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1947: Memories of gaining freedom and losing friends- Ruskin Bond

Sometimes young readers ask me, “How old were you at the time of Independence, and what do you remember of it?“ And then I realize that I am now classified as an “oldtimer“, a relic from the days of the Raj, one of a dwindling number of people who witnessed some of the momentous events of 1947.Well, you would have to be about 80plus to have any clear memories of August ’47, and the months and years leading up to it. I was 13 at the time, tucked away in a boarding school in Shimla, and I remember the day we all marched up to town to witness the Indian flag being raised for the first time.Shimla was still the summer capital of India, so it was quite an event.

Of course it was raining, as you would expect in the middle of the monsoon, and we were in our raincoats and gumboots, while a sea of umbrellas covered the Mall. What did I feel, as I saw the Union Jack being lowered and the Indian tricolour replacing it? I had lost my father three years previously .He had been an officer in the Royal Air Force. He had, of course, been aware of the coming of Indian independence, for he had been born and raised in the country; but he seldom spoke about it, except to say that we would be going away once the War (meaning World War II) was over.

I was still a small boy and I don’t think I had strong feelings about the issue, one way or the other. I remember being more interested in the colours and the design of the Indian flag than in the speeches that were being made from the rostrum. Two years later, as a school prefect, it became my duty to raise the Indian flag on the school flat.It seemed quite natural to be doing so.I was also a member of the NCC, the National Cadet Corps. Whatever happened to it, I wonder. Or is it still a part of school life?
At school, geography was my favourite subject and I liked poring over maps. As a result of two world wars, maps kept changing. And in 1947, the map of India changed too, and quite dramatically . No one seemed quite prepared for Partition and its aftermath.Suddenly, after decades of endeavour, Independence had arrived. The War had changed everything. The British were in a hurry to leave; our leaders (or most of them) were in a hurry to take over. Lines were drawn across maps, and the Punjab and Bengal were torn asunder -divided according to religion -and entire populations were freed with the prospect of being uprooted and resettled far from their ancestral homes.

Violence spread over northern India and almost everywhere, in small towns, large cities, villages, mobs went on the rampage, killing indiscriminately, and burning the properties of rival communities. There were not enough soldiers, Indian or British, to handle the situation.

About one-third of the boys in my school came from Lahore and Peshawar, now in Pakistan, and they had to be evacuated. Overnight they were whisked away in Army trucks, two of my best friends among them; no time to say goodbye. All got home safely. Not so the servants who accompanied them; they strayed from the party and were killed in the bazaars of Kalka.

Back in my hometown of Dehradun, there was considerable carnage.Old residents talk nostalgically of the canal that ran down the East Canal Road. My mother, who was then living just behind the Karanpur Police Station, told me of how the little canal was choked with the bodies of riot victims. My stepfather, a Hindu gentleman, helped Muslim friends to escape by driving them to the border in his old Ford convertible. There were humanitarians on both sides.

Even violence wears itself out. In December, I came home to Dehra for my winter holidays. It was a peaceful, sleepy little town again. I went to the pictures twice a week, walking home after dark, across the lonely Parade Ground; no one bothered me. Late January, I had just settled down to see a film called Blossoms in the Dust -they had begun showing the credits -when the manager stopped the show and informed us that news had just come in that Mahatma Gandhi had been shot.

It was some time before the country recovered from all these catastrophes, but recover it did. The 1950s were a relatively tranquil period, with an educated middle class gradually growing in numbers and prosperity . After I had finished school, my mother packed me off to the UK. But four years later, I came back on my own steam, determined to see if I could find my own place in the Indian sun.

Someone took me to see a new city coming up. A wilderness near Kalka where not a tree could be seen for miles.But some strange-looking edifices were coming up. It was the beginning of Chandigarh. A few years later, when I came again, there were trees and parks and gardens -a green city! And people were thriving in it.

I had seen history happening. And geography too. And I am lucky enough to see it still happening.

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Comment (1)


    History has been interpreted in various ways and this is one of them. Ruskin bond has seen chaotic India from independence to the present and his vivid memories are a testimony to his analysis of history. Insightful write-up…!

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