AMRITSAR, India – For seven decades, Sudarshana Rani has been trying to learn the fate of her younger brother. She was just a child when the communal bloodshed that surrounded the British partition of India in 1947 wiped out almost her entire extended family. But in the rice paddies that became execution grounds, there was one body she didn’t find: that of her 5-year-old brother, Mulk Raj.
Ms. Rani, a Hindu, and an older brother were taken in by the family of a Muslim classmate before leaving their home near Lahore, which became part of the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. In India they built again. The brother, Piara Lal Duggal, retired as a senior officer in the Indian state bank. Mrs. Rani raised children who are now doctors and bankers.
Yet her spirit remained with the left-behind brother. Had Mulk Raj taken flight and survived? She has imagined that he was looking for her; she saw him everywhere and in everything. Even a family movie outing a few years ago became part of her long, silent quest.
“I thought maybe this was my brother — they made the movie about him,” she said of the 2013 biopic of Milkha Singh, the star sprinter who overcame his own family’s carnage during the partition. “I walked around the field, I saw everyone – not him,” she said of that long-ago day in the rice fields. “Maybe he told his story.”
The chaos, confusion and religious violence that accompanied the split of Pakistan from India 75 this week resulted in the deaths of as many as two million people and unleashed one of the largest internal displacements in history, with Hindus and Muslims from communities once mixed were directions to new homelands created along religious lines.
In the decades since, dividing lines have become tighter than ever, borders fenced and heavily guarded, after repeated wars, transnational terrorist attacks and the repercussions of rising nationalism. To this day, despite a vast shared heritage, the two countries remain estranged, their weapons aimed at each other and diplomatic ties virtually non-existent.
Majoritarian populism is on the rise in both. India is gripped by rising Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, with the ruling party increasingly crumbling from the country’s constitutionally mandated secularism. Pakistan is overrun by an Islamic fundamentalism that views dissent as blasphemy worthy of violent punishment. The people of Kashmir, the Himalayan region over which the two countries battle, remain hostage to militarism and militancy on both sides.
The markers of division are ubiquitous. In a small room on the cremation grounds of a Pakistani temple, the ashes of hundreds of Hindus have been buried for years as relatives wait for visas to scatter in India’s holy Ganges River. Fishermen from both countries often get into trouble for violating invisible maritime demarcations. A few years ago, the Indian authorities even arrested a pigeon crossing the border on suspicion of espionage.
In recent decades, nationalist fervor and mutual mistrust have largely replaced memories of bloodshed and displacement.
Partition survivors, now in their twilight, have often been reluctant to share their stories with their children, writes author Aanchal Malhotra in her book “In the Language of Remembering.” Many, including Mrs. Malhotra’s own grandmother, have endured their trauma calmly and alone.
“We never wanted to burden them with our memories,” the grandmother tells Ms. Malhotra in her book. “We wanted the grief to end with us.”
Some survivors have managed to return for a pilgrimage to a lost home. Others, like the Duggals, have searched for answers.
Piara Lal Duggal, who along with his sister was the only known survivor of the rice paddy massacre, was able to locate Muhammad Anwar, the classmate who had helped protect them from the anti-Hindu mob. The two wrote to each other for decades.
In one letter, Mr Anwar wrote that he had started a fish farm near Lahore and that the fish grew to “2 kg each”. He told Mr. Duggal that every Thursday he went to a shrine to light a candle and pray “to reconnect me with my friend”.
In a letter that the Anwar family still keeps, Mr. Duggal replied: “My heart of a friend, my brother Muhammad Anwar”, adding: “The old thoughts of you and your family are refreshed in my heart. Sometimes I can’t even sleep at night.”
Among those who have made cross-border visits is Jagtar Kaur, a Sikh in his late 80s who lives on the Indian side of the Punjab region. During the partition, her father and grandfather were hacked to death by Muslim mobs.
As Ms. Kaur prepared for her visit in 2014, the irony had not escaped her: she needed a visa and passport to visit her own former home, just a few miles across the border. The Pakistani side is so close that, to check the weather, her family is looking at the forecast for the Pakistani city of Lahore rather than the nearest Indian city, Amritsar.
“Our house had collapsed, but I could see the metal columns of our roof,” she recalls of her visit.
At the time, the two governments allowed trains and buses to run across the border. But the escalating tensions of recent years have put an end to the services.
“There’s nothing here right now,” said Ramesh Chand, 59, who will soon be retiring as a cleaner at the Attari train station.
The border between Attari and Wagah is largely closed, with only a handful of visa holders crossing on foot each day. But every night, the border gate opens for a pomp and ceremony of flags, turning each side into a small arena filled with spectators.
“Hot popcorn, hot popcorn!” shouted one of the many vendors as families came in to take a seat one evening recently.
Bollywood songs blared from loudspeakers on the Indian side as people waved flags and danced. During the military marches, tall officers from both sides competed to see who could kick higher, who had a more impressive mustache to twist, and who could scream with the most intimidation.
As the sun set, the crowd fell silent as the two flags were lowered. “Long live India” roared those on one side of the fence, while those on the other shouted “Long live Pakistan.”
The absurdity and heartache of creating new borders overnight is reflected in the literature of the two nations. In a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, a writer who lived in India and was forced to leave for Pakistan, the two nations decide to exchange patients from their mental institutions, just as they had exchanged prisoners of war. A patient keeps trying to find out where his village is now.
“Where is it?” a friend answers him. “Where it has always been, of course.”
“But in Pakistan or in India,” the patient asks.
“In India,” says the friend. “No, no, in Pakistan.”
Indian poet and musician Piyush Mishra drew on the letters of a lover stranded on the Indian side who wrote decades later to his beloved Husna in Pakistan. His pain is expressed in simple curiosities about what may have changed with a new nation.
Fall leaves the same way in Pakistan,
as they fall here, oh Husna?
Does the dawn break there the same way?
as it is in India, oh Husna?
Does Pakistan cry at night too,
like India does, oh Husna?
In the memory of Duggal’s siblings – the brother is now 86 and the sister 83 – their family was wealthy Hindu landowners in a predominantly Muslim village near Lahore. During the height of the violence, a group of Muslim men arrived at the house and led them to the rice paddies.
‘My father was washing us. The younger brother was 5 days old,” recalls Mrs. Rani. “He didn’t even have a name yet.”
Mr Duggal, then 11 years old, managed to flee after a blow to the side of his head which has left a bald patch to this day. Mrs. Rani passed out, unconscious.
The brother and sister stayed with Muhammad Anwar’s family for about two weeks and then reached the Indian side when convoys received military escorts.
Seven decades later, Mrs. Rani still hopes that her younger brother Mulk Raj will one day show up. But she is insecure. Even if the boy survived, he would be nearly 80 now.
Muhammad Anwar died in 2016 at the age of 85. His family still keeps Mr. Duggal’s letters.
“They are the symbol of a friendship that the two friends have kept alive despite the separation,” said his son Saeed Anwar, who lives in Lahore.
He said his father often cried at the memory of the violence.
“What happened to Piara Lal’s family was tragic and unfortunately, Muslims from our region were involved,” he said. “Hindu and Sikh families were wealthy and the desire for wealth was the main trigger for the violence.”
mr. Duggal, like many other survivors interviewed, expressed little bitterness. He said that “99 percent” of those on both sides were good people.
“But the times were like that,” he said.
In a letter to Mr. Anwar describes Mr. Duggal the hardships of growing up as an orphan in India.
“I worked as a doorman,” he wrote. “Every time I told someone I wanted to study, they said, ‘The kids who don’t have parents can’t study.’ But I did not lose heart.”
He also wrote of the better memories before the massacre, including his vivid image of Mr Anwar’s father, Bashir Ahmad, smoking his hookah in the courtyard.
“He spoke very little, he rarely got angry and he loved me very much,” Mr Duggal wrote. “Your mother, Khurshid Begum, would make parathas with butter.”
In the letter, Mr. Duggal wrote that he intended to get a passport and visit his lost home one day.
But now, at age 86, he said he no longer had that desire.
“There was only one friend of mine there, and he is no more,” he said. “There is no trace of our house there.”
Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumara reported from Amritsar, and Zia ur-Rehman from Lahore, Pakistan. Sameer Yasir and Karan Deep Singh reporting contributed.