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Letter from Montreal – Partition Objects, Delhi & Pakistan

Anatomy of the Radcliffe Line.

[Text and photos by Aanchal Malhotra]

There is a map on the wall of my room. It is a modern depiction of the projections of Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. Towards the east, prominently recognizable even then by its elegantly sharp peninsular shape, rests the Indian subcontinent. The colours of the map are bright- blues, greens, yellows and oranges — except within the subcontinent. Here the map acquires a dull, aged look. My fingers have often grazed over this portion, wearing down the surface day after day; eroding the vibrant inks. I trace the land where a border has now been established, where India ends and Pakistan begins. This was not a boundary that always existed. Infact, before 1947 it was one land: India. August 1947 marked the departure of the British Raj from the subcontinent and the conjoined birth of independent India and Pakistan.

The end of World War II witnessed a triumphant yet financially weakened Britain, no longer able to hold onto “the brightest jewel in the crown” and so the decision was made to grant India complete independence. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 declared that India would be free from British rule on August 15 of that very year. It also outlined the partition of the provinces of British India into Pakistan, intended to be a homeland for Indian Muslims, and India, which was to be a secular nation despite its Hindu majority.

Since the divide was to be done on the basis of religious demographics, Muslim majority regions of North India were automatically to become a part of Pakistan. The complicated areas were those of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, both of which did not have an overpowering religious majority. Eventually, both provinces were subdivided. In Bengal, the western part dominated mostly by Hindus became a part of India and the eastern part came to be known as East Pakistan (later becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971).

Similarly, Punjab was divided into East Punjab and West Punjab. But due to the population of Punjab being religiously scattered, it was virtually impossible to draw a border that would satisfy Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs equally, would meet the needs of leaders of the Indian National Congress as well as the Muslim League, and lastly, would reduce the separation of farmers from their fields, while at the same time minimizing the feeling of displacement and alienation accompanying the refugees that would have to cross over between east and west Punjab.

In June 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, an English judge, was commissioned by the British crown to divide India. He arrived in July and was given five weeks to work on the borders of Punjab and Bengal with the help of two boundary commissions, each comprising of five people: himself and two representatives each from the Congress and the Muslim League, all keen for the boundary to be finalized by August 15, 1947.

Here, I think, is where the real play of politics begins. The crown sent Radcliffe, a man who had never set foot in India before, to partition it. The overwhelming irony of this decision is that it was believed that his lack of knowledge of the subcontinent would prove an asset in neutral division of the territory. Radcliffe, a man who knew nothing of the terrain, the geography, the socio-political history, or the religious differences of the inhabitants of the Punjab or Bengal, was expected in five weeks, to divide them. It is important to add here that due to the rising differences between the various religious groups, the members of the boundary commissions proved near futile, leaving Radcliffe to make decisions on his own. So with the assistance of maps and official statistics, he created an erratic border, which at times followed the logical course of rivers and religious majority, but at times cut right through villages, leaving one half in India and the other in Pakistan.

How does a country acquire its coordinates, its border? How does it decide when to end and who draws that line? When we look at a map, everything seems so planned out, so peacefully green and blue with each country lying perfectly in the square area allotted to it. But when we study the history of almost any part of the world, we will find that the relationship between the creation of a border and subsequent uprising and violence is almost mutually exclusive. Take here, the example of India. Sir Cyril Radcliffe was expected to carve out another country from within India. He was to draw a line that would exist not just physically, but also become a mark in the hearts of the people that were affected by it as well as many generations to follow. This border, the Radcliffe Line as it is called, acts as the physical manifestation of a national identity bred out of what is regarded, even today, as the most catastrophic event to have taken place in the subcontinent’s contemporary history: the Partition.

The very weight of the word, the way it sounds as I say it out loud, how I enunciate its every syllable with clarity and care in a way that has been subconsciously ingrained within me, how I use it with an almost extreme fragility, considering at all times its innate heaviness in the context of the Indian subcontinent – what it means to be Indian, to be Pakistani, to be Bangladeshi- the entire concept of a cultural identity enveloped within a single event, a single line, a single word: Partition.

It is considered the largest mass migration of people in the world, leaving upto 1 million dead and forcing approximately 12 million to flee across the newly created border. Despite the fact that the border was hastily drawn, it is unfathomable to imagine that it could have led to anything but religious violence, chaos and bloodshed. India was divided. A single inscription on the dotted line changed the fate of millions. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs suddenly became enemies, fighting over land, wealth, respect, community and national identity. And among this chaos, trudged refugees — on trains, trucks, sometimes by air but most often on foot and often in complete fear.

This is where my interest lay, as the partition of Punjab is present in my own personal history: all four of my grandparents having been born in what is now Pakistan. I became fascinated with the actual journey of migrating from one place to another, the physical movement of families and their possessions acquiring a completely new citizenship. They often took nothing with them, just clothes and valuables if they had had enough time to prepare for the move. Not everyone did though, and most people were forced, at a moments notice to vacate their homes in the middle of night due to civil war, fires or riots. But if they were able to take something with them (something even as small as a piece of jewelry that could later be sold), that object carries within it a history of a place and time, and a distant memory of a true home. This piece of jewelry no longer remains just that, it now becomes a portal into the history of when it was acquired, who it belonged to, and moreover, how does it still exist today. How had one little object survived the test of time, the dangerous journey, the birth of nations and the death of religious tolerance during the partition?

And so, with this premise in mind, I attempted to narrate the history of the partition of the India through its material remnants: stories of the objects that people took with them, out of necessity or sentimental value, when they left their homes on either side of the border.

We surround ourselves with things and put parts of ourselves into them; they possess the ability to retain memory, to preserve the past and to a certain extent, keep alive those who have passed. Many from the generation that witnessed the partition have passed away, yet the things they brought with them remain. In doing my research, I adopted the role of a collector travelling to Delhi in India and Lahore in Pakistan – interviewing people and gathering stories. Sixty-eight years later, if an object that was carried across the border with caution and care still exists, it acts as a portal into the experiences of the person it belongs to. Even if there was no value when it was taken, as the years have passed, it remains the only physical evidence of pre-partitioned India. In some ways, these objects carry the weight of the past, of the event within them.

The items I found were of a wide variety.

In my own home, lay a striking piece of jewelry made of precious stones no longer found in India. Created in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, it was presented to my great grandmother to wear on her wedding day. Concealed within her clothes, it was forced out of Pakistan and travelled from Muriali to D.I Khan to Delhi to Meerut, as she – a single mother with five young children – struggled to make it across the border. The extraordinary setting and value of the stones made it an ideal piece to use as collateral, something that could be sold. But it being the only reminder of her life in Pakistan, my great-grandmother neither parted with it, nor ever wore it again. Instead, she presented it to my grandmother on her wedding day. Now it lives with her in Delhi; serving as a physical reminder of strength and determination her mother embodied in crossing the border and wanting to give her children a better and safer life.

In Rawalpindi, Pakistan, a young girl was born into a family of musicians. Though Hindu, they lived in a predominantly Sikh neighbourhood and her mother visited the Sikh temple everyday. The most prized possessions in their house comprised of numerous musical instruments and the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh prayer book. The summer before the partition of India, the family went to visit their eldest daughter who worked as a tutoress in Simla, India. They took nothing, apart from clothes warm enough to be worn in the cool mountain air. In their absence, India was divided and Pakistan created, leaving them as Hindus to remain in India. A few years later, their old neighbor from Rawalpindi who had also moved to India contacted the family saying that he was going back to see his home in Pakistan and whether there was something he could bring back for them. The mother only asked for one thing: her Guru Granth Sahib. Upon reaching their house in Rawalpindi, the neighbor rang the doorbell and introduced himself, asking if by any chance the sacred book survived the partition. The new inhabitants, a Muslim family, smiled and led him to the back room of the house that had once served as a prayer room. The sacred book lay just as it had been pre-partition, removed from any religious politics. The young girl is now an old woman, as musically gifted as ever and in her bedroom in Delhi, untouched by time and read everyday, rests the holy book.

Sitting under old Delhi’s crisp winter sun, I listened to my maternal grandfather’s eldest brother narrate the story of a copper vessel and a yardstick that had crossed the border from Lahore to Amritsar to Delhi. The vessel was medium sized, round at the bottom with a graceful neck. Engraved into the metal was a delicate pattern of foliage and line work typical to the Indian subcontinent. It belonged to his mother; he described how she would pour milk in and churn it. The yardstick, on the other hand, belonged to his father. Used to measure fabric in their clothing store, it seemed completely ordinary at first glance – not even straight, slightly bent in places – but upon closer inspection, there were markings at set distances that indicated specific measurements – 1⁄2, 1⁄4 and so on. The stick was smooth and cold to touch, made of a dark metal, maybe iron or lead. It was lightweight, as expected, since it would have had to be maneuvered through layers and layers of fabric quickly. As he spoke about these two objects, something changed in him. His whole demeanor of an old man transformed into that of a young boy. He physically there with us in present day Delhi, but at the same time, he was not. Within those objects, he had found a quiet escape and had been transported someplace else, someplace closer to his heart, to his parents, to Lahore.

A girl born into a well-to-do family in Jalandhar, India, was raised by a Welsh governess. This, along with the status her family, gave her air of English gentry, an affluence that stayed with her till her old age. When she was 16 years old, she spent the summer with her uncle and aunt, friendly with many royals of the princely states of British India, especially with a certain Maharaja of Rajputana. Completely taken with the young girl, he presented her with an exquisite string of pearls, which soon became one of her most prized possessions. Six years later during the partition, her family was fleeing from Jalandhar to the new Muslim country of Pakistan. They left behind their grand mansion and everything it contained, travelling from Jalandhar to Dalhousie to Lahore. She recalls with horror the violence, especially on women, she witnessed while crossing the border. She recalls how lucky she felt as they sat in an official vehicle, armed with British guards, determined to drop them safely to Pakistan. The family carried nothing but clothes due to the fear of being robbed along the way but the young woman carried in secret, the pearls given to her by the Maharaja. Sitting now, in her modest living room in Gulberg, Lahore, she extracts them from a black velvet pouch and gingerly puts on the only physical evidence of her life as a young girl in India.

A young 16-year-old boy and his family moved from place to place in India trying to protect themselves, before finally crossing the border into Pakistan. Nothing in hand except their lives, they fled from their home in Jalandhar to Kapurthala to the refugee camp in Jalandhar to Gara to Lahore and finally settling in Lyallpur (now known as Faislabad). As an adult, he often reminisced of his life in India, recalling vividly, his childhood home. 25 years after the partition, he visited India and stood before his old house in Jalandhar. Though now occupied by a Sikh family, the architecture of the house remained untouched. At the front, there continued to exist a plaque with his family name carved into the stone. It warmed his heart and he felt his trip across the border had not been in vain. Years after that, his niece and her husband found themselves in India and decided to visit Jalandhar to explore the city of her ancestors. Upon reaching the house, they saw that it was in the process of being demolished but the plaque with her family name stood erect at the front. With the permission of the architect, she decided she would take the stone slab home to Pakistan for her dear Uncle. Its innate heaviness seemed heavier to her as she carried it across the border to Lahore; it held within it not just the weight of the stone, but also of family history and legacy. For the old man who had once been the 16-year-old boy, the whole feeling of his childhood was now completely encompassed within that one stone slab. The weight of that stone became for him, the weight the past.

The art and age-old tradition of paan making in the subcontinent is one that is fast becoming obsolete. Chewing paan is a popular habit in India and Pakistan and similar to the tea ceremonies in South East Asia, the making and serving of paan could be considered, historically, a real skill. In its simplest form, it comprises of a beetel leaf stuffed with areca nut and cured tobacco, folded skillfully so none of stuffing falls out. The ratio of leaf to the ingredients must be in perfect harmony. Unique tools existed for the purpose of cutting the ingredients and similarly, special containers for its serving. Dressed in green and sitting in her Lahore living room, the woman with grey-blue eyes held up to the light one such container- it was called a Khaas daan; a special plate-like object on which the paan would be placed and presented to the guest. She spoke in the language from a small village in the Punjab called Samana, explaining to me the significance of the khaas daan, telling me how she received it as a part of her dowry. She touched the bronze-like surface of the container, grazing her fingers over the delicate flower and filigree pattern and seemed almost surprised that this small and unique object had survived her journey of migration (as a 10 year old) during the partition from Patiala to Samana in India to Lahore in Pakistan.

When I think back to the journey I embarked on to find these objects, to write a small section of the history of the partition of India, I cannot help but wonder about all the things one wished they could carry but never did. The things they left behind. I look around my own home and wonder what I would take if I had to flee to another country at a moment’s notice. What objects make up the essence of my life? What would accompany me – would it be something of material value, something of sentimental importance, or perhaps it would just be an overwhelming feeling of displacement and confusion. I would be faced with the challenge of a blank slate. To begin again from nothing. The thought terrifies me now, just as it did when I listened to the stories of those that migrated across the border.

The Radcliffe Line bears the name of the man who, so repulsed by the horrifying consequences of his duty, refused to accept his fee, left for England the very same day India became independent, destroyed all his maps and papers pertaining to the divide and made sure, in his long illustrious career as a judge, to never speak of what had happened in India ever again. And yet the line bears his name; that is the paradox of his legacy.

This is not an invisible line, but one that is firmly and physically present. It is constructed with guilt and haste; its foundation is politics and religion. It is fortified with corpses and riots and the sounds of people screaming. The line is drawn in blood and littered with the possessions of those that crossed it – a piece of cloth here, utensils scattered there, jewelry, riches and money strewn across the sand. This is the anatomy of the Radcliffe Line.

[Click here to see the website of this article’s Montreal-based author/photographer]

People, things and partition












3 thoughts on “Letter from Montreal – Partition Objects, Delhi & Pakistan

  1. Partition is a very heavy word indeed and the pain and suffering it causes is not easily forgotten and buried. It keeps getting transferred to successive generations. This article is only one letter on this subject. Just imagine if at least one relative of each one of those one million people who perished during India-Pakistan partition could write. We would have a huge body of literature on partition alone. It is high time nations began striving to achieve the concept of one nation, one world. Ironically, it was much before partition, in 1916, that Tagore in his novel “The Home and The World,” described how aggressive nationalism based on religion can become a nation’s and the whole world’s greatest evil. John Donne, in 1623, in his poem ‘For whom the bell tolls’ advocated a similar idea: “Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind…Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

  2. It is with great admiration, that I write these words:

    reading through this article, brough ters to my eyes, and I was not even born then. Imagine the emotional turmoil for those who were interview. Thier feeling have been penned down beautifully. Hats off to Aanchal. Sure to make an amazing writer soon.

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