When the Indian subcontinent split into India and Pakistan in 1947, for millions the loss of land and wealth were second only to the loss of a home and community. “The division of a major South Asian nation state into two separate ones on August 15, 1947 was as much a partitioning of minds as that of geography,” Dr. Alok Sarin and Dr. Sanjeev Jain write in their book “The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India.”
The exodus of 1947 — the largest the subcontinent has ever seen — irrevocably changed the lives of millions. One of them was Murlidhar, Gehena Thilakesh’s grandfather.
When Thilakesh’s family learned of the events leading up to the partition, they had no time to waste. As Sindhis living in Karachi, where the family owned diamond mines and jewelry shops, her grandparents chose to migrate to India leaving behind immense wealth. But what hurt more was that Murlidhar’s brothers decided to stay back in Karachi and convert to Islam. Her grandfather hasn’t been able to speak to his brothers since. “The partition fractured my family,” Thilakesh told Re:Set.
Today, nearly 75 years later, Thilakesh recollects stories and memories her grandmother Deena held close. “They were a big, joint family and my granny was very close to the cousins, sister-in-laws and family she left behind. She would often tear up when we talk about their past,” Thilakesh told Re:Set.
The partition divided the countries on the lines of religion. For many communities where Muslims and Hindus lived together peacefully, it was hard to wrap their heads around this newly formed distinction in their lives, especially since they had no say in it. Caught in the midst of this were the Sindhis, a community whose members practice Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. “The effect of this partition has impacted generations,” said 39-year-old Preksha Tekwani, who asked that we change her name due to the personal nature of her story.
Her father migrated from Pakistan to the slums of Mumbai. He then moved to Hong Kong before returning to India.
“When my dad migrated to India, he thought it was clear that Sindhis had no support from either country. So it has been drilled into us that we are alone in this world,” Tekwani, a data scientist, told Re:Set. Today, despite being spread across the world, the Sindhis are a tight-knit community, finding comfort and kinship among each other wherever they are.
Traces of trauma
In the 1990s, Ritu Menon along with fellow feminist writer Kamla Bhasin chronicled the stories of destitute women who largely lived in shelters after partition in their book “Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition.”
“We can’t condense the varied experiences of millions of people into one,” Menon told Re:Set. From Punjab to Kashmir to Bengal, a vast number of geographic and cultural differences played out among those who lived through the partition. “The idea of a country is very abstract. But one thing you will find repeatedly is how a lot of them don’t have any reconciliation.” Feelings of anger, bitterness, grief and regret accompanied people across borders and years later, still linger on.
This rings true for Thilakesh, whose grandparents always expressed their desire to take her to Karachi and show their home and family roots.
“Home is not always a country. It’s a village, a community, neighbours and family,” Menon said.
Remnants of home
For Anshu’s family, who asked that their last name be withheld, home was Sialkot in Punjab — the land of the five rivers.
When news of the partition reached Anshu’s family, many Sikhs in their neighbourhood solemnly swore to fight against it. But for Anshu’s family, who were Hindus, migrating to India seemed like the wiser choice. Despite this, her mother often reminisces about home.
“[My grandmother] still wants to visit her hometown. Apparently it is an army cantonment now, but she wants to visit it just once to see what her home looks like today,” Mukul, Anshu’s 21-year-old nephew, told Re:Set.
“My family came from Pakistan and lived in India. But I’ve never lived in India,” Tekwani told Re:Set. “I don’t know if I’m from Pakistan or India or Hong Kong. I only know that I’m Sindhi.”
Even within the same family, different generations look at their identity through distinct lenses.
“I have an affinity for Pakistan and I’m quite nostalgic about it,” Anshu’s daughter Shreya told Re:Set. As someone who studied abroad, she found more similarities and a camaraderie between herself and her Pakistani peers than she did with others. “When my grandparents feel that sense of displacement because they can’t go back home, I somehow understand,” she said.
While Anshu doesn’t echo the same sentiment, she agrees with her daughter that the region lost a lot of their culture and heritage. “For the benefit of a few in power, the community at large suffered a lot. So did my family.”