Arghwani Begum’s story is unlike any other. Born in 1922 to a homemaker and the governor of Sahaspur, a princely state in Uttar Pradesh, Begum was the youngest of three sisters. She grew up in the family haveli, climbing trees and enacting Indian weddings with her dolls. In 1947, she was 25 years old, married with two children, and pregnant with a third. A day after Partition, she gave birth at the refugee camp in Purana Qila in Delhi.
A wedding to remember
Arghwani Begum’s wedding took place in the final years of British rule in India. The year was 1943; newspapers were already reporting on the prospect of a Partition, and there were loud processions on the streets.
She was married into a family from Delhi. Begum had never met her husband, Mirza, but had caught a glimpse of him before the wedding. The festivities lasted for three months because of the long journey on elephants. The barat - the groom’s cavalcade - stayed in her haveli for a week.
In those days, Begum said, there was unity and trust. But all that changed in 1947 as communal tensions escalated. When the Partition of India was announced, Begum was in her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. She was in her family home in Sahaspur at the time.
"I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was going on," she said. Valuables and necessities were being packed into boxes. Her family told her they were moving out of the house she had grown up in.
The villages under her father’s jurisdiction were made up of farmers of Muslim, Hindus and Christian descent. Begum was friends with the farmers’ daughters. She had grown up playing with them: climbing mulberry trees or enacting weddings for dolls, complete with doll-sized clothes, hand-stitched by their mothers.
Begum left her home with Mirza, her two children, her mother-in-law, and the rest of her family. Their destination: Purana Qila in Delhi. They would eventually migrate to Lahore in the newly created nation of Pakistan.
A birth amid chaos
But the troubles had just begun. The family’s arrival at the fort in Delhi was greeted by heavy rains. Tents were being pegged all around them. “One of the families in charge of pegging tents saw us, and immediately helped,” she recalled.
The next morning, on August 15, Begum went into labour. Her sister-in-law cried incessantly while she looked at her nephew, but Begum couldn’t understand why. "There were no clothes for the baby," she said simply. “We draped him in one of my daughter’s frocks.”
After two days at the camp, army jeeps arrived to transfer families to the Nizamuddin Railway Station, from where they could board a train to Lahore.
When Begum reached the station, she wanted to board the train immediately. Everyone around her was hungry and so was she. But, she said, she wanted the journey to end.
She wasn’t sure how long the killing spree lasted. After the assailants left, she saw the berths sprawled with the bloodied bodies of men, women and children.
Every time the train stopped, people got off to buy water or something to eat, but never returned. Children kept crying because they hadn’t been fed. The train stopped unannounced sometimes. At some stations, people rushed towards the train with food for the refugees. Even then, Begum had no heart to eat.
Suddenly, there was a commotion. Begum heard screams from a train running parallel to theirs, but in the opposite direction. Men were boarding the train with swords and knives, and passengers were jumping off. She witnessed the massacre. "It was horrifying," she said.
They made it to the Wagah border in Amritsar on September 20. The assailants came out of nowhere, and passengers immediately began sealing their windows. "It was so sudden," she said.
The men used whatever they could get their hands on. Begum’s new-born almost fainted before a kind assistant helped her and the child get air through the train’s main entrance. She wasn’t sure how long the killing spree lasted. After the assailants left, she saw the berths sprawled with the bloodied bodies of men, women and children.
69 years later
Today, Arghwani Begum lives in a small house in Model Town, a residential suburb in Lahore. Mirza, who died in 1975 of heart failure, built this house shortly after they settled here.
In the 1950s, the government allotted them some land in Dera Ismail Khan for the property they left behind in Sahaspur, which they now use for agriculture. Begum’s children care for her.
Begum visited her childhood home in India along with her two daughters. They traveled by train, but it was an intense journey, according to Begum’s daughter. When they approached the house, Begum started shaking and crying.
This interview was conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.