Culture & Life · History · Recommended movies, books etc. · Religion

Butalia’s ‘The Other Side of Silence’ – Human stories from the Partition of British India – 1

Over the next few weeks I will be reproducing some important passages from Urvashi Butalia’s landmark 1998 book about the human side (as against the political/social side) of the partition of British India in 1946-47: The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. (Please read here the introduction to this book.)

Today we look at Rajinder Singh’s story. Butalia and her colleagues came across Rajinder Singh – a “three-wheeler scooter driver” – in Delhi. Rajinder had migrated from Lahore to Indian territory in 1947.


How can this be home?

“Whatever people could pick up, big things and small, they put clothes on top of those they were wearing, and threw a sheet over their shoulders. They picked up whatever they could and then they joined the kafila. Who could take along heavy things? And the kafila began to move. The next village on the way was Katiana… Gradually, daylight came. This was the first night. and then it became morning and as the sun ruse, it began to rain. It rained so much and our clothes became so heavy … we could not even lift them. Our clothes got more and more wet, and people just left them there. Our stomachs were empty, we were hungry, our clothes were wet and sodden, our hearts were full of fear—where were we headed? Where would we end up? Our hearts were full of grief: what will happen? Where will we go? Which nagar, which side, which direction.

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White

We had no desire to eat, nor was there anything to eat. After all, when we left our homes, we did not carry our atta with us, we did not take the rotis from our tavas. We did not think that we will take area and knead it and cook it. We just left, as we were, empty-handed. Then some people fell ill—some fell ill from grief, souse got diarrhoea, some had fever … so many people had left all of a sudden, they could not all be healthy and stay well. Some were ill from before, some fell ill from sorrow, and then there was rain and then the sun. The heat and cold made people’s bodies shrivel up, and from all these changes people fell ill.

There was one woman who was pregnant and about to give birth. The whole kafila began moving, but she was already a little upset and she said, you people go on ahead, I am prepared to die. In any case, I have no one to call my own. The hardship I have to face, I will bear, don’t worry about me … There were some other women sitting with her, and when the kafila began to move, they too started to move. So the man with me said, girl sit on my horse, and wherever we find someone who can help, we will take you there. But perhaps from fear, she gave birth right there, to a daughter. Out of fear. No one had a knife or anything, you know the instruments you need to cut the cord. There was one man, and he had a kind of sword, we asked him, baba, this is the thing, please help us. So he gave it to us and the women cut the cord…

Everyone was grief stricken. Someone’s mother had died, someone’s father had gone, someone’s daughter had been abducted … then we moved on. You know you feel some fear of a dead body. But at the time, we had no fear at all. From there we came to the bridge on the Ravi. We saw a trainload of Hindus had been killed and in Dera Baba Nanak, a trainload of Musalmaans who had come from the direction of Ludhiana had been killed … they killed each other’s people. We saw bodies, utensils lying in the mud, clothes … some people buried under others. and disease and illness all around. When we got to Dera Baba Nanak they said to us, you have come home. But we thought, our home was over there. We have left it behind. How can this be home?”

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