An August Birthday

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Today, we celebrated my dad’s birthday for the first time.

You see, my dad has never known which day he was born on. Like many of his generation born in India, he doesn’t have a birth record, and the first time his birth date was officially recorded was years later in his school register. The headmaster didn’t bother to ask him or his uncle, who had brought him in for admission, about it. He just assumed that like everybody else, they won’t have a clue. He took a look at the boy, made a guess, and assigned him August 15, 1946.

But my dad wasn’t born in 1946. His birth year is 1947. And while the headmaster was wrong on the year, he almost nailed the date. He was born in August 1947, in the middle of the month the British gave India its hard-fought independence; the month when amidst the greatest mass migration in world history, Pakistan appeared on the map.

My dad was born in Patiala, a city in India’s Eastern Punjab at his maternal grandparents’ home. A few days after giving birth, my grandmother returned from her parents’ home to her husband’s in the neighboring town of Ambala. That week, the creation of Pakistan was announced. Immediately after the announcement, fresh communal riots broke out in politically volatile Punjab and other partitioned provinces. Millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs began a tortuous journey of cross-migration, replete with violence at both ends. Along with all of their extended family (beradari) in the region, my grandparents gathered all that they could carry and escaped to a refugee camp along with their five daughters and newborn son.

In the months that followed, one of my dad’s sisters, Sultana, 20, would fall ill and die at this camp due to lack of medical attention. One of his cousins would be abducted by a local militia and disappear for months, before being dramatically rescued and reunited with relatives in Pakistan. Five months later, the family arrived in Chakwal, a small city in the Pakistani Punjab whose large Hindu population had departed to India in similar fashion. They were assigned one of the abandoned homes to live in, and begin life all over again.

My grandfather, who had been a successful businessman in Ambala, was never quite able to get back on his feet in Pakistan and passed away after a long illness when my dad was 12. Abbu’s beloved maternal uncle, who had also migrated with his family, became his guardian. He was one of few adults in the family who had had some education, and taught him how to read and write at home until he was finally admitted to a school in grade five, where the headmaster created the first official, incorrect record of his birth.

Not big on the birthday tradition, the date never quite came up in my dad’s family. There were other, more important matters at hand. My dad knew that he was born around Partition, but the wrong birth year helped him graduate from school early so he went with it. He never celebrated or shared it with anyone other than for official use.

Last year, when Abbu got on Facebook, he entered this “official” birth date, and friends and family members began to wish him for the first time. A cousin mentioned it to my phuppo Mubina, one of my dad’s two surviving older sisters who still lives in Chakwal. She gave him a call. She told him that August 15 was indeed not far off from his actual birthday…she couldn’t remember the exact day and none of them had written it down in the mayhem that followed, but she was positive that her baby brother was born no more than a few days before Pakistan during that unforgettable 1947 August Ramadan.

And so this year, today, we decided to celebrate my dad’s “official” birthday, which it’s technically not, but pretty close. We had cake, and sang the birthday song to him, and he told us, bemused, that it was the first time anybody ever had. He told us this story, recounted that day when his adored Mamoon took him to school for the first time in Chakwal, and how birthdays were totally not a thing while he was growing up.

But you know, I think he was kind of glad they are now. Happy birthday, Abbu.

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