When boundaries blur: A strange kind of home-coming

When boundaries blur: A strange kind of home-coming
At his old school in Sargodha: Dada with his son, grandson (the writer), and locals.
By Manav Kapur

By Manav Kapur

Over the last month, India-Pakistan relations, always fraught at the best of times, have seen one of their periodic lows. A terrorist strike in Uri has catalysed the usual sabre-rattling, with people on both sides talking of ‘nuclear war’. Pakistani artistes in India have had to return in an increasingly volatile environment.

I was sad, but not surprised, to see the Indian political establishment acquiescing in this sentiment—as has been the wont of both countries after such disputes. “Art has no boundaries”, they say, “but countries do.”  This may be a fact, but it made me remember lines from a filmi song (Indian, and therefore one presumes, safe for me as an Indian to quote in these times)— “Yeh kaisi sarhadein uljhi hui hain pairon mein, hum apne ghar ki taraf uthh ke baar baar chale” (How strangely do these boundaries bind our feet; even though we keep trying to walk to our home).

Because, you see, this boundary—this defined nation-state with its packaged, segmented culture that we all allegedly belong to, isn’t as clear to me as the establishment thinks it should be. All four of my grandparents moved from West Punjab to India during partition. We grew up hearing about places in what is now Pakistan. Sargodha, Gujrat, Sialkot, Lahore—the walled city and beyond – featured in my grandparents’ and and their siblings’ everyday conversations.

An ever-present ghost

Dada shows his visa the night before setting out for Pakistan

Dada shows his visa the night before setting out for Pakistan

At every wedding, the older generation would reminiscence about their day—the weddings, the food, how incredibly cheap things were then. So for us, pre-partition Punjab wasn’t just a historical entity, but a ghostly presence that was always around—if you were sensitive to it.

Wedding songs featured sutthans from Multan and juttis from Qasur. Lahore, of course, was the urbs prima in mundi–bedtime stories of Thandi Sadak and Anarkali Bazar were tantalizing glimpses of the city.  A great-aunt had a trademark phrase for people full of hot air; “Bannan chaleya si Lahore, Shahdara vi naheen baneya” (Chap tried to become Lahore, but couldn’t even become Shahdara – a locality in Lahore), she’d sniff, my first introduction to a Shahdara on the other side of the river, much like Delhi.

The first—and only—bits of Persian I know are the inscriptions on the tombs of Noor Jehan and Anarkali —that my Nana, then 16 years old, painstakingly noted on a visit to Lahore in 1946 and committed to memory.  My notions of a homeland, then, were fuzzy, like many Delhi-ites (not Dilliwallahs, of whom a substantial minority lived across the border, mostly in Karachi, trying to recreate Jama Masjid’s Nihari on Burns’ Road and Paharganj in Nazimabad). But what, after all, can one expect from a city with a Bhera Colony, Kohat Enclave, Multan Nagar (New and Old), Gujranwala Town, and a New Anarkali Traders Association (though sadly moribund now).

Dada with his granddaughter, the writer’s sister, at his old school, Sargodha

Dada with his granddaughter, the writer’s sister, at his old school, Sargodha

Although ever-present, these places seemed lost in history. The rupture of 1947 had left its mark on all four of my grandparents, and it was impossible to believe that Lahore was but a forty minute flight from Delhi. I applied for visas on three occasions; it came through once, and to my sorrow, the event was cancelled and I could not go.

But the partition continued to resonate strongly with me, pushing me from law, and apply for a PhD in South Asian history, to explore how firmly-defined legal categories bound people and circumscribed their lives in ways they’d never imagined.

A gift from PIA

Last December, as I was putting my finishing touches on yet another application, two friends called me saying they had tickets for a food festival at the Ashoka Hotel, New Delhi. The deadline was hours away, and I had left unfinished many things I realized I shouldn’t have left to the last minute. My friends were unsympathetic. “It’s just two hours, Manav, you’ll just be sitting and whining to everyone on Whatsapp anyway”. I gave in. It was, I think, one of the best decisions I ever made.

The food, though expensive, was excellent. Sated on kababs, chorizo sausages, and German beer, I felt much better. There were lucky draws for foreign holidays—Montreal, London and Melbourne had the largest queues. But I saw a PIA board announcing: “Two tickets from Delhi to Lahore, return”. I bought five chits and put them in. That night, the Delhi Commonwealth Women’s Association called to tell me I had won the lucky draw. They said I should collect my tickets as soon as possible.

To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement. I was so over the moon that I sent in the application I’d been working on without rereading my SOP.

Dada happy to be back at Dyal Singh College, Lahore with his son, granddaughter and grandson, the writer

My next response was feeling torn. Which of my three grandparents should I take? How would the other two feel?

I didn’t have to worry too much about this. My maternal grandparents decided that they would forego this trip—Nani’s arthritis was playing up, and Nana said he wouldn’t be able to manage both Sialkot and Gujrat; he wanted to do both or none.

That left my paternal grandfather (Dada), who is now 91. My parents decided to come along. My sister refused point-blank to stay behind. So we decided to buy three more tickets, and apply for visas. A friend of mine in Lahore —my closest friend from New York University where we both did our Masters — sent in a reference.

My past three visa application processes had been long and arduous projects. This time, it was a breeze. All five of us went to the Pakistan High Commission. When I presented my lucky draw letter, we were ushered right into the building. The Deputy High Commissioner and Dada, both from Sargodha, got along like a house on fire. In what seemed an impossibly short duration we had our passports, duly stamped for Lahore, Sargodha and Punja Sahib. PIA tickets, though ridiculously expensive for the 45-minute flight, were easily available. All of us, more excited than we’d ever been for a trip before, waited to leave.

Worry not

Dada at the site of his house, Sargodha

Dada at the site of his house, Sargodha

There were moments of apprehension, though. Relatives and friends wondered whether we’d be safe. Many called us daily to tell us how worried they were. This was not a good idea, they’d say, before telling us places we must see and people from pre-partition days we must try to meet.

The night before we left, Dada got cold feet. “Will I be able to go, Superna?”, he said to my mother. “Will it have changed beyond recognition? What if I fall sick?”.

“Why are you worried, Papa”, she said. “You’re going with us, aren’t you?”

I told him that he shouldn’t expect things to be exactly the same and he cheered up. “Of course it would have changed,” he agreed. “Jab jaanewala itna badal gaya hai, toh shahar badla hi hoga, lazimi hai!” (When I, the person going back, have changed so much, of course the city will have changed!)

The flight was surreal, partly because it was so short, but particularly because, as we started descending before crossing the border, we could see the barbed wire fence between our countries. Walking into the airport, my parents seemed nervous but I hadn’t seen Dada this excited in years.

At immigration, we had to wait; a lady was arguing with an officer about some procedure. “Bibiji, yeh system hai” (This is the system, ma’am), the man said, finally.

“Phittay mooh tuhaade system de” (To hell with your system), she replied.

I looked at my mother and laughed—we were, in some odd way, home. The officer looked at our passports, and did a double-take when he saw Dada’s: “Aap Sargodhe ke ho? Lai, toh phir aap sab hamaare humwatni hue, na?” By calling us ‘humwatni’ he meant that all of us shared a homeland. I was the last one to present my passport, and as he stamped it, he said, “You’ve done a wonderful thing, bringing him home. Jad buzurgaan ghar waapas aande nein, lakh balawaa.n tal jaandian nein” (When our elders return home, thousands of misfortunes are averted).

Dada happy to be back at Dyal Singh College, Lahore with his son, granddaughter and grandson, the writer

Dada happy to be back at Dyal Singh College, Lahore with his son, granddaughter and grandson, the writer

Lahori hospitality

My first exposure to Lahori hospitality was at my friends’ house where we had tea the first day, and then dinner at another friend’s house. The food was fantastic, the company even more so; I couldn’t believe this trip had finally happened. Dada, exhausted, couldn’t stop smiling.

“I have come back after seventy years”, he’d repeat, half to himself, “even though I don’t recognize much… the city has changed, but so it should.”

My friends ensured we were driven everywhere. Going back to our hotel the first night, Dada said, “I’m still glad I’m here, but the nehar (canal) is the only thing I remember.”

The next morning, however, he was proved wrong. Going along the Mall, towards Anarkali, his memory kicked in. “That’s the… High Court… Lalaji (his grandfather, a lawyer) used to work here… and that’s the Ajaib Ghar (museum), and that’s the Malika-ka… oh, but they’ve removed the statue of Queen Victoria!”.

At Neela Gumbad, I asked him if he recognized the place, “Of course”, he said, “That’s the King Edward Medical College, where my father studied.”

It was a Sunday, but merely mentioning we had come from India was enough to open the doors of the College that was undergoing renovations.

My friends tried to test my knowledge of Lahore; I passed this test without a hitch—knowing the city at second-hand, was evidently good enough for me to be adjudged “a true Lahori.”

Getting around, my grandfather was in his element. In the car, he gave directions to my friend who was driving us around, and was clearly not as well-versed with the Anarkali-Nisbet Road stretch as Dada. He directed us past Mayo Hospital, asked my friend to turn right and left, and landed up at Dyal Singh College, where he’d studied before Partition.

Again, the fact that it was a Sunday was no bar. The caretaker gave us a guided tour. We sat in my grandfather’s old classroom, and took pictures there—the first time he’d ever sat on the front bench, he said.

Then we went to the Railway Station, and to Walton, where Dadi had lived. His eyes misted over—it was emotional for all of us, but more so, I imagine, for him. All of us—my family, my friends and their children—felt like something unique had happened that day. Not least was the bond that Aileen, my friend’s three year old daughter, forged with Dada. She sat on his lap all through, would get up, pick up two biscuits, and share them with him.


En route Sargodha to Lahore: Dada getting out to collect some "mitti" (earth) to take back

En route Sargodha to Lahore: Dada getting out to collect some “mitti” (earth) to take back

If that day was unique, visiting Sargodha was even more so. My friend’s aunt’s family who lived there opened their house and their hearts to us. Her husband took us around the city, which had changed from a planned town of 30,000 people to a bustling district headquarter of 600,000 people. He showed us around different parts of the city, then drove us to Block 3, where Dada’s house was.

The house had been pulled down and replaced with a market, but we found the location with reference to the Municipality Taps in the chowk, and the erstwhile Gurdwara that Lalaji had contributed towards (the plaque with his name on it has been painted over), now the Government Ambala Muslim High School. Sargodhans seemed to adopt us for that night; we were invited into countless houses, and offered countless cups of teas and “thandi botals”, most of which we couldn’t handle after the huge meal we’d had!

The next morning, Dada decided to go back for a last look at his school and the spot where his house had stood while my parents got the compulsory police reporting done that our well-bounded states require from citizens of the ‘other’ country. My friend’s driver said he didn’t know the route well.

“Route?”, Dada said, “But I remember it. I lived here, beta, this is my home.” And he did. My sister and I were trying to hold his hand as he crossed the road, this 91-year old man, running faster than his grandchildren.

In Delhi a week later, 40 members of my family watched a slide-show of these photos, to excited reminiscences. A great-aunt told us about her “first night” after her wedding in May 1946, and how a cow had, for some inexplicable reason, been tethered outside the room—just where, exactly 70 years later, we’d stood outside Intizaar Jewellers.

Regaining ourselves

There was so much more to this trip that I don’t know where to stop, but one memory stands out: while returning from Punja Sahib, Dada would see a signboard and remember a story about visiting the place, or people who lived there—Lyallpur, Pindi Bhattian, Bhalwal, Malakwal, Pind Dadan Khan. Even the nondescript Cheecho-ki-Mallian in the back-of-beyond in Sheikhupura had a story attached to it. Our driver, Ameen Chacha, was very amused. “Uncle, was your family scattered all over Punjab?’.

“Yes”, said Dada, after a pause, and teared up slightly. “And see, after 1947, we never, not once, came back”.

It is true, as we have been told, that nations have boundaries. The India-Pakistan border certainly does—a solid, bureaucratic divide, both on the land and in our minds, preventing cross-border exchanges and conversations. But sometimes, these boundaries can blur, and seem fluid, and then we can perhaps see both what we have lost.

In smudging these boundaries, making them more porous, we regain parts of ourselves. This trip was a return “home” for Dadaji, it is true, but it was also a home-coming of sorts for my parents as well as for my sister and I — born much after partition, but with West Punjab in our stories, our names, and our hearts.

Manav Kapur, starting out on a PhD at Princeton, is a lawyer, attempting-to-be historian, and a member of the almost-but-not-quite post partition generation.

3 thoughts on “When boundaries blur: A strange kind of home-coming

  1. Pradeep Mehra

    Manav hats off to your lovely writing style. You have almost taken us along, making us feel as if we are looking across your shoulder. I wish I was there with you all. I was born at Bhera, Distt Sargodha on 5th February, 1947. I am Bittoos cousin.

  2. Vinod Sohanlal

    Your wonderful blog written from the heart struck a chord. I can well imagine your dadaji’s exuberance at treading familiar roads and and the sight of remembered landmarks. The memories must have been overpowering and the love and hospitality you received show that while times may have changed, it takes more than artificially created barriers to divide people’s hearts. My dad graduated from Murray College, Sialkot. During the 1965 war his formation had reached the outskirts of Sialkot. He would recall with the greatest of regrets that while he could glimpse his beloved Alma Mater through a pair of binoculars, his desire to revisit his old haunts remained unfulfilled. Being an army officer obtaining a visa in later years proved impossible. Thanks for the write up and pranam to dadaji.


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