Roshni Rustomji-Kerns was nine years old in 1947. Her Parsi family espoused and practiced the ideals of acceptance, integration and justice. Many of her family members and the teachers at her school supported the demand for independence from the British. In the context of these ideas, the violence of partition disturbed and confused Roshni even when she was very young.
In December 1946, nine-year-old Roshni Behram Rustomji was preparing for her Navjote, the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony. This was also the time of the height of the nationalist movement seeking independence from British rule.
On the one hand, Dr. Rustomji saw her father maintaining an apolitical distance: he had briefly joined the Royal Indian Navy and had escaped a bomb attack by Indian sailors rebelling against the British. On the other hand, her mother, Gulnar, firmly believed that India should and would gain independence from colonial rule. She taught her daughter about justice, and raised her to believe that she would soon witness the end of British rule.
When Swaraj, self-rule, was not too far away, the nine-year-old Dr. Rustomji found herself growing excited. At the same time, she felt confused because she could not understand why there was so much conflict between different communities she had witnessed living together as neighbours and friends.
Dr. Rustomji had always been surrounded by diversity. The Parsi community’s arrival in India was a story of coexistence. It is said that they came on a boat, fleeing persecution in Iran, and were granted asylum by the king of Gujarat. Her father’s family had lived in Karachi for several generations; her mother was born in Japan, but hailed from Mumbai. The Rustomji house was open to people from all walks of life.
As a very young child, she heard and read stories from history, mythology and legends from all parts of the world. She remembers that she was introduced to stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana by an older Muslim lady who lived in their house.
Of refugees and temple bells
On August 14, 1947, Pakistan’s Independence Day, Dr. Rustomji was at school in Karachi.
All the students and teachers were assembled on the school’s terrace. The school principal told them that their land was now independent of colonial occupation and the new country of Pakistan had its own flag. The Union Jack, Britain’s flag, was pulled down, and students were told about the importance of the Pakistani flag as it was hoisted.
Very soon after Independence, Dr. Rustomji’s mother became involved with organising and working with a group of women that helped refugee women living in the camps to make and sell articles they sewed and embroidered. The women were provided sewing machines and other materials bought from donation money. Her mother also helped some of the women from the camps in their education by tutoring them nearly every day.
A few months after the partition, Dr/ Rustomji was sitting with her father, when a man came to their door. His daughter, who was about Dr. Rustomji’s age was holding on to her father’s hand. The man requested permission to build a small shack as a shelter for his family on a small piece of land adjacent to the Rustomji home. Dr. Rustomji’s father explained that he couldn’t give the man permission to build a shack on that land. “We are not landlords of this house or of the land. It’s not our land, we are renters,” he said.
Dr. Rustomji remembers looking up at him angrily, only to find his face ashen. She says that she saw her father’s face like that only once again, when his eldest brother died suddenly a few years after Partition.
For many years after Partition, Dr. Rustomji found herself every evening anxiously waiting for something she was used to experiencing at that time of day. She would feel anxious even when she was not living in Karachi. When she was nearly 20 years old, she discovered that she had been waiting to hear the evening bells from the Hanuman Mandir near her home.
The bells she had heard since she was a baby. The bells that stopped abruptly when she was nine years old.
Dr. Rustomji’s most vivid memory of Partition is of an early morning experience during mid-August 1947. One of her daily morning tasks was to open the windows that looked out upon the street in front of the Rustomji home.
It was a street that usually had a few bicycle riders going to college or work, a couple of horse drawn carriages looking for fares and some pedestrians.
On that particular August morning, as she opened the first window and looked out at the street, she thought she was still asleep and dreaming. It seemed as if every inch of the road was filled with people.
Women, men, children, all walking together, all in one direction — from the distant ship docks and towards the center of the city. The people were carrying bundles and baskets and boxes and bags. A number of them were carrying human beings. Many of the women were carrying young children and babies in their arms. The men were carrying older people on their backs.
Dr. Rustomji cannot remember hearing any sounds but she remembers thinking, “This is what people mean when they talk about a sea of people.” And she remembers an older person — maybe her mother or grandmother — standing behind her saying to her, “Don’t think of all these people as just a crowd of people. They are individuals. They have lost their homes and are now looking for a new home.”
69 years later
Dr. Roshni Rustomji is a noted literary academic and writer today. She went on to study at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon on a scholarship. She had only intended to go for one year, but she fell in love with the city, and decided to stay and complete her entire degree there. She graduated with a degree in English Literature, and then pursued a doctorate.
This interview was conducted by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla.