Train to Pakistan
Date: August 14, 1947 Place: India and Pakistan
Event: The twilight of the British Empire, with the independence of India and the creation of the nation-state of Pakistan.
These were troubled times. These were momentous times. There was the light of freedom; there was the darkness of genocide. It was the dawn of hope; it was the twilight of empire. It was a tale of two countries in the making.
On a hot and humid summer day, a train hurtled down the dusty plains from Delhi to Karachi. Hundreds of people were piled into its compartments, stuffed in its corridors, hanging from the sides, and sitting on the roof There was not an inch to spare. But the heat and dust were the least of the passengers’ worries. The tracks were littered with dead bodies-men, women, and children, many hideously mutilated. The passengers held fast to the hope of a new life, a new beginning in a new country-Pakistan-that they had won after great struggle and sacrifice.
Thousands of Muslim families left their homes and hearths in India that August, taking only the barest of necessities with them. Train after train transported them into the unknown. Many did not make it-they were tortured, raped, and killed along the way by vengeful Sikhs and Hindus. Many Hindus and Sikhs heading in the opposite direction, leaving Pakistan for India, were butchered in turn by Muslims. Many a train left India swarming with passengers only to arrive in Pakistan carrying nothing but the deafening silence of death. All those who made this journey and lived have a tale to tell.
This is the story of a middle-class family, a husband and wife who left Delhi with their three sons. Their second-born boy was then four years and three days old. All that he remembered of the train journey was his mother’s tension. She feared massacre by the Sikhs. Her tension increased every time the train stopped at a station and she saw dead bodies lying along the tracks and on the platforms. The train had to pass through the whole of the Punjab, where a lot of killings were taking place.
The little boy also remembered his father’s anxiety about a box that he was guarding closely. It was with him all the time. He protected it with his life, even sleeping with it under his head, like a pillow. There were 700,000 rupees in it, a princely sum in those days. The money was destined for the foreign office of their new country.
The little boy also remembered arriving in Karachi on August 15. He remembered, too, the swarm of thankful people who greeted them. There was food, there was joy, there were tears, there was laughter, and there was a lot of hugging and kissing. There were thanksgiving prayers too. People ate their fill.
I have started my narration in the third person because the story of that August train is something I have been told by my elders, not something I remember in detail. I have little memory of my early years. I was born in the old Mughal part of Delhi on August 11, 1943, in my paternal family home, called Nehar Wali Haveli-“House Next to the Canal.” A haveli is a typical Asian-style home built around a central courtyard. Nehar means canal.
My brother Javed, who is something of a genius, was born one year before me. When my younger brother Naved arrived later, our family was complete.
Nehar Wali Haveli belonged to my great-grandfather, Khan Bahadur Qazi Mohtashim ud din, who was the deputy collector of revenue in Delhi. He arranged for his daughter Amna Khatoon, my paternal grandmother, to be married to Syed Sharfuddin. The honorific Syed denotes a family that is descended directly from the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. I am told that generations ago my father’s family came from Saudi Arabia.
My grandfather was said to be an exceptionally handsome man and was a landlord of some stature from Panipat, in northern India. He left my grandmother, Amna Khatoon, and married a second time, leaving their two sons, Syed Musharrafuddin (my father) and Syed Ashrafuddin, to their mother. She moved with her sons to her father’s home, where I would be born.
My father, Syed Musharrafuddin, and his elder brother graduated from the famous Aligarh Muslim University, now in India. My father then joined the foreign office as an accountant. He ultimately rose to the position of director. He died just a few months after I took the reins of my country.
Khan Bahadur Qazi Fazle Ilahi, my mother’s father, was a judge-the word qazi means judge. He was progressive, very enlightened in thought, and quite well off. He spent liberally on the education of all his sons and daughters. My mother, Zarin, graduated from Delhi University and earned a master’s degree from Lucknow University at a time when few Indian Muslim women ventured out to get even a basic education. After graduation, she married my father and shifted to Nehar Wali Haveli.
My parents were not very well off, and both had to work to make ends meet, especially to give their three sons the best education they could afford. The house was sold in 1946, and my parents moved to an austere government home built in a hollow square at Baron Road, New Delhi. We stayed in this house until we migrated to Pakistan in 1947.
My mother became a schoolteacher to augment the family income. My parents were close, and their shared passion was to give their children the best possible upbringing-our diet, our education, and our values. My mother walked two miles (more than three kilometers) to school and two miles back, not taking a tonga (a horse-drawn carriage), to save money to buy fruit for us. We always looked forward to that fruit.
Providing a good education to our children has always remained the focus of our family, a value that both my parents took from their parents and instilled in us. Though we were not by any means rich, we always studied in the top schools. In Delhi, Javed and I joined Church High School, but I have no memory of it. Neither do I have any memory of friends or neighbors.