Witness to Partition: It showed “Nobility and Meanness”

By Mohammad Vazeeruddin
Peeping into the life of Sohail Singh was not unlike opening the door of a china shop: the wind might, very often did, blow violently, and before I realized what had happened, some vase of immense proportions seemed to descend on my innocent head , knocking out pre-conceived notions about Partition. “Right from 1947 it has been said that Muslims were massacred in India and Sikhs and Hindus in what was to become Pakistan, during the riots which preceded and accompanied Partition. That is true enough, but what is not true is the implication that Muslims fleeing India treated one another tenderly and that Hindus and Sikhs, forced to leave their hearths and homes, commiserated with one another,” he said, and added on his own: “The only purpose that Partition served was to bring out the inherent meanness and also nobility of human nature.”

Time, said Seneca, “is the Father of Truth.” But though 63 years have elapsed since then, the whole truth about Partition seems yet to be known. After all, in speaking of life in those times, Sohail Singh spoke of what he had lived through, of that which was the very fibre of his being. “I belong to Salika village in Saiwal Tehsil of Sargodha district, now in Pakistani Punjab. I never went to school because I owned 70 acres of land, besides a shop in my native village,” said the patriarchal with tawny-lashed blue eyes, a straight nose and a fine brow.

“For centuries Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims had dreamed dreams of living as one people forever. But when they woke up, they started killing one another. The Muslims of my village had never made me feel that I was not one of them. In fact, the day riots broke out, I had accompanied a ‘Muslim brother’ (mooh leva bhai) on a shopping spree as he was getting married.” In that memory lay the mainsprings of the bleak mood which had suddenly seized him. “Even so, I did not need to flee my village instantly; I was absolutely safe for one full month. Though killings were taking place on a large scale on either side of the as-yet-invisible border, Muslims of our village ensured my safety for full 30 days. On the other hand, such Muslims as had arrived in our village from India told us that if they had known that they were going to be treated abominably by fellow refugees, they would have stayed back to die in India. I did not believe them, but now I am perfectly willing to say the same thing myself,” Sohail Singh said. From the sudden convulsion of his brittle old bones deposited in the chair, it was clear that a rage had seized him to show truth stripped of all vesture.

Sohail Singh had Rs. 1,000 in cash in his shop. Out of that, he had “gifted” Rs. 500 to his ‘Muslim brother’ whose wedding he knew he would not be able to attend, and handed over the rest of the money (“Rs. 500 in currency notes and seven annas in change”) to his wife for safe-keeping. “Then the ‘military; arrived to transport us safely to a refugee camp. In the ensuing stampede my wife left the packet containing the currency notes and the change, on the parapet of our wall. It just vanished. Remember, the ‘military’ was composed entirely of Hindus and Sikhs because it had come to rescue members of those two communities. So I cannot accuse any Muslim of having stolen it. That was the first proof of human, rather communal, meanness”, Sohail Singh said, his nostrils flaring.

When he discovered the loss, he panicked, went to the house of his ‘Muslim brother’ and requested him to return the Rs. 500 that he had ‘gifted’. The ‘Muslim brother’ thereupon vanished too! That was the second proof of human meanness,” Sohail Singh said with what sounded like a snigger. “But his mother reproached him for his inhumanity to a ‘brother’ who was down and out, and gave him Rs. 200 of her own money, which was all that she had, and prayed for my safety as that of my wife and three children. Here was proof of humanity and nobility which transcended communal barriers.”

Sohail Singh reluctantly fled his village, his field, but he wore engraved upon his mind the golden-square geometry of grain, the angled green of clover and, over them, and the purple bruises of too intimate a cloud blown on a summer wind. The hurricane swept away many beautiful gardens, houses, trees, and, of course, people, and all that he knew was that his small house stood fragile upon its mound of land while the spots where the neighbours lived were bare. “Some refugees had managed to bring with them to the camp wheat flour and other commodities. My wife, children and I had had nothing to eat for one full week. Yet when I requested fellow refugees to lend me just one kilo of wheat flour, they said they had none even though their stocks were not hidden. Mind you, these fellow refugees were not Muslims but Sikhs and Hindus.” Death lay in ambush. Alone even in the midst of refugees, and vigilant, Sohail Singh awaited its clawed attack, watching life’s glimmer hesitate beneath red pools suffering. Yesterday was gone and already looked aeons old. Dawn’s beauty could not penetrate the heavy dark of the mind and heart; only the soul’s agony was real.

A cold-lipped dread seemed to have outlawed sentiment. Sohail Singh’s “faith in Wah-e-Guru” shone greenly in the gloom, a tiny isle of friendliness and light girdled by fear. Cries and answering footfalls cracked the vigil hours; they were but echoes of a deeper cry wherein the mind’s pain and body’s agony fused to almost prenatal unity. “Even in those care-cumbered, grey and humourless days, it was every man to himself and Devil take the hindmost,” Sohail Singh said, taking off his spectacles, which looked as old as he, polishing them with the fringes of his long shirt and trying in vain to locate me without them.

The refugees lived together through the dark days of uncertainty, shared a tragic fate and yet did not learn to abide one another. Their lives were dry of love. Their suck-brain hearts were closed from within. With reasoned reckoning, they calculated and allocated to each his part, talked of one another as though they were not human beings but things. When they met, they gave one another’s smiling claims the frowning lie.

Finally, Sohail Singh and his family reached India by train. “As there was a great rush at the Amritsar station, we travelled up to Jalandhar and spent three days on the railway platform. I had only seven annas in my pocket. Thereafter we found in Basti Sheikh a room which had been vacated by a fleeing Muslim family.” Initially, Sohail Singh’s mood hovered between despair, on the one hand, and a longing to live as a typical Sikh, a lusty lover of the world and life, on the other. Eventually, the lust for life prevailed.

“We started borrowing essential commodities; my wife would cook chapattis and my son would sell them on the railway platform to the inc-coming refugees. With what we earned thus, we managed to keep ourselves alive and also to save a little.” In those days of struggle, Sohail Singh said he had often wondered if in this strange world of wonder it was meant that those who had thought no ill and committed no wrong must suffer wrong, and that uprooted children’s lament should sound forever on the paths of time, “but my faith in the dispensation of Wah-e-Guru never wavered for a second”.

After a month, Sohail Singh was delighted to find that he and his family had managed to save Rs. 25. “But, one day, when we returned from the Gurdwara, we found the money gone. There was no Muslim anywhere around. All Muslims had fled. The whole locality had only Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan.”

For the first time, my diary shows, I saw a mischievous glint in his eyes. Unable to find work of any kind at Jalandhar, he and his family shifted to Sultanpur Lodhi in Kapurthala district, “and there my wife and I started doing manual labour in Dana Mandi”. Through hard and honest work, the couple earned enough to educate their sons and establish them in life. “Today they are all well settled in life; some of them are employed and others are doing business, and my wife and I are spending our lives thanking Wah-e-Guru for his benedictions,” Sohail Singh summed up. As I took leave of him, Sohail Singh said, apropos of nothing: “The tendency to see Partition as proof only of communal meanness and not of human meanness on both sides of the border should end.” (Syndicate Features)

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