Once upon a time, I was born in a newborn land, far, far away from my home today, in the ‘Land of the Pure’. Pakistan was just 4 years old.
My first memories of Pakistan are of my father in his army uniform, with brass buttons, and the shiny metal insignia of a horse in gallop, on his cap; and of my mother, always beautiful, sitting at her sewing machine, happy, and chatty. My childhood was full of play, chattapu and skip-the-rope on the concrete driveway, and hide-and-seek in the front lawn. My home was always filled with grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. It was a happy place.
When did I first learn about the birth of Pakistan? Was it the stories my parents told me, or history lessons at school? Not sure. But what I learned is etched in my DNA.
The land was once India, ruled by the Moghuls in India’s most glorious era, where the Hindu-majority flourished under Muslim rule. Then came the British, and colonized India. To weaken the ruling party, they drove a wedge between the Muslims and Hindus, and people who had co-existed peacefully for centuries, were divided forever. Muslims were outcast, and oppressed, and became second-class citizens. As India sought independence, it became apparent to the Muslims that they will always remain an oppressed minority. Besides their bitter relationship, they were at odds in their religious practices. Muslims were monotheist, Hindus polytheists. Hindus worshipped the cow, Muslims ate beef. Under Hindu rule, would Muslims have religious freedom? Will they be able to pull themselves up, ever? There was only one solution: They had to have a homeland of their own.
The idea of Pakistan took birth.
Conception before birth was a hard sell in the All-India Congress. There was bitter opposition by those who stood to lose. Mohammad Ali Jinnah led the negotiations and stayed the course with remarkable precision. As leaders talked behind closed doors, Muslims took out processions demanding a ‘Pakistan’. Mummy was among them, a 17-year old college student. Mummy was arrested. My grandfather, a conservative Muslim whose daughter wore the burqa, got a call from the police. “We have your daughter in custody. Please come and get her.” He never reprimanded her. She was fighting for her homeland, and in his own way, so was he. Sixty years later Mummy would relate this story and say in pride, “WE made Pakistan”.
The labor was painful, but Jinnah prevailed and secured an agreement to partition India. All Muslim-majority areas were to become Pakistan.
Pakistan was born on August 14, 1947. It was a traumatic birth. A bloody C-section. As Muslims migrated from India to Pakistan, and vice-versa, trains were attacked and people massacred. Mummy and her family were among the migrants who boarded a train in India, headed for Pakistan.
“We heard that trains going to Pakistan were being attacked. During the journey, I looked out the window and saw hundreds of men standing in rows, swords in hand, gleaming in the sun. I thought that any moment they will attack and we will all be killed. But it seemed like they were waiting for orders to attack. The train passed; the attack never came.”
They made it over the border to the safety. Their baggage was to arrive in the next train. Mummy was engaged to Daddy, and her wedding dress was in that cargo. The next day, Daddy went to the railway station to receive the baggage. He returned empty handed, silent, and looking stunned.
“What is it Kazim?” my grandfather asked.
He was barely audible.
“The train rolled in with blood dripping from the doors. Every passenger had been slaughtered, dead bodies everywhere. Even the cargo was looted.
Only the train engineer was spared, to take the bodies to Pakistan, and live to tell the story. The attackers had stopped the train, slaughtered all the passengers, and then sent the train on its way. The men Mummy had seen on the journey, had attacked the next train. It could have been theirs, and if so, I wouldn’t be writing this story.
Both sides committed atrocities. It was a bloody, bloody, partition.
Then there were stories of valor. Daddy told me that when Muslim-Hindu riots broke out—this was just before partition—he found himself in danger amidst a mob of Hindus. A Hindu friend took him in and gave him refuge. When a Muslim mob stormed the street and tried to break into his Hindu friends house, Daddy and his friend rushed to the rooftop and took aim at the Muslim mob in the street below to disperse the crowd. In that moment, Daddy and his friend were not Muslims or Hindus; they were friends shielding each other from the madness of the streets.
That was 70 years ago. I never experienced the making of a nation. I grew up learning that people made many sacrifices, left their homes, families got separated, all that for religious freedom; for Muslims to have a homeland of their own. I was the beneficiary of that struggle. I grew up in the land that was peaceful and safe, a land of beauty where the majesty of snow-capped mountains leaves you breathless, of people whose hospitality warms you all over, a place brimming with color and sunshine, and where during the war of 1965, I sang away Noor Jehan’s Ae watan ke sajeele jawaano, mere naghme tumhare liye hain (Oh defenders of my homeland, my songs are for you). Much of what I am is a consequence of my birth, my heritage, and because I grew up in a land called Pakistan.
Happy 70th Birthday, Pakistan.