Partition of the Minds

Partition of the Minds

In his new book The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness, psychiatrist and author Anirudh Kala talks about the geographical divide’s irreversible impact on the mental health of those who suffered

The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness, Anirudh Kala, books on partition, India news, Indian Express news
Anirudh Kala

THE Partition of India and Pakistan was not just a geographical line drawn on the map, but a tragedy that left several crisscrossed lines drawn on the minds of people, leaving them mentally unstable for life. The painful experiences, fears, trauma — unspoken and suppressed — left an irreversible impact on the mental health of those who suffered. This largely went unnoticed due to lack of awareness of mental well-being, and became an invisible by-product of this tragedy, which many lived with till their dying day.

As India and Pakistan became two different entities, many were left languishing in mental hospitals on either side, alone, lonely and disconnected with the external and internal world. The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness, a book authored by Ludhiana-based psychiatrist Anirudh Kala narrates stories of the mental trauma of Partition through characters inspired by Kala’s patients in India and those in Pakistan he met during his visits to the mental health institutions there.

Kala is the founder of Indo-Pak Punjab Psychiatric Society, which began in 2008 and the book is based on his decade of experience in dealing with patients from both the countries. Kala has dedicated the book to Dr Haroon Rashid Chaudhry, his friend and colleague from Lahore, who worked with him closely on this project. “Mental health is still not a priority in our country, so we can imagine how things would have been 70 years ago. What people went through is so painful that they fail to even describe it. They have chosen to suppress it. Numbness follows when the pain gets unbearable. People who went through this great tragedy chose to bury their feelings and fears, for it was just too painful to revisit. The impact of the Partition on the mental health of people is the least talked about aspect of this tragedy,” says Kala.

From mass abortions to patients stuck in mental hospitals on both sides, Kala’s book tells heartbreaking stories of how the divide actually happened in the minds of the people.


In the book, there is a story called Sita’s Bus, about a married Sikh woman Harpreet Cheema from Sialkot who becomes Firdaus Cheema after getting married again to a Muslim. She gets pregnant, but just then both countries enter an agreement to repatriate each other’s women and she is deported to India. The agreement includes “consent for abortion”, with a “special fund” allocated for mass abortions by the government. Without her consent, her baby is aborted at a camp in Jalandhar where her first husband Manjeet Cheema agrees to accept her, but only after she aborts the Muslim man’s child. Harpreet chooses to take a bus to Delhi, realising that she belongs nowhere. The bus conductor asks her name, she replies, ‘Harpreet’. He asks, ‘Just Harpreet? Agge pichhe kuch nahi?’ (nothing before or after?) She smiles and says, ‘Agge pichhe kuchh nahi.’

There is also No Forgiveness Necessary, story of Rulda Singh and Fattu (Fateh Khan), two friends discharged from Lahore’s mental hospital, who find themselves separated through deportation. While Rulda whose home was in Rawalpindi is sent to India, Fattu who was from Hoshiarpur is kept in Lahore. Even after their discharge, they keep hearing each other’s voices through imaginary conversations. “Like Rulda and Fattu, there were many who were stuck in mental hospitals in Lahore, Hyderabad, and Peshawar in Pakistan and Agra, Bareilly and Ranchi in India. It was only three years after the Partition that both countries decided to get them back in 1950,” says Kala. He adds that from around 1,000 Hindu and Sikh patients, only 450 came back from Pakistan. When questioned about the rest, the reply from Pakistan said that there was a cholera outbreak in which they died. Similarly, some 250 went from India to Pakistan. “Nobody knows why such few mental patients survived the exchange. Apparently, they weren’t taken care of properly by both countries, as they were not their own people after the Partition,” says Kala, who took 10 years to complete the project.

Of how Partition continued to affect generations after 1947, tells the poignant tale ‘Love in Times of Armistice’ of 15-year old Brij Bhushan Behal, a student of Simla who falls in love with 19-year old Kumari Benazir Bhutto, daughter of then Pakistan president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as she visits India with her father for Simla Agreement in 1972. He has conversations with her in his dreams and believes that Benazir too loves him, but due to the enmity between both the countries, she doesn’t admit openly. He writes 40 letters to her in two months and eventually leaves home, never to return and with a tattoo on his hand, ‘Brij Bhushan Bhutto’. Benazir tells him in a ‘dream’ that she will wait for him at Ajmer Sharif.

A story called Folie À Deux, a French term which means ‘shared psychoses’ is based on one of the patients of the author and talks of a woman who develops Islamophobia after shifting from Multan to Patiala. Eventually, her two daughters and a son also start seeing imaginary mobs carrying swords and crawling through ventilators. The woman eventually dies after jumping off the roof. In the end, the eldest daughter, who was getting her mother treated, starts blaming the doctor and says, “You are a psycho yourself, killer. My mother and siblings were right, there are mobs out there, shouting they will kill us. I heard them.” The doctor just cries.

The book comprises 13 stories, and for Kala it was important to write these stories, simply because the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 made him reflect on partition of the minds in the country in 1947. “It made me realise that this partition of minds on communal lines can happen again, as it has so many times in the past,” he says.