I first met Mary, a woman in her late seventies, in a house in a dense settlement in Shahdara, on the western bank of the Ravi river. What was once the pathway of royalty, Shah Dara, flanked by wide never-ending gardens, after the fall of the Mughal Empire, gave birth to a congested community. The last remnant of the gardens was the mausoleum of Nur Jehan and her opium-addicted husband Jahangir.

Mary wore only one set of clothes, a beige shalwar kameez, or so it seemed each time I returned for a follow-up interview. She sat on a charpoy in a room assigned to her on the first floor. One of her front teeth was missing. As she narrated her life story – a series of tragedies, one after another, interspersed with fleeting memories of a pleasant childhood – her face, her tone and her expressions always remained under the shadow of an overcast gloom. A widow without a child, she had found refuge in the home of a distant relative.

“We used to live near the canal in Lahore at the time of Partition,” she recalled. “Every evening we used to play on its banks, unaware of the fast changing political circumstances around us.” Mary came from a family of Valmiki Hindus, and her father worked in the bungalow of a rich Indian. Sandwiched between the tall boundary walls of these bungalows, Mary lived in an overcrowded temporary settlement.

“I remember one evening as all of us children were playing, we saw a dead body of a man floating in the canal,” she said. “We rushed back home. Our mother put a cross around our necks. I was told that my name was Mary from that day.”

The violence receded and life adjusted to a new normality, where the Hindu past and any association with it became an abnormality. Mary, too, forgot her original name as she took on a new identity in the middle of these two worlds, a Hindu past and a Christian future, in an Islamic country. All Hindu prayers, if she was taught any in her childhood, were forgotten as she learned a few Christian hymns in case anyone doubted her sincerity.

Erasing the past

On the eastern bank of the river in the heart of the city of Lahore, I visited a Valmiki temple at the Nila Gumbad market. The blue dome of the Mughal-era tomb emerged desperately from the midst of hundreds of shops, like a drowning head in the middle of the sea. Rich traders with oversized bellies sat at the counters of their shops wearing symbols of religiosity. Every passerby for them was a potential customer and those who were not were looked upon with suspicion.

The temple was located in a narrow street surrounded by houses being used as warehouses for these businesses. I met Shams Gill here, a man in his early eighties, with a dense white moustache and hair of the same colour, who was hard of hearing. He did not speak much, even when he sat with friends, people he had known since his childhood. Perhaps it was his silence, but there was an aura around him. Maybe this was the lingering persona of a wrestler. Shams Gill had been a pehelwan in his youth. He was known as “Hathi Pehelwan” for he was said to be as stable as an elephant when standing on his two feet in a wrestling arena. His legs and his hands did not possess the same vigour but his eyes were as stable as they must have been when he locked them on his competitor.

Shams Gill did not know how long his family had lived in Lahore or how long they had been coming to this Valmiki temple. But on my insistence on a date, he said six generations. The street he lived on was called Valmiki Street, facing the temple and rechristened after Partition. “My real name was Khem Chand,” he told me, a name that even his closest friends hardly ever use. As the flames of Partition rose from the Shahalami Market a short distance from here, it brought with it the need to acquire a non-Hindu name to blend into a fast-changing society. His sons and grandsons all took up the Gill surname as they started calling themselves Christians instead of Valmiki Hindus. Today, the family resides in these cracks caused by the jolt of Partition.

About 260 km from Lahore, in the sleepy town of Bahawal Nagar, I met Babar Raza in his house. The 35-year-old, along with his friends, has played a pivotal role in reviving Hindu festivals in his community that were abandoned post-Partition. Babar Raza was not the name given to him at the time of his birth but one he started using when he enrolled in school. Silently, Raza blended into the community of students during the peak of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation. Now it is the only name he knows.

A protest against misuse of the blasphemy law in Islamabad in 2014. (Credit: Farooq Naeem / AFP)

Across the border

Today, after seven decades of Partition, the horrors of the riots still haunt the lives of minorities in Pakistan. While several members of the Hindu community took on non-Hindu names soon after Partition and in the dark years of Zia-ul-Haq’s long reign, particularly in central Punjab, a similar phenomenon can be observed on the other side of the border, with Zia-ul-Haq reincarnated in Hindu garb.

News reports suggest that many Muslims are contemplating taking up “non-Muslim” names and attire to avoid being lynched by gau rakshaks, the Hindu equivalent of blasphemy vigilantes in Pakistan. There is no difference between the stories narrated above and similar stories emerging out of India. It seems that both these societies are bent on outdoing each other as they stare in a mirror, obsessively painting the reflection uglier than they are.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva, and A White Trail