Partition memories: The hidden healer

Rajmohan Gandhi, Usha Gandhi

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The Mahabharata, the great epic known to most Indians, relates how a mighty battle fought at Kurukshetra destroyed almost all the characters portrayed. The town of Kurukshetra ("the field of Kuru") lies near the eastern end of what once was a single Punjab, only 55 miles north of New Delhi. Divided in 1947 into an Indian state and a Pakistani province, the territory of "the Punjab" (as it was known before its division) is watered by the great Indus river and by five others that give Punjab (which means "five rivers" in Urdu and Farsi) its name: Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas. At first Indian Punjab was called East Punjab; now it is simply Punjab. The Pakistani portion is also known as just Punjab. Indian lore tells us that the Mahabharata bloodshed of mythology was preceded by another genocide in Kurukshetra: the elimination of the entire Kshatriya race by a Brahmin, Parasurama, who avenged the killing of his father by a Kshatriya.A particularly treacherous killing in the (later) Mahabharata war is of the Brahmin teacher Drona, whose son Ashwatthama then takes brutal revenge, killing women and children in their sleep. Ashwatthama is India's most vivid symbol of revenge. He is said to be always alive - forever miserable and hideous but unable to die because of a curse earned by his atrocities. Yet Ashwatthama is not the only spirit alive in the Punjab. Indian lore also informs us that Kuru, the king and farmer who founded Kurukshetra, wanted to cultivate eight virtues there, two of which were forgiveness and compassion. Later in the Punjab's history, several Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh voices also advocated compassion, tolerance, and pragmatic commonsense. Two thousand years ago, the great Buddhist University of Taxila hummed with the conversation of international students on a site on what today is the northern border of Pakistani Punjab, not far from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. The 10 Sikh Gurus were Punjabis, and several parts of the Punjab gave birth to Sufi saints honored to this day by Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. This other legacy may have helped in 1947 when a wicked wind set off terrible cruelty in different parts of the Punjab, for at that time the soil of the Punjab also appeared to show instances of compassion and courage. Watered by life-sustaining rivers and divided since 1947 between India and Pakistan, the soil of the Punjab has indeed seen much violence over the centuries. But humanity and courage are also among the crops, as was found in interviews conducted in Lahore, Pakistan, and New Delhi, India, with over two dozen persons having memories of the bloodshed of the 1947 partition. Among the stories told to us were those about oft-forgotten helpers from the ranks of the Other. These recovered memories can be a source of healing to teller and listener alike. When recounted to other Punjabis, such stories triggered from many a listener the remembrance and recital of another story in the same vein. Indeed, the publication of several of these stories in The Tribune, prominent daily newspaper of Indian Punjab, generated a similar reaction. We found, moreover, that the stories were perfect mirror images: Muslim Punjabis spoke of Sikh and Hindu helpers and Hindu and Sikh Punjabis of Muslim helpers. Silence about what was experienced and witnessed during the violence of the Partition was the norm for decades after 1947. Now, finally, people in their seventies and eighties are willing to speak. Their memories - of pain but also of rays of humanity - should be recorded before it is too late. Many in Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab have access to such stories, which live in the memories of grandfather or grandmother or old uncle or aunt who experienced such help, or perhaps even rendered help, or witnessed an act of brave or ingenious assistance. Hidden under layers of silence or pain, these stories are waiting to be unearthed. As they are heard, they are likely to perform a healing role. This chapter is about these recovered memories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIntangible Heritage Embodied
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9781441900715
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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