The price of independence

Independence turned bloody as uprooted Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs crossed borders.
Independence turned bloody as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs crossed borders.

It’s too bad “Midnight’s Children” was a bust at the box office. I’m thinking that Deepa Mehta was perhaps the wrong director to give us the celluloid depiction of Salman Rushdie’s terrific book, which won the Booker Prize in 1981.

The protagonist and narrator of Rushdie’s story, Saleem Sinai, is born at the exact moment when India gained independence from Britain. The film, had it been a success, might have broadened knowledge of the painful history of my homeland, just like “Gandhi” had done years before. “Gandhi” won various Oscars in 1983, including best picture.

At 11:57 p.m. on August 14, 1947, the nation of Pakistan was born, carved out of land that was a part of British India. Five minutes later, at 12:02 a.m. on August 15, India was declared a free nation. To all my Pakistani and Indian friends: Happy Independence Day.

That independence came with a steep price. British India was partitioned along religious and political lines. Pakistan became the Muslim homeland and Muslims living in lndia crossed borders on the west and east. At the same time, Hindus and Sikhs in the new Pakistan made the trek to India. At least 10 million people were uprooted from their homes; some estimates say it was as many as 25 million.

It was far from peaceful, far from what Mahatma Gandhi, the father of non-violence had anticipated.

Hindus and Muslims butchered each other. Sometimes, entire trains from Punjab to Pakistan arrived with seats and bunks awash in red. Or vice versa. Women were raped; children slaughtered. There are no exact counts of the dead; just an estimate of 250,000 to 2 million.

Gandhi’s non-violent revolution turned exceedingly bloody. Brother against brother. Blood spilled in the name of religion.

My father’s generation remembers that ugly time in our history. His family was displaced from their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and started over in Calcutta. I heard stories from him and his friends and other Indians I have met from that era.

Atlanta physician Khalid Siddiq was one of those people. He told me he boarded a crowded train in New Delhi with his parents and four siblings to make a terrifying two-day journey through the farmlands of Punjab.

“I was very young but I think I understood what was happening,” he told me. “I could see the fear and anguish on my father’s face. It was a terrifying experience for everybody.”

Sohan Manocha told me he witnessed hundreds of killings as a young Hindu boy in Punjab. “That kind of horror leaves memories that are hard to erase, ” he said.

The stories of the painful birth of India and Pakistan are dying with the people who lived it. I am sorry I never recorded my conversations with people I knew.

Luckily, an oral history project, 1947 Partition Archive, is doing just that.

“The 1947 Partition Archive is a people-powered non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving and sharing eye-witness accounts from all ethnic, religious and economic communities affected by the Partition of British India in 1947,” the website says. “We provide a platform for anyone anywhere in the world to collect, archive and display oral histories that document not only Partition, but pre-Partition life and culture as well as post-Partition migrations and life changes.”

I’m glad someone took the time to preserve history.

It’s especially important since tensions between India and Pakistan have never settled.

Just last week, five Indian soldiers were killed last week along the heavily militarized Line of Control, the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir. Since then skirmishes have flared tension between the two rival nations. Again. (India and Pakistan have already fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir, which Pakistan argues should have been a part of the newly formed Muslim nation in 1947.)

So on this Independence Day, I remember all those lives that were lost in the making of free nations, in the making of our destinies.

Magnificent and unexpected

Piazza San Marco.

I continue in this post my journey through Italy. Too quick, too hurried, but fascinating all the same.

(I dream of the day when I am not beholden to an employer any more and I can travel at will.)

The train ferried me from Verona back to Venice on a warm Sunday afternoon. I was curious to see, at last, the city of palaces built on a mosquito-infested swamp. What were they thinking?

Along the Grand Canal.
The train rolled into the Santa Lucia station and when I stepped out, I finally saw what Venice’s founders envisioned. What they built is truly magnificent, no other city in the world can compare. In fact, the entire city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Next, I boarded a water taxi at Ferrovia and 14 stops later along the Grand Canal, I’d reached my destination: San Marco. My hotel was a step away and just around the corner from the main plaza in Venice.

I was meeting two of Kevin’s brother’s here. Yes, I know. A strange thing to go on vacation with your husband’s brothers. But their trip was planned and how easy was it just to tag along? Kevin did not have enough vacation time to make it work.
More about the family in my next post.
Chatting with John and Sue Maso at dinner.

The first night, my brother-in-law Peter and I found a cute trattoria not far from the hotel. We were tired and hungry and filled up on spaghetti with seafood.

Next to us was a couple from Perth, Australia. She’d asked us if our food was good before ordering.
“Delicious,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, really?” I said. I lived there for a bit way back in the seventies.”
John and Sue Maso, it turns out, were on a multi-nation adventure. Their days in Italywere to be extra special. John’s parents were from Vittoria Veneto. But the family moved to Australiaafter World War II.
Johns’s father returned four times from Australia. On each of his first three visits, the pope died. It was an omen. The fourth time, he died. That was in 1991.
Veneto was on John’s bucket list. He had to go back to see it, meet family, he explained.
Bangladeshi Shipu Mollah served us our dinner.

I could see he was excited and nervous all at once. He savored his steak as did Sue her spaghetti and seafood.

We laughed and talked some more about Italy. They had enjoyed their day trip to the island of Murano, where glass blowing is an art honed to perfection.
Then it was time to pay the bill. Our waiter Shipu Mollah was young, handsome and I could tell from his speech, very Bengali.

He’d come to Venice from Bangladesh, looking for work.

What I did not know at that moment was that in the three days I was to spend in Venice, I would speak more Bengali than I have in six months in Atlanta.

All the men who sold gimmicks and toys and souvenirs to the tourists were Bangladeshi, as were many of the waiters and shopkeepers. Syad Shamim Ali told me he arrived only a year ago in March — from Libya.
Of course, I thought. I remembered when I had written about Bangladeshi laborers clamoring to get out once Moammar Gadhafi’s rule seemed uncertain.
They’d been transported to the borders at Tunisia and Egypt. Many spent days and nights in the open before they were able to board a ship to take them away.
Life was different in Venice, they told me. Of course it would be after war in Libya and the abject poverty of home. But they did not speak of cathedrals, palaces or aquamarine lagoons.
All they saw were the thousands and thousands of tourists. They were lifeblood.
The Bangladeshis missed their families, their homes — some had not returned in years. But it was possible to make a few dollars. There were a few possibilities here.
Their words would hang over me during my time in Venice.
In between the pricey gondola rides and bottles of Valpolicella, I thought of them, trying to just make it. Life in Venice was certainly no vacation. Not for them.
The basilica and tower at San Marco.



If you look at the map on photographer Shahidul Alam’s Web site, Bangladesh is a sea of yellow pinpricks — each virtual thumb tack pointing to a killing by the Rapid Action Battalion, a security force formed in 2004 to fight corruption in the South Asian nation.

The ruthless guardians of the nation stand accused by human rights groups of the torture and extra-judicial slayings of their fellow citizens.

Alam, a brilliant photographer and passionate defender of human rights, focused his heart and his camera on the state-sanctioned terror; on all the people allegedly caught in the “crossfire.”

In a collection of photographs catalogued as “Crossfire,” he shows us the hospital corridor, the rice paddy, the city wall, the rickshaw stand — all the places where they happened.

In his own words:

“The intention of this exhibit, was therefore not to present documentary evidence. There was plenty of that around and it had failed. The show attempts to reach out at an emotional level. I aim to get under the skin. To walk those cold streets. To hear the cries, see terror in the eyes. To sit quietly with the family besides a cold corpse. But every photograph is based on in-depth research. On actual case studies. On verifiable facts. A fragment of the story has been used to suggest the whole. A quiet metaphor for the screaming truth.”

Bangladeshi police prevented the public from viewing “Crossfire” by blocking the entrance to Drik Gallery in Dhaka. But Drik won its case in court and people can once again freely view Alam’s important work. It’s vital that people see through Alam’s lens. it’s vital for Bangladeshi democracy,

Check out Alam’s work on the New York Times site:

And thanks to my friend John Trotter (another brilliant photographer) for bringing the court ruling to my attention.

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