I remember the small things about Nani, like the way she used to drink her tea, or the way she used to peel lychees for my cousins and I, or the way it took all the self-control my 7-year-old self had not to sabotage her dentures lying in the cup in the bathroom. I remember her smile and her love for dancing. I remember having breakfast with her at the tiny table in the living room and how carefully she looked after the flowers in the garden. I remember how their vibrant colours greeted you as soon as the gates for the driveway opened. She was my grandmother and that was all I knew.

As a child, I never imagined she had a life before this, a life which held experiences of love, loss, and displacement. A life which had seen her unable to return to her hometown of Gurdaspur because the British had a change of heart at the last moment and the city ended up on the other side of the border. As an adult, I wanted to learn more about her experiences during the partition of Pakistan and India.

Only recently did I try to piece together her story, her journey through conversations with my mom and my aunt. They recount the summer Nani had become displaced. She had been visiting her elder sister in Lahore while her mother took care of their lands in Gurdaspur. My great-grandmother had become a widow at 31 years old. Alone, she waited until the harvest was ready and the quilts were filled with spun wool, while her children spent time in Lahore.

My aunt remembers Nani mentioning the summer of 1947 saw curfews placed across India while the British decided how to carve up the country using outdated maps and with no knowledge of the land. In Lahore, residents weren’t allowed to leave their houses while the British soldiers (Gorkhas) patrolled the streets on ‘surveillance’ missions. She was young and had been playing in the foyer of their house. She had accidentally opened a window and was seen by the Gorkhas. As they began marching towards the house, she panicked and called for the front doors, which had to be left open for air, to be closed. They managed to close the front door, but the Gorkhas used their guns to pound on the front door. The soldiers had orders to kill people on the spot, they narrowly escaped with their lives. As the British decided on their fate, they weren’t even allowed to venture onto the streets of their country.

When Nani’s mother had harvested the year’s crops, she journeyed to Lahore to pick up her children. Little did she know that was the last time she would see their Haveli made of thin red bricks and thick walls. Everyday her mother went to the Lahore bus station to try their luck at getting back to their home in Gurdaspur and every day she was met with the news of repeated cancellations. She kept trying until the day of partition, rendering it impossible for them to ever go back home. At the bus stop, she was told partition had taken place and their home of Gurdaspur, which residents had been promised would be in Pakistan, fell to India courtesy of Cyril Radcliffe. Without notice, their home had been included in India. They were made refugees – 35 miles from their home.  

Despite hearing of partition, my aunt recalls Nani’s mother still tried to go home but was eventually advised against it. Her family told her of Sikh militias brutally killing people, raping girls, and hanging bodies from trees. They told her to stay in Pakistan for the sake of her daughters and forget about going back. Nani and her family ended up staying with her older sister and brother-in-law who took responsibility for them under unprecedented circumstances. 

Nani’s family knew a lawyer who respected them and asked her mother to occupy any house left vacant by Hindu or Sikh families who had left for India. They were allocated a house, but Nani’s brother-in-law was reluctant, he told them you can move there but you have no adults in your family and the situation right after partition was bad enough that anyone could come in and kill you. For the sake of security, they gave up the house and moved in permanently with Nani’s older sister.

My aunt tells me Nani was so young when she started school that she was made to sit on a table to be visible to everyone else. She learnt Persian from her uncle and went on to study it in school. She loved sports and was always swimming or running. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lahore College for Women. 

Her older brother frequently visited a doctor for check-ups until one day he invited him over for dinner. Maher Amir Khan entered the house and knocked on the second door. Unaware of his presence, Nani kept washing the floor while singing her favourite song. In true South Asian movie fashion, he fell in love, and they got married.

I’ve come to learn that Nani was hardworking, dedicated, disciplined and honest to the core. She was a survivor of partition and two wars with India. She was a mother, and a grandmother. Every time she spoke about partition, it was like story time for my mother and her siblings. A story which each time recounted would refresh the memories of her childhood that changed from high to low in the span of a few hours, because they became penniless, homeless and were subjected to discrimination because they were fatherless.

As I reflect on her experiences what is most striking to me is the longing she kept in her heart to see that red brick Haveli again. Despite creating a life in Pakistan, Nani always missed Gurdaspur. She would repeatedly draw the layout of her house on a piece of paper and told my mom and her siblings that the house had been made of thin red bricks and that her family were highly respected because of her forefather’s religious work. She was Pathan, a member of the Yousafzai caste and her family tree in Gurdaspur could be traced back to 1483. Until her last breath, Nani always longed to visit her home. My aunt says she can still visualise the house my Nani drew on paper.  

A refugee’s journey doesn’t end when they find somewhere new to call home. There are always the lingering thoughts of what is and what could have been. There is a longing for a home, a home which is likely very different from where they are now. There is no end to the journey. More than 70 years after partition many Pakistanis and Indians, despite finding a country and creating a new life, continue to long for a home which now exists only in their memories.

We often ask people how they think their relatives would be received if they were refugees today, and now that I am on the answering end, I would not wish it upon anyone. The world is cold. There are many good people out there doing great work to welcome refugees and help them re-establish their lives. However, there are also people determined to use them as political pawns for their elections, to blame them for the economic status of their countries or to portray the arrival of people in need of legitimate sanctuary as attacking their way of life. If I had to imagine Nani being a refugee today, it does nothing but fill me with dread to think of how my loving, talented grandmother would be stripped of her humanity and reduced to a statistic or a label.

When I think of the other grandmothers from Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, and Afghanistan to name a few, who were forced from their homes and into a world determined to repel them it makes me wonder what we need to do to improve the situations they find themselves in. In a world where animals can readily accept other species as their own, why then do we as the supposed dominant species of the planet create divisions? Divisions which serve no purpose aside from creating unrest and a hierarchy of lives.  Until we can see set aside our differences and see people regardless of where they are from or what religion they follow, as humans I don’t think it will ever be a truly welcoming environment.

Hira Aftab