“You don’t know ji. If a mother does not teach her daughter properly, what will her in-laws say? All this education does is make a woman crazy! Just look at Shanno.” She would whisper the last word, like it was an expletive.
I pretended not to listen as Bauji and Biji spoke on their separate chattais. Shanno Chachi was so beautiful.
She had flawless skin, brown eyes lined with kaajal, and long hair which was covered with her dupatta. She and Chachaji didn’t have any kids yet. Shanno Chachi always hugged me. She always took my side when Biji scolded me.
Bauji felt us girls should go to school with our brothers. It was part of his faith in the work of Pandit Nehru.
My sisters, Pinky, Khushi and I would get excited when we thought of more little kids around the house. Our elder brothers, Karan and Veer only cared about farming.
We had moved to Amritsar when I was 6 years old and the country was cut into parts by the partition. Karan and Veer were ten and fifteen. Bauji says we had to travel in kafilas for days in order to reach the outskirts of the city. We lost two of my young brothers, Ravi and Vijay, during the journey. In the chaos of the crowd of grandparents, cousins, uncles and young aunts, vessels, animals and children, each person thought they had gone with the others and when we reached the refugee camp, we could not find them. Biji cried so much, she says, she could have filled up all the five rivers of Punjab. At the time, Pinky and Khushi weren’t born, so I became her Laddo, her favorite.
My Chachaji, Bauji’s younger brother, was 22 at the time of partition. He was young and strong, tall and broad, with a thick black mustache. From four years after moving to Amritsar, I have memories of Shanno Chachi. She used to spend a lot of time in the upstairs room, in the far corner of the kothi. She was sweet and kind to everyone.
Our kothi was huge compared to our neighbors. Bauji said he got only about half of what we had in Lahore. “Still,” he said, “be thankful we didn’t have to go to Delhi and live in some camp for many years. A Muslim family used to live here, and then we had to trade countries”.
Ever since we came to Amritsar, our Dadaji rarely left the house. He told us stories of Lahore and missed his friends from the government college there. His memories shaped my images and became my memories.
“Puttar, our mohalla was inhabited by all communities, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. There was a very gentle, pious, Muslim lady named Bibi Nishan, who was living there with her two sons. In our younger days, those boys, along with other children of that community as well as ourselves used to collect in the evening at an open place in the mohalla and play gulli-danda. There was never any quarrel among us. We always addressed Bibi Nishan as Massiji, and our Mataji was addressed by her children as Khalaji. The society, as a whole, was a well-knit unit. The intimate affection surging from the hearts of the people for each other was abundantly visible.”
Dadaji was just about to celebrate his retirement when we had to leave Lahore and make the 50-kilometer journey by foot to reach Amritsar. Although all of us adjusted to life in Amritsar, Dadaji never did.
Shanno Chachiji and Hemant Chachaji began going on long walks in the evening. Her long braid would hang below her dupatta. She would look at Chachaji shyly as he talked about his textile business he was starting. Biji would shoo us away when we tried to follow them.
Six monsoons came and Chachaji and Chachiji had 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls; the house was full again. I was sixteen. Even Biji had warmed up to Chachiji and was encouraging us girls to study further. Biji gave Chachi all types of unsolicited advice, ranging from child rearing to the right types of masala for the dal.
Chachi always smiled and said “Yes, Bhabhiji”.
On a grey winter afternoon, I was walking home from school with Khushi. We saw a group of women standing outside Nandu Grewal Uncle’s house wearing dark khaki saris and uniforms.
“Mr. Grewal, we have reports that you have been keeping a Pakistani woman in your house since 1947. We are from the Commission for Women, Central Government. We are in the process of repatriating all the abducted women to their native countries. It is our duty,” said the taller woman with sindoor in her hair parting.
“Madam,” Nandu Uncle started, with his voice low, “there is no woman from Pakistan living in our house. Our whole family traveled here from Pakistan, lost many relatives, but did not bring anyone here. Aren’t you about 10 years too late?”
“It is the duty of our country to repatriate each Pakistani woman back to her country” she said as she left.
We walked home and were talking about it casually when Biji heard and grabbed us. “What did you say?
Who is here?” she looked scared and confused. We told her what we had heard, and she immediately called Bauji, Chachaji, Chachiji and went upstairs. They spoke in hushed voices. I heard crying and Chachaji’s voice placating Biji and Chachiji.
The next day, the same tall woman from the Commission was at our door.
“Mr. Khosla, is there a Shenaz Khan living here? Age about 30 years?” she inquired once Bauji opened the door. He brought his full body weight to the door; we all hoped that his wide shoulders could keep their probing eyes out of our life.
“Madamji, we have been living here for many years. There is no one with that name here. You Dilli-wale have nothing better to do with your time than to harass refugees who are the victims of this country’s policies?”
Bauji spoke loudly; his voice did not quiver.
“Sir, we have a report filed from the family of Miss Shenaz Khan. She was last seen in Lahore 10 years ago. Her family has been looking for her for many years. Sir, we don’t want to disturb you and your family, but this is an order from the highest Commission for Women in India. We have been told Shenaz has a distinguishing birthmark on her back, as her parents have described. Our lady officer would like to check your sister-in-law, Shanno.”
Biji flinched as we all tried to grasp what was happening. “Please,” Biji said.
“Madam, we cannot leave until we have this verified. If we are wrong, we will surely leave. Please let us return their girls so ours can come back,” said the tall woman.
Shanno Chachi came down the stairs with her cherubic young son on her hip.
“Hold him,” she said as she handed him to me. He was fine without his mom, but I had to swallow hard to push the lump in my throat down further.
I knew the birthmark. When Chachi had me massage her back, she would slide her kurta to the side and it looked like 10 inch pink boundary that split her back. We all didn’t know what was happening.
Chachi and the lady officer came downstairs. Chachi’s eyes were red, but there were no tears. The lady officer seemed smug, unaware of the consequences of being proved right.
“The next step will be for you to meet your parents on Grand Trunk Road at Wagah Border,” said the tall woman.
“No, this is my family now. I don’t want to see them,” Chachi said. Everyone was crying now. Her moon faced son, playing in her arms quietly, gurgled and played with his mom’s necklace. “I have forgotten everything with them and I just want to be here”.
“Miss Khan, please fill out this form. We will take you to meet your parents tomorrow morning. You will go alone,” she said, looking straight at the angry Chachaji.
“My name is Mrs. Hemant Khosla!!” Chachi cried and left the room.
After the woman and her officers left, Bauji sat all of us down to make sure our imaginations were not misinterpreting what had happened.
“Children, you are now old enough to know the truth,” he started. I stared at him for a minute. He looked older than I had ever seen him before. “During the time of partition, there was a lot of chaos, rumors and fear mongering. The British scoundrels gave the nation hardly a few weeks to selectively divide itself. Parents of young girls feared for the safety of the entire family. Many parents killed their daughters with their own hands to avoid the humiliation of rape and molestation,” he stated. We lowered our heads in shame. Bauji had never mentioned such words in front of us.
“This was not just Muslims, but Hindus and Sikhs like us. Each family had to take critical decisions with very little information or time,” he paused for a beat.
“But Bauji, is Chachiji…?” Khushi started.
“Wait puttar, let me finish. In Lahore, as your Dadaji has described, we lived in a beautiful colony with Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. No one ever imagined having to leave. Next door, there was a family whose daughter was good friends with your Nirmala Buaji. When Partition was announced, a Hindu mob had gathered outside their home and their daughter was playing at our house. We immediately told both girls to hide. Her parents, after that incident, decided that they would leave Lahore and go to their native place of Karachi. They still had relatives there and did not want to remain in Lahore with the border being so close.
They had prepared their kafila as well. The parents then heard what was happening during the journeys of travel, on train or by foot, the rape, disfigurement, the humiliation of young women in front of family members. It was just too horrible to hear. We heard loud yelling from their house and Nirmala ran over crying.
“They want her to kill herself” she told us.
“Your Dadaji went to their house and tried to talk to them but could not reason through their fear. Frustrated and sad, they said they would rather leave her behind than take the risk of losing their other family members in the journey. We decided, as a family, to take her with us. After all, we had your Hemant Chachaji and other uncles with us. Shanno was distraught that her family would take such a step against her. Still, she agreed to come with us. Despite the heat of August, we had to take precautions to protect Shanno and Nirmala’s modesty. We had them wear 3-4 different salwaar kamizes. Your Dadiji ground up pieces of glass to be kept around their neck, with red chilli pepper, in case they were attacked. We wanted them to be prepared in case the unthinkable happened.
When Shanno came to us, she was scared and sad. She and Hemant started to like each other, so they were married. She believes in our religion but we never had her stop practicing her faith. We encouraged her to keep in touch with her family, but she never wanted to. Slowly, she took our family as her own and started her own with your Chacha.” Bauji stopped, exhausted from re-living a difficult time.
I looked over at the others, everyone was crying. “But what now, Bauji?” Khushi asked, breaking the sadness.
“Now, nothing,” Chachiji said. “I don’t want to see them. Why are they looking for me now? Didn’t they want me dead?”
“Shanno,” Bauji said, “you should see them at least. They are your parents. Let them know you wish them well”.
The tall woman and her team from the Commission on Women came promptly at 10 a.m. Shanno Chachi still didn’t want to go. We asked them what would happen next.
“We will inform you when we return,” they said.
“At least let me bring my husband and children. They should see my family now,” Chachiji pleaded.
“No madam. Rules are strict. No children or family,” she said, and they left.
Hemant Chachaji was raging. “We should have hidden her as soon as we found out,” he said, pacing. “How can she face the family that wanted her dead?”
“Hemant,” Bauji said, “How long could you hide her? Don’t worry. She will be back soon. Those are her parents after all; they had to make some difficult decisions.”
We were all confused and angry. Chachi was travelling to Wagah Border in a van tomeet her past, which time had helped her forget.
She returned that evening with a different woman, a social worker. Visibly disturbed, she ran to her room. Chachaji followed her.
The woman introduced herself as Kamlaben Patel, who was working with Mridula Sarabai, in charge of the Recovery Operation, Women’s Section, Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation. Rameshwari Nehru, Pandit Nehru’s sister was the honorary advisor.
Kamlaben told us that Shanno Chachi had met with her parents and they wanted to take her back to Karachi with them. “They regret the decision to leave her behind and don’t want her living in India. They have even arranged her marriage with a young man who understands her circumstances. They don’t want her children there, since they were not raised as Muslims,” she stated.
“No!” Shanno Chachi protested, “This is my house, this is my family. You are ruining my life.”
Bauji tried to reason with Kamlaben, “look Madam, no one abducted Shanno. She came and married of her own will. We have never ill-treated her. I understand the need of recovering the women who were forcibly abducted. We think your commission is doing valuable work, but in this case, it’s been 10 years since the Partition and Shanno is a mother herself. Do want to uproot another family?” Bauji was trying to appeal to Ms. Patel’s rational side.
“All valid points, Mr. Singh, but Shenaz is a Pakistani, she must be returned to her country. It is a matter of national pride! We need to get our women back from Pakistan as well. We will pick her up in the morning to bring her back to her family.” Kamlaben said sternly.
Bauji let us in on the adult conversation after Kamlaben left. “Shanno, what happened there?” he asked.
“Bhaisab, my brother, father, mother and uncle were all there. They had decided to stay in Lahore and said ever since I left, they felt cursed,” Chachi said. “I told them about you all they got very angry. They said this was your plan to get me married to your brother. I said they were wrong and that we were all happy. They said they had been looking for me for years. Now it is time for me to go back, they said. I told them about my children, my family. They said it does not matter; the government will cooperate with us. I just screamed at them, what is the point now? You lived so many years without me! They didn’t agree and said they would formally press charges to get me back, without my husband or children,” she said, weeping.
Hemant Chachaji was enraged, “well, if being a Muslim is that important, I will convert! Why separate us now?”
“What if they run away?” suggested Biji.
“Each city with repatriation cases has high security. I already tried legal and illegal routes,” said Bauji.
“We can’t just sit by and watch this happen,” Bauji said, but we had run out of alternatives.
Usually we slept in the baramda when it was hot outside. Tonight, Chachaji and Chachiji slept alone in the room upstairs. Their light was on all night. No one slept.
The roosters started at 4.45am and we all got up to draw the days’ water from the hand pump. The morning was crisp and cool, the sun rising slowly, with lethargy.
Chachiji made her special aloo parathas that morning. We all ate more than our fill, gulping it down with lassi. The morning was passing so fast, but each minute passed with the sodden feeling of a pending monsoon.
The knock at the door came at 10am. Kamlaben had a van full of other women in the back, crying and cursing her.
“Ruining another girl’s life. You crazy people! May God curse you and your family,” one said to Kamlaben. Others wept and cried for their children.
Shanno Chachiji was determined not to cry. “I will come back,” she said sternly, “for you and my children”. She looked at Chachaji who was holding her hand tight. Kamlaben pulled her. “Lets go Shenaz.”
We had all tried to reason with Kamlaben, plead with her, even tried to bribe her, but she held strong, as if the entire nation’s sovereignty depended on her.
“Leave me with my family!” was the last scream we heard from Chachiji as the van drove away. And we never saw her again.
We all tried to appeal to the government to get Chachiji back. Chachaji must have sent hundreds of letters to the old address. We didn’t know if anyone had received them.
Six years later, at my wedding, I looked at my dear Chachaji, visibly aged, refusing to remarry, raising the kids himself. Chachiji was a close memory for all of us. The chili from her parathas fresh in our mouths, her children running around. Her long braid probably had some grey hairs now. We all thought about her and hoped wherever she was, she was ok. At least we had symbols of Shanno Chachiji around us. She, well, she just had herself.
“The author has crafted a heartfelt tale that carves a personal slice from the otherwise faceless mountain of history. It lingers long after it has been read.”—Ray Deonandan
“This story proved both educational and entertaining. It had me genuinely worried about the woman at its center, and it stayed with me long after I’d finished reading.”—Shanthi Sekaran