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Reliving Partition

Updated April 30, 2017
THE Partition museum has been set up in the now-restored 19th century Town Hall in Amritsar.—Photo by writer
THE Partition museum has been set up in the now-restored 19th century Town Hall in Amritsar.—Photo by writer

AN invitation from the Khalsa College, Amritsar, took me to what was once the twin city of Lahore. I decided to extend the visit by a day for two reasons: I wanted to see the spruced up Heritage Street that connected the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) with the Town Hall, and to visit the Partition museum in a city that — like many other cities of undivided Punjab — bore the brunt of the massacres.

It is astonishing that while there are so many Holocaust museums on both sides of the Atlantic, there has not been a single Partition museum on either side of the Pakistan-India great divide. It is, however, satisfying to note that at last, the first-ever such museum is taking shape, thanks to the Indian Punjab government that took the decision last year to set up galleries that would showcase amongst the largest migrations in world history. The Delhi-based Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust was chosen for the task and space in the now-restored 19th century Town Hall in the heart of the city, hardly a ten-minute walk from the holiest shrine of Sikhism, was allotted to the project.

Last year in February, I paid a memorable and enriching visit to the Golden Temple. But the street leading to the shrine was all dug up. Not so now. The pedestrian passage has been rebuilt and the buildings on both sides have been painted in keeping with the colour of the temple. The mosque bang opposite the Town Hall has also acquired a glowing appearance.

Since I had only half a day, I decided to concentrate on the museum, which as the brochure says is currently only a ‘curtain raiser’. My guide and the manager of the museum, the young Rajwinder Kaur Malhotra, took me first to the room where, amongst other objects, were three issues of the October 1947 Tribune on display. There were heart-wrenching photographs of people caught in the catastrophe.

The second gallery had much to be remembered. There was the painting of a man who symbolised dismay and despondency. The artist, formerly from Lahore, was the camp commander at the refugee camp in Ambala. On display in a glass cabinet was a lovely phulkari coat, which a bride-to-be had brought from Gujranwala in 1947. Then there were personal documents such as an identity card issued to a migrant at a refugee camp and a list of what another migrant had left behind before crossing into India.

In another room a TV showed Gulzar reciting his classic poem Dastak and describing the effect it created on Amrita Pritam, the great poet who in 1947 penned the pathos-laden poem addressed to Waris Shah. I told Rajwinder to put up a recitation of Faiz’s moving poem on the killings that marred the happiness of acquiring independence from a long colonial rule: Ye dagh dagh ujala, ye shabguzeeda sahar… [This stained light, the night-bitten dawn / This is not the dawn we yearned for / This is not the dawn / For which we set out so eagerly. (Translated by Daud Kamal)].

Also on display was the letter of one Asif Khawaja, dated April 2, 1949, addressed to his friend Amar Kapur (now 92) and his wife Mina Kapur, (now 84). He concluded his letter by writing “…it is a sad thought that we shall have to communicate with each other through the cold lifeless medium of the written word instead of meeting in flesh.”

There was also the story of a young Muslim mother and her infant who had taken refuge under a train that was forcibly stopped by rioters who wiped out each and every one of her co-religionists. She was rescued by an elderly Sikh, who took the mother and baby to a refugee camp across the newly created border.

I was reminded of a paralysed Sikh woman, who had been left behind by her friends and family in Model Town, Lahore. She had lost her mental balance too but was being looked after by a maulvi from East Punjab. She used to say: “Mar jao, mar jao, saray mar jao [I wish you all dead]”.Her guardian told her critics that they could not imagine how much she had suffered.

Thus, if there were rapists and murderers on both sides of the newly created border, there were also unsung and unknown heroes and heroines who came to the help of those trapped in the killing sprees.

Back to the museum: much is being added to it. For the moment, it is appropriately billed as ‘a curtain-raiser’. It will take till the end of this year for all the nine galleries to be equipped with exhibits. The organisers will welcome donations in cash and kind from all over the world. One point that strikes me is that the Partition Museum is being planned, built and run entirely by women. Eminent novelist and journalist, Lady Kishwar Desai, is the chairperson, while Mallika Ahluwalia is the CEO. The list is long and it includes Rajwinder Kaur, who recorded my experiences of Partition and the years that followed. She was good enough to see me off at the Wagah/Attari border but not before sampling the nan khatai that I had taken across the border for friends. So, courtesy Shakespeare, “Parting was [literally] such sweet sorrow”.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2017