Even as India speeds toward its 72nd Independence Day, life has been pretty slow for Beant Singh, the oldest rickshaw puller of Meerut.
At 84, Singh's legs have started to give way. His blood pressure misbehaves, his lungs aren't what they used to be and his eyes have a milky white film on them. But the sight of his mother and brother burning to death is still fresh in his memory. As if it had happened just yesterday.
Singh was not only the oldest rickshaw puller in Meerut. He was also a survivor of one of the bloodiest chapters in India's history - the Partition of India.
Nearly seven decades since, Singh feels that India has forgotten the horrors of 1947.
Memories of blood
Born in Kashmir on January 26, 1936, Singh witnessed the rule of Raja Hari Singh in Jammu & Kashmir before economic hardships and the persecution of Sikhs drove his family to Rawalpindi.
A great fan of the speeches and works of Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, little Beant would often listen to the radio to find out more about the freedom movement. And freedom did come but at an unforeseen price.
Singh was 11-years-old when the first Prime Minister of India Pt Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the country's tryst with destiny. For Singh, the independence that his parents and ancestors had earned after a hard fight and as a gift for the future generations - his generation - left him orphaned.
The countrywide celebrations of India's independence were marred by the bloody partition of undivided India into India and Pakistan.
Little Beant managed to run away from the fate of his parents. Luckily, he met a military personnel at the time who put him on a train to Amritsar where refugees from Pakistan were being placed. Thus began Beant Singh's second life as a free Indian.
In 1947, Indian was a chaos of death, separation and loss. Its capital city of Delhi - where Beant Singh arrived later that year - was overburdened with refugee families and survivors of the Partition, seeking a new life and livelihood in independent India.
"It was too crowded, there was no work," Beant Singh recalled, adding that as the reason he decided to shift to Meerut in 1948. Through a fortuitous chain of events, the little boy happened to meet some of his old schoolmates from Rawalpindi who had relocated to Uttar Pradesh before the partition. It was the families of these acquaintances that helped Beant Singh with food and shelter and also helped him procure a rickshaw.
"I drove at night since I did not have a license, I only got that much later at the age of 18. If I had not found that rickshaw, I would probably have not made it," Singh tells News18.
Forgotten by history
Singh is one of the few handfuls of individuals across the world who is witnessing 2020 India after having witnessed the widespread carnage that occurred during the partition which killed nearly 2 million people and displaced 14 million more. And these are just conservative official estimates.
Today, the 84-year-old survives on his savings from his years working as a rickshaw puller. He has lived in the same house for decades. He has no known family and is the last surviving member of his line. If others from his family survived the Partition on the other side of the border, he never found out about them.
But the ghosts of partition seem to be re-emerging.
"Every other day, I come across a new report about some man or woman being lynched," the elderly man laments. Referring to the recent spate of communal lynchings in India, Sighh says, "This is not the 'free' India that my mother died for. From what I can see, we are still captive to the ghosts of the past."
Ghosts of the Past
A regular follower of current events and daily news, Singh was recently pained to find out that a central education board had decided to omit a chapter on the partition to ease the pressure off of Class 12 students. Such omissions of India's history was, in Singh's mind, one of the primary reasons for the resurgence of communal violence in India. "It's as if everyone wants to forget the partition because it makes them uncomfortable," he said.
Deeply secular at heart, it pained the octogenarian that the freedom his forefathers earned at the cost of their own blood was being wasted on hate. Speaking of the youth today, Singh felt that all that a majority of India's youth today was misguided. "Why do they hate so much? As someone who has seen the aftermath of hatred, I can not understand their reasons to hate," Singh said. He added that political leaders had an important role to play in the shaping of young minds.
For Beant Singh, however, life had come full circle. "I started my life in the new India alone. Today as we are in yet another 'New India', I'm still alone," Singh said.
A lover of Urdu nazms and poetry, Singh now spends his evenings listening to old records. What little movement his age and health allowed, the coronavirus pandemic has restricted. On the 72nd anniversary of the Partition of India, Singh will be watching the rest of the country celebrate its freedom. But all that Independence Day brings back for him is a burning smell of smoke and a dying hope to see an India united on the basis of diversity under a leader who, like his beloved Nehru, could steer the nation toward its second freedom. The freedom from hate.
This story was published as part of a three-part series 'Preserving Partition' in collaboration with 1947 Partition Archives of India to mark the 72nd anniversary of the horrific Partition of India. News18.com interviewed three partition survivors who lived to tell the tale. Beany Singh was originally found and interviewed for the non-profit by Aanchal Singh.