‘Collect as much as you can and go to the square.’ It was a summer’s evening in September 1947, and eleven-year old Harchet Bains was confused at this instruction from his father. He walked towards the village square, the most notable feature of which was the communal well. The area was full of people, people Harchet had never seen before. Mostly there were Sikhs, but also Hindus, children, women, entire families. He waited with them, unsure as to what was going on and after waiting some hours fell asleep on the ground where he stood. He was risen early the next morning and told to prepare to leave.
The family took their cart, pulled by two oxen, laden with whatever food and clothing it could hold, and some fodder for the animals. Harchet managed to take some books, and a little wooden spinning wheel, stuffi ng them into his trouser pockets. He watched as his father locked the house up. The key was given to their Muslim neighbour, Inyattollah, for safe keeping. Harchet overheard his father giving instructions about feeding the animals, and the time of day to milk the buffalo. Inyattollah reassured Harchet’s father not to worry about his home, it would be well looked after until he was back. ‘Nobody was aware that we were leaving for good.’
Harchet had not a clue what was going on. He was told they were going to desh (meaning homeland); the place, the village you are from. He was bewildered: ‘I am from the village I have just left. That is my home.’
It had been such a happy childhood in western Punjab, in his village near Okara in Montgomery district. Harchet’s father was a farmer; they had a large house known as a haveli, with land. They kept buffalo, oxen, carts and owned a lot of farming equipment. Politics never touched his life. Harchet had never even seen an Englishman. There were no radios in the village. Occasionally an Urdu newspaper would be brought from town, when the farmers sold their produce at market, and read to the mainly illiterate villagers. Harchet had overheard the adults speak of Jinnah and Gandhi but didn’t know who they were. At the gurdwara there was talk of independence, but to Harchet it meant little, there was never a sense that it would mean being uprooted.
Evenings were spent crowded around the one gramophone in the village, where Harchet, his neighbourhood friends, and their families would sit together and listen to old folk songs. There weren’t many records, so they would play the same ones over and over again. ‘Pagdi Sambhal Jatta’ is the one he remembers. A song about a farmer’s life, a difficult life, during the time of British India. A man who has debts to a money lender.
Harchet is now a youthful-looking eighty-two. A statuesque, dignifi ed man, his only ailment is the arthritis which niggles him when he gets up off the floor of the gurdwara he established near his home in Hertfordshire. He still sits cross-legged for prayer at his place of worship, and wears a turban, as his father and forefathers did. He works now to improve interfaith relations among the South Asian community around Hitchin. As a child he remembers that those of different faiths mixed freely in his village. He ate at his Muslim friends’ house; they ate at his. He went to the mosque to celebrate festivals, and the Muslims came to their home to mark Diwali. The communities never intermarried – other than that they were ‘very, very friendly’. His best friend was Mohammed Azeez, a Muslim boy. They played kabaddi together, picked fruit from the trees, sharing the spoils, and spent their time ‘just making mischief as all children do’. In the rush to leave there had been no time to say goodbye to his dear friend Mohammed.
Half a million Sikhs lived in parts of Punjab that were now on Pakistan’s side of the partition line, including Okara and Harchet’s village. Pakistan became home to some of the holiest Sikh pilgrimage sites including the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Sikhs were leaving not just their homes but also their most sacred places.
Harchet and the throngs of people – minorities in this new country – started walking in a long line, a kafila . Harchet learned that they had to flee, as Hindus and Sikhs in nearby villages had been attacked and killed, and they were no longer safe. They had to move quickly and were told to stay close together. In the chaos of leaving two of Harchet’s cousins, aged four and three, went missing.
On the second day of their journey by foot Harchet saw parts of the human line come under attack from Muslims. It was only then that he and his family realised they would not be returning to their village again. Two retired Sikh army officers on horseback, with rifles on their shoulders, was all there was to protect the group. The two rode back and forth along the line of people. ‘I remember the army men telling us, “Be close together, it’s very dangerous. It is firing going on, people are killing other people, so be very, very vigilant.” ’ When a Muslim mob approached to target the kafila, on seeing the armed men, they would back off. They focussed their attack on parts of the line where there was no one patrolling. Often grown men in the caravan would carry lathis as they walked to defend themselves and their families.
People tried to help one another best they could. ‘The younger and fitter people used to help the very frail,’ says Harchet. ‘My grandmother, who was quite frail, she did survive all the journey but very slowly, so we were trying to help. I couldn’t help her because I was too young but I used to lay my hand on her and say, Dadi, Grandmother, we will soon reach.’
Harchet crouches down as he shows me now how he and his siblings were told to walk underneath the horse cart, while the adults of the family walked around the wagon to protect them. ‘It was difficult to walk like that while you’re crouching but it was so terrible situation that we were made to do that for our safety.’ As they walked they were told to say prayers so God could save them during the journey. They recited the ‘Mul Mantar’ in Punjabi, the first composition of the Sikh holy text ‘Japji Sahib’, a prayer every Sikh child knew:
There is only one God,
Eternal truth is His name,
He is the creator,
He is without fear
He is without hate,
Immortal, without form,
Beyond birth and death,
He is the enlightener,
He can be reached through the mercy and grace of the true Guru.
The rains soon came and it quickly became muddy and difficult for the bullocks dragging the carts. They threw out some of the heavier belongings to help the animals, but eventually as the rain came down harder it became impossible to move, and the carts and their contents were abandoned. Harchet’s books in his pockets and the wooden spinning wheel had long been jettisoned. It was now a matter of survival. All Harchet and his family had with them were the clothes on their backs.
The food they carried had run out. It is the persistent hunger that is the abiding memory for Harchet of that journey, and his crying to be fed. Harchet’s parents would pick tender leaves to eat from plants or trees – wherever it was safe to get them. These leaves had now replaced Harchet’s belongings in his pockets. The children hated eating them, they tasted of nothing – so his elder sister found some spicy chilli leaves which they would rub on the other leaves to make them more palatable. ‘It looked at that time very, very tasty because the tasteless leaves were so horrible to eat, but to fill your stomach up you had to eat something. We were crying and we were not happy and saying how come we eat leaves but that was the only thing available so we had to make do with that … so we had to survive like that.’
One day the elders went to find water, and found corpses in the well. After that, the children were told to drink from the puddles, even if they were muddy. Muddy water was preferable to water which had lain with decomposing bodies.
As the caravan went on it picked up more and more people from the villages along the way, until Harchet believes it was miles long; as a child he said it felt never-ending. As they walked they would hear cries of people who were hurt badly, lying along the roadside. Harchet assumes many had been attacked by the mobs as they walked, and most likely eventually died where they fell. But they could not be carried or cared for, so the caravan moved on past them. ‘I saw somebody; his throat was cut and he was lying backwards and I could see the blood coming out and he was trying to speak but obviously he couldn’t. All I remember was he was making some kind of sound and I don’t think he survived very long.’ They felt sorry for these discarded people, but soon they began to see them so frequently that they barely noticed them.
Harchet finally knew he was safe when he was handed roasted chickpeas and nuts by villagers in Fazilka, which he discovered was in India. He laughs as he recounts stuffing the morsels into his mouth. The first decent food in days. Harchet is still unsure how long the journey was by foot – he thinks maybe four or five days. They were relieved finally to be safe. But his uncle had died on the journey, and his two little cousins were still missing. He remembers loudspeakers overhead advising the incoming refugees to take a bus or train to their intended destination in India – and that travel was free. From Fazilka they boarded a train ‘which was so full we were made to sit on the top of the train, on the roof, and lucky if nobody fell off. We held each other as we sat on the roof.’ They were bound for the district of Hoshiarpur – where the family had originally come from generations back. Desh.
They entered the village of Khera barefoot. The men had lost their turbans; their shirts and kurtas were torn. This is how they walked towards their desh.
Excerpted with permission from Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, Kavita Puri, Bloomsbury India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.