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Amandeep Sandhu
A Memorial of Whispers
Amandeep Sandhu

Unimaginable suffering. Courtesy-

I did not want to go to Auschwitz a second time. I had been there once four years ago, and I had felt that one visit was enough for a lifetime. I had even published a pictorial account of my visit on an important Internet website. Before I went there and after I visited it, I felt anyone even mildly interested in the Holocaust, and in Central Europe must make the pilgrimage to this site where the Nazis gassed 1.1 million Jews. When one goes to Auschwitz, one learns that along with Jews, 1,15,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, thousands of Soviet Prisoners-of-War, and others were also annihilated at that camp. The annihilation was a design, perfected stage by stage, and the only reason the Nazi killing machine did not fully succeed in exterminating all the Jews was lack of time. The Nazi's were ramping up their death factories, but by the time they could finish, they had lost the war.

Auschwitz is about 40 kilometers from Krakow. This year, our Polish friends had invited us to Krakow for Easter. On the way to Krakow I was telling my wife Lakshmi that Auschwitz is not a tourist place and she must make the journey to Auschwitz alone to confront the site of the ghastly action with just her own individual self.

Still, because it was Lakshmi's first visit to a Memorial in Europe, and a very dramatic Memorial at that, I chose to accompany her. It was a classic dilemma: stick to one's idea of what is right or adapt because practical conditions need you to adapt. I adapted. We visited the Memorial together, though any such witness experience is always individual. Auschwitz was what it is, but what happened just after we had seen the Memorial was even more hard-hitting. As we were stepping out of the gate, Lakshmi asked me with great urgency: why don't we have such a memorial for Partition? About one million people died in the Partition, it displaced around 15 million people.

I reflected on her question and wondered what could have been a better memorial than the village Toba Tek Singh that Sadat Hassan Manto gifted us in his famous short story. I checked my Android phone Google maps. Oh no! Toba Tek Singh was not exactly on the border of India and Pakistan. I wondered if it could have been drawn a bit closer to Abohar. How far was Abohar from Toba Tek Singh? The Google map drew a blank. It couldn't find a road or transport to connect the two places. The Radcliffe Line was a political boundary even the most modern technology could not bridge.

We, the people of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh could have made other memorials to Partition, but it is our condemnation that three generations after Partition we cannot go to a physical place to reach catharsis, to acknowledge the horror. It could have been a simple memorial – just two broken bricks somewhere in a green field. But we do not have it. All we have for one generation are wisps of memory and for the next, family stories buried in silences. It is the third generation now which is trying to engage with Partition. Our generation has heard these stories in whispers and created many online projects where we are turning family histories into oral histories. Yet, pick up any newspaper, recollect the history of riots and genocides in independent India, and we will realise that we are still caught up in the same mess of communalism that created Partition.

One of the reasons we do not have a memorial to Partition is that we can't blame Partition on anyone else. For the Holocaust we blame the Nazis, the rise of the Schutzstaffel, Saal-Schutz, Schutz-Staffel or simply SS, and the then politics in Germany. We blame Hitler. In that case, history has created an 'other': they did this to us. Since the Second World War, very humbly and without offering crass justifications, the Germans have negotiated the blame, and through their hard work and focus, again emerged on top of the world. They have not run away from the issue raised by all those who suffered the victimisation. They have themselves created Museums to record how the story between the two World Wars led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. The Nazi Dokumentation Centre is located in Nuremberg. It is a Museum in reverse: don't go this way. It is a reminder to younger generations on what kind of politics to avoid. Even something we take for granted in India, the national flag, is a matter of debate that erupted during the soccer World Cup: to display or not. Many Germans opposed the display of flags. They considered it jingoistic nationalism. It was the same with the first line of their national song: Das Deutschlandlied. In the Nazi era the first verse was sung – Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (Germany above all). After the Second World War it is the third verse that is sung – Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit/ für das deutsche Vaterland! (Unity and law and freedom/For the German Fatherland). No doubt, there is a rise of some nationalistic voices now, but the point of the above illustration is to show what a nation can do to correct itself from stepping on the wrong side of history and to make amends for its past.

Yet, we in India have learnt nothing, and we continue our mish-mash of secular and right wing politics. While Hitler's biography Mein Kampf remains banned in Germany, Indian bookstores display it next to Mahatma Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth. In the display of these two books in the bookshops of India, we remain conflicted about Partition. A Polish-German friend who works at the German foreign office brought this to my attention. When, curious about how she defines her nationality, I asked her, "How come you work in Foreign Service?" She replied, "Well, national boundaries shift. My grandparents are from both sides." That is how it is in India too, where our ex-Prime Minister was born in Pakistan and Pakistan's ex-President was born in India. Yet, one has to just look at the humongous ultra-nationalistic circus on Wagah border each evening by the security forces of the two nations to see how apart we are from each other. About seven years back, my American Jew teacher who is a big supporter of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, recoiled from the show of arms at the Wagah ceremony. Our families belong to both sides, our language is the same, our way of life, music, cuisine, costumes are the same, but we are two eternally divided nations. All this is true for the other side too: Bengal and Bangladesh. When I saw the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 on our Black and White television, I had dreamt one day I would visit Brandenburg Gate and make a prayer for the Wagah Border to become Check Point Charlie – open access to both sides of the wall. Yet, when I went to the Brandenburg Gate, the prayer did not rise to my lips. I realised even God or the modern technological God of Google Maps does not want the boundary between the two nations to come down. We shall live, as Auden said, "Each sequestered in its hate".

Within Sikhism, the concept of the 'other' has a different interpretation. As per the teachings of Guru Gobind, the Sikh stands as a witness to the world. There is always a just cause to fight for, and a Sikh picks up arms to defend the oppressed. Both those, the just cause and the unjust cause, are the 'others'. In the absence of a tangible oppressed, it is the faith which a Sikh must defend. Those are the historical stories of heroism and martyrdom of the Sikhs. But, what are our Partition stories? Do they fit in with the historical ones or is there a shift? Noted scholar and Partition expert Prof. Alok Bhalla asks in his essay Moral Action in Times of Duragraha (Social Scientist, Vol 34/Nos 5-6 May-June 2006, Page 112):

Fictional texts like (references to names of texts) present images of Sikhs as bewildered people who watch with helpless dismay their familiar social and religious spaces crumble before ruthless violence, or as men and women suffused with religiosity who refuse to initiate a cycle of murder and revenge by making angry denunciations of the Muslims and, or as angry mobs who can be tempted into evil especially when the mind and the body are pushed to the extreme limits of endurance by events which are incomprehensible.

I suggest a deeper understanding of the Partition stories we have heard in family whispers. Not from an angle of victimhood or heroism, but since we all failed ourselves in those times, let us look for these vices in them: kaam, krodh, lobh, moh, ahamkar – lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego. Also, though there is a definite period of Partition, 1946 to 1948, the effects of Partition lasted many more decades, until now. I am sketching five instances from my family so that each of these words get a story that helps our understanding and we do not hide behind the refuge of bad times, they did that so we did this, that is how things are, and so on. I am doing this to remain cognisant of the vices. To keep them in mind when history repeats itself, which it will, unless we learn from it. George Santayana said this about history, and his quote is inscribed on the first wall to the entrance of House 4 in the Auschwitz memorial, where the journeys of those killed is depicted. I suggest this as a beginning we can make to start building our own memorial of whispers to Partition.

Ahamkar – Ego: We have pictures of my paternal grandfather – Dadaji – dressed like a sanyasi sitting in meditation outside Nabha jail. He was a spy in the British police. This being a sanyasi was an act he would sometimes play in the course of his work, which was to ferry information about the Indian freedom fighters to the British. Dadaji was more than a spy. He was, in fact, a mole. He would, on his own accord, also pass on information about the British to the freedom fighters. A couple of times he got the freedom fighters to raid the police stations by tipping them when the British forces were not at the station. Dadaji also had a love for the bottle. It was either his drink problem or Gandhiji's call 'Do or Die' in the 1942 Quit India Movement that led to Dadaji leaving the police services and joining hands with the freedom fighters. When the Maharaja of Faridkot dragged two men behind his jeep as punishment for anti-state activities, he was one of them. The other was Giani Zail Singh, later the President of India. Zail Singh took the opportunity to launch his political career, but Dadaji remained more of a behind-the-scenes man. During Partition, he wore his police uniform to escort caravans of Muslims across the border and escort Hindus to India. The uniform mostly worked. It kept looters at bay. After independence, Dadaji tilted towards left-wing politics. He instigated revolts by peasants against the landlords in the farms of his village Munawan, near Kot Isse Khan in Moga district. The landlords won and it became difficult for our family to live on in the village. As a social worker Dadaji moved from town to town and did not succumb to active politics. Many leaders such as Master Tara Singh during the Punjabi Suba agitations, Pratap Singh Kairon when he was Chief Minister Punjab, and so on, would often visit our home for discussions with Dadaji. Dadaji revelled in being a kingmaker. In this, I see how his ego shaped his engagement with the world. He abdicated personal responsibility, both at home and in the changing fortunes of the political parties. This party or that, this leader or that, Dadaji strove to always be in demand, to personally always win by negotiating a space from where no one could eject him the way it had happened in Munawan. His being a mole and his duping the looters with his uniform are instances of his cleverness. What changed in him was his wiliness, his survival instinct, and his absolute command over his family, in which not even a leaf moved without his permission.

Kaam – Lust: Dadaji's social activities caused immense trouble to the family. While the nation was fighting for freedom from the British, our family was fighting to survive in the absence of the head of the family. My grandmother often had to beg food from neighbours. Once she abandoned my father outside the village. My uncle and aunt found him and brought him home. In the months of the Partition, she left my nine-year-old father at the Gurdwara in Ferozepur. He stayed there 10 months and in this period he witnessed the ugly side of religion. He saw the double-face of the granthis and sewadars of the Gurdwara, who would not only conduct religious rituals, but also loot and plunder the Muslim convoys trying to cross into Pakistan. Papa remembered his childhood experience most vividly when he was himself seeking sanctuary in a Gurdwara at the time of the 1984 pogrom. However, Papa's most haunting memory was of seeing a Sikh man herding buffaloes across the India-Pakistan border, and among the animals was one naked woman bleeding from her ears. Her ear lobes were torn, the earrings missing. The man used his stick equally on the animals and the woman, goading them towards India. These experiences led Papa to become the slightly inhibited man that he was, whom I have portrayed in Sepia Leaves. It also gave him a lifelong scorn for ritualistic religion, but led him to read the Granth Sahib, the Koran, The Bhagwad Gita, and the Bible on his own terms. He became a man who turned his desires inward.

Lobh – Greed: When Dadaji escorted Muslims to Pakistan they often left some of their possessions with him. The whisper is that these possessions – gold jewellery and jewels – amounted to seven pots. The whisper is that Dadaji returned them all to the rightful owners, but it is not clear how. The Bhawalpuri Hindus he brought back from Pakistan are now settled at Rajpura near Patiala where a colony has been set up for them. In his three expeditions, Dadaji had noticed land available for throwaway price at village Devinagar near Rajpura. Dadaji semi-coerced and acquired the land from a Hindu Pandit family who shifted base to Banaras. Yet, because the neighbours of the land were also eyeing it, and there were claims and counter-claims, fights broke out. Dadaji managed to repulse the neighbours. The family paid the Pandits for the land in cash a few years later. The family loved being known as landlords. Yet, though the family worked hard, one uncle was even an agriculture scientist, the land never yielded much. In the late 1970s, after the family had borrowed for a new tractor, it rained hailstorms a day before we sold a record wheat harvest. That put the family in debt. In the 1990s, tired, one by one, the family sold the holdings. The new owners also did not succeed with the land. Through the years, people kept saying the land has bad karma. The next owner, inspired by a dream, built a structure: something between a shrine and a Gurdwara, with a Sikh flag – the Nishan Sahib. These owners have gone non-agriculture. They have opened a business and succeeded. In this story of land from my early days, I notice that at some point, my family became desperate and tried to overreach and failed. It also did not study the land and tried to work their way through brute force, where it could have used intelligence.

Krodh – Anger: Through all the years of family struggle, my grandmother, Dadiji, bore everything with a stoic silence. She was not educated. She could not have got a job. She remained a homemaker. Yet, when needed, she begged and borrowed to feed her children. She did not complain to her husband, Dadaji. However, over the years, she spoke less and less to Dadaji. There was a distance, the family says, as is expected in old-fashioned Punjabi families. No one in the family remembers asking her how she was, how she felt about all these changes of home and means of survival. She was always the quiet one, the silenced one, the reliable one. She was the one who kept ready a warm meal for the family and friends. Yet, she burst once. In 1971, the Government of India decided to honour my Dadaji. When the news of the award came, she did not respond with joy or sadness. When Dadaji came back after receiving the award from the President of India and handed her the Copper Plate, she held it in her hands for a while, cried, and threw it away. "All our life, for this?" She said in a low, angry grunt and went away. A few months later, she passed away. She died of heart attack, rather a broken heart. Her anger was immense. She kept it bottled up, and it finally exploded. I see in this loss of my grandmother, the beginning of awareness of what happens to the silenced people; the people dedicate themselves to causes not chosen by them and pay the price. Anger burns you out.

Moh – Attachment: It was another woman in my family who bore the brunt of the changes that had taken place. It was my father's eldest sister – Bibiji. She got a job as a teacher and brought up her brothers with her earnings, ran the home. She remained unmarried for long, and then was hastily married when in her forties. She does not remember if she ever fell in love. She remained committed to her familial role and not her own self. Now she is old, close to 85 years, and has Alzheimer's. She gets nightmares. The nightmares are of various kinds: someone pulling her towards a well, a bridge on which she is walking breaking down on top of a river in fury, turtles chasing her. Middle of the night she wakes up from her dream with a fright. We have placed a stick next to her so she can use it to go to the bathroom. When she wakes up from these nightmares she takes the stick and starts waving it under the bed – killing the imaginary turtles. These nightmares come from something that happened in her adolescence when she lost her best friend to the mayhem of Partition – a Muslim girl called Noor. To protect her honour, as advancing looters pounced upon their convoy, my grandfather beheaded her with his own hands in front of my aunt. Dadaji, whose father Thakur Singh had collected money and built the first girls school in Punjab, Sikh Kanya Vidyalaya in Ferozepur, whose sisters Tejwant Kaur and Kirpal Kaur were the first students of the school, had murdered a young girl. To justify his action, Dadaji supplied Bibiji with a discourse of patriarchy and feudal honour. I feel this murder subjugated Bibiji forever, and she could herself never love or trust anyone ever in life. Yet, her attachment to Noor continues to haunt her.

Dadaji passed away in the late 1980s. When we cremated him, his belly took more than two and a half hours to burst. These were ulcers he got from wounds he received at a beating at the hands of a few young men at the Rajpura railway station. The fight took place because he was trying to save a young woman who these goons were molesting. They beat him hard and left him on the railway tracks. The man who survived the jeep drag, land feuds, Punjabi Suba lathi charges, finally fell to some anti-social goons while trying to protect a woman, when he had himself murdered a woman in his life. Yet, it was Dadiji who had borne the brunt of what her husband's activities had done to the family; Bibiji is still fighting the tortoises of her mind. It clearly shows up that the people who pay the highest price for tragedies like Partition are the women.

A few months back, sitting at a dinner table with seven women from East and West Europe, I was listening to their family stories. Each one recounted how, after the Second World War, it was the women in the family, their grandmothers who had brought their families through the post-war period. What is true for my family would also be true for many other Sikh families who came through Partition.

Coming back to the theme of the Sikh narrative, we notice that during Partition the 'other' becomes the self. The struggle was not even for faith, it was for the skin. It was survival. It was also not only defence, but also offence. This discourse started changing from the Singh Sabha agitation days. It went through a phase of Satyagraha, but it was finally during Partition that its true nature emerged. It was in these times that the community, the families, the people, laid down their lives, suffered violence and displacement, even crumbled and found no sanctuaries because they were defending their own selves, their own identities, and they had no space to build a more grandiose story than one of self-interest and survival. Not only has the psychological cost of survival been high, the Partition also robbed the Sikhs of the essential purpose of their being Sikhs: to fight injustice to save the weak and oppressed. They themselves were now weak and oppressed and were fighting to save their own skin. This 'saving the skin' had other implications: in the Punjabi Suba agitations in the '60s and in the demand for Khalistan in the '80s. The Sikhs lost the grandeur of being heroes and started building a narrative of victimhood based on real and perceived oppression.

As I write these words, violence has broken out in South Africa. Natives are killing foreign migrants. I check with my Ugandan playwright friend Deborah Asiimwe on how the killers make out who is a foreigner. Deborah is herself Ugandan-Rwandan, and there are millions like her from different parts of Africa now settled in South Africa for generations. Are they still foreigners? In India-Pakistan-Bangladesh we had the foreskin, the sacred thread, the long hair and the names to distinguish each community from the other. What is the case with Africa? I ask. She says, "It is often the neighbours, because people know one another, they know one another very well in such intimate small settings and communities." It is neighbours who build communities, safe spaces, state systems; it is neighbours who show up your vulnerability, get you killed for petty gains.

The final tragedy of Partition is, as Ajay Bhardwaj the film-maker says, "We Punjabis were a rope woven together of three strands: Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Punjabiyat was our composite culture. After Partition one strand went missing. We will never have a rope as strong as earlier. There will always be a vacant space." Lakshmi, who comes from a part of India which faced Partition to a lesser degree, mostly through the exodus of Muslims from Malabar, knows that nation states will not grant us our memorials. If at all there can be memorials, they will have to be those we citizens can build by weaving together the whispers of our personal histories. That is how we fill the vacant space with vigils of remembering how the vices played out and learn from them.


Issue 62 (Jul-Aug 2015)

focus Partition in Literature and Cinema
  • Editorial
    • Pratibha Umashankar: Editorial
  • Lead Essay
    • Pratibha Umashankar: Partition Writing - An Overview
  • Conversations
    • Moti Prakash: In an Interaction with Pratibha Umashankar
    • Paromita Vohra: In Conversation with Pratibha Umashankar
  • Articles
    • Amandeep Sandhu: A Memorial of Whispers
    • Bhagyashree S Varma: Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar
    • Deepti Bora: Spatiality of Partition(s) Revisited
    • Dhrubajyoti Banerjee: Manto’s
    • Durbadal Bhattacharya: Gurcharan Das’ A Fine Family
    • Ganga Mukhi: Homeless at Home
    • Kanika Sharma: Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day
    • Karuna Rajani and Sailesh Mallick: Meena Arora Nayak’s About Daddy
    • Koushiki Dasgupta: Bengali Cinema after Partition
    • Manoranjan Mishra: Partition as Holocaust in Three Novels
    • Mousumi Mandal: ‘Ghar’ and ‘ghar-er bou’ in Post-Partition Narratives
    • Pradip Mondal: Train to Pakistan and Cracking India
    • Ridhima Tiwari: Manto’s ‘A Question is Produced’
    • Rima Bhattacharya: Historiography on Partition
    • Shivani Vashist: Gendered Partition
    • Soni Wadhwa: Selected Sindhi Partition Texts
    • Tejwant Singh Gill: Manto and Punjabi Short Story Writers