Meenakshi Shedde: Tears for Amritsar

Jul 08, 2018, 06:01 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

I visited the Jallianwala Bagh, site of the horrific massacre in 1919 when Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired on an unarmed group of men, women, and children, protesting against the Rowlatt Act

Meenakshi Shedde: Tears for Amritsar
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeI've been in Amritsar this week, and I've been weeping a great deal. The Amritsar Shatabdi arrives at 10.30 pm. But my host, Jasmina Sachdeva, suggested we visit the Harmandir Saheb, the Golden Temple, at night, as it would be very crowded during the day. It was a deeply moving experience, visiting this holy shrine of the Sikhs. As I prayed by the water tank, the golden domes of the temple shimmering in the surrounding water, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of faith and sewa (service); the constantly flowing water seemed to bring home to me the transience of life.

I found my cheeks wet with tears. The temple is so visionary, it gives away free tree saplings as prasad. I visited the Partition Museum in the city, and was so moved I broke down quite a few times, including while listening to a video of Gulzar saab reciting his poem Dastak, relating to his experience of Partition. Between one and two million died during Partition, and over 15 million were uprooted. Actually, I could not "finish" the entire museum, as the experiences are valuable, but hard to bear. It displays many facts and photographs, and audio and visual material. For instance, they have recreated a refugee camp tent, with a steel thali and glass inside, with audio announcements being made in the camp at the time. Set up by The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust chaired by Kishwar Desai, the museum is still a work in progress. No brochures, catalogues, or guide was available, and sadly, they would not allow photography.

There were scores of horrific stories of Partition, as well as other stories of hope. There was a couple in Pakistan, Bhagwan Singh Maini and Pritam Kaur, who had been introduced, prior to an arranged marriage in 1947. He was from Mianwali and she was from Gujranwala. When Partition happened, their families were separated as millions criss-crossed the border. In an extraordinary stroke of fate, in the long, hungry queues of people waiting for the food trucks in the refugee camps, the two actually found each other again and later got married. She had managed to bring with her a phulkari coat, and he had managed to bring a briefcase. These two objects are some of the many displayed at the museum, donated by Partition's victims. It is hard to hold back your tears.

I visited the Jallianwala Bagh, site of the horrific massacre in 1919 when Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired on an unarmed group of men, women, and children, protesting against the Rowlatt Act. According to the Indian National Congress, about 1,000 were killed and over 1,500 injured. There is an 'eternal flame' in memory of the martyrs, a Martyrs' Hall with paintings and brief notes on the key people who died there, an imposing memorial, the Flame of Liberty, designed by American architect Benjamin Polk (why not an Indian sculptor?), and a well, into which many leapt to escape the firing. Yet, I found nothing there that made me feel for the victims; mainly it is a park where families picnic, and indulge in that most popular yogic posture: selfie-asan.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com.

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