A butler who wanted to steal Radcliffe’s pen that partitioned millions of lives
A tea-server in Viceroy Mountbatten’s office saw harrowing history being discussed and debated like no other. 75 years later, the witness’s diary is offering some dreadful details of partition that bled millions in 1947.
Just as Shams of Tabrez skinned himself, I felt like doing the same, but I was not sure if I could. So, I suppressed my urge and began to shout instead. My feelings were justifiable. I was cross at my grandfather for leaving us and I was even more exasperated with my father for leaving him alone in his last days.
It happened a month ago while I was on a trip with my school to Georgia. I received a call on behalf of my father asking me to return to India as soon as possible. The person on the phone didn’t tell me about my grandfather’s death. I reckon he should have. I wasn’t so attached to him that I would panic but had I been informed, I would have left immediately and reached his funeral.
Yes, I missed the funeral. Perhaps that is what was annoying me so much now. “I wish we had more time with him,” I said to my father.
My father was a blithe in his late 40’s, even though he seemed like 35. He hardly cared about anything in his life but his father’s demise had left him shattered too. Perhaps it was guilt. My father was not on talking terms with my grandfather in his last days. Exactly one month and two days ago, my grandfather complained about it to my mother and went to bed never to wake up again. He suffered a cardiac arrest that night which took him away.
That’s all my mother told me about his death. My father, however, didn’t talk about it or anything since my return.
We went to Dadu’s room together to unfold his belongings and memories. His black, small leatherette wallet lay on his bedside along with an empty steel bottle and a chain-strapped Japanese watch.
“You know this watch doesn’t use any power cell, it gets charged with the movements of your hand,” said my father.
This was the first time I heard him talk in days. “Abba used to tell me it runs on your pulse,” he continued. He then handed it over to me. “You should wear it,” he said with a smile.
I took it from his hand steadily as we went through his rusted iron safe. He had kept empty wrappers of medicines inside it.
Beneath them lay an old notebook self-stitched to its cover with a red string. I slid it under my shirt. My father pretended he didn’t see me but as I got up a few pages slipped out of it and landed on the concrete floor. My father assembled them and asked while handing them back to me, “Shouldn’t we read it together?”
I could see his eyes getting flushed with tears which he readily wiped off before they could drop down. I felt a lump in my throat too. No words came out of my mouth as I nodded my head in agreement.
So, we sat down on his mat behind his low-lying sitting table and I took out the diary from inside my shirt. I opened it; the first page was blank. I turned it over softly, so as not to damage it only to find the next few pages blank as well.
After a few pages turned and rustling sounds made, words were found in there. They were written in little combined Urdu letters. It was like a foreign code to me. I thought to myself what a wise decision it was to agree with my father on reading it together as I didn’t know how to read Urdu. I handed it over to my father. He held it confidently, turned it around, and opened the first page from the right.
“Asalaam-u-Alaikum,” he read in a low tone as if he wasn’t much confident of what he was reading.
As far as I know, we have always been practicing Hinduism but my grandfather had had a Muslim stepmother to whom he was very attached. She was the one who taught him things about Islam and I don’t know where he learned Urdu from, because he had not been to school.
He used to work in a pantry in a British-India office as a teenager. He had seen it all—the oppression, the tyranny, the parties and the partition.
Yes, the partition of the country and the families. Families who lived in peace with their neighbours and the same families that didn’t hesitate to slaughter them.
My grandfather was the boy who would deliver tea to the meeting rooms from the kitchen. He had had his ears in many important meetings regarding the country’s fate.
From what we came to know from his diary, he had even witnessed the proposal of parting India made to Radcliffe. And that was the first thing written in his diary:
“That white man, whose name I didn’t know at first, hence I called him “sir” two times – one for the name and one for the respect that we were bound to pay to all Englishmen, no matter if we were a pantry boy or an officer.
Still, we were considered capable of the service, only to them. We couldn’t make decisions and this guy who had never even visited India before was to make such an important decision.
The decision was what part of the country will remain in India and what part of it will become Pakistan. Sir Mountbatten was our highest official during the time. He asked me to serve tea to Sir Radcliffe.
Radcliffe was wearing a faded tan suit with two pens in his pocket. I remember the pens clearly because I thought they were gold and wanted to steal one, but at the same time, I didn’t want to risk my job. Hence, I lowered my gaze and served him tea.
The people outside that office did not know that partition was awaiting them. Behind Sir Mountbatten hung a countdown calendar for the handing over of power to Indian people, to the day we were to be independent but diagonal to it sat the person who would divide us for one last time before leaving.
He took a sip from the cup that I had placed on the table facing him and after putting it carefully on the saucer, which we used to serve important people, he took out the gold-colored pen with a stone shining on its cap from his chest pocket and placed the pen cap on the table. Had I stolen the pen, the boundaries to divide our country would still be drawn.
Radcliffe had the map of British India lying in front of him, with majorly Muslim populated area colored in blue and the rest of the land in white. There were dots of blue all over the mid-region as well and equally dense were the dots of white color over the blue part.
Although I understood English well because of my job in the British Indian office, yet I wasn’t literate enough to understand what they were talking about in their accent.
But the map — I understood it well, anyone could have understood it. I kept staring at it until it began to blur out in front of my eyes. The more it began to blur the clearer I was able to see. Other than the giant blue portion in the upper west of the map, there were stains of blue in the middle and a visibly clear portion on the east as well. I understood that they were to divide but what I couldn’t understand was how they were going to carve out the distant pieces of blue land and join them together to separate it.
‘You may leave,’ I heard one of them speak. Perhaps they were aware that I was starting to understand the map. I placed the empty wooden tray to my chest, left the oversized, high ceilinged hall, and closed the door behind me.
The door was heavy but heavier became my chest. I lifted off the tray over it to lift off some burden. The weight however remained constant and it overweighed my tiredness. I couldn’t fall asleep the whole night.”
My father closed the diary, took a deep breath, and laid his head to rest on the wall behind him. I could sense that he didn’t want to read more. It was getting too much for him to absorb. Although my grandfather died at 85, we started feeling as if he didn’t live enough. The thought eventually faded after realizing that we had just read one day from his diary.
Suddenly, I felt like he has lived so long in just one day and many of such days he must have survived. When there is a conflict, be it inside you or outside, time elongates itself. I think only the people of conflict have known life as it means.
I looked at my father and I wanted him to read it in my eyes that I wanted him to read more, but he was staring in some blank space. I got up to get him some water, but the bottle on the bedpost was empty. I took it and went to the kitchen. I returned with the bottle to find the diary open once again in my father’s lap. He wanted to read more too.
I sat down beside him and without taking a single sip of the water that I bought him, he continued to read in a restless tone as if he had been only waiting for me to sit.
“I had forgotten to bring sugarless tea for Pandit Ji, which he didn’t mind. Sweetness, he said, was also important sometimes. After that, he pulled out a wooden cigarette case from his kurta pocket and asked me to leave.
Nehru Sahab along with the other members of the party often used to visit the viceroy office that I used to work in. So, I knew he didn’t like sugar much. I left the room but stayed quiet at the door, hoping to listen to some information. What was I going to do with the information anyway! But I could at least stay prepared to protect my family from what was deem to happen.
Given that my stepmother was a Muslim girl, I thought to myself: ‘My family would shatter if they were to separate Muslims from Hindus’. Though she didn’t birth me, all my life I had known her to be my mother. As a young child, when I used to go outside to play, she used to count to a hundred and wait for me to return. I was the closest to her.
Naive me had no idea how this proposal of partition was going to work. I couldn’t hear a word from outside that door. Hence, I ran to the pantry, prepared another cup of tea without sugar, and made it an excuse to enter the room.
There were around 10 officials present in the room. I asked for permission to enter, but one of the officers shouted at me, “We don’t need tea!” I went back and had the royal cup of tea served with a saucer to myself and thought that sweetener was not that important in life.
Later that day, when I went home, I saw my mother keeping something I recognized in the drawer. I drew it out to find the same cigar case as Pandit Ji’s but his one was a little worn out and this one was fresh.
I took it out and a roll-up slid out of it. It was branded cigar that Englishmen used to smoke. I asked my mother about it. ‘Jinnah Bhai forgot it here, keep it safe, it’s very costly,’ she replied.
Jinnah uncle was my mother’s distant cousin who according to my mother was against her marriage with my father at first but then my father and he shared a friendly bond and since my father’s demise, he was the one who would provide for us for many years until I was able to work.
Jinnah uncle’s and Pandit ji’s parties had had a pact some three decades ago in which they were to join together to fight against the British. But it seemed both the party heads were friends with the British and with each other, but not so worried about the common man.
Jinnah uncle presided over the Muslim League and was known to work primarily in the interest of Indian Muslims. To me, it didn’t seem of much help. He was an intelligent man and the first barrister from his family and locality. He too was basically from Karachi as my mother and used to practice in Bombay.
But those days he stayed in Delhi mostly and visited our house sometimes. My mother and most of the other people used to call him Jinnah Bhai. When I was younger, I too used to call him Jinnah Bhai Uncle. He was a tall man who had always been clean-shaven and used to wear a black skullcap which was traditionally called as the karakulli.
I spent the night investigating my mother about him and his work. ‘Some 6 years back,’ she told me, ‘Jinnah Bhai’s party made possible the passing of a resolution for a separate state for Muslims. Had it not been for his leadership, it wouldn’t have been possible.’
‘But why is it necessary for you to have a separate government,’ I asked my mother, to which she replied with a smile, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about, my son. I am not going to leave you, you will stay where I stay and that is in our home, here in our Purani Dilli.’
This statement should have comforted me but it didn’t much. Something didn’t feel right and that something was everything to me at that time.
I slept with my mother on the floor. Since Baba’s death, my mother never slept on the bed. The bed remained empty like usual but felt emptier that night. I missed him but I was satisfied that I have my mother and that she was not going to leave me for another state being created.”
When Baba stopped reading, I thought he was taking a pause as he flipped the page but then he flipped it back and I saw that half a page was left blank after it. I turned the page around again to signal my father to keep reading. He understood me and went on from the next page:
“I found myself staring at it again, the countdown calendar in the viceroy office.
‘June-30-1948,’ it read.
That was the date the transfer of power was scheduled to happen. It was about a year from that day. Everyone in India was hopeful and eager to see this day but I was hoping for this year to last longer.
I did not want my life to change on an individual level. I was content, I had my Amma, a job, and a good sleep most of the nights. Perhaps I wanted India to be free but I didn’t want it to be divided for sure. It was too much a cost to pay for Independence. I, as an almost illiterate person, realized it well. I wondered what part of it the leaders were unable to acknowledge.
My constant stare at the calendar was disrupted by a man in a grey suit passing between us. At that time, other than the British, the people of the court mostly used to wear suits. He looked like the latter one, so I asked him: ‘Sir, is this necessary? The partition?’
He looked at me and asked, ‘What do you do, Beta?’
‘I’m a worker in the kitchenette,’ I replied. It felt like my profession was whether to decide, I shall be answered.
‘Where do you live?’ he asked again.
Although I had put forth my question first, I was bound to answer his questions. He sensed the uncomfortable tone in my voice as I said, ‘Shahjanabad.’ And then quickly changed it to ‘Purani Dilli.’
‘Don’t worry, you won’t be affected,’ he assured me and continued, ‘but those around Lahore from the west and in Bengal from the east might. Lord Mountbatten has promised us no riots. Though I don’t think in a situation like this that is even possible, there was little we could do, son, until now.’
‘And now,’ he continued waving a new calendar in his hand, ‘with this enforced, there is absolutely nothing that we can do.’
He pulled out the countdown calendar hanging from a huge iron nail in the wall and replaced it with the new calendar in his hand.
‘Aug-15-1947,’ it read.
1947, the same year we were in, just a few months from now. My heart started throbbing quicker than usual. I was struck, anxious, and in sweat. I seated myself on the chair behind me. This was the first time I sat in that chair. It was too much for me. The chair seemed to be responsible for so much that I couldn’t comfort me in it. I got back up quickly and walked away.
The news of preponing the date of Independence quickly slipped out of the office and spread like a plague. It created chaos. The families who had a whole year to migrate were now supposed to do so in a month.
The next day when I stepped out of the office, the huge glass window on the entrance broke and shattered down. What more bad luck was it going to bring; the people outside that office were shattered already.
Everywhere people could be seen restless. The same day a meeting was supposed to be held with Gandhi Ji in the office, but he had moved to Bengal after he got the news of riots breaking out there. Riots had already started there; the promises of Sir Mountbatten were of no use. He was sipping tea in his cabin that I served him. I could have poisoned that tea easily, but it would do me no good. The spark was lit already and the fire had to spread everywhere.
Even Delhi was not insulated. The person who changed the calendar was wrong. There began bloodshed in Delhi as well. Indeed, the leaders were safe, but none of us were.
I went home early that day; the sun was still to set in the sky, though it had already set deep somewhere inside of me. I went home to find Uncle Jinnah convincing my mother to take me along and move back to Lahore which was soon to become a part of another country – Pakistan.
‘His father is dead, and everybody around here knows you belong to a Muslim family,’ I heard him say. ‘I know this is a Muslim majority area and the people are nice to you but nobody can be spared right now, you must take a wise decision for you and your son. Being from the same place as you and above that being from the same religion as you it’s my responsibility to protect you.’
I could hear no voice in his response so I entered the room to find out if my mother was even present there. There she sat, quietly, on Abba’s bed, in dim light, almost frozen. She looked at me and still said nothing. Tears flushed her eyes, though they didn’t touch her cheeks. I could feel them in my heart. She was a strong lady; I had never seen her cry. Even when Abba died and I was just 10, she channelized all her energy into helping me walk past that trauma. I was at peace with Abba leaving me but it broke my heart to see my mother in a situation like this.
‘Come here, my son,’ Uncle Jinnah said breaking the small moment of silence. ‘I know you belong to a Hindu family and you’re safe here. But trust me, this country is not going to be the same for people with Muslim ancestors and it’s about the time you think in regard to your mother. Right now, I have the power to shift you to Lahore with ease. I can arrange a car. I will move there too, once I am done with the job here and with me gone there will be no one to take care of you two.’
Saying that, he left us to decide our fate but our fate had already been decided; and surely not us.
I did not want to leave this place, but at the same time, I wanted us to be safe, somewhere away from this chaotic city not knowing that chaos was likewise in every city of the country.”
The grandfather’s diary captured the murderous mood of partition with harrowing details. Despite giving hard time to my father, he kept flipping chapters:
“One week passed but seemed like a year, with news of robberies, rapes, and murders all around. I hadn’t left my house in five days now.
Only that day I went out to get some groceries. I returned in the evening. My mother slapped me as soon as she saw me and started crying.
‘I don’t need these groceries,’ she said, taking them from my hand and dropping them on the floor. ‘I need you, you alone and you alive. Do you even realize how worried I was and I was not even able to leave the house? Where was I supposed to search for you? What good will this food bring us? We will not die of hunger, my son, but I will surely die of worry if you were to go out like this again.’
The outside situation indeed was worrisome. I seated her on the stool and started collecting the groceries while I heard her say, ‘I have sent a message to Jinnah Bhai, asking him to arrange our movement. We must go to Lahore.’
Hearing that I dropped that groceries bag on the floor again. I wanted to say something but I had nothing to say. She took my silence for my agreement and went inside to pack our necessary belongings.
Almost a week, no response from Uncle Jinnah, but my mother was adamant about moving out of Delhi. She asked me to stay at home while she could bring a rope and a few locks from a shop nearby. I told her I will get the things and that she should stay back.
‘I will count to a hundred and you must return,’ she said smiling. I smiled back and left.
The smile quickly changed upside down, to a frown as if something weighed it down. I thought of Radcliffe and how he had not only stained that map with blue and white but also my heart. The stains that were further ripened to ivory black by Uncle Jinnah, Pandit Ji and the likes. It felt like my soul was being snatched away from me and all I could do was watch it slip out of my hands.
The sun had set and we had decided to go to Uncle Jinnah’s place early the next morning from where he would arrange us a departure.
Along with my mother, I was counting in my mind too. I had to return before a hundred seconds. As soon as I reached the shop, I saw a big gang of people marching towards my lane. I hardly took notice of how they appeared. The shopkeeper in front of me dragged me inside by my hand and rolled its shutter down.
‘What is happening here?’ I asked the shopkeeper in a panic. He hushed me down and began to breathe deeply.
‘Who are these people?’ I asked while rolling back the shutter up. Without waiting for anybody’s response, I ran towards my house.
Alas! It was set on fire. I dropped myself on my knees. I had no strength to get up and walk home. It was my home which was burning. My mother must have finished counting to a hundred and I arrived back in time, but I hadn’t reached even 80 and she was gone.
My mother was locked inside the house before it was set on fire. I had no idea whether those people were Hindus or Muslims. To me, they were just murderers.”
My father closed the diary as soon as a teardrop fell on its page. There was nothing more to read. Both of us sat there numb for a couple of minutes.
My grandfather had seen a lot which my father and I were almost aware of now. I had no complaints with my father. I took out my hand to hug him. But before I could even, he got up to keep the diary back in the locker.
As he was keeping it, a few pieces of paper clipped together to the pen cap fell off the safe. I hoped to it and picked it up.
The pen cap was rusty gold-colored, studded with a stone, the same as Radcliffe’s pen described in the diary.
Clipped to it were two torn-out pieces of photocopied paper. They were from Mountbatten’s letters. One read, “The date I chose came out of the blue. I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was a master of the whole event. When they asked whether we set a date, I knew it had to be soon. I hadn’t worked it out exactly then — I thought it had to be about August or September, then I went out to the 15th of August. Why? Because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender.”
It struck me hard, how someone who never uttered a word of complaint in his life had been through so much.
Dadu’s dairy, however thin it looked, spoke volumes to us that he couldn’t. He had been trying to wash off those stubborn stains blemished by Radcliffe on his and thousands of other families, all his life. Everything else but this story began to diminish in front of me.
I looked at the other piece of paper in my hand. Self-laminated with a translucent tape and sounding like a justification, it read, “Wherever colonial rule has ended, there has been bloodshed. That is the price you pay.”
This story is a part of the anthology—The Partitioned Lives—to be released in summer 2024, and is a fictionalised narration based on extensive research, and interviews.