My family sits on the partition fence. Dad and Mum were born in the same year in the same neighbourhood in Old Delhi, in the shadow of the Red Fort. In 1947, Dad’s family managed to fly over the border to Sialkot, thus avoiding the slaughter in Punjab between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
At this time, Mum’s family were living a comfortable middle-class existence in the university town of Aligarh. Mum’s dad taught undergraduate philosophy, geography and a few other subjects.
So Dad is Pakistani and Mum is Indian, despite both being born in the same year in the same neighbourhood.
Now for a really tough question – what on earth am I? Perhaps this week, marking the 60th anniversary of the partition of India, would be a good time to revisit this question.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I was born in Karachi, but was bundled onto a cruise liner bound for Sydney after barely five weeks. Growing up in John Howard’s electorate, I was surrounded by family friends, virtually all of whom were South Asian _ Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, even a Pakistani Anglican priest.
Mum and all the “aunties” wore saris or shalwar kameez. They always wore red to weddings, and had henna art painted on their hands. The men, especially the medical doctors, wore flared pants or safari suits and showed off their flash cars.
At age six, I spent seven months in Pakistan and forgot English. I re-learned it after spending six months at school in New Jersey. Then I returned to Howard’s electorate and was teased for my brown skin, my strange name and my New Jersey accent.
It wasn’t until I reached double figures that the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim became apparent to me. One day I was at one of those South Asian Sunday lunches where everyone rocks up at 4pm (“Indian standard time”) for what turns into dinner. Our host, a Sikh doctor-uncle offered me a glass of Coke. I refused.
“Why don’t you want Coke? You always used to like it,” Dr Uncle asked.
“I’m sick, uncle.”
“No, you’re not, son. You’re Muslim!” Dr Uncle replied, setting all the other uncles and my Dad into fits of laughter. I thought they were laughing at me and walked away in tears.
Dad could tell I didn’t get the joke. He then explained to me in simple language how Sikhs and Muslims differed. Sikh religious uncles grow beards and wear turbans like religious Muslim uncles. Sikh aunties wear the same loose clothes as my Mum did. Sikhs worship the same God, speak the same language and eat the same food. Sikh religious songs sound like Sufi Muslim qawwali songs.
After saying all this, Dad expected me to believe Sikhs and Muslims are different. I had good reason to be sceptical.
Sadly Sikhs often suffer abuse due to misdeeds of fanatics claiming to act in the name of Islam. Following the September 11 attacks, the first victim of a reprisal hate-crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, an American Sikh who was planting flowers at the family-owned petrol station in Arizona. The killer told police he thought Balbir was a Muslim.
Sixty years ago Sikhs and Muslims massacred each other in the months leading up to and following partition. My uncles, both Indian and Pakistani, tell stories of trains arriving at Lahore and Amritsar filling the air with the stench of death, carriages turned into communal coffins filled with innocent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs massacred by religious militants.
But were all these deaths caused by militants? Or were they caused by innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes? Who knows? My uncles certainly had no idea who started all the madness. But they did want me to know that it happened. And that members of all communities suffered.
Pakistan was a nation carved out on the basis of ethno-religious identity. Its founder and first governor-general, Mohammad Ali Jinnah – known as Quaid-i-Azam or “Great Leader” – was a Bombay barrister who made his fortune representing the wealthy in London.
India’s founders were no less elite. Professor Raj Mohan Gandhi has just released a biography of his saintly grandfather, known to us as the “Mahatma” (or “great soul”), detailing among other things his troubled family life.
Pakistan was established to protect Muslims from being an oppressed minority. Muslims were told by Pakistan’s founders that they were a nation separate to the rest of India. I never saw much evidence of that growing up.
Dad still talks about how his father dreamed of returning to Delhi. I’m sure he wasn’t the only one whose memories transcended politics.
This week, the near-futility of partition was on display in the Bombay High Court, where lawyers for the daughter of Pakistan’s founder argued for her father’s palatial Bombay residence (now Indian state property) be returned to the family. Among the evidence presented will no doubt be a statement Jinnah made to the Indian high commissioner in 1948.
“Tell your Prime Minister not to break my heart by taking over my Bombay residence. You know well how much I love Bombay. I hope to return there someday.”
Even after achieving Partition, Jinnah couldn’t erase his very human emotions by referring to lines he insisted be drawn on a map.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. This article previously appeared in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.