As he had been doing for years, Sarap Lal finished cleaning the house where he was employed around 7pm and went to buy roti with his seven-year-old daughter, Divya Devi. It was the eve of August 14, 1947 and he did not know that the world around him was changing.
All of a sudden there was commotion everywhere and men with sticks in their hands were setting fire to anything they could find. He grabbed his daughter’s hand and rushed back to the house, locking the main gate.
Though he couldn’t digest it, he told his mother what he had heard on the way: India had been divided and Peshawar, their hometown, was to become part of Pakistan and all the Sikhs and Hindus were leaving for India.
Surprisingly, and daringly, his mother refused and asserted that no matter what happens, they will not leave their hometown. Divya thinks that the fact that her mother was pregnant at the time had a lot to do with her Dadi’s decision, but she is also certain that had that not been the case, her grandmother still wouldn’t have easily condoned their leaving Peshawar — the city of her birth.
Divya, now around 80, still remembers the life-changing episode as if it was yesterday. The horrors of Partition, including the harrowing violence and blood-stained bodies on the streets, are still fresh in her mind. She equates the night of Independence with howls and screams filling the air, and fires lighting up all around the city. “When all the food finished after we stayed locked inside for a month, my father went out in search of food but all he could muster was some dry bread which we had with water to survive further,” she recalled.
Divya, who now resides in Peshawar’s Ihata 84, recalled that things started improving after a few months and the violence subsided. She then got a job at the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar and later got married to Ram Saroop, a Hindu soldier in the Pakistan Army, who fought both the 1965 and 1971 wars. She said they were saddened when Ram retired as he would no longer be able to serve for the defence of his motherland. Remembering the wars with India, she narrated how the CMH used to operate without any lights so as to avoid bombardment by Indian planes and how they would live at the premises where bunkers had been dug up.
In these over-seven decades, Divya said they have never regretted staying back and instead are thankful to their Dadi for taking a stand and staying put.
Emphasising the peace and harmony that has existed among Peshawar’s Muslim and non-Muslim residents, Divya explained that her family has used the nearby Kali Bari Temple in Saddar, Peshawar, since she was little. “I do not remember any day when we were not allowed to go pray at the temple,” she asserted. When Hindu-Muslim riots take place in India, they get scared but are reassured soon after as every time Muslims of the locality come to their aid and protection, even guarding the temple.
Being a Dadi herself now, she praises her late grandmother for taking a stand and making the right decision of not leaving their home.