‘Where are you from?’  Belonging after Partition

Aug 2013

اردو | Issue V

Artist: Ayesha Malik | "During the changing of the guard ceremony by Wagah border."

Artist: Ayesha Malik | “During the changing of the guard ceremony, Wagah border.”

I never know what to say when people ask me where I am from.  No simple answer will suffice.  At some point in my life I began to offer a partial answer: “My parents came from what is now Punjab, Pakistan,” I said.  “While we moved around India, a large part of my extended family settled in Delhi.” Surely, it would have been easier to simply say that I was from Delhi, a city remade after 1947 by Punjabi refugees.  My refusal to offer a simple, even if not entirely accurate answer suggests that I always knew that I was forged by the history of Partition and the fact that my ancestral homeland lay across the border.  Unfortunately, my stubborn knowledge was never accompanied by any sensitivity or penetrating insight into my own life, much less of those whose lives were turned upside down as they left of their own free will or were forced to flee across the newly created border in 1947.  Few would be able to visit the people and places of their former everyday lives.  In actuality, that world was lost forever even for those who could cross the border or stayed behind.

Last March, I had the good fortune to be invited by friends to accompany them on an 8-day visit to Lahore.  As they had great familiarity with the city, I felt that this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Their generosity and those of their friends and family in Lahore gave me a privileged glimpse and embrace into the intimate worlds of friendship and family. The border authorities never realized that I had overstayed my visa in Pakistan.  I hope what follows reveals how a visit of just over a week in real time was vastly extended in experiential time.

First impressions

We flew into Amritsar and took a taxi to the border, which we crossed on foot. This was a dusty walk with numerous stopping points along the way. Yet, to me, crossing the border into Pakistan felt like a miracle.  So many hurdles were overcome, from obtaining a visa to getting a no-objection-certificate to cross the border.  It sensitized me to the very great difficulties faced by many Pakistanis and Indians who want to make this crossing. I did not take this opportunity for granted.

The closest I had been to this border before, was a visit a few years ago. One late afternoon I came to witness the dramatic, ritualized, daily changing of the guard ceremony at the Wagah border.  Before the ceremonies, young Indian women danced vigorously to loud Hindi film music near the gate.  From the Pakistan side, crowds roared out “Allahu Akbar.”  The Indian side yelled something back lustily.  It seemed that each side wanted to simultaneously hear and drown out the sounds of the other.  I found myself craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the Pakistanis arranged on the concrete tiers on the other side.  Many critics have bemoaned the displays of nationalistic fervor at these daily ceremonies. While I am sure many of their criticisms are valid, for my part, I found it profound that both sides wanted to reach out and touch each other through sight and sound.  Now, some years later, I was not just watching the border, but actually moving through it in silence.

Soon after crossing the border, our dusty group was whisked away by my friends’ dear friend to one of Lahore’s swanky new private clubs.  This was my introduction to the city, and by extension, to the country. I blinked in bewilderment at the bar and open offer of liquor.  The menu included sushi and at once I wondered which club in Mumbai (previously Bombay) or Delhi offered this new, sophisticated offering of the globalizing world.  Being aware that prohibition existed in Pakistan, I fully expected liquor to be served in private homes, but not in a club. However, perhaps one can argue that a private club is an extension of the homes of its like-minded members.  The luxurious setting, the chilled beer, and the cooling breezes of air-conditioning instantly erased my memories of the dusty walk and lulled me into a mood of quiet contentment. The elite world of Pakistan was familiar from novels and (at least superficially) resembled India’s elite world.

After a few hours inside this urban paradise, we left. Driving out of the club we immediately came face to face with the harsh reality of daily life in Pakistan: the lengthy power cuts. Smoke billowed in the distance. An angry crowd blocked the road, and journalists were present at the scene.  For the rest of my trip, I noticed the presence of powerful generators in the homes of the wealthy, invertors in the residences of the middle classes and the long hours of darkness and heat for many others.  This struggle has its parallel in India. In May, June, and July, the heat soars and people struggle to find effective ways to cool themselves.  In July of last year, the electric grid in Northern India collapsed causing what is considered to the biggest power outage in history.  While the histories of the Pakistan and India are not the same, the populations of both countries suffer from failures of the government to provide power, among many other vital services.

Connected histories

Even though I now live in the United States, I could only take the measure of my experiences in Pakistan through the gauge of India.  My attempt to come to grips with the immense power and wealth of the Pakistani army was first filtered through my sense of the Indian army and later, through a comparison with Turkey and Egypt.  Awed by the roadside view of the immense grandeur of Aitchison College, I thought of Mayo College in Ajmer.  A visit to the Data Durbar Complex to see the shrine of the great Sufi saint Daata Ganj Baksh brought back memories of a winter afternoon earlier in the year at the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi. The farmhouses on the outskirts of Lahore reminded me of those in India. I estimated the size and feel of Lahore to be somewhere between Lucknow and Delhi.  The roads seemed quiet and relatively free of traffic because I compared it to the mad frenzy of Delhi or Mumbai.  Used to slums and the sight of great poverty, I found myself wondering whether Lahore had the kind of poverty we witnessed in India’s cities.  Now, to think of Delhi or Lucknow also brings Lahore to mind.

Lucknow and Lahore remain entwined in my memory for other reasons as well.  Just before leaving for Pakistan, I visited Lucknow with a friend for the first time.  In Lucknow, I was delighted by the architectural grandiosity and madness (or excesses) of various patrons: from Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Lucknow’s Bara Imambara (construction started in 1784) with its bhulbhulayah (the labyrinth) to Claude Martin’s La Martiniere College (founded in 1845), and on to Mayawati’s recent vast parks and urban projects.  It is sMaid that the architecture of the Bara Imambara complex draws on the architectural maturity seen in Lahore’s monumental Badshahi Mosque, commissioned by Emperor Aurangzeb and constructed between 1671-73. Amidst the description of various sites in Lucknow worth visiting in the Lonely Planet guidebook, I was struck by the advice to drop in and meet the proprietor of Ram Advani Booksellers, an independent bookstore on Hazratganj. After Lucknow’s historic sites, this was at the top of my list of things-to-do.

Newspaper coverage of historic Manney's Bookstore | 1984

Newspaper coverage of historic Manney’s Bookstore | 1984

Despite the Lonely Planet’s pitch, I was unprepared for the sheer pleasure of spending perhaps an hour in the company of Mr. Ram Advani, whose sharp mind and zest for life made it difficult to believe he was in his nineties.  In the course of our conversation, I learned he had grown up in Rawalpindi and, in that city, was neighbor to the Mani family, a Sindhi family like Advani’s, who, for 63 years, had been proprietors of the famous independent bookstore Manneys in Pune (formerly Poona).  It was he who gave me the shocking news that Manneys would be closing its doors.  After speaking to Mr. Advani, I asked a friend, Meena Mani, who was married into the Mani family, about the connection to Rawalpindi.  It was then that I learned that the history of Pune’s landmark bookstore stretched back to 1928, when my friend’s father-in-law established the London Book Company in Rawalpindi.  By 1939, he had a chain of 11 bookshops spanning various sites from Rawalpindi to Peshawar.  After Partition, he was unable to raise funds to establish a bookstore in Delhi or Bombay. Thus, he settled on founding Manneys in Pune.  In Lucknow, my friend and I asked Mr. Advani how he came to settle in the city and he told us the story of his journey after Partition.  He spoke of the bookshop he had to sell at a low price as he left Lahore.  Although he had left much behind, Mr. Advani spoke of his happiness in Lucknow.  The well-chosen books in his shop made me want to linger in the city.  Meeting Mr. Advani made me curious not just about Lucknow’s history but its present.

In Lahore too, I made it a point to visit some of the city’s historic sites: including the old city, the magnificent Badshahi Masjid, the Lahore Fort, Jehangir ka Maqbara, and Nur Jahan ka Maqbara.  I dashed in just in time to buy a ticket so I could walk the halls of the Lahore Museum and smiled as I recalled Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim.  Apart from historic sites, I was also determined to visit the famous bookshop Ferozesons on Mall Road.  This was the store once owned by Mr. Advani.  The bookshop had a prominent location. All the same, the right opportunity to visit it eluded me for many days.  Just as Manneys was located in the vicinity of Pune’s Main Street and in the cantonment area, Ram Advani’s bookshop was located on Hazratganj, Lucknow’s main shopping area, while Ferozesons was located on the prominent Mall Road.  All were located in areas that were once frequented by our former colonial rulers.  Perhaps, that is why I was struck by the similarity of Ram Advani’s bookshop in Lucknow to Ferozesons in Lahore.  However, Ferozesons was housed in a very large space with high ceilings and was much, much larger that Mr. Advani’s intimate bookshop in Lucknow.  It must have tugged at his heart to lose his former shop. Yet, Mr. Advani’s expansive intelligence and his luminous presence extended the boundaries of his modest sized shop.

The Partition resulted in great losses.  Bookshop owners like the Advani and Mani family suffered great losses.  At the same time, my journeys to Lucknow and Lahore made me realize that this is not the only story one can tell. There were also positive repercussions of the Partition. Ram Advani and the Mani family made a significant difference to the cultures of Lucknow and Pune.  Book lovers in Pune mourned the closure of Manneys.  Mr. Advani was delighted by the happenstance of his settlement in Lucknow. After these journeys I came to realize that some of the other bookshops of Pakistan and India also have shared histories and that this must be true of so many other phenomena.  These histories connect us in unexpected ways and must not be ignored.

Singing in Punjabi

One of the many remarkable people I met in Lahore was a gentleman who, for decades, had gathered a group of people around him for an in-depth study of various writings in Punjabi.  Many residents of Lahore will know of whom I speak.  I will refer to him as Mr. Ghazab (Wondrous).  As far as I remember, he is a retired civil servant in his seventies.  I did not have a chance to speak to him at any length and mostly observed him speaking to my friends. He was deeply intelligent, a good listener, soft-spoken, calm, and thoughtful. I felt I was observing a great teacher.  Just being in his presence made me want to be a better human being. It was easy to understand why many held him in such high regard.  Only later, would I come to understand the power of studying language and texts in a group and as a community of interest.

One afternoon, two sisters who also participated in the group study of Punjabi texts with Mr. Ghazab, offered to take us to see a gurudwara in a village on the outskirts of Lahore.  In many ways, Lahore has a Sikh presence and circuits of Sikh pilgrimage to Pakistan are active.  By contrast, the Hindu presence is less obvious.  While visiting the Lahore Fort, I was reminded by our guide of the senseless destruction of many Hindu temples in Pakistan following the 1992 targeted destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu militants in Ayodhya.

Even historically, the Hindus did not seem to have been worthy foes in the battlefield. The official histories, at various historical sites in Lahore, mentioned destruction by Sikhs so often that I came to expect it but never knowing what to believe or disbelieve any more.  We also visited the samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) who founded the Sikh Empire with his capture of Lahore in 1799 and the Gurudwara of Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606), the fifth of the eleven Sikh Gurus.  At the entrance, I showed a copy of my Indian passport and was surprised to be asked for proof that I was a Hindu as I claimed.  Earlier desecration of the samadhi by Muslims had resulted in a situation where Muslims were not allowed to visit this site.  I was taken aback and sad to realize that Pakistanis were issued identity cards where their religious identity was declared.  I managed to convince the ticket office that my name proved that I was Hindu.

Newspaper coverage of historic Manney's Bookstore | 1982

Newspaper coverage of historic Manney’s Bookstore | 1982

A Sikh gurudwara in India is no novelty, but in Pakistan it is. Visiting one in Pakistan had the effect of making it stand out as exotic.  At first, I was disappointed to find that there was no settlement of Sikhs in the village but just a family that took care of the gurudwara that was visited and used at specific times of the year.  We sat in the hall of the gurudwara with, at first, little to say to the man who tended it.  I wondered what the family’s life was like in the village.  In the midst of silence and short conversations, one of the sisters walked over to the harmonium and asked if she could play it.  Clearing her throat first, she effortlessly sang the songs of the Sikh guru, Guru Nanak in Punjabi even though she was a Muslim.  The space in which we sat was transformed by sound into an enchanted light-filled ornamented space.  These songs were also the fruit of Mr. Ghazab’s engaged group, who sought to understand the deeper significance of writings in Punjabi of all religious groups.  The gift of something magical, ethical, and also indescribable that came through in that singing was something I carried back with me to India.  On reaching Amritsar, our small group from many different faiths, unanimously agreed on visiting the Golden Temple to give thanks for all the many kindnesses and gifts that cannot be bought that made our journey and stay in Lahore unforgettable.

Broken hearts

After my return, I visited the famous artist, sculptor, and architect Satish Gujral, who was filled with joy by my trip to Lahore.  He is also famous for his series of paintings on the Partition.  By visiting Lahore and seeing places that he still remembered and loved, I had touched them for him.  He told me that when he visited Lahore in the 1980s, he had a heart attack.  Whether he had the attack because of health reasons or whether he had one because he was so overcome by heartbreak and love for Lahore, he could not say.  Satish Uncle was more expressive about his love for Lahore and the Punjab he had left behind.  My dear uncle’s many efforts to help get me a visa, my parents’ quiet determination that I should visit Pakistan were also expressions of love for a land they had left.

My grandparents and numerous relatives lived in what was founded as a refugee colony in Delhi. The men and women spoke in Punjabi about lost worlds and geographies.  I usually paid little attention.  Convent school educated, I longed to be back in South Delhi, in worlds in which I was more at home.  I knew even then that many people had lost everything in the Partition.  Yet, for the most part, the older generations never burdened us with their pain and loss, and it was easy to think that their hearts were not broken, that the pain did not endure in some form.  My grandfather and great uncle are dead and with their parting, the Urdu newspapers that casually lay around their households have also disappeared.  I remember my father would read out Urdu poetry written by hand in the Urdu script.  As the voices of that generation that lived across the border—this side or that side—are slowly muted, I hope we do not forget that our ancestors came from Punjab or Sindh or some other place in what is now Pakistan or from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab or some other place in what is now India.  My friend’s mother-in-law who studied in Kinnaird College, Lahore took her daughter and granddaughter to visit Pakistan on her last trip to ensure that the ties continue.  For those of us who cannot easily travel across borders, let us use our imaginations to make journeys, forge ties, write, and live connected histories.

Preeti Chopra is an associate professor of Architecture, Urban History, and Visual Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Chopra’s research concentrates on architecture and urbanism in South Asia, with a focus on western and northern India in the colonial and postcolonial context. She is the author of A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (2011).

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2 Responses to ‘Where are you from?’  Belonging after Partition

  1. Issue V: Space | Tanqeed on Sep 2013 at 10:33 PM

    […] Tahrir Square, and now Taksim square, have driven home not only the importance of public space to oppositional politics, but also that management and organization of space remains pivotal to capital and power, 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 ‘home‘. […]

  2. […] “Where are you from?” Belonging after Partition | Preeti […]

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