Just Like That | India mustn’t forget horrors of Partition
By a conservative estimate, over two million people were suddenly and violently uprooted and displaced in Partition and hundreds of thousands died
Last week I visited the recently opened Partition Museum at the Dara Shikoh Library near Kashmere Gate in Delhi. The museum, like its main branch at the Town Hall in Amritsar, is the brain-child of author Kishwar Desai.
Kishwar has been a good friend for many years. With two grown-up children from an earlier marriage, I don’t think she even remotely expected to marry the much older Lord Meghnad Desai. But Meghnad, who met her in New Delhi when she was editing his book on the iconic actor Dilip Kumar, pursued her with a zeal she happily succumbed to.
My wife Renuka and I were present as witnesses when in 2004, Kishwar and Meghnad were married at the Marlborough registry in London. After the registers were signed, Meghnad, who confesses to having no real emotional connect to his homeland and was happy to become a British citizen, pulled out a small pouch from his pocket. It contained sindoor, and on the calling of his cultural roots which he claimed to deny, took a pinch of it and put it in the parting of Kishwar’s hair.
Roots and identity, however much we reject them, define who we are. Kishwar’s parents came to India after Partition, and she heard from them of its tragedy and trauma. The Partition was the world’s biggest migration. By a conservative estimate, over two million people were suddenly and violently uprooted and displaced, and hundreds of thousands died. In the avalanche of challenges to rebuild their lives, most of those who came as refugees had little time to document their experience, and even found it painful to speak about it.
My wife’s parents came from Rawalpindi, and chose to largely remain silent about the memories they left behind. Much later, I took her to Rawalpindi, where in a place called Chittiya Hatiyan, she could, on the basis of descriptions she had, find her family home. Her parents maintained a temple nearby that we visited. It was now occupied by a Pakistani family. But atop the entry arch, there was still a forlorn statue of Ganesh ji, on which a bird had built a nest. On this trip, Mrs Subhadra Khosla, sister of former vice-president Krishna Kant, now in her 90s, was also with us. She had left Lahore at the age of 13, but with the help of famous Pakistani actress Sameena Peerzada, she too found her home, with the original plaque in marble, Lajpat Bhawan, still at the gate.
Kishwar decided that she had to salvage whatever was left, in terms of oral or physical memory, of this horrific event, and create a museum that would preserve for future generations the unprecedented human dimensions of this great cleavage. Her passion, dedication and perseverance in fulfilling her dream is genuinely praiseworthy. The task was stupendous. Many who were part of this tragedy were no more, or had lost their memorabilia, or were diffident to speak about it; finance, premises, volunteers, and outreach were other near insurmountable hurdles.
But once the journey began, help poured in. Parkash Singh Badal, the late chief minister of Punjab, offered Kishwar Amritsar’s town hall as premises. In Delhi, the central government’s ministry of tourism collaborated with the Delhi government and Kishwar’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, to provide the Dara Shikoh Library for the museum. Financial help came from the likes of Shirin Paul, Sunil Mittal, the Munjal family, Shobhana Bhartia, the Mahindra Group, Kapil Sibal, and many more. Volunteers worked for free to collect memorabilia and oral histories. Kishwar’s daughter, Mallika, holder of double masters degrees from Harvard, joined full time to help her mother.
A visit to the museum is a fascinating journey to recall one of the most tragically momentous events of world history. Just like the Holocaust Memorial in Germany, and the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, we now too have our own institutional repository of memories to recall an event where the rich suddenly became paupers, millions became refugees overnight, thousands died, and new lives had to be rebuilt from makeshift tents to house the homeless. It is a story we must not forget.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal