ESSAY: THE CLOSURE OF BELONGING

Published November 20, 2022
Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi
Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi

“Where are you from?”

All drawing room conversations began with this question when I was growing up in the decades after Partition.

“We are mohajirs from East Punjab,” my mother’s usual rejoinder, laced with a degree of pride.

Over the years, I learnt that being a mohajir not only meant you had come from ‘somewhere else’ but also, more importantly, that you had no village to go back to for Eid or vacations, like most other kids in school did.

I grew up building sand castles of the unseen village home lost to me.


Years later, my eight-year-old daughter Khuz, smitten with the sense to ‘belong’, wanted to know why we could not visit ‘our’ village on Eid. I was tempted to say, “Because we have no village to go to.”

Instead, I passed on the stories my mother had told me. I told her about Partition in 1947; how my parents and so many others had abandoned fully furnished havelis in villages across Wagah to make new beginnings in a newborn country called Pakistan. I told her that now other people, strangers, lived in those villages and homes.

Although it has been 75 years since Partition, the loss of family homes and prized possessions continues to weigh heavy on some

I understood Khuz’s desire to ‘belong’. She was growing up in Pakistan but knew that, to some extent, Pakistan had a past. Somewhere in that past was a village and a house she wanted to explore. Today, the question has lost its relevance with villages merging into towns and cities. So, her children have no questions on the subject.

As for me, even today, when somebody asks me about my origins I, a first-generation Pakistani, get flustered. I yearn for that lost, unseen haveli in a village across Wagah. I take pride in the landlessness, the homelessness and the rootlessness of parents who migrated to build anew.

But mohajir is not a word I would ever use today, given how it has been politically used, but I do feel a sense of emptiness, if not of utter ‘not belonging’.


“Meri jaan you should have seen the beds and the dressing table and wardrobe of my trousseau — all Burma Sagwan. Your father just allowed me to carry two armchairs and a Persian hand-knotted carpet to Palampur, in undivided India, where he was posted in 1946. The rest could come later, he had said. I wonder who got to use the dining table Mistri Ahmed Deen had crafted?” Mother’s voice would trail off when narrating this story.

She would then describe her handwoven brocade and pure kamkhawab ghararas and pajamas, the boxes full dupattas with beaten silver borders of gota, or the sterling silver cutlery, the plates, the crockery.

Later, Mother tended to forget the details, but memories of that trousseau left behind under duress stayed with me. For me, a bona fide Pakistani born after Partition, these stories were my first lessons in history.

Mother’s loss of a trousseau to Sikh looters marauding into her abandoned family home was insignificant compared to the loss of life and blood in those gory times. Yet that lost trousseau is a connection, the essential link between fact and fiction, between miswritten history and contemporary surmise even today.

Partition, which she always referred to as the ‘Great Break’, brought a strange haunting look to her eyes till her dying day. Not so for Father, who never mentioned the ancestral home his family walked out of in midsummer 1947. It was only the fall of the eastern wing of the country in 1971 that brought tears to his eyes.

After her 1946 wedding, Mother set up house at Palampur, Father’s station of posting, leaving the treasures of her yet-to-be-unpacked trousseau behind in her susraal, she had no inkling that the “later on” my Father referred to would never materialise.

Barely months after their wedding, before August 1947, my father, a military doctor, was posted to the military hospital in Karachi. It was routine for army men to be transferred from one station to the other across undivided India. Newlywed couples carried as little of their belongings to their new posting, so my mother, like the bashful brides of over half a century ago, left behind everything in her susraal, destined to never see or use those prized possessions again.

Our one shared memory is a faded photograph in the family album, showing my parents posing before a mantelpiece in the dining room of the Palampur home. Prominently placed over the mantelpiece is the round silver tray with names of the regimental officers who had contributed to the gift.

Decades later, when her mind wandered, she would talk lovingly of the tiny stream that ran across the front lawn of the Palampur house, of the cook and the bearer and her maiden domestic experience.

As the two new nation states emerged, there was no question of my extended family staying on in India, as all roads led to Pakistan.

If anybody knew the worth of Jinnah’s Pakistan, it was my doctor father, totally non-political but very much in the vanguard of the movement. As a commissioned officer in the Indian Army Medical Corps of the late 1940s, and just back from the Cairo theatre of WWII, he had reason for the voluntary migration across Wagah.

But no reason could have been as compelling as the behaviour of the two British captains in whose railway compartment he was billeted during a short journey from Delhi to Ferozepur. Equal in rank to the British, and thus having the privilege to travel first class, it must have taken a lot of self-control for him not to lash back at his co-travellers who walked out when they realised they had to share the compartment with an Indian officer.

Small wonder then, that Jinnah’s framed portrait graced the drawing room mantles of the many houses we lived through as military children. Father knew, first-hand, despite having been an officer with a King’s Commission, the perils of slavery in a land with a Hindu majority.

So when the posting orders to Karachi were received, the newlyweds packed up their meagre belongings — the Persian rug and two Burma Teak armchairs included — and put them on the train to Karachi.

They had no idea that the break from the furnished village houses of generations past was irreversible. Neither did they imagine their native Jullundar and Hoshiarpur, on the eastern edge of United Punjab of pre-Partition, would become no-go areas. Mother never thought she would not be able to pass down prized trousseau items to her daughters; that she would never be able to share her childhood with the children who were yet to be born as citizens of an independent nation state. Or that her children would grow up rootless — no grandparental homes to laze away in during summer holidays, no village to go home to…

After Karachi, which was soon to become the capital of Pakistan, we lived in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Sialkot. As children, we grew used to being always on the move, making friends and setting up play places in the many army cantonments that Father was posted to during his service. The two Burma Teak chairs and Persian rug from Mother’s trousseau were present wherever our parents set up house, like historical trophies from a lost village.

Mother’s legacy of lost belonging got closure yesterday over a dinner conversation about my personal need to belong with my younger daughter-in-law’s emphatic declaration, “But I belong to Pakistan!” Understandable. She comes from Sialkot. She had no migrating ancestors.

Then, looking back over 70 years, I too decided it was time I belonged.

The writer is a freelance journalist, creative content writer, translator and book reviewer for local and international publications.

She has taught journalism writing courses at LUMS

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 20th, 2022

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