“We didn’t have much use for these, you know: Hindus, Muslims. You live there. I live there. We were kids, then, really just kids. And neighbors.”
I could tell from the way that Prem uncle said this, with a tight frown on his face, his neck craned, and his old eyes gazing up toward the rood, that he meant it….at least once upon a time.
“We were twenty-two, twenty-three years old, like you, no?” He glanced at me, nodded, and went on without waiting for a reply. I was twenty-five at the time, about to travel to Pakistan to do a story on the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, laying over in Delhi where a lot of my family lives now, quizzing my great Prem uncle about events that took place fifty years ago

“We went to the bars and nightclubs and drank together, got drunk together – we all 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 Great Britain. Like may 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 hundreds of years was once more at the tipping point.
“It was a crazy time. All of a sudden ‘freedom.’ What did that mean? Things from the day before hadn’t changed at all, and yet, everything – everything – was different.
“There were celebrations in the streets. People yelling, ‘Freedom!’ Really just as loud as they could, hoping it might teach them what it meant because no one really knew. But then the celebrations started to turn. They became riots.”
There was a change in Prem uncle’s tone. His eyes became downcast, perhaps a bit still perplexed how everything fell apart so suddenly. “Small disturbances, fights, and all of a sudden they became huge riots.”
Throughout the independence movement in India, there had been factions urging for the separation of nations – the creation of two independent nations – one for Hindus and another for Muslims.
And so Pakistan was born. Granted 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 were we supposed to feel?” Prem uncle shrugged. “All of a sudden we were guests in our own home. It was all very strange.”
“So we did what was most natural: we just carried on. We went to work.”
But simply going to work proved to be 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 centuries, were slaughtered at their doorsteps. The same gruesome fate was met by thousands of Hindus who likewise lived in Lahore.
“In the morning, going to work, we’d see corpses – just strewn alongside the road. Our city, our home, had turned into a warzone.”
Determined however, not to turn their homes over to such anarchy, young men like Prem uncle insisted on the normalcy of going to work. But they did take certain precautions – like wearing Muslim clothing to conceal the fact that they were Hindus.
“No one could tell,” he smiled as he recalled. “Our friends at the office knew, and we all just laughed about it. It was a joke. Inside the office, no one really cared which God we all 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 Nabokov novel or Shakespeare play. Appearance vs. reality, right?
“I think I knew the day that it was over,” Prem uncle said sadly. “I knew it but 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 assaulted and he was going to leave – leave that very day for the border and head to India.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My neighborhood seemed safe. I was young, of course, and stubborn. I was going to leave my home? And go where? Just like that? No – I was going to stay and I told Indir so.
“That was that. Indir nodded and said okay. He understood. He was married to my sister. I was still a bachelor – I could afford to stay. He said they intended to leave that night and that his wife – my sister – Bimla had already left for Delhi, and that he was returning to the house to pack some things and then he, his mother and sister would immediately head for the border.” It became clear to me then that this was not a story that Prem uncle had often told. There was a break in his voice every so often. Today, Prem uncle is well into his eighties I think. He’s a small man, like his other sister, my grandmother who we call Nani. Within the family, he’s always been our favorite. Not because he’s good with kids – he’s not. He has none of his own and never really remembered our names when we were small. Still, we all knew growing up that he was the family patriarch. He was the one the elders always went to when help was required. Just like Indir did.
“I told him not to go, just to leave, because things were very unpredictable at the time and going back to the neighborhood just felt risky.” Prem uncle laughed. “Even though he was married, he was young and stubborn just like me. And that badge he toted, I think it made him even more so.
“So I said ‘fine, I’ll go with you then.’ He was my sister’s husband after all. It was my duty to look after him.
“We climbed into the car – the four of us – Indir, me, his mother, and sister. We drove to his neighborhood. It wasn’t very far. When we did get close, you could see that there was some trouble just in front of the house. So Indir parked the car down the road and told his mother and sister not to move, that we would be right back.
“We went to the house, and just in front there were groups of young Muslim men shouting slogans and all of that. They were a pretty intimidating lot the way they were going. The both of us were a little nervous, I think.
“We went into the house, and collected a few things, then decided it was time to go. The crowd outside was getting bigger and louder. We left and reached the car, but just then, Indir remembered something he had left behind and he insisted that he had to go back to the house to retrieve it.” Prem uncle shook his head. “I can’t even recall what it was…
“Now when we went back the second time, the crowd was much bigger. When we came from the house this time, there were these boys everywhere
“Indir saw it first, a group of them had gathered around the car. They were pushing it and banging it from the outside. Indir yelled at them and ordered them to stop, flashing his police badge. But when they saw that and his uniform, they became even angrier. But so was Indir, seeing how fearful they had made his mother and sister. He shouted something at them and then they knew he was Hindu. That he was a Hindu plus a police inspector made for a deadly combination. All of a sudden, there was fighting and shouting, and before you knew it a group of them were all over him, beating him badly.”
“I tried to do something, but there was so much confusion and so many people that no one knew what I was doing. And no one knew I was a Hindu – I had on the Muslim dress that I had worn to office. They assumed I was one of them. So there I was, helpless, unable to do anything as they beat my brother-in-law who I was supposed to protect to death. They dragged his mother and sister from the car as well and beat them, too.”
Irony is a strange thing – it bends in so many ways. Prem uncles knew both sides of the equation – had he not been wearing those clothes, most likely he too would have been killed. But the young man in him still thought that had he been dressed differently, maybe he could have stopped them. But it’s futile to twist history in any other way than it is.Eventually police officers appeared on the scene. Seeing on of their own had been slain, the officers unleashed, brutally taking out their rage on any and all Muslims in the area. Besieged on all sides in the madness was Prem uncle – now he appeared Muslim to the police seeking retribution.
“So I just started to run, but one of the officers caught up to me. He recognized me as Indir’s bhai – or brother. He knew I was in danger because of the way I was dressed. He grabbed me and put me in the back of his car. And then we just drove away, leaving everything behind. He drove me to my own car and told me to get out of Lahore, not to stay even another hour. Just go to the border and leave.
“So I did. I drove there just then and never even went back home. I never saw it again – didn’t retrieve a single thing. Just went to the border, left the car behind, and fled. Just like that.”
That same night the riots in Lahore reached a climax. Half the city was torched. Hundreds of Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered in the streets, and the lines of partition and hostility were firmly etched between the two countries that days before were one.
“We were friends and neighbors and then we were enemies – all in a few days, a few hours. If those men had known who I really was, maybe I could have stopped them – Indir would not have been alone,” he said, perhaps not noting the double entendre. “But because of those clothes, everyone was confused that day. I guess it was my karma…” It’s not clear to me after hearing Prem uncle tell his story whether or not he even believes in karma.
“Those clothes – they saved me that day,” he finally admits, “even as I watched them beat my bhai. They saved me, but they took something bigger away.”
A sharp-witted and intellect, Prem uncle wasted little time establishing a new life in his landing spot – Delhi. He didn’t marry until he was fifty, to a woman twenty-five years his younger. They never had children of their own. Instead, they looked after the rest of the family who had also mostly settled in Delhi – especially his sister Bimla, widowed at the age of twenty-five with two young sons from her late husband Indir.
My own grandmother tells me that Bimla auntie never healed from losing her husband. I never met her because she died at the age of 65 from Lou Gehrig’s disease (it wasn’t called that then!) As she lay in the hospital bed for close to a year, her young niece sat by her bedside religiously. A young physician still in his final year of medical school – was assigned as the attending doctor, and when he was done with all his rounds, he’d stop by one last time in Bimla auntie’s room. Even in her dying days, Bimla auntie knew why.
My mother says my father would look over the charts mechanically – for he had seen them just hours before when he made his normal rounds. Then he’d loiter around, chatting with her about silly things like the Beatles and that silly think taking the west by storm – rock and roll. And Bimla auntie, on a respirator (imported especially from England by Prem uncle) and too weak near the end to really speak, would squeeze her hand happily as the clock ticked and the young doctor never left!
My parents got married in the spring of 1971 – two weeks after Bimla auntie passed. Unlike most Punjabi weddings, which are loud celebratory affairs full of debauchery, my parents’ wedding was in the morning, small and soft – the way Bimla auntie was.
In my own way, out of all of this, I suppose I have fashioned a sort of fantasy to qualify myself as one of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (my favorite book in college). If Prem uncle had not endured his karma, perhaps I would never have seen mine. If India and Pakistan had not split, Indir uncle, might not have been killed. Bimla auntie would likely not have moved to Delhi. She would not have died in a New Delhi hospital wing assigned to a young physician, and a karmic encounter between my parents would never had come to pass. Life itself is mountain of ifs. One man’s scar can be another’s womb.
Here’s for a lasting peace between India and Pakistan during this messy time.

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