Memories of a City

After the Second World War, the British became unable to sustain their rule over the Indian subcontinent and arrived at a hurried solution to making India independent. What followed was death and devastation, as erstwhile India was divided into present day India and Pakistan. The partition resulted in almost 15 million people being forced to move within the countries, leaving behind families and lands they had known all their lives. The number of people killed is estimated at somewhere between 200,000 to two million people, besides further deaths occurring from diseases in refugee camps.

In the following essay, Momina Masood shares with us a portrait of her hometown, Sialkot, as one of the many havens for migrants after the partition of the Indian subcontinent.


I have never known what it means to desire a city. Or to even remember it. We all carry so much inside us, streets and metal and people, and as I write this I am still learning ways of remembering Sialkot, of writing about it with kindness and melancholy. Like any old city anywhere in the world, Sialkot is a labyrinth of bricks and houses with windows that open outside into the street. Right in the centre of its many hearts, there is the residential area of Do Darwazay (Urdu for “two doors”). The mohalla of Do Darwazay is one of the many areas in Sialkot where migrants from Jammu came and settled after the partition. It is also on the same block where Iqbal was born and grew up. Despite this, there is nothing remarkable about the area. The ledge of Iqbal’s house has become one of the choice shelters for drunks and the homeless, and this is how the city remembers him. A poet never left a better inheritance.

There is possibly nothing remarkable either about the Kashmiri migrants of Do Darwazay. However, as a child, and later as a young girl, I used to be terrified of most of the residents. Amongst my grandmother’s neighbours was a man with dreadlocks and a giant grin who had taken a vow of silence. Nobody really knew why. I am sure he had a name too, but everyone called him “Saieen”(in Sindhi a title given to show respect). I think a few years ago he started speaking again, and then stopped, and I still wonder what he said during that time. You can find him lounging on a charpoy out in the tharra (porch) these days or selling crystals and gemstones on a footpath deeper in the city. If you were to go up to him, I am not sure if he would talk to you or what he would say if he does.

My Nani (grandmother) was a different story. She would tell us countless stories of crossing the border, how being only 14, she carried our grandfather in her arms when he got sick and frail during the way. I never knew Baba, only that he never fully recovered and would later die of an infected toe. My Nani died too this year of a broken hip, and during her last months would constantly speak of Jammu and her parents, in her Punjabi inflected with the Dogari of her childhood. Her stories were never about some major historical event, she did say she saw Jinnah at some point, but mostly would speak of the ghee cannisters they hoarded and managed to move across the border. There would be an occasional mention of somebody close dying along the way, but she would move on, focusing more on the cloth sheets she sowed to hide the luggage.

I am not sure any of them knew the language to talk about trauma and loss. My mother once told me a story of a resident who eventually moved abroad, and years later, found himself suicidal. He didn’t know why he couldn’t stop crying one day. He would later confess that he kept getting nightmares of people dying around him and it took him years to fully mourn those he had lost during the border crossing. When the migrants of Do Darwazay cried, the words “depression” or “trauma” were never spoken. However, there have always been literary and academic endeavors to remember and understand the psychological effects the Partition left on people on each side of border. From Manto and Salman Rashid’s short stories to countless other literary narratives set in pre-Partition India and post-Partition Pakistan, memories of communal violence, torture, and displacement have become a part of our cultural inheritance. The death and bloody legacy of the Partition have been written about extensively, including Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain’s recent edited volume, The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, which explores the psychological impacts of one of the largest transmigrations in history, and these are timely interventions to preserve the voices and record the lived experiences of the many who survived a time that few remember now.

But remember we must. There might not be anything remarkable about the Kashmiri migrants of Do Darwazay but occasionally one of them will stop speaking for a while or another will just leave home. Someone would start crying for no reason but would one day stop. You can turn them into case studies of trauma and psychoanalyze the humanity out of them, but I choose rather to remember them in their happiness. There was a Hafiz who in his earlier years would go off pranking people in drag, and the cloth-selling gypsy who all my cousins said stole little kids but was actually the nicest woman ever. There was an old woman who lived next to my Nani’s whose dentures were once stolen by the neighborhood kids. They had all lived through Partition but the stories they chose to tell and pass on were mostly those of the kindnesses they had received along the way. When I got ill a couple of years back, my Nani would rub hot ghee on my chest, saying she would do the same when she would get ill, and how it helped.

We are all stories, the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we tell each other. Many of those who lived the Partition are slowly dying out, bequeathing stories for us to remember and pass on. In my early battles with depression, I would sometimes blame my “failings” on my family and the sadness they left me. But now I trace a different genealogy. Ma would say that whenever someone in the mohalla would suddenly have a “breakdown” after years of emotional stability, one of the others would then go and just sit with them. As I remember Sialkot, I remember my inheritance, I remember what it means to survive through community, solidarity, joy, and the sharing of love. I remember what it means to begin again.

Momina Masood is a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. She edits poetry for Papercuts, the biannual publication by Desi Writer’s Lounge, and is also part of the editorial team at Mad in Asia. Currently she lectures at the Department of English, Punjab University, and is researching Pakistani cult and exploitation cinema. Her creative writings have been published widely online and in print literary journals. She tweets at @momina711

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