The writer Krishna Baldev Vaid (1927-2020) talking about his memories of living through Partition riots in Dinga and the way in which this was reflected in his novel The Broken Mirror. I interviewed Mr Vaid at his home in Delhi on 12 January 1997 - and also subsequently interviewed his brother. A partial transcript of the interview - a particularly powerful and personal account of Partition violence - is pasted below.
Krishna Baldev Vaid: partial and edited transcript
I interviewed the novelist and writer K.B. Vaid at his home in Vasant Kunj, Delhi, on 12 January 1997. he was in Dinga a small town in west Punjab, in the summer of 1947 and hid through bitte riots there, then went to a refugee camp and on a refugee train to Amritsar and then to Jalandhar. His Partition novel The Broken Mirror is largely autobiographical, especially the depiction of characters and of the riot (however, the well incident, the train journey and the peace rally - though not the existence of a peace committee - are all imaginary).
Mr Vaid lived for many years in the United States where he taught English at university level. He wrote The Broken Mirror there - it took him many years after Partition to set those events down. He returned to India in the early 1980s.
I was born in the place where ‘The Broken Mirror’ and ‘Steps in Darkness’ are placed., That was the place where my father was working – a very petty official in the revenue department. The town was Dinga in district Gujrat. Actually, we didn’t belong to the town but he had a job there. Dera Bakhshian [?] in Rawalpindi district. The reason why I mention that is that our experience of Partition was repeated in our case, and probably many other cases, because DB and the surrounding villages were affected much earlier, in ’46, and whatever part of the family lived in that ancestral village was driven out. I didn’t experience that except from a distance – but I used to go to that village once in a while in my childhood. That’s the village that keeps popping in and out of my novels because I have very fond memories. Most of my childhood and boyhood was spent in Gujrat district. I did my primary schooling in a smaller town, Mangowal, and my secondary schooling in Dinga. (3’15)
Like everything else between Hindus and Muslims, it was a very ambivalent relationship. In some ways it wasn’t divided at all. For instance, my next door neighbour – both in the novel and in real life – for many years was a Muslim family, and the smell of cooking used to enter our house and they were, naturally, rigorously non-vegetarian. We were not vegetarian but we cooked meat occasionally. And I used to sneak food out of them. And this happened in many cases. On the one hand, there was segregation as far as eating – you know: “I’ll do business with you but I won’t eat with you”. It was one-sided segregation from the Hindus – the Muslims did not mind eating with the Hindus at all. On the other hand there was a lot of intermingling and there was a lot of friendship. I know that there were women in that town who would take a bath if they accidentally brushed against a Muslim in the lane. Older women. This is the funny part of it. On the one hand, there was this good neighbourly-hood during peaceful times. On the other hand there was this feeling of resentment on the part of the Muslims – very correct resentment in my childish imagination also – and I was always breaking those barriers in my own little way. (6’10) Just disobeying your parents and going and eating with a Muslim.
Not much attention has been given to ‘The Broken Mirror’ as a Partition novel because I tell it from the boy’s point of view, I don’t give documentary (7’00) background. I try to reflect that microcosm, But it’s very much in my mind. I try to reflect it consciously through those characters. The eating and mixing situation, the sexual attraction and the taboo that accompanies it, the economic relations, where the powerful Hindu in that small town is the moneylender and therefore hated. But because of the power of money, when the riots took place they were able to escape unhurt, because they had contact with the Muslim zamindars who were also well-to-do but always needed money because of their licentious habits.
When I think of my own experience, I must have been a precocious boy in this particular respect because the instances were always numerous. There were two schools there, private schools, and both owned and run by individual families. One was the rich boys' school; the other for poorer boys – that was my school. Both the schools had a mixed student population. I had friends among Muslims and Sikhs. I used to be very curious of their food and eating habits, and I was very critical of my parents or other people’s friends. Most of our teachers were Muslims, there were some Sikhs – our headmaster was a very effective person, and very secular. I started having a rather different attitude, and I maintained that attitude throughout the riots – somehow I didn’t have any anger, I had confusion, but I didn’t have any anger and hatred against the Muslims in spite of the fact that we all could have been wiped out. We were saved by a family – a very similar situation as ‘The Broken Mirror – (12’00) – a family, Muslim, who hid us in a haystack for about 48 hours or so.
I started hearing [about Pakistan] in school. We used to have a morning assembly. One of the teachers occasionally used to give us the headline – the whole school would assembly after drill in the compound, and he used to read the headlines of the day and make snide comments. And the comments about Pakistan were always very snide. No one took it seriously. This started about ’40, ’41 – before the Quit India movement, the idea of Pakistan had already been mooted. And I remember very clearly the sniggers of laughter when Pakistan was mentioned and the idea was ridiculed, because no one thought it was a practical thing. (15’00)
I was in Lahore. In ’46 I must have gone back to my town in the summer and in ’47 I was there. Now those were days of great fear on the part of Hindus. There was a stillness in the town – which I could see. There was a hush-hush attitude – and there were people leaving. The town had a central bazaar and you could sit in any place and you could see people’s baggage being carried on a tonga, donkey loads going to the tonga stand and from there to the railway station. So those were days of menace. Our family didn’t know what to do. We had no one on [India’s] side of the border. We could [??n't]] go back to DB, which had already been destroyed before Partition. No Hindu was left. A few were killed but most were driven out. (17’00). Helplessly, and foolishly, we had an illusion that nothing would happen there. The town had a mixed population. The town itself, I’m guessing, had 60% Hindus and Sikhs and 40% Muslims, but the surrounding villages were predominantly Muslim and there fear was that the town would be besieged when the time came and all the people from the villages would come looting and plundering.
During those two or three months, those that could escape started escaping. Their number was small. Some people probably didn’t prepare that something terrible might happen. Some people did face the fact and started preparing for a fight. There was a fortification. We were outside that – I was mentally as well as physically outside of that fortification. I didn’t want to participate. My parents – I think they were scared. My father – a very gentle man, he had lots of Muslim friends because of his job. But he knew there would be a bloodbath. I also knew there would be a bloodbath. But we didn’t know what to do. We had this assurance – not from our neighbours with whom our relations became strained during the last one month, probably, they started giving us indications that something was going to happen, friendly indications. They were involved actively in the killing. Even the gentleman who saved us, the carpenter, Ghulam Ali, who was a friend of the family and his children were junior to me in the school and I used to tutor them occasionally, free. He had promised us that he will save us, he will hide us. So we knew that something was going to happen because when he said that he will save us, just about ten days before, he had said that one the word got about that something was going to happen – they happened in a very organised way. It did not happen in a sporadic way. That is where I disagree with my friend Bhisham [Sahni]’s emblematic opening of the novel ‘Tamas’. Of course things like that must have happened also, but they don’t explain the situation. Things were building up. Both on that side and on this side, in a very organised way.
No, it was not goondas. The Muslim League hardliners - the Mahavir Dal people were organising the defence but their defence provoked the Muslims even more. And there was the Khaksar party. And there was the Sikh community – correctly or incorrectly they thought they should prepare the defence, and they were collecting (22’00) ammunition and daggers and all that. I didn’t see them with my own eyes, but I sensed them from my friends and so on. There was this tension, and during this tension all these things were happening silently. And Muslims were very resentful. I think you could hear this conversation in the bazaar – groups of people – and they used to talk about it. There was nothing else that you could think about at that time, in the month and a half before the riots. I used to keep a diary in Urdu – to keep it more private, because in my family only my father knew Urdu (23’10) That diary I subsequently lost. We couldn’t save anything. Otherwise I would pin down the dates. The month would be June, I think – it was summer. And the Partition was 15th August. We were in trains for a lot of that time, refugee trains. June or July. In my own mind, the entire adult population – leaving aside a few, there was a Congress leader, Hemat Singh in the book, he was Hakmut Singh, the local Congress leader, they were organising [a] peace committee. … During the riots, when the riots were on and we were hiding in that little hovel and our protector was bloody eyed and waking and killing and so on, he used to peek in every now and then, every fourth and fifth hour, and he was giving us food and so on, and my mother was eating that food – she had never eaten food – I had no problem. When that he was involved in killing because his entire face was flushed and he didn’t conceal the fact that he was involved in killing himself, personally.
IN THE NOVEL HE RAPED SOMEBODY WHO TOOK SHELTER WITH YOU. IS THAT TRUE?
No, no – nothing like that happened. That didn’t happen. My sister was with me, and there was one other family, and there was this very young and beautiful woman you know, and she was afraid. Before she came to that hovel, my character’s guess is that she was raped. Not by this fellow but by somebody.
Similarly there was a hakim, unani hakim – I remember his voice, I was very clear about his voice. The place we were hiding was actually an abandoned place. And the next house was that hakim’s house. And I remember very clearly that throughout the night and the day I could hear him, first on some rooftop, giving orders to the marauders: “do this, go to that house”. Shouting orders, throughout the night. And I could recognise his voice. Now this is the madness part of it. I could never associate him with killing. He was such a saintly looking man with a flowing beard, offered his prayers five times – a very good hakim. I make fun of those hakims in the novel. There were some very funny hakims, they used to see your pulse and diagnose every disease and so on and it was all exaggerated. He was a good fellow. He used to take care of minor problems. But he was involved. That was the madness.
WHAT SORT OF THINGS WAS HE SHOUTING?
Practical things. Some streets – you have to visualise this town, there was the bazaar and the lanes emanated from that bazaar, and the bazaar went through the belly of the town. There were some predominantly Muslim and Hindu lanes which somehow could be fortified at both ends. And the organised attack, with firearms and so on, was concentrated on that particular section of the town. … It was like a military operation: “Do this, go that” and there were names: "Mahesh Shah … udher se jao”. (30’20) Several of them, but I could recognise his voice. We kept whispering to each other, this is hakim … Baksh, and feeling a little shocked that he was also involved in it.
A couple of days before, everybody knew that it could happen any day now, any day now. Somebody told us, I don’t know whether they were neighbours – some Muslim fellow told us (31’15) - maybe he sent a message, our protector, Ghulam Ali – leave your place and come to our place. He had already told our family where he would hide us. And I remember that – we had to walk through that ubiquitous bazaar in order to reach that place, and everybody was closing their shops, the shops were mainly Hindu, there were very few Muslim shops. You could see that the bazaar was being closed. And the family were not all together. My mother, father, brother and I were there – but I had a sister and her daughter, and she was missing, so we were frantically searching for her. And finally we traced her. It was done in a great hurry and the time was very short. It was towards the evening some time. Darkness had not set in yet, but it was towards the evening and very soon the night fell and the thing started. There was drum beats and so on. As apprehended, there was an attack from the surrounding villages – but with the collusion of the local population, local Muslim population. This is how it happened.
We had some plans. I don’t think we took anything – I had a satchel packed with some things, my diaries and some stupid stuff.. But we were never able to take that. We had just the clothes we were in and some ramshackle footwear, not the proper footwear. And some of us [had] bare feet, my brother and that girl. My brother was only ten years, younger, and I was nineteen. My brother was also barefoot when we reached that place, which was a distance of a furlong or so. This was not a big town, very compact. We went to that hiding place in the full view probably of many people – after they had taken care of the major problems, that is taken that citadel so to speak, and looted whatever they wanted to loot and killed whoever they wanted to kill, and spared some, they were searching out the hidden people. And from the lane outside – suspecting there are people. So we had very tense moment throughout those 36 or 40 hours, I don’t know how many.
It was awful. We were numb. Let me give you the exact number of people who were there. We were six – our family. And three more people – a woman who was also protected, and her brother and brother’s wife. It’s a - very powerful people. We could hear the gunshots. We could guess from the shouting that people were being killed, that six, seven houses were on fire. Wherever they could set the houses on fire safely they did. Where there was no Muslim house adjoining. And we were numb with terror. Personally I was, I don’t know how to explain that. All sorts of thoughts did flow through my mind – some of which I tried to reinvent and reconstruct through B … . Some ramblings and some even snatches of sleep and dream and nightmare. And I remember – my father was quiet but my mother was constantly mumbling, prayers and stuff. Everyone was tense, and short-tempered also. This man, I remember very clearly, he wanted to smoke – my father also smoked, but he somehow suppressed his desire to smoke – the other fellow, the other adult male, he would light a bidi, he would go to the mouth of that house and he would try to look outside (37’30), partly out of curiosity and party out of some brave idea that we would have to run, partly out of idiocy. He was scared, but his nervousness found expression in this. So everybody would snap at him, or made plain that if they do come in and start killing us that: I would be the first, my mother said “I will be the first”. Then my sister would say that: I would be the first. They were trying to save the little ones. That kind of thing.
There was some jewellery. Every time this man came, Ghulam Ali – and he kept his promise, he didn’t exploit the situation by extracting money out of us and so on, I'm talking about not the novel but real life – and every time he came, all the women, or at least some of them, they would start taking off the bangles and offering it to them. And he would say: “No, no, I don’t want it”. They thought that, take it, take it, they would try to bribe him to spare our lives.
WAS THERE ANY FEAR OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE?
I don’t know. I think there was – must have been. There were two young women there. There were rapes. When the things somehow calmed down, I don’t know how they did, there was some army rescue. Toward the dawn of the following day, whatever – I don’t know how many hours we spent, to my mind it was more than 24 and less than 48, a full day and some hours. But when we were taken out to a makeshift refugee camp that they set up, not in a school compound as I make it in the novel but in a tehsil office compound, it was early in the morning, very early in the morning. I imagine all the survivors were taken to that place. It must have been very early in the morning, around 3 o’clock or so, and we walked behind along with a number of people, including our protector. And lots of injured people there, including many children. And somehow there was – I was one of the volunteers trying to help – some makeshift first-aid that was being given, two or three people were trying to give first-aid to the wounded. It was all done in the dark – it was a very horrible sight.
We were there probably for a day, and everyone was comparing notes and some people had been able to rescue some household stuff, there were piles of stuff, and some people were like us absolutely without a thing, without a thing. In the whispering about who got killed the counting started, I remember I was looking for my school friends and I found that one of them had been killed, I have given him the same name in the novel Abdyal [?], and he had been married – he was married to the sister of another friend of ours. And she was raped. And she was pregnant – they were married a year earlier, after his B.A. they got married. She was raped. I didn’t see her in that camp, but a day later we were all transported, those who had nowhere to go – and most of us had nowhere to go. We were transported to another town called Mandi Bahauddin. It was a market town. And there we actually lived in a regular refugee camp based in a school or a building. And there I saw that girl, and who was very beautiful and we all used to have puppy love for her. And she was pregnant and she was delirious – she was pregnant and raped, and she had tried to jump from something, she probably had already had a miscarriage or she was going through the miscarriage, but I used to go and sit with her and her mother. I saw only one case of actual case of a girl that was raped, and this was this. So I used to go and sit with her, and she was feverish and she was delirious and later on I heard that she died. And she had this huge gaping wound in her forehead which was being treated in a very bad way by some doctor who didn’t have the facilities (45’00). She was dying in other words. She used to talk deliriously, incoherent stuff – for days, for days, for days, it was so painful.
HOW LONG WERE YOU IN THE REFUGEE CAMP?
I think we were there for three to four weeks, not less than that. Because when we came to this side it was September already. Perhaps it took place in July, perhaps in August – I’m not sure. The refugee camp – we were getting some relief at that time. Some people had saved their jewellery, some people had cash, so it was all a mixture. The mood was very strange – most people did lose some member of the family, hundreds of people killed in that town, fifteen was the figure we kept on talking about. The mood was sad, and angry, and there was one man whom I didn’t know before the camp, one man from that town, who was proud that he had killed many Muslims, that he had fought bravely. He used to talk about it. I used to feel uneasy about even that.
It was a double-storeyed building with a compound. And he was a Mahavir Dal man, And he started organising a sort of group even in that camp which would come this side and do the killing. He was frighteningly cool. He was not abusive – he was very well built and strong, well-fed and soft spoken, sort of a RSS kind of figure, takes exercise and so on. He used to gather people around him – I also sat several times – and he used to talk about how many he was able to kill while fighting, and that he was an organiser of the resistance. And he was going to come to this side – and he did. I think he must have done of it.
I lost touch with almost everybody – partly deliberately. I’ve got some friends even now who survived with me. First we came to Jalandhar and lived in another refugee camp – travelled by train. And the train was again, it’s not a great distance, but I’d never come to this side, never travelled beyond Lahore. The rumour was that the trains that left that particular point at Mandi Bahauddin, some were stopped and people were butchered. I didn’t know how true these rumours were, but we had this rumour hanging over our head – that we’ll be butchered on the way. So the train did stop, because of their known traffic problems, and it was a horrible thing. I just went mad for a few moments. It stopped for several hours – we had nothing to eat, some people who had they were making makeshift fires. I was angry I remember the shirt I was wearing, I tore it off in some fit of insanity. The train was not attacked. We made it to Amritsar first and then to Jalandhar. We got off the train at Jalandhar, we didn’t want to go all the way to Delhi, and went to a regular tented refugee camp and started living there. There I did volunteer work and then started getting paid for that volunteer work, abut a month I was there. Then I got a job in a paper – ironically, a Hindu Mahasabha paper.
WHEN YOU ARRIVED IN AMRITSAR, DID YOU FEEL SAFE?
Yes. As I recall, yes. Before I got off the train I was mad, but when we got to that camp, the instinct for survival is there so we were laughing and so on. I made some friends among some volunteers, one of whom later was my student a Jalandhar. Yes, Jalandhar was safe, yes. I am glad to be in India, even now, but I haven’t felt rooted here mentally. I do have a notion that the business is unfinished, that the two nation theory somehow was a wrong theory. It wasn’t a fight between two nations, it was between two religious groups. (54’40) Partition was a tragedy which might have been avoided.