Moved by partition, she went home to Pakistan after 75 years | News on Indo-Pakistan partition

Lucknow, India – Last month, 90-year-old Reena Chhibber Varma, undeterred by her age and ailments, embarked on a journey that many thought was impossible. She traveled to Pakistan to see her former home for the first time in 75 years.

As the colonial Britons left the Indian subcontinent, they divided it into two nations on religious grounds – Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, which included Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

Partition, as it became known, forced over 15 million people to move to the other side in what was the largest forced migration in the world. Nearly two million people were killed in the exodus riots and the bloody history of partition continues to affect relations between the two nations.

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Historic tensions between the two South Asian nuclear powers have largely closed borders, leaving many people eager to visit loved ones and even homes across the border.

Among them was Varma, who was 15 when his family fled Rawalpindi in 1947 and is currently based in the western Indian city of Pune. Since then, she longed to see her ancestral home again in an “enemy” country.

“My eyes swelled up. I couldn’t believe I was back home. It felt like I was living there yesterday,” she told Al Jazeera by phone.

Varma stressed that governments on both sides should make it effortless and easy for people to meet each other. “Because it’s true that they want to,” she said.

Varma remembers the day they had to flee Rawalpindi “as clear as day”. Her parents and siblings – two sisters and as many brothers – arrived in India to start a new life. All died before reaching the age of 75, Varma said.

“We first went to Solan thinking that we would return home one day. We didn’t see it coming. India and Pakistan were divided and there was a lot of bloodshed,” she said, referring to a hill town in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. India.

Although his family suffered no violence, they heard and read many stories about what happened, about people they knew being killed on the trains.

“We saw our parents cry a lot. For two years they couldn’t accept not going back to their homes,” Varma said.

Reena Varma
Varma in his ancestral home in Rawalpindi in Pakistan [Courtesy of India Pakistan Heritage Club]

Over the past 75 years, Varma has made several plans for a trip to Rawalpindi but they did not materialize, although she visited Lahore once in her youth.

“I always wanted to see my house again. I had my passport made in 1965 but the person I was supposed to travel with couldn’t come and the plan was cancelled,” she said.

She renewed her passport in 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic once again disrupted her plans. During this time, she found the Facebook page of a group called India Pakistan Heritage Club, which offered to help Varma get to Rawalpindi.

For a visit to Pakistan, an Indian citizen must have a host family in the country. Two Pakistani men, co-founders of the group, volunteered for this role.

Varma left for her daughter in New Delhi last month. From there, she traveled to Wagah, the India-Pakistan border transit terminal in India’s western state of Punjab.

“The moment I saw the huge signs for India and Pakistan in Wagah, I cracked up. It was unreal that it was just one place for us, but now there is a line and we cannot cross it whenever we want,” Varma told Al Jazeera.

Reena Varma
Varma said governments on both sides of the border should make it easy for people to meet [Courtesy of India Pakistan Heritage Club]

When crossing the border, Zahir and Imran welcome her on the Pakistani side and take her to Lahore where she spends three days.

“I also have a special connection with Lahore. Before partition, we used to visit Lahore every year, my in-laws are also from there,” Varma said.

On July 20, she left for Rawalpindi and was welcomed by locals to the sound of traditional Punjabi dhol drums.

“I will always remember the warm welcome I received when I arrived at my ancestral home. There were drumbeats by the locals. I didn’t expect that,” Varma said.

A video of Varma’s greeting also went viral on social media as Indians and Pakistanis exchanged messages of peace and love.

Muzammil Hussain, who now lives in Varma’s former house, changed his name to Prem Niwas (Love Abode) in his honor. The alley in which the house was located was renamed “Prem Gully” (Love Street).

Hussain’s family even added a nameplate to one of the rooms where they lived. It said, “Reena’s house.”

“I am the only one of my family members who can see this house again and I am not exaggerating that when I was there I could see my family wandering, walking and sitting around the house again. I saw them around every corner,” Varma told Al Jazeera.

“My dream has come true. Wherever my family is today, they must be looking down and must be happy and proud,” she said.

Describing the house, she said the rooms haven’t changed much. She found nothing in the house that belonged to her that she could have brought back as a souvenir.

But she noticed a few things.

“The floor of the bedrooms was done by my father and it was the same. In the living room, which we called ‘baithak’, there is a fireplace where my father had tiles made with special patterns. They are still intact,” she said.

Varma said their home was one of the fanciest in the neighborhood. The main road near the house had changed significantly, she said. The houses in front of his house had been replaced by shops. But at least five houses in his lane, including his own, have not been altered much.

Varma’s face turns pensive as she reminisces about her childhood spent in this Pakistani house.

“What happened back then was very unfortunate and shouldn’t have happened. Yes, it was painful but we can’t remember that for the rest of our lives,” she said.

“We should move on. The people in India and Pakistan, our cultures, our clothes, our way of thinking – it’s all very similar. There’s love on both sides.”

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