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The 1947 Partition Archive Survivors and their Memories

Oral history with Birinder Pal Singh Cheema, 2015 October 4.
Oral history with Birinder Pal Singh Cheema, 2015 October 4.
Cheema, Birinder Pal Singh, 1931, Cheema, Sharon, and Islam, Nabila
Author (no Collectors):
Cheema, Birinder Pal Singh, 1931, Cheema, Sharon, Cheema, Sharon, and Islam, Nabila
In time, Mr. Cheema's family rebuilt their lives in Amritsar after Partition, but some things were never replaced: the memories and family heirlooms, the photographs, the land, and numerous good friends. Birinder Pal Singh Cheema was born in Pipri, Uttar Pradesh in 1931, the youngest of five children. His older sister and his paternal aunt were both married to direct descendants of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and as such, Mr. Cheema's family lived on the royal estate where his father and uncle helped manage affairs. In 1939, the family moved back to their ancestral village, Badoki Gosain in Gujranwala District. It was a difficult adjustment, particularly for schooling, as the local language in their new home was Punjabi, whereas Mr. Cheema had grown up speaking Hindi and Urdu in Pipri. The family soon adjusted to agricultural life however and assumed their responsibilities as landlords of the various local village farms. These farms produced crops of sugarcane, wheat, mustard, and tobacco. It was an idyllic existence, he recalls, and villagers of different religious groups all lived together cooperatively. They remained unconcerned with the pending division in 1947, believing they would remain in their home regardless of which side of the border their village fell.A week after Partition's announcement, they began hearing via various news reports of rampant rioting and killings on both sides of the border. In their own village, rumors of attack started to circulate. Feeling afraid for the first time, they quickly determined that they had no choice but to leave their home, he remembers. As painful as that decision was, they remained hopeful that they would one day be able to return, he says. Leaving safely proved to be a challenging task. The mass exodus of villagers in such a short time had created a sense of fear and distrust that resulted in outbursts of violence locally and beyond. There was no organized system of migration in place for the millions of people about to be displaced. They were on their own, he says. Mr. Cheema attempted to leave on more than one occasion with some family members but each time, they were not able. One morning, the domestic helpers who had been standing watch over the house had gone into the village and Mr. Cheema and his older brother awoke to find a man wielding a sword, standing on the eight-foot-high wall bordering their courtyard. The man announced that he was there to kill them. It was his duty, he said, and he assured their mother that she would be spared. His mother challenged the man, creating a distraction that allowed Mr. Cheema, who was 16 at the time, and his older brother to escape through the front door. Wearing only summer shorts and shirts, barefooted and bareheaded, they ran for hours until they reached the first of many refugee camps that they would stay in until reaching their final destination of Amritsar.Mr. Cheema's entire immediate family survived the ordeal and were eventually reunited. He is grateful that he did not experience violence first-hand and for the fact that, at each refugee camp along the journey, he was well-fed by volunteers. In time, the family rebuilt their lives in Amritsar, but some things were never replaced: the brick house they left behind, along with memories and family heirlooms, the photographs, the land, and numerous good friends that they would never see again. In particular, he has often wondered about his best friend, Mushtaq Ahmed Cheema. After Partition, Mr. Cheema continued his studies in Jalandhar, working and volunteering for a period of time at a local refugee camp. In 1951, he had the opportunity to pursue his studies in England. His visit to Mumbai was exhilarating, as he had never seen the ocean before or sailed on a ship, and was looking forward to the new life overseas. Once in England, he worked his way through school and graduated from the engineering program at the University of Astin in Birmingham. During this period, he met the woman he would marry, a nursing student from North Wales. In 1961, a job offer from the Hindustan Steel Company in Rourkela, Orissa, took him back to India. His fiancé soon joined him and they were married in a traditional wedding in 1962. Their first daughter was born in 1963 and a year later, plans began for the family to move to Canada.Mr. Cheema had two more children in Canada, a son and a daughter, and today he has four grandsons. He remains an active participant in all their lives and since his retirement, has enjoyed some travel, working in his garden and keeping fit with exercise programs available in his local community. Until recent years, he didn't think often about Partition. Still, some memories have been painful for him, he shares. His philosophy, having gone through Partition as a migrant and a refugee, is that we should love our neighbours and choose resolution over conflict at all times.For many years he worked for Northern Electric (Nortel) as a senior engineer until his retirement in 1996. During his career, he was renowned for his negotiation skills and was in fact chief negotiator for the engineers' bargaining committee as well as president of both the Engineers' Association and his company for many years. He moved to Canada in 1964, arriving by ship, and was joined a few months later by his wife and their eldest daughter. Today, he is 84 years old and lives in Montreal, Canada.
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29 video files
Publication Info:
Dollard-des-Ormeaux (Québec)
Dollard-des-Ormeaux (Québec), October 4, 2015 - November 5, 2015
Filmed interviews