It’s been almost six years since 2017 when Sandeep Dutt, then an IT student of Ludhiana, and his online friend Faisal Hayat, a student of journalism from Rawalpindi of Pakistan, had come together to create ‘Bolti Khidki’, a unique platform on Facebook for people on both sides of the border to tell their stories of survival and even find their loved ones lost in the bloodied times of the India-Pakistan Partition.
On a quest for six years to find individuals who suffered and record their heart-wrenching memories of the world’s biggest forced migration in human history — stringing together 52 cities across five countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, US and UK) — ‘Bolti Khidki’ is now a book titled ‘The Speaking Window: Tales from a Blooded Timeline’ published by Oxford University Press.
The book is co-authored by Sandeep Dutt from India, Faisal Hayat from Pakistan and Ritika, who now lives in Canada. The book brings together narratives from the generation that would soon be completely lost to time.
“Usually, we interact a lot with our neighbours through the khidkis (windows). So ‘Bolti Khidki’ was a window which narrated stories of the padosi’s ghar (neighbour’s home) for people from both sides of the border. Amid so much of hate, we wanted to give this project a ghar wali (homely) feeling so we selected khidki as a medium for it,” says Dutt, now 28.
Back in 2017, separated by borders and geographies, Dutt and Hayat had never met. Six years later, they still haven’t. However, both the young men, travelling across villages and cities in their respective countries, with their limited resources, kept meeting partition survivors, collected their stories and put them on ‘Bolti Khidki’ for people to read and share the pain transcending borders.
Ritika, 32, then an English teacher in Ludhiana and now a cyber-security instructor in Canada, volunteered to edit the pieces for them and joined their journey.
Though the trio had managed to collect over 200 stories of survivors aged 75 to 109, of them 47 have made it in the book. What makes the trans-border effort even more special and painful at the same time is the fact that over the six years, when the book was in making, 24 survivors have passed away, mostly during the pandemic, waiting to see the book.
“When we met elderly survivors who have been through so much, one thing we realised was that we are simply not listening enough to our older generation. They aren’t being heard. Even their families were not fully aware of details of all that they went through during the partition. They have so much to share that they would just cry and cry while talking. So much pain and unsaid feelings were buried in their hearts,” says Dutt, whose inspiration behind ‘Bolti Khidki’ was his Urdu teacher Prem Singh Bajaj (88). A Sikh migrant from Sargodha, Bajaj single-handedly kept Urdu classes alive in Ludhiana for decades and volunteered to teach Urdu for classes held by the Punjab languages department. He too died in 2019 but a chapter in the book has been dedicated to him.
Hayat, now 25 and a journalist in Pakistan, says, “My digital mulaqat (meet up) with Sandeep had happened in an Indo-Pak online friendship community group ‘Aman ki Asha’ and initially we just wanted to start with a small video project. At that time, Sandeep wanted to learn Urdu and when he met his teacher Bajaj sir, we thought of creating a platform to share partition stories.”
Hayat adds, “Initially, the plan was just to collect and record 15 stories but it just kept growing. Sandeep found support from some volunteers to travel and collect stories but I had to travel across Pakistan on my own. The book has some heart touching stories from the Pakistan side which I am glad would now reach Indians. We just wanted the youth to feel and connect with the pain that our ancestors went through due to the partition.”
“We always talk about how painful the partition was but never take out time to peep into the hearts of the aged survivors, without realising that once they are dead, a part of history will be lost forever. I don’t think we have an understanding of ‘sense of home’. For these survivors, they have been living dual lives in their minds, the one with their families currently and the other of their childhood memories lost due to the partition. They would talk about their lost homes and the current homes where they live — it’s a house for them but not home,” says Ritika.
While in most cases, Dutt and Hayat travelled themselves, in India and Pakistan, respectively, to collect stories, sometimes they also took help of local volunteers. “The survivors from the US, UK and Bangladesh were interviewed digitally,” says Dutt.
While Dutt spent his savings and did some part-time jobs to fund his travels, Hayat funded the project with his earnings from journalism and goat trading business. On why they never met in six years, Dutt says: “Given the strained relations between both the countries and visa complexities, we never explored a physical meeting. Now we may meet when the book is out.”
“Initially, the book was intended to be released in both India and Pakistan, however, the contract was signed with Oxford University Press (OUP) India. Right now, the book has been released exclusively in India but we have received orders from Pakistan, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Ireland, the UAE and the Netherlands. We are actively working to make the book accessible globally by coordinating with respective OUP branches in these countries,” he says.
‘Abba isey mat maaro, mere saath school kon jayega’: Heart-wrenching stories in the book
For these three youngsters, who never had any knowhow of how to write a book or get it published, the road from a Facebook page to an international publishing house wasn’t easy.
“Several times in the past six years we lost all hope and even decided that we should drop the book project. We had no idea how books are published. But we had decided that if it is published, it has to be an established publishing house which could do justice with the content. Luckily, Oxford responded to our pitch note sent on mail and it all started,” says Dutt.
‘The Speaking Window’ is not just about heart-wrenching partition stories from India and Pakistan but also Bangladesh. “From Punjab to J&K, Delhi to Madhya Pradesh in India, to Pakistan and Bangladesh and also NRIs now settled abroad, we have tried to include stories of people from diverse backgrounds and regions who went through this trauma,” says Dutt.
From Justice (retd) J C Verma of Chandigarh who sold peanuts on streets of Ferozepur after migration, to Amarjeet Singh of Delhi who lost 16 members from his extended family in the riots, the book encapsulates the memoirs of the generation who had a childhood that saw it all.
“Seventy-six years have already passed since the tragedy and most of the survivors have already been lost to time. In the years to come, it would become all the more difficult to find those who lived it. We also missed meeting some survivors who died by the time we reached them. That was the saddest for us,” says Dutt.
Each survivor’s story featured in the book has been given a title suiting the journey of their lives.
Like ‘The Red Carpet’ is a story of late Sajjad Kishwar, a legendary Pakistan actor who hailed from Ludhiana. He survived a mob attack, bombings on a train and almost starved to death. After reaching Pakistan, he saw many bodies rotting on the streets. Dutt says, “He (Kishwar) would still get nightmares and cry his heart out remembering the horror.”
‘Abandoned Virtue’, is the story of Fatimah Noreen, who left Delhi after a local Muslim cleric was murdered to send out a message that Muslims should leave. She also lost her brother in the riots. When Hayat met them in a street of Rawalpindi, she and her husband were selling clothes on a hand cart and broke into tears while narrating their story.
Kusumlata Sharma, who was born in a rich family of Lahore, in her story titled ‘The Persistent Princess’, remembers that her family had factories, cars, gold and everything else but the wheel of time took such a turn that they could not even carry their clothes during the partition. She remembers watching movies in the theatres of Lahore. Her family settled in Sonipat and later, her father homeschooled her and his other daughters and soon it turned into the Adarsh Kanya Mahavidyalaya, a school.
Punjab Rai Talwar, in his story ‘Pain of Punjab’, narrates how they left Pakistan even as their neighbours had requested them to stay. The grandparents were left behind thinking things would settle soon and they would return home. They travelled on the roof of the trains and extremists on both sides were attacking people with rods. The family reached Ferozepur, survived floods and then reached Ludhiana. Later, the grandparents were reunited after six months at the border.
‘The Salvation Story’ is the tale of 109-year-old freedom fighter Sai Ramte Shah Chisti, born as Malkeet Singh who later became Comrade Dukhiya, during the freedom struggle, was born in Malerkotla and was imprisoned in Multan jail. He was close to Teja Singh Sutantar and also attended secret meetings with Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad.
“He was also approached to describe Lahore Jail for a movie made on Bhagat Singh’s life. His whole interview is in the form of poems and ghazals. He was 107 when we met him and died at 109,” says Dutt.
The book also captures chilling details of how rioters spared none — from an infant to a school going child. “There was an infant, must be around 7-8 months. He was killed with a rod that penetrated through his mouth,” remembers a survivor in the book.
“When they were about to kill a child, the son of the perpetrator said ‘Abba isey mat maaro, kal mere saath school kon jayega’ (Father don’t kill him, who will go to school with me tomorrow),” said another.
“Jitni zameen thi saari qabristaan ban gayi (The entire area turned into a graveyard),” said a survivor.
Surjit Singh, a survivor who migrated from Rawalpindi, remembers his grandmother spinning charkha in the verandah of their house and singing, “Prem wali gali vichon koi koi langda (There are a few who walk the path of love).”
“After six years of working on 200 real stories of migration and partition, we can say that no one did it to us, not the Britishers. It was we who did it to ourselves. We killed our own people,” says Dutt.