Irim Sarwar, Teacher
My childhood was puzzling, to say the least. I lived in a safe, affluent, upper middle class suburb near Washington, D.C., but I grew up in a house where dissociation alternated with primal rage; where curtains were closed during the day; where I wasn’t allowed friends and my parents didn’t make any. In a world where I couldn’t trust my own family to be a safe space and to love me unconditionally, I was told that I could trust no one except family. I grew up under a heavy, roiling, ominous grey sky, with thunderstorms that never cleared the air and tornados that reduced the fragile order of dissociation to a chaos of overwhelming emotion, mostly rage.
My parents were born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1937, and were 10 when Partition meant that they had to leave everything behind to flee to safety. They grew up and went to school in the era of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, and Raj Kapoor. My father followed his brothers to the States in the early 1960s, and my mother joined him after their marriage was arranged in December 1966.
I was born almost eighteen months after that, with my brother following seven years later. We grew up in a house where I was more parent than child, mediating between my parents, navigating a constantly changing emotional landscape. Whereas I learned to deal with it by placing depth charges, so things would blow up and we could enter the resolution phase, my brother withdrew deep into his shell.
From hidden food to relentless verbal bullying to refusing to teach us their mother tongue(s) to telling us to just ‘get over it’, my parents’ unresolved trauma flooded our world and shaped our lives. Neither of us have many close friends, neither of us have had any serious relationships, neither of us have married and had children.
When the words ‘arranged’ and ‘marriage’ were juxtaposed in a sentence when I was 21, I moved out, leaving them a note on the refrigerator. I swore I would never be like them, live the grey, joyless lives that they did; be the grasping, controlling people they were; be closed off to the world.
I left home; I left my religion; and, as far as I was concerned, I’d left my heritage, which I perceived as claustrophobic, controlling, and manipulative. I was done. No more Bollywood films; no more shallow, gossiping aunties; no more oppressive, raging desi men.
But no matter how hard we run, we carry everything with us. I checked locks three times before going to bed, exactly like my father. I walled people off; I trusted no one. I did that which I hated the most – I lashed out. I grabbed the first thing I needed for survival. Even as I rebelled — moving out, teaching rather than becoming a doctor, converting out, not giving my heritage the time of day (except for the food) — I became more like them every day.
Ironically, the day I made my biggest break, flying to the UK on 1 October 1996, turned out to be the day which ensured that I would return full circle.
Growing up in America as a South Asian was lonely: there were very few of us, there weren’t communities or cultural centres to bring us together regularly, we were ‘other’ on the ethnicity questionnaire, and there was no representation: not in television or films, in government, in schools, in restaurants. Even so, there was this fetishism around us being part of the ‘model minority’: we were allowed to win spelling bees, math contests, science fairs, but we were only ever curiosities, never whole people who needed tending.
Coming to the UK was serious culture shock: from Asian actors on television and Goodness Gracious Me to Indian restaurants around the corner, and places like Southall, which felt a bit like Lahore away from Lahore.
Slowly, gently, with the space to reflect, with supportive friends, at last able to breathe, the knots began to unravel. Dinners at desi restaurants with friends reminded me of times with loved relatives, although the flavours were never quite the same (until I discovered Currydor in the Botley Road, which was heaven); Goodness Gracious Me made me laugh until I cried; I found myself connecting with other desis on my terms, not through associations forced on me by my parents.
The real turning point came one night in St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, in 2003, when I was sitting with my friends Rachel K, Almut, and Jacquetta. They had gotten into Bollywood movies (I rolled my eyes), and there was one they desperately wanted me to see – ‘Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Gham’. I sighed deeply, letting them carry on because they were my friends and meant well.
Within ten minutes, I was hooked in a way I hadn’t been as a teenager, when Bollywood films ran non-stop in our house every weekend.
I recognised the personalities, the family, the rage (but not yet the forgiveness) and connected with them in a way that I rarely have with Western characters. It was like my connection to desi culture had been plugged into the mains and switched on.
That may seem odd, given that I’d been going to Indian restaurants and becoming friendly with staff over the years. We’d chatted, exchanged stories, they knew my favourite dishes and would occasionally try to push me in another direction, but I was always wary, expecting to be stabbed in the back.
Stepping back into the world of Bollywood allowed me to reconnect to my culture safely and wrestle with relationships in a way that I somehow couldn’t in the Western world I was born and raised in (though trust me, I was doing plenty of it). And as I wrestled, something unexpected emerged: pride. After decades of turning away from my heritage, Bollywood and Goodness Gracious Me helped me to step towards and, eventually, embrace it.
But life is messy, and this wasn’t the beginning of a smooth road to a happy ending. Shortly after this, my father and I had yet another contentious phone call: I hung up, and no one rang back for fourteen years.
Much unravelled in those fourteen years, with one of the key inflection points being a BBC documentary on Partition in 2005. I had flicked it on out of interest, because all I knew about Partition (aside from their leaving Jalandhar in August 1947), was a single throwaway comment from my mother, ‘We had to leave home and left everything there,’ and, shortly before I left for the UK, my father’s cold, rage-filled voice speaking of his cousin’s betrayal. For some reason, I had always thought the move was an orderly one…this Partition documentary was about to blow that apart.
The trains. It was the faces of the children standing in front of the trains that first transfixed me as I barely listened to the commentary. After a couple of minutes, I realised I was looking for familiar faces: child versions of my parents, aunts, uncles, family friends. I was sure I’d seen one…there…or was it…here? The rest of the documentary continued shredding my childhood image of a well-ordered migration.
Immediately afterwards, I wrote a Catholic priest friend who had spent a couple of years teaching in Pakistan. He confirmed what I had learned, adding that he had known nuns who would meet the trains at Lahore in the hopes of helping those who had survived.
I watched Partition season every year after that – the documentaries, the individual stories, the Who Do You Think You Are? genealogies, the celebrations of our subcontinent – and finally, I understood. I understood my parents’ alternating dissociation & primal rage, their secretiveness, the pulling curtains closed in the daytime, the pathological distrust, the hoarding, the furniture covered in plastic, my father checking the locks three times before going to bed. I understood his deep-seated hatred of Hindus and his even more deep-seated hatred of Sikhs – though, oddly, he had friends of both denominations.
I never shared his hatred, but I got angry. ‘They had been the neighbours you loved three days ago, and today, you’re killing them? What the hell is wrong with you people?’ I had never been a fan of Urdu (it always sounded a bit fussy to me), but now I smouldered with resentment against it as I watched Indian Punjabis burst with pride at their culture, sharing it with the world, while Pakistani Punjabis were ashamed of their own language. At every turn, it seemed that Partition had hobbled Pakistan. Eventually, though, I could see how it had hobbled the subcontinent as a whole.
Yet there was so much to embrace: our passion, our loud conversations over politics, our food, our hospitality, the way we loved big, our humour, our sense of extended family and service to others, our clothing, our colour, our food, Bollywood, and so much more. Finally, I fully stepped into my inheritance.
And I talked. I talked to my closest friends, to desis I came to befriend, to my father’s eldest brother, who reached out a decade before my parents. To my surprise, he agreed with me that Partition should never have happened. We emailed sporadically over the years, but he was very much a man of his generation: letters and discussions in his library while smoking his pipe were much more his way than email. Sadly, we never managed one of those before he died in 2013. My cousins on my father’s side and I reconnected and we began comparing notes and trying to unravel our story.
In the late 1970s, on a visit to my dhadhi in Sahiwal, I noticed that Shaista – who had lived with my grandmother for as long as I could remember – had offered her a snarky response. In a huff only a tween can manage, I stalked over to our family friends next door and went off. They waited patiently and when I finished with ‘She can’t talk to dhadhi like that, she’s a servant!’ (cringe, I know, I know) – they responded with, ‘She’s not a servant; she’s your cousin.’
‘No, she isn’t. All my cousins [on my father’s side] are in America.’
‘No, she’s your father’s sister’s daughter.’
‘My father doesn’t have any sisters. I should know; he’s one of five brothers, and they’re all in the States.’
‘No. He had two sisters both died before you were born. He was very close to one of them, and he never said her name again after she died.’
I fell silent, stunned, unsure of what to do with the information. My instinct told me that if my father wasn’t talking about it, perhaps it was safer to leave it be and avoid setting off his rage. That snippet of information lay dormant for over 30 years.
‘Has your dad said anything? Do you have any pictures of our aunties,’ I asked my cousins via message in 2017. They responded in the negative and, as I wasn’t in touch with my parents, we had to leave it there for the time being. Meanwhile, I hit a breakthrough in a conversation with a close friend:
‘I was thinking about what you said about your father and his sisters.’
‘You know how you assume your father doesn’t love you? What if it’s that he can’t?’
‘What if he was afraid to love you? What if you looked like her? What if you were like her
And that terrified him?’
I felt an internal seismic shift take place. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I remember my internal dialogue. ‘It’s can’t, not won’t. I’m not unlovable.’
It was to be almost two years before she was proven right. In November 2018, my brother sent me an email, the first I’d heard from him in almost two decades, to ask me to get in touch with my parents: my father was frail and it looked like my mother was in the early stages of dementia. As I read it, I smiled sadly at what I recognised as tentativeness, almost a brittleness, his readiness to argue his point against the expected ‘Absolutely not’. I was surprised to discover that my response was ‘Of course I will.’
We had several false starts, but finally, on 5 December 2018, we connected. As my father’s face appeared on the WhatsApp screen, I was stunned by the fierce protectiveness that overtook me. I was even more stunned by the joy on his face, deeply moved, even as I thought, ‘Why couldn’t you look at the little girl who adored you like that?’
We talked. We messaged. We talked again. I learned that one of his sisters had died in Partition. We sent each other videos; we exchanged information and birthday wishes; we checked in through the pandemic. I had no expectations of a Darling Buds of May family reunion; I finally understood that they had acted out of unresolved trauma, spilling it onto the next generation. There was no malice in it, only pain that twisted into other, darker things – and I knew that the relationship we built had to be what was possible with our scars and limps, not the unblemished one I had once hoped for.
‘I’ve been thinking this for a while – I’d like to meet up in Lahore with Nadeem, all the cousins, family that wants to go, and take the trip back to Jalandhar. Would you want to come?’
‘The visa might be a problem, you know, beti.’
‘I’ve been thinking that with Modi in power, but we could work on that. All we can do is ask.’
‘You know, I could still show you where I used to play. It’s home.’
I choked up. ‘I’d love that.’
And when I tweeted that my father, after 72 years, still called Jalandhar home, an Indian resident tweeted back and said, ‘Tell him hi, and that we’re taking good care of it.’
There was still one more thing I wanted to know, but didn’t yet dare ask. Old habits die hard: my default is still not to tell him what is going on with me. My brother had to tell him about my being made redundant; I was sure I would get the ‘If you had become a doctor’ lecture.
Instead, he asked if I needed anything. He has continued to surprise me. My mother speaks little except to say hello, blow kisses, and suggest that I lose weight. Plus ça change.
Finally, in September of this year, I put my big girl pants on.
‘Dad, there’s a question I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time.’
Dad, warily, ‘Yes?’
‘No, it’s nothing bad, don’t worry. But…I would love to know our aunties’ names. I don’t have their names to pray for them, nothing.’
Hesitantly, creakily, almost as if the names were unfamiliar, ‘Zubaida and Jannat.’
‘Oh, Jannat, I love that name!’
‘Yes, Jannat was Shaista’s mother. Shaista’s daughter, R, lives in London, did you know.’
‘NO, so…why didn’t you tell me?’ (Inwardly: THIS FAMILY)
‘Her sons, M and S, are in Pakistan.’
‘She was…two years younger than me, and was 8 when we left India to go to Pakistan. She got an infection and died when we got to Pakistan. She was very bubbly.’
‘She was the one you were really close to?’
‘Yes, yes, we were very close, yeah.’
Jannat died in childbirth with her second child, who didn’t survive.
Finally, I know their names of the women I might have grown up with, confided in, leaned into when I struggled at home. In his unsolicited ‘She was bubbly,’ at long last, I understand why there was always a note of terror under my father’s rage whenever he squelched my joyful outbursts. The weaving together of understanding, forgiveness, and hope continues.
And I pray that, in saying their names for the first time in over 70 years, he has finally found the room to grieve that the young boy he once was could not.
Next year is the 75th anniversary of Partition, and I would love to be able to go back to Lahore for the first time in 32 years and make the journey back across the border that I’ve long sensed our family has needed to heal. Sadly, it’s too late for my grandparents and many of the aunts and uncles I have dearly loved and wished could be with us…but we will undertake this healing for everyone. And if we don’t manage it next year, I’ll keep trying until we do.
After all, the school they sent me to had Inveniam viam aut faciam as a motto – I will find a way or make one.
Just as they did. Just as our family is, one day at a time.