In 1947 India was partitioned into three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The lines were drawn in part based on religious majorities determined by a British census but also after lobbying from different factions of the revolutionary movement. For most of India, Partition took place on Independence Day, August 15th, but my grandparents, then Sikh adolescents living in the integrated and cosmopolitan city of Lahore, experienced Partition on August 17th when the newly appointed Prime Minister Nehru traded a section of the state of Punjab (including Lahore) to Pakistan in exchange for a part of Kashmir that included his own hometown. As confusion and violence escalated in Lahore, it became clear that all Sikhs and Hindus would have to leave and go to India.
My grandfather was twenty years old at the time and was given the task of packing the family’s belongings into the seven suitcases they found in the house so he and his elderly parents could flee. The family was rich in property, which obviously could not be packed in suitcases and the capital they had saved was held in gold bricks in an underground safe and was too heavy to carry. Overnight these things lost their value. His task became to choose what few items he and all his descendents would inherit that would represent the entire family history up until that point.
I started listening to Grandpa’s stories without intention. I was in love with a woman who grew up near where my grandparents live in Maryland and I stopped to see them one night while I was visiting her family for Thanksgiving. Whether it is because he is Indian, a retired project manager or just old, whenever I visit Grandpa has prepared a detailed agenda of things for me to take care of—fix the curtains, reinstall the driver for the printer, teach him how to listen to Sikh prayers on his iPhone—but this time he had a different ‘agenda item.’
Discovering he was the first turbaned Sikh ever to live in Cleveland, a historian had asked him to write down his Partition story. Knowing my job has always been words—I’m a lyricist, not a historian, but nonetheless—Grandpa decided that I should be the one to transcribe the story and write it up in ‘proper English.’ I started a voice memo on my phone and chased him around his basement while he produced each of the items he had packed in the seven suitcases 68 years ago and described them for me.
I listened to the list of things he’d carried—a silver handled cane that belonged to his grandfather in the 1800s when he worked in the court of Maharaja Partap Singh of Kashmir; the preserved navel of a buck deer that was a gift from the Maharaja himself, holds medicinal powers, and has ‘the most beautiful fragrance known to man’; a piece of fabric that was part of a prayer shawl his grandmother had wrapped around her shoulders in Kashmir and his mother held in her hands in Lahore and eventually he draped over his head and turban while he prayed for his children and their children in Delhi then Cleveland, Miami, Atlanta and Maryland. There were photos and letters, strange little artifacts and important documents that told our family history.
Hours passed that first night and we didn’t even get to the Partition Story. Over the next two years, I returned to Maryland with intention. I started to spend time with my grandparents—for the first time really—and I realized, like when Grandpa had to fill seven suitcases with our family history, I had the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for myself and for the generations to follow.
I have never been exiled. The times I have packed suitcases have been of my own volition—to go on tour, to explore in Central America, to go to grad school, to move in with my girlfriend. I’ve been lucky in that way, and yet as my grandparents age and I get more involved in life in New York and the dream of building my own family and telling my own stories, I feel a sense of urgency to find out what has happened before.
So I’m collecting the stories. I’m writing a book about my grandfather, about myself, about our family and about the idea that you can choose what you wish to inherit. I have packed another suitcase and so has he, and we’re going to return to all the places in India he lived in the first ten years after partition before moving to the United States. When we get there, we’ll sit together, roll a tape and see what there is to discover. Later, I’ll sift through and decide what to include in my Seven Suitcases.