It has been 74 years since the horrifying partition of India, but LR Bali remembers the incidents that shook his hometown in Punjab vividly. A sparkling nonagenarian now, he was seventeen when it was announced that India's freedom would come but at the cost of partition.
'I had just completed matriculation from the Punjab University, Lahore (now Pakistan) then. I was with my friends when we all heard about the division...' says Bali, recalling the moment.
On August 13, 1947, he left Lahore and reached Nawanshahr, a small town in Punjab (India's side), on August 15 right in time to witness the unfurling of Independent India's new flag. For those few seconds, the reality of partition was forgotten.
'I did visit Lahore after 1947. In fact, I visited Pakistan a few years ago. The only difference was that now I needed a visa,' Bali jokingly says.
The 90-year-old Bali recalls an incident from Nawanshahr, a municipal council in Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district in Punjab. Interestingly, the town holds an added significance as it is also the hometown of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, India's freedom fighter whose tales of valour are narrated even today in Punjab.
Recalling one of the incidents during partition, Bali says he was very close to his neighbour Nayamat Ali Khan who owned a factory in Nawanshahr during the partition. Khan was a wealthy and friendly man. He used to feed people of all communities and was particularly affectionate to Bali and his brothers.
'He used to treat us like his own sons.' remembers Bali. During Eid, Khan used to call them for the feast his wife prepared.
Both families did not have the faintest inkling of the violence that partition would unleash.
There were killings and atrocities on both sides of the border. In the name of religion, people of one community were ruthlessly killing or maiming members of the other community. Muslims would avoid going to 'communal zones' where Sikhs or Hindus lived. Similarly, Sikhs and Hindus would avoid going to Muslim streets.
A few days into the partition, a group of Sikhs with swords and churris (knives) came near Nayamat Ali Khan's factory to hunt him down. But Bali and ten of his friends decided they 'will not allow them to touch Khan.' They hid him in a factory till it became safe.
After the violence subsided in the area, Khan was sent to Nawanshahr's Rahin district where a makeshift refugee camp was set up for those Muslims who had come from the 'other side' or were displaced after August 15 on the Indian side.
Remembering it all, Bali said 'he treated us like family. This was our duty.'
'People were buried alive'
The story of Khan brought back some positive memories for Bali, though only for a few minutes. He soon drifted to another anecdote.
He recalls seeing dead bodies on the road. Neighbours went ‘missing’, children and women were kidnapped.
‘Screams could be heard from all corners at night,’ he said.
Violence against women was at a record high. To 'dishonour' the woman of the house was considered equivalent to 'dishonouring' the family.
People on both sides of the border abducted, murdered and raped women. Some who survived these atrocities, went back home only to be killed by their own family members who could not stomach the possibility of them having possibly been 'touched' by the men of the 'other side' who once they grew up with.
'There are so many things that happened. I don't want to tell you gory details because you are still young.' said LR Bali.
Ironically, he himself was a teenager in 1947.
'It was more than chaos.....'
Remembering his days in Lahore, Bali reveals the initials 'LR' in his name stand for Lahori Ram. An author and journalist himself, he is known to be one of the few surviving followers of Dr. BR Ambedkar in Jalandhar, Punjab.
He says one will find a lot of information about the partition on the internet, but the pain and sufferings were beyond imagination and something that ‘shouldn’t be remembered often.’
Every family in Punjab has their own memory of the partition to share, he says.
Quoting renowned poet Amrita Pritam's famous Punjabi elegy 'Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu', in which Pritam calls Warish Shah, the poet who eternalised the love story of Heer and Ranjha, to rise beyond the grave.
Bali says, if anyone wanted to know what the partition was like, he would suggest them this poem.
A party of the elegy reads as follows:
''...Today, I call Waris Shah, speak from your grave,
And turn to the next page in your book of love.
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah..."