in search of Uncle Rana
The old family home in Lahore was just 15 miles over the border with Pakistan. But in the 40 years since the dark days of Partition no one had heard from the younger brother who had converted to Islam and stayed behind. Writer Urvashi Butalia goes ...
Saturday 09 August 1997
Rana had become a Muslim.
My family didn't think that God had played much part here. They were convinced that both Rana's refusal to leave and his conversion were calculated decisions which would allow him to inherit my grandfather's property - a house, land, orchards - when my grandmother died. Letters were exchanged for a while but they began to draw the attention of the police and intelligence officers. They were opened, and questions were asked. Pakistan and India had so much in common - if not religion then certainly language and ways of life - that the barriers of a nation state became especially important to their governments as proof of difference and nationhood. Travel between the two countries, for the people who lived in them, became nearly impossible. My mother gave up hope of returning to Lahore and soon abandoned correspondence. What was the point of trying to communicate with someone who was so mercenary? And so, though Rana continued to live in my grandfather's house in Lahore, which is fewer than 300 miles from Delhi, 40 minutes in a plane, he might just as well have been on another planet. We heard rumours that my grandmother had died, but no one really knew. My mother's grief at losing her home, her mother and brother, gave way to bitterness and resentment, and eventually to indifference. The years passed; Pakistan and India fought two wars; Ranamama's fate remained obscure.
Then, in the summer of 1987, I managed to get a trip to Pakistan, to Lahore. I told my mother I wanted to meet her brother. She was sceptical. Why? What was the good? I felt as though I were betraying her; once in Lahore, it took me three days to pluck up the courage to go to my grandfather's house. I first saw it late one evening - an old and crumbling mansion set in a large bare garden - and found it hard to believe that this was the house we'd heard so much about. Through a window, I could see a bare bulb casting its pale light on cracked green walls.
I rang the bell, and three women came to the barred window. Yes, they said, this was Rana's house, but he wasn't in - he was "on tour" and expected home later that night. I said I was his sister's daughter, come from Delhi. Door-bolts were drawn, and I was invited in. The women were Rana's wife - my aunt - and her daughters - my cousins. For an hour, we made careful conversation and drank Coca-Cola in a luridly furnished living room, and then my friend Firhana came in her car to collect me. I'd met her sister in Delhi and was staying at their house.
At midnight, the phone rang. It was my uncle. He called me beti, daughter. "What are you doing there?" he said, referring to my friend's house. "This house is your home. You must come home at once, and you must stay here. Give me your address, and I'll come and pick you up."
This was a man I had never seen, who had last seen my mother five years before I was born. We argued. Finally I managed to dissuade him. But the next day I went to his house and stayed there for a week.
Rana looked like a solid citizen of Pakistan. He was six feet tall, strongly built and always dressed in a long cotton shirt and pyjamas - a style Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister who was deposed by the military and executed, had popularised as the awami, or people's, suit. He had a deep, enjoyable voice, which I heard a lot that week. I asked questions, he answered them; some facts emerged. My grandmother had died in 1956 (the seven of her eight children who lived in India dated her death variously as 1949, 1952 and 1953), and Rana had married a Muslim.
Why had he not left with his brother and sisters at Partition?
Well, Rana said, like a lot of other people he had never expected Partition to happen in the way it did. "Many of us thought, yes, there will be change, but why should we have to move?" He hadn't thought political decisions could affect his life and, by the time he understood otherwise, it was too late. "I was barely 20. I'd had little education. What would I have done in India? I had no qualifications, no job, nothing to recommend me."
I had enough imagination to understand those reasons. In Lahore, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs had lived alongside each other for centuries. Who could have foreseen that as a Pakistani rather than an Indian city it would become so singularly Muslim, that "normality" would never return? But his treatment of my grandmother was harder to forgive. She had lived on for nine years after Partition - nine years in which her six daughters heard nothing of her - hidden, alone, isolated. Why had he forced her to stay with him?
"I was worried about your mother having to take on the burden of an old mother, just as I was worried when she offered to take me with her. So I thought I'd do my share and look after her." I didn't believe him. What about his decision to become a Muslim? "In a sense there wasn't really a choice. The only way I could have stayed on was by converting. I married a Muslim girl, changed my religion and took a Muslim name."
But did he really believe? Was the change born out of conviction or convenience?
He said he had not slept a single night - "no, not one night" - in 40 years without regretting his decision. "You see, my child," he said, and this became a refrain in the days we spent together, "somehow a convert is never forgiven. Your past follows you; it hounds you. For me, it's worse because I've continued to live in the same place. Even today when I walk out to the market I often hear people whispering, `Hindu, Hindu'. You don't know what it is like."
That last answer chilled me and softened me. There is a word in Punjabi that is enormously evocative and emotive: watan. It's a difficult word to translate: it can mean home, country, land - all and any of them. When Punjabis speak of their watan, you know they are expressing a longing for the place they feel they belong. For most Punjabis who were displaced by Partition, their watan lay in the home they had left behind. For Rana, the opposite had happened: he continued to live in the family home in Pakistan, but his watan had become India, a country he had visited only briefly, once. He watched the television news from India every day; he rooted for the Indian cricket team, especially when they played Pakistan; he followed Indian soap operas.
By the end of my week with him, I had a picture of his life. As 40 years had gone by, he had retreated into himself. His wife and children, Muslims in a Muslim nation, worried for him; they couldn't understand his longings and silences. But perhaps his wife understood something of his dilemma. She had decided early in their marriage, sensibly I thought, that she would not allow her children to suffer a similar crisis of identity. Her sons and daughters were brought up as good Muslims; the girls remained in purdah and were taught at home by a mullah. One of his younger daughters told me once: "Apa, you are all right, you're just like us, but we thought, you know, that they were really awful." She meant a couple of distant relatives who had once managed to visit and who had behaved as orthodox Hindus, practising the "untouchability" that Hindus customarily use in Muslim company. They had insisted on cooking their own food and would not eat anything prepared by Rana's family. They were the only Hindus this daughter had met. Who could blame her for disliking them?
One day, as Rana and I talked intimately into the evening, stopping only for some food or a cup of tea, I began to feel oppressed by him. "Why are you talking to me like this?" I said. "You don't even know me. If you'd met me in the marketplace, I would have been just another stranger." He looked at me for a long time and said, "My child, this is the first time I have spoken to my own blood."
I was shocked. I protested: "What about your family? They are your blood, not me."
"No," he said, "for them I remain a stranger. You understand what I'm talking about. That is why you are here. Even if nothing else ever happens, I know that you have been sent here to lighten my load." And in some ways, I suppose, this was true.
I went back to India with gifts and messages, including a long letter from Rana to his six sisters (his brother had died by this time). They gathered in our house and sat in the front room in a row, curious but resentful. Then someone picked up the letter and began reading, and soon it was being passed from hand to hand. They cried, and then their mood lightened into laughter as memories were shared and stories recounted. Tell us what the house looks like now, they demanded. Is the guava tree still there? What's happened to the game of chaukhat? Who lives at the back these days? Rana's letter was read and reread. Suddenly my mother and my five aunts had acquired a family across the border.
We kept in touch after that. I went to visit Rana several times. Once he wrote to my mother: "I wish I could lock up Urvashi in a cage and keep her here." Then, before one of my visits, my mother said to me: "Ask him if he buried or cremated my mother."
Muslims bury their dead. Hindus burn them. I looked at her in surprise. Hinduism has never meant much to her - she isn't an atheist but she has little patience with orthodoxy.
"What does it matter to you?" I said.
"Just ask him."
When I got to Lahore, I asked him.
"How could she have stayed here and kept her original name?" he said. "I had to make her a convert. She was called Ayesha Bibi. I buried her."
Late in 1988, I took my mother and her eldest sister back to Lahore. One of Rana's daughters was getting married, and there was a great deal of excitement as we planned the visit. They hadn't seen their brother, their home or Lahore for 41 years. They had last seen Rana as a 20-year-old. The man who met them at Lahore airport was in his sixties, balding and greying, and the reunion was tentative and difficult. We made small talk in the car until we reached Rana's house, which had once been home to his sisters but was now occupied by strangers, so they had to treat it politely, like any other house. The politeness and strain between brother and sisters went on for two days, until, on the third day, I found them together in a room, crying and laughing. Rana took his sisters on a proper tour of the house: they looked around their old rooms, rediscovered their favourite trees, and remembered their family as it had once been.
But as Rana and his sisters grew together, his wife and children grew more distant. Our presence made them anxious - understandably so. A girl was being married. What if her in-laws objected to Hindus in the family? What if the Hindus were there to reclaim their land? What if we did something to embarrass the family at the wedding? Small silences began to build up between the two sides. I was struck by how easy it was to rebuild the borders we thought we'd just crossed.
After that, I managed to go to Pakistan to see Rana again. But it wasn't easy. He began to worry that he was being watched by the police. His letters became fewer and then stopped altogether. For a while, my mother continued to send him letters and gifts but eventually she stopped too. I went on sending messages to him via my friends, until one of them returned with a message from him. Try not to keep in touch, he said; it makes things very difficult. The pressure he felt was not just official but came also from inside his family. His sons urged him to break contact with his relations in India. And then the relationship between India and Pakistan, which had grown more relaxed in the 1980s, became stiffer again, and it was more difficult to travel between the two.
It's been many years now since I last saw Ranamama. I no longer know if he is alive or dead. I think he is alive. I want him to be alive. I keep telling myself, if something happened to him, surely someone in his family would tell us. But I'm not sure I believe that. Years ago, when he told me that he had buried my grandmother, I asked him to take me to her grave. We were standing by his gate in the fading light of the evening. It was, I think, the first time that he'd answered me without looking at me. He scuffed the dust under his feet and said: "No my child, not yet. I'm not ready yet."
On the night of 14 August 1996, about a hundred Indians visited the India-Pakistan border at Wagah in the Punjab. They went there to fulfil a long-cherished objective by groups in the two countries: Indians and Pakistanis would stand, in roughly equal numbers, on each side of the border and sing songs for peace. They imagined that the border would be symbolised by a sentry post and that they would be able to see their counterparts on the other side. But they came back disappointed. The border was more complicated than they thought - there is middle ground - and also grander. The Indian side has an arch lit with neon lights and, in large letters, the inscription MERA BHARAT MAHAN - India, my country, is supreme. The Pakistan side has a similar neon-lit arch with the words PAKISTAN ZINDABAD - Long live
Pakistan. People bring picnics here and eat and drink and enjoy themselves.
The suffering and grief of Partition are not memorialised at the border, nor, publicly, anywhere else in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. A million may have died but they have no monuments. Stories are all that people have, stories that rarely breach the frontiers of family and religious community; people talking to their own blood
Urvashi Butalia. This story is an abridged version of her piece `Blood', which appears in `Granta' magazine's India issue, available in bookshops
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