Displaced by partition, Pakistan visits home after 75 years

Lucknow, India Last month, 90-year-old Rena Chipper Pharma undertook a journey many thought impossible, undeterred by her age and ailments. I traveled to Pakistan to see her for the first time and she is home for the first time in 75 years.

When the British colonialists left the Indian subcontinent, they divided it into two states along religious lines – Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, which included Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

Partition, as it became known, forced more than 15 million people to move to the other side in what was the largest forced migration in the world. Nearly two million people died in riots during the exodus, and the bloody history of the partition still affects relations between the two countries.

Historic tensions between the two nuclear powers in South Asia have largely closed the border, leaving many people eager to visit their relatives and even their homes on the other side of the border.

Among them was Varma, who was 15 when her family fled Rawalpindi in 1947, and currently lives in the western Indian city of Pune. Since then, she has longed to visit her grandparents’ home in a “hostile” country.

“I closed my eyes,” she told Al Jazeera by phone. I couldn’t believe I was back home again. It felt like I was living there only yesterday.”

Varma emphasized that the two governments on both sides should allow people to meet easily. “Because they want it right,” she said.

Varma remembers the day when they had to flee Rawalpindi “as clear as day”. Her parents and siblings – two sisters and many brothers – arrived in India to start a new life. Varma said they all died before they were 75.

“We first went to Solan thinking we would come home one day. We didn’t expect that. India and Pakistan were divided and there was a lot of bloodshed, she said, referring to a mountain village in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Although her family did not experience any violence, they heard and read many stories of what happened, of people they knew who died on trains.

“We saw our parents cry a lot. “For two years, they couldn’t accept that they weren’t going home,” Varma said.

Pharma at her grandparents’ home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan [Courtesy of India Pakistan Heritage Club]

In the past 75 years, Varma made several plans for a trip to Rawalpindi, but it did not materialize, although she did travel to Lahore once when she was young.

“I always wanted to see my home again. I got my passport in 1965 but the person I was supposed to travel with couldn’t come and the plan was cancelled.

She renewed her passport in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic again disrupted her plans. Meanwhile, I found a Facebook page for a group called the India-Pakistan Heritage Club, which offered to help Varma travel to Rawalpindi.

To visit Pakistan, an Indian citizen must have a host family in the country. And two Pakistani men, who are the founders of the group, have stepped up to take on the role.

Varma left for her daughter’s home in New Delhi last month. From there I went to Wagah, the border crossing station between India and Pakistan, in the western Indian state of Punjab.

“The moment I saw the big banners of India and Pakistan in Wagah, it collapsed. “It felt unrealistic that it was just one whole place for us, but now there’s a line and we can’t cross it whenever we want,” Varma told Al Jazeera.

Rena Pharma
Varma said that governments on both sides of the border should allow people to meet easily [Courtesy of India Pakistan Heritage Club]

When she crossed the border, Zahir and Imran greeted her on the Pakistani side and accompanied her to Lahore where she spent three days.

“I also have a special relationship with Lahore. Before partition, we used to visit Lahore every year, and my in-laws are also from there,” said Varma.

On July 20, she left for Rawalpindi and was greeted by people in the neighborhood amid traditional Punjabi drumming.

“I will always remember the warm welcome I received when I arrived at my grandparents’ house. There are drums played by the locals. Pharma said.

A video of the welcoming Varma also went viral on social media where people in India and Pakistan exchanged messages of peace and love.

Muzammil Hussain, who now lives in Varma’s first house, changed his name to Prem Niwas (House of Love) in her honor. The name of the lane where the house was located was changed to “Prem Jolly” (Street of Love).

The Hussein family even added a name plate to one of the rooms in which they lived. It read: “Rina’s house.”

“I am the only one in my family who can see that house again and I am not exaggerating that when I was there, I could see my family walking around and sitting in the house again. I saw them at every corner,” Varma told Al Jazeera.

“My dreams have come true. Wherever my family is today, they should look down and they should be happy and proud.

She described the house and said the rooms had not changed much. She found nothing in the house that belonged to her and she could have taken it back as a souvenir.

But she noticed a few things.

“My father installed the floors in the bedrooms and it was the same. In the living room, which we called “Bethaq”, there is a fireplace where my father got tiles of special designs. “They are still the same,” she said.

Varma said their home was one of the most luxurious in the neighborhood. She said the main road near the house had changed dramatically. The houses opposite hers have been replaced by shops. But at least five houses in her lane, including hers, haven’t changed much.

Varma’s face hurts as she remembers her childhood living in this Pakistani house.

“What happened at the time was very unfortunate and should not have happened. Yes, it hurt, but we can’t remember it for the rest of our lives.”

“We have to move forward. The people of India and Pakistan, our cultures, our clothes, our thinking – they are all very similar. There is love on both sides.”

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