I turned seven in October 1947.

“You are a citizen of independent India,” I heard often. That meant we were no longer ruled by the British, I was told. But I was sad that the Culleys were leaving. Who would I play with? I would also have preferred to be in independent India in Peshawar. I missed home. The trees, the sky, the feel of the air, the smell. Not just of the city but of our house.

Oh, how I craved the smells of home. The smell of cooking from the bawarchi khana. Was it chicken? Was it dal? Was it khamiri roti? I would dream of running through the house where the fragrant dhuan and polish would give way to the mouthwatering smells of food as I would run through the courtyard and towards the kitchen. The general smell of food would separate into its different ingredients, like pyaaz being fried, and then become something new as I would go through the kitchen and onto the verandah on the other side, where the aromas would mix with the smells of the earth and trees.

I also missed the smell of Badi Mummy’s toosh that she always covered us with when we slept on her lap, and how Didi and I would vie for that precious spot. Decades later, when my granddaughter Tarika was travelling, as young people do when they pack, she did not keep anything warm except a shawl that I had insisted she take. “Nani, the whole night I slept with you,” she told me later. That was how I felt with Badi Mummy’s shawl.

I missed watching the dogs, keeping my distance, always just a little scared. I missed the terrace. I missed riding ponies. I missed being carried in Papa’s arms. I missed the innocence of childhood. We now had a new name too. We were called refugees. What did it mean? I did not understand much but I still understood one thing – all hopes of returning to our own home in Peshawar were now dashed.

“Our haveli is in a different country now,” Didi explained to me patiently. “It’s not ours any longer.” Did Didi think I would fall for that? How could our home no longer be ours? The land of my forefathers, where I was born, was now a new country? And that too not my country? Hah. Where were we then? Hadn’t we always been in India? What was new then? What was our identity? Where were we? My family was with me, all my loved ones, yet I yearned for Peshawar. For our home, family, friends. I don’t know if I ever stopped yearning for it, only that I got better at putting that yearning aside. And I slowly came to understand what being a citizen of independent India meant. What being a refugee meant.

We were to live in Nainital for almost three years. Three years of limbo, as we waited for the Resettlement Commission to compensate our claims. We were invited to tea with Governor Sarojini Naidu at Raj Bhawan, which looked like a Scottish castle. Naidu was the first female Governor of a state in independent India. We were dying to eat but had been strictly coached to say, “No, thank you,” if offered anything. The table was laid with thin, mouthwatering sandwiches and biscuits, there were delicate teacups in front of us. And so, we watched hungrily, but oh-so-politely, as the adults drank their tea and spoke about how our transfer certificates and admissions would be sorted out. When Governor Naidu insisted, we finally ate a biscuit each. But the sandwiches stayed on the table. I sneaked a glance at them. Maybe if she insisted enough I could eat one out of politeness. Badi Mummy caught my eye and my hand dropped back into my lap. Our transfer certificates arrived from Peshawar, and Didi and I moved from Wellesley Girls School to our alma mater St. Mary’s Convent, Ramnee Park.

Our first major event after Partition was a drill display. Everyone had to carry the Indian flag. The Indianisation had started to show. Wellesley and many other schools wound up from Nainital in the next year or two. The British started to leave. Many of the teachers migrated to Australia and New Zealand. Mrs Newington left for Australia and sent me a card from there hoping that my sisters and I were well. The card had a picture of kangaroos on it – that was the first time I had seen kangaroos in my life.

We survived on whatever money we had and sold whatever little jewellery Mummy had. The numbers piled: 14.5 million people crossed the new borders, or according to the 1951 census of displaced persons, 72,26,000 Muslims went to Pakistan from India while 72,49,000 Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan. We were six of those numbers. Trying to understand where we should go and what we should do. The rehabilitation of the refugees began. Papa was allotted a house, 3, Peeli Kothi in Darya Ganj, Delhi, in place of the haveli we lived in at Peshawar. He was also given a steel-bucket-making factory. But all this was nothing compared to the vast lands left behind or the money left in the banks of Peshawar. And can you imagine a zamindar from Peshawar, who would sit in a Rolls Royce and travel on a Harley Davidson from Peshawar to Murree, getting a small factory near the railway line? We soon lost the business.

Similarly, Mummy was far too wealthy, and what she got in the rehabilitation was paltry compared to what she had left behind. She was allocated a mango farm of 100 acres near Lucknow called the Malka Zamani Bagh. We took trips to Dehradun, to explore the possibility of settling there. We lived in Daryaganj for a few weeks. It was a huge three-storey house in one of those tiny lanes. It must have belonged to a very educated family, either barristers or professors, because the house was full of books, English books, law books. Papa tried to find out whose house it was, but to no avail. The rooms were spacious and the kitchen had a fridge. It was the first time I had seen a fridge that ran on oil. What a luxury! We found some beautiful books of quotations, which Didi kept with her always. A fat, faded, frazzled book. This house was fraudulently taken away from us by a relative. Though I was too little then to understand how, but I assumed that when claims were being laid it was very easy to manipulate a change of name.

Malka Zamani Bagh, an orchard of mangoes near Lucknow, was allocated to my grandmother. Papa went to see it and so did Mummy. They told us it was beautiful and vast. Then what happened to it, the seven-year-old me didn’t get to know. We never saw it and we never got anything out of it. I remember hearing later that the people who lived there and looked after the farm created too much of a stir and didn’t let it be allocated in my grandmother’s name. A year after we moved from Peshawar, we were in Lucknow. Why? I do not know. The family was invited to dinner. A shiny armoured car came to pick us up. We were in General Nathu Singh’s house. Papa and he hugged each other like the good friends they were. He patted the three of us on our heads. Two tables were laid out, one for the elders and one for the three of us. Liveried waiters served us dinner. I ate heartily but Didi’s plate was often removed before she could finish her food because she ate so slowly and took so long, and the next course had to be served. She also placed the fork and knife straight while eating, not crossed, not realising it meant she had finished her meal. But soon dinner was forgotten. An aide rushed up to General Nathu Singh. He left immediately and we were sent home.

The date was 30 January 1948.

Gandhi-ji had been shot.

Excerpted with permission from Lest We Forget: How Three Sisters Braved the Partition, Indira Varma, Westland Books.