Beliefnet
Excerpted with permission from "Familiar Strangers: Uncommon Wisdom in Unlikely Places." Copyright 2002 by Gotham Chopra, all rights reserved. For online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see www.randomhouse.com.

"We didn't have much use for these terms, you know: Hindus, Muslim. You live there. I live there. We were kids, then, really just kids. And neighbors."

I can tell from the way Prem uncle says this, with a tight frown on his face, his neck craned, and his old eyes gazing up toward the roof, that he means it...or at least he meant it.

"We were twenty-two, twenty-three years old, like you, no?" He shoots a glance at me, nods, and doesn't wait for confirmation. I'm twenty-five, quizzing him about events fifty years ago. Prem uncle doesn't care much for details anymore. Little details like labels, ethnicities, religions, they ruined his life fifty years ago, and since then they haven't much interested him.

"We went to the bars and the clubs and drank together, got drunk together--every Indian loved Scotch in those days--the town, all of Lahore, it was ours. It belonged to us."

In 1947, India had just gained independence from its colonial ruler, Great Britain. Like many colonial outposts, until that time civil tensions had taken a backseat to resistance against the more immediate problem of imperialist rule. But the unrest and brewing animosity between Hindus and Muslims that had existed in India for hundred of years was again at the point of eruption.

"It was a very crazy time. All of a sudden 'freedom.' What did that mean? Things from yesterday hadn't changed at all, and yet everything, everything

, was different.

"There were celebrations in the streets. People yelling, 'Freedom!' Really just shouting it as loud as they could, hoping it would teach them what it meant because no one knew. But then, the celebrations, they turned to riots."

There's a change in the tone of Prem uncle's voice. His eyes are downcast, perhaps still a bit perplexed. "Small disturbances, fights, and all of a sudden they became huge riots."

Indeed, throughout the independence movement in India there had been factions urging the separation of nations--the creation of two countries to serve as home for the subcontinent's two major faiths--Hinduism and Islam.

And so the state of Pakistan was born. Granted its independence in 1947, Pakistan secured official partition from India in August of 1948. Overnight, regions that for thousands of years had been a part of India's royal history had a new name, a new face, and an unknown future.

"We weren't sure what we were supposed to do, where we were supposed to go. How we were supposed to feel," Prem uncle recalls. "All of a sudden we were guests in our own home. It was very strange. How were we supposed to act? We didn't know.

"So we did what was most natural: we just carried on. We went to work."

But simply going to work proved life-threatening. Animosity fueled by weeks of national transformation spilled into violence. On both sides of the border, riots broke out each night. In Delhi, Muslims, residents of the city for hundreds of years, were slaughtered on their doorsteps. The same gruesome fate was met by thousands of Hindus who lived in Lahore.

"In the morning, going to work, we'd see corpses--just strewn along the side of the road. How had our city, our home, turned into a war zone?"

Determined not to surrender their homes to such anarchy, young men like Prem uncle insisted on going to work. But they did take certain precautions--like wearing Muslim clothing to conceal that they were Hindus.

"No one could tell," he says with the hint of a smile. "Our friends at the office knew, and we just laughed. It was a joke. Inside the buildings, no one cared which God we believed in. Out on the street, no one could tell the better. We all looked the same--we all were the same.

"

The same, but different. It's like a riddle of wording in a Nabokov novel or a play by Shakespeare. The dressing on top disguises similarities beneath.

"I think I knew the day that it was over." Prem uncle looks at me sadly. "I think I knew, but I didn't want to admit it.

"Indir, my brother-in-law, he was a police inspector, he came to the office that day and told me that his neighborhood had been attacked. All the Hindus were being attacked and he was going to leave--leave that day for the border and go to India.

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