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Today: Jun 14, 2024

After 75 years, 92-year-old Pindi girl will visit her parental home

12 mins read
  Reena’s Rawalpindi house – Prem Niwas.

 

 

 

Reena Chibber.

As she trekked on that fateful day of 14th August 1947, with two sisters, and three boys- sons of family friends, along with her mother and little brother, all the way from Solan to Simla –A trek of 30-mile (48.28 Kms), little did 15-year old Reena Chhibber know, the forthcoming event spelling utter joy, came at a huge cost. A cost, that would clench her personally, besides family; and families and families and families, on either side, of newly born Nations.

British Barrister Sir Cyril Radcliff took just five weeks, to divide geographical territories between India- Pakistan, unmindful of the minds and hearts he tore alongside. Or that, the gamut of emotions would turn into a tsunami and record the world’s largest migration, displacement, and killing, that ever took place.

Now, after having seen “75-Independence-Day celebrations” in India, Reena born to Bhai Prem Chand Chhibber, is readying to see the first light in her parental home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, after their forced migration in the bloody Indo-Pak partition of 1947. Perhaps, she may decide to be in Pakistan until- the Day of Independence of both countries, on the cusp of Mid-August. (14th of August is Pakistan’s Independence Day, while August 15th  is India’s Day of Freedom), who knows? Her Pakistan visa gives her a 90-day stay in the country. She remembers it as a long struggle for a visa to visit her loving home –‘Prem Niwas’ named after her father in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Recalling that historic 14th August 1947, in Simla, Reena says- “I knew not what was happening faraway more than 400 Kms in my home in Rawalpindi, I happily matched foot by foot with others as we trekked. My younger brother got tired after 10 miles and was put on a train along with my mother. They reached Simla in no time from Kalka ji rail station where they boarded a train to Simla. On reaching, they waited for us at the home of the famous -“Baljees”- best and oldest known confectioners of Simla, and for decades afterward, who were our family friends.”

“Our trekking team reached at 11.30 at night in the darkness; with the light of some lanterns we reached the ‘Baljees family Home’ assisted by someone from the post office; to the utter relief of mother, as all her three daughters were together. Exhausted but excited to have completed the trek, the new dawn of freedom energized and infused us with patriotism”.

The First Flag of Freedom of India

Reena describes the moment -“At 7 am sharp, we reached the Ridge on the historic day of August 15, 1947; I remember the drizzle as monsoon was contiguous in August. Entire Simla’s Ridge looked dainty surrounded by hazy-grey silvery clouds dotted with colorful umbrellas, like flowers in a landscape. Hordes collected, to witness the momentous occasion of buoyancy, a festive mood, and spectacular, in every way.  Finally, India’s first Flag was hoisted amidst a thunderous clap and unfolded rose petals shower. I was of short height but somewhat watched the spectacle from a higher ledge. Each one of us clapped for long. Then ‘Vande Mataram…’, ‘Raghupati Raghav….’ And other patriotic songs reverberated throughout the snow peaks of Simla.”

“Incidentally, I came to know recently that the celebrated writer Ruskin Bond too was there in Simla when the first Independent Day of free India was celebrated. He writes in one of his memoirs to have been 13 years old when he witnessed the event and describes it similarly”. Ruskin Bond became India’s most loved children’s writer with over 500 short stories, novels, and Sahitya academy and Padam Bhushan awards to his credit.

Why after 75 years?

“Why to apply for a visa after 75 years, was it some trauma during the partition, that affected you?” I queried Reena on the video call from Amritsar to Pune–

It went like this -“Post partition, from Solan, to Ambala, to Pune, and then we settled in Delhi, where we met a number of refugee families.  Discussions about highs and lows in modern Pakistan were the only topics at that time, these discussions stirred a deep longing in me, to see our house in Pakistan, and I tried many times.

The first time, while working in Central Cottage Industries, I had a friend who applied for Sikh Jatha to Pakistan, I too applied with her. It was 1965, the year of the Indo-Pak War. Those days passports were made only to travel to Pakistan. I too made my passport and still have it. At the last moment, my friend and her family couldn’t go and I too had to drop out.

The second time, when a close family friend in the foreign services was posted in Islamabad, Pakistan, he invited me but my children were very young and my husband expressed his unhappiness about my going, leaving the adolescents with him, so I missed this chance too.

My third chance came in 1964, Pakistan hosted a cricket match played between Pakistan and England. A temporary entry visa was issued to Indians. For three mornings we travelled in a car, watched the match in Lahore, and came back to Amritsar every evening.  Imagine Pindi was just 360 Kms !and I couldn’t touch base with my home.

How nonagenarian Reena got the visa?

Covid may have caused havoc in other households, but pandemic times, spurred Reena to learn more on the computer.  Amazingly, sitting at home this energetic grandma traced her home in Rawalpindi.

During the pandemic, she posted about her childhood memories of her house and her desire to see it on her wall and shared it with an India Pakistan Heritage group. The story of this sprightly grandma from Pune caught the attention of a Sajjad Haider from Rawalpindi who tracked down her house and even sent her pictures and a video. Her daughter Sonali helped her apply for a visa in 2021, but her application was turned down. She shared her rejection on the FB group. At the suggestion of a Pakistani journalist Beenish Siddiqua of Karachi, Reena made a video of an appeal for the visa. It was tagged to Hina Rabbani Khar, the minister of state for foreign affairs in Pakistan, who noticed, wrote, and assured Reena’s visit to her Rawalpindi home, and Reena was promptly granted a 90-day, multicity visa. “The Pak High Commissioner Mr. Aftab Hasan Khan himself met me warmly, and mom was given a 90-day visa in April. As for mom — she’s finally Going Home!”- Reena’s daughter twinkled as she shared the Hina tweet with the words ‘The Universe does conspire’.  Added to that is .. ‘to fulfill an ardent heart’s desire…’

Remembering Pindi home

Reena’s memories of her address ‘Prem Niwas, 1935’ (written on her home) ‘Prem Gali’,   named after her father Bhai Prem Chand Chhibber; ‘DAV College Road’, Rawalpindi; are etched in her heart. Recalling those times with fondness Reena says-“Our house remained open to friends and family; Muslim friends frequented our home, some didn’t eat cooked food in our home, but it was gracefully accepted, as a religious taboo. We celebrated almost all festivals including Diwali, Holi, Eid, and Gurpurav, together. Even the environment then was so congenial. I particularly remember Abida, my friend.

There was fear and chaos during the months preceding Partition as riots had started in February-March 1947. Major Harnam Singh of our lane took along young girls including us,-three sisters, to an army camp for nearly a week, where we were sheltered for safety.

In one of the daily episodes of rioting, Reena recalls – “I still remember Shafi, our family tailor who sheltered my mother when riots broke suddenly on the streets, she was shopping close by and hid in his shop for six hours!” and adds- “I also recall Khemka’s Pindi ‘juttiwala’ and am keen to see the shop and its owners.  Nearby our place was the home of famous film cinematic star Balraj Sahni, who went to Bombay. His brother Bishan Saini considered an intellectual, was my sister’s Prof in DAV College, Rawalpindi. I met Balraj Saini years later in Bombay (Mumbai) and was so shy to say that we were your neighbors in Pindi”, Reena reminiscences.

“The partition was the saddest and most horrific situation but I feel only love for the place, its people, and what I left behind and cannot understand the hate one sees simmering in some people today.” Queried over her unruffled manner and childlike innocence and attitude, ‘Toshi’ as affectionately called by her family, said her calm and loving nature was a gift from her father -“‘Chhibbers’ actually are “Moyhal Brahmins or the Warrior Brahmins” traditionally a martial community of Brahmins, with a high concentration in the army, police or defense forces. But my father was calm, composed and an intelligent man inclined towards positive thinking, besides being a fair man, he never differentiated between humans owing to their religion.  We were quite prosperous and wealthy and my father-called ‘Baoji’ was a progressive thinker who spent more on the education of his six children than on mundane things like acquiring more jewelry. Father became a Dev Samaji from an Arya Samaji, it was a separate sect that didn’t believe in religious dogma, superstitions, and restrictions. Hence he was so liberal, that there was no religion-imposed restriction in our home. We could have friends over and had no taboos about going to friends places or going to bazaars or on festivities or occasions as women.

Coming back to the home of her childhood, Toshi recalls the taste of the tongue that she never lost – “Of Pindi, -I do remember the prized ‘Guchchi’- Morchella mushroom -made as Rice Guchchi Palao was my favorite and often prepared in our home along with ‘sabzi’ of the same. I adored pine-nuts ‘Chilgoza’ from our summer holidays in Murrie and the ‘Shardaa’ fruit which grew close by in foothills. ‘Shardaa’ arrived much later in Indian markets as an export from Afghanistan. My mother cooked-‘meethi roti of Bajra called ‘Mann’- It felt festive when someone announced “Aaj ‘Mann’ Pakaya Aee !” it was a sweet Roti made of Millet.

My most beloved festival was ‘Janam Ashtami’ or the birth of Lord Krishn. We made mini ‘Jhoolas’ for the birth and arrival of the little god. And stitched tiny clothes and created accessories of other gods and goddesses on this festive occasion.

Meantime Reena’s entire family except for her father and other men of the family were left in their homes at Rawalpindi and were advised by others to leave the newly marked territory of Pakistan, owing to grave danger to lives, as communal riots intensified. “We carried the family album to Simla therefore it remains with me even now, along with a few other valuables, as my father somewhat knew that circumstances were rapidly worsening. From our Pindi home, I have a ‘valtohi’ a kind of brass ‘ghaggar’  or pitcher, a ‘martbann’(an urn to store pickles), a China or Japan-made porcelain dry fruit tray, and a Pure Jade precious stone, that father brought from Kashmir.

Life Post-Partition

In July, my father too joined us at Solan where we all were bunched for a prolonged stay of five months, never to go back to our home to Pindi.  Ardently missing her father, Toshi says –“My ‘Baoji’ (Father) was such a noble soul,  he never criticized or laid the blame of our abject condition at the door of any community or politicians or any of the warring countries ever, despite such a hard struggle and facing so many challenges and losing everything, post-partition.  Therefore, I bear no rancor for anyone or any community. We never carried hatred for any community then and not now. My ‘Bayji’ (mother) missed her home so much and ever clung to the hope, to go back soon, she eventually died of heartbreak.

“Awhile later, from Solan, we went to Pune where my brother Capt Subodh Chhibber was posted, then to Delhi. Father lost almost everything; he had planned his retirement and took his superannuation at the age of 39 years, working as a senior officer in the department of accounts under the British. Invested savings in three banks, built up the top floor of our home, and planned to earn rental income from there, plus his retirement benefits and pension, which made us very comfortable. During the horrific times of partition, father crossed over to India with practically nothing other than a ‘Jade Piece’ he bought from Kashmir, and joined us in Solan. Mother had carried a bit of her jewelry and a few favorites like the Phulkari bedspread made by her. Later, I stayed with my sister in Amritsar and she got me educated in Modern College Amritsar, perhaps an extension of our English medium ‘Modern School in Pindi’”.

“As for my parents, Partition hit them the hardest. Mother could never forget her house in Rawalpindi and her father had no savings to build another house on the small plot we got in West Delhi against the claim for the property left behind in Pakistan. We lived on rent in Delhi, throughout.”

Today, living in a small flat in the Defence enclave in the Kondwa area of Pune, Reena keeps the precious memorabilia from her hometown. Since her husband Inder Prakash Varma, served in the air force for a while and later worked for Hindustan Aeronautics in Bangalore they were allotted an apartment here. She does every household work herself in the kitchen and clothing besides looking after her plants. She has kept herself updated and knows computer, tablet operations, mobile, Facebook, Google and uses them to learn something new as she hums old songs alongside.

Readying for her home across a line

Once living happily, ironically in a home called ‘PremNiwas 1935’ or the ‘Home of Love made in 1935’  in ‘Prem Gali’ or the ‘Love Lane’ of  Rawalpindi; Pakistan-born and India’s Pune resident, 92-years Reena is preparing for seeing home, seeming almost seven seas away in Pakistan. Destiny and fortune both have bowed to the will and wish of this petite, gentle, lively lady. Her large family comprising of her father, mother, Buaji (aunt) four sisters and two brothers, each one of them  have passed away. Yet she lives on, as the only witness to their lost home, their lost lives, their lost laughter, their lost childhood, and lost fortunes.

“I am finally going home”, she tells me calmly, her excited joy peppered with pain.

Do you feel elated, or emotional? “My feelings are emotional, I am excited but I am in deep pain too as none from my family would accompany me. They all passed away pining for our home”.

Despite the personal tragedy, of losing her 48-year-old son to brain hemorrhage, and seeing her husband suffer paralysis in the last days before he passed away, Reena has the guts and grit to live alone with her building community who she loves, -“They are like family to me”, despite being amply loved and nurtured by her daughter Sonali who lives in Gurugram.  At 92, Reena remains contented and does all her work, actively socializing and also super active on social networking sites! Slim. Trim, a light mope of white beautiful coiffured hair, is subduedly effervescent of her forthcoming visit to her home.

Meantime Toshi asks me what she can carry as gifts for people in Pakistan. I guide her to carry Indian handicrafts a sure-shot memento for them. Our conversation walks deep into many nights, at times unfolding, folding, refolding …then stitching- unstitching words. I wait for her to arrive in Amritsar where I have promised to show her the golden temple and visit all the places of her teenage years in Amritsar which became her dwelling for two years.

“A feeling of great joy, not quite jubilation though”, Reena corrects me. “It is like meeting a lost love crossing a deep gorge of time – there are, apprehensions, a fear of losing a closely clutched image of home, there would be permissions, I don’t know how I would flow, but certainly it would be unconditional love”.

The man from Pakistan

Sajjad Haider.

A Law correspondent with Capital TV covering the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Sajjad Haider noticed a post on FB and responded that he was familiar with the oral description that Toshi gave. “Then Reena ji’s daughter contacted me to find out and expressed her mother’s heartfelt desire to see her Pindi Home. I easily found her home and made a short video of the facade of the house and some pictures and sent them to her. She was overjoyed and admitted it was her parental home.”

Sajjad (48) while speaking from Rawalpindi to the author in Amritsar said he had helped to locate the ancestral homes of three other Indians, but Reena ji is the only one coming to see the home that I identified for her.

Sajjad being familiar with legal work didn’t stop at this, overwhelmed with emotion,  he sent an application/affidavit as he stood as sponsor host for Reena and claimed full responsibility for her, naming her as his ‘Indian Family member’, alongside giving due assurance for her return to parent country before the expiry of her visa. There is of course a slight mistake in this application a copy of which is with the author, wherein he mentions her as “his’ and ‘him’ as an incorrect gender referral to Reena, which could have been a reason for the unconfirmed status of his application to the visa office.” However, love is overwhelming and overflowing on the other side of the River Ravi .

 

 

Rashmi Talwar

Rashmi Talwar, an Independent writer, can be emailed at: [email protected]

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