A midnight escape to Pakistan from Hyderabad Deccan on a plane with one engine on fire

Updated August 14, 2018

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Author's family, with her grandfather fifth from left, third row from top. –Photo by the author
Author's family, with her grandfather fifth from left, third row from top. –Photo by the author

Partition. A simple word used to capture the seismic change in the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

The word feels sterile, devoid of emotion, whitewashing over the atrocities committed, the thousands slaughtered in the name of religion as boundaries were hurriedly and crudely drawn by the British, their great imperial country left ravaged and bankrupted by war.

How aware were the powers that be that communities, families, friendships would be ripped apart?

Desperate times lead to desperate measures, but the horrific chaos leading up to Indian independence, the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan defies belief.

While it made every sense for India to achieve independence, the way it was conceived seems as if those involved – the British, Congress and the Muslim League – made their decisions with their heads buried in the sand. Because Partition fails to convey the displacement of over 14 million people.

Speak to anyone from either country and they will mention tales of family and friends caught up in the nightmare of Partition.

They will recall friendships that were cast away; or friends who risked their lives to save lives; they will speak of good-natured neighbours who turned their backs; and those who helped them.

They will tell stories of refugee camps, overcrowded and overrun with disease.

They will turn mute when remembering horrors they’ve tried hard to forget, shed tears for loved ones lost and those they found.

Short story: A Pakistani homecoming

My mother’s family was impacted. Not in the obvious way. Yes, they were forced to leave their home, but not in 1947. Afterwards. One year later.

My mother’s family lived in Hyderabad Deccan in a beautiful house commissioned by my nana abba, Syed Taqquidin, then the Finance Secretary to the Nizam of Hyderabad.

He chose the name, Bustan, in reference to both the Farsi for fragrant garden, and the book of poetry by the Persian poet, Saadi.

Bustan was arranged around a series of courtyards with fountains and surrounded by landscaped gardens filled with bougainvillea and an abundance of falsa, fig, mango and grapefruit trees.

Peacocks walked freely. Deer roamed in fields at the back of the property. A small herd of buffalo provided milk for the family; there were horses and chickens.

The children kept rabbits, too, and a snowy Persian cat strolled about the gardens as though she owned the place.

Inside, the two most prominent rooms were the library, filled with a collection of Persian, Urdu and Arabic literature, my nana abba’s pride and joy; and, the dining room where my nana abba ensured family and friends were well fed.

He was the nucleus of the family, renowned for his generosity and hospitality, and Bustan came to be a home-from-home for family and friends who were passing through or needed a roof over their heads.

For the first nine years of my mother’s life this house was all she knew. She has memories of hiding with her elder brother among the fruit trees after stealing halwa from the dining room; of showering Muhammed Ali Jinnah with rose petals and singing to him when he came to visit; of lying under the stars on charpoys, lulled to sleep by a symphony of crickets. It was an idyllic, luxurious life.

In September 1948, all that came to an end.

History: Two countries, shared traumas

Wanting to maintain its independence, the Nizam of Hyderabad went against British advice and refused to accede his state to either India or Pakistan.

Up until then, Hyderabad had enjoyed relative autonomy. It had its own railway, utility network, army, even its own currency.

It was the wealthiest principality, so why give that up by being subsumed into one of two countries who were barely able to shoulder the burden of new-found independence?

It didn’t matter that Hyderabad was a predominantly Hindu state ruled by a Muslim Nizam. It had survived the riots running up to Partition, so surely it could survive on its own?

Hindsight shows how naïve this was. In the aftermath of the Partition, Hyderabad was an island surrounded by a new India, formed along communal lines.

The Nizam’s bid to maintain autonomy lasted a little more than a year. By September 1948, the Indian government refused to accept the status quo. Irritated by the Nizam’s stubbornness to capitulate, Operation Polo was given the green light.

Sensing an onslaught, the Nizam turned to the cavalier Australian gun-runner, Frederik Sydney Cotton, to supply arms to protect his state.

These arrived in a Lancaster Bomber, the same plane used to fly my grandparents and others as part of a large delegation to the Middle East to lobby support for an independent Hyderabad.

Shortly afterwards, on 13th September, Indian armed forces invaded the Nizam-ruled state. Within days the Indian army had control. Hyderabad was under siege.

My mother and her brothers and sisters, their aunts, uncles and cousins were terrified. Windows were blacked out. Frequent air raid sirens replaced the sound of crickets, sending the family racing for shelter in the trenches dug around the perimeter of their house.

Explosions shook the walls, the glass. They lived in darkness, moved as shadows, petrified they’d be the next target. No one knew what would happen, where they would run to, whether they would survive.

The wind had changed. Hyderabad was about to fall into the folds of India, marking the end of the Nizam’s rule. Worse, my family, relations to a prominent, pro-Nizam, pro-independent Hyderabad, were at risk.

And, my grandparents were still in the Middle East, desperate to return to their loved ones who were isolated and unable to get out.

A close relative in Karachi, Major Aftab Hasan, came to the rescue. He urged Pakistan’s State Agent to Hyderabad, Mushtak Ahmed Khan, to help.

The situation was severe. The children and relatives of a senior member of the Nizam’s government were trapped. They had to get to Pakistan, as soon as possible. But how?

The answer was simple: they could use Sydney Cotton’s Lancaster Bomber, a private cargo plane with no allegiance to either Pakistan or India.

On 18th September, just as dusk was falling and the family were readying themselves for maghrib prayers, Major Aftab Hasan turned up at the house, bearing a gift of the finest grapes.

Excited by his surprise visit, the children surrounded him. "Where have you been hiding?" one of them asked.

"Pakistan," he told them. They thought he was joking, and he laughed, "Do you really believe you can find grapes here?"

They figured he was telling the truth, yet they couldn’t quite understand why he had arrived, out of the blue, on their doorstep.

Soon enough, all became clear. Jokes, humour were pushed aside. His demeanour turned serious.

"You need to do as I tell you," he said. They had two hours to leave Hyderabad. "You are not to tell a soul. Not a word, do you hear me?"

"What do we tell the servants?" one of the older children asked.

"Tell them you’re going to a dinner at a friend’s house."

They each were allowed a single bag carrying two changes of clothes. There was no time to gather valuables, books, jewellery – not that it mattered, they were under the impression they would soon return.

Breaking curfew, shrouded by night, one Buick and two buses left the house transporting 58 members of my mother’s family through narrow backstreets towards Begum Pet Airport.

Air raid sirens puckered the silence, forcing the small convoy to a standstill. The drivers turned off the engines. No one spoke, no one dared breathe.

Tension wound its way around the adults. Younger children, my mother among them, could barely contain their excitement. This was an adventure, they were going on holiday to Pakistan!

Yet they were told to keep quiet. Not a whisper, not a peep. Only the grown-ups muttered prayers under their breath, fear seizing them.

What if they were ambushed? What if soldiers boarded the buses and took them away? Or worse?

The air raid stopped. They continued their journey, crawling through the dark, only for the sirens’ wail to halt their progress once more. And again and again.

Seconds felt like minutes which felt like hours which felt like days as they journeyed, stop-start, stop-start.

They couldn’t afford to be late – the plane wouldn’t wait for them. Resolve wavered. Would they ever make it?

They did arrive with little time to spare, quickly bustled into the cargo hold of the Lancaster Bomber, clutching their belongings.

Except the pilot couldn’t take off. Too many Indian aircraft were coming to land. The Bomber’s engine growled to life, only to fade.

They were desperate to leave. What if the hold was forced opened? What if they were discovered?

Here they were, men, women and children cowering and defenceless, inside a tin can with wings. 58 sitting ducks.

The pilot knew this too and took his chance, charging the plane down the runway, metal rattling, the engine deafening, up, up, up into the sky.

Theirs was the last flight to leave Hyderabad. Yet they were far from safe. Indian fighter planes flanked them on both sides, staccato gunfire ricocheting around them.

One of the Bomber’s engines caught fire, but she flew on, still faster than her pursuers, heading north-west over Maharashtra, Gujarat, a gruelling six-hour flight, destined for Mauripur Air Force airport in Karachi. Over 1,400km away from home.

Until they landed, no one on that plane believed they would make it alive. The journey was precarious, tension-fraught. One of the engines was damaged.

But they got to Pakistan safely, avoiding the ensuing communal violence in Hyderabad claiming 40,000 lives.

Related: A train ride to India in better times

And this is the thing which sits uncomfortably with me. Had it not been for their privilege and connections, my mother’s family would have had little chance of escaping unscathed.

I think about those who wanted to leave, but couldn’t. Those who didn’t have strings to pull, favours they could ask.

Did they survive, or did they perish? And what about others who survived, those who either stayed or left, what were their stories?

Fortune shined on my family because of my grandfather. All the same, they had to forge a new life.

Their arrival in the Land of the Pure reinforced the feeling that they had left their hearts behind. 

Pakistan was very much the infant state, struggling with the chaos of the displaced. This wasn’t home. Other than religion, very little threaded my mother’s family to the people around them.

For a short period, they were homeless, rootless, but once again, owing to my grandfather’s connections, the Pakistani government quickly honoured its pledge to allot land and property equivalent to what they had left behind in India, assigning my nana abba an estate comprising arable land and a house in Tando Adam in Sindh.

I have written about this house and its ghost of a girl haunting its rooftop. How, on entering, my family felt like intruders, tip-toeing along the marble floor, intricately inlaid with swirling flowers, a floral garden beneath their feet. 

How Japanese screen paintings still adorned the walls, ornaments graced dressing tables.

And how a kalaeidoskope of silk saris and shalwar kamises were found neatly folded inside antique Edo Period gold and ebony chests which no one dared touch.

It’s a rose-tinted, romantic story which jars with the tale of their escape, and the ensuing day-to-day worry lingering over my nana abba, his desire to ensure the best for his family.

My mother remembers him pacing the roof of that house, chain-smoking, hiding his anxiety, the stress, his future still unknown. Fourteen children and an extended family to look after – their education, marriage.

The worry put years on him, took a toll on his health, and five years later he passed away, leaving my grandmother to take the helm.

To her credit, she became a towering force of strength, the new beating heart of the family, assuming the role that my grandfather left behind.

Partition weaves through my mother’s family. It’s part of their fabric. The generation who lived through it are fading away, and we cannot allow ourselves to romanticise that era, nor gloss over it.

Now read: I was invited to talk on Partition. I was then told to talk on Independence as Partition 'never happened'

While the birth of Pakistan should be celebrated, the atrocities committed during the partition of India should never be forgotten. History shouldn’t be re-written, painting Pakistan and its founders in glory only.

Pakistan and India were born from bloodshed. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis died. No side was blameless. Partition triggered a refugee crisis of a magnitude people failed to foresee. Homes were abandoned, roots cut away.

We mourn the death of soldiers lost in the two world wars, so shouldn’t we remember all those who perished during Partition? They were not all martyrs; they did not always knowingly lay down their lives for a greater good.

And while we should cherish the lives spared, spare a thought for what they left behind. How, at a flip of a dime, their worlds tipped upside down, never to be the same again.

Perhaps, therefore, Independence Day celebrations should be muted, a day for reflection and contemplation rather than rampant nationalism and hatred for the other side.


This article couldn’t have been written without the help of the following people: my mother, Mahmooda Karim, my aunt, Shaheda Gilani, my cousins, Nasreen Jordan and Iqbal Ahmed, and my late uncle, Hasan Shakeel.


Do you or your family have first-hand Partition experiences? Share with us at blog@dawn.com