There was something quite intriguing about the two widows who lived on our street in Amritsar. No one symbolized it better than Channo's maan (mother). She was the mother of a girl, Channo, and four boys. I have little remembrance of Channo. In my childhood the ‘boys' were actually grown up men. I have dim recollection of them in 1947 when my father patronized a retinue of toughs to guard our house from attacks by marauding Muslims.
In Amritsar, the Hindu-Muslim riots had threatened the very survival of families and their properties. Our house was located outside the walled city, close to the railway station. This station was the scene of many trains coming from and going to Lahore, which was part of the newly created Pakistan. These trains were often full of dead bodies, courtesy of religious warriors of the three main religions of Punjab: Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. In the middle of the night, it was not unusual to hear from the top floor of our house, men shouting and running to the railway station. Even years later what they actually did was unclear. They had either participated in or prevented murderous attacks on the members of the ‘other' religion. It may be an ambiguous statement but the events of over half a century ago have acquired that uncertain character.
My house was also near the bus and truck stops. Before India's independence, many of the lorry and truck drivers were Muslims. In the other direction from our house, about a mile away, there was the Hindu temple-Durgiana that was considered a safe haven for the Hindus. In between lay the open grounds of Goal Bagh that also separated us from the Hindus that lived around the temple. The leafy and tall trees of tahli and sheesham that lined the grounds were menacing looking in the dusk.
Since our street and houses were exposed from the other approach, we felt vulnerable. So included in the group of ‘goons' were Ramu, Gaga, and Mona, three of ‘Maan's boys. Mona was young, beardless and gentle-looking. Ramu looked fierce with whiskers and moustaches that curled upward at the edges. He had a ruddy complexion, blood shot eyes, and scarred right cheek. He walked with a pronounced limp, and was often simply called langra(lame). All I remember about Gaga is that he had a round head with short cropped hair that were typical of wrestlers. He did have a physique to match! The oldest Roshan was the only one who held a steady job and never got in trouble. He was a skilled glasscutter and installer.
Channo's maan was a formidable woman who was tall and carried appropriate bulk. She was also known to be a no-nonsense person. She had been known to have belted Ramu, Gaga or Mona - her men-children - for disobeying her. They would take their punishment without protest. She lived in a house behind ours. Apparently her husband had mortgaged and forfeited the house to late my grandfather. Channo maan rented the house from my grandmother. It was well known she often had difficulty in paying the house-rent.
After the partition, the pattern of Ramu, Gaga and Mona getting in trouble with the police continued. Roshan barely made a living, though he did not seem to complain. Sometimes my father would summon him to install new windowpanes. My grandfather had built the big house with many rooms when he owned a brick kiln factory. Therefore, no expense had been spared in using the materials and installation of imported Italian mirrors and windowpanes.
We had so many of these in the house that it wasn't unusual to find some broken! Some were the result of unruly games of cricket or volleyball which we the boys played indoors without the knowledge of our mother. As a kid it was a thrill to watch Roshan use his diamond-tipped knife to cut out old broken glass and install a new colored one. How he managed to do it without cutting his hands seemed to be magical to my childish eyes.
Soon after India's partition, we learnt that Roshan had gone to Kanpur in U.P. Within a year the rest of the family had also left for Kanpur. Channo's maan would visit us every two or three years. We heard stories about how all three of the ‘boys' were now prosperous businessmen. Roshan had his own business installing windowpanes. He was married and was raising a family. His brothers Ramu and Mona had also gone straight and worked for the older brother.
It was well known that what had straightened out the brothers was the local Communist Party. Even Channo's maan seemed to be appreciative of the Communist Party. Kanpur was an industrial town with many textile mills. The labor unions invariably attracted rabble-rousing communist organizers. Channo's three younger sons had apparently become workers for the Party, and had become relatively respectable.
This was one of those rare rags to riches story that everyone on our street wanted to believe in. Even the other widow on our street, Lal Devi, would wistfully confess to my mother her wish that one of these days her boys would straighten out. Channo's maan actually was very different than Lal Devi. She never professed helplessness. Her sons obeyed her commands. She was the practitioner of what we now call tough love. My mother and aunt had great regard for her.
I had finished high school in 1957 when my father received a letter from Ramu. Now known by his given name Ram Lal, he was going to visit us and spend several days with us. The occasion happened to be the annual meeting of the Communist Party of India, which was going to be held in Goal Bagh, just outside our house.
It was not unusual to have political parties hold rallies and meetings on the grounds. The Communist Party was actually going to stage several preliminary events there. These would include plays, poetry-recitations and working party meetings. So tents were erected on the grounds, chairs brought in and stages set up in different parts of the vast playgrounds.
Ram Lal and Mona both came to our house. But Mona planned to leave in a couple of days. Ram Lal, on the other hand, was given a cot to sleep on the second floor of the house. Over the next two weeks, he initiated a teaching process which, in retrospect, leaves me breathless. Both my brother Satish and I were eager to figure out how a good-for-nothing person like Ram Lal had turned his life around and become ‘respectable'.
We were amazed to see how steeped Ram Lal was in the ideology of the communism. His knowledge of international politics for someone with limited formal schooling was formidable. He knew about the dense communist tracts that were published in vernacular Indian languages. He would bring many books from party bookstalls and offer them to us for study. These books were published on glossy thick paper and bound with care. They were very different from the shoddy Indian books. These books carried the names of Russian and Chinese communist parties as publishers. He realized I was fond of reading fiction, and bought me many books by Maxim Gorky.
Ram Lal explained that he was a delegate for the party. He was quite devout in his attachment to the communist ideas of equality, rights of the workers, and justice. He did not mind appropriating all revolutionaries from India's freedom struggle to the Communist Party and crediting their sacrifices to teachings of the party.
Of course. I did not know enough to doubt him. I was awe-struck as he talked of the national communist leaders like Gopalan, Dange and Namboodripad. These were the names I saw in newspaper headlines. For me, they held certain glamor. Ram Lal talked about them as if he was on first name basis with them!
As the All-India meet started, he would be gone all day for delegates' meetings. He would join us for dinner, and then go back for the evening's entertainment. That is when the poets and actors staged skits and plays. We would accompany him and even get good seats.
Of course, these ‘cultural' programs had strong messages of labor's exploitation, workers' hunger, and unemployment. That was invariably combined with exploitation of the peasants. Many of the actors were themselves from villages and small towns, and identified closely with the farmers. The ‘heroic' farmers in the end would always overcome the crafty moneylenders even though they were aided and abetted by corrupt petty officials. This morality play appealed to my young mind.
On the concluding and final day of the main conference, Ram Lal came home in the evening. He was all excited. "Jyoti Basu is going to do it!" He explained that for the first time the Communist Party of India was planning to officially give up violent means of struggle, and adopt nonviolent ways to protest and agitate. Up to that time, the Party had not given up on violence to achieve its political objectives.
I really did not understand the significance of the move. But Ram Lal excitedly explained that it was the most important chapter in the struggle of the underdog workers and peasants. The next day, all national newspapers carried the headlines, "The Communists give up violence." And the thin Bengali politician Jyoti Basu became a hero, as the Party president who had steered the party in a peaceful direction. He was to rule West Bengal as the State's Chief Minister for over 20 years.
That was the day, Ram Lal decided to celebrate. When he came home in the evening, he was unsteady on his feet. His face was flushed, and eyes were bloodshot. He did not want to face my father, who in his own manner had reserved judgment on Ram Lal. Instead Ram Lal informed my mother that he did not want to join us for dinner. He limped up the stairs, and quietly went to bed.
I never saw him or his brothers again.
© Vinod Puri 2017
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