September 28 this year marks the 100th birth anniversary of my grandfather. My maternal grandfather — Sardar Sher Singh (1912-1994) — was not a famous man, not known to many people outside the circle of his family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours, but in this small group he was universally liked. For my part, like his five other grandchildren, I adored him. A few months ago my mother and aunts began considering how they might observe his birth centenary, and for the first time in our family he seemed to recede outside the embrace of our memory and into the larger canvas of history.
On September 28, 1947, his 35th birthday, Sher Singh found himself, along with his wife and three young daughters, far from his estates on the outskirts of Lahore, and contemplating, like millions of other Punjabis, the complete and irrevocable loss of the life he had known thus far. “We came to India,” my grandmother, Manmohini, never tired of repeating, “with the clothes on our backs, and our children. Everything else was left behind in Pakistan.” By “everything else” she meant a huge country house, a motor car (a red Baby Austin), cotton factories, fields, a town house, servants, workers, cattle and a comfortable niche in the wealthy landed classes of undivided agrarian Punjab.
My mother, who had barely just begun her schooling when Partition sent the family on a one-way journey into the postcolonial future, remembers an ustaani — a female teacher — coming to the house to train the three sisters in writing the Urdu script; she recalls her father putting her on horseback and taking her with him when he went out early each morning to inspect his lands. He led the horse along a canal; everything produced on the estates, from milk to melons, was sent in enormous quantities back to the house, and then out again for redistribution to all tenants and dependents. The vista of fields and canals, the sounds and smells of cows, horses, dogs, hens and other domestic animals, the eggshell mornings with her father — my mother never forgot these things. She has never been back to Lahore again.
They fled in an army truck. They left their 52-roomed house unlocked and gave the keys to their retainers, thinking they would be back in a few days. All their relatives had gone, some at the first intimation of the coming catastrophe in late 1946 and early 1947, others decades earlier, to build up lucrative businesses in the newly-established colonial capital of Delhi. Only my grandfather, presiding peacefully over his tiny realm, far from the city and its rolling war-drums, remained unperturbed and immoveable until literally the very last moment. My grandmother’s brother, a tall hook-nosed pilot in the air force, then still a bachelor, arranged safe passage. The family first drove to the house of rich relatives in a neighbouring town; there my maternal granduncle arrived in a small aircraft of some sort and made arrangements for the onward march.
But passage to what? They were left in a refugee camp in Amritsar for a few days, until local relatives took them in. Who exactly those relatives were I cannot say, but they are not remembered for their generosity or hospitality even 65 years later. The whole family was lodged in a cramped verandah, subsisting on refugee rations that my mother still recalls with a visceral loathing. The heat, the fear, the powdered milk — it was all unbearable. They watched great assemblages of refugees go by, as in a Margaret Bourke-White photograph, only live. There were fistfights, shootouts, an enveloping sense of uncertainty and upheaval.
A miasma of unreality hung over the entire sojourn in Amritsar. A personal servant called Bhanu had accompanied my grandparents; he was dispatched back to Lahore, charged, unaccountably, with retrieving a trunk of silver my grandma had forgotten to bring with her — though of course, in fact, she had brought nothing whatsoever with her. He was never heard from again. Was he killed on the way? Did he convert to Islam and seize his former masters’ property? To this day, the speculation continues.
My grandfather, born into money, was sent to college but never finished his degree, preferring to build his own house and take his beautiful young wife with him to live there. But my grandmother, the daughter of an urbane and Anglicized judge, had studied some medicine, specializing in obstetrics and gynaecology. She used her education as an escape from her unkind stepmother, until she was married and had to accompany her husband out of the city that she loved, into the countryside. She raised three girls, but also served as the unofficial doctor to all the villagers in her husband’s charge, especially helping pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children. After Partition, my grandparents suddenly found that my grandmother was the only one of the two who could be employed by the newly-formed government of India.
Her appointments as a lady health visitor took the family first to the small village of Nurpur in the Kangra foothills. A few years ago I drove out there with my aunts and a cousin, and we wandered about trying to talk to local people, looking at buildings that seemed or did not seem familiar to the elders in our group. The place looked like it might be unchanged in decades. I did not know at the time that Nurpur and its environs have some beautiful forts and were the seat of an important tradition of Pahari miniature painting in the 17th and 18th centuries. We visited some shops, a school, a municipal office, all tiny and sleepy.
Even as a teenager I strained to imagine my Sikh grandparents in their youth, stranded in this mountainous wilderness, so far from the sophistications of pre- Independence Lahore and learning to cope with the reality that my grandmother, with her official position and government accommodation allotted to her, now wore the pants in the family. Her successful delivery of a child for the raja’s wife brought welcome gifts to the struggling household. None of the five could speak or write Hindi. My grandma went about addressing this lack with a vengeance, so her daughters, at least, felt at home in their new country. My mother remembers January 30, 1948, when Gandhi was shot dead. The news came over the radio and her parents left their food untouched on their plates, sitting in glum silence for the remainder of that awful day.
Some months later, my grandma was posted in Delhi, and there the family settled down. Gradually they became thoroughly middle-class. My grandfather too found a job in the government — he was appointed an inspector in the food ministry — and the children were admitted to public schools. More powerful and well-connected members of the extended family, which included at one time an air chief marshal, the governor of a southern state, a famous builder and philanthropist who made most of Lutyens’ Delhi, a comptroller and auditor general, the owner of a large and well-known bicycle company, and numerous others who did not find themselves quite as shocked or up-ended by history as my own grandparents, tried to help as best they could. My grandfather had to take the assistance and chafed against it as well. From what I can reconstruct, it took him years to accept his changed circumstances, although whatever his emotional and psychological struggles, and whatever the adjustments and sacrifices made by the young couple, they kept their children out of it. The message, apparently unconfused and almost miraculously consistent, was: get up, and get on with it.
By the time I began to go to school in Delhi, soon after the Emergency, my grandpa was already retired, white-bearded and teddy-bearish, a taker of long walks with his walking stick and an unfailing supplier (to me, anyway) of circular chocolates covered in gold paper to look like large coins. He quoted verses from the Guru Granth Sahib at length; the most important moral and pedagogical points were conveyed in the voice of Baba Nanak. Sometimes though, he channelled more earthly authorities. If I chattered too much on our walks in the Deer Park, he would say, “Talk less, work more! — Indira Gandhi says so.” Other times, if I seemed reluctant about homework, he would mutter, in an ominous voice, “Children who don’t do their sums get sent to jail by Indira Gandhi!” I didn’t take his admonitions very seriously, which made my grandmother step in with a correction: “My father,” she said, “who was a judge” (in case we had forgotten this momentous fact) “used to say: you might die studying, but you cannot stop studying! If I hadn’t listened to him, where would we be today?” Her logic was irrefutable. Accordingly, I spent the next 24 years in school, college and university, proving myself to be over-zealous, even by the family’s somewhat maniacal standards.
In late September 1994, when my grandfather was 82, I was going to Oxford. He died a month after I left for England. One of my first and fastest friends at Exeter College was a shy, bespectacled Pakistani boy studying the law; he played cricket, missed his mother every single day, wrote letters in long-hand to his beautiful fiancée (who was also his cousin) back home, worked hard at his books, and ate a doner kebab from the cart in front of Balliol with me every night, long after the inedible English dinner we were served in hall.
“I’m from Lahore,” the good Uzair Karamat Bhandari said, shaking my hand when we were introduced in Rhodes House, wearing absurd black and white clothes, like a flock of postcolonial penguins. “And you? You look like you might be from Lahore.”