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AP Photo, File
One day in 1947.
DARKEST HOUR

An Indian author’s last days in the Lahore of 1947

I was a lawyer practicing at the high court of Lahore (now in Pakistan). We were a small family consisting of a wife, two children and four white leghorns—one rooster and three hens. Early in the morning, I used to let the birds out of the hatch to let them join me for my morning cup of tea. The rooster used to sit on the arm of the chair and only allowed his favourite wife to perch on my knee.

I assumed that these things would pass…and that I would stay on where I was in Lahore

I read the newspaper as best as I could amidst the clucking and the quarrelling of the birds. This continued right through the spring of the year 1947. I read of the impending transfer of power from British to Indian hands, of the Boundary Commission that was to partition India and Pakistan and of the rioting that was taking place all over Punjab. I assumed that these things would pass, that India and Pakistan would be free members of the Commonwealth and that I would stay on where I was in Lahore, whether it went to India or Pakistan, and have my morning cup of tea with my white leghorn rooster and his harem of three snow maidens. The birds gave life a sense of continuity.

Early in the August of 1947 things began to change. The riots assumed the magnitude of a massacre and it became clear that the Sikhs and Hindus would have to clear out of Pakistan. I was a Sikh, but I clung to the hope that I would be able to stay in Pakistan where I had been born and where all my closest friends, who were largely Muslim, were living.

This was not to be. One afternoon in the first week of August, I saw columns of black smoke rising from the bazaars and heard sounds of gunfire and the wailing of women.

A week before Independence, Chris Everett, head of the CID in Punjab who had studied law with me in London, advised me to get out of Lahore. We picked up whatever we could in our hands, handed the keys of the house to a Muslim friend, Manzur Qadir, and joined the stream of Hindu and Sikh refugees going out of Pakistan into India. Escorted by six Baluch constables, my wife and I took a train to Kalka to join our two children, who had been sent ahead to their grandparents in Kasauli. We came across convoys of Muslim refugees fleeing from India into Pakistan. We heard terrible stories of murder, rape and arson. I’ve heard that rioters who had come to loot my house in Lahore and had been beaten off by my friend had got away with my white leghorns, which happened to be in the garden. We had no doubt of the fate that had befallen them. Then I realized that the world I had lived in and whose continuance I had taken for granted had ceased to exist.

I arrived in Delhi on 13 August 1947. The next night I was amongst the crowd outside Parliament House chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” I saw Lord Luis Mountbatten lower the Union Jack as the last viceroy of British India and hoist the Indian tricolour as the first Governor-General of free India. I heard jubilant crowds singing in the streets. I saw English officers carried aloft on shoulders by enthusiastic young men—there was an unbelievable burst of friendship towards the English. But there was an element of unreality in the celebrations because the killing and looting went on.

Then I realized that the world I had lived in and whose continuance I had taken for granted had ceased to exist.

The only person who seemed real was Mahatma Gandhi who had refused to participate in the festivities and was going about on foot from village to village exhorting people to stop killing their neighbours. He told them that hate kills the man who hates; that Indian sages—Jain Mahavira, Gautama the Buddha, Kabir, and Nanak had condemned violence as a sin and exalted non-violence as the supreme religion—Ahimsa Paramo Dharma. The grand climax came some months later when a young Hindu fanatic walked up to the Mahatma, put three bullets in his frail body and forever silenced the lone voice of sanity.

A period of remorse set in. People said that all of us were murderers of Gandhi. The killings stopped. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs felt ashamed of what they had done to each other. Gandhi had his greatest triumph in his martyrdom. Hadn’t he said himself: “In the midst of darkness, light exists. In the midst of untruth, truth exists.”

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from Punjab, Punjabis & Punjabiyat by Khushwant Singh. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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