Words by: Udaivir Kapoor Art by: Ying Xuan
My grandmother, Vimla Kapoor, was only five years old when colonial rule in India ended, and the country was split into two, primarily based on religion and ideology.
Violence, misinformation and chaos ensued as the relationship between the two religions and eventually, the countries, worsened. Amid this, was the displacement of 14 million people. I caught up with her via Zoom call, to learn more about her journey.
Q: Why did you think your family decided to cross the border? I gather it was not mandatory for all.
A: The common knowledge was that crossing the border was the right thing to do. Since it was India, religion and nationality dictated everything, so the family had to move. If you wanted to stay alive, as a Hindu and an Indian, you naturally had to go across the border.
Q: Moving the whole family sounds like a massive decision. Can you tell me what it was like?
A: Naturally, I do not remember much. A story like this, you hear from many members of the family as you grow up. My parents had five more children so they had plans to go back as soon as they could.
Q: Can you tell us what exactly you left behind?
A: Everything. The family managed agriculture land for the government so we left everything from the house to the furniture. We gave some valuables to friends and neighbours with the promise that they would be returned when we got back.
Q: What can you tell me about your journey across the border?
A: We used trains. Men grew beards to pass as Muslim and women dressed in hijabs and overalls. We were travelling as a joint family — we had our maternal and paternal uncles, aunts and cousins too. The children in our family wore the same outfits as the women, who had strict orders to remain silent. People in different religions had different dialects, so we had to be very careful.
Q: Can you tell me why it was so dangerous to stay?
A: When we all reached the refugee camps in India, we got the news that our maternal grandparents and our great grandmother had been killed in the conflict. They had locked themselves in their home. They were money lenders who employed jewellery as collateral for loan seekers, but must have been easy targets because of their age and health.
Q: Did your family end up getting the new start they were after?
A: Our parents eventually realised that a new start was not possible. They were still surrounded by
a culture similar to what we had before. Maybe that made it easier. They worked several jobs. We worked (male members of the family only). The government started allotting houses to the refugees, so they ended up being assigned one in Central Punjab.
Q: Have you ever thought about going back?
A: Yes, your grandmother and I did plan to go back. We had discussed it maybe 10 years ago, but that was until we found the village was now one of the poorest regions in the world. It was nearly a ghost town.