Amidst the euphoria commemorating the 75th anniversary of our Independence, I asked my 89-year-old father, who had lived through that occasion, how he felt about the historic day that forever transformed the lives of the hundreds of millions who had called an undivided India their home. On that fateful date, India was cleaved into two countries on religious lines leading not only to monumental suffering and loss but leaving behind a toxic legacy, which has continued to impact the lives of more than a billion people for seven decades. My father, who had been a student in Karachi for nearly a decade, had to leave what was about to become a foreign country and soon morph into our primal enemy, just a fortnight before that fabled midnight hour which has forever altered the shape of this vast region and the destinies of her people.
Unsurprisingly, my father celebrated this auspicious occasion, recalling with immense joy and pride the vivid memories of how Indians of all hues had united to get rid of the colonial tyrants whose insatiable greed and inhumanity had impoverished our nation and led to the death of millions of our citizens. Incredibly, we had done so not by waging a bloody war, but through the uniquely Indian idea of non-violence which had subsequently inspired civil rights and freedom movements that led to the end of segregation in the US, Apartheid in South Africa and communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Our country was born with a Constitution which remains one of the most progressive of any nation and whose architect was the most unflinching and brilliant champion of social justice. Who could not celebrate these achievements?
But my father then added that he also felt sadness, an emotion one could not loudly express for the fear of being misunderstood. He expressed a melancholy about having had to leave behind a place which he had loved and considered as home, bidding a hurried farewell to friends who begged him not to go, not knowing when they would meet again (and, indeed, they never did). But, the communal violence, both real and the fear of much worse to come, was sufficient to trigger our family’s move from one part of India to another before the former became another country. My father’s family had to make their home in a new country, displaced by an arbitrary line drawn on a map by an Englishman who had first set foot on Indian soil just a month before her partition.
These last few months have seen countless such stories of separation and loss being shared in the media, and while there have been a handful of heart-warming accounts of relatives and neighbours who haven’t seen each other for decades being reunited, most of those who can still remember the division of our country and who were displaced are filled with sadness. A kind of sadness which accompanies the loss of a part of one’s being. Their minds and hearts are awash with nostalgia and the most poignant question of all: How might things have turned out had we never been partitioned? We would never have fought all those wars and might have instead spent our scarce resources on lifting our people out of poverty. Our nation would have become one of the most powerful in the world! Our cricket team would surely have been unbeatable! When I probed, my father admitted this was what he would have wished for.
And so, it seems that while we celebrate this glorious moment of our history, perhaps we should also acknowledge that our celebration is bittersweet, and we might pause and commiserate for our divided and lost family. What baffles me, though, is the deep sadness I feel personally about an event that happened nearly three decades before I was even born. I have no lived memory of Partition. But, somehow, I feel as if some part of my identity lies in the other country, one which I am constantly reminded is our enemy to the extent that I cannot even cheer their cricket team, a country which is so despised by some of my fellow citizens that its name is deployed to target political opponents or to troll other citizens who embrace the religion which dominates that country.
But why do I feel this sadness, this nostalgia for a country which I have never even visited? Is it because I adore the music, the food, the clothes and the language which people celebrate on the other side of the border? Is this why, when I am in a foreign land, I feel such a strong affinity to other “South Asians”, oblivious that they might be citizens of the “enemy country”? Why do we immediately lapse into Urdu (they do) or Hindi (I do), even though we are all fluent in the language of our former coloniser, and are thrilled that we not only understand each other but experience a powerful current of connection? Is this why, when we celebrated an event to mark the 75th anniversary of our Independence in Harvard, I was moved to tears by the stories I heard from the other side?
As a scientist of the mind, I should not be surprised by this observation, for it is well recognised that one’s experiences can be transmitted down to the next generation, and this could be due to a combination of the shared stories that children grow up with (such as my own family’s stories of their memorable years in Sind) and the larger social environments which influence the way memories and histories are interpreted. Some say there might also be biological mechanisms, for our life experiences influence our genes and these modified genes can be passed on to our children. So, the intergenerational transmission of nostalgic memories and longing is a reality, but tragically so is its malevolent sibling, the intergenerational transmission of grief and hate.
Perhaps this is why so many of our youth who have never known the violence and horrors of Partition can be so quickly mobilised to hate our neighbour, ironically the home of many of their own ancestors. Interrupting these endless cycles of hate and hostility across generations is a key reason why nearly 50 countries which have experienced histories of fratricide established truth and reconciliation commissions tasked with documenting and understanding past horrors in the hope of healing and lasting peace. Many of these countries have erected national museums and monuments as a reminder to future generations of the tragic events of the past and the importance of forgiveness, unity, compassion and a common destiny.
Even if the notion of reunification might be too far-fetched, surely a joint commemoration of Partition is long overdue, not only to resolve the grief and hate that continues to poison our minds, but also to recognise that the real threat to our region and all of its peoples is not the Other, but the politics of othering. I dream that one day, our peoples may be able to mingle freely across a porous border, not to ferry weapons and sow fear, but to celebrate our common ancestry and culture and our shared future. Then we might all, the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, celebrate our independence, together as one large family, with no regrets.
Vikram Patel is The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School