by Esther Mary Lyons
My father was the stationmaster at Allahabad, north India. He was a busy man. Allahabad being a junction, the Toofan Mail, Howrah Mail, Punjab Mail, Bombay Express and many other trains came from all over the north, south, east and west of India. The platform was always crowded with people, and coolies (porters) dressed in uniforms of red shirts, white dhotis and white turbans. The coolies were of different religions and ages. A young coolie, about fifteen years of age, sat pulling the rope of the huge cloth fan or pankha in my father's office. He took turns with another coolie throughout the summer months. Pankhawalas also pulled the fan ropes in the gents and ladies waiting rooms. There was no electricity. Oil Lamps, candles and oil lanterns were used for lighting everywhere.
Dad and other guards wore smart uniforms and caps, white in Summer and black in Winter. The railway guards and officers were Anglo-Indians or Europeans, all sahibs who spoke fluent English. They had sufficient knowledge of the regional language to understand and communicate with the locals. The coolies and the locals always said Salaam to them. Every command of the sahibs was followed with ji hazoor, hukaam kijia (yes sir, just mention it and we shall do it for you). The majority of the locals spoke Urdu or Hindustani (a mixture of Urdu, the Muslim language, and Hindi) in the north of India. The British had taken India from its Muslim rulers, the Mughals, who spoke Urdu. Before the Mughals, the Hindu Rajahs were rulers and mostly spoke in Hindi or Sanskrit. Hindustani became popular during the British Raj. Of course, when the British ruled India, there was a great push towards the English language, and it became the official language of India. The Mughals called India Hindustan.
My mother enjoyed parties, clubs and shopping. She and dad frequently visited the Coral Club, established for the Railway people. Housie (bingo) and card games were held every evening at the club. The bar was always open for members. Sahibs and Memsahibs called in for dinner practically every evening. The band played English music of the 1930s and 1940s in the background. Young Indian waiters in white uniforms and turbans served, while the young Anglo-Indians and Europeans displayed their talents singing, playing the piano, or joining in with the band. The waltz, the fox trot and the tango were the favourite dances. Chandeliers with candles lighted the halls, creating an atmosphere of romance. The railway officers on duty spent their free time at the club while waiting for connecting trains. Celebrations of the Christian festivals were done with great pomp and show at the club throughout the year. Families enjoyed watching Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies displayed on the white walls of the big hall.
My mother was very stylish. She had the tailor, Iqbal, sit outside on the verandah and sew her the latest design in dresses out of expensive material she purchased. She shopped for new material and shoes every time she went to a party. Iqbal tailored the material according to the pattern book Mum ordered from London. He was paid by the piece he completed on the day. Mum also enjoyed visiting friends and watching movies, either in the Palace or Plaza theatre. She saw both Hindi and English movies. I remember watching, Gone with the Wind and Casablanca with her in the Palace theater. Once she took me to a Hindi film, Pukar, in the city. Dad did not like the Hindi movies.
“ They cry and sing or run around the tree dancing in those bloody Hindustani films.” Dad said. “ It is a waste of time sitting there for three hours only to watch them cry or sing.”
We had a gramophone and stacks of both Hindi and English records. Sometimes Mum did paintings or embroidery work for pleasure. There were no radios or televisions. Mr. Wright came around with romance fiction from his library-on-wheels. He went around visiting ladies in the Railway colonies with books on his bike, and lent them for just ten paise a week. He also carried many magazines and fashion catalogues from England sent to him by his brother.
Yusuf was our khansama (cook). He lived with his wife, Noor Jehan, and their daughter Nazma, in single-bedroom servant quarters at the back of the house. Every morning Yusuf woke Dad at five with bed tea and biscuits. Once Dad was up and sitting at the dining table, reading the local paper, The Amrit Bazaar Patrika, Yusuf polished his shoes and his guard's uniform. By eight in the morning he was ready with the breakfast.
I was just four in 1944. Yusuf had been working for us for six years. They found him a polite, hardworking and honest man. Yusuf carried me on his shoulders when I was very small. He taught me to walk, as well as learn the Urdu alphabet on a slate. His wife Noor Jehan was my ayah. Mum and Dad left me in their capable hands most of the time. Nazma, their daughter, was ten years older than me. She wore a black burkha (a veil) whenever we went out to the park, just like her mother did. At the park, they would lift the front of the burkha only. They never wore one at home.
Another servant, Chunia, swept and swabbed the floors and also cleaned the toilets. Her husband Moti was our mali (gardener). They lived next to Yusuf and Noor Jehan. There was a common latrine at the back of their quarters which both families used. Chunia and Moti had two children, Prakesh and Sunita, both younger than Nazma but closer to my age. The two families were good friends. Very often Noor Jehan and Chunia would sit and chat while Nazma, Prakash, Sunita and I played in the garden. Tony, Mark and Jenny from our neighbourhood often joined us. Their fathers were conductor guards in the railways. We played Ring-a-Ringa Roses, Hop-Scotch, and Seven Tiles.
Jaggu, our driver, Moti and Yusuf would also sit and smoke bidis (home made cigarettes) together, spending their spare time gossiping and joking. Sometime even the tailor, Iqbal, would join them. They were all good friends irrespective of their religious beliefs.
When I turned five, my parents entered me into St. Mary’s Convent, run by German Loreto nuns, next to Allahabad University. Whenever the car was not available, Yusuf took me to school. I sat on the front of his bicycle. Jaggu always came to collect me in the car after school. Yusuf brought lunch at noon. I always found Chunia and Nazma waiting for me when I returned home. Mum was often out while dad was always at the station working.
Yusuf waited outside the school gates with the other servants before the lunch bell, and when the school chowkidar opened the gates, he was always the first one to enter the school premises. He set the wooden table in the school dining room with a white tablecloth, plate, cutlery and a glass. There were no canteens in those days. Yusuf brought rice, curry and daal from home every day, the food still warm in a tiffin carrier. He served my lunch in the plate, laid the fork, knife and spoon, placed a fresh clean serviette beside the cutlery, filled the glass with clean water and then stood aside, waiting to attend if required. He never forgot to peel the fruit for me and made sure that I ate most of the food. “ Babyji, finish all your lunch,” Yusuf would say, “ Memsahib, will be upset if you do not.”
The old dhobi, Ram Laik, took a bundle of dirty clothes to wash every third day after delivering the freshly washed and ironed ones. Whenever mum or dad required any ironing to be done urgently, Jaggu or Yusuf would take them to Ram Laik’s house and bring them back once he had done them.
On Sundays we attended the Cathedral next to my school. Jaggu drove us there in the morning. The ayah, Noor Jehan, always accompanied us. She waited outside in the car with Jaggu. Mum and I wore our best dresses, shoes and scarves or straw hats to church, while dad wore his best suit. After the service, mum and dad spent a long time talking to their friends and the parish priest, while I waited in the car with Noor Jehan and Jaggu.
My parents were a very happy couple. We had lavish dinner and lunch parties at home frequently, for the many Anglo-Indian and European friends of the railway colony. Everyone respected my father, the station master. We were a very contented and happy family till an unfortunate day in early March 1946.
It was a Friday, I remember. Yusuf was busy preparing for Mum’s lunch party that afternoon. Jaggu drove dad to work early at eight in the morning and then returned to take me to the school.
“Noor Jehan,” Mum called out as I got into the car. “ Don’t forget to pick up some good apples from the fruit shop on your way back.”
“Ji memsahib,” Noor Jehan replied.
Jaggu lived with his old parents and six brothers and sisters in the Civil Lines. Jaggu drove through the Civil Lines and then turned into the Thornhill Road towards the school when suddenly, about 100 kilometres from the school, we met a mob shouting, “ Pakistan Zindabad;” “Larke Lenge Pakistan;” “Marke lenge Pakistan;” “Khun se lenge Pakistan;” “Dena hoga Pakistan;” and “Leke rahenge Pakistan.” Jaggu stopped the car at the side of the road for the mob to pass.
Demonstrations like that were very common in those days. Dad and mum often spoke about the political status of the country. It seemed that India wanted independence from Britain. From the time I gained awareness, I had been exposed to much talk about Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and many other freedom fighters who were trying to get the British out of India. Gandhi had started the “Quit India” program, Dad said. I had often witnessed demonstrations with slogans such as, “ British Raj murdabad! Hindustan Zindabad!
Dad once said that the idea of a separate Muslim state, Pakistan, was encouraged by Dr. Allam Iqbal, a poet-politician at the Allahabad session of the Muslim League in 1930. And that it brought about a fresh lot of demonstrations with violence all over India. Dad read the news to Mum very often on Sundays after breakfast. I generally left the table when he did that. All the talk of world war and independence was a bit too much for me to comprehend.
That morning we watched the aggressive crowd walk past with patience and concern. Just as the last few men passed by, Jaggu started the car, and it was then that we heard a man in at the row yell out, “ Maaro saale Hindu ko!” pointing towards the car. Before we could move, Jaggu was dragged out. I watched in horror as he struggled to free himself from the mob. He cried and begged but his clothes were torn to pieces and then someone cut his throat with a long, shiny knife. Blood spurted all over the front of the car. I screamed in terror and shock. Noor Jehan quickly covered her face with her black burkha, clutching me to her chest in an effort to cover my eyes from the gruesome scene.
“Sahib ke baachie ko leke bahar niklo, baachie ko leke bhago yeha se” (“Take the sahib’s child out of the car, take the child and run”).,. I heard a voice telling Noor Jehan.
She did exactly that, pulled me out of the car hurriedly and ran towards home. As soon as we were out, the car was set on fire. We heard an explosion but did not turn back to see, instead kept running and running as fast as we could go.
“ Rickshaw mai baith jao,” (“Sit in the rickshaw”). It was Javed, the rickshawman who usually took Mum on visits to her friends. Noor Jehan and I were happy to see him. He rushed us to the house. On the way he warned the ayah about the situation in the city, adding that I should stop going to school until it settled down after independence.
I was hysterical and could not speak when I reached home. Noor Jehan recounted the whole episode to Mum and Yusuf, who had returned home from shopping. He said that it was like that in Katra market, too.
Chunia was standing in the corner, looking very disturbed. “Memsahib, they are killing the Hindus and the Sikhs in Punjab and Kashmir, my husband said yesterday. They want Punjab and Kashmir as Pakistan. The Muslims want to divide Hindustan into two nations.”
There was an atmosphere of fear in the house for a long time, something which I had never felt before. I could not forget Jaggu, his blood and the dreadful knife for days. Every time Yusuf used the a knife to slice bread I shivered with fear. He was a Muslim and so were Noor Jehan and Nazma. I felt frightened of them, frightened they, too, might turn against us. Iqbal the tailor had stopped coming to the house, so did the Muslim meat men. Everything changed from that day, my whole perception of people was disturbed. I did not know who to trust. Mum and Dad felt the same way.
“We have servants of different religions working in the house, God knows when they will turn against each other and us.” Mum told Dad that evening.
“I have them working in the station and in my office.” Dad said. “I am also frightened. However, I am sure they will do nothing to us Christians, Anglo-Indians and the Europeans. We have done them no harm. They are fighting amongst themselves for a separate land because the British took over from the Muslims, and Muslims took over from the Hindu Rajahs. Now that the British have decided to leave India and give independence due to Gandhi and Nehru, the Muslims want their land, and want to be rulers of their own country, Pakistan.”
Mum stopped going out to parties and the club. Dad had no car; he had to walk to the station, which fortunately was not that far from our home. Mum started cooking and staying in the kitchen with Yusuf. It was as though she did not trust him any more with cooking for us. She also started staying with me more often. She took interest in me like Noor Jehan did, and I also preferred to be with her rather than with the ayah. Daily came news of riots in Allahabad and other parts of India, especially in Punjab and Kashmir. Moti and his family stayed close to us most of the time. They started fearing Yusuf and his wife.
One night not long after, we were woken by the terror-stricken voices of Noor Jehan and Yusuf. “Memsahib, open the door.” She kept banging on the door but Mum would not let Dad do so for a long time, until she started crying loudly.
“Damn the woman. What is it?” Dad asked. Mum and I stood beside him when he ultimately opened the door.
We saw Noor Jehan and her daughter in their burkhas with Yusuf carrying little Sunita. As soon as the door was opened they rushed inside and banged the door closed behind them.
“What the hell!” Dad exclaimed. “ What are you doing?”
“Sahib, save this child, the mob has butchered both her parents and her brother,” Noor Jehan said. She was breathless. “They suddenly came in from the back gate and asked Moti and Chunia to convert to the Muslim religion but when they refused, they stabbed them both and their son mercilessly. We grabbed this child and ran. Please save this child.”
We stood in shock and could not speak for a moment. Mum then took Sunita in her lap and tried to comfort her. She gave them all hot tea to drink and told them to stay in the kitchen until morning, giving us time to think and make some decisions. We felt we could trust them again since they had bravely saved a Hindu child. >From that night they lived on the back verandah during the day and at night they all slept in our kitchen.
“The violence is worst in Punjab and Kashmir, where the total number of police constables are 24,095, out of whom 17,848 are Muslims, 6,167 are Hindus and Sikhs combined, and 80 Europeans and Anglo-Indians,” Mr. Wright said when he visited us the next day. “There are mass killings of Hindus and Sikhs, and abduction of their women-folk, looting of their property and burning of houses. Women are raped in the presence of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. They are then distributed amongst the Muslims to be kept as concubines or forcibly married. Large numbers are carried into the tribal territory and are untraceable. Even the children are not spared. They are snatched from their parents’ arms and tossed on spears and swords, and sometimes thrown into the fire alive. Women breasts and noses and arms are lopped off. Sticks and pieces of iron are thrust into their private parts. Pregnant women’s bellies are ripped open and the unformed life in the womb thrown out. Hindu and Sikh women are taken out in processions by the Muslim mobs in some places. A lot of these women have committed suicide by burning themselves afterwards. Hindu men and Sikhs have been forcibly circumcised and shaven and then converted to the Muslim religion…..”
“Stop it!” Mum screamed. “I don’t want to hear about these cynical tortures anymore. They are all sick and sadist. I want to leave India. Let’s go away from this mad country,” Mum pleaded with dad. This was the first time my mother expressed her wish to leave India. All along Dad had been asking her to do so, but she had refused because she said she loved India and her comforts, such as servants. But that day she wanted to run away as fast as she could.
“You bloody woman, it is because of you we are still here. We would have left this country long ago when my brothers left, but you kept us here. Now when things are at their worst you want to run away?” Dad said in his loud voice.
For a long time the schools were closed. Muslim shops and houses were marked with Urdu words to avoid any trouble. Europeans, Christians and Anglo-Indians marked theirs with the sign of the cross and were not affected. It was mostly the Hindus who got the worst of it until they began retaliating. Of course, once they did so, matters only became worse. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that a curfew was imposed. Daily shots were fired between Hindus and Muslims in the adjoining houses and the skies were full of flames and smokes.
On June 3, 1947, Viscount Louis Mountbatten, the viceroy and governor-general, announced plans for partition of the British Indian Empire into the nations of India and Pakistan, which itself was divided into east and west wings on either side of India. The setting of the border line brought about more mass killings, arson and humiliations on both sides. Millions of Hindus and Muslims ran across the border as refugees, leaving their property and wealth.
“Yusuf, why don’t you leave for Pakistan?” Mum asked him one day. “You would be safer in your Muslim country.”
“We were born and brought up in this land, Memsahib. Hindustan is our country. We will never leave the country of our birth. Only death can take us away from this land,” Yusuf said. I was happy they did not try to leave because of all the border atrocities that was in news. Trains going to and from the border of India and Pakistan were derailed, set on fire and the people were butchered. The trains returned with dead bodies.
Our neighbour Tony’s mother came crying one day. Her husband had gone on duty with the Punjab Mail and not returned. Dad could say nothing. He knew that the entire train was ransacked by the mob and every passenger butchered and set on fire. There was no time to tell the fanatic mob whether the travellers were Hindus, Christians or Europeans. The fanatics came in anger and spite, killing everyone in cold blood. Many other Anglo-Indian wives became widows when their husbands never returned from duty. They could not be traced, reported as missing. No one could say what happened to them.
On the morning of August 14, 1947, Pakistan became an independent nation. India followed on the stroke of midnight, on the 15th of August. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India and gave his famous speech, which included the memorable line, “tryst with destiny.” Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, addressed the House in the Parliament first in Hindi and then in English. Vande Mataram, the opening song, was sung followed by “Jai Hind!, Hindustan hamara hai. Hindustan Zindabad.” ( “Praise to India, Hindustan is ours. Hindustan lives for long.”)
The situation seemed to ease a bit within a few months. One day our usual Hindu butcher came with the meat. Yusuf went to get the mutton for the dinner that night. Noor Jehan was sitting with her daughter, Nazma, and me at one end of the front verandah, where the meat man sat with his basket.
“I could not get mutton today, instead I have brought this piece of good meat for roast.” The meat man said holding out a piece of pork leg towards Yusuf.
“What are you doing?” screamed Yusuf.
“You bloody Musalman!” the meat man said. “ Memsahib gave us to understand that you and your family had converted to Christianity. But I see you have not. Musalman, bymaan!” (“Ungrateful Muslims with no conscience”). The meat man shouted this out loudly, and suddenly the front gate opened. About ten men walked entered with daggers and knives. Before anyone knew what was happening, Yusuf, Noor Jehan and Nazma were stabbed and killed in front of us. Dad was at the station working. There was no one there except us. Mum fainted and I screamed in horror. Sunita ran into the room and hid behind the cupboard shivering. Our neighbours must have sent for Dad. I cannot recollect anything more than that. When I came round, I was in the hospital and Dad was standing beside me, in tears.
“Thank God you are all right,” he said, clutching me. “ We shall leave this country immediately, my dear, I cannot stay here any more.” I soon learned that my mother had passed away with a massive heart attack due to shock. Dad was able to get his release from the railways and we finally left India for England. Sunita was placed in Pratapgarh with the nuns before we left.
On the 30th of January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was shot by a fanatic Hindu because of the partition of India. But by then we had already migrated to England.
I had experienced the terrors of war, hatred and revenge from the time I was born in 1940. It was good to be in another country where there was peace, but I still missed India, my mother and those faithful people who gave me love and comfort.