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Partition, 1947: My Grandmothers & the Inheritance of Loss

A pair of earrings is not all I inherited from my grandparents. They also left me their stories of grief and hope.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Partition, 1947: My Grandmothers & 
the Inheritance of Loss
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I don’t remember how old I was the first time I laid eyes on a pair of dull gold jhumkis (earrings) that my mother wore with a sari. I do, however, remember the story that accompanied that pair – one that would overwhelm me for years to come.

My daadi (paternal grandmother) had brought them along with her to India as she found her way from Pakistan in 1947, with a husband and two children in tow. “They were given to her by her mother, and she gave them to me,” my mother told me, her eldest.

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As a child, it was inconceivable to my naïve mind how both sets of my grandparents crossed a border, reluctantly, in August 1947. The math around the distance, the tears they must have shed as they left the only home they had ever known, the feeling of being lost in a new city in a new country that was in turmoil was beyond my understanding.

The jhumkis are a century-old now. I was in my 20s the first time I wore them. I was nervous and kept touching my ears to ensure that I hadn’t in fact lost them at the wedding venue I was at.

After all, the pair carried a story – the jhumkis were made in the 1930s, they reached Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh in 1947, and finally Delhi in the late 1980s.

I was so anxious the first time I wore them that I swore that I won’t touch them again. I told myself that they will forever remain packed in a box, inside a locker in a bank. The jhumkis are light-weight, and they won’t fetch us a lot of money but they are the only physical memory of Shanti Devi, my daadi.

I have held onto questions about them and my great-grandmother for years but my daadi’s passing away on a cold January morning in 1993 deprived me of the opportunity.
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Why did she carry them with her?

Did she know she will never return to Pakistan?

Were they to be pawned off if things got very hard in India for her and her family?

Of stories of hope and grief

A pair of earrings is not all I have inherited from my grandparents. I also inherited their stories of grief, loss and hope, memories of trees and neighbours, and a few phrases of their language – a Punjabi dialect, rarely correctly heard on the big screen.

As I grew older, my naana-naani (maternal grandparents) found themselves patiently listening to my questions about the Partition that I had to now read about in my textbooks. I promised them a trip to Dera Ismail Khan and Bhakkar in Pakistan, where they grew up. “We will find your house,” I had once told them.

But it was only in 2021, five years after their death, that I found out that my family had in fact tried looking for my naana's house in the 1970s.

The story goes that a government official, who was my naana’s neighbour in a modest east Delhi colony in the 1970s, was supposed to travel to Pakistan. Gossain saab had been instructed by all the bade-buzurg (elders) of the colony to locate the homes they had left behind.

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For some context, the east Delhi colony was inhabited by many who crossed the border in 1947. Among those who asked Gossain saab to look for the house was my naana’s mother.

She had given him clear instructions about the location, the look of the house and the trees that stood around it. She also told him to dig the aangan and bring back the gold she had hidden before leaving in a rush in 1947.

Weeks later, when he returned, my mother recalls, the neighbours sat rapt in attention. Gossain saab regaled them with stories from across the border, the lanes and bylanes he walked in, the markets he saw, the homes he looked for.

And then he told my great-grandmother something she perhaps always knew – her house was gone. Something else had come up in its place.

The mood had turned somber till Gossain saab took out a bottle of water – ghar ka paani. He had filled up a bottle with water from someone's house in Dera Ismail Khan, and got it all the way back to Krishna Nagar in east Delhi. Overwhelmed, everyone had a few sips each. After all it had come from a place they had called home for decades, one they could only dream of visiting. When my mother told me this story in 2021, I was quite taken aback by the gesture of bringing back a bottle of ghar ka paani.

An endless search

I wondered how this story reached me so late, almost two decades after the first time I got curious about my family’s history.

This, however, is not the only story I have just heard. There’s another one, a darker one.

My naana’s mother, the one who asked Gossain saab to look for her house in Dera Ismail Khan, was feared by all in the house. She was prone to mood swings, and her children and grandchildren had to tread carefully around her, I was told by my mother.

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Was she different in her younger days, I asked my mother. And that’s when another story surfaced. In August 1947, my great-grandmother, her husband, and their four children boarded a train from Pakistan to India. Accompanying them was Arjun ji, her handsome 20-year-old brother, one she doted on.

Minutes before the train left the station, he got off to quickly run back home nearby and promised to return within minutes. Arjun ji never made it back to the train.

This was in 1947, and my great-grandmother passed away in the early 1990s. For close to 45 years, she longed for her brother and waited for his return.

“Any time she saw a peer baba or a sadhu or a self-styled godman in Delhi, she inquired about her brother. She gave them money, and in return, they lied to the poor old woman. Some told her he was a baba in Rishikesh, others told her to be hopeful and that he was looking for her too,” my mother told me.

The siblings never met. Did he build a life in Pakistan? Did he take the next train? Did he die in the violence that had engulfed the area at the time? Did he indulge in violence? No one knows.

All that we know is the story of an endless wait. And unbearable loss, which is also my inheritance.

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