AT midnight tonight, Pakistan and India mark the 70th Anniversary of Independence and Partition, a bitter-sweet commemoration of events that continue to bring both strength and conflict to the region. Eye-witnesses from that time are passing away, but ten years ago I was privileged to interview several. The research was for my novel, A House Called Askival, a story stretching from the 1930s to the new millennium told through an American family whose lives are indelibly marked by some of the key religious clashes in India’s history, including the violence of Partition in 1947. Being brought up in Nepal, India and Pakistan, it was a story I had long wanted to tell, so in 2007 I went back to the hill-station of Mussoorie, where I’d attended school, and listened to a diverse spectrum of people recount what happened when the troubles of Partition spilled over into their quiet town.

In the bazaar, Inam, the tailor said, “Nothing happened” and Mr Goel, the plastics merchant insisted “We were all friends”. But I learned more from Mr Inder Prakash as he sat surrounded by his home-made cheeses, pickles and jams in the family shop that smelled of old damp and new packaging, of history and enterprise. He had lost hair and teeth and vision, but not his memory and told me how the ruin at the bottom of the hill had belonged to a wealthy Muslim family forced to flee. The house had been set on fire and it still stood, charred and empty.

My next visit was to the Reverend Bob Alter, a gracious, white-haired man who, like the family in my book, was part of a multi-generational American missionary clan with several branches still based in India. In his living room, graced with Kashmiri rugs and Moghul art, Bob unfolded his tales with encyclopaedic memory and storytelling gift. He’d been teaching in Mussoorie in 1947 and explained how the problems were not between locals but began when Sikh and Hindu refugees arrived from the plains, embittered by the atrocities their families had suffered and seeking shelter. It triggered reprisals against local Muslims and their mass exodus, with Gurkha soldiers escorting them to safe houses from where they were bussed to their home villages or Pakistan.

A telephone interview with a General Jasbir Singh gave me invaluable information on the role of the Gurkhas and even better was sitting at the feet of the octogenarian Brigadier Yadav as he entertained a room full with his rattling tales from a long and illustrious military career. Tall and distinguished, Hukum Singh Yadav had been in the British Indian Army, ultimately serving as ADC to Lord Mountbatten and marrying one of his English secretaries. The high point — and fitting end — of his service to the British came on the morning of 15th of August 1947 when, at Mountbatten’s request, he raised the Indian flag. In contrast to the brigadier’s front-line exploits were the gentle reminiscences of Miss Edith Garlah, an Anglo-Indian lady in her nineties, thin and delicate as porcelain, with a soft but polished voice. I interviewed her on the verandah of her old colonial bungalow where the trellis was thick with roses, honeysuckle and nostalgia. She had lived there all her life, running it as a school with her family for decades and choosing to remain after Independence, despite the uneasy ground for Anglo-Indians who often found they were ostracised by both British and Indians.

Perhaps she was spared that fate because of the love and respect she had elicited from generations of local pupils, of all backgrounds.

The last of my eye-witnesses was the charismatic Kavi Singh, who cut a striking figure in waistcoat and bristling moustache. As a teenager in the 1940s, he had attended Gandhi’s prayer meeting in Mussoorie and witnessed the local burnings and displacements of Partition. From a liberal Sikh family, he had short hair and a Hindu wife and was a natural raconteur, brimming with anecdotes, jokes and snatches of song, and he not only shared copious stories with me but also commented on a draft. He recounted hearing fleeing Muslims calling out to Allah, then said, “God had his work cut out for him at that time, on both sides of the border. We had really lost our heads and hearts.” It was beside an outdoor fire in Mussoorie, in the presence of stars and giant pines, that Kavi recited the verses from the Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah, that became the opening of my novel.

Tear down the temple, tear down the mosque, tear down whatever you can, but do not tear down the heart, for that is where God lives.

So at midnight tonight I will think of Pakistan and India with love, remembering the price they have paid for Independence and saluting them in their on-going walk to freedom. And I will also remember these elders of Mussoorie, whose stories enriched my own and became a part of my novel and are all the more precious now as the tellers have passed on.

A House Called Askival by Merryn Glover is published by Freight, priced £8.99