Events and Challenges, Life, Random

Roots – Bloganuary 2023

From my misc-pics-box here is a photo from the terrace at my parent’s house in Delhi India. This is the Gurudwara Nanak Piao, amongst the largest ones in Delhi. It is a place of worship in Sikhism and gives me a great sense of peace whenever I visit this place.

Welcome to Bloganuary, a WordPress Challenge I am participating in this month, that provides a daily writing prompt throughout January.

Day 8 prompt is: How far back in your family tree can you go?

When my grandmother died in November 2014, my dad and other members of the family went to Haridwar (a holy city in Northern India) where her ashes were dispersed in River Ganga, as in crude terms this holy river is kind of considered as the gateway to heaven after demise.

What I learnt around that time was that there are priests (Pandas – pronounced Pun-daa) in Haridwar who are not really priests but essentially are genealogists and generational book-keepers maintaining hand-written records of recent births, deaths and marriages in families. The older records were written on leaves of the birch tree and have been transferred to scrolls. Over the years, the custom of visiting Haridwar to update family ledgers is slowly dying. Some have even started digitizing these records so they can be accessed easily.

These records, for my family at least, date back to around 300-400 years. The exact date keeping may not be very accurate, but the names and family trees are meticulously documented in handwritten records. My brother sent me a photo from Haridwar which contained the names of 12 generations before my dad.

My grandfather was the only name I recognized in the list. He was a happy man who lived a long healthy life. Especially in his last few years, he was overjoyed whenever someone lent him an ear, because he loved talking. I remember he used to love telling us folklores and mythological stories when we were children and enjoyed talking about his life stories at a later stage.

He died in 2020 at the age of 95, due to Covid-19. I was in Germany in a strict lockdown and it was nearly impossible to travel to India around that time. Even though my mum and dad were there for his cremation, it was definitely an usual affair due to all the Covid protocols. This was May 2020. On the TV, you could find no hopeful news about potential vaccines but plenty about death and doom. There was massive dread and hype around the deadly disease because a lot was unknown. Handling the mortal remains of someone who had died of Covid was confusing and scary even for the ambulance staff and crematorium authorities. So my parents had to go through a lot of mental agony to arrange for his cremation. But as is usual in the Hindu tradition, they were not allowed to collect my grandfather’s ashes and submerge them in River Ganga. Later when things looked a bit settled during autumn 2020, my parents visited Haridwar, did the ceremonial last rites, and visited the Panda to update the family genealogy records.

A few days after my grandfather’s death, my mom and dad also tested positive for Covid. They had bad symptoms in the beginning which gradually improved in a few weeks, but since both of them are 60+, they got admitted to the hospital as a precaution. That was one of the scariest time for my inter-continental family. My sister in Australia, my brother in USA and myself in Germany were all worried sick about our parent’s well being. We used to video call frequently and were relieved when they were back home in a few weeks.

While my dad was in the hospital recovering from Covid and reflecting on his father’s life, he shared with us long memoirs as a tribute, from which I learnt a lot about my roots.

The large Maini clan lived in erstwhile Punjab province (in undivided India) of what is now Pakistan. They were a big land-owning family with my great-grandfather and his brothers having big chunks of land in a small village near Lahore. My grandfather was born in 1925 when India was still under British rule. Agriculture was the main family vocation. My great-grandfather passed away around 1938 when my grandfather was merely 12 years old. So it was up to my great-grandmother to raise her family (5 sons and 3 daughters). She was a strong willed, dominating personality who insisted on giving the children good education (but my grandfather’s sister used to jokingly lament always that she gave the education to the boys only whereas the sisters remained unlettered).

The village only had a primary school for boys and then later my grandfather had to walk miles to the nearest town for his matriculate education. He completed his BA from the city of Lahore. Along with his education he was also supporting the family agriculture helping his mother.

Now before I continue my story, we take a short history lesson about the partition of India.

While the idea of partitioning India based on religion had been implanted since decades, it was in 1947 that the actual line (Radcliffe Line) to divide the border regions was formulated on a drawing board in Delhi by Cyril Radcliffe. He was a British lawyer who had never ever travelled east of Paris but had the ultimate responsibility to equitably divide around 500,000 km2 of territory with 88 million people. While watching a documentary on the partition of India, I was flabbergasted when I came across the fact that he was given only 5 weeks to complete this massive job in a land he knew nothing of. According to Wikipedia, Radcliffe submitted his partition map on 9 August 1947, which split apart two states of India (Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East) almost in half. The new boundaries were formally announced on 17 August 1947 – three days after Pakistan’s independence and two days after India became independent of the United Kingdom.

The partition caused one of the greatest migrations in history of humankind and saw around 14 million people – roughly seven million from each side – flee across the border when they discovered the new boundaries left them in the “wrong” country. Unfortunately, there was unprecedented violence near the border regions and the loss of life is estimated to be as high as 1-2 million people. Owing to the brutal nature of the partition, an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion developed between India and Pakistan that affects their relationship to this day.

Now coming back to my story.

Just imagine this! On 9th of August this guy submits his border proposal. But at this point no one really knew about the exact whereabouts of this fabricated line dividing fields, rivers, mountains and air that affected the lives and futures of tens of millions of people. The image below shows a map of this particular region in Punjab. My grandfather was 22 at this time and was in 1st year of his law college in Lahore. Along with his family, he was expecting Lahore to be in India. But as it transpired, Lahore happened to be in Pakistan and Amritsar, merely 50 km away, was in India.

Kot Radha Kishan near the city of Lahore was where my grandfather lived with his family before the partition.
The black solid line in centre of the picture shows the International border between India and Pakistan

In the process of writing this post, I realized that around 5 years ago, I specifically interviewed my grandfather about his experiences during the partition times. As I mentioned before, he loved talking, especially when he had someone listening to him. So he started from the very beginning and gave me all the details, sometimes with the exact dates and places. It was super impressive as these were incidents that occurred around 75 years ago and I continued listening with awe. In order to not seem distracted and lend my ears wholly to the conversation, I waited till his story was over to later take notes from the whole conversation. This badly scribbled account is special for me because it’s an important piece of paper about my family’s history and about our refugee roots.

On August 16th, instead of celebrating the first day of waking up in an independent India, my grandfather instantly became a refugee in his own home and started the long journey by foot and then by train, towards his future nation with his entire life in one handbag. On 18th August he reunited with his younger brother, mother and other family members in Amritsar on the Indian side of Punjab, where they camped around at homes of other relatives for a month. This was before live location sharing or mobile phones, so it still amazes me to think how they planned and coordinated the migration. The immediate family thankfully crossed over safely without any loss of life or limb.

My grandfather told me that his family handed some valuables to their Muslim neighbours and buried some in the backyard, hoping to visit and take these back when the situation eases. Of course, this never happened. The only thing they took along with them were some documents and small valuables they could strap on themselves. Wearing the jewelry was not an option because there was also the risk of getting looted during the migration. My grandfather chuckled while narrating this anecdote, telling me that his mother wondered how one silver glass could go missing during the move and blamed one of her other female relatives for this. Jokes apart, with this untimely uprooting they had to leave behind all their wealth, land holding and houses.

This piece of paper also serves as a testament to the fact that my family was one of the lucky ones. They had family on this side of the border and could visit different relatives in the initial days, instead of staying at the refugee camps. More importantly, they safely made it to their final destination while many families were torn apart moving either way across the border. Due to the delayed and unplanned nature of the announcements on partition, there was widespread violence leading to rapes, lootings and murders.

In September 1947, my grandfather arrived in Delhi, where he spent the rest of his life. He first stayed in a transit camp but soon arranged a rented accommodation in old Delhi where his younger brother and mother also joined him later. This house belonged to a Muslim who emigrated to Pakistan and after a few years no one came for rent. It was a struggle to pick up the threads of their new lives in a new India. This reasonably well to do land-owning family was transported from their large houses to living in an old style house with other occupants and shared spaces, starting from scratch. This house in old Delhi was where my father was born in 1955, eight years after independence and partition. I visited it 15 years ago with my dad and it was in a crumbling state.

In due course of time my grandfather took up a job in Delhi Government sometime in 1948 and completed his unfinished Law studies with evening classes in Delhi University along with his job around 1949-50. He got married to my grandmother in 1951 through a match made in known circles. The family was eligible to claim for houses and agricultural land in lieu of those left behind in Pakistan. Since the transfer of population had happened partially, each refugee was allotted only a proportion of their original claim. My grandfather was allotted some land in villages near the border and a flat in Delhi, which he sold off later.

He eventually built a house in Delhi, retired from his government service in the 1980s and was very proud of the fact that he was a self-made man. He was also extremely proud of the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren and never shied away from expressing this to us. Technology was something he was getting used to in the last few years of his life. Even though his family was spread across the world, he knew what was going on in everyone’s lives and would also complain if some of us weren’t active on the family WhatsApp group.

One of our last meetings where he bombarded me with questions about
space and satellites

I may have my fare share of unspoken problems with my grandparents and the way they handled things, but I don’t think it’s in my own best interest to carry on with the anger. I do have wonderful memories of the time I spent with them during my childhood, but sometimes I realize that I don’t have the maturity to let unpleasant bygones be bygones. For my mental well-being it is important for me to learn to let go instead of unnecessarily wasting time and energy on overthinking past events. Hopefully with time I will learn.

Anyway, it’s time to end this long memoir and for that I have the perfect story, which I promise to keep short.

In 2014 my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer which was discovered quite late. She was 87 at that time and chemotherapy wasn’t considered as a viable option as it would have been too hard on her. For the next few months, in addition to offering her a shoulder to lean on as a son, my father also gave her pain killers to relieve her agony as a doctor. She spent her last few days in the hospital. For the initial days she was in the ICU. In a few days however, it became clear to her attending doctors, and to herself, that it was time. To facilitate the goodbyes she was then moved to a private room where she passed away next day surrounded by all of her 5 children and many grandchildren while holding the hand of her husband of 63 years and forever soulmate. I witnessed that in person and to me it was a good death. I know it’s an oxymoron, but think about it. Having the luxury to say goodbye to your loved ones, is not something everyone can afford. Another blessing was that she didn’t have to suffer long-term and was gone within 2-3 months after the first diagnosis.

On the other hand, even at the age of 95, my grandfather’s death came as a bit of a shock to us, because he had no serious illnesses and was walking, talking and healthy till his last day. The last time I met him was in January 2020, a few months before he died. Covid made things complicated and unlike my grandmother, he was all alone when he passed away, as he was in a Covid isolation hospital where my parents weren’t even allowed to enter. So it does make me feel a bit sad for him. The only silver lining I can think of is that his suffering only lasted a few days, so it may qualify as a good death as well. Regarding farewell, somehow on a personal level, the lack of a proper goodbye didn’t really sadden me because things never felt incomplete with him. Even when I was in India till 2020, we only managed to meet twice a year, because I was living and working in another city. I think in the last few years he was especially mindful of the fact that any time we meet could be the last time we meet. So the goodbyes used to be long and heartfelt. Even if I was taking an early flight back to Bangalore, he would always insist to be woken up at 4 am so that he could say goodbye. The top quality of each of those temporary goodbyes made up for the absence of a permanent goodbye and that’s a lesson worth learning.

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6 thoughts on “Roots – Bloganuary 2023”

  1. Smiti a well written family history and of course partition of India was just a history lesson for me. I still get goosebumps and tears whenever I read about it. Dr Sanjay Gupta of CNN also has Lahore roots and I saw an youtube video of him tracing his ancestors in Haridwar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes the partition and migration brings me goosebumps as well. Even though my grandfather loved talking, I don’t think he used to like talking about this topic a lot because all the memories associated with those times.

      Liked by 1 person

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