Of all the interviews with people who lived through Partition, it's the memories of a friend's mother which I recall most acutely. This photograph below is of my friend Shernaz (Shenny) Italia and her mother Khorshed Italia (nee Mehta). Mrs Italia lived almost all her life in a top floor flat in Connaught Place in the centre of Delhi. In 1947, she was a volunteer worker at Lady Hardinge Hospital, helping women refugees as they flooded in from Punjab, many of them alone and in profound shock. That interview is a deeply moving account of the trauma of Partition and the violence inflicted on the region's women - and also an uplifting story of the way in which some found the strength to help those most in need. Her memories were included in the third programme of the radio series India: a people partitioned, which focussed on the plight of women at that time. A partial transcript of the interview is posted below.
Mrs Italia died in June 2010 aged 88.
Photo: Rosalind Miller - taken in Delhi in 1997
Photo: Rosalind Miller - taken in Delhi in 1997
KHORSHED ITALIA: partial transcript
How these things happened was the shops started being looted over here. All the Muslim shops were looted by everybody. And they broke open the window panes, just take everything in a tonga and run. And then Nehru came himself over here. He came and ran with a lathi trying to hit these chowkra boys. I saw Nehru by my own eyes from my balcony, from my balcony, running and catching: “Stop all this, stop all this! Bas karo! Bas karo! Mut karo!” He had a lathi in his hand. And then the policemen came, and they escorted him only.
Many shops were looted. People used to just carry the material, put it in a tonga, and run. The poor animal was not even able to carry the load. How the shops were destroyed, and how people looted. Shoes – no size. And then some would nicely take out and wear, try. I collected a few stones. I would throw a stone on him: ‘put it in that shop again’. Then they started looting any shop.
People were slaughtered, slaughtered – nothing but slaughtered. We were not allowed to go down, and for eight days we did not have milk or anything fresh, vegetables and such. The army would come, and block-wise – then there were many residents in Connaught Place – take us to the grocery shop, or they themselves would bring dal, chaval, sugar or milk powder. And that was the only time when we learnt to drink tea without milk. My papa worked in Old Delhi, Lahori Gate power house, so he was escorted – but for four days he didn’t come to the house. He just couldn’t come. He was in the power house.
A petrol pump opposite us used to belong to a Muslim, so he came running to my daddy. He says: ‘you just take this pump, give me any money you want, and I’m getting out, and tell your son-in-law to put me on the flight so I can get out of India’. So many people became rich overnight. ‘I’ll give you this, you try top send me out from there’ - ‘Take the jewellery, let us go out from here’. There were so many people who became rich overnight that way.
I used to help as an honorary worker at the Hardinge hospital. All the volunteers at that hospital were asked to go to the Old Fort and help the women that will be coming in the refugee trains or by trucks.
A road from here, where we go to New Delhi station, that road was nothing but full of dead bodies. Horses killed, people killed and I had to cross from Hardinge to that road. They said: you will have to do it. I caught hold of somebody – I thought I’ll faint here – we managed to cross and we went to Old Fort.
There first the truck came with all women – old, young, middle aged. And each time the women came, we had to ask: who do you belong to, what is your name, and all that. And then the lady doctors that used to come used to examine them, whether they were raped or not. All that we had to do.
The women when they arrived, they had made camps. And at that time Delhi was not so huge as it is now. We had made camps for every women – we divided the widow, the old, the young. Mother and daughter, daughter-in-law, they were put in one camp.
There were young girls, sixteen, seventeen. We felt so bad. And then we had to give a certificate that they had been raped or not raped. We just gave injections and have them aborted. And some were in advanced stages. Some came very late, very late. Our main thing was to check women. If they needed shelter or help, then we would out them in the camp. And if they had somebody, we would escort them to the address that they gave us.
A stage came when men came to ask for their women: ‘this is my wife’. And the moment that he knew she was pregnant: ‘no, I won’t take her back’. It took months to organise these women, teach them some sewing. At that time, I could not understand a single word of Punjabi. So I would say, you ask her what she wanted – and she would reply she was raped her and there, she was raped by –
When an educated man came, he would not take his women back. Very few did. They didn’t want to take them back. Mind you, a villager would come and ask and say: ‘well it’s not her fault, never mind, I’ll accept her’. So it was the villagers who took ladies who were pregnant, carrying, yet they took them. But educated men did not.
Twenty-five per cent of the educated men took their wives back, whereas fifty to sixty per cent of villagers took their wives back, and I admired them. A villager, a poor man, is more humble, has more mind to understand – but educated men, they had no brains. That’s the way I judged.
And this is where they started more being prostitutes. They said: ‘we might as well lead this life, now we don’t care. When our husbands are not accepting us, and they think we are prostitutes, we might as well lead this life.’ We told them: ‘you cannot have a better chance, we put you in this camp, do what you like to do – if you want sewing, if you want any work, and we may help you to get married’. ‘No, no, life is finished. I am a prostitute now’.
I used to get shocked. I asked them: ‘how much have you studied’. ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that – I’m a teacher.’ I said: ‘you are a teacher, and you want to lead this life, why are you doing. We’ll put you in a school, you can teach.’ ‘No, no.’ It was the most sad part of life.
How we spent nights and days persuading these girls to change. Mind you, there were some young girls who were eighteen, seventeen, they changed. But ladies between thirty and forty, they did not change. They said: ‘we were living in our house. They just came, raided us, looted us, dragged us – or raped us in our own house and threw us out. And threw we managed to get into the truck and came here.’ It was a pathetic scene to see. Terrible. And how I used to spend time working with these women and trying to persuade them that: ‘we’ll do everything for you’. ‘What will happen to this child?’ We said: ‘we have a foundling home, we’ll put them there’. ‘No’.
I suppose they were so upset. At that very juncture, their mind was in a very bad state. They were like mad women – mad women. And specially when a husband came and left her, she really was mad. We had to give them sleeping doses and put them to rest a little, and try to be more attentive to them.
When women landed, we had to take them to the camp. First thing, a doctor had to examine her – what her condition is. Some were saved, some old ladies were saved. Some old ladies were also raped. It’s something you can’t believe. They would tell me: ‘in front of my children, I was raped – can you believe that, can you believe that!’, they would tell me.
Almost fifty per cent [of women coming from Punjab had been raped]. Young girls were not spared at all. Young girls were very brutally raped. Their vaginas were torn. These women who had very bad vagina trouble, do you know what they used to do? They used to put cotton – oh God, when I had to take the cotton out, I would just close my eyes, and I would close my nose, and I said: ‘I can’t bear it’. That was the dirtiest part of the work that many women had to do.
There were some people who wanted girls of nine, ten to adopt. But then we had to go and see whether it’s a real home or a brothel. We had to make sure before we handed these children that were without anybody. Some children just came with no parents, nobody. They were howling, crying. There were people who came forward to adopt, but at the same time we could not give a girl for adoption. We were giving boy, but not girls – till we made sure that the family is good.
Even at that stage, the flesh trade was going on. Thirteen and fourteen were the most dangerous age. Many people came from brothel houses to take these girls if they were good looking. We never gave them. We never handed them [over].
And trains – I would refuse to go to a station. Old Delhi. I would hate that, hate it. Our main aim was to rescue the women and see that they don’t go astray. Because all these brothel people used to wait at the platform trying to grab them, and we had to make sure that they are not taken away.
The railways would inform the hospital: the train is carrying all refugees. There were about a hundred [hospital volunteers] for one train. Even then, we found that we were very few. We had to make sure whether this family is a family, and not just a made up family. We had to make sure of that, and that took us time. To deal with one set would take two to three hours. And there were many families who came, loaded with their wealth, loaded with jewellery, and some with [just] a bundle.
Once I was asked to go to the station to see to the train. Half the train had nothing but dead bodies. Nothing but dead bodies! I just couldn’t bear it. I asked them, please don’t put me to this work – I can’t do it. They said: no, you just help us out for some time more. I would come home and vomit and calm myself and go to bed. I worked for six weeks – up to two months I worked. Then I said: ‘you people do – I’m not handling it’.
I felt that there were no human beings – even an animal would be better than a human being. A female dog is far better on the street than the poor young girl of sixteen and seventeen. Young girls, eighteen, nineteen, were brutally raped. Oh my, you could see their bust swollen – bitten – with teeth marks all over their nipple. Terrible. I couldn’t bear it. We had to do it. I feel glad that I was able to do something for them.
The biggest blunder was that I was offered to go to London to train as a welfare worker and I didn’t go – because I was in love with a boy, and I thought ‘I mustn’t leave him, somebody else may take him’. And that is where I made a blunder in my life.