My memories: Lahore 1937-1945

Mahen Das



Mahen Das studied mechanical engineering at IIT BHU. He retired from Shell International, in 2002, after 43 years of work in their petroleum refineries and gas plants. He practiced as an independent consultant until 2009. His learning and experience has been acquired from hands-on work, at all levels of asset management, at 40 sites in 22 countries. This includes Process Management, Maintenance Management, Engineering Management and Optimisation of reliability, Integrity and availability of plants. Mahen is a co-author of Case Studies in Maintenance & Reliability. He plays golf and bridge.

I was born on October 12 1937 in Kila Gujjar Singh, Lahore, which was then a part of India. My ancestors came, a few generations ago, from Afghanistan and settled in Leiah, a village in district Dehra Ismail Khan, North Western Frontier Province. They owned land which was tilled by hired labour. Leiah was on the bank of river Sindh. They were also de facto leaders of the minority Hindu community in the predominantly Muslim province. Because they had built a Krishna temple in Leiah and did other services to the community, they were awarded the title of Gosain.

My father, Chetan Das, came to Lahore for higher studies. In North-West India, Lahore was the centre of culture, education, commerce and fashion. He graduated in commerce from Foreman Christian College, a first in his entire extended family. Obtaining a degree like B. Com was a matter of great pride in those days. Years later, when, with my family, I visited our family panda in Haridwar, I saw my father's entry in the family scroll. He had proudly signed it Gosain Chetan Das, B. Com.

My father, we called him Papaji, was a couple of years younger than Sardar Bhagat Singh, the famous revolutionary during India’s freedom struggle. Papaji, many years later, when retired in Dehradun, used to reminisce about these years, telling us how he bunked college classes to be at the courts where Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were being tried for their activities. The three, sitting in the court house, used to be totally carefree, eating rasagullas and joking and kidding around with each other.

In 1932, at age 23, Papaji married Ganga Devi Renjen, the first born of Pokhardas Renjen. That family had also migrated from the Bannu/Kohat area to Lahore a generation ago. My naana ji was a civil engineer. He ran a very successful contracting business. My mother, whom we called Biji, lost her own mother, my naani, when she only about 5 years old. Naani died while giving birth to my maama ji. My naana ji remarried and had 8 children with his second wife.

Because of the step-mother, Biji and Maamaji had a rough time growing up. Soon after matriculation, Biji was married off. We did not have much interaction with any one in Biji’s step family, but Maamaji used to visit us regularly. I remember him bringing packets of KAKA (baby boy) brand biscuits for me, a 3” round, 10” long cylindrical packet with a smiling baby boy’s face on it.

I have no memories of my place of birth, Kila Gujjar Singh. By the time I was old enough to remember things, perhaps 4, my parents had moved to Krishan Nagar, Lahore. They had built their own house at 54 Guru Teg Bahadur Road. We lived there until April 1946, when Papaji was transferred by his employers, The Delhi Cloth and General Mills Ltd., to their head office in Delhi.

Built on 10 marlas (160 marlas = 8 kanals = 1 acre = 4,840 square yards),it was a fairly large three-storey house. There were three rooms, a store, two bathrooms, a veranda, a kitchen, a verra (open yard), and a vegetable patch on the ground floor; three rooms, a verra, another kitchen, a tandoor on a small verra attached to it, a bathroom on the first floor; and a large terrace with a parapet railing (banna) around it and a ronce (bench like seat) built as a part of it.

As was the custom then, the toilets were on the second floor. Flush system for toilets had not yet arrived in India, except in the three metropolitan cities of Delhi, Calcutta and Madras. Our toilets were the latest “semi-flush” technology; a collection chamber with two latrines, one on either end, draining into it. A jamadarni (cleaning woman) made a daily round to clean the toilets. Adjoining the ground floor kitchen was a shed for the buffalo to stay during winter nights.

I have many pleasant memories of that period. I had two sisters older and two sisters younger than me. We had several children our age in the neighbourhood to play with. So, there was never a dull moment. Our house was not far from the river Ravi, about a mile away with vegetable fields in between. When my grandparents visited, Dadaji would take us walking through the fields to the river bank, plucking and eating peas, radishes and sometimes shehtoot, or gooseberries on the way. There was always a boat moored by the bank, in which we could climb and pretend to be going away paddling.

During Lohri (the winter festival of North West India), there were countless teams of neighbourhood boys and girls going door to door singing and asking for money to buy sweets. The boys sang:

“sunder munderiye ho;

tera kaun vichara ho;

dulla bhatti wala ho....

It is a folk lore; you can get the full lyrics, with meaning through Google.

The girls went

“eta eta ni lakkadiyo eta si;

rab deve ni bhabo tainu beta si...

This is probably is a blessing for the household where the team sings and asks for money.

We had a buffalo, majj, in our house. A gwaala would come to milk the buffalo twice a day. The milk would be boiled in a patila (flat bottomed pot), and then cooled to obtain the rich layer of malaai, which would be carefully skimmed and collected to be churned into butter and chhaachh (buttermilk).

Every morning I woke up to the sound of Biji churning, her bangles making the most unforgettably pleasant sound! There were not many buffalo-owning households in the neighbourhood; and neighbours did not hesitate to come over and ask for a bowl of dahi or a glass of chhaachh. Twice a day, a meal consisting of binaulay (cotton seed), khall (the cake left after pressing mustard seeds for oil), toori (wheat husk), and water would be prepared and fed to the majj. There would also be snacks of patthe (shredded green reeds) in between.

Sarson ka tel (mustard oil) was a popular cooking medium. I believe some Punjabi cooking has that divine taste only because it is cooked in mustard oil. Some examples are methi aloo, aloo ke pakore. I remember, the oil came in two varieties; kachchi ghaani and pakki ghaani. One used for cooking and the other for massage etc. Unfortunately, I do not remember which was for what.

Winters in Lahore were quite cold. I remember early morning frost on the terrace and courtyards of the house, and the open areas around the house. Meals were cooked on chullahs with wood fire, and eaten in the kitchen, on thalis (plates)with katoris (bowls), sitting in front of the fire. Sometimes, the flames died, giving rise to smoke. They were brought back to vigorous life by blowing through a phookani (a 1½” metal tube, 16”-18” long) at the glowing wood. The rule was to eat whatever was cooked by Biji. She was quite strict in this, but if you really did not like to eat what had been cooked and were able to get the right sad expression, Biji would melt and make choori for you. Choori is made by squishing a fresh hot roti with ghee and sugar, and lots of love!

Most utensils were made of brass. They had to be tinned. Once every few weeks, a kalai walla would come, and the entire neighbourhood would have their brass utensils tinned. I loved to watch the whole process: a small pit dug on the unpaved side of the street, the spout of the goatskin-blower connected to the pit with mud as cement, a handful of charcoals put in the pit, fire started with a small bit of newspaper and blown to fierce intensity with the goatskin blower. The flux powder sprinkled on the surface to be tinned, heated on the fire, smelt nice. The tin stick melted like water as it touched the hot surface and was spread quickly and evenly with a cotton pad. About a decade later, the goatskin was replaced by a mechanical blower run by an old bicycle wheel and belt. A pity!

To keep warm when sleeping, the bedding was multi-layered. First came the durri, multi coloured thick cotton threads tightly woven into a mat with pretty designs. Then came the mattress, gadda, an envelope of thick cotton cloth stuffed with carded cotton wool and crisscrossed, with thick thread and needle, in a diamond pattern to keep the cotton in place. The third layer was the khes, also woven with cotton thread but thinner and generally with black and white geometrical patterns. The fourth and final layer was a white cotton sheet. The cover had to be a quilt, razaai, made in a way similar to the gadda, a little larger and, generally, its casing made of silk or satin. The razaai was encased in a protective cover of thin muslin cloth.

There were three kinds of beds: palang, the highest in the pecking order, had a frame made of good wood, legs also of good wood carved and painted and the sleeping surface woven with a 3” wide band of strong white cotton called niwaar. Next, niwaar di charpai or manji, had sleeping surface woven with niwaar on a frame and legs of ordinary wood;and last, waan di manji, had a sleeping surface of woven mat of hemp (waan) over an ordinary wood frame and legs. The waan was stretched taut with manila rope, daun, tied to one end of the frame, threaded through the edge of the mat, then over the frame, then through the mat several times and finally secured tightly to the frame end.

After three or four years of use, the cotton wool in the razaais and gaddas got compacted, reducing their insulation quality. The cotton then had to be removed and refilled after dhunaai or carding. Every autumn, the carding man came to the muhalla carrying the tools of his trade, a carding string, which resembled a huge one-string music instrument, and a small baton with which to twang the string.

One room had to be emptied of everything and dedicated to dhunaai. The instrument was hung from the fan hook in the ceiling, carefully, so that the string was nearly horizontal about a foot or two from the floor. The old wool was removed from the gaddas and razaais, and was piled up under the string. When the string was twanged with the baton, the wool, as if by magic, broke down in small fluffy balls like snowflakes. Pretty quickly, the room was full of wool flakes; no one except the dhunaai wala with a bandana tied around his mouth and nose could stay there.

It took about a day to dhun all the wool for a family of seven. The fluffy, newly carded wool was refilled into the casings of gaddas and razaais, re-stitched with the diamond pattern with cotton thread and needle and made ready for winter again. The stuffing of sirahnas or takiyas (pillows, cushions) was treated the same way.

During school holidays, we would visit our village Leiah. It took a day-long train journey with one change in a place called Shershah. Leiah was a small village, no electricity, and water pumped up by hand. Our house had two floors and a terrace; so, it must have been brick and mortar. There were alcoves in the walls for placing oil diyas (lamps) and chains with hooks hanging from the ceilings, for hurricane lanterns fuelled with kerosene. They were called “hurricane lanterns” because the lanterns were reputed to stay lit even in a hurricane!). Lighting these in the evening was a ritual.

I remember playing in the narrow unpaved lanes. I also remember Dadiji having a large pitcher full of cawries, which I think were legal tender in those days.

Lahore was pretty hot during summer. There was a tradition to hold chhabeel during a particular mid-summer day. Chhabeel is a stall where you offer cool sweetened water to passers-by.

On summer evenings, municipal water tankers with spray showers at their back used to come around and sprinkle the main Guru Teg Bahadur Road with water. Plants in municipal gardens were watered by maashakis, men carrying water in a goatskin called mashak, slung on their back, all openings sealed except the neck which was used for filling the skin full of water and then sprinkling it on the plants.

There was a big playing field about 100 yards from our house, Jai Shri Ram Ground. The whole mohalla made use of it.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, held its local branch, or shaakha, activity there. The shaakha consisted of some 20 kids, of age 6-16, dressed in khaki shorts and white, half sleeved shirts. They would assemble, wielding 6 ft. long bamboo sticks, or laathis, after school, in the evening. The branch head or sanchaalak, would stand them, each at arm’s length, in neat rows and columns, sing the RSS anthem, and train them in various ways of wielding the laathi. After training, they would sing nationalistic songs, learned earlier, or hold discourse on teachings of contemporary national leaders. The whole session would be about an hour.

I and my 5 or so buddies were members of a rival organization, the Arya Swayamsevak Sangh. I do not know why they were rivals of RSS, because they were the exact copy of them. The ASS disappeared pretty soon. The RSS, on the other hand, went on to become a prominent social and political organization of the country.

On hot summer nights, we would pull the manjis out in to the open yard, after sprinkling water on the yard, or chchidkao to cool it. The khes and gadda were removed from the bedding to make it lighter and cooler.

Basant Panchami, the kite flying festival, was always eagerly awaited. We used to start collecting kites and string laced with powdered glass to fly them with. The skill was to fly your kite with this armoured string, entangle it with another flying kite and cut the other kite's string. If you succeeded in doing this, you shouted the victory cry woh kaataa (there, I cut it)! In my case the adversary was always more skilful. This action used to be on the terrace. Biji, had a tough time getting us down for meals or anything else!

Groups of urchins would run after the cut kite, sticks with thorny ends in their hands, to “loot” the cut kite

Diwali was another eagerly awaited festival. For us, more for new clothes, lighting diyas (little terracotta lamps), and crackers, than mithai (sweets) or anything else. One typical sweet I remember was toys (little houses, animals, dolls), pink, yellow, green coloured, made of sugar. Biji would buy enough lamps to line the periphery of the terrace, and the windows and door sills of the facade. They were soaked in water overnight to prevent them from absorbing the mustard oil fuel. The battis (wicks) were made by rolling a little cotton wool between the palms of the hand. Each child had to make an assigned quota of wicks. The stack of wicks was pre-soaked with mustard oil for easy lighting. By sundown, we had donned new clothes, the lamps had been dried, filled with oil, one wick laid carefully in each lamp and the lamps placed neatly along the desired lines no more than 18” apart. When lit, the house appeared to have donned a shiny pearl necklace. Our house was “always” the prettiest looking in the neighbourhood. The other highlight was lighting the crackers, but that would not come until after the pooja. We had to wait patiently.

Across the road from us, there was a grocery shop. It also sold colourful soda pop bottles, which had round marble stoppers and were popped by fitting a special cap with a peg over the marble stopper, and hitting it smartly with the palm of your hand. These came in many flavours, such as rose, lemon, orange, mango. We, the children loved them, but it was not easy to persuade Biji to let us have them. The shop also sold colourful bull’s eye sweets, the small spherical sweets with colourful radial stripes on them.

Most of our groceries came from this shop. Most, except pista, badaam, chilgoza and the spice, heeng (asafoetida). We bought these from Pathan vendors, who came down from Afghanistan, carrying a white cloth bag, jhola, full of these, slung on a shoulder. They always had white turbans with a gold embroidered peak, the end of the turban hanging in front of the left shoulder. They also had long beards, coloured orange with henna.

I remember the coin denominations: 16 annas to a rupee, 4 paisas to an anna, 2 takas to an anna, therefore 2 paisas to a taka, 2 dhelas to a paisa,3 paais to a paisa and 4 damaris to a paisa. We could buy goodies even with a damari.

My sisters went to Sir Ganga Ram High School for Girls. They went by school bus. Biji wanted me to go to the same school; it accepted boys up to class 6. I was not quite 5 yet, so to prepare me for this school, Biji admitted me to the neighbourhood Masterji’s school. This was a one room institution. It had 5 classes. A long narrow coir mat spread in front of the Masterji’s desk represented one class. Students sat in a neat row, one behind the other, facing the Masterji. There were 5 rows, one for each class. I was in class 1. I learnt 5 multiplication tables, pahare, the entire Urduand Hindi alphabets in the 6 months or so that I attended this school. I thought it was great fun, learning tables and alphabets by repeating after Masterji, ik dooni, do dooni char… (two one’s are two, two two’s are four…); alif bay pay…; ka kha ga gha… (Urdu, Hindi alphabet) etc.

We wrote on a takhti with black ink and a qalam. Takhti was a 12”x24”x1/2” wooden board smoothened on both faces. You coated the faces with wet gaachi (a block of clay), which put a thin layer of clay on the wood. Ink was prepared in a small bottle by dissolving flakes of a black stuff in water. A small piece of muslin was also stuffed in the ink bottle; I think to provide a soft friendly medium for the qalam, when dipped in the bottle to pick up ink.

Qalam was a length of reed with one end cut carefully in the shape of a nib, with a sharp knife. The nib was given a cut at an angle in order to facilitate calligraphy. I think this was the best way to practice writing Hindi and Urdu alphabets. Once both faces of the takhti were filled and checked and marked by the Masterji, it could be washed clean and resurfaced for the next lesson.

Masterji taught us little English. But I do remember learning facilitators like “once more, ik wari hore” and “ pigeon-kabootar, udan-fly, look-dekho asmaan-sky”, also the ditty probably composed by older boys for the happy feeling of half time recess, though making no sense, “adhi chhutti da wela ho gaya, samudron paani cho gaya; chhote babu cheekh mari, wadda babu ro peya (it’s time for recess, the sea has leaked into the land; the younger baboo shrieked, the older baboo atarted to cry)”, or the joy of marching, “leftraee, thaanedar di bebe aai(left right left right, here comes the mother of the police-station head)”.

At about age 5, my eldest sister taught me how to ride a bicycle. I learnt on a full-sized men’s bike. It is possible with kainchi (scissors) technique. One holds the handle standing on the left side, puts the left foot on the left pedal, pushes the bike for a bit, then quickly puts the right foot, through the frame on to the right pedal and pedals away; standing on the two pedals!

Eventually, it was time for me to start going to the “big” school, Sir Ganga Ram High School. We had a uniform; light blue khaddar shorts and shirt during summer, white churidar pyjama and dark blue serge achkan for winter.

It was early 1940s, a tumultuous period for the world (WWII at its peak) and India (freedom struggle, INA of Subhash Bose, famine in Bengal…). Our school was deeply nationalistic. The principal was Nalini Chttopadhyaya, a sister of Sarojini Naidu; the teaching staff were also related to famous revolutionaries, e.g., Mrs. Rai, a math teacher was a daughter-in-law of Lala Lajpat Rai; Mrs. Bhatia, the English teacher was the wife of the Punjab Communist party chief.

We were taught songs with nationalistic sentiments. I do not remember many, but some have stuck in my memory:

bandook uthane ko hain abhi kamzor bahut apne kandhe, par desh ki raksha karne ko, karte hain bahut se hum dhande…” (our shoulders are weak to carry a gun yet, but we do many other jobs to protect our country…)


“…lal jhanda hai hamare haath main…” (…we have the red (communist) flag in our hands…)


guddi mujhko le kar de do; Japan ki nahin mujhe guddi chahiye, apane desh ki le kar de do, guddi mujhko le kar de do…( please buy me a doll; I do not want a Japanese doll, please buy me an Indian doll, please buy me…).

One of my class fellows was Sudha Malhotra. She became a famous playback singer for Bollywood. Even as a 7-year old, she was a very good singer. The Malhotras lived near us. I remember both our families going to watch Sudha perform on stage.

Another class fellow I remember was Brijendra Singh Raina. His father, retired at that time, had been the Deewan of Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir. They were rich. They lived in a huge bungalow in an up-market neighbourhood (I do not remember the name). Their compound included housing for their staff of cooks, bearers, chauffeurs, and Victoria or buggy drivers called saees.

Brijendra used to tell us about mujras held at his home, which he watched hiding behind a curtain when he was supposed to have gone to bed. “Deewan saab, ‘jaast (ijaazat in good Urdu, but spoken in the low-class Punjabi accent) hai…?” the elderly chaperone, chewing paan, would ask respectfully before her young dancer and the musicians began the performance.

When I was about 5 years old, we had gone to Amritsar with the baraat (wedding party of family and friends) of one of Biji’s cousins. We were all staying at a haveli (large house) in midtown. With so much to catch up with so many, Biji could not keep an eye on all her five kids. One afternoon, my sister, a year older, and I decided to go out and buy lollipops.

We did that but forgot to turn back homewards and kept walking in the opposite direction. We passed in front of saree shops with attendants unfolding saree after saree in front of fat ladies; dress material shops stacked with rolls of material, verk (super thin silver and gold foil for decorating sweets) shops with workmen beating the metal encased between layers of leather. We crossed a chowk (cross road) with a big block of pink rock salt lying in the middle and several stray cattle coming there for a lick. We realized that we should have been home after walking that much. After debating this for a minute we agreed that we were lost. Instead of panicking or crying, we were reassuring each other that when night falls, we will go to one of these shops, tell the owner that we were lost and ask him if we may stay there overnight.

So, no worries! We kept walking. This must have gone on for an hour or so before we were missed. A search party went out. My chachaji spotted us as we watched pigeons eating seeds thrown for them not far from the rock salt chowk. He came and grabbed us from behind. As soon as we saw him, we both burst out crying. That evening we were the most cuddled and pampered kids.


I remember discussions at home about our country getting independence from Britain and the possibility of getting split between India and Pakistan, a new country that the Muslims wanted for themselves. Independence was a big deal, but I do not remember the partition as being taken as a big deal at that time. As it turned out, the carnage and human suffering it caused did turn into a big deal.

I had opportunity to return to Lahore in 1999, 53 years after leaving it. The occasion was the wedding reception of a niece who married a Pakistani man, whose family lived in Lahore. My hospitable host, on my request, drove me around and took me to the old house and school.

How amazing that I could recognize so many landmarks; The Mall Road, Lawrence Gardens (Jinnah Gardens now), Queen Victoria’s Statue (Malka da butth, of my childhood), the Exhibition Hall, Anarkali Bazaar, Chuburzi, etc. I also remembered some of the critical turns on the way, going from the Mall to the old house. Some old Hindu names of streets and buildings had not been changed.

54 Guru Teg Bahadur Road was still standing and had the same address. The new owners were away, so I could not see the house from the inside. Standing and staring at it, my eyes welled up. A neighbors invited us in for a cup of tea while we waited for the owners to return. For lack of time, we thankfully declined.

No one remembered Sir Ganga Ram School on Jail road. My host took me to the only educational Institution he knew on that road, and lo and behold it was my old school; exactly as I had it in my memory. It was Lahore Women’s College now. We went in to see the Principal who received us very graciously in spite of it being an out-of-the-blue visit. She treated us to tea and delicious snacks of samosa and gulab jamun. She told us that city records had the old name as Municipal Boys’ School. She also promised to have the records corrected.


© Mahen Das. Published February 2021.


To convey how great was Lahore.lahori people always used to define as "LAA-HORE":(get more). And India of the past has so many stories about that city which was one of the capital of MughalI have just been reading about the first excursion of both Babur and later his son Hamayun and how they were thrown out of Hindustan to their lost home land .So I was keen to read this story whose ancestors came from the land of Mangoles.Moreover number of people here have written about Lahore. Moreover our friend Dr Joginder Anand is also a Lahori ,but not well to write now,I am a Lyallpuri and hardly know Lahore except what i read in history books of Raja Ranjit Singh and Mughals/ But I admire the details of Lahore and the life that time. I am reminded of my own blog about Lyallpur in 30s that was posted in Apnaland a shorten version here. I loved the old pictures published both in this LAHORE piece and the My life in BANU.Great pieces.

Awesome! so well written. Once again I was moved to tears. The first time I cried profusely was when I read Jatinder Ji's article on LyllalpuJ. Jatinder Ji and me are good friends now. I consider him family now. I respect and adore him. I was born to family from jhang-Mghiana and my mother was from a smaller village named "Baghaa" on Toba Tek Singh road towards Multaan. Dad and mom started their household in Lyallpur and soon after that independence happened. Of course she had 8 children and many were born in India - only two in lyallpur. I was born much later in independent India in Delhi in 1959. But my mom - god bless her was very Lyallpuri/Jhangi at heart and in her living style. She put us in convent schools but still had the Rajai/Tulai Makhan/Chaach, Majh, Takhti etc.. thing going on. Also, my aunts and uncles in Punjab had tough time in Independent India and were living the same way. They had Majhes (Buffoloes) and I would get the dhaar mostly on my face when I visited them when young. So many words used in the article are exactly my mom's vocabulary and I feel like she is talking to me. She made it to US and lived 20 years comfortably with me but I always liked her for who she was. My younger sister who was the last child mom had was doing her PhD in "Instructional Technology" from Columbia University and was starting to work on html's and http://WWW.coms in late 80's. The concept was before the internet era and cell phone era. I was so impressed when she said "Eh, Doubleu Doubleu Doublu (WWW) ki honda hai? She had that urge of learning till the end. It is sad that those tradition have faded. When I go to India now, everyone wants to talk in English and I am like, can we talk in our Jhangi Punjabi? That touches me most - the apnapan in my language - the mithi Punjabi. So your article touched me most in my heart as that was mom's language and life - that was her tradition and that lives within me. Many thanks

Briefly ( I try typing with one finger. 1. Lived in Chowburji Gardens Estate in 1946 to 1947 - departure to Solan). Interesting times. Used to cycle to my college ( DAV) with a folded knife in my “Dubba’. For self protection. Stupidly, never remembered that if stabbed, I would have no time to get my knife out, unfold it and hit my attacker.. you mention Qila Gujar Singh. Neta Ji Subhash was hidden there by a left wing Muslim young msn until arrangement could be made for his travel to Peshawar on the way to Kabul. At partition this young man chose to go to what remained India. Indore. To those Indians who damn all Muslims, I say, please learn to differentiate between individuals. I am friends with the nephew of the man mentioned here. 7Aj

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