By Akbar Ahmed
Of late I have recurring dreams, ominous and disturbing, which involve trains. They appear in the early hours when I am neither fully asleep nor fully awake. I continuously miss my train or I am on the wrong train and watch helplessly as my family goes by in another train in the opposite direction. I can’t speak or move and my cell doesn’t work. The trains are not in themselves threatening-there are no angry mobs around with swords and guns-but there is unspecified menace in the air. I know I am not safe. I need to get to my destination with my family as soon as possible.
Perhaps these dreams are returning me to the events of August 1947 when I found myself in a train compartment on the way from Delhi to Karachi through the killing fields of the Punjab. I was a mere boy of four accompanying my parents escaping the violence against Muslims in Delhi to follow the Quaid-e-Azam to the new idealized land of Pakistan. The sheer arbitrary nature of events and the violence of people of every persuasion impressed itself on my boy’s mind.
We were booked on a train from Delhi which in itself was a small miracle as millions of people frantically escaped the violence in North India on either side of the future borders-Muslims escaping to the new land of Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs heading to India from the other side. All sides were involved in a mad communal frenzy.
My mother, I overheard years later, refused to travel on the train booked for our family because of some intuition, insisting to my father that she had to buy some provisions. She had, what my father would call reverentially, “a woman’s intuition.”The passengers on that train were all slaughtered. Only the train driver was allowed to live; both sides made sure they did not touch the driver wanting the other side to know the extent of their hatred and barbarity. When we missed our train, we were booked on another one and that is the train that somehow survived. Even as a child I could sense this was Russian roulette.
On the train my first memories ever are of my gentle and compassionate father signaling to us not to speak as the train would frequently come to a halt and he stood with his ear close to the door for any sounds of threat. He had a revolver in his hand. Later my mother would joke that there were no bullets in it.
In Karachi, the capital of the new country, my father was given an important official position and a huge house on Victoria Street next to the Clifton Bridge. My memories are of a stream of desperate refugees arriving at our home and being warmly received by my parents; there were people living in every room, in corridors and even in tents on the lawns and tennis courts. Unknown to me at the time, Khalid Salam, my class fellow in the late 1950s in Burn Hall, Abbottabad, had a similar experience in the same month in the same year. We never talked about this at school but recently we discussed our boyhood stories and compared notes. Khalid comes from a noble Sayyed family with links to the great saint of Ajmer and this is his story:
“We crossed rivers of blood in August1947 in a Refugee train bound from Delhi to Lahore under the charge of my late father. He was then a Major in the British Indian Army. I was eyewitness to escort of Army soldiers with bayoneted rifles standing in front of each carriage; dead bodies on the platform; Sikhs brandishing swords howling for blood outside the locked gates of the station. Mother travelled with younger brother in another train hoping that part of the family might get thru alive.”
Khalid Salam trained to become a British Chartered Accountant in the UK and returned to Pakistan to join government service. He did wellbut is not happy with how the Pakistan story ended for him: “Travelling to the shining city on the hill/the promised land which alas has turned out to be a mirage/a case of shattered dreams.”
Like the millions heading to Pakistan there were millions escaping in the opposite direction to India. In September 1947the family of Aroon Shivdasani, now the Executive and Artistic Director of the Indo-American Arts Council and based in New York, had been living in Karachi. Aroon’s father, who was aprominent landowner in Sind was told candidly by senior leadership that he needed to get the family to Delhi urgently as Hindu families who remained were in grave danger. Aroon’s father decided to charter a plane to ensure the family made it to India safely.
Where, as Aroon recounts,
“My father received them in Bangalore only to find they had left his wife and baby daughter behind!!! My mother had delivered my baby sister Reeta that morning, and I, a year old at the time, refused to leave her arms. The rest of the family reasoned that they had no choice – they HAD to leave us behind because we would have jeopardized the safety of the entire family by delaying their departure another day as no one could be certain of another opportunity to flee the city safely.
Daddy rushed back to Karachi hoping he would find us alive – his wife, one year old daughter and new baby. He had loyal employees who received him in secret and assured him his wife and daughters were alive and hidden. However, they told him not to go to his home because Jinnah’s people were waiting for him and dangerous plans had been prepared to entrap him.
My father’s Muslim friends smuggled mummy and her two babies to a ship in the harbour, and simultaneously smuggled daddy through another route to the same ship, ready to sail to Bombay.
It was especially ingrained in us that all Muslims were NOT our enemies – that we would not be alive had it not been for Daddy’s Muslim friends. They had risked their lives to save us – Hindus. Killings, mob violence and rampage were perpetrated on both sides of the border – whole trains of corpses travelled from the new Pakistan to what remained India……and vice versa.” These are just three of the millions of such stories from 1947. I worry that the hatreds engendered by the violence then has remained frozen in the hearts of the people of the Subcontinent and has continued to poison relations between faiths and cultures. Now in the autumn of my life, I wonder how those passions of hate and prejudice can be dissipated into friendship and peace. Surely this is what Quaid-e-Azam and Mahatma Gandhi, the founding fathers of Pakistan and India respectively, envisaged for the future. The paradox is that when Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis meet outside of South Asia, the relationship is invariably positive and often warm and affectionate. It is time to construct a South Asian paradigm to build peace and harmony across religious and national divides.
Perhaps then I will no longer see ghost trains in my sleep.
(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018).
By Akbar Ahmed