Seventy-three years ago, during the savage insanity of the Partition of India, a Hindu girl had been forced to become Aisha Bi — like thousands of women, on either side, abducted by men from religions pitted against each other. She found herself with a Muslim man, bartered for an ox — and she ended up spending a lifetime with him. But Aisha kept Daphia Bai alive — through the memory of a land of peacocks, the fragments of a lost language; and the names of the siblings she had been separated from. The 86-year-old never stopped seeking the remnants of the life she had been partitioned from — a quest that has ended, with the help of Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims, over a WhatsApp video call with the grandsons of her brother.
If Daphia Bai’s life is a fable of our times, what does it say? That women inevitably bear the burden of a clash of identities, as they are turned into trophies of triumph or reminders of vengeance. That the might of nationalism and borders can turn familiar lands into hostile nation-states, so that it takes seven decades to travel the distance of 250 km between Daphia’s home in Mailsi in Pakistan’s Punjab to Morkhana town in Bikaner. But, more importantly, it reminds us that the intimate memory of home is an older, persistent force that can show up the irrationality of the reverence for arbitrary lines on a map.
In contemporary India, where historical injuries (and even minor scratches) are the new currency of political power, it might seem that many, like Daphia Bai, haven’t travelled out of 1947. Politics continues to debate the ancient divisions between Hindus and Muslims as if it were a fresh wound. In this narrative, there are only enemies to single out and hate to persist with. But it needn’t be so. In Daphia Bai’s joy of finding her family, there are tears but not hate or blame. The past is what it is, but it is still possible to cross a border.
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