The Daughter of a Partition Survivor Speaks
My mother suffered in silence. She was unable to speak of the horror’s she witnessed when she was only eleven years old. Her parents and oldest brother were killed in front of her eyes in a train headed from what is now Pakistan to New Delhi on September 21, 1947 which was ambushed and massacred in one of the deadliest years in Indian history, the Partition of 1947. The spoken recall was too unbearable for her. The images inside her had a life of their own. Alongside these, she carried intense survival guilt, one of only three who survived in the train car, on that fateful night. In her mind, she actually never left that train. Parts of her lived there for the next seventy years of her life. She was among the 14.5 million who were displaced during the India-Pakistan partition and one of the many thousands who survived while up to 2 million died, merely two years after the end of World War 2. When she and her two younger siblings got off that train, they hid in the fields, waiting to be rescued. When rescue arrived, the family of the rescuer wanted them killed and discarded for fear of being caught with children from the ‘other side’.
Was it luck or destiny? Why did she survive? She asked herself this question every day of her life for the next 70 years. My mother’s coping strategies were such that she could not allow herself to feel pleasure or joy for too long, sometimes only for minutes before she would shut it down. If her mother was killed, how could she be happy? This filter was hard wired into her brain for the rest of her life, first in the train and then with her rescuers. As her first born, I knew no details of what she carried inside every cell of her body, but felt the depth of her pain inside of me. Over the years, she shared in passing that her parents had been killed without any details of how gruesome or traumatizing this was for her; nor did she share what she witnessed and ingested for a year prior to the Partition when intolerance between Hindus and Muslims grew as politicians negotiated the end of British rule in India. They cared nothing about how people would be affected by their deal making. India was broken into two, “cracked into pieces”, as she called it, into the present day India and Pakistan where, the Hindu and Muslim majorities would have to move to these respective countries and live out the rest of their lives.
My mother lost everything during the Partition, including her dream of growing up with her family in what she remembered was the beautiful town of Pind Daden Khan. She knew nothing about differences amongst Hindu’s and Muslims. She grew up loving her Muslim brothers and sisters, members of her community, who had respect and tolerance for all faiths, all peoples and all cultures. My mother’s life was turned upside down in 1947, when she and her family had to leave their home after a fire that was intentionally started there threatening their safety. On September 21st they got on a train due to arrive in New Delhi, across the border sooner than the one they were scheduled to travel on. It barely left the station before being ambushed. The massacre of the passengers was planned.
I cannot imagine what she felt as she witnessed the unthinkable. As her first born daughter, I have lived and suffered deep emotional pain myself, whose depth I never understood until now. I now understand that its depth can was probably the result of congested emotions that my mother could not release or even bear as they were too overwhelming. I am a child of a partition survivor. There is an ironic comfort in knowing there are a probably millions of others out there like me. Growing up, my emotional pain had no meaning, definition or container. There were times when I truly felt like I was in solitary confinement with it. I could not even define it with a psychological label. It was much deeper than that. It was ‘other-worldly’.
As a teenager, I was drawn to stories of the Jewish Holocaust. I was fascinated with how survivors found meaning as well as how their children felt, what they had to bear and what they had suffered. Rachel Yehuda has researched many of them. She discovered that children of Holocaust survivors carry forth the emotional pain of their parents. She has found evidence of this transmission in their DNA. I’m sure it is helpful for them to understand their pain and to have a container that the world holds for them.
But there is no container for millions like my mother or me, my siblings or my father, a partner to a Partition survivor. The Partition of 1947 is not known to the world like the Holocaust is. Most people I speak with about this have never even heard of it. Without a container, people affected by a historical tragedy can never find healing or closure.
My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly on April 11, 2016 at the age of 80. After her death, my brother and sister and I along with my children, uncovered accounts that she had courageously written a few years before, to give her pain a voice. She had expressed how difficult it was for her to write about this as she was reliving it while writing. It was intensely painful yet I imagine, also freeing for her to some degree. it was the truth of what my family and I had lived with all of our lives. She had finally named some of it. My father, was her only safety, her rock, yet she had a complicated relationship with him. Her struggle with him, I believe, was due to her conflict between her survival guilt and her will to live. He made it safer for her to be in a world she did not want to be in. She never felt like she belonged since her parents were killed, and he offered her a sense of belonging. She reluctantly accepted this yet struggled with it every day, and sometimes every minute of every day. I understand this now. I grew up in the midst of this tension, not understanding the cause behind it till after her writings were uncovered. The power of her truth is strangely freeing.
For me, the Earth has tilted on its axis with the reality of what has been uncovered. I am processing my experience of her now through new eyes, opened by the telling of parts of her story. Yet we may never know what she suffered as a young, beautiful orphan at the hands of those who she encountered after 1947. Holocaust survivors are not unlike my mother. They are unable to speak of the unspeakable, yet, their emotional charge and congestion as well as compensatory mechanisms meant for survival are palpable. They have had to shut down parts of themselves in order to bear living. What they are unable to process, their children and future generations will have to.
As I am deeply and intensely grieving her loss, I find myself connecting with not only mine, but her grief, and the collective grief shared by millions who were impacted by the Partition. Although overwhelmed, I must give this the voice my mother so desperately wanted to but was not able.
A project called The 1947 Partition Archive is underway, gathering stories of Partition survivors and I find myself pouring over these stories to give name to what I too carry inside of me. But the pain that children of survivors carry has gone unnamed. We must find a container to recognize this mark in history that has gone unwitnessed by the world.
My mother spent the last week of her life with my father in Krakow, Poland, the epicenter of the Jewish Holocaust. The day before her death, she visited Schindler’s Square with him and wept in his arms for the brutal loss of her mother. In the Square, she finally felt witnessed by the pictures of twenty-eight Holocaust survivors that hung on a wall facing her. Feeling witnessed by what their pictures represented on the day before her death was powerful enough to shift her identity from victim to survivor. Since the Holocaust has been named and held by the heart of the world for about as long as she has been a survivor, she was able to shift her personal paradigm. It was the closest she had ever felt to being understood. My father tells me she was very happy on the day of her death. I would venture to guess she felt ‘released’, maybe more liberated than she ever had. My hope is that she felt more whole. This is the power that being witnessed carries.
My mother lived and died as part of a collective that has gone unrecognized. I feel compelled to give her story a voice. I feel a deep need to shed light on it. I want to connect with others like me who have spent their lifetime witnessing and processing the anguish of a parent who survived the Partition.
As we all know, our greatest healing is always done in community. We have healed this way since the beginning of time. Shedding light on the shadow is the only way to truly heal and also to end the cycle of violence. I feel it is time to create a container for the millions of survivors of the Partition of 1947, both Hindu’s, Muslims and Sikhs, who had the courage to live each day, be it reluctantly, and to enlarge it to include us, their children, the alchemists who share a sacred contract with the courageous task of transforming and transmuting what our survivor parents could not, into love and meaning.