A mother’s Odyssey

Parvez Mahmood writes about his mother: a tale of the struggle and triumph of a generation uprooted by Partition

A mother’s Odyssey
This is the story of a mother, narrated by her son. I request the readers to allow me some emotions – but it is equally a tale of the trials and tribulations faced by the young migrants who were compelled to uproot themselves from their ancestral abodes in the wake of the Partition of Punjab in August 1947.

How does one describe a pain that pricks their primordial existence? A loss that is deeply personal yet is universal in nature? The healing balm of time will blunt the most deadly pangs of this loss but the void, I know, will stay forever. Some voids never fill and this is one of them. My mother has died.

My mother was born in 1935 to a family of tailors. My maternal grandfather had his prosperous tailor’s shop on the ground floor of his house that he had recently built in Katra Karam Singh in Amritsar and was happily raising his seven children when India and Pakistan gained independence – and the volcanic fury of Partition was unleashed upon Punjab.

With her offspring

The people of Punjab – there is no other way to describe it – went berserk in1947 and started butchering persons of rival religious communities. My maternal grandparents, and their close relatives in Amritsar, were forced to migrate to Lahore and occupy the houses and shops vacated by Sikhs and Hindus moving in the other direction.

My nana (maternal grandfather), a supporter of the Indian National Congress and a survivor of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, thought that he had nothing to fear in Amritsar. His friends, however, advised him to leave as some Hindu migrants from Pakistani towns had their eyes on his newly built house. On the 14th of August, he sent his family to Lahore by train in the company of some other relatives. My mother would tell us of the fear she and her siblings felt on the platform on seeing the threatening hordes of kirpan-wielding Sikhs, who were barely held in check by the presence of armed troops. When the train moved out of station, she remembered seeing jeering groups of Sikh fighters, eager to take down the train and its vulnerable cargo of refugees. However, they were lucky to have a Muslim train driver who kept firing the engine at a high speed. Some shots were fired at them but she recalls everyone being safe in her jam-packed compartment. Close to Taran Taran, another group of looters fired heavily at them but their luck held and they crossed over the border without any losses. Her father, who had a polio-induced limp in his left leg, left Amritsar a few days later and had to walk or hitch-hike to Lahore.

Troops guard a train as it leaves Delhi in 1947

There are now numerous black-and-white photographs on the internet of cramped and overflowing refugee trains plying between Lahore and Amritsar in August 1947. A desperate crowd of terrified humans can be seen holding on to the door handles and the roofs, hanging on for dear life. I look at these images and I see my mother, a twelve-year-old girl, suffocating in one of the compartments – because that is how she travelled from Amritsar to Lahore with her family.

Upon alighting at Lahore, they thought they had reached the safety of a promised land. Little did they know that their struggle for survival and a decent life had just begun.

They settled in Gowalmandi where my maternal grandfather set up his tailoring shop but never found the financial security that he had enjoyed in Amritsar. His first four children were daughters – my mother being second eldest. He was forced to dispatch his elder son, my favourite mamoo Waheed, to Soha Bazaar, instead of a school, as an apprentice to a goldsmith to make an early start in life. My mother used to go to a school in Amritsar but had to discontinue her studies in Lahore. The two eldest sisters were married to Kashmiri immigrants; my Khala (aunt) Safia to a cloth merchant from Gurdaspur who had settled in Gujranwala, and my mother to a draughtsman (my father) from Amritsar. Both marriages took place in 1950 and the age of the sisters was 16 and 15 respectively.
After all these years, I can still feel the wistfulness writ large on the faces of my parents as they had to make a hurried exit from India yet again, reminiscent of their sudden immigration during Partition

I felt the agony of Partition when I visited Amritsar with my parents. Yielding to the nostalgia that they felt for the home and the locality where they grew up and that they had left behind, my parents had decided to make a pilgrimage to Amritsar.

We made the visit in December 1963. My father went to Lohgarh area and knocked at his onetime house so that he could take a look inside. A middle-aged woman answered and when told about the purpose of the visit, she shut the door saying “Why did you come? Go back to your country.” My father stood at the entrance and kept trying to take a peek inside – until the door was firmly shut in his face. I looked at him and could see tears rolling down his cheeks. I hated that woman at that time but now understand that she must have been a migrant herself and was feeling the same pain as was my father. We then went to Katra Karam Singh, the old house of my mother and here we were received warmheartedly. We spent an hour in the house talking to the family and my sombre-looking mother visited various parts of the house. The next day, we visited Darbar Sahab and Jallianwala Bagh.

At the time of her marriage

We had planned for a stay for a few days but the next day, we heard that Moi Mubarak – the Prophet (PBUH)’s hair – had been stolen from Hazrat Bal in Srinagar. Riots broke out in Indian-held Kashmir and fearing closure of borders, we took the next bus to return to Lahore. After all these years, I can still feel the wistfulness writ large on the faces of my parents as they had to make a hurried exit from India yet again, reminiscent of their sudden immigration during Partition.

My parents had to undergo a long period of hardship in settling down in the new land. Their stories arouse in me a deep empathy for Palestinian, Syrian and other refugees, whose lives are shattered and families are torn asunder. I understand their agony.

We, too, suffered a trying period of poverty and want. My parents never gave up hope and provided us the best education that their meagre resources could afford. Our finances were so thin that I once accompanied my mother to sell a heavy brass lock in the market to fetch our next meal. Another time, when I was going to PAF College Sargodha from Lahore after summer break, my mother had only five rupees with her and our father’s pay was due the next day. The bus fare for the journey was four rupees and one anna (one rupee equalled 16 annas). My mother insisted that I take all five rupees, in case I needed some money on the way. I, being my mother’s confidante, cognizant that the change was the only money she had left with her, wanted to leave fifteen annas behind. She forced me to take the entire lot of five rupees. I was barely fifteen years old at that time and that was how I learnt the value of money. Those fifteen annas, the amount in excess of my bus fair, always remained a heavy burden on my shoulders. They remind me of the sacrifices that my mother (and father) made for our future.

I believe that life is defined not in terms of years but in struggles faced and overcome. Success in life is not about how long one lives but about how those years were lived. Measured against these standards, I would say that our mother still lived an enviable life and that our parents’ hard work bore fruit.

Starting her life in post-Partition Lahore as a teenage uneducated migrant daughter of a small time tailor, she became the mother of eight successful sons. She was mother to one Air Force officer and two Army officers, and very prosperous businessmen. Among her grandchildren, she now had doctors, engineers, lawyers and some business graduates. We, her grateful sons, recognised her grit and fortitude in lifting us from penury to affluence. Anyone would be proud of these laurels in life. She died a satisfied mother.

She was 82 and had been sick for some time. She had twice suffered cardiac events in the last three years. She had inefficient renal functions and had been diabetic and hypertensive for the previous three decades. Throughout her illness, she displayed forbearance, never complained and followed medical advice in true letter and spirit. However, there comes a stage when the human body loses its fight against age and illness, and her time had come.

The author’s mother, in her old age

In the end, she had gone weak – in fact very weak – and weighed about 40 kilograms. Whilst rubbing moisturising cream on her dry skin, all I could feel was her loose skin covering her cartilages and bones. The lymphoma in her lower abdomen had rapidly consumed all layers of protective fat and muscle tissues, draining her energy in the process. When I reached Lahore on Wednesday, she could turn sides on the bed and stand on her feet to sit on the wheelchair to go to the washroom. By Saturday, her last day of life, she needed help to do that. Through all trials and tribulations of her long turbulent life, she behaved in the most dignified manner. She was able to maintain her grace till the end. She ate her last meal with her own hands and went to the toilet for the last time unaided, though on a wheelchair. By noon, she started feeling uncomfortable and her nails turned blue. We took her to the hospital where she was put on oxygen. She started losing consciousness and breathed her last at 0035 hours on Sunday, the 20th of August. All her sons and many of her grandchidren and great-grandchildren were by her side. I witnessed her soul leave her body, recited my final prayers and held her in my arms to ease the final spasm.

Rest in peace Ammi Ji. You will always be missed.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com