissors.
Rusted at the edges and barely sharp anymore, it exists now as the only physical reminder of her, something she once used, the object that still bears her touch.
These pair of scissors and the silver glass now live in Delhi with her son, who is a Professor at the Delhi College of Art.
In her grand home in Lutyens' Delhi, an elegant woman sat fiddling with the embroidery of her shawl.
"My mother gave me this shawl”, she sighed. “I wore it a lot when I was a young girl, but I almost never do now.”
It was pure pashmina, soft and comfortable. The embroidery was hand-done Kashmiri work, carefully stitched to create a beautiful floral patterned border in magenta pink over the dull beige background.
“How come you wore it today?”
“It was a gift from my mother and it always reminds me of her. My mother brought this with her when we moved from Quetta in Pakistan to Mussourie in India in the summer of 1947."
Born and raised in Delhi, his family, despite being Muslim, chose to stay in India during the Partition. They were driven out of Delhi temporarily due to the riots, but they returned and re-built their home in the same neighbourhood.
I had visited him with the intention of talking about any material remnants of the Partition that he had with him, but he had nothing.
Perhaps what had remained with him though, was something entirely intangible. An abstract thing that couldn’t be held or touched or caressed, as an heirloom or a treasure would be. The remnant was an emotion. It was the feeling of secularism that he was trying so desperately to keep alive even today.
In 1947, A young man and his family were forced to flee from Malakwal and cross the border.
They lived as refugees in Delhi, working odd jobs to make ends meet. In 1953, the young man, scraped together all the money he could and acquired a shop in the newly constructed, Khan Market. He called it Bahrisons Booksellers, stocking its shelves with the written word. Over the years, its reputation grew. All the while, the man remained grounded and loyal to his customers, never forgetting his humble beginnings.
To commemorate 50 years of the shop and the 75th birthday of the original proprietor, his son wrote and presented to him a book about his life and journey from Malakwal to Delhi, from being a refugee to building a vast book empire.
In Rawalpindi, Pakistan, a young girl was born into a family of musicians. Though Hindu, they lived in a predominantly Sikh neighbourhood and her mother visited the Sikh temple everyday.
The most prized possessions in their house comprised of numerous musical instruments and the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh prayer book.
The summer before the partition of India, the family went to visit their eldest daughter who worked as a tutoress in Simla, India. They took nothing, apart from clothes warm enough to be worn in the cool mountain air. In their absence, India was divided and Pakistan created, leaving them as Hindus to remain in India.
A few years later, their old neighbour from Rawalpindi contacted the family asking whether there was something he could bring from Pakistan for them. The mother only asked for one thing: her Guru Granth Sahib.
Upon reaching their house in Rawalpindi, the neighbour rang the doorbell and introduced himself and inquired about the holy book. The new inhabitants, a Muslim family, led him to the back room of the house that had once served as a prayer room. The sacred book lay just as it had been pre-partition, removed from any religious politics.
The young girl is now an old woman, and in her bedroom in Delhi, untouched by time and read everyday, rests the holy book.
The beauty and isolation of the Langaryal village [Gujarat district in present-day Pakistan] inspired a young girl to begin writing poetry at the age of eight.
Cultivating this talent, she grew up to be a prominent Punjabi nationalist poet, winning both the Sahiktya Academy Award as well as being honoured with the Padmashree later in life.
Displaced due to the riots in Punjab, her family travelled to independent India in 1947 and she refused to leave behind her writing.
Through these notebooks, one can glimpse into parts of her childhood, her home, her development as a writer. They are filled with stories, poems, small scribbles and notes.
Years were clearly mentioned, months meticulously laid down, archiving her mood to the political and familial happenings around her.
In pristine condition, as if unaltered by weather or time, these notebooks bearing her simple handwriting in Punjabi, now live with her in Noida.
In a quaint Oxford home, I found ‘The Book of Everlasting Things’, holding on for dear life. Brought from his Calcutta home, this was one of the most prized possessions of a distinguished Professor of Indian Art History.
“This was my mother’s”, he beamed.
He had kept them carefully, as one guards a secret. And as he narrated to me, the things he witnessed as a child during the riots in Bengal in 1947, he caressed his mother’s old book. She had saved them at the time, just as he was now.
Between all the tears and rips and loose binding of the codex, lay his mother’s childhood, surrounded always by the written word.
“It's full of wonderful poems and European masterpieces", he said. “That is what she loved."
Passed down for two generations from grandmother to granddaughter, this baagh is an heirloom of a family hailing originally from Rawalpindi.
Hand-embroidered in the 1930s with pure silk threads on raw cotton that was spun at home on a wooden loom, this shawl is treasured dearly by a woman living in Delhi. Third generation to own it, she extracts it carefully from its packaging in layers of newspaper, and gently lays it out on the sofa for me to admire.
“It’s the memory attached to it”, she tells me with pride. “Look at the intricacy of the patterns. My grandmother’s grandmother made it with her own hands and my grandmother brought it with her when she crossed the border into Amritsar by train in 1947."
A renowned watercolorist of the havelis and the old city, was born and raised in Ludhiana, and moved to Lahore with his family during the Partition.
His father, a famous cartoonist of the strip "Nanna" in the Pakistan Times, had imbibed within his son, a love for the arts and also became his biggest inspiration.
What remains with the artist now, after years of his father having passed away, are his sketches, documents and files, which demonstrate the creativity and similarity, despite their different styles, between the painter and the cartoonist.
A publisher’s son, he was born in Ichhra near Lahore but moved to Ludhiana at a young age due to his father’s work.
When the riots broke out, the family moved back to Lahore, fleeing for their lives. They took nothing except books.
His father only carried with him the books that he had published, instilling in his son, the love for the written word.
The kinds of books ranged from thin pamphlets of children's stories to larger, thicker volumes about the Urdu Language. There were books about Hindustani colloquial and stories of the British Raj.
Yellowing with age and fraying at the corners, the books were printed in beautifully calligraphed Urdu script. Some bore elaborate drawings and some contained photographs. Some had weathered beyond repair, but the publisher's son still held onto them.
He had carefully curated, numbered and stored away in individual polythene bags with neat labels, his father's literary legacy.
The art and age-old tradition of paan making in the subcontinent is one that is fast becoming obsolete. Chewing paan is a popular habit in India and Pakistan and similar to the tea ceremonies in South East Asia, the making and serving of paan could be considered, historically, a real skill.
In its simplest form, it comprises of a beetel leaf stuffed with areca nut and cured tobacco, folded skillfully so none of stuffing falls out. The ratio of leaf to the ingredients must be in perfect harmony.
Unique tools existed for the purpose of cutting the ingredients and similarly, special containers for its serving.
Dressed in green and sitting in her Lahore living room, the woman with grey-blue eyes held up to the light one such container- it was called a Khaas daan; a special plate-like object on which the paan would be placed and presented to the guest.
She spoke to me in Samanishahi, the language from a small village in the Punjab called Samana, explaining the history of the curious object, telling me how she received it as a part of her dowry.
And as her fingers grazed over the delicate flower and filigree pattern, she herself seemed almost surprised that this small and unique antique had survived her journey of migration (as a 10 year old) during the Partition from Patiala to Samana in India to Lahore in Pakistan.
A girl born into a well-to-do family in Jalandhar, India, was raised by a Welsh governess. This, along with the status her family, gave her air of English gentry, an affluence that stayed with her till her old age.
When she was 16 years old, she spent the summer of 1941 with her uncle and aunt, friendly with many royals of the princely states of British India. Completely taken with the young girl, one such royal presented her with an exquisite string of pearls, which soon became one of her most prized possessions.
Six years later during the partition, her family was fleeing from Jalandhar to the new Muslim country of Pakistan. They left behind their grand mansion and everything it contained, travelling from Jalandhar to Dalhousie to Lahore.
She recalls with horror the violence, especially on women, she witnessed while crossing the border. She recalls how lucky she felt as they sat in an official vehicle, armed with British guards, determined to drop them safely to Pakistan.
The family carried nothing but clothes due to the fear of being robbed along the way but the young woman carried in secret, the pearls given to her by the Maharaja.
Sitting now, in her modest living room in Gulberg, Lahore, she extracts them from a black velvet pouch and puts on the only physical evidence of her life as a young girl in India.
A boy from Lucknow who had been studying at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1947 was the old, gentle-looking man sitting before me in Lahore, fluently recalling his days in the University Hockey Club and his love for the sport.
Choosing to complete his education there before crossing the border in 1953, he took along on his journey from India to Pakistan neither money nor clothes but three large, framed photographs from his alma mater ‒ of him and teammates from the Hockey Club.
A girl born in Lyallpur [now Faisalabad] in Pakistan, spent her summers at the family cottage in the mountains of Dalhousie. It was a white house with aqua green window shutters, one that her father had built with his own hands with love and care, a fact she took pride in.
When the subcontinent partitioned, the family was in Dalhousie and had to flee and all the girl could take of the house was a simple black and white photograph of its exterior.
She compared the old photograph with one a relative had taken recently – the house looking exactly the way it did in 1947, yet now belonging to someone else.
Because they had some time to prepare, her mother had packed many of their belongings and sent them by train.
And now, along with the photograph of the cottage, on the table lay utensils, handcrafted in Kashmir, kept in their cottage in Dalhousie and sent to Pakistan on the goods train.
They possessed an old world charm, for they were things not used commonly anymore- strange looking pots with spouts, small copper containers with cutout work and intricate detailing. Their surface was tarnished and they stood out, like antiques.
Laid out neatly on the table next to the photograph and utensils, were several traditional outfits, embellished with silver and gold threads.
The woman from Lyllalpur informed me that it was not the clothes that had survived since 1947, but rather, the silver and gold threads, for they were real and pure! If one was to burn these clothes, the cloth were disintegrate completely and all we'd be left with would be the gold and silver threads!
Her family had preserved all that they could, had travelled from Dalhousie to Gurgaon in India, and crossed the border at Mianwali into Pakistan, and finally found their home in Lahore.
In a dimly lit room, there exists a library of ancient wisdom. The curator of that library wears many hats- scholar, researcher, historian, dramatist, but most of all, cultivator of culture.
“This one is from 1929, and there's one from 1947”, he says, pointing out book after book. “I have catalogued them, but they are so old that I am afraid to keep touching them. Look at how delicate they are."
This library belonged to his father-in-law, a renowned Urdu publisher and playwright, well-known for his 1922 play, Anarkali.
Hailing from a family who had moved to Lahore following the 1857 revolt in Delhi, he wrote and printed books on religion, literature and education, printing right through the Partition. Alongside publishing works of national importance, he also dedicated his life to recover abducted women during the turmoil of 1947.
His daughter and son-in-law maintain and care for his library of national treasures in their Lahore home.
Nothing in hand except their lives, a 16 year-old boy and his family fled from their home in Jalandhar to Kapurthala to the refugee camp in Jalandhar to Gara to Lahore and finally settling in Lyallpur [Now Faisalabad].
As an adult, he often reminisced of his life in India, recalling vividly, his childhood home. 25 years after Partition, he visited India and stood before his old house.
Though now occupied by a Sikh family, the architecture of the house remained untouched. At the front, there continued to exist a plaque with his family name carved into the stone. It warmed his heart and he felt his trip across the border had not been in vain.
Years after that, his niece and her husband decided to visit Jalandhar to explore the city of her ancestors. Upon reaching the house, they saw that it was in the process of being demolished but the plaque with her family name stood erect at the front. With the permission of the architect, she decided she would take the stone slab home to Pakistan for her dear Uncle.
Its innate heaviness seemed heavier to her as she carried it across the Wagah Border to Lahore; it held within it not just the weight of the stone, but also of family history and legacy. For the old man who had once been the 16-year-old boy, the whole feeling of his childhood was now completely encompassed within that one stone slab. The weight of that stone became for him, the weight his past, of his memories.
In collaboration with
The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP)
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