Resting my elbow on the rolled-down window, I ask Iqbal Qaiser to tell me more about his uncle, whom I am to interview. His name is Muhammad Boota, he tells me. ‘His home, which we are going to, is in his beloved’s village. She married someone else and left for India but he continues to live there. It is as close to her as he can get.’ Muhammad Boota was originally from the Ballah Wallah village in Amritsar but would often come to visit his maternal grandparents in their village in Kasur, the village that we were driving in search of. It was here that he first encountered a young Sikh girl, who was later to shape the course of his life. At once attracted to her, Boota’s fondness soon blossomed into intense expressions of love, and as a result his visits to his maternal village become more and more frequent.
When Partition was announced, Boota’s family, like millions of others, decided to migrate to Pakistan to avoid the ensuing violence. Boota was happy; he thought the move meant he would come closer to his beloved, but 1947 had something else planned for him. The girl’s family, also afraid of the news of massacres and bloodshed, thought it best to quickly marry off their daughter and together, move to the safer Indian territory.
Iqbal sahib tells me that Boota was heartbroken but refused to let the divide separate him from his lover or the village he had grown up in at Amritsar. He says that even today, a part of his uncle’s heart belongs to India. ‘Until Ayub Khan took over government, my uncle used to cross the border and visit his home, which was right across, close to where he lives now. No visa was required at that time and it was very easy to trespass the boundary. Upon each illegal visit until 1965, my uncle searched for his lover. But she was nowhere to be found; no one ever saw her after Partition. My uncle, on the other hand, is still deeply in love with her. He refused to marry or even leave the village even though most members of his family are dead or have moved away.’ I am excited to hear Muhammad Boota’s love story and even more excited to visit a border village. I have read numerous stories in newspapers of people accidentally crossing over the border and ending up beingpersecuted for years. I have only been to the Wagah border so this is something new for me.
The roads become narrower and start to wind as we enter Sheikpura. It is a quiet town, with only an occasional truck or cycle passing us by. We stop the car next to a group of women sitting on a charpai under a mango tree. They are wearing half sleeves, with only half of their heads covered with their dupattas. A naked child rests in the middle, kicking his legs halfway in the air. Iqbal sahib asks them for directions to Mahiwala Road but they respond with a shy giggle, hiding their faces with the corners of their dupattas; they are not used to talking to strange men. We drive down a little further until we come across five or six elderly men sitting on a charpai, smoking from a rusty grey hookah. Next to them a young boy is getting his hair cut from the barber. They tell us to take a left and go straight.
We park the car just outside the village and make our way inwards. Mud houses surround us on both sides. It is a sleepy village, with children and buffaloes resting under tree shades; humans and nature in harmony, a site not common in urban areas. The only sounds one can hear are those of birds or the faint voices that float in from the different corners of the village. Iqbal sahib has never visited his uncle’s home before. He tells me that it is his uncle who visits him in the city every few months. This is more convenient for the two as the village setting means even worse electricity shortages than in the city and poorer roads to travel on. We are told that cellphones don’t work in this area; signals are cut off due to the close proximity to the border. Thus, we are testing our luck to see whether we can find his home and of course, if he is at home at all.
However, a moment later I realize that everyone seems to know everyone here. A lady draped in a red dupatta points us in the direction of Muhammad Boota’s house. Seconds afterwards, a man wearing an off-white shalwar kameez and a turban covering his head, breaks the peace of the village and asks loudly in Punjabi, ‘Who are you? Please introduce yourselves.’ Foreigners cannot go unidentified in this village. Iqbal sahib tells him that he is Muhammad Boota’s nephew and is here to see him. The man responds abruptly, ‘He isn’t home. He’s been gone for four-five days and we don’t know when he’ll return.’
Disappointed, my fiancé Haroon and I ask Iqbal sahib if we can at least see the border before returning. We had woken up in the early hours to make this trip; sightseeing was the least we could get out of it. But as we begin to move towards the line, the man in the off-white shalwar kameez follows us, asking what we are up to. We tell him that we just want to see the border but he continues to shadow us. Iqbal sahib seems to be in a rush as well. He quickly points towards a faraway line and says, ‘That’s all it is. Let’s go back now.’ Later he tells us that he thought that the man was from Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence, many of whose men roam around in civilian clothes near the border areas. Perhaps he was afraid we were Indian spies, or perhaps innocent but too-curious- for-our-own-good Pakistanis. Neither group is acceptable lurking so close to the border. This is just another symptom of the mistrust that breeds between India and Pakistan; spying seen as a necessity to ward off the suspicious ‘other’. As we head back towards the car, with unfinished work, a woman and a man raise their heads from behind one of the mud houses and say, ‘We overheard that you’re Muhammad Boota’s guests. He is like family to us. Please come inside.’
The man in the off-white shalwar kameez hesitates but after some serious contemplation slowly walks away, leaving us in the company of this family. As we enter their home, I observe that hundreds of red chillies are drying under the sun. Next to them, goats, tied to trees, are taking an afternoon nap. It’s almost 12:15 pm.
A group of ten to twelve men, women and children rise from the two charpais laid out in the courtyard of the home. They scramble into one of the rooms, allowing us to sit. An infant is tied with his mother’s dupatta right under the charpai that Haroon and I are invited to sit on. It serves as a makeshift cot for him, gently rocking back and forth each time the wind blows. Iqbal sahib sits across us with the man of the house, Naseer Ashiq (the name has been changed to protect his identity), sixty-five. His wife rushes inside and brings out three glasses of Mountain Dew which we gulp down, as a refuge from the heat. They haven’t had any electricity since 7 am, she tells me as she hands us handmade fans to relieve ourselves.
Iqbal sahib explains to Ashiq that I wanted to speak with his uncle regarding his visits to India in the early years. He laughs and responds in Punjabi, ‘Then you should have come here a few days later, on third sawan (from the local calendar). A huge mela (festival) is held that day where Indians and Pakistanis come together to pray at the mazaar (shrine), just on the zero line.’ I lean forward with interest, wanting to know more about the festival that brings together two historic enemies. However, despite belonging to Lahore, a city that lies at the heart of Punjab, I have never been taught to speak Punjabi as part of the modern education system, and have only recently started to learn it on my own; it is, after all, seenas an uncultured language confined to rural corners, not suitable for the educated and ‘civilized’ elite. I turn towards Haroon and ask him to translate for me; he is far more fluent than I am. I want to know everything about this mela.
The mela, as we find out, has been held since before Partition and continues till date. Indians and Pakistanis both attend, under the vigilant eyes of the rangers. They bring food and mithai, and greet each other from across the line. First the Indian group is allowed to pray at the shrine and then the Pakistani lot.
If I am to believe Naseer Ashiq, the border, which is meant to divide on the basis of religion, serves as a source of connection for Indians and Pakistanis for religious reasons itself. Together they come to offer their prayers, in their own customary manner, at a shrine that they both revere and respect – a shrine that is Hindu, Sikh and Muslim; each to his or her own. Religious and geographical distinctions come to be blurred at the line of division itself.
This is paradoxical, almost self-contradictory, to say the least. Born in the late eighties, I have grown up hearing stories about Hindu, Muslim and Sikh divisions, about how the communities could not live together primarily because they could no longer practise their religions side by side. A new country had to be formed: Muslims were a separate nation; their practices were at extreme variance with the non-Muslims of India. ‘They’ worshipped multiple idols, ‘we’ worshipped ‘one Allah’. There was nothing mutual; there were no grounds for unity. Separation was necessary. To hear that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims could seek blessings at the same shrine, that they could come together to greet, hug and celebrate together, is an anomaly for me. To unite on top of that at the very border which is meant to divide is almost satirical. For Naseer Ashiq, however, this is the only normal that he knows. Later, I am to find out that there are many other such melas that take place across the country. At some of these, for instance at Baisakhi at Ram Thamman, in Kasur district, local Muslims and non-Muslims come together to celebrate, while at others, the festivals take place at the LoC or other lines of division across the country and Indians and Pakistanis come forward in celebration from both sides.
‘It was here at this mela that my father, Saraf Din, met his Sikh family after 1947 for the first time.’ Sikh family? His father was a Sikh? Taken aback, I interrupt him in English, looking at Haroon in complete confusion while Ashiq in return looks at me puzzled, unsure of what I just said in the foreign language. I ask Haroon to confirm whether Naseer Ashiq belongs to a Sikh family that continued to stay on this side of the border. That would be most fascinating for in a land of 3 per cent minorities, it is not common to run into non- Muslims. But no, he answers. ‘I am a Muslim and so was my father but he was adopted by a Sikh in India before Partition. He didn’t have any children so he asked my grandparents to give him my father.’ I wonder how Saraf Din’s parents felt about him having a Sikh upbringing, but Ashiq brushes off my question with a shrug. It holds no value for him; nor is it something that has concerned him. For Ashiq the situation is simple. ‘The Sikh gentleman brought up my father with so much love and devotion that my biological grandparents were only happy and as a reward, God graced him with four sons and a daughter later on. His other sons, my chachas (uncles), were called Sucha Singh, Acher Singh, Bajna Singh and Khoja Singh.’ He doesn’t find it necessary to mention the daughter,his aunt’s name. ‘The Sikh family was my father’s real family. Even when the Partition riots broke out and Sikhs and Muslims were killing each other, the Sikh gentleman ensured that my father was safely sent to Pakistan.’
Saraf Din was fifty-five at the time of Partition and looked just like a Sikh, wearing a pagri and beard matching that of his father and brothers. To me this sounds almost surreal; a Muslim boy with a Sikh father and Sikh brothers and sisters. However, I am told that contrary to what most Pakistanis and Indians like myself believe today, such hazy divisions were common in the pre-Partition days, when communities intermingled with each other, their identities getting diluted in the process. Ashiq, unlike myself, has grown up hearing such stories from his father. His understanding of the ‘other’ is not rigid like mine, nor is the division between India and Pakistan and Indians and Pakistanis as stark. Living at the border, where he can see Indians across from him, further reiterates the arbitrariness of the lines of division. Despite the armed forces and border controls, he has probably come into contact with far more Indians than the ordinary Pakistani. They are not strange and imaginary figures for him but instead, are a part of his daily existence.
He tells me that long into the nights, Saraf Din would cry, yearning for his family even several years after Partition. It was only fifty-seven years ago at the border mela that he was able to momentarily meet with them. Sitting at the border line in Pakistan, he yelled across at familiar faces. Instantly recognizing each other, they tightly embraced, tears streaming down their faces. At that time Ashiq was a young child, more interested in the mela, its lights, sounds, sweets and people, than the strange men his father was so jubilant to meet.
However, today he longs to meet them. He tells me it would be a way to remember his father, a way to connect with him after his death. But he has not been successful; he has returned empty-handed from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad three times over the past few years. ‘We have given up.’ His shoulders droop as he says this, his body language a testimony to the words coming out of his mouth. ‘Bara dil karta hai janeka, bohat mohabbat hai Hindustan se’ (I really want to visit India, I feel a lot of love for the country and its people), he adds in Urdu for me, his eyes moist. ‘We have tried to keep in touch with the family. They once wrote a letter to us but no one here understands Gurmukhi, and there they don’t understand Punjabi or Urdu scripts. I even went to the city to get my reply translated into Gurmukhi but they never wrote back. Maybe they don’t live at that address anymore. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever speak to them again.’
A few years ago at the mela he tried to spot the family. The rangers told him that if he could recognize them, they would allow them to meet. However, it had been years since he saw them so he sat across, unable to identify his uncles in the midst of the strangers. I ask him how he feels about the lines of separation that divided his father and now him from his paternal family.
‘Those were different times altogether that my father lived through. It is painful, this imposed division. But I cannot say I am as sad about it as my father was. Yes, by meeting his family I would be able to fulfil his dying wish, I could serve him as his son, even if in his death . . . but my association with India isn’t as strong. I was only a few months old at Partition. I was brought up here, here in Pakistan. For me, what was sadder was when our pind was taken away from us during the 1971 war.’
Similar to Ashiq, I had once met a man in Multan who had travelled all the way from India to find his mother’s ancestral home. He told me that his mother had died crying for the home she had left behind in Pakistan at Partition. When she died, he decided to fulfil her wish on her behalf. Here in Pakistan he had come to locate her house and take a piece of it back in the form of a brick to be buried next to her. For him and Ashiq, the ‘other’ side perhaps did not hold much personal significance. The ‘other’ was understood through their parents, and in this case through their love and losses. The children wanted to give their parents peace in the afterlife which they were unable to achieve during their lifetime. But beyond that, they had their own lives, their own struggles.
When war broke out in 1971 for the separation of East Pakistan, bombs would be dropped on Naseer Ashiq’s village. Scared residents ran away to nearby places, like Kasur city, Ram Thamman or Khurpa Chak in Raiwind. The Indian police took over the area and Ashiq had to knock door-to- door for about eleven to twelve months before his village was returned to its people, after the Simla Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan. When they returned, they saw that three or four elders of the community, who were too old to flee, were nowhere to be found. Baba Mahi and Baba Gulu were amongst them. ‘I don’t know whether the Indians took them or what happened . . .’
Naseer Ashiq had a similar experience during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, although the situation was reversed for him at that time. The Pakistan Army took over Indian property and a number of Indian villages, including Ashiq’s mother’s ancestral home, became a part of Pakistan overnight. For months, Ashiq would walk around the area, drinking water from his mother’s ancestral village and resting at other Indian hamlets. He tells us that just as the Indians had looted his village during the 1971 war, the Muslims looted these villages. The irony is that many times both sides ended up stealing from their own ancestral lands.
Naseer Ashiq offers to walk us to the border, barely half a kilometre away. His village is the closest village to the line of division. While 1947 preceded his conscious years and thereby failed to directly impact him, his home and its geography continue to ensure that the repercussions of Partition do not evade him. He lives in a place which is a constant reminder of historical events, where home can overnight be taken and given at the whim of political and military movements. He is to lurk in between, the instability caused by Partition affecting him even six decades later. As we walk through the fields, burning sand covers my sandals. Alongside, young children bathe in the canal to beat the heat of June. Some wave at us, amused by this alien intrusion on a Saturday afternoon.
Leading the way, Ashiq casually lifts his hand and says, ‘Look there. That row of plants divides the Indian land from the Pakistani. Next to it you can see a milestone. If you cross that, the Indian rangers would come and ask you to go back.’ It is in this moment, as we stand here armed on both sides, that I realize that we are only inches away from India. Embankments surround us, army tanks visible from a distance. The last time I was at the border, my experience was very different. Back in February 2012, I had crossed the Wagah border on foot. As my companions rushed excitedly to the other side, I had taken a moment to stand in the middle of theno-man’s-land – land belonging neither to India nor Pakistan. On one side, the Pakistani crescent and star, alongside the kalma and Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s picture, stared back at me; on the other end, a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi amongst the orange, white and green of the Indian flag welcomed me to India. The crossing over had been decisive, the entry and exit points of the two countries clearly defined. Sikh officials, wearing colourful turbans, were waiting on one side. Pakistani men dressed in uniform stared from a distance.
Standing here at the border in Kasur, where the only visible lines of division are a distant wire or plants that would usually be found growing in people’s homes, distorts the fine separation. One step backward and we are safe, one step forward and we will have to face serious repercussions, landing up in another country, and that too an ‘enemy state’.
‘People often cross over accidentally. Once we had guests over for a wedding. Right after eating food, they rushed over to see the border and walked too far. We had to pull many strings to get them back,’ Ashiq laughs. This is routine business for them. ‘We work here every day. The Indians over there, and us here. The rangers watch us closely, ensuring that we don’t talk. But we are allowed to look at each other. You know, their women never come to the fields like ours do. The men bring their own food in the morning.’
According to Naseer Ashiq, even until 1986 there was no line or wire demarcating the border as it does today. People could easily sneak in. Iqbal sahib’s uncle, who I had originally come to meet, was one of them. Today rangers are stricter, only allowing the farmers to work within a certain time frame. They have to record their entry and exit and the officials follow them much more closely.
From where we stand, we can see both Indian and Pakistani check posts. Men and women are busy planting rice on the Pakistani side. Far away, one can see Indian workers sowing seeds under the blazing sun that they both share. ‘Often some of our animals cross over but the Indian officials give them back to us without any trouble,’ Ashiq finishes off as he leads us back to his home.
It’s about 1:30 pm by the time we leave the area. Ashiq has invited us all to the mela which will take place next month. Exhausted by spending mere minutes in the field, we stop for more water on our way out. Seeing my excitement about what we had just experienced, Iqbal sahib tells me of another man who lives in a border village, called Padhana. This village is situated right across an Indian village, Nowshera. When Partition happened, the man’s village was shaken by violent protests against Muslims. With only the clothes on his back he ran out of Indian Nowshera. After a few kilometres, he reached Padhana, which was now part of the newly-formed state of Pakistan, meant to be a safe haven for Muslims like him. From where he continues to live, his home is within the reach of sight. Every morning, he wakes up to see his ancestral village, his pind, his people and the places that have been part of his existence since birth. ‘Guru Har Gobind’sgurdwara is right across too. If you look closely, you can see it,’ he told Iqbal sahib. However, despite being just kilometres away from his home, he is unable to visit his people or walk across to them. Under the laws of both countries, the residents of these border villages are not allowed to talk to each other either. They can work freely within their perimeters, exchanging glances, experiencing the same weather and work conditions, but are unable to communicate through the common language which they both speak, despite being a few metres away. Iqbal sahib laughs at the irony, ‘These are our azad qaidis (free prisoners),’ he says, and I smile at how aptly he puts it; these are truly the prisoners of Partition, caught right in between two hostile states.
This article is an excerpt from Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians.