My Father

My Father

I was born in Jaranwala on May 21, 1931. My father was in jail at that time. Earlier in the year he was participating in a peaceful, very mild, and harmless procession that was marching through that small town. People were carrying the tricolor Congress party flag and shouting slogans asking the British to go home and to leave India free. This kind of activities had begun several years earlier in other parts of India and had just begun in this area. The police arrived at some point and asked the people to disperse. Those who didn’t were arrested, later produced in court, and sentenced to jail terms of various lengths. My father at that time got one year. I have heard that this was his second and last visit to jail.

About 7-8 years later, as a small boy, I remember witnessing a similar scene. Its image is so well etched in my memory that I can quite vividly recall it to this day. There were about 100 people in the procession walking through the town’s main street. Most of them were young men belonging to shopkeeper families of different religions. There were Hindu, Sikh and Muslims and all of them looked quite serious about what they were doing. The long 3-4 abreast column of people began to spread into a circle at the end of the street where several policemen, some on horseback, were standing in the middle of the road.

They were shouting orders; ‘disperse, go home, you are breaking the law.’ The officer in charge of the police contingent was British. He had come from the District station. People ignored the orders and stayed put. Orders were shouted again and yet again. No one moved. Then the British officer rode forward and facing the crowd said in his highly accented Hindi: “Since you are not obeying I am asking one of the policemen to draw a line across the road. Those who dare to defy the law by crossing the line will be arrested.”

The police gave several minutes to the people to make up their minds. Fifteen to twenty men defiantly crossed the line. One of them was uncle Dewan Chand, my grandfather’s brother’s son. They were handcuffed and marched to the nearest police station. There they were locked up. We were not allowed to visit them. We learned that they would be produced before a judge in a court in Lyallpur in a week’s time. Later the exact date of the trial was announced. I went there with my older cousins and some of their friends. After waiting for some time we saw several handcuffed men being taken out of a court room. Among them was uncle Dewan Chand. He signed to us with two raised fingers and shouted with gleeful enthusiasm saying, ‘I got just two years in jail.’

I was very impressed thinking how brave he was. This experience added a big chunk to my knowledge and understanding of the world around me. Since then what I read and learned in school about British rule and our struggle for Freedom was real and highly meaningful.

Uncle Dewan Chand’s father Harnam Das lived in Lyallpur with his oldest son’s family. He was a congress party leader and very active in local politics. I met him many times and remember him clad in his beautiful handspun and hand woven clothes including his large turban. It was our elder Harnam Das who inspired my father and others to get involved in the Freedom struggle.

July 18, 2009

My Mother (3)

My Mother (3)

Maa was married at age 15 into a joint family in Daska. My father was about 17. It was not a large family but big enough to provide most joys and glitches of a typical joint household. My father had six sisters and one brother. All were older except one sister. I am not sure, but from what I have heard, most of the older girls were married and had gone to their new families.

My father had already started the process of setting up a business at Jaranwala. It was in an area where after the First World War the British cleared the scrub and built a massive network of canals. Having remained fallow for several centuries the land was quite fertile. It was allotted as a reward to the Indian soldiers who had served in Europe. The majority was Sikh but there were also some Hindus and Muslims ex-military men.

Soon after marriage my parents moved to Jaranwala. My father’s youngest sister who was still unmarried went with them. She was exceptionally pretty and fun loving. As she came of age, boys were madly attracted to her. My mother tried to keep watch over her but the young lady was too clever. My father often heard complaints mainly through a close relative living nearby. My mother’s vigilance over her turned stricter than before but the inevitable happened. Cleaning and fixing everything up was messy. My father’s wrath found vent on my mother’s back. In fact my gentle mother suffered enormously on account of that beautiful, unruly teenager.

After several years of toil my father’s shop began to earn good profit. My grandfather and blind grandmother died in Daska. Father’s elder brother and his family locked up our ancestral home there and came over to Jaranwala. For a short period there was peace, but then my aunt died leaving 3 young children. Our weak, diabetic uncle married an attractive young sister-in-law. With her came a pack of troubles in the family. A variety of intrigues were hatched. Dubious relationships with friends in town began to surface. My aunt began to have children in quick succession. My mother too gave birth to a boy and a girl but both of them died. After that my three sisters and I came along and lived.

Clash between my mother and aunt intensified. My father often took it out on my meek innocent mother. Troubles in the family increased to an intolerable level for my father and he began to contemplate migrating to a new thriving port city called Karachi. In the late1920’s independence struggle intensified. My father got deeply involved and spent several periods in jail. When I was born in 1931 my father was in

My father’s absence from home made my mother’s life much harder. Although my father was harsh on my mother his presence put a check on all members of the family and as a result there was less fighting. There were several reasons; my uncle was weak, my father was family’s breadwinner, and he was a strict disciplinarian.

Slowly but steadily the conflict level in the family rose to fever pitch. My father went to Karachi to explore business opportunities and within a year (1936) returned to take us there. I was about 5 years old. We lived there till 1947 when the country was divided.

My mother lived in Karachi for about 10 years and this was the best part of her life. She ran the household with love and great skill. The whole family thrived in her care. All my sisters were healthy and we did very well in school and in other activities. She watched over us with an eagle eye but remained unobtrusive as a mouse. I do not remember her stopping me from going with friends to play even when I was quite young. At as early an age as 7 I started regularly to go to an exercise and wrestling place every morning. My mother gave me money to buy a small block of butter from a dairy so I could eat it to build up my strength. I went to far off places for picnics and on expedition. Once, when I was in my 8th year, I used to go to a steep waterfront in the harbor area with other boys to learn to swim. For a time nobody in the family knew of this clandestine activity of mine but later they suspected it. By then I had learned to swim and demonstrated my skill to all my family when we went there on a Sunday evening. I was a strong swimmer and could dive from a high bridge. My mother and sisters were thrilled. My father heard and said nothing.

By her quiet but keenly watchful attitude my mother communicated her deep love and full confidence in my ability and sense of judgment. I was her only son amid three daughters. Hence in our patrilineal tradition my value as the male and carrier of the family name was unquestioned. Everyone recognized this and even I fully understood it. Yet my mother boldly gave me the freedom that most others in those circumstances would not have given. This gave me tremendous self-confidence. I excelled in studies, sports, and in many outdoor activities. Every Sunday evening with my parents’ permission I used to go with three other friends to eat at a restaurant. We went to a new place every time and paid from our own pocket money. Some years later my parents allowed me to go alone on a 1200-kilometer train journey.

When WWII started in 1939 imported hardware items became expensive and scarce. My father use to send them by post parcels to his customers in U. P. Every evening he stitched them up and made them ready for mailing. After returning from school I used to take them to the post office on my bicycle. Sometimes I made several trips because the loads were heavy. My father paid me 25 paise for each parcel. Some days I earned 2 whole Rupees that in those days was big money especially for a child. It made me about the richest kid in my class! My mother trusted me with the money and never asked my father not to spoil me with that much money.

When I was about 13 she took me as male escort to visit her brothers and parents in the city of Sialkot in Punjab. They had fallen to rock low time and the older of mother’s two brothers had TB. She took an Ayurvedic doctor with her. He was a confident young doctor and an uncle. His mother had died soon after his birth and my mother raised him. So he regarded my mother as his own. When we went to seek his help he came with us instantly without hesitation. After thoroughly examined the TB patient, he prescribed medicines according to his light. In his opinion recovery would take about a month and he sounded quite sure of it.

We returned to Karachi and bad news followed us. Mother’s younger brother, terribly depressed by the family’s miserable condition, committed suicide. A couple of weeks later the older one also died. The family was ruined; no earning member, two old parents, two infant boys and their young mother. Luckily some close relatives organized adequate help for the family to carry on.

All this crushed my mother. She did not talk much but her suffering was obvious. She was not eating properly and her movements were much slower. My older sisters were married and had gone to their new families. My father, younger sister and I were at home.

Maa complained of something clutching and pulling her heart and giving her terrible pain. Much worse than pain it was a sinking sensation that smotherd her. This syndrome was recurrent. It came and went and in between my mother dreaded its return. She suffered it for months mainly to continue to live for our sake.

A couple of times I heard her mumble (who will look after my Partap?). Childishly unaware of the meaning of her utterance, I tried to reassure her. Why do you worry Maa? You will soon be well and live long to raise me to manhood.

But the spasms were not abating. They were coming with menacing regularity. My mother kept bearing them bravely within herself. They were so complex, so wrenching, so severe that she was not able to describe them. My mother knew suffering for she suffered a great deal, but this was something else altogether. Heart attack is nothing compared to what she was feeling. Sometimes she said, ‘it feels as if someone is physically pulling my heart out of my body.’

One early morning when all of us were sleeping a massive attack of heart wrenching came upon my mother. It must have been totally unbearable. She released her body from our third floor balcony and dropped to the ground below with a thud. Life instantly slid out of the mangled corpse. We, and the whole neighborhood were stunned. They assembled, quickly wrapped up what was left, and proceeded to the crematorium in a procession.

A ton of ice hit me and traumatized my mind but I soon recovered. Mother was all over me and filled my entire body. ‘How would mother want me to act at such a testing time?’ I thought. I stopped crying and lifting myself up thinking I must be brave, strong, and able to help. Mother will be watching from the far. It would disappoint her if I cower and bend down. Suffering of my father and sister will increase.

I did not cry a single tear after that, and never again, not for my mother. For she was with me all the time for many years, even closer than when she lived in that body from where I came. I am thankful for holding on to some of what she shared with me. Her memory I shall treasure till my last breath.

11 July 2009