By Manu Shah
Yash Pal Lakra has made his peace with a painful past but the memories refuse to go away.
Yash, now a retired surgeon in the US, was only eight years old when the Indian subcontinent was sliced into two nations – India and Pakistan. Overnight, the prosperous Lakras went from affluent to being homeless and penniless. They were stripped of everything – wealth, property, status, their very sanctuary and life as they knew it in their small village of Bopalwala, in Sialkot, a district in present day Pakistan.
The partition of India has been labelled as the “biggest mass migration in human history” with the Hindus fleeing from Pakistan and Muslims fleeing India. The catastrophic event uprooted fifteen million people and killed over a million. Simply because they happened to be a Hindu or a Muslim.
His voice trembles as he revisits the traumatic experience: the stench of mutilated bodies, the cold fear of being butchered by angry mobs, the ordeal of walking for miles on an empty stomach or the humiliation of begging for food. He grieves as he evokes his father’s struggles to keep his daughters’ honor safe in the mayhem, or his pregnant mother’s parched lips pleading for water. The sensitive eight-year-old mind saw death and deprivation in all its grotesqueness and their ghosts still haunt him.
The nightmare began around June 1947 – a few months before independence. Yash’s father Niranjan Das returned from a business trip in Lahore with troubling news of the escalating hostilities between Hindus and Muslims. Hindu homes were being looted and burned, their women raped and abducted. An uneasy fear descended on the household.
The Lakras were residents of Bopalwala, a farming community with a population of about eight to ten thousand people. Hindus occupied the central part of the village, the Sikhs lived in another section of the village while the Muslims lived on the fringes.
A prosperous and highly respected family, they had the distinction of being one of the two richest families in the village. Their ancestral house was the highest in the village and was used by the Indian army as an Observatory Post during World War 2. They ran a flourishing textile shop and a manufacturing unit that fabricated shells for locks and galvanized metal sheets to make buckets and boxes.
On 15 August 1947, India and Pakistan attained dominion status. Yash remembers the moment vividly. His mother Shanti Devi was cooking lunch when his sister came running in to announce India’s freedom from the British. There was jubilation at the news, but the family did not own a radio and so had little inkling of the inflamed tensions brewing beyond their village.
Before too long, trouble reached Bopalwala. In a matter of days, the gulf between Muslims and Hindus widened: Hindus would refer to Gandhi as Mahatma which translates into “Great soul” while Muslims used the denigrating term “Maha tamma” – denoting a “greedy man.”
The situation deteriorated so rapidly that Hindus began to feel unsafe after dark, even in the confines of their own homes. Prominent Hindu families congregated at the Arya Samaj building every night seeking safety in numbers.
Huge cauldrons of boiling water were kept ready to be tipped over in case the Muslims attacked or climbed the building. Heaped trays of ground red chilli powder were stocked to fling into the enemy’s eyes. Women huddled in the center, rocking their babies to sleep, sharing their fears with each other in hushed whispers. Men took turns standing guard all night patrolling the house. This continued for a few days until the Hindus realized that these makeshift devices were not going to save them from frenzied mobs.
This feeling of being unwanted led to the exodus of many families to India.
Niranjan Das decided to migrate to India with his family. Leaving their considerable wealth behind in a locker which they couldn’t open for want of the right key left behind in hurry.
They had to leave in an army truck. Each new day presented a different challenge. The truck had room for only nine of eleven members of the family. It was decided that Niranjan Das would take his full-term pregnant wife, the daughters as their “honor” had to be protected and the younger children with him. Yash and his older brother would follow later.
The two little boys stood forlornly and watched the taillights of the truck slowly disappear. They moved in with their grandfather but a few days later, an army truck pulled up again at the door. It transpired that Yash’s father pleaded with the camp officer in charge of the food supplies to allow his two sons to come with them to India in exchange for bags of wheat as the camp was running low on food.
The Lakras stayed at the army headquarters. They would sleep on bare floor, every morning eat a sparse breakfast, pack their meager belongings and leave for the station in the hope that a train would arrive. Their desperation to leave intensified when a bomb exploded near them one day. After several days, a train finally arrived to take the Hindus and Sikhs to Dera Baba Nanak, the first station across the border on the Indian side.
During this historic train journey, the young Yash would witness unimaginable depths of savagery and hatred. He would see the remainders of a stomach-turning carnage, a beheading and survive a harrowing walk on the bridge of a gushing river. He would replay these scenes with stinging clarity all his life.
While travelling on the train from Dera Baba Nanak to Amritsar, Yash recalls being seated next to six Sikhs. A little into the journey, one of the Sikhs had a niggling doubt that the man sitting opposite them in the garb of a Hindu Pandit was not really who he claimed to be. They pulled the alarm chain to stop the train, dragged him out and disrobed hm. He was circumcised. Incensed, one of the Sikhs drew out his sword and swung it at the man. The man ducked and the blade snipped a few strands of hair. With the second swing, the sword found its mark and to Yash’s traumatic horror, the man’s head separated from its owner.
The constant fear of being butchered also hung heavily. In one instance, the train taking them from Sialkot to India suddenly came to a standstill on the outskirts of Jasar, a city in Pakistan. Outside, the silence was broken only by the piercing sound of the train’s whistle. As they peered through the windows, the overpowering stench of dead bodies was the first to hit them. Yash still remembers the bile rising in his throat as he saw flies feasting on hundreds of rotting corpses, hacked limbs strewn around, bodies slashed with swords and stabbed with knives, crusted splotches of blood, an open suitcase, a copper utensil, a shoe, and clothes littered on both sides of the tracks. The previous train had been slaughtered by the nearby Muslim villages and the whistle was a signal for them.
The passage to India was filled with more ordeals which included disembarking on a bridge over flooded Ravi river and drudging their way to the river bank while braving the constant danger of slipping and falling in the swirling waters below.
Though they made it safely to India, the life ahead was full of struggles, living in abject conditions.
The one thing that pulled the family out of the mire of poverty, Yash believes, was his father’s insistence on education for all his children. Each one of his siblings did well in their respective careers and Yash himself went on to become a surgeon. He made his way to the United States in 1968 and established a thriving medical practice in Pontiac, Michigan for forty-five years before retiring in 2010.
At 81, what angers Yash the most is the futility of the suffering that millions of people had to endure on both sides of the border. He holds leaders like Gandhi and Nehru responsible for not foreseeing the consequences of the partition and the scale of the tragedy. Their naïve belief that people would leave on amicable terms was fundamentally flawed. The trauma, he believes, could have been easily avoided, had they taken timely and decisive action by mobilizing the army early and making adequate arrangements for an orderly evacuation.
In 2012, Yash Pal Lakra took a trip back to Bopalwala in Pakistan. His grandfather’s imposing house had been divided into four sections. He met its current occupants who were warm and hospitable. The house he grew up in was in a dilapidated state as the owner lives in Saudi Arabia. The name of the house “Ram Bhavan” had been completely obliterated, much like their lives when they left their ancestral village in 1947.