On my last day in Singapore, my brother and I discussed that the most effective way of giving respect and attention to older folk was to ask them stories of their youth. Had he and I not had this talk, I would have missed precious opportunities that came up recently to uncover fascinating tales of my family’s past.
The first was hearing accounts of the Partition from my dad’s eldest brother, who was 13 at the time. As we sat around in a hospital waiting room two days ago (his wife was undergoing knee-replacement surgery), my uncle talked about how their five-story family home lay on a sensitive junction between the Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods of Lahore. My grandfather left for India in anticipation of impending trouble and sent for the rest of his family. My uncle along with his four younger siblings and mother were fortunate enough to travel safely to Dehra Dun in a first-class railway box due to a loophole in the rules, a few months before the massacres began. They lived six months in Mussoorie, two in Haridwar, before moving to a tiny one-room accommodation in Chandni Chowk that was shared with another family. “Nyoley (mongooses) ran about the room,” he recalled of his first teenage impressions of Delhi. “They didn’t say anything to us. They were just there.” The family’s living conditions improved steadily, and he managed to complete schooling with the help of a professor neighbour, but had to give up his first attempt at graduation due to his younger sister’s marriage…
This younger sister, my aunt, was also 13 when she got engaged to a 20-year-old restaurateur from Calcutta. “My chachi was always snapping at me because I wore frocks and didn’t even know how to sit, talk or laugh like a lady,” she grinned in remembrance when I visited her on my way back from work yesterday. Married six months later, on Valentine’s Day (no one had even heard of it then), she made the transition from a child to a mother of three over the next decade, which she calls the ‘honeymoon period’ of her life. “My husband was their only son, adopted too. And I was so young. So my in-laws pampered me silly, giving in to my childish demands for going to the cinema or eating muri from the street with my 10-year-old friends. The only time my father-in-law put his foot down was when I asked for a Rs-250 red lace sari to wear to my eldest brother’s wedding. That was a prohibitive amount in the 1950s. My tears and tantrums didn’t sway him, though he did go all the way to the shop to check out my object of adoration. Weary of my crying, my mother-in-law made a decision. She bought similar yards of lace from the same shop, a large roll of embroidery from another, and spent a week sewing it on to create an almost perfect likeness of my original choice – at half the price. I was overjoyed. I felt like a queen at my brother’s wedding.”
Lahore 1946, to Delhi 1949, to Calcutta 1955, to Singapore 2011. A simple chat between one brother and sister, led to uncovering another brother and sister’s story from half a century ago. How marvelous the circle of life is.