I got up this morning with the inexplicable apprehension that I had woken up in another country — unfamiliar, and somehow hostile. It was accompanied by a profoundly unsettling feeling of un-belonging, of being cast adrift. The country I was born in, in 1948, was a country torn asunder, but growing up in it I felt — even when very young, very immature — a sense of its difference from other countries. Was it that its own sense of its tryst with destiny spread to us through osmosis, or did we actually think that we had something unique to offer the world? An experiment that was bold and unattempted so far, an exercise in democracy and nation-building that was grounded in and built on principles that, politically speaking, were certainly new — non-violent co-existence, non-alignment, non-sectarian, non-communal, egalitarian, plural — in a semi-feudal society. That there was something we were aspiring to that was untested, but that it was a challenge we were equal to.
As a family, we had a particular connect with Kashmir. My maternal grandfather in Lahore was forest contractor to the sadr-i-riyasat, and spent long spells in the state. My mother and aunts spent every summer in Pahalgam or Gulmarg, as Kashmir and Murree were the favoured hill stations for pre-Partition Punjab. My parents, siblings, and I did the same, post-Partition till I left university. My father, a pilot, had helped evacuate several families into and out of the Valley in those terrible days of 1947 and 1948, and the waiters at Harry Nedou’s hotel in Srinagar, where we stayed, never allowed him to forget what they owed him.
We are a Partition family and, like millions of others, our family history was prefixed and suffixed by “before-Partition” and “after-Partition”. My grandmother walked out of her house in Lahore, carrying only one change of clothes and some cash and jewellery. She left the house keys with a neighbour, saying “I’ll be back soon”. She never returned. And never felt the country she was living in now, was home. Unsettled, was how she put it.
Much later, I spent 10 years trying to understand Partition, not how and why it happened, but how it played out in people’s lives. What was nation? Country? Who belonged, who didn’t? How did people define themselves? How do we? Which identity did we, and do we, claim? An aunt who had married a Muslim, pre-Partition, opted to live in Pakistan; she changed her name, but when she was asked whether she was Indian or Pakistani, she replied, “Either, neither, or both”.
In Kashmir in 1974, we were taken aback when a couple of shopkeepers asked if we were “from India”. But then, people from the Northeast have been treated like outsiders for decades, so we shouldn’t have felt discomfited by the question. On the other hand, in Jammu in 1992, we met many Sikh families who had migrated from Muzaffarabad in PoK in 1947, who told us that they visited Muzaffarabad frequently, and felt very much at home.
The country I woke up to this morning is unrecognisable as the one I was born in. It has such a diminished sense of itself that it has set the meanest limits to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. Ill at ease with a capacious and confident embracing of difference, it demands compliance with cast-iron definitions of self and other. Fuelled by testosterone, it has flexed its muscles against someone less than half its size, adopting the shameful tactics of the bully. But it should know that you cannot bludgeon anyone into a sense of belonging.
I understand now why my grandmother felt she didn’t quite belong — all the constants she had lived by had been dismantled, and her sense of who and where she was, had been wrenched out of recognition. I had much the same feeling when I woke up this morning. What a tragedy it would be if the country I will die in, were to become the kind of country I may not want to be born in.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 7, 2019 under the title ‘Un-belonging’. The writer is with Women Unlimited, Delhi.