Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

In 1941, when he was ten years old, my uncle Narayan dropped a lit match into the charcoal chute that stemmed from the wall of his Karachi home, and set it aflame. The act mimicked a Hindu ritual he had participated in on visits to his native Tamil Nadu village, in which a lamp would be lit on open ground in front of the temple deity, allowing worshippers to carry home a light from the flame for their evening prayers. In this way the fire was always multiplying while always maintaining its shape. Before lighting the fire in Karachi, Narayan didn’t know that a single match could engulf and consume in the way that it did, climbing up the wall of the house and reducing the clapboards of the family bungalow to ash. The fire seemed to charge toward his face while smoke enveloped him from the back. He remembered, in the moments before two servants ran outside and extinguished the flames with a pot of water, the feeling of two threats converging at his throat, as though choking him into nonexistence.

Then, in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese, beginning the dissolution of British colonial rule. Japan had defeated British troops in Burma and were pushing their way towards the northeast of India. Over the winter, the British ranks swelled in Karachi as troops traveled to Burma to block the Japanese invasion.

“Are they protecting us?” Narayan asked his father. Raghavan was a civil servant, the Examiner of Local Fund Accounts, and one of the few people in Karachi who could articulate the government’s plans and assess their motives.

“They’re protecting what’s theirs,” his father responded. When Narayan listened to that description of the events he could hear a sound of choking, as though his father didn’t know from which threat to run.

Narayan recalled an afternoon weeks before, in Saddar Town, when he had stood at the periphery of a crowd of British soldiers while a man, surrounded by spectators, unleashed a mongoose and a cobra. The animals lashed at each other and the force of their rage pushed the gasping crowd back. Narayan had seen this fight before, and was drawn less to the bloody display than to the opportunity to study the British in close proximity. His presence there compromised his father’s values, and he was ashamed for sanctioning the brutality of the animals’ battle and the imposing presence of the British. The troops were captivated by the struggle, leaning their lanky bodies closer for a glimpse. Eventually, the battle ended as it always did, the snake’s corpse coiled at the man’s feet.

The soldiers pressed against each other, hands on their comrades’ shoulders, eyes on the battle bloodying the slab of cement in front of them. Through a space in between the two men’s elbows, Narayan saw that the mongoose had returned to its cage. He wondered how well the man had trained the cobra so he himself would not be struck, how unquestioningly the animal must have trusted its captor.

“It’s interesting to them because nobody expects the mongoose to win,” his father later explained. He boxed Narayan’s ears for going to Saddar Town alone without permission, but was willing to discuss the battle’s outcome and the details of where the soldiers had stood.

“But the mongoose always wins,” Narayan said.

“One day it won’t,” his father said.


Raghavan, my grandfather and Narayan’s father, had been born in his ancestral village of Adaichani in southern India. His own father, a man with little formal education, had two types of currency: his caste, and the irrigated lands that had sustained his family for decades. He relied on the former to grant his son access to a college education and a career serving the British government, and sold the latter to finance it.

Narayan and his brother Swaminath attended St. Patrick’s School. Their sister Kamala studied at the neighboring St. Joseph’s Convent. Both schools were surrounded by cement walls and patrolled by military police—Indian officers who wore the uniform of the British and followed their command, but had been hired by St. Joseph’s to protect female students from off-duty white soldiers. St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s were attended by Indian students clad in British school uniforms. Both were led by Jesuit priests and nuns from France and Germany who believed that adequate piety and devotion could remove the stain of brownness, that the uniform that the children wore gave them entrance to a purgatorial station between native and white.

Coins were scarce at the height of war, and each month Raghavan sent his assistant to purchase containers of the plastic bus tokens that conductors accepted in lieu of currency. There was a flimsy temporariness to them; while Raghavan guarded his money closely, he kept a small box of tokens on his desk for the children to collect on their way to the bus stop. Pressed in their white uniforms, Narayan and his siblings would collect their fare and stand at the stop across the street where the city bus would lead them to the brass gates of their schools.

Narayan understood that wartime scarcity was choking Karachi. But he soon learned that the resources skimmed off of the city could be bundled into rewards for him. One afternoon, as he walked from St. Patrick’s School to the bus, he saw that the vendors that crouched along the road accepted these plastic tokens in exchange for guavas, pomegranates, and palm-sized Kashmiri apples. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his fare, collecting a guava in exchange.

There was a shortcut between St. Patrick’s and Narayan’s home, through the British military campus that housed the soldiers’ firing range. The soldiers left the rear gate unchained for the Indian delivery boys who brought donkeys saddled with large bags of sand and heaved the bags onto piles to be used for target practice. The sound punctuated Narayan’s morning classes. 

Dressed in his St. Patrick’s uniform, dusty from the wear of the day, Narayan approached one of the donkeys. He put his hand on its back and pulled it towards him, noting the animal’s easy pliability as he rode it back to Bunder Road. He saw that the donkey’s rear legs were bound loosely by a chain, free enough to walk but too constrained to run away, so he took home one and then another.

Weeks later a neighbor reported Narayan for the thievery. He stood in his doorway, still clad in his uniform, as a low-ranking British soldier gathered the animals. Narayan watched as the donkeys plodded back to the military campus, their chains dragging limply on the ground. The following morning, the sound of rifles carried from the firing range to his Latin class, shaking the air around him.


In the summer of 1942, with the city choking from the heat, Narayan learned that Sir William Slim, buffered by American troops, was advancing on the Japanese. Soldiers now arrived in India by the thousands, to acclimate to the heat. They traveled by boat from England to Karachi, an indistinguishable swarm of white faces that crowded the military camps at the edges of the city. It seemed that as soon as one ship left for Burma, two more arrived from England.

Raghavan had learned that the British government intended to evacuate the local population in order to make room for the troops. Heads of families who were integral to the government’s daily functioning would remain in Karachi, while their wives and children were expected to return to their cities and villages.

Narayan had also noticed that there were suddenly fewer brown faces than white ones on the streets of his city, but that fact did not concern him. He was born in his mother’s village in the state of Tamil Nadu, in her childhood house, but had never known or imagined a home besides Karachi. It seemed possible that the war could disrupt their lives temporarily, but Karachi belonged to him and he was doubtful that the British had the power to take that away.


One afternoon, after soldiers arrived at his cricket field, Raghavan explained to Narayan the meaning of the word conscript. “They don’t choose to fight?” Narayan asked. He had never lived under a government he would want to serve. He felt loyalty to those around him—his friends from the cricket field, his family, his classmates, the others on Bunder Road—but the government was composed of something foreign that circled far above them. He had always viewed the white soldiers as extensions of the British Crown. Perhaps they, too, were simply pieces to be moved at the whim of their leaders.

After the initial shock of their whiteness faded, the most distinguishing quality of the soldiers was the quality of their cricket bats. Indian boys, if they were lucky enough to own a bat, purchased those manufactured by carpenters in Punjab and sold at the local market. Narayan had never seen a British cricket bat. His own was a prized possession. Until the soldiers arrived at their field, he was unaware of its inadequacy compared to the English willow.

The cricket field was next to the firing range, and Narayan could see the donkeys plodding slowly in the distance, their heads bowed to the ground. His group of six or seven boys was used to making do with the Punjabi bats and the small numbers of players. The British swung their glossy bats as they walked, and they became a full complement of eleven.

In the beginning the British soldiers and Indian boys batted wordlessly. Eventually the groups divided into two teams across lines of age and color, and Narayan would listen to the soldiers call to each other. Residents from the neighboring buildings sat on their balconies and on the edges of the field to watch the spectacle. As the soldiers began to talk, the intimacy that Narayan assumed of them began to crack. There were Englishmen who spoke differently from the Scotsmen, who used words the Welsh did not understand. There were Americans too, he learned, who never came to the cricket field. The more they kept score and played and shouted to each other across the field, the more aware Narayan grew of the thin divisions among a people who, to him, looked entirely the same. It had never before occurred to him that people could share a skin color and a language, but not a country.


Raghavan’s friend Mr. Ponniah was the editor of one of Karachi’s two major English-language newspapers, the Sind Observer. He provided a deadline to accompany the rumors that had been circulating around the offices of Karachi’s civil servants. Families would be requested to evacuate over the course of the next two weeks, to wait out the war’s end in their native villages.

“Eventually the war will be over,” Raghavan said. He was a servant of the British, but his servitude fed his family. He moved quickly from anger to logistics.

“Eventually they will be over as well,” Mr. Ponniah said.

Raghavan could have repeated the comments he often made in private when he wrestled with rumors of the end of British rule. He often reminded his family that the need for an English-language newspaper was created by the British, that 1942 had brought the Sind Observer unprecedented success. He could have noted that he and Mr. Ponniah did not share a native language and conducted their friendship only in English. Instead he began to plan, accepting the possibility that British involvement in the war would fracture his family and his city.

Narayan, too, wrestled with these rumors. His native fluency in English made him a certain type of Indian, and the power of language created a wall around him that was permeable only from the inside. The British wielded an authority that was invisible but ever-present. Yet he could not articulate the elements of this power, so he was unable to imagine an India without it. In addition, the soldiers had enlivened their cricket game. And then there were the movies.

A number of the city’s movie theaters had begun screening Hollywood films, and Mr. Ponniah encouraged Raghavan to allow Narayan to attend the nearby Sind Theater. Although the British attended the theater, Mr. Ponniah argued, the films were exclusively products of America’s Hollywood. They segregated the theater, but that would not make the films less enjoyable. When Raghavan relented, Mr. Ponniah encouraged Narayan to converse with the Americans who did not share the British colonial mindset. He told Narayan to practice his English, but to leave just as the film ended, when the British played their national anthem, “God Save the King,” and demanded the rapt attention of all members of the audience.

Narayan went to the theater every weekend, assuming his seat in the front row that the British had reserved for natives. He always occupied the seat in the corner, his elbow tenuously perched on the rest as though preparing for an escape. The theater screened Union Pacific, Little Caesar, The Westerner, and he attended dutifully, following Mr. Ponniah’s orders to leave just as the names of the actors began their slow crawl upwards.

Narayan attended his final screening days before his family temporarily left Karachi to make room for the British and American troops. He sat in his usual seat, but something blocked his retreat and he found himself standing inside in the row beside the exit as the notes of “God Save the King” crackled through the speakers.

A British soldier stood by the row of Americans. “Stand up,” he ordered. The British soldier raised his arm and the Americans pushed back. In their drab uniforms, their arms and torsos blended into each other’s bodies. Narayan had no way of knowing who was winning. He tried to move towards the exit, but another man had walked in, wearing a different uniform that suggested a higher rank. The peripheral men stopped fighting, their investment too casual to risk punishment. But the men in the middle were still on the floor, consumed by battle, their punches heavy and hard and direct. The large soldier walked to the middle and kicked the men, who rolled onto their backs and rose to their feet. Then he turned to Narayan. “You,” he said. “Stop.”

Narayan pressed his back against the wall and waited.

“Who started this?” the man asked.

Narayan shook his head. He scanned the faces of the soldiers, hoping to recognize one as a comrade from the cricket field, but they appeared suddenly blank and indistinguishable.

“You’ll tell me who started this right now.”

“He doesn’t speak a damn word of English,” one of the soldiers said.

“He was watching the movie. Must speak something.”

“The Indian boys just sneak in,” the soldier continued. “They do it every screening. You’ll trust a native over your own men?”

Narayan, newly skilled at distinguishing accents, determined that he was British. He raised his finger and searched the two men’s faces. He knew the men were pawns, individually as powerless as he was, but collectively able to reshape the contours of his life. He recalled the sound of target practice tearing through the silence of his classroom. He pointed to the British soldier. “He did,” he said. Two weeks after his final visit to the theater, his family left Karachi to await the end of the war.


The southern village of Kallidaikurchi was cushioned by family. After arriving from Karachi, Narayan, his mother, his two sisters, and his brother moved into his mother’s uncle’s house. Like all Brahmin homes, theirs was in the shadow of the village temple. Narayan would wake to the movement of Brahmin families tending to the altars. He was not the eldest cousin, but he was the eldest male, which both extended and truncated his adolescence, freeing him from the domestic or financial responsibility of adulthood but allowing him its full liberty. At night, he sat alone at his grandmother Meenakshi Patti’s feet, a coveted place that only he was ever granted.

His family enrolled him in a Tamil-medium school, but the curved onslaught of letters made him dizzy. Some mornings he skipped school entirely, walking to the river or the surrounding rice paddies to watch farmers pound at the dirt, the men’s backs slick as though they’d been oiled.

One afternoon, he visited his ancestral village of Adaichani, 10 kilometers north of Kallidaikurchi. Similar to Kallidaikurchi, it had a landscape of temple flanked by its agraharam—the Brahmin quarter of a South Indian village—and the village boundaries marked by its rice paddies. Returning from the village cricket field, past the rice paddies, he saw that the men kept earthen vessels of water beside them as they worked. The farmers didn’t acknowledge him as he pushed past the brush that separated the paddy fields from the main road. “I’m thirsty,” he told a group of men. They looked at each other wordlessly, but didn’t offer him a drink. “I’d like some water,” he repeated. He picked up the vessel, holding the cool rim an inch from his lips and pouring the water down his throat.

The following night, back in Kallidaikurchi, he told his grandmother about the drink of water.

She sat up, agitated in a way he had never seen. “You should not have done that.”

“I was hot,” he said. “And they kept it in a vessel.” At home they rarely drank their water chilled, as the ice chest was used for storing milk and cream. But water from the vessel, even resting on the hot earth, was better than anything he could have retrieved from the chest.

“You shouldn’t touch their water,” she said.

“He only seemed bothered because he didn’t want to share his water.”

“Then that is reason alone.”


Meenakshi Patti was normally generous with knowledge and family lore. Like the fire lit outside the temple, her store of information seemed to grow the more she fed it with stories told to her eldest grandson. Shortly after their arrival, he had touched the folds of her belly and asked why it sagged in this way. She had explained the nine pregnancies it had carried and the pain of pushing each child from her body. On the subject of the water she simply said, “Leave people to their customs.”

Narayan’s pride over the interaction was tinged with shame. The men did not have the authority to refuse him their water. In the village, without the direct authorial presence of the British, his family and the agraharam’s other Brahmin residents stood in their place, exercising the same full authority the British did when they confined him to the front row of the theater and sent his family away from their home.

Life in the agraharam was deeply ritualistic. Two rows of houses, occupied by Brahmin families, faced the temple. Women woke in the morning to mix cow dung and water to spray outside the houses and decorate the front steps with kolam. On certain days, Narayan would watch the temple deity being pulled through the village by a chariot, so the people of the agraharam could pay homage to it with coconuts and flowers. Prayers were interrupted only for one occasion; when a person died in any house facing the street, all temple worship was postponed until the body was removed.

After morning prayers, poor Brahmin boys from the village would go door-to-door, cupping a small vessel that they filled with boiled rice from each of the agraharam’s residents. Each family would drop a few spoons of cooked rice into their vessels, until the mound of grains peered over the top.

“Why do we feed them?” Narayan asked his aunt.

She ignored him. She was less talkative than Meenakshi Patti, consumed by service to home and temple, which left little room for analysis and discussion. She had swept the front step clean and applied the decorative kolam outside the front door. She studied it for any imperfections, then returned to the house.

“Why do we feed them?” Narayan asked his grandmother that night.

“It’s our duty,” she said. “It’s what Brahmins do.”

But there were others in the village who did not approach the door. A man his father’s age would deliver baskets of rice each week, harvested in the village paddy field. On those mornings, as Narayan’s sister Kamala retrieved the rice from the man’s basket, their aunt would untie a few paise from the knot in her sari and drop them to the ground. He had witnessed a similar scene during his visit to Adaichani, confirming that the practice was not limited to his home, but stretched at least the ten kilometers between villages. Narayan watched the coins rattle and settle as his aunt walked inside. Sometimes they would fall in a neat pile at his feet, and other times they would roll unpredictably in divergent directions, a final gesture of dismissal as his aunt turned away.

“She throws the money,” Narayan told Meenakshi Paati. The memory would stay with him, of poor Brahmin boys collecting their alms while other men’s pay was thrown into the dirt, revealing the same indifference with which his grandfather spit the juice from his betel nut, grinding the red splatter into the earth with his walking stick.

“It isn’t kind,” his grandmother allowed. “But we have our customs.”


The news reports were slow, and Narayan missed the consistency with which BBC Radio and his father’s visits with friends provided a stream of updates on the war. More simply, he missed his father, who had stayed behind in Karachi and had no way to send word to his family. Narayan heard from his uncle that the Japanese had not surrendered. In Europe, however, the Soviets had defeated the German troops and littered Stalingrad with corpses. It was only a matter of time.

In the mornings, when his grandfather was home, the house was quiet, even as it shook with the urgency of tending to his needs. Some mornings, Meenakshi Paati packed a box of food for her husband, and there was a relief in knowing that he would be gone for the night. She would tuck inside the box a stack of chapattis, fresh fruit, jars of pickle, and heavy tubs of cream and yogurt. His grandfather sat on the floor while hands and feet swirled about him. His dhoti was spotless, tied Panjakacham-style, the folds crisp and cradling his legs. He was preoccupied with his betel nut, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a silver box containing leaves. He would pull out a single leaf, rub a towel against it to remove any excess moisture, and tuck in the layer of lime, then betel nuts, then tobacco. His fingers rolled the leaf neatly and deftly, barely looking up as Meenakshi’s basket reached its capacity.

He rode a horse-drawn carriage, and his regal bearing made Narayan proud. He had never considered the work his grandfather did, but as he watched his paati slide the box of food beside him and the driver crack the whip, he considered the magnitude of his grandfather’s stature in this hot and limited town.

Despite the grandeur of the carriage, Narayan soon learned that it never went far. According to his cousin, their grandfather kept a small house, just beyond the Brahmin enclave of the village.

“What does he do there?” Narayan asked.

“He has a woman,” his cousin said. But he didn’t explain the purpose of this woman, what they did together that required an overnight stay or necessitated a basket of food. It was years before Narayan traced his grandfather’s relationship back to the roots of the tradition, in which Brahmin men had license to pursue relationships on their own terms with women outside the agraharam.

The woman’s name was Vellamma. Years later, at his funeral, she discreetly joined the procession, branched off to the river bed, shaved her head, and returned home as a widow.

Meenakshi Patti had expected Vellamma to attend the funeral. She had known of their relationship, sanctioned his nights in Vellamma’s home, and packed the boxes of food for the children that Vellamma and her husband made together. After her death, Narayan and his cousin traveled to her village and sat on the floor across from an aunt and two cousins, taking in the immensity of the social divide along with the single shared force in their family lives. He had witnessed his grandmother’s powerlessness against his grandfather’s demands, and he could scarcely imagine the constraints placed on Vellamma.

Years later, when Karachi and Kallidaikurchi were distant memories, Narayan would reflect on what he learned as he watched the British move through his city and his grandfather’s carriage pull away from the agraharam. Power was not contained in a single act, and demonstrations of it were often unremarkable. It was the way one lifted a finger, stood, demanded something wordlessly and with silent expectation.


In 1943, the war pounded relentlessly and the boats of soldiers continued to dock in Karachi before moving to battles further east. With no end in sight, the British government allowed Karachi’s families to return home. Narayan had failed the end-of-year exam in Kallidaikurchi, which had been administered in Tamil, and was relieved to return to his English-medium classroom. He left his grandparents’ agraharam, with its limitless supply of milk and yogurt, to a city of ration cards. The plastic tokens were still in circulation, but the fruit vendors outside of St. Joseph’s School had disappeared. The soldiers were still present, but they had retreated again to their military campuses and barracks, appearing only to shop the outdoor markets and have their shoes shined, but never again joining the boys at the cricket field.

Mr. Ponniah had been right about the British. On August of 1947, Narayan and his family sat beside their radio and listened to Prime Minister Nehru deliver his speech on India’s tryst with destiny. Even Kamala sat beside them. She was newly married, and discussion of independence touched only the margins of her life. She had one year of school remaining, and although she was at the top of her class, she would soon leave school—and Karachi—to move to her husband’s village in the south. She sat on the floor beside their mother, whose life foretold her destiny more than any change in the country’s governance.

Raghavan was overcome by joy, and let the children join the crowds assembling on Bunder Road. But Narayan could sense his father’s ambivalence in the coming months, as discussion of independence hung over their lives. The British had built the contours of his world. Every monthly tuition payment, housekeeper’s salary, and tile in his home was a product of his ability to function within British rule. On that evening, however, neither Narayan nor Raghavan felt any such conflict. The streets erupted and the family ran outside.

When in Kallidaikurchi, Narayan had desperately missed the constant shaking and movement of Karachi. The air in the village was still, and he could not envision any future beyond the daily rituals of his family’s life. The news of independence made it clear that, unlike his family’s life in the village, Karachi’s future was thrillingly uncertain. He imagined his grandmother and aunt, their lives only slightly stirred by the end of colonial rule.

Kamala was silent on the matter. Independence changed only one detail of her life. The week after Nehru announced the country’s freedom, their mother visited the school and insisted that her daughter—newly married and freed from British rule—be granted permission to trade her skirt for a sari. Watching her attend St. Joseph’s in her final months, Narayan began to wonder about the many Indias contained within his country’s borders, even within the same family. Kamala completed the school year in a sari, then prepared to join her husband in his family’s village.

Narayan was comforted by his father’s steady presence in the weeks following independence. Raghavan, in turn, was comforted by his proximity to Mr. Ponniah and BBC Radio. He was also surrounded by close Muslim associates, and the cushion of community softened the increasingly alarming reports from beyond Karachi.

Narayan knew from his father’s reports that India would be partitioned into a Hindu and a Muslim nation, that a confluence of voices in support of and opposition to this decision had resulted in one final act of British control. A man named Cyril Radcliffe, who had never set foot in India, would chair the commission to divide India from the new nation of Pakistan.

Were it not for BBC Radio, Narayan would never have known that Karachi was no longer part of India, that his home and family sat squarely in the center of the new country’s first capital city. For several months, it was easy to dissolve all memory of Partition, because in its place came a steady return to the rhythm of school and governance, of systems that the British built but did not have to remain to oversee.

In October of 1947, a Sikh milkman was stabbed in a residential neighborhood just a few streets over from Bunder Road. Raghavan was disturbed, but he sought comfort in his Hindu and Muslim colleagues who continued to build their lives in Karachi, maintaining a loyalty to a unified, undivided, and independent India. Narayan shared these sentiments. Independence increased his allegiance to his country, even in its divided state.

In the months following the murder of the Sikh milkman, a group of Muslim refugees from East Punjab were forced out of their homes. They moved across the new border, settling first in Lahore and then in Karachi. They were shaken by the violence in East Punjab, and carried scars and stories of attacks by Sikh mobs. Narayan heard of their presence, and Raghavan and his colleagues knew that the Pakistani government was under new pressure to respond with a single, unified promise of security.

As the silence of the Pakistani government continued, the Muslim community’s rage against the city’s remaining Sikh population grew. A group sought revenge at a Gurdwara, a Sikh religious center in Karachi’s center, where Sikh families from the neighboring Larkana area of Sind had moved to prepare to migrate to India.

Narayan had difficulty naming the villain that was tearing the country apart. Months before, it had been the British, but he was always aware that there were places where colonial power gave way, and a few Indians could assume a place within these gaps in the empire. Now, news from the Gurdwara floated through the community of Bunder Road, although nobody admitted its brutal reality in the children’s presence. Narayan eventually learned that Sikh families had been murdered as they waited, captive and marked, to attempt to migrate to India. And he heard from his father’s Muslim friends that the same attacks were being waged on the Indian side: Hindus murdering Muslims as they attempted their move to Pakistan.

The newly demarcated border had produced new and unfamiliar names—Radcliffe Commission, Hindustan, Muslim League, Pakistan—but nothing to alter the course of daily life prior to this attack. The single killing of a milkman had been easily dismissed as a murder. But the murder of innocent people in their Gurdwara, at the hands of people who had themselves survived the slaughter of their villages, prompted a new sense of impotence that Raghavan had not yet felt, even as he heard of religious clashes in distant cities and villages.

The family hoped to leave Karachi together, but Raghavan continued to feel responsibility to the British government even after independence. He decided to remain at his postm but sent his family—his wife and five children, including a newborn son—on a plane to Bombay. They would then travel by train to the south, where he would join them once he completed the years of work needed to collect his pension.

Repeated attacks aboard trains raised the costs of air travel. Still, Raghavan had the means to pay for safe transport, and purchased the six tickets to land his family safely in Hindu-dominated India. As the date of departure grew closer, Karachi’s South India Association met and formed a policy to govern migration. Air tickets would be reserved for women and young children. Men and older boys would board any available boats or trains, risking the sectarian violence that they knew, through BBC Radio and survivors’ accounts, accompanied the journey. Families would separate for travel, increasing the odds that some members of each unit would survive. Those who had purchased airfare would sacrifice their seats to members of other families. Survivors would reunite in India.

Raghavan gave two tickets to a neighboring family. His wife, two daughters, and infant son boarded a Tata Airlines flight bound for Bombay. For Narayan and his younger brother Swaminath—sixteen and thirteen years of age, respectively—Raghavan learned of a cargo ship, the S.S. Englistan. Normally traveling between Australia and Saudi Arabia to carry sheep to Mecca for sacrifice during Eid al-Adha, the ship had been diverted to bring refugees from Karachi to Bombay. In place of private compartments, it had a large open deck, built to sustain animals only for the duration of the one-way journey.

On the day of travel, Raghavan stitched an envelope containing a thousand rupees into Narayan’s pant leg. Raghavan planned to see his sons off at the Karachi Harbour, but several kilometers from the port, they were stopped by British Military Police and Raghavan was directed to turn back. In a final request as a servant of the British government, Raghavan told the officer his official title and asked permission to escort his sons to the port. The officer rejected his plea, and the boys were pulled away, toward the chaos of the cargo ship. Over the years, as Narayan studied his father closely, Raghavan’s power over both his life and the lives of those around them had never been compromised. But Narayan had also observed in people the convergence of powerlessness and authority, the ability to hold in place the rules of society and govern the decisions of others, while being unable to alter the course of their own lives. Raghavan stayed in place, growing smaller in Narayan’s vision as the boys approached the port. It was the first time he had seen his father lose a battle, and the first time he had seen him cry.

Overburdened with passengers, the ship hugged the Indian coast. On the deck, families clawed past strangers, seeking familiar faces and news of survivors from their areas. Narayan later learned that most of the passengers were from Upper Sind Province, and had been forcibly removed from their villages with little warning. Now, severed from the city of his childhood and the surrounding provinces, he came face to face with the fragmented identities that made up his nation. Swaminath, overcome by motion sickness, lay sweating on the floor of the ship’s deck. Narayan left his side only once, to walk to the upper deck and get a glimpse of the sea.

Years later, Narayan would describe the experience of watching the water as the boat moved relentlessly forward. On the dock that afternoon, he recalled his grandmother’s multiple pregnancies, Vellamma’s life, the sprinkling of the kolam outside the door, the Brahmin boys with their hands outstretched, and the afternoon he stood in the theatre with his finger pointed at the British soldier. He hoped he would feel that independence again, that he would be the one to steer his own life. But for now, he watched the boat move along the coast, delivering him to a newly broken country.

Sheila Sundar

Sheila Sundar is currently at work on her first novel, set in South India in the 1960s. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The New York TimesThe Bookends Review, and elsewhere.

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2 Comments on “Leaving Karachi

  1. For the first time ever in my long life, I have read a South Indian view of India’s partition. I was a child when it happened and saw the impact of this British policy of dividing a country while leaving it–with millions of grieving humans on both sides of the border created by them only. I can remember the faces of the Bengali refugees as I was still in (West) Bengal, and within a few years, 1952 to be exact, I moved with our family to Delhi, where again I came face to face with refugee Punjabi and Sindhi families. But never did I come across the experience of a Tampilkan refugee from West Pakistan. It is quite an experience for one at 74, especially because of my experience of living for 23 years until recently in Madras/Chennai! In other words, this story does create a very strange and mixed feeling in a 74 year old man, brought up in Delhi amidst Punjabi refugees and spending 23 unforgettable years in Tamil nadu amongst very close Tamilaian, Malayali, Telugu and Kannadiga friends, and interacting with Tamil refugees from Burma, but never getting an opportunity to learn about the feelings and views of a Tamil refugee from West Pakistan. A most readable story, with all the possibilities of growing into a most interesting novel! Best wishes to the author.

    1. Thank you, A Banerjee, for your beautiful comment. Please do contact me through my site if you would like to speak further. I would welcome the chance to learn more from your perspective.

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