Ninety-year-old Reena Varma finally went back to the house in Rawalpindi city, Pakistan that she had dreamed about for 75 years.
Varma, who had travelled to Pakistan from the western Indian city of Pune, was showered with rose petals as she walked towards the house on College Road. People played drums and danced with her as they celebrated her arrival.
Varma’s family had left Rawalpindi in 1947, weeks before the Partition which led to the creation of two independent nations, India and Pakistan. The Partition resulted in mayhem and bloodshed, especially in Punjab, when millions of people fled their homes to cross the border after religious riots broke out.
Through all the pain and trauma, Ms Varma never stopped thinking about her childhood home which her father had built with his savings. In 2021, she became a social media sensation in India and Pakistan after she spoke longingly of the house she had left behind in an interview.
Activists from a Facebook group called India-Pakistan Heritage Club started looking for her old home in Rawalpindi and finally a female journalist found it. But Ms Varma couldn’t travel to Pakistan last year because of travel restrictions imposed due to Covid-19. And in March, when she applied for a visa to visit Pakistan, it was rejected without assigning any reason.
“I was shattered, I never expected that the application of a 90-year-old who only wished to see her house before she died could be refused. It was unthinkable for me, but it did happen,” Ms Varma says.
She decided to reapply, but before she could, her story caught the eye of a Pakistani minister, who instructed the country’s high commission in Delhi to immediately process her application. “I was overwhelmed when I received a call from the Pakistani high commission. They asked me to come and take my visa. It happened within a few days.”
But there were more challenges: the weather was extremely hot. Ms Varma, who recently lost her son and was planning to travel alone, was advised to wait for a few more months. The wait was “excruciating”, she said, but she didn’t want to take the risk of falling ill so she waited and finally arrived in Pakistan on 16 July.
On July 20, Ms Varma finally made it to her old home. When I met her, she was dressed colourfully and meticulously and her eyes sparkled as much as her earrings. Sipping her lemonade, she told me she had mixed feelings about the visit. “It’s bitter and sweet,” she said.
“I wanted to share this moment with my family, but they are all gone. I am happy to make it here, but I’m also feeling lonelier today.” Varma said that when she left her home in the summer of 1947, she and her sisters never thought that they would be able to return.
“One of my sisters was married in Amritsar. My brother-in-law visited us in April 1947 and persuaded my father to send us with him. He knew that trouble was brewing. So, in the summer of that year, we were sent to Shimla, which is part of India, instead of Murree where we would normally spend our vacations.” Murree is a hilly resort around 88km from Rawalpindi.
"My parents resisted but joined us a few weeks later. We all accepted Partition gradually, except my mother. She couldn’t make sense of it and would always say what difference could it make to us. First we were living under the British Raj, now it would be a Muslim Raj, but how can we be forced to leave our house.”
Varma says that her mother didn’t accept the house they were granted as refugees in compensation for the one they had left in Rawalpindi. She believed that if they did that, they would never be able to reclaim their own property in what had now become Pakistan.
When Ms Varma entered her childhood home, reporters were stopped outside. The olive-green façade of the building was freshly painted. The outlook of the house was slightly modern, but the structure was old.
Meanwhile, more people were gathering in the street just to get a glimpse of the visitor or take a selfie with her. Varma stayed inside for a couple of hours. When she reappeared, over a dozen cameras were waiting for her.
The weather was humid and the street congested, but Varma looked composed, completely unmoved by the frenzied crowd around her. She told reporters that the house was still very much the same-- the tiles, the roofs and the fireplace - and that it reminded her of the beautiful life she once had here and the loved ones that she had lost.
“My heart is grieving but I’m thankful to be around to experience a moment I’ve been waiting for a lifetime,” she said. Many in India and Pakistan believe that her charming story has given hope to the region where the politics of hate and the othering of communities have dominated the narrative for so long.