My maternal Sikh-Muslim-Christian family

Reginald Masssey


Reginald Massey

Reginald was born in Lahore before Partition. He writes books on various subjects pertaining to South Asia. A former London journalist, he now lives in Mid Wales with his actor wife Jamila. His latest book is Shaheed Bhagat Singh and the Forgotten Indian Martyrs, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi. A member of the Society of Authors, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Ed. Note: Mr. Massey's recorded memoirs of 1947 are available here in the UK National Archives. Another recording is available here.

This family saga has been set down after considerable research. The oldest member I have consulted is Joe Massey, my late mother’s youngest cousin. He is now over ninety years old, and lives in Missisuaga, near Toronto. Thankfully, his memory is still very good.


My mother was born Mary Massie, the younger of two sisters. The elder one was Rosy Massie. Their father was Alfred Augustine Massie. He was actually born as Abdul Aziz at the end of the 19th century, when his father, Haji Sahib, was a Muslim. When Haji Sahib became a Christian, he made sure that his children also became Christians. In those days children had no choice\; they simply followed their father's beliefs.

Great grandfather

Haji Sahib, my great grandfather, was an interesting character because he was born a Sikh in the mid-1800s. However, he could not stand ‘Hindu practices being smuggled into Sikhism by the back door'. His theory was that ‘Hindus give their daughters to Sikhs so that the next generation would be tainted with idolatry'. Sikhism was against idol worship. Not given to half measures, in disgust, he converted to Islam and went on the Haj. Hence, he came became ‘Haji Sahib'.

Going on the Haj in those days was a big deal. Apparently, there were armed Bedouin tribesmen who robbed and kidnapped pilgrims, and sold them into slavery. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had not been established then, and Arabia was ruled by an assortment of avaricious Sheikhs often at war with each other.

Though something of an eccentric and fundamentalist, Haji Sahib was quite a scholar, who also composed Urdu poetry. In Lahore, he was well known as the man who wrote poisonous tracts against Christianity and what he claimed were the machinations of the white missionaries. In order to debunk Christian theology he had to read the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments.

Perhaps he read too much of the Bible (indeed, too much) because after some time, he claimed, somewhat dramatically, that it was the Koran and not the Angeel (Bible) that was fraudulent and fraught with errors and contradictions. (Let us not forget that he was, when all is said and done, a Sikh Jat). Hence, he became a Christian, in fact a staunch Roman Catholic, and started scribbling virulent tracts against Islam.

In today's world, his rantings against the Prophet of Islam would, have resulted in his death a hundred times over. But, luckily for him, he lived in the days of the British Raj when there were no fatwas. However, he was often stoned and abused when he loudly preached from a platform in the Anarkali area of Lahore. (The supposed tomb of the famous dancer Anarkali, beloved of Akbar's son Salim, had been converted to a church during British times.) Before that, General Ventura, an Italian mercenary in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's army actually lived in a residence he built around the tomb when he was governor of Lahore).

Haji Sahib was the prize example of a man who did not actually change in any way. He merely changed his uniform. From extremist A, he easily became extremist B. Studying his life has taught me a lesson: Hitler, Godse, Zia-ul-Haq and Bin Laden were actually the same people. We only know them by different names.

When Haji Sahib was a Sikh, he was not married. But when he became a Muslim, he married a Muslim girl. His eldest child, a girl, was married off in her early teens to a Muslim boy. Later, when he became a Christian, his three sons and a younger daughter also became Christians.

The daughter was married off to Munshi Ghulam Qadir (a scholar of Persian descent), who was a well-known publisher of Gowal Mandi, Lahore. He was a cultivated man who owned a printing press and published Christian books and tracts in Urdu. We called Munshi Ghulam Qadir and his wife as Gowal Mandi-wallay Phupha - Phuppi. (Uncle and aunt from Gowal Mandi).

After his wife died, Munshi Ghulam Qadir took as his wife a girl from the Rallia Ram family of Lahore. The Rallia Rams were Punjabi Brahmin converts. I still remember the second Phuppi\; she held on to all the Hindu social mores though she was a strict Roman Catholic. She was a strict vegetarian, and made us remove our shoes when we entered her rasoi (kitchen). She had a beautiful light brown cow, which she fed and milked herself. And I still remember the shiny brass bucket (meticulously polished with ash) in which she collected the milk.

She spoke only Punjabi, and I can never forget her giving my brother and me lessons on how to speak with respect and decorum. When she asked us if we wanted to taste her gajjar-ka-halva we'd answer ‘Han.' She'd say sternly: ‘Han nahi! Han-ji!' (Not just ‘Yes' - add ‘ji' at the end). And then she'd take my mother to task for not teaching us proper manners. Heck, going to Gowal Mandi was hell.

They had a cottage in Solan, near Simla, to which they went during the hot Lahore summers. We called on them for short visits (thankfully!) when going up to Simla.

Haji Sahib's eldest son was called Tau by the younger members of the family. His actual name was Bashir Ahmed. He died before I came on the scene. Tau had a son called Sunny, who was my father's friend.

Haji Sahib's second son was Abdul Aziz, my Maternal Grandfather.

The third son was Shabir Ahmed, who was a manager at the military farm in Okara and later bought some land in Chak 6. He had two sons, Lawrence and Joe, and two daughters, Mary and Margaret. Margaret joined the Women's Auxiliary Force India (WAFI). She later married an Anglo-Indian planter named Daly in the Nilgiris.

When Shabir Ahmed died, Grandfather insisted that Lawrence and Joe come and live with him. Since Grandfather had no son, he treated them like his own sons. The two girls Mary and Margaret lived with their mother, who had remarried.

Grandfather (Nana-ji)

My Grandfather Massie (my Nana-ji) was a hard working student. After his matriculation (in those days called the 'Entrance'), he joined the North Western Railway as an apprentice at the railway workshops in Mughalpura. (In British days the matriculation examination was no joke\; English grammar and Maths had to be passed, else one failed). However, he scored good marks, and was sent to the Thomason College of Engineering in Roorkee, which is now a leading Indian Institute of Technology.

He was made an assistant to the chief British engineer who extended the British railway line right up to Landi Kotal, on the very border of Afghanistan. There he adopted a young Pathan lad, who became his personal valet. I mention this because later when I was very young, ‘Khan' then a grown man, was detailed to look after me. He called me ‘Bava', and I remember that he always carried me on his broad shoulders.

When he was posted at Lahore Junction, Grandfather became the first non-white to be promoted Head Train Examiner of the North Western Railway. (Lahore Junction was the most important and strategic rail junction of the whole of British India. In fact, the building was constructed like a fort with machine gun turrets, should they be required). Grandfather had to supervise a vast technical and clerical staff responsible for the engines, carriages, goods trains and even several miles of railway track.

He was given a huge, sprawling house with malis and chowkidars. His two daughters were of marriageable age, and various offers were made and carefully considered. Unfortunately, Rosie had rather inflated ideas about herself\; she played badminton and tennis, danced at the club (which was the normally preserve of white girls), and was ‘choosey'.

Many a suitor did she reject. Among them one Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai, a young man who, after Oxford, had recently joined the Indian Civil Service, the topmost cadre of the British Raj. (Mangat Rai then married Champa Singha, daughter of Rai Bahadur S.P. Singha, Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, and later Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru's niece and Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit's novelist daughter.)

At that time, one of my father's close friends was Sunny Massie, son of my Nanaji's elder brother, Bashir Sahib. It was Sunny who suggested that my father might like to see his cousin Rosie. And so, escorted by Sunny, my father went to the Railway Officers' Colony to see what was on offer. He rejected Rosie because he thought she was too dark. (He himself was dark\; but all South Asians have a serious complex about skin colour\; they love gora rang, white skin.)

Then, he saw Mary, the younger sister, who had long hair and was very fair complexioned. He whispered to Sunny: ‘I prefer the younger sister'. And so the marriage took place at the Roman Catholic Church on Empress Road, Lahore. But, before that, my father had to join the Holy Roman Church, which he readily did in order to acquire a fair complexioned wife. (The sacrifices that Indian men underwent in order to capture a fair complexioned wife!)

I have an old picture of the rather grand wedding sent to me from Pakistan by Pervaiz William, the eldest offspring of my cousin George William. The two pageboys in the picture are Joe Massey (my mother's first cousin) and George William (my father's nephew: his elder sister Lajwanti's son). I was the initial result of the marriage.

My maternal grandparents in Lahore in 1928. My mother is on the right with her pet bunny rabbit. On the left is her elder sister, Rosie.

Sunny was in Quetta in 1935 when the notorious Quetta earthquake hit and killed several thousands. His wife, who was his cousin, was killed, as was his daughter. Badly injured he was taken to hospital in Karachi. When he has informed that his wife and daughter had died, he tore off his bandages and shouted to the nurses: ‘Let me die! I have nothing to live for now!' He died soon after.

My Nanaji doted on me\; spoilt me thoroughly since I was his first grandson. As a child, I loved eating chocolates and I was filled with Cadbury chocolates from England only available from the Sahib's' shops in Lahore. Hence, the poor condition of my teeth.

I remember the following vividly and Uncle Joe Massey also remembers it.

In those days in Lahore, only Hindus lit their houses with Dewali divas. Muslims and even Sikhs did not decorate their homes with lights. I was then seven or eight years old, and saw that in the big house opposite there were fireworks (patakas) and divas. (Only many years later I discovered it was the house of a Mr Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit, who was the sole Indian on the board of the North Western Railway. The Kauls were related to the Nehrus. In fact, the Nehrus are Kauls). When I saw the lights, I demanded: ‘I too want those lights and fireworks here! Why don't we have lights on our house?' I started crying and stamping and rolling about.

Grandfather then said: ‘Get the servants to go to the bazaar and buy divas and oil and fireworks. And the rest of you start making the wicks!' Cushions were ripped open and the cotton wool was rolled into small wicks. Within an hour, the house had Dewali divas\; and we went out onto the lawn and let off the fireworks.

Next morning Mr Kaul called to see Grandfather, and said: ‘Mr Massie, last night we saw you celebrating Dewali. Congratulations! Dewali Mubarak Ho!' Grandfather said: ‘Kaul Sahib, it's because of my grandson. He would not stop wailing without the divas. And we also got lots of Dewali sweets to keep him quiet.' This news spread and one of Grandfather's Hindu clerks told Grandfather very seriously: ‘Sir, we are sure your grandson was a Hindu in his last janam.' (Janam means birth. Many Hindus believe in reincarnation).

Many years later, when I was researching a book, I discovered that many of Akbar's Hindu subjects really believed that Akbar was a Hindu in his last janam because he celebrated festivals such as Dewali. I feel I am somewhat fortunate to be bracketed with the great man.

But that is not the only coincidence. Decades later, when I was in London, I was invited to the home of an eminent Gujarati surgeon for a party. He didn't tell me what the party was for but since it was November 23 (my birthday) I suspected that he and some other friends had somehow found out and were going to surprise me with a birthday party. When I entered the foyer of the huge house in north London, I heard bhajans being sung, and the place was decorated with flowers. The Gujarati incense was quite overpowering. And in the main drawing room was a full-length painting of Sai Baba. On greeting me, the host's charming wife, who had learnt classical Indian dance in her youth, said, ‘We're so happy Massey Sahib that you could come to celebrate Sai Baba's birthday'. I replied: ‘I too am happy to have come, for today is my birthday.'

I thought that I'd dropped a clanger\; committed a faux pas. But no. Everyone came to shake my hand and congratulate me for being born on Sai Baba's birthday. It was, they told me, a sacred day for all the Guru's followers. The host grabbed his mobile and informed everyone he knew that there was a guest in his house who was born on November 23, the great day. And, in his excitement, he laid it on with a trowel: his guest was a great writer, and his wife was a great actress, etc, etc, etc. Indians, as the world knows, don't believe in the simple English virtue of understatement. They jumped into their cars and made their way to central London. They first paid their homage in front of the Guru's painting and then made a beeline for me. Now they all know me as ‘the man who is great because he was born on Sai Baba's birthday'. All this tickles me.

William Massey, a distant uncle, had a natural aptitude for mathematics. But he was thoroughly eccentric\; my father thought that William was slightly mad, and he was not the only one who thought so. At Forman Christian College, William topped all the Maths examinations, and his professors were prepared to send him abroad on a full scholarship. However, Mad William blotted his copybook. One day at a lecture, he stood up and rudely challenged his Professor (an American) about some abstruse mathematical problem that was being explained on the blackboard. He said that the Professor did not know his subject and was misleading his students.

William was ignominiously expelled. That exacerbated his insanity. He would disappear for days on end, and then be was picked up and dragged home. He developed a persecution complex and ranted that even his own relatives were jealous of him because he was a genius. He was finally committed to the Lahore lunatic asylum. Another cousin, Gladys, was also committed to the women's section of the Lahore asylum.

Grandfather took his family responsibilities seriously. When his Apa's sons (Apa is a term of respect for ‘Elder Sister') were in college in Lahore, they lived in the big house with him. His elder sister (my mother's Batale-walli Phuphi) was purdah nashin, and wore a burkah when she stirred out of the house. Whenever she visited Abdul Aziz (that is what she insisted on calling Grandfather), she came to Lahore in a First Class Ladies Compartment from Batala. The driver had to stop the train at a particular part of the platform where Grandfather had a kanat (canvas enclosure) put up. She would step off there with a niece or two, and be transported in a Victoria carriage (with the curtains drawn) to her brother's home. Before she entered the house, the cook was instructed to make sure that there was no pork, bacon or ham in the kitchen or icebox (no electric refrigerators then). The meat was always halal freshly slaughtered chicken, beef or mutton from a Muslim butcher.

So careful were we all not to hurt her sentiments. My Grandfather always said: ‘Remember, blood is thicker than water.' It simply meant: ‘Personal belief has its place in your life, but a relationship of blood is paramount'. In today's scientific jargon, it would mean DNA compatibility.

I distinctly remember that Batale-walli Phuphi told me (when I was taken by Uncle Joe in 1943 to pay my respects to her) that the biggest blow she ever suffered in her life was when her own father became a Christian. Her Muslim husband and in-laws, she told me, taunted her endlessly.

But she also proudly told me that one of her Sikh forebears, commander of a misl, had fought the Mughals and was decapitated\; and the Mughal cavalrymen played polo with his head. She gave me the name of her ancestor, which I now dimly recollect as Something, Something Singh Attariwala. Attari, now on the Indo-Pak border is not very far from Batala. Interestingly, she also told me that one of her ancestors was Hari Singh Nalwa, who was the commander of the army of the Sikh Empire in the early 1800s. She also told me that the famous Punjabi poet Qadir Yaar had composed an epic poem in Punjabi about Nalwa's attack on Afghanistan.

Lawrence, much older than Joe, was a tough type who believed in beating up people rather than wasting time in arguments. Lawrence ran away to Bombay, and somehow joined the Mogul Line, a British-owned steamship company that specialised in taking Indian Muslims to the port of Jeddah, from where they proceeded to Mecca for the Haj. He became an engineer on a steamship called the SS Alavi.

It is doubtful if he ever had a steamship engineering certificate. But in those days, companies could take on uncertificated officers provided they had the requisite experience. Lawrence, being Lawrence, could easily have convinced them on that score. His English was good, he had a good physique and always used his fists to good effect. Also, Grandfather had got him an apprenticeship at the Mughalpura railway workshops. But he never completed the four-year course. The Anglo-Indian instructors expected apprentices to work their guts out, and Uncle Lawrence did not believe in too much work. He thought that work was for the ‘working classes'. Hence his flit to Bombay.

Now comes the interesting part. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British had to expand the Royal Indian Navy mainly because of the impending Japanese threat to British colonies in South East Asia. Also, there were dark rumours that German submarines were marauding in the Arabian Sea. The Royal Navy was too tied up with protecting British waters. In other words, there was a dire need for men who knew the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. And thus, Lawrence Massey (he adopted that spelling and dropped ‘Massie') wrangled a commission in the Royal Indian Navy only because the British captain of the SS Alavi gave him a glowing report.

Now that he had ‘made it', he wanted a wife.

He seduced a good-looking Goan girl named Emily Baretto, daughter of the owner of Baretto &amp\; Shepherd, the leading tailoring house in Bombay. Their main show room was just behind the Taj Mahal Hotel. Their clientele numbered people like the Tata family, Sir Victor Sassoon, the Aga Khan and the Nizam's family.

Mr Baretto had learnt cutting and tailoring in London. Lt. Lawrence Massey, Royal Indian Navy, convinced Mr Baretto and his family that he was an ‘officer and a gentleman' and married Emily in Bombay's Catholic cathedral. Then, with his wife, the Prodigal returned to Lahore.

At this time, Grandfather was dead, and my father was away on the Burma front, somewhere near the Arakan area. Rosie, by then married to a government clerk named Dewan Chand Samuel, whom she bullied, was also in Lahore. (She said that she had been forced to marry ‘beneath' her). She didn't want to see Lawrence or his wife. (Rosie also hated my father for the valid reason that he had rejected her years ago).

But my mother welcomed Lawrence and Emily. Lawrence had only 28 days' shore leave. After staying with us for about a fortnight at Lahore's Ferozepur Road, where we had our somewhat large bungalow, he took his wife to Batala to pay her respects to his Phuphi, his father's eldest sister.

In Batala (known to Muslims as ‘Batala Sharif': ‘Holy Batala') lived whom my mother and Lawrence and Joe and Rosie called Batalae-walli Phuphi. She was, as I've said above, the daughter of Haji Sahib, and the elder sister of my Grandfather. She was now a widow but owned a haveli in Batala's Sheikhan-da-Darwaza (the ‘Gateway of the Sheikhs').

A digression - but a necessary one.

I remember her as a beautiful woman, even in advanced age. A devout Muslim, she insisted that her sons study hard. Uncle Yusuf graduated from the prestigious King Edward VII Medical College in Lahore, at the time regarded as the leading medical college in the entire subcontinent. He later became a distinguished professor of Pathology. His sons and grandsons are even today leading surgeons and consultants in the USA and Pakistan. Uncle Hamid was a successful lawyer when the profession was dominated by Hindus in the United Punjab. Her youngest son Rashid was an orchard owner.

The Muslims of Gurdaspur district believed that since it was a Muslim majority district, though only marginally, it would go to Pakistan. But that did not happen. It is a long story, and this is not the place to discuss the Radcliffe Award. Anyway, in 1947, it was my father who pulled strings and managed to get his Phuphi-in-law and her entire family to Lahore. An Indian Army truck, driven and guarded by Gurkhas, took them safely to the Attari-Wagah checkpoint. Later, they were allotted a big house in Lahore's Shahdara, which had been evacuated by a wealthy Hindu family.

Let me cut back (in film jargon) to Uncle Lawrence Massey. He did not understand that Emily, who was a ‘Brahmin Christian' and who had thus far only known Goan Catholics, would be extremely ill at ease with Punjabi Muslims, even though they were his relatives. The Barettos are even today an important Goan family in Mumbai.

Uncle Lawrence failed to tell his wife that she was going to meet an entirely different civilisation: different religion, food, colour, social values and behaviour patterns. These considerations did not occur to him. Being a male chauvinist, he expected his wife to accept and respect his blood relations. In Batala, his Phuphi greeted him warmly - he was, after all, her younger brother's son.

And she placed her hand on Emily's head. Emily, unprepared, pulled back. She expected her husband's aunt to kiss her on both cheeks! That was a bad omen. For both. Emily spoke no Punjabi. Phuphi spoke no English. A break-down of communication. Emily had entered the room without her head covered and held low\; she did not know that the old lady considered this highly disrespectful.

And then the worst humiliation for poor Emily. Phuphi admonished her nephew Lawrence thus: Ay te kali hey! (She is dark!'). Emily knew no Punjabi but she KNEW the dreadful word kali. It is a word well recognised in Bombay. That one word soured Emily. When she came back from Batala, she told my mother: ‘Sister, your people did not accept me. They called me kali.'

My mother tried to placate her but it did not work. That one dreaded word had devastated a strikingly attractive Goan girl forever.

In 1946, Uncle Lawrence found himself on the streets of Bombay without a job, humiliated, without money and, worse, his name expunged from the records of the Royal Indian Navy. (Ed. note: The story of how this happened is here.) His marriage had already ended. He had nothing. We do not know what happened to him after that. But I got a small indication in 1951 when I took off from Delhi for the city of Bombay.

Why do dissatisfied young Indians make for Bombay? Like many others, when I was in a very bad way and penniless, I decided to go to Bombay and make contact with Uncle Lawrence or Aunty Emily. And thus, I ventured into the posh air-conditioned premises of Baretto and Shepherd.

I told one of the assistants that I wanted to meet Mr Baretto. ‘Which Mr Baretto?' ‘Any one,' I answered. A smart character of about thirty or thereabouts appeared and said: ‘I am Mr Baretto's son. Who are you?' ‘My name is Reginald Massey. I am the nephew of Mr Lawrence Massey.' ‘Get out!' he shouted. ‘You bastards ruined my only sister. He joined the mutiny in Bombay and gave us all a bad name. He destroyed my family. Never enter this place again or I'll call the police!'

I made a very quick exit. It seemed that the name ‘Massey' was not highly regarded in some respectable Goan circles.


My mother died in Ambala Cantonment on October 2, 1982. She was regarded as the mother (Mata-ji) of the risala (cavalry regiment) simply because her son-in-law was the commanding officer of the regiment. Her body was followed by all the officers and sowars (armoured corps troopers) to the Catholic Church in Ambala Cantonment, and later to the cemetery. The church was jam packed as representatives of other regiments also attended the funeral. I salute the Indian Army, and particularly the Armoured Corps (formerly the Indian Cavalry) for treating her with decency and dignity.

When she died, I was struggling in distant London.

© Reginald Massey 2014


Dear Mr. Massey, I have read the account with rapt attention and found it fascinating. Your take on the mixing up of the religions and relatives is breath taking. Your recall or research in family matters is great.

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