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Sabrang
Sabrang
Communalism Dalit Bahujan Adivasi

My mind went mad for a day

Suketu Mehta 01 Apr 1998

Elderly Sikhs on the Indo-Pak border share moving accounts of revenge to award-winning writer, Suketu Mehta 


Illustration: Amili Setalvad

Attari is the closest town to the border at Wagah. The train to Pakistan passes through Attari station, a mile away from the Wagah road crossing. It lies on the Grand Trunk Road, the legendary artery of northern India that comes down from the Khyber Pass, runs through Lahore just twenty miles away into Pakistani territory, and continues all the way to Calcutta. I sat at an open–air cafe next to the border crossing on this road, watching the sporadic traffic go by — trucks and the ramshackle conveyances of travellers taking the land route through Asia, beat-up four wheel drive cruisers that could use a wash.

I was talking to a 70–year–old Sikh man I will call Gurdev Singh, a large-framed farmer and sometime Congress Party politician, with huge moustaches and a fondness for his nightly peg of whisky. He started telling me what he did one day 50 years ago when his mind went mad.

Gurdev Singh said all the madness happened in the five to six months of terrible suspense it took to realise that Lahore would be on that side, Amritsar on this side. As a youth, he remembers that Lahore was so close to Attari, he used to be able to bicycle there in an hour. At the time, there were no all–Muslim or all–Sikh towns in Punjab. The lives of all three communities, and their residential spaces, were deeply enmeshed with each other. When Partition occurred, it was as if all the Catholics in New York City had to suddenly migrate to New Jersey; the process of extrication, of separation, proceeded street by street, house by house.

He told me about the trains. Attari is the first stop on the Indian side. Gurdev Singh used to go to the station to give buttermilk and water to the refugees. Three times a week a train would come from Pakistan. It was loaded with bodies. Gurdev Singh would drag the bodies off the trains and perform mass cremations —once he had sixteen people on one pile, and performed a common service for all of them. They had to loot a Muslim’s timber shop for the wood. Three times a week Gurdev Singh saw what the Muslims had done to Hindu and Sikh men, women, children.

The Hindu and Sikh refugees started coming from the West, filling Attari with their stories. Mukunde Shah is an 85 year-old cloth merchant with a thriving shop in Attari. He is Sikh, but wears no turban and his hair is shorn. One night fifty years ago a group of Muslims came to his parents’ home in Nathkalod, in what is now Pakistan. They asked for their spears, to, they said, protect them. When his parents turned over their weapons, the Muslims skewered thirteen people in Mukunde Shah’s family, including both parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. Mukunde Shah was working in a kiln at the time, and his four children and wife were also spared.

“We grabbed our hookahs and ran,” Shah told me. I was puzzled; of all the things to take from a life’s accumulations, why hubble-bubbles? Then he explained: they disguised themselves as Muslims, who are fond of the opium–and–tobacco mixture; Sikhs are forbidden to smoke. That is when Mukunde Shah cut his hair.

When Mukunde Shah got to Attari he moved into a house vacated by a Kashmiri Muslim. He has since prospered in the cloth business, and also owns sizeable property. “When I remember that time I hope that no one goes through that again.” He touches his earlobes, a form of prayer. “When we survived it was like a second birth.” One day during Partition, Gurdev Singh said, an old Sikh man in a village near Attari, out on a walk to buy milk, was murdered by some Muslims. Gurdev Singh was a student then, a “leader-type,” as he refers to himself. Ten Sikh men, four from Gurdev Singh’s family, gathered to seek vengeance. Before they went on their expedition, they went to the gurudwara, the Sikh temple, and took an oath not to kill or molest women and children. Then Gurdev Singh put on his armoured vest. He took a revolver.

They went to the Muslim part of the village. One member of their band grabbed a Muslim woman, but he was reminded of his oath by the others. Seventy–five thousand women were abducted during Partition; most of them were never returned. They were converted to the religion of their captors and stayed on, their captors gradually becoming their only known families.

Gurdev Singh did not tell me what happened next. “My mind went mad for one day,” is all he would say. The next morning, he brought along a friend. Balbir Singh (I have changed his name, too) was another of that band of ten men. He looked at a map in the lobby of the tourist hotel at the border.

It was a large map of undivided Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Punjab. “Even now the heart...” he started saying, and his eyes reddened, his voice thickened. He is a thin, dignified man with a white turban, dressed in simple but clean clothes — a faded white shirt, navy-blue trousers, neatly pressed. He has done well with his wheat and rice farms. He has a daughter in the US, and a son in Toronto, and has travelled there, marvelling at the friendship between Canada and the US, the free trade over the border.

When the columns of Muslim refugees came trudging down the road from Amritsar, remembered Balbir Singh, they would stop by his wells and look. Very hesitantly they would ask, can we come and get a drink of water? “It upset me that there should be so much fear that they could not ask for water.” There was a woman not much older than him. The paddy was being cultivated at that time, the green fields flooded with water. She put her face straight into the field to drink the water, and died right there. Balbir Singh also remembered the very old man that came down the road, walking on all fours, his incapacitated wife on his back, so that they made a sort of human cart. The convoy had to leave them behind. They were too slow.

On the day after the massacre, Gurdev Singh’s father asked him why he, a strapping 21–year–old man, looked so sad. He had been watching the Muslim women and children going over the border, people he had grown up with. “Pieces of my heart are going across,” said Gurdev Singh to his father

Finally, Balbir Singh told me what happened the day their minds went mad. He repeated, as a prelude, what Gurdev Singh had stressed. “When the old man was killed, nobody could hold back. But we didn’t touch any woman or child.”

“There was much junoon (madness). It lasted fifteen to twenty days. When we heard that injured bodies, dead bodies were coming in the trains people were going crazy. Then when the old man was killed, nobody could hold back.” They got guns, swords, spears, scythes. Then they went to the Muslim village. “It lasted just a few hours. At most two people killed the old man, so we should only have looked for them.”

Balbir Singh knew some of the people in the village — they were his classmates. He was looking out for them. But they were not there; so Balbir Singh did not have to make the terrible choice of whether or not to save his colleagues. The Sikhs rounded up the Muslim men, and gathered the women and children to one side. “We killed one third of the people in that village. About 50–60 men were killed in those few hours. The women and children were put to one side but they were watching; they were screaming. In some places there was fighting, but they weren’t begging for mercy — by that time everyone knew that asking for mercy was meaningless, there wasn’t much being said.”

Balbir Singh was weeping profusely by now, his handkerchief going now to one eye, now the other. It was obvious that he was saying some things for the first time; at this point, he was not even talking directly to me. “I don’t get angry on anybody else but myself. I didn’t sleep all that night, I didn’t stop thinking about it for a single minute. That’s the worst memory for me.”

What happened to the survivors, I asked him. “Then they walked to Pakistan. I’ve never met any one of them after that — not even my classmates, the ones who got saved.”

Gurdev Singh retained his equanimity during this account of the massacre. “We took revenge here, they took revenge there,” he shrugged, talking about the mirrored atrocities on both sides of the border. He does not seem to be much affected now by whatever he did then. But on the day after the massacre, Gurdev Singh’s father asked him why he, a strapping 21–year–old man, looked so sad. He had been watching the Muslim women and children going over the border, people he had grown up with. “Pieces of my heart are going across,” said Gurdev Singh to his father.

The first few days, Balbir Singh thought people would go and come back after the dust had settled. “I grew up with them. They were my family. I am very sad that the separation happened because the family got divided — the family of Punjab.” But at that time, he says, the leadership of both countries did not encourage the migrants to return to their homes. “After all, look at the lands we left there. If anyone had given us a promise we would be safe we would have gone back.”

But a great sense of trust had been lost. People of the majority community, on both sides, would offer to escort their friends to the border, and then kill them. “It was difficult to kill people from their own villages,” people they had grown up with, Balbir Singh explained. So they would make an arrangement with their co-religionists from other villages. They would send the refugees on their way, promising them safety, and inform the next village about their movements. “We’ll send them on their way and then you kill them.”

Sometimes, the same people that might massacre Muslims in another village would also at great personal risk escort Muslim friends or neighbours from their own village to the border. Gurdev Singh points to the border crossing. He himself brought Muslim friends here so they could go over safely. He had guns.

Balbir Singh’s uncle lived in Gujranwala, in Pakistan. It was close to Partition, and a Muslim mob had gathered to hunt down his uncle’s large family. So his uncle went to a Muslim friend’s house, a landlord, who had seven sons. The mob found out where they were and they surrounded the house and demanded that the landlord give up the Sikhs. The landlord came out and told the mob he had seven sons, seven guns, and a thousand cartridges. They would only get his guests, he declared, after the thousand cartridges had been fired, and after he and all his sons were dead. The mob dispersed.

That night, the landlord’s sons rode their horses across the border and contacted the Indian army. A Gurkha regiment came in a truck and took Balbir Singh’s uncle and his family away. Many years later, when his uncle’s daughter got married in India, an honoured guest was the Muslim landlord that had saved them.

Balbir Singh’s uncle lived in Gujranwala, in Pakistan. It was close to Partition, and a Muslim mob had gathered to hunt down his uncle’s large family. So his uncle went to a Muslim friend’s house, a landlord, who had seven sons. The mob found out where they were and they surrounded the house and demanded that the landlord give up the Sikhs. The landlord came out and told the mob he had seven sons, seven guns, and a thousand cartridges. They would only get his guests, he declared, after the thousand cartridges had been fired, and after he and all his sons were dead. The mob dispersed.

The complex calculations of who should be killed and who should be saved went on within deranged minds. There was one world before, and there was another world after. But in between, there was just the junoon. This is how Balbir and Gurdev explain what they did. This is also how Mukunde Shah, the cloth merchant, made peace with his demons, explained to himself why the Muslims wiped out his family. “That was a time of josh — passion. It didn’t just happen to me, it happened to the whole nation. When I think of that I don’t feel bad.” How does a man live with having murdered his neighbours? Balbir Singh’s way of atonement has been through a constant searching out of the Other, a series of highly emotional meetings with his former enemies. He has crossed the border no fewer than three times since then, a feat whose magnitude can be appreciated by any Indian trying to get a visa at the Pakistani embassy in Delhi — the lines begin at four in the morning; then the application is sent to Pakistan for a two-month review. On his trips, he tries to meet his former neighbours, the Muslims from Attari whom he had a hand in driving out.

The first time Balbir Singh went to Pakistan was 1956. An entire convoy of vehicles came to the border to receive the Attari group, he says, 25-30 trucks, five to seven buses, cars. They were the Muslims that had been driven out. The group from Attari had to stay at each of their houses in turn, and nobody took money for lunch or dinner, or money for petrol.

But on that trip, he says, “the younger generation looked at us with a certain amount of hatred.” Balbir Singh’s wife’s village was in Pakistan. When he and his wife went back there, he said, “They knew I was the son–in–law of the family; they just held me and burst out crying.” He met the people that had worked in the household of his wife’s family. “Whatever money they had, they just emptied their pockets and gave me.” This is a tradition — the returning son–in–law is always feasted and feted by his in-laws. “After all these years”, he says, “my wife was still a daughter of the village.”

In 1980, one of Balbir Singh’s cousins went to Pakistan, and Balbir asked him to look up his best friend before Partition, a Muslim who was so close to him that he would eat a chicken that Balbir had cooked, even if it was not halal, prepared according to Muslim dietary laws. The Muslim friend received the cousin with great hospitality, and then asked him a favour. Would he bring Balbir Singh to the border? He wanted to meet him once.

The cousin went back to Attari and passed on the message. Balbir Singh went to the border at the appointed time. “All the security men said, you must be mad. You can’t meet.” Across the fence, Balbir Singh, after 33 years, saw his friend, who rushed forward, only to be pushed back by the Pakistani security men far beyond the fence. Balbir saw that his friend was straining against them, weeping.

At first Balbir turned back, but a relative who knew the soldiers intervened on his behalf. So Balbir Singh went forward with two of his youngest children beyond the fence and his friend came forward to meet him after thirty-three years. They embraced each other; they were overwhelmed and there was no point in talking. What could be said? How does one condense the highlights of three decades? His friend was crying, but Balbir Singh was determined not to. Balbir Singh apologised — for not having brought all of his children to show his friend. “I said I’m sorry. My two girls are married in different villages; I didn’t have time to get them all here to show you.”

Then the soldiers separated the two men and his friend went back into Pakistan and Balbir Singh started walking slowly back into India. He was stopped by agents from the Intelligence Bureau, and they asked him, “Who were you talking to?” “To my brother,” Balbir Singh answered. How can that be, they demanded, he was Sikh, the man who came to meet him was Muslim. “I said that’s exactly what I mean, he’s my brother. He has land on that side, I have land on this side, that’s why we’re separated. The intelligence men said don’t fool us. I said I’ve told you what I told you, I have said what I said, he’s my brother.”

Again, in 1982, Balbir Singh crossed the border. He went with his daughter to a village on the other side where a group of Muslim brothers from Attari had settled. Some of them were wrestlers; they went there and became sweet–sellers and made three good houses. But now there was only one of the brothers left. Balbir Singh and his daughter went to the old man’s house for dinner, and talked with the sweet–merchant’s entire family late into the night about the village.

In the morning when they woke up the old man said, “I’m going to tell you something...” and then all his grandchildren rushed forward and interrupted him. “We’re going to tell you what he’s going to tell you. He’ll say I had a dream last night that I was in Attari. Uncle, every morning when he wakes up he says he’s met this person in Attari, that person in Attari.” This was in 1982, 35 years after the old man had left his village. At least in his waking life.

If the border were opened up tomorrow, said the old man to Balbir Singh, his children would drive there, because they had cars. “But I’ll still beat them because I’ll run so fast.”

Then the soldiers separated the two men and his friend went back into Pakistan and Balbir Singh started walking slowly back into India. He was stopped by agents from the Intelligence Bureau, and they asked him, “Who were you talking to?” “To my brother,” Balbir Singh answered. How can that be, they demanded, he was Sikh, the man who came to meet him was Muslim. “I said that’s exactly what I mean, he’s my brother. He has land on that side, I have land on this side, that’s why we’re separated. The intelligence men said don’t fool us. I said I’ve told you what I told you, I have said what I said, he’s my brother.”

I looked for Muslims in Attari and found none. They had all fled. I looked for signs of their presence, those that lived here all these centuries. Gurdev Singh pointed out to me the houses they had inhabited, their quarter. Then he led me to the place he used, until quite recently, to come every day to pray at. It is a grave — the tomb of the fakir Gulab Shah.

Gulab Shah was Muslim. The light green building sits tranquilly in a grove of fruit trees. Peering inside the window of the structure, I could see the oblong tiled tomb of the saint. A coin was placed on it; on the far wall was a recess for a lamp, lit every day, and a can of fuel to supply it. An electric chandelier flickered uncertainly above. Every Thursday, people come from all the surrounding countryside to ask for favours at the tomb; that an ailing child might get better, that an examination might be passed. The worshippers are all Sikh and Hindu. “There are no Muslims here,” said Gurdev Singh. There used be a Muslim fair held here, a huge one with thousands of people coming from all over. “We took it over from them after Partition.” This shrine is not unique. All over the Punjabi countryside are the tombs of Muslim holy men, maintained and venerated by Sikhs and Hindus. Attari has a full-time keeper of the Muslim tombs, Arjun Singh, a man who claims to be 111-years-old.

This is the faith that Mahatma Gandhi called sanatana dharma, the timeless, tolerant faith of the Indian countryside, where it is no contradiction to worship at the shrine of a religion you have killed people for belonging to.

It is a common desire among those displaced by Partition to make the return crossing, to try to go home again. The Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, whom I met in Lahore, told me that for 50 years he tried to get a visa to go back to India, particularly to the village he was born in, Dibai, near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. Although he has been living in Lahore since 1947, most of his fiction is set in Dibai. Like the old Muslim exile from Attari, he had also been having a recurring dream.

“I go there, to my home, and am wandering among the houses. Those lanes, those palaces. The terraces where we flew kites,” and then he described his house for me, constructing it lovingly in the air with his hands. “The Muslim quarter began at our house. The terraces of the Hindu houses were so close that at Diwali time I would reach across, steal oil–lamps from their terraces, and bring them home.”

Thirty years later, at the invitation of a literary gathering in Delhi, Husain was able to get a visa to go back. He was at Aligarh, and then made an impulsive decision to revisit Dibai. Driving toward the village, he saw the trucks all along the road, the phantom convoys of Partition. As they came into the village, he couldn’t believe how much it had changed. There used to be a pilgrim’s hostel. Where was the hostel? Where was the hospital? Everything had become a bazaar. He looked for his house, but the geography of home had changed. His companion said, why don’t you ask someone? “I said I have come to my own town. I am not going to ask someone else for directions.” Husain got out and wandered the bazaars but could not locate his birthplace, and something in him would not let him ask a stranger for guidance in the territory of his own childhood, his own dreams. Frustrated, he got back in the car, and drove back to Aligarh. “I still haven’t gone back.” I asked Husain why there were no museums, no memorials to that time. He responded, “It is good that the killings are not memorialised, that there are no pictures of those times.” I found this curious, coming from a writer whose entire body of work deals with “those times.” What tormented him, he seemed to be saying, was his generation’s burden alone. What use would it be to rake up the past, to keep harping on the atrocities of Partition? If the current generation could only forget what his generation went through, then maybe they could start talking to each other.

There are millions of Partition stories throughout the subcontinent, a body of lore that is infrequently recorded in print or on tape, and rarely passed on to the next generation. All over the map of the subcontinent, there is an entire generation of people who have been made poets, philosophers, and storytellers by their experiences during Partition.

Any person over 55 or 60 in Delhi or Amritsar or Lahore has stories to tell of that period, even if they were not themselves dislocated then. And for those who have been displaced from their birthplaces against their will and at an early age, the impression of home is all the more vivid and sharp; it haunts their dream–lives, and their minds are the battleground between the need to forget and the need to remember.

(The writer was awarded the Whiting Award for exceptional American writers in October 1997 for his piece Mumbai published in a special issue of the English journal, Grantha, to mark 50 years of India’s freedom. He visited the Wagah border in June 1997.)  

My mind went mad for a day

Elderly Sikhs on the Indo-Pak border share moving accounts of revenge to award-winning writer, Suketu Mehta 


Illustration: Amili Setalvad

Attari is the closest town to the border at Wagah. The train to Pakistan passes through Attari station, a mile away from the Wagah road crossing. It lies on the Grand Trunk Road, the legendary artery of northern India that comes down from the Khyber Pass, runs through Lahore just twenty miles away into Pakistani territory, and continues all the way to Calcutta. I sat at an open–air cafe next to the border crossing on this road, watching the sporadic traffic go by — trucks and the ramshackle conveyances of travellers taking the land route through Asia, beat-up four wheel drive cruisers that could use a wash.

I was talking to a 70–year–old Sikh man I will call Gurdev Singh, a large-framed farmer and sometime Congress Party politician, with huge moustaches and a fondness for his nightly peg of whisky. He started telling me what he did one day 50 years ago when his mind went mad.

Gurdev Singh said all the madness happened in the five to six months of terrible suspense it took to realise that Lahore would be on that side, Amritsar on this side. As a youth, he remembers that Lahore was so close to Attari, he used to be able to bicycle there in an hour. At the time, there were no all–Muslim or all–Sikh towns in Punjab. The lives of all three communities, and their residential spaces, were deeply enmeshed with each other. When Partition occurred, it was as if all the Catholics in New York City had to suddenly migrate to New Jersey; the process of extrication, of separation, proceeded street by street, house by house.

He told me about the trains. Attari is the first stop on the Indian side. Gurdev Singh used to go to the station to give buttermilk and water to the refugees. Three times a week a train would come from Pakistan. It was loaded with bodies. Gurdev Singh would drag the bodies off the trains and perform mass cremations —once he had sixteen people on one pile, and performed a common service for all of them. They had to loot a Muslim’s timber shop for the wood. Three times a week Gurdev Singh saw what the Muslims had done to Hindu and Sikh men, women, children.

The Hindu and Sikh refugees started coming from the West, filling Attari with their stories. Mukunde Shah is an 85 year-old cloth merchant with a thriving shop in Attari. He is Sikh, but wears no turban and his hair is shorn. One night fifty years ago a group of Muslims came to his parents’ home in Nathkalod, in what is now Pakistan. They asked for their spears, to, they said, protect them. When his parents turned over their weapons, the Muslims skewered thirteen people in Mukunde Shah’s family, including both parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. Mukunde Shah was working in a kiln at the time, and his four children and wife were also spared.

“We grabbed our hookahs and ran,” Shah told me. I was puzzled; of all the things to take from a life’s accumulations, why hubble-bubbles? Then he explained: they disguised themselves as Muslims, who are fond of the opium–and–tobacco mixture; Sikhs are forbidden to smoke. That is when Mukunde Shah cut his hair.

When Mukunde Shah got to Attari he moved into a house vacated by a Kashmiri Muslim. He has since prospered in the cloth business, and also owns sizeable property. “When I remember that time I hope that no one goes through that again.” He touches his earlobes, a form of prayer. “When we survived it was like a second birth.” One day during Partition, Gurdev Singh said, an old Sikh man in a village near Attari, out on a walk to buy milk, was murdered by some Muslims. Gurdev Singh was a student then, a “leader-type,” as he refers to himself. Ten Sikh men, four from Gurdev Singh’s family, gathered to seek vengeance. Before they went on their expedition, they went to the gurudwara, the Sikh temple, and took an oath not to kill or molest women and children. Then Gurdev Singh put on his armoured vest. He took a revolver.

They went to the Muslim part of the village. One member of their band grabbed a Muslim woman, but he was reminded of his oath by the others. Seventy–five thousand women were abducted during Partition; most of them were never returned. They were converted to the religion of their captors and stayed on, their captors gradually becoming their only known families.

Gurdev Singh did not tell me what happened next. “My mind went mad for one day,” is all he would say. The next morning, he brought along a friend. Balbir Singh (I have changed his name, too) was another of that band of ten men. He looked at a map in the lobby of the tourist hotel at the border.

It was a large map of undivided Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Punjab. “Even now the heart...” he started saying, and his eyes reddened, his voice thickened. He is a thin, dignified man with a white turban, dressed in simple but clean clothes — a faded white shirt, navy-blue trousers, neatly pressed. He has done well with his wheat and rice farms. He has a daughter in the US, and a son in Toronto, and has travelled there, marvelling at the friendship between Canada and the US, the free trade over the border.

When the columns of Muslim refugees came trudging down the road from Amritsar, remembered Balbir Singh, they would stop by his wells and look. Very hesitantly they would ask, can we come and get a drink of water? “It upset me that there should be so much fear that they could not ask for water.” There was a woman not much older than him. The paddy was being cultivated at that time, the green fields flooded with water. She put her face straight into the field to drink the water, and died right there. Balbir Singh also remembered the very old man that came down the road, walking on all fours, his incapacitated wife on his back, so that they made a sort of human cart. The convoy had to leave them behind. They were too slow.

On the day after the massacre, Gurdev Singh’s father asked him why he, a strapping 21–year–old man, looked so sad. He had been watching the Muslim women and children going over the border, people he had grown up with. “Pieces of my heart are going across,” said Gurdev Singh to his father

Finally, Balbir Singh told me what happened the day their minds went mad. He repeated, as a prelude, what Gurdev Singh had stressed. “When the old man was killed, nobody could hold back. But we didn’t touch any woman or child.”

“There was much junoon (madness). It lasted fifteen to twenty days. When we heard that injured bodies, dead bodies were coming in the trains people were going crazy. Then when the old man was killed, nobody could hold back.” They got guns, swords, spears, scythes. Then they went to the Muslim village. “It lasted just a few hours. At most two people killed the old man, so we should only have looked for them.”

Balbir Singh knew some of the people in the village — they were his classmates. He was looking out for them. But they were not there; so Balbir Singh did not have to make the terrible choice of whether or not to save his colleagues. The Sikhs rounded up the Muslim men, and gathered the women and children to one side. “We killed one third of the people in that village. About 50–60 men were killed in those few hours. The women and children were put to one side but they were watching; they were screaming. In some places there was fighting, but they weren’t begging for mercy — by that time everyone knew that asking for mercy was meaningless, there wasn’t much being said.”

Balbir Singh was weeping profusely by now, his handkerchief going now to one eye, now the other. It was obvious that he was saying some things for the first time; at this point, he was not even talking directly to me. “I don’t get angry on anybody else but myself. I didn’t sleep all that night, I didn’t stop thinking about it for a single minute. That’s the worst memory for me.”

What happened to the survivors, I asked him. “Then they walked to Pakistan. I’ve never met any one of them after that — not even my classmates, the ones who got saved.”

Gurdev Singh retained his equanimity during this account of the massacre. “We took revenge here, they took revenge there,” he shrugged, talking about the mirrored atrocities on both sides of the border. He does not seem to be much affected now by whatever he did then. But on the day after the massacre, Gurdev Singh’s father asked him why he, a strapping 21–year–old man, looked so sad. He had been watching the Muslim women and children going over the border, people he had grown up with. “Pieces of my heart are going across,” said Gurdev Singh to his father.

The first few days, Balbir Singh thought people would go and come back after the dust had settled. “I grew up with them. They were my family. I am very sad that the separation happened because the family got divided — the family of Punjab.” But at that time, he says, the leadership of both countries did not encourage the migrants to return to their homes. “After all, look at the lands we left there. If anyone had given us a promise we would be safe we would have gone back.”

But a great sense of trust had been lost. People of the majority community, on both sides, would offer to escort their friends to the border, and then kill them. “It was difficult to kill people from their own villages,” people they had grown up with, Balbir Singh explained. So they would make an arrangement with their co-religionists from other villages. They would send the refugees on their way, promising them safety, and inform the next village about their movements. “We’ll send them on their way and then you kill them.”

Sometimes, the same people that might massacre Muslims in another village would also at great personal risk escort Muslim friends or neighbours from their own village to the border. Gurdev Singh points to the border crossing. He himself brought Muslim friends here so they could go over safely. He had guns.

Balbir Singh’s uncle lived in Gujranwala, in Pakistan. It was close to Partition, and a Muslim mob had gathered to hunt down his uncle’s large family. So his uncle went to a Muslim friend’s house, a landlord, who had seven sons. The mob found out where they were and they surrounded the house and demanded that the landlord give up the Sikhs. The landlord came out and told the mob he had seven sons, seven guns, and a thousand cartridges. They would only get his guests, he declared, after the thousand cartridges had been fired, and after he and all his sons were dead. The mob dispersed.

That night, the landlord’s sons rode their horses across the border and contacted the Indian army. A Gurkha regiment came in a truck and took Balbir Singh’s uncle and his family away. Many years later, when his uncle’s daughter got married in India, an honoured guest was the Muslim landlord that had saved them.

Balbir Singh’s uncle lived in Gujranwala, in Pakistan. It was close to Partition, and a Muslim mob had gathered to hunt down his uncle’s large family. So his uncle went to a Muslim friend’s house, a landlord, who had seven sons. The mob found out where they were and they surrounded the house and demanded that the landlord give up the Sikhs. The landlord came out and told the mob he had seven sons, seven guns, and a thousand cartridges. They would only get his guests, he declared, after the thousand cartridges had been fired, and after he and all his sons were dead. The mob dispersed.

The complex calculations of who should be killed and who should be saved went on within deranged minds. There was one world before, and there was another world after. But in between, there was just the junoon. This is how Balbir and Gurdev explain what they did. This is also how Mukunde Shah, the cloth merchant, made peace with his demons, explained to himself why the Muslims wiped out his family. “That was a time of josh — passion. It didn’t just happen to me, it happened to the whole nation. When I think of that I don’t feel bad.” How does a man live with having murdered his neighbours? Balbir Singh’s way of atonement has been through a constant searching out of the Other, a series of highly emotional meetings with his former enemies. He has crossed the border no fewer than three times since then, a feat whose magnitude can be appreciated by any Indian trying to get a visa at the Pakistani embassy in Delhi — the lines begin at four in the morning; then the application is sent to Pakistan for a two-month review. On his trips, he tries to meet his former neighbours, the Muslims from Attari whom he had a hand in driving out.

The first time Balbir Singh went to Pakistan was 1956. An entire convoy of vehicles came to the border to receive the Attari group, he says, 25-30 trucks, five to seven buses, cars. They were the Muslims that had been driven out. The group from Attari had to stay at each of their houses in turn, and nobody took money for lunch or dinner, or money for petrol.

But on that trip, he says, “the younger generation looked at us with a certain amount of hatred.” Balbir Singh’s wife’s village was in Pakistan. When he and his wife went back there, he said, “They knew I was the son–in–law of the family; they just held me and burst out crying.” He met the people that had worked in the household of his wife’s family. “Whatever money they had, they just emptied their pockets and gave me.” This is a tradition — the returning son–in–law is always feasted and feted by his in-laws. “After all these years”, he says, “my wife was still a daughter of the village.”

In 1980, one of Balbir Singh’s cousins went to Pakistan, and Balbir asked him to look up his best friend before Partition, a Muslim who was so close to him that he would eat a chicken that Balbir had cooked, even if it was not halal, prepared according to Muslim dietary laws. The Muslim friend received the cousin with great hospitality, and then asked him a favour. Would he bring Balbir Singh to the border? He wanted to meet him once.

The cousin went back to Attari and passed on the message. Balbir Singh went to the border at the appointed time. “All the security men said, you must be mad. You can’t meet.” Across the fence, Balbir Singh, after 33 years, saw his friend, who rushed forward, only to be pushed back by the Pakistani security men far beyond the fence. Balbir saw that his friend was straining against them, weeping.

At first Balbir turned back, but a relative who knew the soldiers intervened on his behalf. So Balbir Singh went forward with two of his youngest children beyond the fence and his friend came forward to meet him after thirty-three years. They embraced each other; they were overwhelmed and there was no point in talking. What could be said? How does one condense the highlights of three decades? His friend was crying, but Balbir Singh was determined not to. Balbir Singh apologised — for not having brought all of his children to show his friend. “I said I’m sorry. My two girls are married in different villages; I didn’t have time to get them all here to show you.”

Then the soldiers separated the two men and his friend went back into Pakistan and Balbir Singh started walking slowly back into India. He was stopped by agents from the Intelligence Bureau, and they asked him, “Who were you talking to?” “To my brother,” Balbir Singh answered. How can that be, they demanded, he was Sikh, the man who came to meet him was Muslim. “I said that’s exactly what I mean, he’s my brother. He has land on that side, I have land on this side, that’s why we’re separated. The intelligence men said don’t fool us. I said I’ve told you what I told you, I have said what I said, he’s my brother.”

Again, in 1982, Balbir Singh crossed the border. He went with his daughter to a village on the other side where a group of Muslim brothers from Attari had settled. Some of them were wrestlers; they went there and became sweet–sellers and made three good houses. But now there was only one of the brothers left. Balbir Singh and his daughter went to the old man’s house for dinner, and talked with the sweet–merchant’s entire family late into the night about the village.

In the morning when they woke up the old man said, “I’m going to tell you something...” and then all his grandchildren rushed forward and interrupted him. “We’re going to tell you what he’s going to tell you. He’ll say I had a dream last night that I was in Attari. Uncle, every morning when he wakes up he says he’s met this person in Attari, that person in Attari.” This was in 1982, 35 years after the old man had left his village. At least in his waking life.

If the border were opened up tomorrow, said the old man to Balbir Singh, his children would drive there, because they had cars. “But I’ll still beat them because I’ll run so fast.”

Then the soldiers separated the two men and his friend went back into Pakistan and Balbir Singh started walking slowly back into India. He was stopped by agents from the Intelligence Bureau, and they asked him, “Who were you talking to?” “To my brother,” Balbir Singh answered. How can that be, they demanded, he was Sikh, the man who came to meet him was Muslim. “I said that’s exactly what I mean, he’s my brother. He has land on that side, I have land on this side, that’s why we’re separated. The intelligence men said don’t fool us. I said I’ve told you what I told you, I have said what I said, he’s my brother.”

I looked for Muslims in Attari and found none. They had all fled. I looked for signs of their presence, those that lived here all these centuries. Gurdev Singh pointed out to me the houses they had inhabited, their quarter. Then he led me to the place he used, until quite recently, to come every day to pray at. It is a grave — the tomb of the fakir Gulab Shah.

Gulab Shah was Muslim. The light green building sits tranquilly in a grove of fruit trees. Peering inside the window of the structure, I could see the oblong tiled tomb of the saint. A coin was placed on it; on the far wall was a recess for a lamp, lit every day, and a can of fuel to supply it. An electric chandelier flickered uncertainly above. Every Thursday, people come from all the surrounding countryside to ask for favours at the tomb; that an ailing child might get better, that an examination might be passed. The worshippers are all Sikh and Hindu. “There are no Muslims here,” said Gurdev Singh. There used be a Muslim fair held here, a huge one with thousands of people coming from all over. “We took it over from them after Partition.” This shrine is not unique. All over the Punjabi countryside are the tombs of Muslim holy men, maintained and venerated by Sikhs and Hindus. Attari has a full-time keeper of the Muslim tombs, Arjun Singh, a man who claims to be 111-years-old.

This is the faith that Mahatma Gandhi called sanatana dharma, the timeless, tolerant faith of the Indian countryside, where it is no contradiction to worship at the shrine of a religion you have killed people for belonging to.

It is a common desire among those displaced by Partition to make the return crossing, to try to go home again. The Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, whom I met in Lahore, told me that for 50 years he tried to get a visa to go back to India, particularly to the village he was born in, Dibai, near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. Although he has been living in Lahore since 1947, most of his fiction is set in Dibai. Like the old Muslim exile from Attari, he had also been having a recurring dream.

“I go there, to my home, and am wandering among the houses. Those lanes, those palaces. The terraces where we flew kites,” and then he described his house for me, constructing it lovingly in the air with his hands. “The Muslim quarter began at our house. The terraces of the Hindu houses were so close that at Diwali time I would reach across, steal oil–lamps from their terraces, and bring them home.”

Thirty years later, at the invitation of a literary gathering in Delhi, Husain was able to get a visa to go back. He was at Aligarh, and then made an impulsive decision to revisit Dibai. Driving toward the village, he saw the trucks all along the road, the phantom convoys of Partition. As they came into the village, he couldn’t believe how much it had changed. There used to be a pilgrim’s hostel. Where was the hostel? Where was the hospital? Everything had become a bazaar. He looked for his house, but the geography of home had changed. His companion said, why don’t you ask someone? “I said I have come to my own town. I am not going to ask someone else for directions.” Husain got out and wandered the bazaars but could not locate his birthplace, and something in him would not let him ask a stranger for guidance in the territory of his own childhood, his own dreams. Frustrated, he got back in the car, and drove back to Aligarh. “I still haven’t gone back.” I asked Husain why there were no museums, no memorials to that time. He responded, “It is good that the killings are not memorialised, that there are no pictures of those times.” I found this curious, coming from a writer whose entire body of work deals with “those times.” What tormented him, he seemed to be saying, was his generation’s burden alone. What use would it be to rake up the past, to keep harping on the atrocities of Partition? If the current generation could only forget what his generation went through, then maybe they could start talking to each other.

There are millions of Partition stories throughout the subcontinent, a body of lore that is infrequently recorded in print or on tape, and rarely passed on to the next generation. All over the map of the subcontinent, there is an entire generation of people who have been made poets, philosophers, and storytellers by their experiences during Partition.

Any person over 55 or 60 in Delhi or Amritsar or Lahore has stories to tell of that period, even if they were not themselves dislocated then. And for those who have been displaced from their birthplaces against their will and at an early age, the impression of home is all the more vivid and sharp; it haunts their dream–lives, and their minds are the battleground between the need to forget and the need to remember.

(The writer was awarded the Whiting Award for exceptional American writers in October 1997 for his piece Mumbai published in a special issue of the English journal, Grantha, to mark 50 years of India’s freedom. He visited the Wagah border in June 1997.)  

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