The Signposts of My Grandparents and My Ongoing Search for Home

Shivani Seth

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My grandmother was a pioneer in more ways than one. But she didn’t travel in a conestoga wagon, like some of the colonizers of Turtle Island.

She rode in a coal car, 5-months pregnant with my father. She was a young woman, with two children under 5 years old, fleeing for her life and theirs—away from everything they knew. But she didn’t talk about that part of it, most of the time.

The Partition of India was the elephant in the room, affecting all of us but never spoken of. It showed in odd moments, when we struggled to throw things away or vacillated between being afraid to spend money or spending money lavishly. Punjabis are often thought of as passionate, extreme people, who love and live intensely. There are enough movies about it in Bollywood, to be sure.

But I didn’t realize until I was older that this was because we all knew in our bones, down through generations, what it was to lose everything. The cycle of feast and famine that ruled our family became so central to all of us that I still associate that sense of glut with love. A belly full to bursting is what family is, as is the sense of mild regret that always comes after.

Partition’s pains travel, like we did. It lives in our bones and our bellies and brains. It lives in my father’s back, where his spinal cord shows a hair of vulnerability due to the lack of folic acid in his mother’s body. It shows in the halting stories, the references that are quickly swallowed when children come into the room.

I didn’t learn some of the more intense stories until I was 30 years old. No one wants to remember what hurt so many. I don’t know if it is shame or avoidance. It’s estimated that 14 million died on both sides of that arbitrary border over the course of Partition. I wonder sometimes if Punjabis migrated so much afterwards because, when your home is already gone, it’s not that hard to uproot again.

You’ve already lost it all. What’s a little more? You’ve already seen the worst. What could another country throw at you? Racism doesn’t sound that bad when you consider the realities of neighbors rising up to kill each other over differences of religion.

That’s just a theory though. There’s almost no one who lived through it left to ask.

There may be many who disagree with this theory and that’s fair. I can only tell my family’s story. But I know, deep down in my bones, that sometimes I have a fear that doesn’t feel like mine alone. When religious tensions rise, when people start throwing around ugly words, when people start talking about dividing, putting people in camps or whose religion is wrong—my chest tenses in a way that bears the weight of the past.

My body holds the story of our family’s flight. It can’t help but react. So I draw myself in and imagine my grandmother’s scent as I wrap her shawl around me. I sing a prayer that I don’t quite understand the words to, but I know I’m asking for assistance from something beyond me. I touch the little signposts of my grandparents, trinkets I’ve kept as touchstones. They link me to the past and to a land I both understand and am baffled by.

My grandmother always sought to be a bridge, to find a way to reach her children who were so far away from her. I hope I can find a way to continue her legacy, even as I continue my own search for home. I hope it will be half as full of love as the one she created, so many years ago.

 

 

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