"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."
"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.
"I wasn't sure what I was going 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 not married. I could afford to stay. He said that they were leaving that night, that Bimla, my sister, had already gone to Delhi, and that he was returning to the house to pack some things and then they were going to leave--he, his mother, and his sister."
It's clearly not a story Prem uncle has often told before. There's a break in his voice every so often. It gets soft, and then he readjusts and strengthens his tone. Today he is well into his seventies. He's a small man, like his sister, my grandmother. Within the family, he's always been a favorite of the kids. Not because he's good with kids--he's not. He has none of his own and doesn't seem to have much affection for young children. Growing up, though, we recognized him as the patriarch of the family. He was the one the elders went to for help. All families have to deal with the dramas of things like substance abuse and adultery, and some have one unilateral authoritarian who cleans up the resulting messes. Prem uncle was ours--we even jokingly called him the "Don." He had no idea what we were talking about.
It was very rare that he appeared vulnerable, not because he felt a need to hide that side of him, but simply because he was a loner who never required the guiding hand of someone else. Researching our story on the war in Kashmir, the conflict between India and Pakistan, I had gone to him for some guidance, knowing only that he had grown up in the city of Lahore when it was still part of India. Sitting with my producer, Mitch, in a redecorated colonel's club at the top of the Taj hotel in downtown New Delhi, listening to my great-uncle's story, I felt privileged to think that he was revealing a side to me that few had seen.
"I told him not to go, just to leave, because things were very unpredictable and going back to the neighborhood where he knew there was trouble didn't sound like a good idea." Prem uncle gives a gentle laugh. "Though he was married, he was young and stubborn like me. And that police inspector's badge, I think it made him feel safe."
But Prem uncle sensed that it wasn't safe, that the riots were too familiar now to pretend there wasn't danger everywhere. Though he tried to convince his brother-in-law of his fears, he wouldn't listen.
"So I insisted I go with him. He was my sister's husband. It was my duty to look after him." There's not a sense of pride when he says this but, as he says, simply a sense of "duty."
"We climbed into the car--the four of us--Indir, me, his mother, and his sister. We drove to his town. It wasn't very far. When we did get close, you could see that there was trouble just in front of their house. So Indir parked the car down the road and told his mother and sister not to move.
"We went to the house, and just in front there were groups of young Muslim men shouting slogans and all that. They were a rather intimidating lot, all of them like that swaying together and chanting. Even Indir was scared, I think.
"We went into the house, and collected a few things, then decided to leave. The crowd outside was getting bigger and louder. When we got back to the car, all was fine and we were just going when Indir remembered one small item left in the house that he must not leave behind. Some item, I'm not even sure what it was." Prem uncle shakes his head."When we went back the second time, the crowd had gotten really big. When we came out from the house, boys were everywhere.
"Indir saw it first, a group of boys gathered around the car. They were pushing it and banging on the outside. Indir screamed at them and ordered them to stop. When they saw his uniform, they got even more mad. But Indir was equally angry, seeing how they had scared his mother and sister. He shouted something at them, and then they knew he was Hindu. He was Hindu and he was a police inspector, and that did it. All of a sudden there was fighting and more shouting and yelling, and a big group of them were all over him, beating him hard."
"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 that I was Hindu--I had on the Muslim dress I wore to work. They thought I was one of them. So there I was, helpless, unable to do anything as they beat Indir up and dragged his mother and sister from the car and beat them, too. I watched them beat him to death, my own brother-in-law, whom I was supposed to protect."
Irony is a strange thing--it bends in so many ways. Prem uncle knows both sides of this equation--had he not been wearing that dress, most likely he too would have been beaten and perhaps killed. The young man in him also believes that had he been dressed differently, he might have been able to stop them. But it is futile to twist history in any other shape than it is.
Eventually police officers appeared on the scene. Seeing one of their own slain, the officers began to take retribution on all the Muslims in the area. Besieged on all sides and caught in the confusion was Prem uncle--mistaken by the killers and now at the mercy of the officers.
"I just started to run, but one of the officers caught up to me. He recognized me as Indir's brother-in-law. He knew I was in danger, 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 another hour. Just go to the airport and leave.
"So I did. I drove there in the clothes I was wearing without going home. I never saw my home again. I didn't retrieve a thing, just went to the airport, left my car, boarded the plane, and left. Just like that."
That same night, the riots in Lahore reached a climax. Half the city was torched. Hundreds of Hindus were slaughtered in the streets, and lines of partition and hostility were drawn between two countries that days before were one.
Prem uncle has told me most of his story now. Having opened the door, he once again seems to be closing it--the familiar scowl returns to his face. "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 or maybe they would have killed me as well. But because of the clothes, those robes I wore that day, everyone was confused. Maybe it was fate..." Prem uncle pauses. It's not clear whether he believes in fate or is just an old man who's trying to believe his cliches.
"I watched them beat my brother-in-law to death and I couldn't do anything to stop them. And me, they were just confused when they saw me, they never saw the man beneath them. The clothes--they saved my life that day, but I think they robbed me of something else.
A sharp-witted and intellectual man, Prem uncle wasted little time establishing a new life in Delhi. He didn't marry until the age of fifty, when he finally wed a woman twenty-five years younger than he was. They never had children. Instead they looked after the rest of the family--especially his sister Bimla, widowed at the age of twenty-five with two young boys.
My grandmother tells me that Bimla auntie never fully healed from losing her husband. I never met her because she died at the age of sixty-eight from a rare form of Lou Gehrig's disease. As she lay in her hospital bed for close to a year, her young niece sat by her bedside religiously. A young doctor--still in his final year of medical school--was assigned as the attending physician, and when he was done with 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--and then loiter around, chatting away with her about silly things like the Beatles and that thing sweeping across America and the world--rock & roll. And Bimla auntie, on a respirator (imported especially from London by Prem uncle) and too weak near the end to say much, would squeeze her hand happily as the clock ticked and the young doctor continued to stay.
My parents got married in the spring of 1971--two weeks after Bimla auntie passed. Unlike most Indian weddings, which are loud, drunken, celebratory affairs, Mom and Papa's was in the morning, small and soft--the way Bimla auntie was.
In my own way, out of all of this, I suppose I've created some sort of fantasy to qualify myself as one of Salman Rushdie's "midnight's children." If Prem uncle had not endured his fate, perhaps I would have never seen mine. If India and Pakistan had not been split, Indir uncle (Prem uncle's brother-in-law) might not have been killed. Bimla auntie might not have moved to Delhi. She would not have died in a New Delhi hospital wing assigned to a young physician, and the fateful encounter between my parents would never have come to pass. Life itself is built on a mountain of ifs. One man's scar can be another's womb.