Seventy years ago on August 15, 1947, I mingled with jubilant crowds in the streets of Delhi. The Union Jack was lowered, the Indian tricolour fluttered in the air. I was a 16-year-old girl in a unique moment in our history.
It is impossible to convey the sense of pride I felt to the present generation who did not have to endure the humiliation of living in a subject nation. I felt the elation of a long-cherished dream come true. Mounted police were trying to keep a semblance of order. A stranger saved me from being trampled by a horse. The whole scene around me was hazy with the dust kicked up by the gathering. It is engraved in my memory like an Impressionist painting.
Growing up in enslaved India, I witnessed our journey towards freedom. I saw the exhilaration of the Quit India movement of 1942 and the misery caused by the Bengal famine of 1943. In the winter of 1945 the saga of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army took the country by storm during the Red Fort trial of three officers — a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh.
It was a personal tryst with destiny that enabled me to be in Delhi at the moment of Independence. I was born in Dhaka and grew up in Calcutta. After my school-leaving exam, I had come to spend a holiday in Delhi with the family of my paternal uncle Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Uncle Nirad was an admirer of the British Empire. As August 15 approached, I felt apprehensive I would not be allowed to take part in the Independence festivities. However, Uncle Nirad said that if I wished to join the “mafficking” I was free to do so.
I was overjoyed. At midnight on August 14-15, I went to our neighbour’s flat and listened to Nehru’s moving “tryst with destiny” speech. Early next morning I went out with my two cousins, Dhruva and Kirti, to take part in the popular celebrations. Late into the night, utterly exhausted, we trudged back towards home. The roads were by now deserted but all the houses were lit up with lamps as if it was Diwali. Kirti broke the silence of the night by reciting Tagore’s famous poem Shah Jahan: “Gone are you today, O Emperor, your empire has vanished like a dream, your throne lies in ruins.” The poem goes on to say that the memories of the mighty soldiers whose footsteps shook the earth now mingled with the dust on the streets of Delhi. We related this poem to the fall of the once invincible British raj.
No sooner had the celebratory lights of Independence Day been extinguished that Delhi was plunged into the darkness of unprecedented communal violence. Smoke billowed from devastated neighbourhoods.
One morning in late August, my two cousins and I got into trouble as we were cycling towards All India Radio. My cousin Kirti said, “Didi, mind your sari, people are staring at you.” But it was not a case of my sari billowing in the wind. We were soon stopped by the military police. They told us a curfew had been imposed and instructed us to get out of the violence-torn locality immediately. I had never cycled so fast in my life. After many detours, we eventually found our way home with the help of a tongawallah.
The train journey back to Calcutta in September 1947 was a nightmare. The Delhi railway station was strewn with dead bodies. After our train started to move I saw human beings being thrown out of the train by miscreants. The goons confronted the three of us as well — my mother and I and a family friend. Had Bengal not been partitioned and the eastern wing of Pakistan created there? So we deserved to be punished. Suddenly a young Punjabi girl — a refugee from Lahore, where she had lost her family in the riots — stood up to defend us. Taken aback by her spirited protest, the goons left in search of other victims. Once the train steamed into Kanpur station, military police surrounded the train and arrested the murderers.
As the train sped through the night towards newly partitioned Bengal, I felt conflicting emotions. The pride and joy I felt with the coming of freedom seemed drowned by deep sorrow as I reflected on the mindless violence wrought by Partition. Seventy years on, we need to draw lessons from both the triumph of freedom and the tragedy of Partition.