Every year as the August 15 anniversary of Indian independence day approaches, Vancouver resident Brajinder Dhillon feels a sense of trepidation.
That’s because as a girl, she lost her father and witnessed horrific bloodshed following the British government’s decision to divide the Indian subcontinent into two countries—Pakistan and India—in the summer of 1947.
Dhillon, an ESL teacher, estimates that she was nine or 10 years old at the time of partition. (She doesn’t know her birth date.)
In her 2010 book Dusk to Dawn (Chetna Parkashan), she describes in detail how she and her three siblings accompanied their mother on a harrowing journey from Pakistan to India in the weeks after the border was created.
“Sometimes, I get a dream that there are riots in the streets of Vancouver,” Dhillon says in an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “People are killing each other, and we’re running for our lives.”
The magnitude of the violence is difficult to comprehend. According to Jacob Bercovitch and Richard Jackson, coauthors of International Conflict: A Chronological Encyclopedia of Conflicts and Their Management 1945-1995 (Congressional Quarterly Press), upward of a million people were killed between 1945 and 1947 on the subcontinent.
The vast majority perished in Punjab, which was divided into an Indian and a Pakistani portion.
Sikhs and Hindus on the Pakistani side were slaughtered by Muslims, who themselves were hacked to death, stabbed, or shot on the Indian side of the border, which they were fleeing as refugees.
Dhillon says her children and grandchildren urged her to record what her family endured. And she says that writing Dusk to Dawn alleviated the trauma of what she experienced by about 50 percent.
“When I wrote this book, I would read a chapter to my husband,” Dhillon recalls. “He would cry and I would cry.”
She adds that one of her colleagues at work was also in tears after reading her book, and told her that it explained why Dhillon was such an outstanding ESL teacher—she could understand the pain of other people.
Dhillon was also moved by a call she received from a family that was helped out of Pakistan by her father prior to his death.
“Those people read my book, recognized my father, and phoned me from India,” she says. “Some of their relatives are in Canada. I think good deeds are always remembered.”
Writing about their experiences is increasingly becoming an acceptable way for people to process traumatic events.
At last year’s Indian Summer festival in Vancouver, the Delhi-based author of a 1998 oral history of partition called The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India (Penguin), Urvashi Butalia, said that people who survived the horror feel a greater urgency to share their stories as they get older. That’s because they want to preserve their memories for future generations.
Meanwhile, the codirector of the International Traumatology Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Michael Rank, has called keeping a journal the “most effective and cheapest” form of self-help, according to an article on the WebMD website.
“By sharing your thoughts you’re accepting the idea that none of us can do things alone,” Rank told WebMD writer Dr. Charlotte E. Grayson. “To get through depression or trauma, we need feedback.”
The Colorado-based Center for Journal Therapy promotes the use of writing in therapy and for health and wellness. Its website highlights the difference between keeping a journal, which helps process feelings about what has happened, and merely recording daily events in a diary.
Dhillon’s family lived in the district of Sheikhupura, which was the site of some of the most murderous sprees.
Her father, a Sikh policeman, was killed at the railway station in the town of Narang Mandi as the family cowered in fear with hundreds of other Sikhs and Hindus in the common area of their nearby multifamily housing complex.
“The train would come every day, and some of those goons would come out of it with their knives and swords and bats,” she recalls. “And they would threaten, they would scream in the streets, ‘Come out, come out!’ ”
Later, when her family sought refuge in the Narang Mandi police station, Dhillon looked out the window and saw people being hacked to death in the street. In one instance, she saw a man trying to escape on a bicycle with his wife on the back.
“She was pregnant and they stabbed her—and the baby came out,” she says. “And it was so scary.”
The man fell on top of his wife, and he was also hacked to death. Then Dhillon saw a man, a woman, and a child all on one bicycle suffer the same fate. In her book, she writes that it “seemed as if we were viewing a horror movie”.
On another occasion, her family saw scores of dead bodies being dragged by trucks in Narang Mandi.
And when they fled in a convoy of vehicles toward a camp in the larger city of Lahore, it got stuck in the mud along the way. There, they saw the driver of their truck stabbed to death.
Dhillon’s family later learned from the Muslim hired killer that they were the intended victims because they were related to the murdered police officer.
In a strange twist, this man eventually helped save their lives by taking them to another town, where they and another family were sheltered by the village leader and the head of the local mosque.
For part of their journey, her 13-year-old brother survived by dressing as a girl, whom the Muslim killer-rescuer hoped to marry. Only later did Dhillon’s mother reveal her son’s gender to the man.
Along the way, the family had to keep an eye out for spies, who were working on behalf of the police, the military, and Muslim League politicians who were orchestrating the killings in different districts of Pakistan.
“They planned when to attack which town,” Dhillon says. “They wanted to get all the gold and money and jewellery and everything.”
She recalls people being taken into fields, where hired killers did the dirty work. Murdering them outside made it easier to loot their homes.
Dhillon says she wrote the book to preserve the memory of her father, who is portrayed as an honourable and kindhearted man, as well as a loving husband and father. She never learned how he died, and is convinced that he was killed because he was a Sikh.
Once the family reached India, nobody gave any thought to seeing a therapist, and the pain of their husband and father’s loss remained with them for decades. She says that people like herself who fled from Pakistan were looked down upon because they were refugees.
Dhillon says her older brother suffered emotional problems in India, so her mother sent him to Vancouver on a student visa because they had relatives in B.C.
“He was a maniac when he blew up,” she reveals. “Now I realize why he was like that.”
Dhillon later immigrated with her husband and then-three-year-old daughter. “We were educated and young, and we knew English,” she says. “I got a teaching position right away.”