Editor's note: Indira Pasricha dictated this story five days before her death in May 2017 to her niece, Neera Burra. Indira was 100 years old when she passed away.
Indira Pasricha, left, with Neera Burra. Delhi. 2015
My Dadaji's (paternal grandfather) family belonged to Bhera in Shahpur district in Punjab; Bhera became part of Pakistan after Independence). All of his family called him Lalaji. He was Prof. Ruchi Ram Sahni (5 April 1863 - 3 June 1948), a well-known scientist who taught Chemistry in Government College, Lahore. He was best known for popularizing science. He used to give public lectures on street corners and in villages in Punjabi to make ordinary people understand scientific issues.
My grandmother was Ishwari Devi, who was called Beji. She was an Anand, and belonged to a well-known family of bankers in pre-Partition Punjab.
My great-grand father, Karm Chand Sahni, left Bhera, and settled down in Dera Ismail Khan, on the Indus River. My grandfather, his brother, Lala Dhanpat Rai, and his sister grew up in Dera Ismail Khan.
Karm Chand was very ambitious person. He was a sahukar (moneylender), well-known trader, and a cloth merchant. He had a thriving business. He used to send silks, spices, herbs, etc. to Paris. Ships used to ply on the Indus River bringing all these things.
Once there was a big storm, and the ships sank. The Sahnis lost everything. They had to sell off their assets. Karm Chand got very dejected. He went back to Bhera, and died there.
Lalaji used to tell us of the hardships the family went through during this time. Lalaji was considered to be a brilliant student, and was keen to study. He went to the Church Mission school in Dera Ismail Khan. Later he went to Jhang. Finally, he came to Lahore to study in the Government High School. Here, he stood first in all of Punjab.
After completing his school education, he joined Government College.
When he finished his education, he was offered a job by the Meteorological office in Simla. He worked there for two years. Then he came back to Lahore as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in Government College. He retired in 1918, when he was 55 years old, one year after I was born.
Lalaji was a brilliant scientist. He started the Punjab Science Institute where they repaired and also made laboratory equipment for schools. Earlier all the laboratory equipment came from England. He gave many lectures in English and Punjabi on scientific subjects for the common man.
Lalaji had nine children: five sons and four daughters. In 1886, when Lalalji was 23 years old and Beji was 17, my father Bikramjit was born. Next was a girl, Ramrakhi buaji (father's sister). Then came Uncle Birbal followed by Lajwanti buaji, Uncle Mulk, Leela buaji, Uncle Bodh, Lakhvanti buaji, and finally Uncle Manohar, who was born in May 1906 at Bhera.
Lalalji had an eye for property. He bought a large plot next to Bradlaugh Hall to build a house. Lalaji's house was just behind the Government Central Model School and the veterinary hospital. There was also a small road leading to reach outside. Most of the houses around Lalaji's house belonged to people who were also in the teaching line.
Lalaji and Beji lived in the kothi (big house) at 22 Rattigan Road with two of their sons, Bodh Raj and Manohar Lal. Lalaji built two houses for two of his daughters Leela buaji and Lakhvanti buaji in the same compound. Uncle Manohar also had his rubber factory in the compound. My parents also lived on Rattigan Road for a few years, and then moved to another house. Lalaji bought my father a plot on Beadon Road to build a house.
On one side of the house was Rattigan Road and on the other side was Qutb Road. On the Qutb Road side, there was a Muslim Takia (roadside grave) where a Muslim Pir, Shudhaullah Shah used to sit. Once when we were coming back from school in a tonga, the Pir came out from behind the Takia and showed us chuhiyas; we got really scared and ran into the family compound. These chuhiyas were deformed human beings with very small heads. We were told later that the heads of small children were tied up so that the head would not grow but the body would. This was a very scary sight.
Lalaji owned one side of Mohanlal Road which was also very close by. On the ground floor, there were shops, and on upper floor, there were flats. There was a ghee ki dukan (ghee shop). Lalaji also had his scientific workshop on Mohanlal Road. Sometimes we children also went to see what was going on.
On Mohanlal Road, there was a house for Ramrakhi buaji as well. The workshop was situated there. The next flat was of Lalaji's younger brother, Govardhan Das. His son Chaman had a shop below, selling school stationery like copy books, pens, pencil, slate, takhtees (writing slate), etc. Next flat was given to Ramrakhi buaji, who was married to Ram Divaya, and the front portion to one of his nephews, who had a shop making aerated water.
Ramrakhi buaji fell very sick and my father had gone there to stay and look after her. However, she could not survive long.
On the other side, a flat was given to Beji's elder sister Lakshmi. Most of the relations stayed quite near.
Lalaji used to go for a morning walk, and if there was an auction going on he would sometimes make a bid. He bought a lot of property, which he sold whenever he needed to pay for his sons' education. All of his five sons went to England to study, and Lalaji paid for all of them by selling land.
My father was born on 31 October 1886 in Bhera. When he young, once Lalaji bought a rubber snake and kept it on his table. When Lalaji asked my father to go and bring something from the table, on seeing the snake he was so petrified that he refused to go, and developed a mortal fear of snakes.
My father was his mother's favourite. Whenever Beji would keep a fast, he insisted he would also fast. So Beji, instead of discouraging him would say, "You eat only from the left side today, and the next time you can eat from the right side." (Making him eat from one side of the mouth was to give him the feeling that he was participating in the fast.)
When he was studying, Beji would often keep a basket full of fruits on his study table, which he would share with his siblings. These were the few anecdotes, which my father told me when I was a child.
In 1905, there was a severe earthquake in Kangra. My father went with Lalaji and joined the team for the rescue operation. This was just before he went to England for his medical studies, after completing his studies King Edwards Medical College, Lahore. He was the family doctor.
In later years, when Lalaji was old and not keeping well, he used to come and stay with us at night. In the morning, he would return to Rattigan Road to do his writing work. This was important so that my father could look after him. When Lalaji stayed with us, he would first drop me to college and then go home. Sometimes he would get late which meant that I would also get late to College. I was always worried about going late.
My father came back in 1912 from England with Medical Degrees in LRCP&S (Edinburg) and DPH (London). He took a house on rent on Mall Road with his barrister friend, Diwan Ram Lal, and started private practice. My father took the front side and Uncle Ram Lal preferred the side on Fane Road, as most of the lawyers stayed on Fane Road. On the opposite side was the Lahore High Court.
My father was a very well-known doctor. When firing was going around during the martial law days, somebody came rushing into our house with a gunshot in his leg, bleeding very badly. My father immediately gave him medical help and took out the bullet. I vaguely remember that my Lajwanti buaji was infected with the deadly flu of 1918. My father had brought her home to treat her but could not save her. She died leaving behind three children.
It was the beginning of the First World War, and my father had to medically examine the people who were being sent to fight. I remember there were lines of them. Following this service, my father got the title of "Major", which he soon gave up.
Soon after coming back from England, my father married my mother Ram Devi, daughter of Diwan Tek Chand and Smt. Prem Devi. My maternal grandfather was then the Commissioner of Gujranwala. There he laid the foundation stone of Nankana Sahib Gurdwara. Nankana Sahib was between Lahore and Gujranwala and was the birth place of Guru Nanak. Earlier there was a small temple there.
My uncles, aunts and cousins
Ramrakhi buaji was born in 1888. She married Guru Dwaya Chandiok. They had six children: Jagdish, Kaushalya, Shakuntala (kunto) Savitri, Shanta and Swaraj were her children. She died on 11 May 1923 from pneumonia.
Uncle Birbal and Aunty Savitri lived in Lucknow. Birbal was a famous paleobotanist, who was a professor at Lucknow University. They had no children. Uncle Birbal loved children, and we used to look forward to his visits to Lahore. We used to call him tamashe wale uncle (uncle with fun and show". He would make animals out of hankies or dupattas, which he would put on his hand. Sometimes he made rabbits, sometimes chuhas (rats) with his hands.
Once when tents were being put up for the Science Congress in Lalaji's house, we children would try and slide of the poles. Whiles others would stop us from doing this, Uncle Balbir would tell us to climb and jump and slide. He had a toy monkey puppet and he used to make up a lot of stories for us children. He would organize races for us as well.
Beji had a charkha (spinning wheel) that she was very fond of. One lori (a festival in January), she put the charkha in the lori bonfire. Everybody was surprised. She later told me that she had sacrificed her charkha and prayed that Aunty Savitri would have a child. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Lajwanti buaji married Bodh Raj Sabarwal, a railway engineer. She died in 1918 of influenza. Papa looked after her during her illness in our house but he could not save her. Lajwanti buaji and Bodh Raj Sabarwal had three children: Prem, Damyanti (known as Damo), and a son called Kanwal. After her death, the three children lived with Leela buaji in Rattigan Road. Kanwal stayed mostly with his father's family.
Uncle Mulk was a geologist. He also liked to take a lot of photos; he was the only one in the family who took photos. Whenever he came to Lahore, he would take photos of everyone, particularly of Beji and other ladies working in the kitchen. He took a lot of photos of Lalaji. He was married to Aunty Shyama. They had three children: Kamini, Mohini and Ashok.
Leela buaji was married to a famous historian, Prof. Sitaram Kohli who also taught at Government College, Lahore. Leela buaji was a very active lady and gave lectures. They had four children: Usha, Gautam, Shyama and Bhisham.
Uncle Bodh was a barrister. He spent a lot of time in Srinagar where his in-laws lived. He married Lakshvanti Sethi. They had three children: Kailash, Ramesh and Vinni.
Lakhvanti buaji was married to Lala Arjan Dev. He was a journalist and edited a newspaper called Karm Vir. He was a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha.
I remember my youngest buaji, Lakhvanti's wedding. There was great excitement. Masalas were getting ground in the verandah. There was a specialist from Amritsar doing salma work. One suit was made for me also. At that time, the women in my community did not go out for shopping. There was somebody called Nanda. He would make clothes on order. And the jewellers brought jewellery, and we would choose what we wanted.
For one week there was singing and dancing. When the barat came I was very excited because the groom Arjan Dev was so tall and handsome. He picked me up. I told my mother to wake me up for the wedding and the vidai. But they forgot and the doli had gone. I slept throughout.
When I got up the wedding celebrations were over. I was very upset and cried and cried.
Once when I had gone to Rishikesh for a BJP meeting, I met Bhai Parmanand's sister. When I told her about my uncle Lala Arjan Dev, she said that when her father, Bhai Parmanand was interned in the Andamans, Lala Arjan Dev looked after the family in Lahore and even gave them money and food. The family was very grateful for all this help.
Lala Arjan Dev and Lakhvanti buaji had five children: Suvira, Prahlad, Shakti, Asha and Arvind. I am very close to Shakti. Whenever I went to Lahore after my wedding, I would cycle to Rattigan Road from Lawrence Road to visit them, and even stay there for a few nights.
Uncle Manohar was a rubber technologist, and had a rubber factory in Lahore. He married Shanti Puri on 6 December 1933 in Sialkot. I remember going to their wedding. It was great fun. Ramesh and Shakti were very naughty. They took the garlands from the bride and bridegroom and wore them and pretended to have a children's wedding. They kept saying "Aunty Uncle together".
Uncle Manohar and Aunty Shanti had five children: Malti, Anil, Sunil, Anila and Sunita.
I was very close to my cousins and we had a lot of fun together growing up in Lahore. I kept in touch with all my cousins, their children and grandchildren even after we all left Lahore. The family is a close knit one.
Family life and activities
Our family was very friendly with Sir Ganga Ram, a Civil Engineer and a great philanthropist. In 1921, Sir Ganga Ram very hesitatingly asked my father to start a charitable hospital in Lahore, as there were no medical facilities for the poor, and he felt very sad about it. (Earlier he had started a widows' home.) There was only one Hospital in Lahore, and that too for rich and the British.
My father gave up his private practice to pursue the honorary job to help the people in distress. Thus, a hospital for poor people was set up inside the Shah Almi gate at a place called Wachchowali. My father joined the hospital as an Honorary Chief Medical Officer. My father's uncle Dhanpat Rai gave a donation of Rs. 30,000/- for the hospital. It would be worth crores as of today. My Nanaji gave him a car because the hospital was quite a distance from his home, and that time only tongas were available as transportation.
Lalaji was very keen that everybody should study. He asked all his relations and friends to send their children to live with him so that they could study in Lahore. Many of them came and stayed there because life was simple and they could manage. All Beji's brothers studied there and did brilliantly.
I was very happy because so many people stayed in the house. Lalaji's very close friend's daughter Saraswati also studied here. We used to call her buaji. Later she married Lala Lajpat Rai's eldest son. Lalaji was also very friendly with Lala Lajpat Rai, who lived quite near.
Mr. Stokes, the apple king of Himachal was a very close friend of Lalaji. He was staying in our house wearing khadi and smoking a hookah, and that made me curious. Many years later, I met his daughter and told him about the relationship between our families.
In those days, there were not many servants. Hence, household work was mostly done by the ladies of the house. I watched Beji busy with work making sweets, lassi and other things from milk. She had a big trunk full of sweets like gur ki sevian, mathri, prakri, shaker para - things that were not perishable. In the morning, Beji would get ready and make ghee ki roti with ajwain. It was so crisp. I have never eaten anything like this.
In the Rattigan Road compound, there was a big thara (raised platform). In winter, after lunch, all the ladies would come together and bring their knitting, embroidery or whatever they were doing. Beji always had sweets for us children.
I used to watch Beji spin on the charkha. I would sit next to her and try to spin too. When they saw my enthusiasm, they got me a special charkha from Kashmir. It was red and green and silver. I learnt a little spinning. Years later, when I was a member of the Seva Dal, I got six charkhas from Gandhi Bhavan and taught girls how to spin. When I went to Ahmedabad, I saw Gandhiji's charkha and asked if I could try it.
My grandfather used to take us to all religious functions e.g. Baisakhi, Dasherra, Deepawali and Basant Panchami. On Baisakhi, we used to dye our cloths in yellow colour, my brother used to fly kites, and I used to make the Tarawa (the string to which the kite is tied to). On the occasion of Lori, we used to make a bonfire and throw rewari and popcorn in it. On Holi, we played with colour, and my grandfather used to tell us the story of Prahlad Bhagat.
Lalaji used to spend the summers in Kashmir. I remember that once I went with my parents to Srinagar. I must have been about 8 years old. We went to Matan to meet the pandahs. I also wrote my name in the book. In winter, the pandahs would come to Lahore. Lalalji always gave them food and some money.
There were no toy shops when we were young. We used to create our own toys.
Lalaji had kept some models of working steamship, road roller, steam engines, etc. in his scientific workshop. When lndarjit came home, he used to bring home these machines, and try to work them since he was very interested to learn about the working of these machines. Later, he had a Meccano set also and all the tools. We could get a magazine called Popular Mechanics from Dyal Singh Library, where my grandfather was one of the trustees. My brother used to make all sorts of toys using used articles e.g. cigarette tins, etc.
Lalaji wanted to start a sulphuric acid factory. There was already a factory running in Calcutta, and he wanted to see how it was working. So he went with a friend wearing ordinary Bengali clothes. He came back and started a sulphuric acid factory in Shahdara across the river Ravi and handed it over to my father to work. Besides sulphuric acid they also made other things like phenyl, etc. He kept a manager - B.L. Kishen? - to look after it. (He was very loyal and helpful - kept up with us even after Partition). It was working very well. We used to go there on Sundays.
When my older brother Indarjit finished his college education, he was sent to Frankfurt to study chemical engineering so that he could take over the factory. But he was more interested in mechanical engineering. When Misri Mamaji (mother's brother) went to England, Indarjit went to London. He joined a factory which made planes in South Hampton and became a ground engineer.
When the Second World War started, Indarjit joined the Royal Air Force and was on active service in the Middle East throughout the war. When the War ended in 1945, he went to Berlin in a big chauffeur driven limousine and watched a play from Hitler's cubicle.
Then, he wanted to come back home. He applied to the Indian Air Force. They offered him quite a low paid job. He was so upset that he went and joined Imperial Tobacco Company (ITC).
© Neera Burra 2017
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