Last month, 90-year-old Reena Chhibber Varma, undeterred by age and ailments, embarked on a journey that many thought was impossible.
Lucknow, India – Last month, 90-year-old Reena Chhibber Varma, undeterred by her age and ailments, embarked on a journey that many thought was impossible. She travelled to Pakistan to see her erstwhile home for the first time in 75 years.
As the colonial British left the Indian subcontinent, they divided it into two nations on religious lines – Hindu-majority India and mostly Muslim Pakistan, which included Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.
The partition, as it came to be known, forced more than 15 million people to move to the other side in what was the world’s largest forced migration. Nearly two million people were killed in the riots during the exodus and the bloody history of partition continues to affect relations between the two nations.
The historical tensions between the two South Asian nuclear powers have largely closed the borders, leaving many people longing to visit their relatives and even their homes on the other side of the border.
Among them was Varma, who was 15 when her family fled Rawalpindi in 1947 and is currently based in the western Indian city of Pune. Since then, she had been longing to revisit her ancestral home in an “enemy” country.
“My eyes welled up. I could not believe I was home again. It felt like I was living there just yesterday,” she told Al Jazeera over the telephone.
Varma stressed that the governments on both sides should allow people to meet effortlessly and easily. “Because it is true that they want to,” she said.
Varma remembers the day they had to flee Rawalpindi “as clear as the day”. Her parents and siblings – two sisters and as many brothers – reached India to start a new life. All of them passed away before they could turn 75, said Varma.
“We first went to Solan thinking we will go back home one day. We did not see it coming. India and Pakistan were divided and a lot of bloodshed happened,” she said, referring to a hill town in Himachal Pradesh state in northern India.
Even though her family did not suffer any violence, they heard and read many stories of what happened, of people they knew being killed on the trains.
“We saw our parents cry a lot. For two years, they could not accept that they won’t return to their home,” Varma said.
In the past 75 years, Varma made several plans for a trip to Rawalpindi but they did not materialise, though she did travel to Lahore once as a youngster.
“I always wanted to see my house again. I got my passport made in 1965 but the person I was supposed to travel with could not come and the plan was cancelled,” she said.
She renewed her passport in 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted her plans again. Meanwhile, she found the Facebook page of a group called India Pakistan Heritage Club, which offered to help Varma in travelling to Rawalpindi.
For a visit to Pakistan, an Indian citizen must have a host family in the country. Two Pakistani men, co-founders of the group, stepped up for that role.
Varma left for her daughter’s place in New Delhi last month. From there, she went to Wagah, the border transit terminal between India and Pakistan, in the western Indian state of Punjab.
“The moment I saw the huge India and Pakistan signboards up at Wagah, I broke down. It felt unreal that this was just one whole place for us but now there is a line and we cannot cross it when we want,” Varma told Al Jazeera.
As she crossed the frontier, Zahir and Imran welcomed her on the Pakistani side and took her to Lahore where she spent three days.
“I have a special connection with Lahore as well. Before the partition, we visited Lahore every year, my in-laws hail from there too,” Varma said.
On July 20, she left for Rawalpindi and was greeted by people in the neighbourhood amid the beating of traditional Punjabi dhol, or drums.
“I will always remember the warm welcome I received when I reached my ancestral house. There was drum beating by the locals. I never expected that,” Varma said.
A video of the welcome Varma got also went viral on social media as people in India and Pakistan exchanged messages of peace and love.
This 90-year-old Indian woman is finally revisiting her childhood home in what is today Pakistan. Reena Varma and her family fled to western India 75 years ago, when Britain split India in two. She said, “A very old dream of mine has come true.” pic.twitter.com/jTIHXIoLpA — AJ+ (@ajplus) July 22, 2022
Muzammil Hussain, who now lives in Varma’s erstwhile house, changed its name to Prem Niwas (Love Abode) in her honour. The lane in which the house stood was renamed ‘Prem Gully’ (Love Street).
Hussain’s family even added a nameplate to one of the rooms she lived in. It said: “Reena’s house”.
“I am the only one among my family members who could see that house again and I am not exaggerating that when I was in there, I could see my family roaming around, walking and sitting in the house again. I saw them in every corner,” Varma told Al Jazeera.
“My dream came true. Wherever my family is today, they must be looking down and must be happy and proud,” she said.
Describing the house, she said the rooms had not changed much. She did not find anything in the house that belonged to her and which she could have returned with as a souvenir.
But she did notice a few things.
“The flooring in the bedrooms was gotten done by my father and they were the same. In the sitting room, which we called ‘baithak’, there is a fireplace where my father had gotten tiles made with special designs. They are still intact,” she said.
Varma said their house was one of the poshest in the neighbourhood. The main road near the house had changed considerably, she said. The houses opposite her house had been substituted with shops. But at least five houses in her lane, including hers, were not much altered.
Varma’s face turns pensive as she recollects her childhood spent in this Pakistan home.
“What happened back then was very unfortunate and should not have happened. Yes, it was painful but we cannot remember it all our lives,” she said.
“We should move on. People in India and Pakistan, our cultures, clothes, thinking – all of it is very similar. There is love on both sides.”