Second World War was at its peak in 1942. German forces had spread over Europe and they were beginning to overflow eastward. There was fear of their coming also to India, and if they did, Karachi would most likely be their port of entry. The American military buildup in Karachi was huge. We children were exited to see American soldiers all over the city, massive army traffic on the roads, new planes off loaded from ships and pulled behind trucks on the main road in the center of the city.
The government issued an advisory to the citizens to send women and children to their native villages so that evacuation of the city would be easier if it became necessary. I was eleven years old and in sixth class. We had two options; either to go to Jaranwala where my father’s brother’s family lived, or Daska further east, where we had our ancestral home that had been locked up for several years. But Daska was safe for us, for we had many relatives living in town. My mother chose Daska mainly to avoid conflicts with the sister-in-law in Jaranwala.
My father brought us to Daska. I think it was October or November 1942. The house was ample and well built. We got it thoroughly cleaned and whitewashed. The hand-pump fitted on top of a well was our water supply source. It was repaired and put in perfect working order. My father bought three beds, sheets, quilts, utensils and enough wheat to last till April 1943 when the new crop was expected. A couple of uncles provided all the help my father needed. When we were comfortably settled, my father went back to his business in Karachi. Our closest neighbor, uncle Darbarilal, was to be our guardian. He was very wise and took good care of us.
Two days after my father left, uncle Darbarilal took me to the Scotch Mission High School. We went to the Headmaster’s office and were warmly welcomed. He looked at me in my smart city clothes for a long moment, scanned my impressive grade sheet, and my self-confident demeanor. He was pleased and judged me quite favorably. He asked me a few simple questions; why I had left Karachi, did we have relatives in Daska and so forth. He later told me that he was impressed with my answers. He wrote a little note of approval and sent us to the school office for admission. I was told to start attending classes from the following day.
My three sisters were also admitted in the local girls’ school and found it quite similar to the one they had attended in Karachi. They too were found far above average and admitted without question.
Here are some of the things I remember. The first good friend I made was a Christian boy named Barkat Masih. He was my age but bigger and stronger. Within a few days uncle Darbarilal heard of this and we had a talk. He wanted to find out why I had chosen him over so many others of our own religion and caste. I told him it was mainly chance, but also because of his many good qualities. He approved my choice but warned me not to let him entice me toward conversion. I found this fear in all the Hindu boys and I too later acquired a bit of it. We used to have a Bible class thrice a week. The teacher judged me to be his best student.
I slowly learned through the tacit grapevine that the Missionary might come to know this and try to entice me with scholarship and other benefits to convert. This made me suspicious and in my next Bible exam I deliberately turned in my answer sheet with a joke on Jesus saying, “Jesus went to his maternal grandfather’s home and his cousins and uncles found him very weak in Bible Studies.” I was fearful but relieved to find that my teacher did not reprehend me for this.
My English language teacher Riaz Masih was very fond of me and often invited me to his house. One summer afternoon he took me to the swimming pool in the Missionary’s compound. The pool had been freshly filled and the Scotsman came out from his bungalow to be the first to use it. I was repelled by this discriminatory behavior and resolved never to act like that. This experience also planted in me an interest in the freedom struggle that was gaining strength in those days.
The school was good, and it treated me with respect. I made many friends. With some of them I played many mischief. There was an orange grove in the back of the missionary’s house. Late evenings at twilight time some of my friends and I used to steal oranges. With their help I used to jump over the wall, pluck fruit and throw it to the others over the wall. I also hid some near a drainpipe. We would retrieve them the following day at recess time by putting our arm through the pipe. We played much other such mischief.
I remember another interesting event. Just about a week after our arrival in town I was returning home one day with some local boys. There was a fish vendor selling fried fish on a cart. Some boys asked me if I ate fish. I said yes. They were surprised and offered to buy some if I would eat it. I agreed and ate a large piece of fish. I could sense some kind of mischief in the air, but I had no idea. By next morning every one of our relatives and many other Hindu vegetarians had heard what this new boy from Karachi had done. My uncle Darbarilal came to our house, told my mother what I had done and rebuked me quite severely. I realized that all of my relatives were strict vegetarians. My behavior provided them one of the juiciest of gossips.
One day a couple of friends and I went for a walk in the afternoon. We were walking on a mud road that was under construction. A couple of barrels of bitumen were standing on the side of the road. One boy twisted the cap of the barrel. Being loose it opened. He thought of a very naughty idea of toppling the barrel to spill its contents. We thought and approved of the idea because it would mean a loss to the British Government. This appeared to all of us as a patriotic deed and by using our combined force we toppled one of the drums on its side. The bitumen began to spill. We became scared of getting caught. But we were careful enough not to run, for that would attract attention. We walked away at our fastest pace and never told anybody. This is the first time!
The lane in which we lived was about 5 feet wide and part of a network of lanes. Yet buffalos, donkeys with big bags of wheat on their backs, occasionally a loaded camel, and other traffic came and went. I do not remember feeling cloistered. Our house was at one of the dead end of one of the lanes in the labyrinth. Our neighbors were so near we could hand things out to them through our windows. Also we could hear conversations, especially when the pitch of the voice was high. I vividly remember hearing voices out of one of neighbors. They were middle aged and had only one 8 or 9 year old son named Rishi. The wife shouted orders at her husband in loud shrill voice asking him to fetch something, go buy vegetables, bring a bucket of water, clean the front porch, etc. The local custom was that a wife would not call husband by his name. So our neighbor used to call him ‘Oh, father of Rishi.’ People overhearing derived a lot of mirth. The strong dominating woman and the meek husband provided a lot of juicy gossip in the neighbors.
Most houses had dry latrines, but only for emergency purpose. Open fields were very near. All men and women went out to relieve themselves in the fields. Their allotted sections were clearly demarcated by tradition and everyone knew where they were supposed to go. The farmers appreciated the manure their soil received. The effect was easy to see from the healthy and heavy crops in the fields adjoining the town. Some people went out both morning and evening. Women usually went out in groups partly for company and also for safety.
For men toilet was not the only reason for going out in the morning. They went out far distances for the exercise and also to enjoy company of friends. They discussed politics, gossiped, and exchanged jokes and stories.
Young men usually went very early in the morning to small gymnasia where they wrestled and/or did a variety of other physical exercises. There was always an open well with a hand operated Persian wheel where men took a bath before returning home. I remember I went to one of them. Thirty to thirty-five people came every morning. Most of them were very strong and healthy. I of course was one of the youngest, but we were noticed, praised and encouraged to come regularly. The men belonged to different religions and occupations. I can still recall farmers and laborers were the strongest. We ‘city slickers’ and traders’ sons were not so strong, except of course there were some exceptions.
There was a lot of art and poetry in this little town. Art objects were put out to show occasionally especially in seasonal fairs or festivals. In the evening gatherings were organized for entertainment. Sometimes the performers such as storytellers, singers, puppeteers, and others came from nearby towns or villages. Often local artists joined the occasion and performed.
Daska was famous for such activities. We were very proud that Muhammad Iqbal one of India’s ablest poet-philosophers was a native of Daska.
We children were not allowed to go to evening meets of poets because of their late hours. But the next day the grape wine brought us some of the good poems from the people who had been there. I can still recall lines of a fiery anti-British poem in which the poet urged Hitler to drop an extra bomb on Buckingham palace in his name when he next sent his bomber planes to raid Britain.
The love I acquired for small town and village life, interest in plants and animals I imbibed, good healthy habits of early rising and daily exercise that I learned have thankfully stayed with me throughout my life. They have in fact guided me in making many important decisions.
In our family my mother enjoyed the Daska experience the most. These were in fact the best two years of her life. She had many good friends in the neighborhood and other parts of town. There were relatives everywhere and on social occasions and festivals people exchanged gifts and visited each other. A marriage would entail ceremonies, feasts, or distribution of food or other gifts for two weeks or more. Similarly births and deaths brought people together for sharing of grief or happiness. In all these, women took more active part.
They had plenty of time for social activities. My mother for example had organized her daily housework very efficiently. My sisters and I helped as much as we could. Mother woke up at about 4:30am and started house work soon after. She would take out some wheat or other grain from the store and grind it on a hand flourmill. After that she churned the curd to make butter and buttermilk. At about daybreak she would go to the field with some neighbors. We children would wake up while mother was gone out and start the morning chores of folding and putting away the beddings, cleaning teeth and washing.
Breakfast was standard, consisting of chapattis left over from the previous evening, some butter, salt, and buttermilk. On weekends and festivals mother cooked special foods. All of us would go to our schools. Mother swept the house, bathed, set some vegetable or lentils to cook on our simple homemade slow cooker. For lunch mother would bake chapattis in a mud oven (tandoor). My mother had joined a pool with three or four other neighboring families. They would heat their tandoor by turn and all would bring their dough to bake the bread. The children returned home for lunch. The school was over by 3:00pm and mother would give us a homemade hot or cold drink according to season and something to munch. Often it was some grain like corn, chickpea, or rice freshly parched or puffed. We children took the grain to the parching lady nearby home. Often we ate raw seasonal vegetables like carrots, radishes, cucumber, and may others. Sometimes we had homemade or bazaar bought sweets. For dinner mother made tandoor chapattis in summer and pan rotis in winter that we ate in the warm kitchen sitting near the stove. I vividly remember how satisfying this whole daily routine was. The food was always delicious, nutritious, and totally satisfying. We knew that all rich and poor people in town ate more or less this food. Some of the helpers like the sweeper, the priest, and one or two others came every morning to take their share of the food my mother cooked. It was given happily and with respect. My mother also fed birds and street dogs and cats, and often a cow.
Mother had the whole afternoon free. She used to join a group of women who spun cotton yarn. They enjoyed this because it was also their time to tell jokes, gossip, exchange ideas. They often set up a speed contest to see who spun the fastest. Each would take an equal number of slivers and count the remaining when the spinning session was over. My mother was quite a skilled spinner of very good quality yearn. She spun enough during our stay in Daska to have sheets, blankets, and shirting material woven at the local weaver to last us for many years. She took some of it with her to Karachi when we returned there after the war.
The relationships we established in Daska were so close and friendly that we visited with these people over the years after all of us were spread out, especially after the partition of India in 1947. Uncle Darbarilal and his wife my aunt Roop Kaur settled in a town called Batala in Punjab. We always visited them when we went to that area. This uncle remained one of my wisest councils right till he died at a ripe old age of 86.
It has been nearly 64 years but I have always remembered our stay in Daska with very warm nostalgia. The sense of security, deep friendliness, a sense of belonging and warmth that I experienced is unique in my experience. We met and befriended very kind and loving people everywhere in India and America, but the close community life of Daska continues to stand out as unique.
January 16, 2008