‘We must forget about divisions’: one woman’s journey home 75 years after India’s partition

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

For decades, Reena Varma would return to her home in Rawalpindi in her dreams. She would wander down the narrow lane to the three-storey house and walk through the rooms where she had lived with her five siblings, parents and an aunt for the first 15 years of her life.

But for 75 years, this was a home located across a seemingly impenetrable national border, one Varma could only visit as a painful memory. That was, until July this year. Now 90 years old but still sprightly, a chance encounter on a Facebook group helped her find and visit the family home she was forced to abandon 75 years ago, located in what is now Pakistan.

Related: ‘Finally we are together’: partition’s broken families reunite after seven decades

“I thought, ‘This is the reason I am still alive, so I could finally come back home,’” said Varma of her emotional and joyous return. After so many years had passed, there was no one left in the lane that Varma knew from her childhood, but local people greeted her with a rapturous welcome as one of their own.

In 1947, the peaceful lives of Varma’s family came to an abrupt end with partition, which split the subcontinent down sectarian lines. Rawalpindi, the bustling city in Punjab where they lived as a Hindu family, was one of the cities that ended up in the newly established Islamic republic of Pakistan after August 1947. The state of Punjab became the centre of terrible violence and Rawalpindi, which had a majority Muslim population, was engulfed by brutal communal killings as Hindus and Sikhs were driven from their homes and fled over the border to India.

Growing up, Varma recalled a peaceful existence between her Hindu family and their Muslim and Sikh neighbours, who would often come over to their house for cups of tea and festival celebrations.

But by March 1947, Varna remembered fear gripping the Hindu people living in the area. Neighbours would patrol their lane and alarms were put up in case Muslim attackers arrived at night. Eventually, in May 1947, Varma’s parents decided to send their children to the town of Shimla, a spot in the Himalayan foothills where they would go on holiday. Just 15 years old at the time, Varma packed only a few items, presuming she would return in a few weeks. Her parents followed them shortly after. They had no idea they would never see their home again.

After 1947, it became clear it was inconceivable to return to Rawalpindi. “My parents had left everything behind and were suffering very badly,” she said. “For years, my parents kept thinking that we would go back.”

Reena on balcony
Reena waves from her childhood balcony. Photograph: Reuters

Stuck without a home, with all their possessions and money left behind, Varma’s family eventually moved to Pune, in Maharastra. As the years passed, she began to pine for her house and thought often about finding a way to go back. But without any connections left in Rawalpindi, and with no way of knowing if her house was even still standing, she got on with her life. She got married and had two children, though “always felt like something was missing”.

But Varma’s life was to change after joining a Facebook group called the India-Pakistan Heritage Club. She wrote a speculative post about her old house in Rawalpindi, describing in detail its location and nearby landmarks, asking if anyone could help track it down. Another member in Rawalpindi took up the task and sent her a message: he had found her old house, which, miraculously, was still standing.

It took two rejected applications before Varma’s case reached the ears of Pakistan’s foreign minister and she was granted a visa. In July, she crossed the border for the first time in 75 years.

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Varma was not prepared for the fanfare that greeted her arrival. Drums and singing accompanied her as she walked down her old lane and dozens of residents flocked to greet her, pulling her into a tight embrace. “I have no words to express how it felt,” she said. “Everything was done very happily and there was such a warm welcome when I got there. And I could not believe that the house was in such perfect condition.”

She added: “People talk about India and Pakistan as divided, but when you go there, you get so much respect, such kind hospitality. Their hospitality is such that you’ll never forget.”

The family now living in the house put her up for the night. There was, however, a sadness as she walked through the rooms and stood on the balcony. “I was missing my family so much. I wished like anything they also could have been there.”

Reena in a courtyard
Reena Varma: ‘I couldn’t believe the house was in such good condition.’ Photograph: Reuters

It was also an emotional trip for Imran Williams, who set up the India-Pakistan Heritage Club Facebook page and was there to greet Varma when she arrived in Rawalpindi.

“It was as if I was touring my own grandmother in her ancestral house,” said Williams. “I could never take my grandmother back to her ancestral home before she died and it pinches my heart. I am trying to fulfil that duty by helping others, showing them their home, their village and their roots.”

Varma said she hoped her trip would serve as an example to the governments of India and Pakistan of the importance of putting aside their political differences and allowing others to travel across the border.

“My view is that after 75 years, we must not keep talking about partition, we must forget about those divisions,” she said. “People are very, very loving on both sides and on both sides people are desperate to meet each other.”