Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Hindu Refugee Camp, Lahore by Sachin Garg

Genre: Historical/Contemporary Love Story
Rating: 5/5

Once in a while you read a story that tugs at your heartstrings. Hindu Refugee Camp, Lahore is such a story.

Ghulam Ali is a limb fitter – the best from ‘Burma to Britannia’. He belongs to Lucknow, serves in the Indian army, and by a quirk of fate finds himself serving in Lahore at the time of India’s partition. He wants to stay in India. But for that he needs valid Indian documents – which he does not have, and hence permit from Indian government. He starts making rounds of government offices in Lucknow for the permit.

He meets Zahira, the lady in the government office, who will process his application, but who finds it difficult in the absence of any documents. She has lost one leg. He makes a perfect wooden limb for her, so that she can dance – her passion. They fall in love, and plan to get married. They consummate their relationship on the night before their planned marriage next day.

The Indian government looks at him with suspicion, is arrested on the same night, and sent back to Lahore with police escort, where he is released after a few days in the lock-up. He is unwanted in Pakistan as well. He ends up in a Hindu refugee camp, writing to everybody to let him return to India. A daughter is born while he is still in Lahore.

Ghulam Ali and Zahira Raza communicate with each other between 1958 and 1960 only through letters. It is these letters from Lucknow that keep him motivated even when facing adversities in Lahore. Then Zahira stops replying to Ali’s letters in 1960.

Ali gets permission to return back to India. Zahira is no longer in Lucknow, and no-one knows where she has gone with their daughter. He writes the last letter of the story to his daughter, now 19 years old in 1977, on the day that she is getting married.

Is Ali able to reunite with his family?

The story contains only these letters that Ali and Zahira share with each other, or his last letter to his daughter. There is never a moment when you want to skip a letter – in fact if you skip one, you might miss the sentiments conveyed in the letter. All the hardships that Ali faces in Lahore – everyone is using religion as a leverage to control others , or the difficulties of Zahira as an unwed single mother living alone in Lucknow – are beautifully brought out in these letters. These issues are contemporary, though written in the context of events in 1958.

Even his last letter to his daughter, beautifully brings out the loneliness of his life without Zahira and Zubeida, but with a hope for future. Ghulam Ali writes that if he were to die in that moment, his epitaph would have read, ‘He died out of happiness on being with the love of his life.’

History records that the partition happened on 15th August 1947. But for people like Ghulam Ali, it’s an event that stretched on for years and years.

The author has written in his notes, ‘I wish the subjects discussed in this book weren’t as relevant today as they are.’

This is what makes this love story as much contemporary as historical.

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