The Promised Land

Overcrowded refugee trains at Ambala Station in Punjab during partition. (Wikimedia)

This past January, my grandmother died. She was old and had been ill for quite some time. Her older sister had died almost six months before she passed. 

With them died a record of our family’s journey through the Partition — the matriarchal backbone that defined our being in Pakistan.  

The two sisters, only two years apart — the elder we called Khala Jaan and my grandmother I called Ammi — were both teenagers when the British departed from India. They spent much of their lives side by side, until Ammi’s health declined steeply. She moved to suburban Minnesota, where my mom could take care of her. They didn’t know it then, but Ammi and Khala Jaan would never meet again. In the rush to move, they barely had a chance to say goodbye. 

So phone calls and Skype calls and voice messages became their medium. On the Pakistan side of the phone line, where I was in Islamabad, I would crank my phone volume up and put my earbuds in Khala Jaan’s ears, while my mom would do the same from the nursing home where Ammi lived. 

“Do you remember when we used to grind the flour for rotis, and our hands would blister from the hand mill?” I would hear Khala Jaan yell. The volume on Khala Jaan’s headphone volume was so high, I could hear Ammi laughing on the other line. “We would laugh and say, ‘Now we’ve come to Pakistan! They said this was the promised land, and now this?’” They’d laugh and giggle like schoolgirls, WhatsApp connection permitting. 

Shortly after the creation of India and Pakistan, Ammi and Khala Jaan, as well as

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