A Place of One’s Own

اردو | Issue V

Artist: Ayesha Malik | "On my way to Wagah border, I saw this man."

Artist: Ayesha Malik | “On my way to Wagah border, I saw this man.”

August 1947 is a date whose vivid memories still weigh heavily on an older generation, and whose evocations of violence and displacement provoke awe in almost everyone else. Deaths in the millions, displacement in the tens of millions; villages, towns, and families torn asunder; unspeakable cruelty practiced by neighbor upon neighbor; a feverish craze of violence that many have described as an inexplicable momentary lapse of sanity, and that others have described as the inevitable end game of communal antagonism.

Whatever the explanations for partition’s horror may be—and there will be many rather than only one—the mass migration of population both ways across new international borders left hundreds of thousands homeless, vulnerable, and distraught. While we reflect on the anniversary of independence this month, and by association on the ruptures brought about by partition, it is worthwhile noting how often partition stories concern relationships between people and buildings—for example, in stories centered on a remembered house, or a troubled neighborhood or village, or in the uncanny spectacle even today of third-generation muhajirs living in “homes” wrested from temples, tombs, or mosques. The stories of partition revolve, significantly, around losing—and finding—place. These are stories animated by the virtues of hospitality and the cruelties of displacement, by community protectiveness and individualistic greed. As such, they tap into emotions and convictions that are far older than Cyril Radcliffe’s line. They are the substance of what I will call the “dark arts” of spatial fixity: the tricks and tactics by which people seek permanence in the city, including by kicking someone else out.

For those who took refuge in large cities, the very concreteness of city space often made things worse. In Lahore, continued violence in small pockets of the city and the smoldering ruins of a burned-out Shahalami bazaar promised little comfort to refugees seeking shelter in the immediate aftermath of partition. Those who took shelter in the refugee camp near Wagah were also insecure, as fatalities from snipers’ bullets at night occasionally made clear, but the tents at Wagah could be—and were—moved to a safer location two miles further west. The bricks and lanes of Lahore, however, were far more fixed in space, their re-inhabitation much slower and more complicated.

Some of the complication had to do with the fact that people had to wrest ill-suited space from the material carcass of the city to convert into temporary homes. In Delhi, where by far the largest number of partition refugees ended up—nearly one million by most counts—people took shelter in schools and godowns, on streets and under bridges, in parks and religious monuments and—famously—in the crumbling stone remains of Purana Qila, where Muslim “DPs” [displaced persons] from Delhi itself awaited safe transport to Pakistan (some waited for more than one year). Those fortunate enough to carve a shelter out of the city’s obdurate cavities and surfaces didn’t just sleep, eat, and recuperate there, moreover, but took to the streets to eke out a living, often in direct competition with those who hadn’t moved. By the time winter settled over Delhi in 1947-48, the deputy commissioner’s office began filling with complaints about growing crowds of beggars, frauds, and hawkers spilling out of the haphazard spaces surrounding the old city and into the planned spaces of New Delhi. Petitions and police reports described illegally occupied structures never intended for human habitation, or non-refugees claiming spaces intended for refugees; other reports described rising levels of filth, shortages of basic commodities, and the degraded spectacle Delhi’s streets presented to children traveling back and forth to school.

Leaving aside physical violence between people, the dynamics of partition seem to have given vast scope not only to uncomfortable and insanitary living arrangements, but also to fraud and unadorned meanness. These dynamics were fueled in many ways by lakhs of people living in an extended state of unmooring. Moreover, those who fell victim to such fraud and meanness weren’t all partition refugees.

Consider Tara Chand, a railway clerk who bought a house in Karol Bagh in Delhi in 1946, planning to retire there the next year. Shortly after buying the house, Chand was posted to Ambala; before he and his family left Delhi, he rented the house to an Indian Christian. In June 1947, this tenant moved out and Chand returned to Delhi to padlock the house doors. He then returned to Ambala to fetch his family, but by the time they were ready to return to Delhi riots had already broken out. Sometime during the ensuing tumult of that summer, a shopkeeper from a nearby suburb broke the padlock and moved into Chand’s house. When the riots subsided and Chand made it back to Delhi he found the shopkeeper already well ensconced. The shopkeeper happened to have relatives in the local administration, including one at the Karol Bagh police station where Chand went to file a complaint. Relatives also worked in the office of the evacuee property custodian, the office in charge of allotting abandoned houses to refugees for that section of the city. Chand’s demands to reclaim his home fell on deaf ears at both places. By March 1949, when a file on this case was assembled for review by the deputy commissioner (also known as the DC, a man presumably above the compulsions of nepotism), Chand’s house had only slipped further out of his grasp. In his petition to the DC, which had become a last-ditch effort, Chand complained that “justice, while on everyone’s lips, is being thrown into the waste paper basket while corruption, bribery, and nepotism are rampant everywhere!” Meanwhile Chand’s family, including his small children, were said to be “rotting at Ambala without shelter.” The DC declined to act on the case.


A 1916 petition from the residents of Lahore requesting that the municipality provide a “jang ghar” for the “public” (a kind of wedding hall or a public place where guests could stay).

Unlike refugees and displaced people in the city, Chand had a legal deed to his house in Delhi. Like the others, however, Chand’s mobility—though temporary and a normal part of his duties with the railway—left him vulnerable to mistreatment by those who were able to master the “dark arts” I referred to above of fixing oneself in space, including the art of dislodging someone else. Part of what makes partition stories that concern peoples’ relationships to place so common, I suggest, is how familiar the dark arts that underlay such stories have become: the tricks and ploys people use to secure possession or force abandonment. They are familiar because they are a long-standing feature of city life in the subcontinent. And, they weren’t invented in 1947.

They weren’t even invented in the twentieth century, but urban changes by the early decades of that century surely deepened their powers. In many of India’s largest cities population expanded rapidly during the last decades of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth century. A vigorous market in urban land accompanied this surge and housing shortages were common. The skills required to find, grab, and hold onto a plot of land became ever more challenging, particularly for those with only modest means. In Lahore, growth in the departments concerned with canal irrigation, railways, education, and legislative functions of the provincial gopvernment drew people to the city by the thousands. A.H. Pook’s 1914 guidebook to Lahore—which one could buy at Faletti’s hotel—noted that “most of the houses occupied by Lahore society are recent and have been built well within the last fifteen or twenty years.”

Other cities of north India witnessed similarly rapid growth. In 1911, the announcement that Delhi would become the new capital of British India unleashed a flow of migrants to that city. Many of them came seeking work in the massive construction project that became New Delhi. The city was in such a state of transformation by that time that the chief commissioner refused to hold a special census since the results would be “valueless” within a few months. By then, he argued, the size and distribution of the city’s population would have “entirely changed.” In early 1912, the colonial government began acquiring over 35,000 acres of land, including 120 villages located in and around the city, through eminent domain. Just four years later, in 1916, the entire process was complete. Land for the new city—which today averages about 1 crore rupees per acre—was acquired by the colonial government for an average of 164 rupees per acre. Not everyone was happy with the process, of course; some 320 court cases were filed by dispossessed owners challenging their terms of compensation. Nevertheless, all of these cases were resolved within the same four-year period, resulting in the government having to pay only 40,000 rupees more.

The influx of skilled and unskilled construction workers to Delhi, and eventually of the gamut of governmental, technical, and managerial personnel needed to run an imperial capital, produced an acute shortage of housing in the city from the 1920s onward, one that was felt across the socio-economic spectrum. That shortage has never really abated: a recent government report predicted that Delhi would face a shortage of 2.5 million houses by 2021 the target year of Delhi’s current master plan (Economic Times, December 20, 2011). Since all such predictions in the past have been grossly underestimated, there is no reason to expect that this one will be any different. The forces fueling the dark arts of spatial fixity are nothing if not persistent.

One of the points to take away from this thumbnail history is that tussles over space and shelter that accompanied the influx of refugees at partition took place on urban terrain where such tussles had long been waged. The tussles themselves were not new. The effort to find and hold onto a place of one’s own is such a deeply rooted experience of life in our cities for most people, in fact, that to tell stories about it is to speak about the urban per se. Fraud and self-interest flow though the capillaries of ordinary land transactions in our cities; they seem to scale up in times of crisis. That’s why it would be wrong to see incidents of wrongdoing involving people and buildings that so often characterize partition stories as evidence of momentary moral collapse. It was ordinary wrongdoing scaled up, and the arts that drove it were well-oiled.

This point can be illustrated most clearly, perhaps, by asking how people lived in the city during the years immediately before partition, when nobody could know what was about to take place. How were landlords treating tenants, and what treatment did they receive in return? Three dusty, largely forgotten files of petitions from residents of Delhi to the deputy commissioner, dating from 1944 to 1946, may shed some light on this question. I encountered these files in the Delhi State archives some time ago while I was searching for something else. Most of the petitions are type-written, with all the mechanical quirks of the machines that produced them preserved for posterity in jiggled purple lines. A few are handwritten in elegant script. Many are typed onto the back of reused forms intended for some other purpose, a reminder that the events of partition occurred during a period of wartime shortages, including a shortage of paper. Taken together, the petitions document that during this time rents were rising and rental housing was scarce. Not surprisingly, the documents also show that few opportunities were provided by the market to those seeking to avoid the dark arts altogether.

In Hauz Khas village, for example, a telephonist of limited means named Romesh Verma complained that he could not satisfy his landlady’s demands for a “handsome” rent. “As is not beyond your Honour’s knowledge,” Verma wrote in his petition to the DC, “the housing condition in Delhi is very critical, and house owners are trying to get undue advantage from the situation by harassing the tenants and thus extract[ing] more money than the normal rent.” In an effort to remove Verma, who refused to pay, the landlady broke holes in his ceiling through which she regularly poured water and rubbish. Literally adding insult to injury, she showered curses and abuse on him “from morning till evening.” Verma’s complaints against his landlady eventually provoked the wrath of her male friend, Amar Dass, who set upon Verma with a stick. Verma was narrowly saved by some boys from the mohalla, who provided their thumbprints on his petition to certify the truth of his story.

Mohammed Yamin, who lived on Roshanara Road, also refused his landlord’s demand that he pay double the rent or face eviction. In Yamin’s case, his landlord had friends on the Municipal Committee, and to illustrate the request more forcefully they came to Yamin’s house one day and demolished his kitchen and latrine. Just for good measure, and presumably on their way out, they demolished the stairway to his flat as well.

S.M. Mehta complained that his landlord removed four essential electric points from his flat—from the bathroom, lavatory, stairs, and deohri—and relocated them without warning to his own upper portion. P.D. Solo, tenant of a house in Paharganj, made the following complaint about his landlord, who was intent upon dislodging him in preparation for selling the flat: “Last week,” Solo wrote, “his son clipped my two charpais, his wife tore off several clothes which were spread in the sun, and the water tap is daily shut off from above. The loss and inconvenience of water in this hot season,” Solo added, “can well be realized than described [sic].”

Sheikh Zuhair Hussain, who rented a pricey house in Karol Bagh, found his landlord redirecting the house sullage into his private courtyard. When this had no effect, the landlord constructed a new latrine for his family on a hallway Hussain’s female family members used to keep purdah, thereby rendering the house “purdah-less.” It was also aggravating, Hussain wrote at the end of his petition, that the landlord purposely shut off his electricity just as his son and daughter were preparing for their MA exams. “Due to the mental worry that he got at the time,” Mehta wrote of his son’s experience, “he could not finish all of his examination papers.”

Chhote Khan, a government servant, complained that the owner of his rented house, in an attempt to get him dislodged, sent two women to plant charas on the premises. Khan came home unexpectedly, however, and interrupted their scheme. Just then, a police raiding party—one of whom was the landlord’s brother—came to search for illegal substances in his quarters. The police, alas, found nothing.

Although Khan was innocent, several petitions convey complaints by landlords against their tenants for just such kinds of illegal activity. Aside from drug users, landlords complained against tenants who shirked rent, were of “loose” character, and occupied rooms without permission. Purdah nashin women, particularly widows, were targeted frequently by fraudulent tenants and voracious landlords alike. The old and infirm no doubt suffered the most; Tikka Ram, a supplicant from Delhi Cantonment, sought help from the DC because he was weak and old, feared for his life, and his landlord put him “in trouble for nothing.”

The sixty-six years since homeless and distraught partition refugees began filtering into cities seeking refuge have hardly diminished the dark arts of spatial fixity. Ruses and ploys, fraud and deception, and the ordinary violence of spatial exclusion have grown in variety and efficacy to such an extent that they have come to largely define the urban condition. But they both preceded and outlasted the several years of hardship partition brought to those who were displaced, when the dark arts scaled up in ferocity. The nature of historical rupture partition drew in its wake remains an urgent topic of reflection, for historians certainly, but also for those whose experience has shown that history gives shape to the present. The way people live their relationship with a city depends to a large extent on how people before them did the same thing. In this sense, the dark arts of spatial fixity provide little succor to those who want the events of 1947 safely contained in the amber of a momentary absence of sanity.

William J. Glover is a professor of history and architecture at the University of Michigan, USA. He is the author of Making Lahore Modern: Imagining and Constructing a Colonial City (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), which won the American Institute of Pakistan Studies Junior Book Prize. Glover is currently writing a book about the intersection of rural and urban planning expertise in 20th century South Asia.

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2 Responses to A Place of One’s Own

  1. Issue V: Space | Tanqeed on Aug 2013 at 7:50 PM

    […] class and nation. In South Asian history, the very birth of  post-colonial Pakistan and India underscores that same point. New borders redefined space–and that which we call […]

  2. Lahore’s Elite Logic | Tanqeed on Aug 2013 at 9:52 PM

    […] and administrative transformations under colonial rule. In his work, “Making Lahore Modern”, William Glover shows how British authorities reconfigured the city to signify colonial power. Urban space was […]

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