‘We must forget divisions’: A woman’s journey home 75 years after the partition of India | Pakistan

FFor decades, Reena Varma returned home to Rawalpindi in her dreams. She strolled down the narrow lane leading to the three-story house and walked through the rooms where she had lived with her five siblings, her parents and an aunt for the first 15 years of her life.

But for 75 years it was a home across a seemingly impenetrable national border, which a Varma could only visit as a painful memory. That was, until July of this year. Now 90 but still full of spirit, 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 present-day Pakistan.

“I thought, ‘This is the reason I’m still alive, so I could finally go home,'” Varma said of his emotional and joyful comeback. After so many years, there was no one left in the alley that Varma had known since childhood, but the locals greeted her with a rapturous welcome as one of their own.

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

Growing up, Varma recalled a peaceful existence between his Hindu family and their Muslim and Sikh neighbors, who often came to their house for cups of tea and festival celebrations.

But in March 1947, Varna remembered that fear gripped the Hindu people living in the region. Neighbors patrolled their alley and alarms were set 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 place in the foothills of the Himalayas where they would go on vacation. Just 15 at the time, Varma only packed a few items, assuming she would be back in a few weeks. His parents followed them soon after. They didn’t know they would never see their home again.

After 1947 it became clear that 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 we would go back.”

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, Maharashtra. Over the years, she began to yearn for her home and often thought about finding a way back. But with no connection to Rawalpindi, and no way of knowing if her house was still standing, she went on with her life. She married and had two children, although “she always felt like something was missing”.

But Varma’s life would change after he joined a Facebook group called India-Pakistan Heritage Club. She wrote a speculative post about her former home in Rawalpindi, detailing its location and nearby landmarks, asking if anyone could help find her. Another member of Rawalpindi took on the task and sent him a message: he had found his 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 unprepared for the fanfare that greeted her arrival. Drums and chants accompanied her as she walked down her old path and dozens of locals streamed in to greet her, hugging her. “I have no words to express how I felt,” she said. “Everything went well and the welcome was very warm when I arrived. And I couldn’t believe the house was in such perfect condition.

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

The family that now lives 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 missed my family so much. I wished like all they could have been there too.

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

It was also an emotional journey for Imran Williams, who set up the India-Pakistan Heritage Club Facebook page and was there to greet Varma on his arrival in Rawalpindi.

“It was like visiting my own grandmother in her ancestral home,” Williams said. “I was never able to bring my grandmother back to her ancestral home before she died and it hurts my heart. I try to fulfill this duty by helping others, showing them their home, their village and their roots.

Varma said she hopes her trip will serve as an example to the governments of India and Pakistan on the importance of putting aside their political differences and allowing others to cross the border.

“My view is that after 75 years we shouldn’t continue to talk about partition, we should forget about these divisions,” she said. “People are very, very loving on both sides and on both sides people are desperate to meet.”

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