August 14, 2019
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 the rest of their family, fled to what would become Pakistan after violent riots against Muslims began in their towns, Sonipat and Panipat. Their family, mostly well-to-do government workers and teachers, left their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs. For several months, they lived in a refugee camp, in tents with crude accommodations. Finally, they boarded a train to Multan, an ancient city at the mouth of a desert in central Pakistan, where they were given a home owned by Hindus who had fled and done their journey in the opposite. They assumed their old home, the one they abandoned after generations of living near Delhi, faced the same fate.