Kasoval, 1947

It was a hot August afternoon and the heat of Kasoval village made the dust stick to his shirt. He was headed home from school with his younger brother in tow and he was irritated. The maulvi had made him re-do his Urdu calligraphy again, giving his friends Aslam and Khalid an opportunity to snigger. “I’m not even nine!” he told his brother. “They are eleven and still doing the same lessons. What do they have to laugh about?”

Beeji called out to them as they neared their house. “Arre, don’t forget to wash your hands, garam parathas are coming off the tava quickly!” A quick sluice at the hand pump and the brothers Ravinder and Devinder were seated cross legged in front of the angeethi, with the smell of homemade butter melting on parathas wafting from the big thalis in front of them. Beeji made the best parathas, and after gorging on them, an afternoon nap in the shade of the bargad tree was in order.  They decided not to join the older boys in their game of marbles; it was far too hot that day.

As evening fell, the rays of the setting orange sun picked out the cows that were ambling home through fields of green. Dusk turned to a dark, hot night and suddenly there was urgent knocking on Tikkam Chand’s door. The Moharrar, embarrassed to be the messenger, stood outside bearing dreaded news. “Chand-ji, it is your house that they are planning to attack tonight. It will be best if you leave immediately.”

There was no time to think,. Small bundles of jewelry and cash had been prepared and were carried by Tikkam Chand, his wife and Ravinder’s daadi. “No, you cannot take your marbles” whispered Beeji. “We can carry nothing that is not important.”

“But, Beeji, Ravi’s marbles are the most important thing he has” said Devinder. No one seemed to care.

Soon they were on the street, headed towards the railway station. “How will Papa find us?” whispered Ravinder to Beeji with a sense of urgency. “He is a policeman,” she whispered back “he will find his way.”

“We cannot take the passenger train to India,” said Tikkam Chand. “It will stop at every village!” In an instant, he makes the bold choice of taking the train heading backwards to Khanewal, so that they could catch the mail train, an express that stopped at few stations along the way. When the train chugged out of the Kasoval station, Tikkam Chand cried out – “Sab jal raha hai. Humara ghar jal raha hai!” (Everything is on fire. Our home is burning!)

The Khanewal station platform was a scene of utter chaos. There were hordes of people and just as they stepped onto the platform, violence erupted around them. Ravinder screamed as a bullet lodged in his leg. The pain was unbearable and he started sobbing, unable to walk. Beeji tore off a strip of cloth, discreetly sterilized it with her urine and wrapped the wound. Ravinder did not know it then – but, the resulting scar would remain forever.

Ravinder saw a bizarre sight  as the mail train that they were waiting for pulled into Khanewal station. The train was filled with people – they were everywhere – they were perched  on top of the train, they balanced their bodies in the couplings between the carriages, the compartments were packed with them – they hung on for dear life from doors and windows. The sight stirred something deep and foreboding within Ravinder’s mind. The sight made him realize that life as he had known it till then had ended – madness had taken root.  

He saw Tikkam Chand negotiating with the Assistant station master.  Cash and jewelry soon exchanged hands and an agreement was stuck to take them in the bogey reserved for passengers traveling in first class. Soon, they settled into the compartment with trepidation.. As the train passed through a bleak landscape, Devinder developed a high fever. In desperation, Beeji pressed a piece of wet cloth on his forehead striving to keep his temperature at bay. Ravinder stared out of the window and was unable to process the various sights as the train hurtled through village after village. Women were jumping into wells, pursued by men with murder in their eyes. Dead, dismembered bodies were lying by the railway tracks. Fires raged everywhere. Houses, fields, animals and carts – everything was up in flames. His eyes turned red and he felt numb.

As the train pulled into each station where a stop was scheduled, the Assistant station master pushed all of them into the bathroom and locked the door securely. Men wielding lathis charged in, and they could hear them demanding “Hai koi Sikh da bachcha?(Is there a *expletive Sikh here?) The Assistant station master in a clam voice responded with, ““No one here but my family.” To prove his point, he opened the train windows and declared with more confidence to the marauders on the platform, “See? It’s just my family in here.” Eventually, the train reached Kasoor, the last stop in the newly created Pakistan, before it was going to cross over into India.

At Kasoor station once again, the Assistant station master opened all the windows to show the crowd that the first class  bogey held only three people – his wife, child and himself. He helped his wife and child to disembark onto the platform. They waited for him to clamber down, but he shook his head ever so slightly. He stayed on the train and then leapt from the moving train as it neared the end of the platform. It was his last gesture in ensuring the safety of his charges who hid in the bogey.

Tikkam Chand and the others stayed hidden it the bathroom until the train reached Firozepur, where they disembarked to come across another scene of horror.Their train was a ghost train, full of dead bodies. Dismembered arms and legs and severed heads had fallen off the train onto the platform. They were the only ones to get off the train alive, saved by a kind Muslim.

Ravinder did not know this then – but the face of the Assistant station master with his large chocolate brown eyes and his flowing beard, a man whose name he would never know, would stay etched in his mind through every waking moment thereafter.  

At Firozepur station there were a few Sikhs who handing out apples and warm milk to the few passengers who had made it out alive. They were soon herded onto a train to Delhi, where they disembarked to find even more chaos. Hundreds of people thronged every corner of the station. Devinder soon got lost in this milling  crowd and Beeji went crazy, yelling and crying, as she ran around looking for him. Luckily she soon found him, frightened and crying near a pillar.

Soon,they were taken to a refugee camp. They arrived there with no possessions, except for the clothes on their backs. Beeji knew that her daughter-in-law’s sister lived in Delhi and that her husband was a store keeper in Chandni Chowk selling luggage. Everyday, Beeji went to Chandni Chowk along with Tikkam Chand and made a stop at every luggage store – her question tinged with desperation was the same – “Do you know Leela?” One day, one of the store owners replied with the words she waited to hear – “Yes, she is my wife.” Hearing these words, Beeji sobbed in relief. “I have brought Kanta’s children here. My work is done.”

Leela hurried to the refugee camp and took all of them home in a tanga. She immediately summoned a tailor and got new clothes stitched for everyone. A telegram was dispatched to Kanta in Jagadri,informing her that her sons Ravinder and Devinder were safe and that they were in their aunt’s care.

It is a while before Ravinder and Devinder are finally reunited with their father Narendra Nath. Their father had left Kasoval village to move to another town to accept a promotion and a new posting. ,He had left his mother and his two sons Ravinder and Devinder in the care of his merchant friend Tikkam Chand. He had sent his wife and daughters to India earlier. Before he could go to Kasoval to bring his two sons and his mother, violence had erupted and there was no way to reach them. He had come to know that they had taken the train, but there was no news about whether they had arrived in India. The journey was filled with peril and there were so many stories of sheer horror that he did not know where to look for them or where to find them. He had finally used his connections to get a ride on a plane to Delhi and listened to radio announcements day in and day out for weeks on end. Then he heard the message that he had been waiting for all along – Tikkam Chand’s family and the Chopra family had arrived safely – they had now left Delhi and had traveled to Jagadri.

It is a thankful but not a joyous reunion. Too many of their brethren had been lost. The horrors that they witnessed had wrought a profound change in each one of them. Out of this unspeakable horror, a tacit agreement was born in silence – the things they endured will not be spoken of.   

They had to focus on rebuilding their lives and their identities in the newly independent India.

San Francisco Bay Area, 2017

It has been seventy years. Ravinder Chopra, a grandfather many times over, is teaching a “Jollywood” dance class at ICC. After an illustrious career in the Indian Army where he rose to become a general, he is enjoying his days of retirement. Theatre and dance are what he is passionate about now.  In all these years he has not spoken of his flight from Kasoval to Jagadri. Until now. The subject was taboo in his parent’s home.

Life has a way of bringing us full circle.

Ravi-ji, as he is fondly called, now 79-years old, is playing the role of a kind Muslim, complete with flowing beard, in a play that re-creates the events of the Partition right here in Silicon Valley.

The Parting, opened in January in San Francisco and moves to San Jose in March,and  is the brainchild of Vinita Sud Belani and Farah Yasmeen Shaikh.

One is Hindu, and is from India. The other is Muslim, born in America of Pakistani parents. One runs a theatre company, the other a dance company. To them, these are not opposite but complementary states of being, coming from several centuries of coexistence.

Produced by EnActe Arts and Noorani Dance in partnership with the 1947 Partition Archive and India Currents, The Parting is a seamless blend of theater, dance, music, and multimedia. Twenty-two actors, eighteen dancers, and a lone violinist explore the true-life stories of the survivors of the Partition, the forgotten, and the dead.

These were the ultimate victims, caught up in the maelstrom and tumult of hope, panic and denial that occurred when Great Britain in what many see as a blithe last act of colonialism, decided to partition the country of India based on religious identity following the Indian Independence Act of 1947, thus setting in motion one of the greatest migratory upheavals of the twentieth century. 15 million displaced, 2 million dead is a familiar statistic to South Asians.

“I am alive today because of the kindness of two Muslims”, says Ravi. In all the cruelty that the Partition unleashed and that Ravi witnessed firsthand, he saw kindness and humanity shine through on both sides of the divide. “We are the same people,” he says. “Who said a line could divide us?”

This interview was conducted by Vinita Belani.