This was another superb play put up by local bay area Naatak company. Not only the troupe has matured in terms of acting and direction, but increasingly they are bringing plays with themes that enhance insight and education among the local community.
This play is set in 1947 and tells the story of a Muslim family that migrates from Lucknow to Lahore in the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan. The family is allotted a Haveli supposed to be vacated by departed Hindu family. When the family moves into the Haveli, they find an old Hindu woman living there who refuses to leave her land and her home. The drama that ensues gives a peek into human psyche of fear and ignorance and of hatred based on imbibed religious ideology. And then it also gives an insight into those who overcome such hatred and form ties that transcend shallow boundaries and find the answers to such complex issues what might be an appropriate and respectful way to deal with the dead body of a Hindu person in a town devoid of a crematorium and in a town where there is no one to show how to perform last rites for a Hindu.
It was a mature story that was beautifully told, superbly enacted with expert direction.
After the play, the organizers arranged a short session for real life survivors of the partition to share their stories. For me, this was an eye-opening account of what transpired. Before I summarize their stories that they shared, here is a short history lesson that I learned after I heard their stories. The partition displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire. Massive population exchanges occurred between the two newly formed states in the months immediately following partition. Once the lines were established, about 14.5 million people crossed the borders, hoping to migrate to safer environment, based on religious demarcation. No systems were put in place to facilitate such large scale migration of people and the newly formed governments were completely unequipped to deal with the flow of people on both sides at such a massive scale. Estimates of the number of deaths go as high as 500,000.
One of the survivors who shared his story was about 8 years old, at the time of the partition. He and his brother was migrating with his grandmother from Kasowal, a village in Pakistan, to Delhi by train. They boarded the train, packed to capacity. At a station where they got off the train to board another train there was firing going on and he was shot in the calf by a bullet. His grandmother tore off her clothes and tied the foot and they boarded another train. En route, they witnessed women jumping into wells to save their honor, they passed through train station littered with dead bodies and miscellaneous body parts and they were in deep fear for their safety. Luckily, a rich Hindu family and kind Muslim family was traveling with them. They Hindu family gave the Muslim family some money and their ornaments at each station and the Muslim family told the mob at each station that they were traveling with their own family and all these were their children and at times hid them in bathrooms and under the seats. The Muslim family was to get off at the last station before the train left Pakistan’s borders. The family begged the Muslim man to stay on the train and defend them till the last minute before the train left and that is exactly what he did. He got his own children off the train but himself stayed on the train, defending these Hindu passengers against the mob and finally got off after the train began moving. When the Hindu family reached Firozpur station, they found to their horror, that theirs was perhaps one of the isolated compartments with real people. All other compartments had dead bodies and body parts.
Another survivor also told a similar story of migration from their village. They were the landowners with 6-7 villages. On account of the impending news of partition, the father of this person and his uncle went on to India in search of livelihood. Before they could arrange for their extended family of 21 to migrate to Indian side, the family’s survival was threatened and they moved into a refugee camp. They lived for two months in this camp before a brave Indian military officer risked his own life and brought a convoy with some soldiers to bring them home. About 50 survivors traveled together in a convoy with these soldiers under strict orders to not venture anywhere far during brief stops. They were traveling hungry and thirsty for the most part. At one stop, this man’s brother and one other kid ventured out to the river to drink water and were shot dead. Finally, the convoy reached India and then they were transferred from one refugee camp to another. Finally, one day they heard Radio India announce the name of his father. Radio India announced names of survivors and family members with an aim to unite them. This family was then united but without any home. In one village, it was decided that who can find an empty home and sleep for one night in that home, would own that home. This family of 20 people got a 300 square foot home in which they all lived together for 15 years.
These accounts were eye opening accounts for me. My family was not anywhere near the border towns and this was not discussed extensively in schools. In fact, one of the persons who shared his story said that this was the second time in his whole life that he has shared this story of his experience during partition.
Once again Naatak company delivered phenomenal performance around an extremely crucial historical event that touched so many lives.