The Story Of My Mother’s India – Of Riots And Of Kindness

The Clock

“Usko batana hai,

abhi kuch aur bhi dal hain,

ki jinko baan’Tne ka, kaaTne ka kaam jaari hai,

wo baTwaara toh pehle tha,

abhi kuch aur batwaara bhi baaki hai…

“I have to tell him,

That the job of dividing and cutting is still in progress,

That partition was the first one,

Some more partition remain…” Toba Tek Singh, Gulzar

In 1962 my mother lost her home for the first time.

Her hometown was engulfed in Hindu-Muslim riots that burned for a week. During that period, her family didn’t spend a single night in their home. Protected by their Hindu neighbours, they went about their daily routine during daylight and stayed the nights with one of them. More accurately, the children slept through the night and the women stayed up. But soon the violent mobs grew too big for the wooden “laathis” on guard and the neighbours reluctantly told my grandmother, “Bhabhi, we cannot protect you any more.”

Everyone, even the children, was asked to grab something valuable and my mother grabbed an alarm clock. The clock tick-tocked in the silence of the night, annoying everyone around her, but she held on to it. It was still in her hands when she woke up in the morning in a different neighborhood, in a different house.

Over the years, her family made fun of her choosing to take the alarm clock but this story seeped into my own riot nightmares post-1992. I once dreamt that there were riots all around me and I was asked to grab something valuable. I grabbed my baby sister who I carried in my arms to safety, a cooing child who grew up on the way but the riots never stopped. They stretched on and so did the road.

No one was on guard for me in 1992 — not in my dreams or when I was awake.


My mother’s India was still limping with the wounds of partition as it made its way to the future, but it had lost the frenzy that reigned across the country immediately after the borders were redrawn. The heat of communalism was steady, my mother says, but life ran on kindness. I have often wondered if it was because people saw an influx of traumatized citizens with empty hands and empty eyes that made them more empathetic or maybe it was the enormity of the tragedy that brought on an equal amount of empathy in the people who had lost nothing, bled nothing.

Whatever the reasons, the kindness of those times shaped my mother. The lack of it in my life shaped me.


Paper Flowers

“Maine sarhad ke sannaTo’n ke sehraao’n mein aqsar dekha hai,

ek ‘bhameri’ ab bhi naacha karti hai,

aur ek ‘latu’ abh bhi ghooma karta hai.”

“In the hush of the deserts of the border, I have often seen,

A bhameri still dancing,

And a top still spinning.” Bhameri, Gulzar

My mother and her 85-year old aunt remember Shyam Sundar well. He was an elected ward member of her area when he came across a Punjabi Muslim couple who had fled Patiala during the bloodshed of partition. The woman, known to everyone thereafter as Punjabi Badi Amma, had fresh sword wounds on her body and her husband, Abdul Gaffur, didn’t have anything except his wounded wife — no food, no money, no clothes, no children. Shyam Sundar took them to a man named Khursheed Ali, a prosperous businessman who was my mother’s neighbor.

“I am bringing guests for a few days,” Sundar told Ali. Ali took the couple in and took care of them like his own parents all his life.

The Gaffurs were from Patiala and had four sons ranging from the age of 9 to 19. In 1947, Sikh rioters attacked their house with guns and swords. Their sons were sleeping with their grandmother while the couple was in the backyard, near a door that opened into the back alley. When they heard gunshots, they ran out in the dark thinking they would come back for their family.

They never found them.

The Gaffurs went to Pakistan multiple times in search of their sons. (India didn’t introduce the passport-visa system for visiting Pakistan till 1952 and one could travel with a special permit.) Once, right after the partition, they searched the refugee camps with the help of my granduncle on the other side of the border. They only found one man from their mohalla who told them, “Apne mohalle ka koi musalmaan nahi bacha. (None of the Muslims in our neighborhood survived).”

And yet Punjabi Badi Amma would go to Pakistan on the faintest rumor of a Muslim kid from Patiala.

My mother said Amma went quieter every year and made paper flowers in her spare time. The only time they heard her voice was right after Eid-ul-Fitr prayers every year when she would fall down on the ground, screaming with grief for her kids.

Amma found purpose when Ali’s next-door neighbors were blessed with twin daughters. They needed help and Amma needed children. She helped raised the girls and spent her last days with one of them. She died not ten years ago. Gaffur a few years before her.

And so, the Gaffurs lost their sons but found their daughters.


 Jindi’s Salt

“Jab tak mere saamne wale ghar mein roshni jalti hai,

mere kamre ki deewar pey

us ghar ki parchhaaiyaan chalti rehti hain.”

“As long as there is light in the house opposite mine,

shadows from that house walk about

on the wall of my room.” Neighbor (Padosi), Gulzar

Last year, I sent a link of BBC’s Partition Voices to my mother who started telling me what she had observed about Sikhs and Muslims post-partition.

“They were fearful of each other for a long time (Muslims and Sikhs),” she said. “All the fear was rooted in loss and trauma.”

But the fear faded away over the years.

Why? I asked.

“They were both from minority communities. They wore the same kind of clothes; they had the same family values. They worked hard and employed each other and lived in mixed neighborhoods,” she said. “And then there was this goodness in Sikhs.”

The communities interacted socially, which helped in dispelling the fears.

Right across from my mother’s house was a Punjabi family who had come from Lahore after the partition. Originally, they chose to stay in Allahabad till their father was alive before moving to my mother’s hometown. My grandmother used to say that their father had lost his mental balance after losing his home. He was happy in Allahabad because the neighborhood with a mosque and familiar chaos reminded him of Lahore.

One of their sons and my grandmother fell into an easy and charming routine. Every Sunday morning Jindi (Rajinder) would shout from the door, “Chachi.” And my grandmother would go out and give him Rs. 15 without saying a word. He would go to the “mandi” (wholesale market) and buy three sacks of salt with it. By noon, he would sell his first sack and come back and pay up his “loan” before going back to the bazaar to sell the rest of the sacks. Some version of this routine went on till he and his siblings all earned their graduate degrees and went on to have permanent jobs.

My mother’s family lost touch with them after communal riots broke out in 1962 and Muslims were forced to move to Muslim-majority neighborhoods.


Kindness runs through all my mother’s stories, even in the worst of times. This kindness united the Hindus who guarded her house when she was a child, the wounded Gaffurs of Patiala, Shyam Sundar who came to their aid, and Jindi who made a future with salt and sweat. My mother saw people who understood pain and took steps to ease it however they could.

My mother witnessed compassion in all kinds of people and therefore has this immense strength to forgive. I haven’t seen much of it so I am always, pitifully, surprised by it. She expects kindness and is offended when she doesn’t get it. I expect nothing and I am puzzled when I get it. My mother saw victims of displacement, riots and was forced herself to move to a ghetto. But she also saw humanity at work. I have seen riots and had to move to a ghetto but have yet to see the same kind of kindness that she did.

I have just now realized that I loved the India my mother painted for me and not the one I was living in. My mother’s India gave me the strength to forgive my India for its big and small cruelties.

And now my sisters are raising their children in a country where they are being asked if they are Pakistanis.

Not long after I wrote down my mother’s clock story, I dreamt I was my mother and was running away from a roaring mob in the middle of the night. In my hand was the same clock ticking through my fears.

That dream is my legacy. And I don’t want to pass it on.



First published in NewsCentral24x7 on Aug. 15, 2018:


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