Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Delhi, 1947 to 1950

The talk of self-rule and the partition of India into a Muslim state and a Hindu state was very much in the air in a big way when I came back to Delhi on January 22nd (1947) with my six month old baby Raji. I was with my parents for nearly nine months in Trivandrum. I could sense a lot of changes everywhere -- people opting for Pakistan already on their way there or just waiting to move out. Even in Lodhi Colony one could sense the antipathy between the Hindus and Muslims. Our downstairs neighbours, a Muslim family, had already moved out. Their thirteen year old daughter Nazreen used to spend her free time with me whenever possible and we sort of became friends though I was older by five or six years. My bookish Hindi and her pure Urdu was never a problem; we somehow understood each other. She was looking forward to see and play with our first born. I at times used to wonder what happened to her and her parents.

There was another Muslim family from Peshawar; a young couple with two babies who were living in one of the flats directly behind us. We were only nodding acquaintances. Theirs was a lovely, beautiful family. They too had moved away. Babuji also told me that many Muslim families in Old Delhi as well as in New Delhi had also moved out.

No one had any idea of what Partition would be like and what would follow. Every one from the top British officials to the Indian leaders was of the opinion that this revolution by which the English were handing over the power of self rule to the Indians was to be unique: a bloodless revolution. The transfer of power was not by fighting but by signing papers. But nobody took into account the blood spilled, the common man's blood, when they started killing one another.

The common man did not think like the leaders. Somewhere, somehow, somebody started the fire of hatred between the two communities and the fire burnt away all the rational thinking and behaviour of everyone with the result that everyone was afraid of the others. Hatred and distrust increased day by day. One started hearing of rumours of a Muslim killed there and a Hindu killed here.

Generally people make the mistake of thinking themselves to be safe from any calamity that befalls others. That is the way the human mind works.

We in Lodhi Colony were also under that impression, being in the southernmost tip of Delhi and with every flat occupied by mostly young government servants. We were proved wrong.

I remember that Friday, August 8th of 1947, very vividly. After Babuji left for office, I, along with Raji, went to a relative's house to attend a Pooja. Their house was just a few blocks away from ours; a walking distance. As the Pooja was going on there was a sudden commotion outside. People were running, shouting slogans and chasing one another with sticks and knives. We were told that the Muslim shops in the market were set on fire and looting was going on. Someone said that the Muslims in retaliation were on the warpath, entering every Hindu home to loot and plunder. On hearing this I got worried about my own place and I wanted to be there. I did not even wait for the Pooja to end. So I left with Raji and nobody stopped us. With much fear in my heart and much false confidence and bravado outside I walked back to my home.

On entering our block I saw my next door neighbour's brother, a college student, following me. He was carrying a radio. He told me that looting was still going on in the market and he had already reached a sewing machine home and the radio was his second. He said he would be going back for more. I just could not believe what I saw and what I heard. Well, in later years this same boy became Secretary to one of the Government of India ministries.

After reaching home I did not know what to do and I just could not contact Babuji in any way. Having a phone at home was a rare thing. Very very few had that privilege. So I did the best I could manage and looked for any weapon I could find. The only thing I had was the 'Arival Manai', my vegetable cutter. So along with some chilli powder I had this cutter placed near the front door and I thought I could manage whoever entered my home. Thank God this situation never arose. We, the women-folk used to worry about the safety of our men-folk till they came home in the evenings. Anything could happen. Anybody could kill anybody and get away with it.

One afternoon I witnessed a murder in our locality from the safety of my home. Many people were chasing a youth belonging to the other community with sticks. They caught up with him and had him beaten to death. I just could not believe it. It happened in front of my eyes. The police came a few seconds later and dispersed the crowd with tear gas. My eyes also started watering. This was my first experience of tear gas.

August 15th, the day India became a free country, dawned as usual -- like any other day. There was a slight drizzle throughout the day. But in the evening the sun came out bright and dazzling, giving a silver lining to the few remaining clouds. There appeared a beautiful rainbow brilliant with all the seven hues in the Eastern sky. One and all welcomed this as a good omen from Heaven and were of the opinion that India as a free nation was going to have a great future, that milk and honey would be flowing everywhere and everybody would be happy and prosperous. Wistful thinking! People had no idea what would follow.

What followed was unexpected. It was looting, arson and killing. Women were disfigured and raped and even small children were not spared. It was barbaric.

Train loads of refugees started moving both ways and half of them got killed en route. People were on the move, walking with whatever they could carry in bullock carts. Maybe half of them reached the other side with their families intact. Refugees started pouring into Lodhi Colony also and our once beautiful colony became a refugee settlement. They pitched tents on the wide footpaths. Most of them were Punjabis, and they were a proud and die-hard set. No begging, no thieving and no weeping. They held their heads high and started living again. They got whatever they could from the wholesale dealers and started selling these things from their makeshift shops on the footpath -- clothes, pots and pans and vegetables. Some enterprising men started making sweets like jalebis, and savouries. The jalebis were a hit. 'Gurrrrrrrrum' was the way the seller advertised his sweets and he collected a lot of customers. In our group that 'Gurrrrum' became a signal call - a doorbell, whenever we visited each other.

There was another youth who was selling material for frocks, skirts, etc.; pure glazed cotton prints called chintz. The prints were like phlox and verbena flowers. We got quite a few lengths of those materials to make frocks for Raji. That was Babuji's way of helping those people. Even today when I see the phlox and verbena flowers in Gowri's garden I am reminded of our evening walks and all the refugees trying to rebuild their lives.

I know of one boy who really made it. This was this young boy of ten or eleven. He was from some small village in West Punjab who reached Delhi with one brother and a sister. En route, he had lost his parents and another brother in the riots. This boy started life by selling small celluloid toys carried on a tray from door to door. When he came to my door for the first time and begged me to buy something I felt so sorry for him. On being asked he told me his plight, that he had to take care of a younger brother and sister. I bought one or two toys from him. The price was not much, just an anna (six pice) for each. He started coming every week and I collected quite a few toys which I used to adorn my 'Bommai Kolu' a Navarathri festival. There is still one of these toys in Raji's place on top of the fridge.

After a gap of nearly twenty years, and fifteen years after we had left Lodhi Colony I escorted my elder sister and her family there .They were looking for a watch to gift somebody. So we entered the shop that showcased different types of watches, radios, sewing machines and also some toys. We were discussing which one to buy and which one looked good when all of a sudden the shopkeeper looked at me, kept on looking and then called out, "Aunty is that you? How are you? Where are you nowadays?” I was taken aback. A big built man, nearing thirty years of age, smiling at me and asking these questions! I could not recognise him! He then reminded me of those days in 1947 and how I never used to send him back without buying any of his toys and how much that helped him. I recognised him then and I was happy to hear how he had educated his brothers and sister and how all three were well settled in life. I was happy for him- to know that by sheer hard work and will-power he had come up in life.

To make place for the sea of refugees that arrived in Delhi in waves, Purana Qila was transformed into a refugee colony as also in Timarpur the Kingsway Camp was formed. So many people had fled their homes and villages with nothing other than what they could carry on their persons. And the newly formed Indian Government had a tough time feeding and clothing these people and re-settling them. Some refugees who had arrived early had the good luck of occupying the havelis and homes from which the Muslims had left.

Even today the animosity and distrust that continues between communities hangs over everybody's head like the Damoclean sword. Where it falls there will be killing and looting. This will never end, it seems.

Amidst all this, there were some good God fearing people in both communities who saved the lives of many belonging to the rival community by hiding them in their homes or by adopting them as their own family members. God bless them.


  • At 5:28 AM, Blogger Raji said…

    Oh, Maiji, what times you lived through! How brave you were, at a mere 19!

    And the scenario could be just a page from today's papers. Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose.

    That toy, Ma?
    I shall now cherish it more than ever.

  • At 5:14 AM, Blogger Karthik Narayan said…

    whoaaa... wotta post!! through the eyes of someone who's lived thru some "great" moments of history!! we have been reading about history, but you have lived through history!!

  • At 8:11 PM, Anonymous Sangeeta (Kumar) said…

    Aunty, as usual you rock.

    After coming to Australia, I have become so passionately opposed to racism, groupism, separatism of any kind. All "barbaric". I am often at the opposite end fighting against fellow Indians claiming to be more righteous that the entire 'muslim' race. I love the equality of people in your writing.

    I really think you should publish all your writing in a book. It will be a bestseller

  • At 5:20 AM, Blogger Alaphia said…

    Aunty, That story about the Punjabi boy recognizing you years later in his shop made me misty-eyed. What a lovely piece you have written once again. I'm very curious to know who that boy with the radio was, who went on to become a secretary in the Government of India! I eagerly await your next post.

  • At 6:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Maiji, I got interested in your blog because I am doing my research in JNU,New Delhi,on partition refugees in Delhi.your account gave me an insight into what was really happening in Delhi at that time. If it doesn't trouble you, can you give me some more information about the refugee life in camps and their interaction with the locals and how did they actually create an impact on Delhi's culture. My email id is

  • At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Periamme

    Just caught up on all your writings that I had not read, and it took me back to another era.

    It also made me think that it is so ironical that today, as Indians, almost none of us blame the British for what they did - divide our society and leave us with a problem that still festers.


  • At 4:16 AM, Anonymous nandita said…

    Dear Maiji,
    I've been engrossed reading these pearls from the past...have heard some stories from my grandparents and great grandma, but none as vivid and rich in details as yours...those times sound so lovely and dreamy, from your pre-independence years post...I'm savouring every word you have written :)
    Thanks for sharing this with our generation.


Post a Comment

<< Home