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Friday October 07, 2022

Journey of a lifetime Based on a true story

August 14, 2022

It was her first time in Lahore - the great metropolis! The capital of the Punjab! Unfortunately, she could not go to see the wonderful sights the city offered, for she was confined to the Lahore Railway Station, or to put it more accurately, the railway carriage which she shared with 30 other women and her new-born baby -just 3 months old. Her very own child, her first born!

This mother was just 16. The preceding year she married the man she had been betrothed to since the age of 4. From Mardan in the NWFP she was led to Simla, a hill station in North India. There she lived with her bridegroom in a summer cottage set amidst a beautiful forest.

She always recalled the journey to Simla, to her husband’s home, as the high point of her life. She travelled on the Kalka-Simla small gauge railway line, which connected Simla with the rest of the Indian rail system. The spectacular panorama of the hills and villages, interspersed with more than 806 bridges, 103 tunnels and 919 curves, was unforgettable to her; touted as an engineering feat, it came to be known as the ‘British Jewel of the Orient’. It was later added to the mountain railways of India World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Currently, the family of three were on their way to the husband’s new posting in Karachi, the coastal capital of the newly announced Pakistan. The train was filled to capacity. Her own compartment - the women’s compartment - was overcrowded. Her husband was in a similar sardine-like situation in the men’s compartment further down the railway carriage. It had been a hot, sweltering journey, dangerous and stressful. And now there was a stop at Lahore, Lahore that had been declared part of Pakistan - the new Muslim state - freed from British domination after a rule of 200 years.

Independence! It had its beginnings in World War I. Freedom was a collective aspiration by Indian nationalist leaders and their followers. The ‘Quit India’ movement against British authority had eventually led to Independence and Partition.

The mother looked out of the window at the sea of humans, milling to and fro on the railway platform. It was made up of a crowd of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and the many other religious and social groups, factions and castes, belonging to the vast land that was Imperial India. The unspoken question on the lips of each and every person - man, woman or child - was ‘what does the future hold?’ The British were leaving. Unexpected boundaries had been drawn up. The immediate prospect was fraught with acute anxiety - utter confusion prevailed. Their world was in total disarray. Life, their collective sixth sense told them, would never be the same again.

This was August 1947. The month heralded the freedom of the Indian subcontinent from British rule as well as a division of the country into Pakistan (a Muslim majority country) and India (a Hindu majority country). This was a separation in which unexpected boundaries were drawn up. The Boundary Commission, led by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, had been entrusted with the task of dividing the country into India and Pakistan. But how could a country be divided? A difficult task, further complicated as the lines of demarcation had to be based on ‘outdated maps and census materials’ - nevertheless, the deed was done. The two self-governing countries of Pakistan and India legally came into existence at midnight on 14-15 August 1947. The boundary demarcating Pakistan and India came to be known as the Radcliffe Line.

Lives, it seemed, were balanced on the point of a drawing pencil. Those who were on the wrong side of the divide had to muster their courage to make way through hostile territory to reach their new boundary lines. What ensued was the emigration/immigration of a record-sized population. People were forced to take flight at the last minute, from the towns and villages they had been born in, whose institutions, bazaars and parks had invigorated their youth, the mosques and temples where they had worshipped and the graveyards where their ancestors were buried. Approximately 15 million people were displaced - a wave, nay, a tsunami of Muslims made their way to Pakistan and a similar surge of Hindus and Sikhs headed for India. Whole populations had been put into a most inconvenient and appallingly dangerous and unstable situation -- its consequences were terrifying and its effects would last for decades.

This was no smooth transfer of power. India was undoubtedly the jewel in the royal crown of colonies included in the empire on which ‘the sun never sets.’ With this tendering of command, the British Empire ceased to be a world power.

The task of keeping order in 1947 was passed on to the disbanded British army which was composed of locals who were themselves divided along religious lines and hence, could not be impartial in the killing spree. The murder, rape, looting, food shortage and arson that occurred held the brutality of a jungle. Houses were looted, trains derailed and burnt. Repercussions were being felt in many parts of the huge subcontinent but most of all in the Punjab. It was ethnic cleansing; it was genocide.

The mother turned from the window to focus attention on her daughter, who she knew would be needing her. She had spent a few pensive minutes looking out of the window and thinking of the above state of affairs, which were the talk of the town, across the length and breadth of India. But much more important for her was her new status in life: Motherhood! It was the most glorious experience! But horror of horrors - the baby was not there! Where could she be? Had she fallen under the berth? Did any other passenger pick her up? No. Her frantic search revealed nothing. Nothing at all. No clue as to her daughter’s whereabouts.

‘Where is my darling baby?’ she wept. Oh, what could she do? Where to turn? How could she spend life without her? What would she say to her husband? Her family? The mother’s sobbing was heartbreaking to behold.

In the meanwhile, her husband was making his way to her compartment. He could not help but to notice a sight which to him seemed unbelievable - for coming from the opposite side of the platform was a young lad, barely 15 years of age, carrying a baby. The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes of the same blue colour he had recently and most lovingly bought for his newborn.

It seemed like his own baby. On closer inspection, he recognised that it was, and quick as lightning he snatched the baby from the boy, who, comprehending the look of anger and authority, hastily handed her over and fled. The father’s knee-jerk reaction was not atypical. He was an athlete and among his treasured prizes was the ‘King George V Memorial Hockey Challenge Cup Peshawar 1936’, which he had won as a student and captain of Islamia College Peshawar’s hockey team.

The tear-stained face of the mother brightened immediately upon seeing her husband outside her window with their daughter. Oh, miracle of miracles! Her baby was back in her arms!

The data compiled by knowledgeable organisations and experts of the earth-shattering events of 1947 reveal that between 75,000 and 100,000 women were kidnapped and raped by organised gangs. Both Pakistan and India wanted their abducted women to be returned. However, many women (understandably) refused to be repatriated as they knew that on return, the shame and stigma attached to their abductions would make their lives unbearable. By 1954, both governments agreed that the women should not be forced to return to their country of origin.

As for her baby, as old or as young as Pakistan itself, the very story sends a shudder down her spine. Such scenes of kidnapping were taking place throughout the entirety of India - but unlike hers, not all had happy endings.

Her childhood and youth were spent in the wonderful city of Karachi where she acquired a Master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Karachi, earning the gold ‘Cairo Crash Journalist Victims Memorial Medal 1969’. Her education, in those times, served her in good stead, as it did the rest of the youth of the country. She went on to become a writer for the newspapers and magazines of the former West and East Pakistan and the UK, as well as serving as assistant editor, and then later editor for a number of prestigious national and international in-house magazines, working full-time, both at home and abroad.

A lifetime of work for her beloved motherland.

Statistics/Factual Information have been obtained from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partition_of_India#cite_note-153 based on a True Story by Najam Saighal, a freelance writer.

She can be reached at najam.saighal4b@gmail.com

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