Two nations and a divided family
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A narrative of Partition written in terms of the subcontinent's Hindus and Muslims tells an incomplete story
By- Derek O'Brien
The news ticker says, Peshawar church blast: 60 killed. I find myself thinking of my great-grandmother — my father's paternal grandmother, Nellie Bella, as she was named when born into a well-to-do Bengali Christian family. She lived at various times in Jalpaiguri and Kolkata, where she built what was to be our family home and formed part of my earliest memories. She died in 1969, when I was a small schoolboy. To my young mind, Nellie Bella O'Brien, as she became on marrying a second-generation Irish settler (Anglo-Indian) in India, symbolised history. She was a walking, talking monument of history. To my innocent eyes, she seemed to stand for Mother India: a venerable and iconic figure who shed a silent tear in August 1947 when one country became two nations, and a composite society was split forever. Nellie Bella cried in August 1947, she cried every day from 1947 to 1969. She cried for the line in the sand that Partition drew. She cried for Patrick, her first-born, her beloved son who stayed on in Peshawar and later in Lahore.
The narrative of Partition has been written in terms of the subcontinent's Hindus and Muslims. Christians have had only a small role. Anglo-Indians — the community I belong to and which makes up a minuscule section of India's Christians — have had just a walk-on part. Yet Partition had a dramatic impact on my extended family. My paternal grandfather, Amos, Nellie's second son, was one of three brothers. The eldest of them, Patrick, was a civil servant who worked in Peshawar and Lahore, and served as personal assistant to Olaf Caroe, governor of the North-West Frontier Province, and later George Cunningham. Much of the rest of the family was in Kolkata, including my grandfather.