Partition Voices: Zareena Parveen


1977347_10153744264216518_7126723440805315308_nMeet Zareena Parveen, affectionately known as Nani-jee (grandmother) by all who have the privilege of knowing her.

At the grand old age of 80, this octogenarian, like any elderly person, is a fountain of wisdom. Her Yoda-like quips will leave you exclaiming “Wah! Wah!”, a South Asian euphemism which (amongst many other things) translates as “My God this woman is a G.”

She offers insights and philosophies on life, politics, culture, and on Star Plus dramas with the kind of clarity only found in old souls who have seen and experienced much in life.

Beneath her witty, magnanimous exterior, (not to mention audacious tinted spectacles), you probably think she has led a somewhat tranquil life. However, as I later learned, she has witnessed things no human being on this earth should ever have to experience. She survived the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

During the partition, Naani-jee’s entire family were massacred during the bloodshed that ensued. If you know anything about South Asian families, in general, they’re quite large. So including her mother, father, brothers, sisters, and a large extended family, she lost up to 200 members of her family.

The only reason she survived is because she was out playing in the fields when her village was burned to the ground. Fate, or God if you’ll have it, was on her side that day.

When she got back to find her village in flames and her family slaughtered, she lay amongst a pile of corpses pretending to be dead so no one would kill her. To my utmost surprise, I later found out that many who survived the bloodshed did so because they too hid amongst the dead.

She eventually crossed over to Pakistan from India, where she spent 6 months in a concentration camp of sorts, surviving on only a handful of dried chickpeas and dirty water. Just to drive the point home, Nani-jee was only 12 years old at the time, the same age we send children here in the UK to secondary schools instead of a war-torn country to find safety.

She eventually met a distant aunt in the camp, who soon got her married. With virtually no family, and because Pakistan was (and still is) a patriarchal society, marriage was the only means of securing any stability.

Nani-jee never completed any form of formal education, but her mother-in-law, an educated woman who worked as a headmistress in South Africa, taught her at home. With only a seemingly humble home education under her belt, Nani-jee quotes Napoleon Bonaparte with ease, spouts Urdu couplets, and continually lectures me about how even though I am a Pashtun speaking Pakistani, we are all one and the same regardless of our different languages or ethnicity.

Nani-jee’s arthritic joints and varicose veins might prevent her from walking properly. But even then she exudes so much sass and energy as she waddles to and fro without any support at her own insistence. So much joy comes gushing out of this woman whenever she laughs at my broken Urdu, or when she tuts with disapproval every time she watches a dramatic scene on a Star Plus drama. It’s hard to believe that she not only survived the partition, but that she’s also had to bury a husband, and two of her own children as well.

The sheer resilience, inner strength and wisdom contained in this one frail old lady literally blows my mind. I honestly can’t even begin to understand how she has survived this long with all the grief she has shouldered over the years. Most of us would crumble like a pile of cards if we experienced just a fraction of what she has been through, but she continues to soldier it on nearly seven decades on.  

The Syrian poet Nizar Qabanni once wrote:

“Beneath my sorrow,
I hold a city.”

Even when you are dragged down to the darkest depths of human experience, somehow, life finds a way to go on.

If any living person is testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit, it’s Nani-jee.


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