Ghosts of Partition

Amna Boheim's Library

I’ve had the privilege of reading the debut novel by my writer friend, Radhika Swarup. Due to come out in February 2016, Where the River Parts tells the tale of a Hindu girl, Asha, who, during Partition in 1947, flees her home in Punjab. She also leaves behind the boy she loves – a Muslim. A beautiful story of unrequited love and survival, it’s set against the horrors that unfolded, touching on the kindness and prejudices kindled during the birth and aftermath of two independent states.

For the first nine years of my mother’s life, she lived in Hyderabad, once the largest Princely state in India which had tried – and failed – to maintain its own independence in 1947. On account of my grandfather’s position in the pro-Nizam, pro-independence Hyderabad government, it soon became clear that my grandfather’s life and that of his family’s was at risk. In 1948, as the Indian Army took control of the state, my mother, her parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and servants, were hustled onto a military plane, bound for an alien land – Pakistan.

At the time, my mother was blind to the tension lingering over the family. For her, it was quite the adventure. The excitement of breaking curfew in the thick of night, travelling in a convoy of cars through unlit backstreets towards a makeshift runway. She placed little weight on the fact that they only took what they could carry. She was too young to understand they would never see their home, my grandfather’s vast library of books, the garden and its resident peacocks. The life she once knew was gone.

Their arrival in this so-called 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, yet already agitating its Indian neighbour like a petulant fly. 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 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 grandfather an estate comprising arable land and a house in the town of Tando Adam in Sindh.

On entering their adopted home they felt like intruders, tip-toeing along its marble floor, intricately inlaid with swirling flowers, a floral garden beneath their feet. Japanese screen paintings still adorned the walls, ornaments graced dressing tables. A kalaeidoskope of silk saris and shalwar chamises were found neatly folded inside antique Edo Period gold and ebony chests. No one dared touch them.

The house itself was designed around a courtyard with a sweeping staircase running to a gallery, which in turn led to several bedrooms. At one end of the gallery was another area, a small tower-like building, its four walls elaborately latticed, allowing the air to breeze through. Known as the windcatcher, it was the coolest part of the house and the place where the family would sleep during the stifling summer months. An opulent swing hung in there, while another hung downstairs in the shade of the courtyard. There were two more bedrooms on the ground floor, one of which was tucked away in a dark corner. Box-shaped with a small barred window, the room was more like a prison cell than a bedroom. Damp seeped around the edges of the ceiling. There was no furniture, other than a small bed and an iron trunk, containing an array of children’s toys – among them – a number of delicate, glass-eyed Japanese dolls. But my mum and her siblings had no desire to play with them. There was something about that trunk, the way it was pushed to one side, almost forgotten. There was something about the bedroom too – its dankness and the rotting smell which never faded away.

The house had belonged to a wealthy Hindu business man who had conducted a significant amount of trade in Japan. He was married and had children – the oldest was a girl. Except for this daughter who had passed away before Partition, no one really knew what became of them.

Though my mother and her family longed for the familiarity and friends of Hyderabad, this house in Tando Adam enabled them to settle and my mum went on to have fond memories of the place. But-on and-off, she and her brothers and sisters swore they heard the cries of a girl during the middle of the night. The older members of the family laughed at them. It was just the wind whistling through the windcatcher tower, they said, or the sound of the windmill located towards the back of the property as its sails sliced through the air. Yet my mother and a couple of her brothers and sisters still insisted there was a presence, its wailing locking them in their beds at night. Their fear became the more entrenched when they came to learn about the death of the businessman’s oldest child.

Those that remained in Tando Adam after Partition knew of the young girl. She was renowned for her thick raven-hair, her deep-set eyes, almost green in colour. She was also known to have loved a boy – a Muslim. They wanted to marry, but their families didn’t allow it. The girl was punished, kept under lock and key in the small bedroom downstairs. Orders were issued to ignore her cries, her constant thump-thumping on the door. Then, one particularly hot summer night, the humidity suffocating, the girl’s mother took pity on her daughter and allowed her to sleep in the windcatcher tower. Lying side-by-side on a charpoy, mother and daughter soon fell asleep. But that morning, the girl was nowhere to be seen.

No one heard the young girl slip away, nor the patter of footsteps up to the top of the tower. And no one saw the girl hurling herself over its walls. It was one of the servants who discovered her broken body. The family never recovered. Soon after, Partition was pushed upon them and like countless others, they fled their house as fugitives, leaving behind their life and the shadow of their daughter’s death.

The young girl’s plight has since been subsumed by legend. People claim her spirit will never rest until she’s reunited with her family. Others say she’ll remain in limbo until she finds the boy she couldn’t marry. And although her ghost has never been seen, she makes sure she’s heard, her desperate cries echoing around my family’s old adopted house in Tando Adam.

Until next time!


The Silent Children  - Amna K. Boheim


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