Kamloops doctor recalls violent loss of his sister on 70th anniversary of partitioning of India

On the 70th anniversary of the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, a Kamloops doctor can still vividly remember the violence and conflict he witnessed as a young boy.

Max Zahir wrote a memoir and is speaking at the Kamloops library on Oct. 11

Max Zahir was 10 years old during the partition of India and has since written a memoir about the conflict. (Max Zahir)

On the 70th anniversary of the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, a Kamloops doctor can still vividly remember the violence and conflict he witnessed as a young boy.

Max Zahir was living in the province of Punjab with his family of four brothers and three sisters at the time of partition, with the border a mere 75 kilometres away.

In 1947, Hindu and Muslim communities that had coexisted for generations attacked each other in a vicious outbreak after British rule ended in India. Zahir has since written a book called 1947 A Memoir of Indian Independence about his experience as child caught up in the turmoil.

"After independence, my parents just wouldn't talk about it. I wish they had, and I regret it so much because I could have got a lot of information," Zahir told CBC Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce.

After his parent's death and his own retirement, Zahir decided to pen a memoir both to go over events himself — like a train hijacking where he lost his sister — and to share his opinion about the causes and after-effects of the conflict, he said.

After going to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Max Zahir eventually settled in Kamloops, B.C., with his wife where he worked as a doctor until his retirement. (Max Zahir )


After independence was declared, Zahir said, his father decided it would be safer for the family to go across the dividing line into Pakistan to avoid the riots and escalating animosity.  

"We took a train on the morning of August 23, 1947," Zahir said. "About 30 kilometres further on, at a small rural station, the train was hijacked."

The passengers were made to disembark, Zahir recalled, and Muslims were put to one side, non-Muslims to the other.

"All the Muslims were to be killed, except the young girls, including my sister, who was abducted and taken away," Zahir said.

Max Zahir's book, 1947 A Memoir of Indian Independence, recounts his experience as a child during the conflict. (Friesen Press)

Zahir and the rest of his family were rescued at the last moment, he said, when one of his schoolteachers who was Hindu recognized the 10-year-old boy.

"He said to me: 'Well, I know your dad and your dad is a doctor. He is a good man,'" Zahir said. "I'm going to try and save you, so why don't you let me say that I know you and you are Hindu, so you should be spared.' So that's how we escaped, but I lost my sister."

Zahir made it to Pakistan with his family but was never reunited with his sister. They searched for her but to the best of their knowledge, Zahir said, she was killed.

Years later, Zahir went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship to study medicine and eventually settled in Kamloops as a doctor.

Zahir is giving a talk about the historical events and his thoughts on them at the library in Kamloops on Wednesday, Oct. 11, starting at 7 p.m to mark the 70th anniversary of partition.

With files from Daybreak Kamloops.