In 1947, I was six, getting on to seven. My parents, elder brother, a younger sister and I were living in Balloki, a small township in western part of undivided Punjab, located on the site of a headworks from where the Bari Doab canal emerged from the Ravi River. My father, the Executive Engineer in charge of the headworks, had been posted there three years earlier.
Apart from my parents and siblings, there were a lot of people around in our household, all of whom seemed to be like members of our extended family. Called by different names or designations like chowkidars, malis, beldars, orderlies, mates and so on, they were in and out of the house at all times of day and night.
Many a time, one of them would bring a small basket of fragrant motia and jasmine flowers, which I would eagerly string into garlands. Sometimes they would bring cotton bandages soaked in goat milk to be placed over our eyes (goat milk was supposed provide good nourishment for the eyes) as we went to bed on the roof under starlit skies. At other times, they would direct streams of warm milk straight from the cows’ udders into our mouths as they milked the cows that we kept in our backyard.
The cows produced a large amount of milk. Every morning, my mother would make curds from the milk and also churn butter. The buttermilk was distributed to all who came with their vessels to receive it. Mother also used to make large quantities of sherbet (a cool soft drink, quite popular in those days) for the summer from hibiscus flowers with the help of these people. And, at times, massive honeycombs would be brought down and the honey drained from them.
It was small-town life, with its own engaging routines. My siblings and I used to go for walks along the Rajbaha (a small water canal meant for local irrigational purposes). We also went boating – some of us even swimming – with our parents in the lake formed by the accumulated Ravi waters at the headworks. We often accompanied our father in his old Pontiac car when he went on inspection tours, crisscrossing, rivulets, canals and other water bodies and also passing through varied villages. Friends and relatives often came and stayed with us in this idyllic environment.
For a change, sometimes the family would drive up to Lahore, the nearest big city, some 50 miles away. Here we would meet friends and relatives, do some shopping, and see movies. Some of the songs from those movies hummed themselves in my head for a long time after, though today I cannot recall the name of any movie that we saw.
It was not all fun – we had to study, but in special circumstances, as there was no suitable school. A tutor used to come to reach my brother – a table and chairs used to be put out for them under a big Banyan tree in the sprawling front yard. I would hop around, listening to snippets of the lessons.
In Lahore, an aunt, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who at that time wore only khadi and sandals made out of jute rope, left a lasting impression on my mind even as she gave me my first lessons in patriotism and taught me songs like Sare jahan se accha. She would tell me about Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas Bose, say that the day was not far when our British masters would go and India would be independent.
Little did she or my parents know how our life would change when this happened! It was sometime after 15th August 1947, possibly in late August, when I remember seeing lot of changes taking place. One day, our cows and buffaloes were taken away by the beldars and malis (gardeners) – perhaps my parents had given them to those people. The cows and buffaloes did not want to go, as it looked like a break of routine to them. So, they were pulled and dragged by the ropes by which they used to be tied. I even saw tears trickling down their eyes. Our family had a horse for my brother – that, too, was taken away. It was hard for me to know what exactly was happening as my parents did not always explain things. This was their way of keeping us protected from untoward events and happenings.
Soon after, a railway wagon was loaded with all our household effects and sealed carefully. The wagon could come almost up to the gate that was located at the end of a long driveway coming into the house. The train track ran at right angles to that gate. This track was not a part of a normal rail route, and was used only when something had to be transported to the headworks from the railway station, which was about six miles away. We had spent many an afternoon rolling down this track on hand pushed trolleys that used to ply on this track particularly to carry higher officials to wherever they needed to go. At times we would place a small coin on the track to find it pressed flat after an engine had passed over it.
I learnt only later that for some time my father’s subordinate staff had been coming every day to our house to advise him to leave the place as it was not safe there any more for him and his family – we were Hindus living in a predominantly Muslim area at a time when tensions between the two communities were high. One of them, a Muslim, even offered to accompany us up to a point so that we could move out safely. But, my father, a disciplined civil servant, told them that he would not move out until he received official orders for his next posting.
These orders never came. Finally, my father decided to move out on his own. My mother, brother and sister, together with Santu, our Himachali multi-purpose helper, stuffed ourselves into my father’s car, together with some items of immediate need, including a surahi (small earthen pot with a long neck) full of water. Father was at the wheel. He had a gun, something that he did not normally carry. Santu, who did not have a gun, slung an empty holster of a pistol filled with newspapers across his chest! Many people – Muslims and non-Muslims – came to see us off. They had been with us for all the years that we had been there, and now we did not know if we would ever meet again.
Just as our car was about to move out, two Sikh gentlemen with a young girl came up to the car, and requested my father to take them along. Their fear was that they might get killed and the young girl raped if they were not evacuated with us. My father could not say ‘no’, although carrying them increased the risk, as Sikhs were easily identifiable by their turbans and flowing beards. Somehow, they too were squeezed in. Both the men carried long kirpans (knives) slung across their shoulders.
The car moved out, traversing kutchha (untarred) canal roads, which my father knew well as he had often driven on them. Altaf Ahmad, the Muslim officer to whom my father had handed over his charge, moved ahead in front of us like a pilot car. But, soon, there came a point at which Mr. Ahmad stopped his car, and bade us a touching good bye. To my knowledge, we never heard from him again.
Now we were on our own. Almost immediately, we noticed a boy standing on the outskirts of a village that we were approaching. He shouted out something, and, within a minute, a large crowd materialised in front of us. (Later, we wondered whether Altaf Ahmad was aware of the possibility of this siege.) The people carried long spears, and they were blocking the road about 500 yards ahead of us. It looked as though they would surely waylay us.
But, my father was not willing to surrender so easily. He slowed down the car, as though he was going to stop, and the crowd divided itself on both sides of the road. This gave him the required opportunity. As we neared the crowd, he pressed the accelerator to the floor and sped away! The car jumped several feet and rolled dangerously – I thought it would fall into the canal that flowed beside the road. Some of the crowd ran behind the car, and threw their spears at it, but luckily did not pierce a tire, though there was some damage to the bumper and the number plate. Inside the car, even though we had escaped this danger, our hearts were beating fast because we had no idea whether we would encounter similar crowds again along the way.
After driving further for some time, when the sun was about to set, my father stopped at a rest house where he had stayed many times during his inspection tours. He went in and came back to say that the chowkidar (guard) advised him not to spend the night there, as marauders used to come every night, kill anyone they found and throw the bodies into the canal. The chowkidar said it would be safer for us to spend the night hiding in the scrubby jungle, and then take off quietly in the early hours next morning.
We drove on. Dusk faded into a dark night. Tall columns of fires were visible on all sides in the villages around, and shouts of “Bachao, bachao (save us)” could be heard in the air. My father veered off the road into a sort of a muddy bush, using the canal as his guide. He asked the two Sikhs, who could easily be identified by their turbans, and could not even attempt to pass of as Muslims, to lie down under the car. My parents sat outside while we children remained inside the car.
It was very hot, perhaps partly because of the fires around. We were thirsty but the surahi had got broken during all the movement and melee. Santu, the faithful, walked up to the canal through the scrub and brought some water. I remember that in the darkened hush of the night that water tasted very sweet. It was only later that I was to know that the muddy river carried a number of dead bodies. I do not know why we did not get sick or infected.
In the early hours of the morning, perhaps at three in the morning when it was still dark, my father decided to start the car with as little noise as possible. It would not move. The wheels were stuck in the swampy mud. All the grown-ups tried to lift the tires and simultaneously push the car, but this too did not work. In his enthusiasm to help out, Santu opened the cap carelessly to check whether the radiator had enough water. Hot water gushed out and burnt his hands. Quietly, he applied some wet mud on the burns and carried on his work.
Trying to find some help, my father walked up to a dark looking truck that was standing nearby. He peered into its back with the help of his torch light and quietly walked back. I later learnt that the truck was full of dead bodies.
Fortunately, the renewed efforts of the men finally succeeded and the car started. We moved along slowly in the hushed darkness. As dawn broke, we passed by a number of bullock carts that were loaded up to the top with what looked like hay. The carts were moving in the opposite direction, coming into what was now Pakistan. My father softly whispered to my mother that there were weapons hidden under the hay, and that riots could break out on the slightest provocation. He moved with caution in the direction of Firozepur headworks located on the Sutlej River in the part that was India.
We reached the border safely. Here, we came across a barricade beyond which we were not allowed to proceed. Having come all the way across the areas which were now Pakistan, we were being prevented from entering the country that was supposed to be ours.
At this point, my mother took my brother, who was about ten years old, went up to the barricade, and asked a guard on duty to let her make a phone call. He allowed that. Soon after, an uncle who was an irrigation engineer at Firozepur arrived, and our car was allowed to go through the barricade into independent India.
The ordeal lasting some twenty hours or so had come to an end. I do not remember how long we stayed at Firozepur.
My next memory is that of a train journey to Delhi. We travelled with frightened passengers who were served hot milk and chana (chick peas) by sturdy looking Sikhs at the intervening stations – or even in between stations where they forced the train to stop. They cajoled us also into accepting something to eat, after we initially declined as none of us was in a mood to eat anything. At one stage, I saw some Sikhs running after a person who wore a chutiya (a thin braid of hair at the top of the head) on his shaven head, pretending to be a Hindu. They managed to stop the train and ran after him into a bush shouting “Murga, murga” (literally ‘cock’ but used colloquially to deem someone suitable for slaughtering). I also saw charred and swollen dead bodies lying strewn along the railway track.
In Delhi we stayed with an aunt, who lived in a single-storied bungalow near Connaught Place, the central part of the city. This was my first time in Delhi, a city which later became my home. The city looked terror stricken. At my aunt’s house, the women and children slept on the roof, to which we climbed up by using a bamboo ladder that would be pulled up after we had got up. The men took turns walking around the area – keeping a vigil. We kept many bricks on the roof, with the idea that we would throw them at any one trying to climb up.
From my aunt’s bungalow we used to walk to the posh Connaught Place shopping area. It did not feel posh then. Instead, it looked devastated with window panes broken, and many shops deserted and bare.
One day I saw some hefty looking persons taking out furniture and other items from a house next door, and throwing them into a fire that they had lit outside. The home owner came out pleading, “Ab yeh to rehne dijiye” (kindly allow at least this piece to remain). But the burly men paid no heed. The owner apparently was a Muslim.
Shortly afterwards we left for Shimla, where my father got his new assignment. There, too, initially we stayed with some friend. Later, we moved into our first house in independent India, named Edelweiss, located on the slope of a hill. Winter was fast approaching and we had no warm clothes, or any other household articles, but somehow, my parents managed to put all of those things together to start life anew.
Though I was born in Shimla, I had no memory of it when we reached there from Balloki. Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj, was glamorous and so different from simple, rural Balloki. Our adjustment must have been difficult, but over time the memories of the Balloki days, of the people there and of our escape from there, gradually turned distant. But, when I started writing this story, they quickly bubbled back to the top with surprising clarity, considering that I was so young when these events occurred 60 years ago. I guess powerful youthful memories always stay somewhere deep within us even as we ignore them in our day-to-day living.
© Veena Sharma 2008