Passage to India: refugees of 1947 remember the flight and their struggle to rebuild their lives
Those who survived the passage to India did not have it easy. They faced discrimination. Few were willing to employ them. Police treated them with suspicion and new neighbours were not always helpful
It was August 1947. Harish Wadhwani was a five-year-old child in a military camp in Balochistan in the new nation of Pakistan. He had joined school only a month back but had to withdraw from school in a hurry.
It had been six days and his father, who had left to get documents from his office, had not returned yet. The family was worried. On the seventh day, he did return with the documents. The family could finally leave for India. They would finally be safe.
Born in Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan, Wadhwani considers himself lucky. “Quetta was the place where riots first broke out. Our whole city was burning and people were being dragged from their homes and killed. But the military provided security to the families who were in government services,” he says.
Since Wadhwani’s father worked at the Post Office, their family was brought safely to a camp where they stayed for a week till their documents were ready, and then were escorted via sea to India.
Wadhwani recalls that in Mumbai, they stayed in a refugee camp for about a month. Since Balochistan remained literally cold as ice for most of the year, surviving in Mumbai was an ordeal. When the family couldn’t adapt to the weather there, they moved northward.
Wadhwani’s family then came to Lucknow, in the last days of September 1947. His father got a job at the Post Office. He had to take two-months’ advance on his salary to buy utensils and clothes for the family, because everything they had was left behind. “We could take nothing. The gates of our home were left open, ready to be looted,” says he.
He recalls that it took a long time for them to adapt to the weather of Lucknow. They’d develop heat rashes and get high fever every year. But he confesses that his troubles were nothing compared to what others had to go through.
Today, Wadhwani is one of the most respected members of the Sindhi community in Lucknow, but he says that nothing ever came easily to them.
Narain Das Menghani agrees. Born in Hyderabad, Sindh, he was merely two years old when his family moved to India. The trauma has stayed with him.
When everyone was fleeing to India in August 1947, including his own extended family, his father decided to stay behind. Menghani’s father worked with a mill owner and was influential, having served in the police force.
But six months after Partition, he saw his closest business associate Seth Ajjumal being forced out of his car and killed by a mob. He packed whatever little he could, took his wife and children and boarded the first train to India. That was when everything changed for the family. Menghani recalled this week, “People had left everything behind and carried only fear with them…”
The family finally made it to India. Their train stopped at Ajmer. No one was allowed to get down because refugee camps were full. But Menghani was running a fever and an exception was made. The family stayed at Ajmer for a month and found their extended family at the camp.
Menghani’s father however was not happy in Ajmer. He wanted to see the rest of India before deciding where to spend his life. He traveled to a few cities and liked what he saw in Lucknow. He set up a small business and settled down. But he was not prepared for being labelled a refugee.
Refugees were not given any employment. People won’t even hire them for private jobs. “Ye refugee hai, inko kaun kaam pe rakhega, kal ko kahin chale jaaye” was the prevailing sentiment.
And so, Menghani’s father, who once owned a huge bungalow in Sindh, was forced to sit by the footpath to sell clothes. Soon other refugees too set up their business there. But the authorities shooed them away. “My father and some 300-400 more refugees then built their khoke with logs of wood inside the Aminabad park near the old Hanuman Mandir and Ghantaghar.” 74 years later, that market is still dominated by Sindhi and Punjabi shopkeepers, and is called “Refugee Market”.
They never begged, never asked for help and built their lives without much support. He acknowledges the one support he did receive, from Seth Jhamandas, who ran Baba Thakur Das Sindhi school for children. But that was all.
Shanta Wadhwani too has a tale to recall. She was barely a year old when the family left Rohri, Sindh. But Harish Wadhwani’s wife still feels nostalgic and claims to remember enough to know that she loved the place.
Her family left for India in a train that was overloaded with people on top of trains and people falling over each other the whole journey. After reaching India, her family had to stay at the Delhi railway station for ten days. “We had nothing but a single chadar for the entire family,” she recalls.
But they had relatives here. Her mother put up with them while her father went back to Pakistan to bring back his sisters. “There were riots everywhere and we had no way of knowing if our father had reached or if and when he would return.”
Her two aunts, who had stayed behind in Pakistan, were eventually brought back by her father. “Earlier they had told my father that they wouldn’t go anywhere, that he himself should show his wife around India and then return home.” While they were returning to India, someone offered to buy their house for Rs. 1 lakh. But they left the keys with a distant relative, convinced that they’d return.
When the family moved to Lucknow and her father got a job at the Secretariat, they received a sum of Rs. 3000 as compensation for the house for which Rs. 1 lakh had been offered. Shanta Wadhwani sheds tears even now, recalling the struggles of her father, who cycled around Lucknow every day for months in search of a job.
The wounds haven’t healed even after 74 years.
All three of them say that their homeland was heaven for them. While Harish Wadhwani still obsesses over the heaven Quetta was, Menghani believes the same about Hyderabad. But that’s not all they reminisce about.
Shanta Wadhwani laments that the Sindhi culture that they’ve tried to preserve over the years, is being lost. “No one speaks Sindhi now, children are forgetting our language. We’re slowly losing our mother tongue, the language we grew up with.”
Harish Wadhwani nods in agreement. Sindhis have forgotten their traditional clothing as well. Back in Pakistan, Sindhi women would wear patloon (similar to palazzos or pants) and kurtas. “But when we came here, they started wearing sarees because that was the one piece of cloth they could carry,” he reflects.
Traditions and culture were left behind. Survival was the only goal.