My mom, Shashi and Dad Om grew up in Gujranwala town, now a part of Pakistan. Shashi was the only child of her parents brought up by her young, widowed mother of nineteen, Durga and her widowed grandmother Bebeji, in her thirties.
Durga transformed into a strong-willed woman after losing her young husband, of twenty-one, a high school teacher, to tuberculosis. Shashi was two at the time. Durga defied the societal norms of widowhood to define her own life, not to fail, not to stop, to give a good life to her daughter and mother, all by herself. This story will repeat itself after one generation when her granddaughter Kanchan will be born.
Durga was not going to wear white clothes of widowhood and felt helpless. She chose to step out to work and earn a respectful, decent living to look after her widowed mother and her daughter, Shashi, instead of looking for her own gratification by re-marrying. Durga took the most sought after, noble profession of a teacher following in the footsteps of her deceased husband. She would fulfill her dream of educating her daughter and live a respectful life. After completing primary school, Durga admitted her daughter in a middle school in Rawal Pindi – miles away from Gujranwala. And then a High school in Sayal Kot. It was a great symbiotic relationship between the three single women. While Durga would get ready to go to her school in the mornings to teach, Bebeji would walk Shashi to the station in the cold, and foggy winter mornings, along with her two friends holding a lantern in her hand.
Om had just returned from Iran where he lived 5 years of his teens when he moved with his father Manohar. He reached Iran at the tender age of fourteen. He would not take to idiosyncrasies of his Iranian stepmother and separated from his father’s new family. Soon he learned that this World is about Survival of the Fittest. At 19, he seemed to have lived a whole life making him fully-grown and seasoned young man. However, he never gave up his ‘child’ in him till the day he died.
Om came to India on vacation in June of 1947 to visit his mother in Gujranwala town, least realizing that his destiny was going to take a drastic turn. Om sailed by ship through the Indian Ocean, which took him 3 weeks and finally docking in the North Harbor of Indian Ocean in Lahore. This was his first visit to his hometown Gujranwala in 5 years, where he would meet his love of life but soon after lives of millions of people would change, and he would never return to Iran.
That morning Shashi, sixteen, was standing in front of a window in her room upstairs combing her long black hair oblivious of the fact that her future partner Om had arrived in the town in the very neighborhood. Standing at the window overlooking the small 4 ft. wide brick paved street Shashi saw this suave young man passing by just below her window, a new fresh handsome face, “does not look like any of the boys from around the town”, Shashi thought. She ran down the stairs, with her hair yet undone to ask Durga, “Who is the stranger in the mohalla” (community). Durga replied, “remember we got a basket of strange looking fruit and dry fruit from Devaki yesterday, the stranger is her son, visiting from Iran.” The very next day Shashi mesmerized Om by her pure, pious beauty while going to school with her friends in the morning. Om saw this beautiful, petite girl with two long plaits taking his breath away. Om would say, “every day for continuous ten days I would stand on the corner of that gali (street) to take a glimpse of her.” Om’s mind was made up, his eyes were set on this girl of his dreams, the partner he was missing in his life, she was the one who would become her sharike hayat. Everything seemed planned out and seamless. It also aligned with the blueprint of the Guy up there who owned his blueprint. This is it, he decided, this girl will be my wife. Since his vacation was short, he wasted no time going to his mom to tell her what he had decided. There was conviction and determination in his voice, “Ma I found the girl I want to get married, you should see Durga, Shashi’s mother tomorrow to ask for her hand in marriage.” She nodded her head as she liked the family too.
But unfortunately, the political scenario in the continent was going to ruin Om’s plans. The dark clouds of a societal upheaval dividing the continent into two subcontinents were looming in the sky. Britishers had decided to leave India and set it free but before leaving they created a big divide in the people who co-existed for a millennium, the Hindus, and Muslims. But the riots came hastily without any warning and Gujranwala was the center of attack. That morning came with loud shrieks and cries of people fleeing the streets. It brought with it a huge massacre of Hindu’s, Sikhs, and Muslims. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it. Fifteen million people got displaced and around one million got killed, Innocent civilians were pulled out of their houses to be butchered, there were trucks full of corpses driving past. The streets were filled with hatred for religion, of violence between Hindus and Muslims, spreading from one community to the other, taking each one within its fold. That dark grey morning brought with it revulsion, man wanting to kill another man, religion wanting to kill another religion. Uncounted Hindus and Sikhs, old and young, women and children were murdered, and bodies collected in heaps dragged like dead wood in sacks. Women in large numbers were gang raped and maimed. Many young women committed suicide, or their fathers and brothers pushed them in wells protecting their chastity and own pride. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs fled the town leaving behind all their possessions, empty handed, penniless, toddlers to their chests, handicapped on their shoulders towards the virtual line drawn by Muslim leader Jinnah and Hindu leader Nehru. Several refugee camps were formed in rush with no facilities.
The three women hid themselves but how long? Military vans landed into the streets to rescue people and take them to refugee camps. They felt helpless in the absence of any man to protect them and take them to a safe place. Om was on the streets when Muslims attacked, one of them being his closest childhood friend Shadi. He quickly took Om inside his house and hid him there, giving strict instructions not to come out or he will be killed. He sat hidden in the kitchen pantry for two days, smelling pickles, fed by Shadi’s mother Fatima Bee.
Om was getting restless. Fatima suggested Om should read Kalma (vows), convert himself to Islam and get married to her daughter if he wanted to save his life. Om’s heart was already set somewhere else, he would not accept the conversion. His gut told him it was not safe for him to hide in Fatima’s house. He fled in the darkness of the night through the back lanes and Shadi saw him and followed him. On the way when a group of Muslims grabbed Om for his life, Shadi stopped them and told them he was his prey so he would take his life. Om was shocked for a moment, but Shadi did not mean it, he was just saving Om from being butchered by the violent group. Om straight away went to Devki and asked her to go with Shadi to the Indian army trucks to be delivered to a safe place. Om now chose to go from door to door saving women and children. At home he could get hold of thirty rupees which he tucked into his pajama belt which would be his only possession to start his life all over again, not alone but with his newly wedded wife. He had not given up on the idea of marrying Shashi.
Om went to Durga’s house in one of the army trucks. Persuaded the three women to hop into the truck. Bebebji would not join as she was not going to leave the big trunk filled with trousseau collected for years for Shashi’s marriage. After bringing Durga and Shashi to the refugee camp on the side of India, Om went back to save more people and once again went in search of Bebeji who got convinced to leave behind the big trunk but carry some stuff from it in a big bag. Bebeji got separated from the camp which was like a big town sprawled with tired, undernourished, weak, sick, and wounded skeletons and crying children in search of water, food, and their kith and kin. A full week had passed by and Bebeji was not to be found. One fine day Shashi had gone away in the adjacent camps in search of a job, while Om was in search of where the three women had situated themselves amongst thousands of families in the numerous camps. It took a few days for Om to spot the tent where Durga was sitting as a Hindu Refugee. He approached her, after some polite questions, he gathered his courage to ask Durga for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Durga was shocked initially, but soon realized Om could take care of her daughter’s safety and security better than her. She quickly pulled a small cot and asked him to sit there without saying a word about his proposal and said she would come back soon. Om waited there, a few minutes changed to a couple of hours and Durga did not return. Om was quite tired and stressed so he slept on the cot. By the time Durga returned, Om was sleeping. Durga smiled; she woke him up. Gave him a handkerchief to cover his head. Put a coconut in his lap, which was the reason for her delay as finding a coconut in the refugee camp was a tough task. She did the Varna (ritual) with a one-rupee coin and put it in his lap. This was the shagun, a roka for Shashi and Om, that they were now engaged. Om touched Durga’s feet, took his blessings. He asked for Bebeji. Durga told him that she was still not found in the tents in the camp. Om went away that day without getting a chance to see Shashi but came back a day later with Bebeji who was found in another refugee camp. Om brought back the three women together. They could not have asked for more.
Om and Shashi got married around the holy fire outside the refugee tents the morning of July 12, 1947, in the only clothes that they were wearing taking the vows that they will never be separated again, till death did them apart. And they remained true to that vow till my dad passed away in January of 2000.