Sometimes stories come to me from the strangest of places – the back of my retinal screening van, for one!
This time when my patient stepped into the van, I *knew* he would have a story for me. Don’t tell me how I knew; I just felt it, deep in my bones. He was old, but awesome, with a spring in his step and a zingy, bright-green t-shirt which looked wonderfully summery with his immaculate, white sport shoes. I had been concerned, because his last name looked unpronounceable, but I did my best and his grin and reply in accented but perfect English immediately allayed my fears that we would have a communication problem. He also smelled really, really good…there’s something about a chap who wears a really good-smelling man-perfume and has twinkly eyes (even if he was in his seventies!), which just gets to me.
It wasn’t until I was doing the second ID check, in the darkened room at the back of the van that the story began to unfold. I asked for his date of birth and he gave me a date in the 1940s, then paused, grinned cheekily, and told me:
“Actually, I have two birthdays…like the Queen!”
How could I pass that up?
I finished inputting his information, like the diligent professional I am, and then the storyteller in me took hold.
“How on earth did you come to have two birthdays?”
He had been born in India a short while before partition, (when the British Empire, as a parting gift – given in their infinite wisdom to their former colony – divided the country in two on their way out, granting (by all accounts) independence and mayhem) and his father had diligently written the date and time of his birth in a large diary, as he had done for all of the birth dates of his other children.
When partition happened in 1947, the family had to suddenly gather up their worldly goods and flee from the newly created Pakistan, to take up residence in India (as we know it today) and the diary was lost. He was still a tiny baby, and the upheaval and instability of the time meant that the lost diary was really the last thing on anyone’s mind.
In her autobiography, ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’, Madhur Jaffrey remembers the events of that tumultuous August and the succeeding months:
The Union Jack was formally lowered and the Indian tricolour went up. We screamed our lungs out. Thousands of caps were flung skywards. I felt giddy.
The joy did not last too long. In what was the new West Pakistan, Muslim fanatics began butchering Hindus and Sikhs and appropriating their houses. Hindus in the truncated India began slaughtering Muslims, whom they blamed for the break-up of the country. Neighbours who had trusted each other now betrayed each other. Some neighbours who had never paid much attention to each other now hid and saved each other. Mobs marched through villages, towns and cities, killing those of faiths other than their own. Cornered men would be asked to drop their pants to distinguish circumcised Muslims from uncircumcised Hindus. If what came into view did not suit the viewers, daggers, guns and knives put a quick end to precious lives.
A massive, multidirectional migration began: Hindus crammed trains heading for India, clinging to doors and roofs; Muslims jammed trains heading for the two Pakistans. Sometimes the trains arrived at their destinations filled with nothing but dead bodies, having been intercepted by a mob with massacre on its mind. A million people died. Several million lost all their belongings as they ran or were chased from their homes. Angry, hapless refugees were piling up on both sides of the new borders.
My patient, then a tiny, infant refugee, lost his birthday.
When he was about six, he went to school and needed a date of birth to put on his school certificates but his father could no longer remember, and picked the time of year he thought was right, choosing a date which seemed to fit the bill. This is his official birthday still, for changing it would require undoing the paperwork of his entire life, and putting it back together re-framed a month later.
He knows the truth now, because he found his birthday again. Much later in life, when somehow the planets aligned or the right box was being looked through, the diary came to light again, and there were the pages with all the days and dates and times of the children’s birth. His, and his siblings’, all present and corrected, in his father’s handwriting.
He has that page in his possession now, at home, bearing testimony to a time of great cultural upheaval; his father’s fastidious record-keeping, care and pride; and the peculiar manner of callousness with which government decisions can rob a small boy of the chance to have sweets and presents and party games with a certainty the rest of us take for granted; that we are correctly rooted in the history of our own timeline.
He smiled equably at me, as my mind boggled, and gave a small shrug.
“I don’t mind”, he said, laughing,”as long as I get two presents.”
Aside from the historical, cultural and religious ramifications this act of partition had, and the cost in lives which it exacted upon the people involved, it was this story which affected me most. I am perhaps too used to tales of violence, aggression and murder in the name of whoever’s version of right has been accepted. Perhaps I have grown weary or too accustomed, but I find myself able to hear of these atrocities without rememering to personalise them and bear in mind that these stark numbers represent intensely painful losses of people of intrinsic value.
But this loss; of a birthday – something I have always taken for granted – unsettled me.
What’s your take? Is your birthday a certainty? What might it do to the psyche to be uncertain about such a fundamental thing? Or is it fundamental at all? Tell me your thoughts…