October 28, 2021
When the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent into independent India and Pakistan in August 1947 after 300 years of British rule, my ancestors — Muslims in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh — chose not to migrate. This was a conscious, pragmatic decision. They were elite landowners, and although feudalism had been abolished in the newly independent India, they had assets to hold on to, assets they would have lost had they moved to Pakistan. Waves of refugees from India crossed over to Pakistan — in total, as many as 17 million were displaced, as many as 2 million may have died, and as many as 100,000 women may have been kidnapped and raped along the way. Communities that had existed side-by-side for millennia attacked each other with vengeance, Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other. Historians have described Partition as an “unprecedented mutual genocide.” All the while, my family shut their eyes and their doors and continued living as though nothing had happened.
My mother grew up in Bombay, and my father spent his childhood shuttling between Sylhet (then in East Pakistan, now in Bangladesh), Lahore, and Karachi. Separated by a border, they grew up in different worlds, my mother watching Doordarshan on weekends, my father watching The Adventures of Uncle Sargam and The Six Million Dollar Man on PTV.
In 1990, my parents got married in Bombay — like most South Asian marriages in those days, it was arranged — and my mother moved to Pakistan. In 1994, after I was born, my mother gave up her Indian citizenship and became a Pakistani. Visas for India were easier to obtain back then, she says now. I often ask my mother if, in that moment, she forgot about her aunt who moved to Pakistan with her husband in the 1960s and grew distant from her family in India. When her mother (my mother’s grandmother) died in 1971 — the same year Bangladesh became independent, and India and Pakistan went to war — she only found out through a telegram months later. Death did not wait for the war to stop, or for the border to reopen.