The Birthday Is His, Still: How A Midnight’s Child Celebrates 15 August
Gurdeep Singh Khurana, a resident of Batukeshwar Dutt Colony, New Delhi, turned 70 on India’s 70th Independence Day. The day belongs to him more than anyone born on 15 August.
When India celebrates its rebirth, memory becomes tradition, project and canvas. India marked its 70th Independence Day on 15 August 2017 – the day Gurdeep Singh Khurana celebrated his 70th birthday. “Khurana ji”, as he is addressed fondly by neighbours in New Delhi’s Batukeshwar Dutt Colony, where he has been living since 1947, was born in Mianwali, Pakistan.
For this Midnight’s child, events that led to his exit from the family home in Pakistan, weigh more than the clock, hour, minute, and moment of his birth. For him, 15 August is a spiritual milestone – not merely a date, and 15 August 1947, a beginning. He celebrates it. He celebrates it with prayers at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib and his home, with neighbours and family members at the special gathering. He says, “this year, my neighbours are demanding a treat. They tell me that 70th is a milestone. It is a milestone for the country. I am about to go.” A young man of immortal India.
A bit about the day before we know the man. What does being born on 15 August mean? Many things. From my experience of the (birth)day, it resembles a collage of headlines displayed at a newspaper office. It becomes your own. Events happening in the country’s seamless calendar, over years, get added to the mad collage – of birthday. The collage smells of dust flying and dust settling, a bit of marigold, desi gulab, sometimes. A ball of history rolls towards you. You pause it, with a birthday cake or laddoos. Nothing big. Nothing worth a story.
Singh’s tryst with destiny is a ball of history and narrative. It has a huge momentum. You can pause it (only) with tears. It took place after a political jigsaw was set on a storm, it goes back to a bunch of people, their decisions and moves, and their share of shares; millions – sharing divided and divided sharing. The day, 15 August 1947, was erected before us Indians like a monument, in the life of a civilisation – immortal India.
Read it again. “This year, my neighbours are demanding a treat. They tell me that 70th is a milestone. It is a milestone for the country. I am about to go.” You can pause it with tears.
August 15 – the day Sri Aurobindo was born. The day India was reborn. My own consciousness of 15 August transformed with the birthday ritual of reading bits from the vast heritage of thoughts from Sri Aurobindo. On India’s 60th, the ritual led to a beginning of a churning. It led to an appetite for meeting people who share the birthday, and to know what they think or feel about it and about themselves. I was waiting to meet people like Singh.
Last year, on 15 August, while being wished birthday over phone, I got to know about him. Last week, after a conversation with Kishwar Desai, who will be in Amritsar on 17 August to mark the opening of the Partition Museum, her memory project, I couldn’t wait to hear Singh’s story. I approached him with a simple qualification – of being born on 15 August. It helped break ice, some dhokla and samosas. “Hamara din hai (it is our day),” he declares.
I approach Singh with a lid on my own perception of the day. A good decision. Singh’s perception is much bigger. I get no opportunity to tell him that this day suddenly sits upon my head, like a conical birthday cap made of kite paper. Or that, on some, national sentimentalism sits in the throat, like a boondi laddoo soaked in desi ghee, melting in an instant to emotion from Lata Mangeshkar or Mohammad Rafi or A R Rahman. I neither tell him that for some born on this day, 15 August brings a storm of wrath, circling along, with page loads of views and news; in crazy mutations of amber and brown of dry disagreements, disappointments and wrath, especially, if the government or party in power is not the one the birthday girl or boy have voted in. Or worse, have voted in to disappointment.
Singh’s celebration of India, life and faith, continues. He offers his Saturday prayers at Gurudwara Rakab Ganj, where he also offers ghee brought in a steel box from home, to the flame. “You must go to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. I used to take my daughters there for Raksha Bandhan. They don’t have a brother,” he tells me at Gurudwara Rakab Ganj.
What does being born on 15 August mean? How is it different from celebrating birthday on 15 August? The difference is of hours and meanings. Singh’s birth and birthday are hours apart, they live in his conscience, through stories and storytelling from his parents and grandparents. He begins with the usual birthday pride alphabet. He says, “Mera janmdin poora desh manata hai (the nation celebrates my birthday)”. Desh – India, where his family moved, flowing with the red rupture of twin freedom.
Singh pulls out pages from his memory. He says, “my mother shifted to my maternal granny’s house in Mianwali, from my father’s house in Sarghoda, for my birth. My siblings and my father were in Sarghoda”. His mother’s account places the time of his birth moments after “the ringing of a bell outside my maternal grandmother’s home”. Was it a warning bell? Was it a school bell? Perhaps, his mother, engrossed in giving birth, did not register the message in the bell-ringing. Perhaps, pain numbed that memory.
In the following hours – their number now fading from his narrative – his maternal uncle took charge of protecting the entire family from any attack – expected and unexpected. “In the following years, my mother told us that our neighbours had politely warned us regarding attacks resulting from the Partition. Now, my daughter tells me that my mother had often recalled, in her accounts of those painful days, how she had turned around to have the last glimpse of her mother’s house, as they moved away, only to see the neighbours looting it.”
His eyes widen. He adds, “my family left the house only with a utensil used for boiling milk. It was their only material possession”. Hours preceding the exit from home were emotionally wrenching. He adds, “there was no news from my father’s family in Sarghoda. My mother was anxious regarding safety of her older children, especially daughters. Men in my mother’s family were well-built. My uncle, Dharam Singh, was a very brave man. His kesh were not very long. He used this to his advantage, I was told. He would wrap a blanket around his body, revealing only a part of his face, his eyes and beard. He would barely look like a Sikh after this makeover. He would hide a kirpan under the blanket, and use it during those challenging hours. He would come back with milk for the family members." Milk.
For Singh, past seems to be a divided country sitting on the surviving cracks and fissures of anger, resentment and retaliation. He feels the fissures and cracks even today. Rebuilding, restarting and recreating have become the inherent tradition of his life – its seeds sown by his grandfather and father.
Singh celebrating his birthday on 15 August isn’t a matter of chance, but a conscious decision, which gives the day bigger meaning. “My mother’s family travelled from Mianwali and my father’s from Sarghoda. We found them after a lot of difficulty at a refugee camp in Bhatinda. When they reached Delhi, they were lucky to find some space in basements here.
Years later, when it was time for my admission at Khalsa school, my mother, for some odd reason, shared with the authorities her memory of the bell ringing outside our home in Mianwali; drew a blank, and told people at the admission desk that I was born on 19 August! Four long days!” What could be the reason? Memory, or memories. Memory of pain – physical and emotional. Perhaps. What did it? The memory of turning around to see her house being looted by their neighbours in Mianwali. Perhaps. “I declared that I would celebrate my birthday on 15 August. I have been celebrating it on 15 August. It is mine. It is 19 August on papers. It is 15 August in my head and calculation of events.”
Accounts of Singh’s memory of the Partition are oral heritage. They were passed on by his mother, grandmother, father, maternal uncle and sisters. His journey from his place of birth, between two countries born a day apart, happened in the arms and embrace of the elders. He was cushioned by his mother’s anxious breathing, perhaps, in the therapeutic wrap of his grandmother’s smell, perhaps, against the thudding wall of his uncle’s anger-ridden and alert chest. He wasn’t given such details. If given, he doesn’t remember them.
He uses the notepad for scribbles that help him in daily life. His Partition memory canvas has been painted by different strokes and lines. There is nothing his own on its coarse surface. Not a line, not a dot. It is a memory canvas that has transformed into a solid and pretty memento decorated with coloured glass pieces. He holds borrowed memories in it, under the layers of more memories. Memories of 1984, when his shop, where he sold shoes, was set on flames by rioters. “Neighbours saved us and our business. Shoes stored in the shop got damaged. Neighbours and friends told me that they would still like to buy them. Some friends helped in wiping the soot off those shoes,” he adds.
What makes Singh’s story and narrative unique? It is pure. As pure as a baby. History didn’t register itself in this viewer. Birth brought with it real freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from compulsions of recording, recalling and responding. Unlike his family members accompanying him in this monumental march to uncertainty, he, bundled in cloth, was unaware of the weight of decisions, the swinging pendulum of expected outcomes, various illusions of safety, mirages of ‘home’ and the grief of “leaving behind belongings”, that chased his elders. He was between sleep and wakefulness, growing up to a tradition of rebuilding life, again and again. “When my family came to Delhi from Pakistan, my father bought a cow to meet his family’s need for milk. He bought a couple more, then, he bought some buffaloes. Soon, it was a dairy. My grandfather stitched clothes on his sewing machine, at the Mehr Chand Mahajan market pavement. He was honest to the core. He would return the tiniest strips to the customers. I picked honesty from them.”
Singh’s family had left their home in Pakistan for the two-way displacement, to become one with the millions crawling and moving in opposite directions, to become dots in a painful magnitude, to part, meet and part and meet, finally. He was unaware of the killing, maiming, crippling, burning of trust, friendships, bonds, and years. In a way, he was fortunate. Birth and its timing helped him escape from the burden of memorising, memory miles, nostalgia rituals that make and bind archives. He is a specimen of hope and freedom, who cannot contribute to an archive; or lend a memento to a museum dedicated to Partition, but, he can lend a story. A story told over and over again about his birth.
Among people who left Mianwali that night or morning, or evening or afternoon, Singh would be the youngest, and the only person meant to see India building, shaping, sculpting, chipping, constructing, deconstructing, remembering, and recalling, on its 70th. He is celebrating. He adds, “I can’t celebrate without listening to Mera rang de basanti chola and Ae mere watan ke logon...” He holds back tears. I wish him a good celebration of life and immortal India. His wish list is short. He concludes, “I wish to sign off while visiting gurudwaras. I want to sign off from this Hari ka dwaar.”
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