Wednesday, 24 April 2013

My Family and Other.....

“.....And your cousins, and your aunts. Especially your cousins, whom you reckon up by dozens and your aunts”[i]

 Over the years, over countless cups of tea, I have often pondered over the history of my father’s family who came to India from Pakistan. I have been curious about how much this has influenced mine and it was in November 2012, when I went to Bombay, sorry Mumbai, for my cousin Nanna’s[ii]daughter, Namrata’s wedding that I reflected upon their personal history, culture and more. There was a lot of dancing during the three-day festivities that I attended but, recovering from a sprained ankle of the left foot and a broken toe on my right foot, I was an observer, taking photographs instead. Actually, dancing is not my thing so I was quite happy clicking pictures of everyone else dressed in their finery, jiving to disco beats and peppy Hindi film songs.

Through this rather more reflective stance, I realised that not only was there a lot of food, loud music and dancing but that one needed a large family to celebrate a wedding in this style. My father was one of eight siblings - three sisters and five brothers. Three[iii] have passed on and the rest are in their 80s and 90s. Each had two or three children, except for my eldest bhua[iv] who had five daughters and a son. Most of my cousins have married and have children from young teenagers to those who have children of their own or, are on the threshold of marriage. So, there were lots of people around to participate in this big fat Punjabi wedding. 

The ceremonies commenced with a Puja in Aunty Gyan’s home on Pedder Road. She is my father’s sister, a little older than him, and Nanna’s mother, which makes her Namrata’s naani[v]. She was widowed when Nanna was just ten and has maintained a keen interest in religion and spirituality.  
There was some partying that evening and the next, but I reached Mumbai on the day of the Sagai[vi], which was followed by a Sangeet[vii] hosted by the Chaddhas - Ankesh’s family [boy’s side] at the Taj Hotel on Land’s End in Bandra. After settling into Rohini’s home and meeting her children and my nephew Vivek [Meenal’s son], whom I had not seen in years, I dressed and went for the boy’s Sangeet. It was wonderful to see familiar faces, meet aging aunts and uncles still game for the hulchul[viii] of a large family wedding. Jugnu [Preminda] and Coco [Brinda] live in the US and their brother Mickey [Pankaj Prem Nath] and his wife Ramal are doctors in the UK. Their parents live in a Railway colony in Gurgaon as their father, Prem Uncle, had worked in and retired from the Indian Railways. 

My father is no longer alive. He died of cancer in 1989, but I recollect him recounting that Prem Uncle, who is his older brother, was slated to go to the UK to study chartered accountancy. His berth on the ship had been booked and the course fees paid, when he decided to join the Indian Army and my grandfather instructed my father to do the course instead. It was a strange story which stayed in my head. I have always pursued ideas that I wanted and cannot imagine what it must have been like to opt for a life-long career like this. But my father did and was successful as a financial man, even though his life was almost three decades shorter than most of his siblings’.  
Papa was born in 1922 in Montgomery, which Prem Uncle says is a town on the railway line from Lahore to Karachi, about a hundred miles from Multan. [I guess for a railway man everything is in relation to the railway lines].  Prem Uncle was born there too. The family roots were in the fortress town of Multan but Pitaji, my grandfather, was transferred every three years, so not all of his eight children were born in Multan but, they would return to their ancestral home once a year. Pitaji, Rai Bahadur Gyanshyam Das[ix] [Matreja[x]] was a civil judge. He would stay with us in Delhi sometimes and I remember him as a stern man who spoke little and always wore a solar topi[xi] when he went out. He had retired from active service when he migrated with his family to India in 1947. His surviving younger brother stayed on in Pakistan. No-one knows what became of him because relations were strained and he had no children. Prem Uncle recounted that he had married a Muslim and converted to Islam, then left his wife and reverted back to Hinduism.
Prem Uncle chose to join the Indian Army rather than pursue a career in accountancy because civilian jobs were hard to come by then. He later joined the Indian Railways. During partition, being a Major in the Indian army, he was able to travel to Multan in that highly tense phase and on 13th August 1947, he escorted my grandmother, Mataji, and his youngest sister Shallo, to Mumbai. Vishu Uncle, my father’s eldest brother, had recently returned from studying in Cambridge and was working in Bombay so Mataji went to stay with him. Pitaji was still in Pakistan and Dindi Uncle[xii] with him. Pitaji had been appointed a custodian of Hindu property and to oversee safe evacuation of Hindus from Pakistan so he flew to Bombay just before Partition. There were limited seats on the flight so he put Dindi Uncle on a train from Multan to Lahore - a traumatic journey he was fortunate to have survived. From Lahore he then travelled on a safe train. under government supervision, to Ambala where Prem Uncle was posted. He later joined the rest of the family in Bombay where most of my father’s family have since settled. My two sisters and I were also born in Bombay, but our family later moved to Calcutta and eventually settled in Delhi. 

My father and three of his brothers had left Multan before August 1947 and Gyan Aunty was already married and settled in Bombay. His parents and two younger siblings came to India just before Partition but his eldest sister and husband with five children, one a babe in arms, made the journey from Jhung [100 miles North of Multan] in November 1947. Prem Uncle travelled by bus from Ambala to meet them in Amritsar and counted 18-20 dead bodies for every mile - Muslims slain by Hindus and Sikhs. He recounted one Sikh waving a bloodied sword, shouting out loud: chuha nussriya si, maar ditta [xiii].

Urvashi Butalia in her research interviews[xiv] has spoken of the brutal atrocities that came to pass where daughters and mothers were drowned or burned alive, ostensibly to protect them and one has read of violence that was perpetrated at this time but, to hear it from family members who saw and survived it, sends shivers down my spine. 

In my family, Partition and life in Pakistan is not much spoken of and if the siblings had spoken amongst themselves in Multani, I wouldn’t have understood. This whole episode only came to light in early 1980s. I was a student in London and there was a revival of interest in all things Indian, especially the British Raj. Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi was screened and Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown televised, which led to my own exploration of this era. On a visit home to Delhi, I questioned my father and was told of the evacuation duties and Dindi Uncle’s train journey from Multan.
At an earlier wedding three years ago, I had stayed with Dindi Uncle and Shanta Aunty in their apartment on Altamount Road and gingerly broached the subject. Then, Dindi Uncle revealed something I cannot get out of my mind: as a teenager of seventeen years he travelled alone and the single most important thing for him on that journey, from Multan to Lahore, had been to find a safe place to hide, inside trunks or some such, during the night, fearing for his life.  The mood was savage and each night people were massacred on trains crossing over to India and Pakistan. These are things one has heard and read and since Punjab was divided, it’s obvious my family from Multan would have been affected but, they never really shared much of this experience.   

Psychiatrist that are studying the consequences of  events surrounding Partition  say that, “regardless of the books written and films made about Partition, to a great degree Indians and Pakistanis have never worked through this monumental guilt, nor the other complex, concurrent   emotions. Rather, we continue to love and hate each other through petty sibling rivalry and dangerous wars.”[xv] 

I do believe such experiences must have affected the emotional and psychological landscape of individuals who underwent them, regardless of the degree of trauma. And, unresolved issues and emotions do tend to get passed on, directly and indirectly, to subsequent generations so I wanted to record a full-fledged interview with Dindi Uncle but he never got around to answering my written questions. His other siblings have also been reluctant to speak much and whatever information I have, has been prised through various informal conversations.
Dindi[xvi] Uncle is my father’s youngest sibling and has always been the live-wire of our family. When my elder sister Bunty got married in 1978, he began the tradition of dancing at family weddings with a glass full of Scotch Whiskey on his head. This time too, at 81 years of age, a year after suffering a stroke, he tried doing the same again.

The best part of the wedding festivities for me was to see the dress parade. The backs, or rather lack of them, of the lehenga-choli’s[xvii] and saree blouses were daring to say the least. My younger sister, Deepika, was here from Princeton, and carried off this spectacular chooridar[xviii] outfit where the kurta[xix] was virtually backless. Priyanka, Meenal [Nanna’s elder sister] and Nanna too, wore blouses that were exceptionally revealing. Each outfit the bride wore for the functions was more ostentatious than the last. At the Mehndi[xx] ceremony, bejewelled and dressed in a bright orange, elaborately embroidered lehenga, her hands and arms covered with henna, Nammu reclined on saffron and pink cushions placed on a stage, against the backdrop of a glass wall with water cascading behind it. The scene was definitely filmi[xxi] with an air of royalty about it. Her mother jokingly claimed that Nammu had even asked her friends to press her legs as she reclined on the cushions. 
Punjabis like to eat, drink and be merry and are generous hosts. My mother once narrated an incident when newly married; she had been reprimanded by Mataji for not being hospitable enough, because in her new family it was considered impolite for guests to eat unless you asked at least five times! On another occasion, a Punjabi friend married into a Bengali family, was bored at a recent family wedding in Kolkata so started singing Punjabi tappas[xxii]  with her daughter, which inspired their Bengali brethren to dance, uncharacteristically, on the streets, till the wee hours of the morning. My sisters and many cousins are NRI’s[xxiii] but game to travel and attend all, if not most, family weddings. As I write, Meenal’s daughter Priyanka just got married in Thailand and most that were at Nammu’s wedding were jiving to desi beats at the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok, just few months later.

There was a lot of preparation that went into the festivities for Namrata’s wedding. Nanna had even organised a professional choreographer to train her various cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews and children to dance to various Bollywood numbers for the Mehndi and Sangeet. As mother of the bride she did the honours with current hit song ‘Ooh La La La’, from Vidya Balan starrer ‘The Dirty Picture’, to loud hooting and cat calls from the rest of us. I recollect that when my cousins and sister married in the 1970’s, there was no such fanfare. Usually family members sang at weddings, led by some aunt or other. A dholki[xxiv]  was the only prerequisite and everyone sang and danced as best they could. The standard Punjabi songs like ‘Kala doria or ‘Sooe vacheera’ were popular. These traditional Punjabi wedding songs playfully teased the bride and groom and various relatives were part of the cheda khani[xxv] too. Sangeets then were more intimate and informal. Things had changed a lot. 

Punjabis are known for dikhava – pomp and show. They are emotional people and known to grieve with as much passion as they celebrate and have a tendency to live larger than life.  And when they are merry, they are very, very merry, with no scope for anything but merry making. The music and revelry is so catching that no-one comes away from a Punjabi wedding feeling anything but merry. 

As a photographer-observer of this wedding, while editing the photos I relived the revelry and meeting of aged relatives. I noted the lines that etched their faces with memory and experiences and wondered how they had not seemed to let these get in the way. Each was apparently successful in his/her chosen endeavour. Everything had been left behind in Pakistan and whatever moveable’s Pitaji had entrusted to an aide of Prem Uncle’s, to bring to India, had been looted en route, so all they had to rely upon was their education and the meagre belongings they managed to carry with them on that hostile journey.

I realise that what my family underwent was a fraction of what many others experienced. And it’s possible that their personal trauma took a back seat in the face of the national catastrophe that Partition became, but how does anyone put such experiences behind them?  How much of it has been resolved or reconciled with and how much of this lies buried beneath the rigour of getting on with living? Or for that matter how much has been subconsciously passed onto us by omission or commission are questions that keep coming up. But the naach-gaana, band baaja baarat[xxvi] continues. 

“What is history? If you mean ‘personal history’, it is perhaps what one would most like to forget”

                                                                                                                                            Thomas Merton

[i] From HMS Pinafore – Gilbert and Sullivan
[ii] Vinita
[iii] My father, his eldest sibling Shiela Aunty and his eldest brother Vishu uncle
[iv] Father’s sister
[v] Maternal grandmother
[vi] engagement
[vii] Song and dance event
[viii] Goings-on
[ix] Born 1884
[x] Sub-caste of Khsatriya
[xi] hat
[xii] Father’s youngest brother
[xiii] The mouse was scuttling away, I killed him!
[xiv] The Other side of Silence
[xv] The Psychiatrist's Partition - Anirudh K Kala, Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain
[xvi] Devinder Nath
[xvii] Skirt-blouse - gown
[xviii] Tights
[xix] Knee length dress worn over chooridar or shalwar
[xx] Henna
[xxi] Inspired by Hindi/Bollywood films
[xxii] Wedding songs that tease the bride and groom with rhyming verse
[xxiii] Non-resident Indians
[xxiv] drums
[xxv] Playful teasing
[xxvi] Dance, song, band, music, groom pageant
[xxvii] Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander


  1. This reminded me of my personal family history with the partition. All the weddings and other get togethers in family feel like warriors' conventions.Everybody has scars/old wounds and time does not seem to be a great healer after all when it comes to these wounds. Great read as always.

  2. Thank you Maheep for sharing. It would be interesting to hear/read your own history. If you have written something do post a link one can look at.

    Yes, you are right everyone has old wounds and scars and time may not heal but I am interested in how people deal with them and that is what prompted this story - as they say we have very little choice in the matter of what goes on in life - Karmic destiny and all of that and yet we choose how we deal with it. Is there a right way and a wrong? So do share some details of your familiies personal history with partition.

    1. Well its not the "Complete" history but here is something I wrote for that resonates the sentiments of many in my community. Take a look

  3. Well its not the "complete" history but here is something I wrote for that resonates the sentiments of people, specially from my community, who were part of the partition. Take a look


    I have reposted the link coz I couldn't open the other one. Thank you Maheep for this story. It's very evocatively written & highlights how little I know about this whole issue. I think we all should be more articulate about our personal stories re partition coz its people that make up the Punjab that was divided & for any healing to take place between the two countries its stand to reason that the personal issues should also dealt with. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. What an interesting read Gopika. A year ago, I read and reviewed a book by Saaz Agarwal on Sindh. The book was a collection of stories told by many people in her family about their lives in Sindh, a place called Sindh Hyderabad, and their way to India, after the partition.

    On my way back from Kolkata this morning, a gentleman I met, said something, I never thought of before - "The British left two bad things in India, one, the partition, second, English language. These two together, would always divide us."

    The grief people felt over their lost land, culture and tradition to be revived at large gatherings like weddings etc, is a loss. It sits aching in the heart and yet both Punjabis and Sindhis have done very well for themselves in India and worldwide.

    Suffice it to say, that pain passes over generations, the strife and loss are never forgotten, and in my own experience, I remember a friend who said, that whenever she thought of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, although she had never been there, she felt a lump in her throat and tears filled her eyes, because, her father had come to India, a young, even small boy, with his parents leaving his home in Bangladesh, again due to partition. And his pain was in her genes.


    1. Thank you Julia for sharing this. I have never been to Multan either but for some reason I do not feel the same as your friend and maybe it is because the pain my father and his siblings may have felt was never articulated/ shared in a sense that allowed this to permeate my psyche in any conscious way that I could feel it and know why I felt this way etc. There is a sense of loss in terms of history, in terms of not knowing so much and a sense of something missing, but as yet not much beyond that.

      The comment about the British is interesting. However I am not sure that I agree with respect to the English language because look at it from this perspective: it is because of our competence in this language that we are able to compete with the rest of the world in so many ways - literature and the written word not being the least.

      It is a double edged sword no doubt, but the longer I live, the more I wonder what about life is not!

      Thanks for reading and writing in.

  6. A poignant and insightful read.
    It gave me a chance to reminisce my times with the various uncles/aunts/cousins of the Nath family. The pictures of the wedding were great. Thanks for sharing!!

  7. A very interesting read. Thanks!

    As a South Indian, I don't have any family recollections of Partition but I've come across friends, and of course literature that deals with the subject. An elderly Sindhi couple I know in Pune have embedded the family nameplate from their house in Sindh into their compound wall in Pune - in remembrance of things past. The current owner of their erstwhile house in Sindh managed to track them down, saying he was demolishing the house. Did they want anything from it before it was gone? They salvaged the nameplate.

    1. Thank you Savita,

      What an amazing story. I am surprised that they did not take the nameplate with them when they sold the property in the first place.

      Some people it seems have been sentimental about their experience and the displacement caused through partition and some seem to have just shut it out and made a life without much scope for reminiscence.

      Life is both interesting and odd..... never ceases to amaze.