This is the title of a famous short story in Punjabi language by Kulwant Singh Virk. He was a friend and a colleague of mine in Punjab Government. He edited the official Punjabi journal 'Jagriti' and I edited its English and Hindi versions. We shared an office and did a lot of talking, discussing the current affairs most of the time. A Sikh and a proud Jat from rural background, he had a lot of common sense. He had numerous anecdotes relating to rural Punjabi community. Virk's well known Punjabi story was tale of a mother who tried to keep her four sons together in a joint family bound by love and affection for each other. In spite of their mother's self- less efforts, they all went in different directions.

That, I thought, was very much my mother’s own story too.. She made desperate efforts to hold us - the nine brothers - together but it was like trying to hold a bundle of straws. My mother was unlettered but she was named Gyan Devi (Godess of learning) after her marriage to my father. She was only fifteen at the time of her wedding. That was the way it used to be at that time. An illiterate girl was considered chaste and pious. Thus, my mother was not sent to the school and was married off by her father, Lala Hardayal Malhotra, to my father Sunder Das Seth. My father at that time was a widower at the age of 27 and had already two sons (aged 10 and 8) from his first marriage.

Death at a young age was common in India. The average life-span of Indians at the time of independence was 27. Women died due to lack of hygienic medical care at child birth. Children often died due to malnutrition and pneumonia in their first five years in the world. Most deaths in India were due to tuberculosis, cholera and malaria. Plague too took its toll from time to time. My father told us of a plague epidemic in Lahore, when half the town was wiped out in his life-time and he had to leave the city to take shelter in a village.

So the fifteen year old Gyan Devi started her married life with my father as a mother of two, ten and eight year old boys. The household was headed by my grandmother who was also a widow. My grandfather had died before he was fifty of some sudden ailment. My grandmother called it the wrath of God. We now presume it was a heart attack. He died in Lahore which was the capital of Punjab and even in the city, there were not many doctors around to be called in emergency. My father was only four when grandfather died.

Where did we come from? My father told me that we originally belonged to Lahore. But, one of our ancestors joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Army and fought under the leadership of General Hari Singh Nalwa in Afghanistan wars . After the war, he and his brother settled in Peshawar and set up a business. They were called Kakkars, a Kshatriya sub-caste. There used to be a street called Kakkar Street in Peshawar, he claimed. I never checked it.

My grandfather, having learnt some English, got a government job and was appointed in a newly opened office of the Accountant General, Punjab in Lahore. He also knew Persian and Urdu which was taught in Peshawar. The people of Peshawar or the Frontier were considered to be rugged and tough. It was not easy for them to marry into local Khatri families from Lahore. By some luck or trick, our family came to be called Seths and we joined the local Khatri mainstream. Perhaps, people forgot our past as our family became educated and prosperous and, therefore, more acceptable in the mainstream Khatris of Lahore.

I was told that my grandfather had lived in Kucha Berian of Lahore for some decades and had worked in the Accountant General’s office for twenty-five years before he died. On the first of every month, he brought home his entire salary in one rupee silver coins stacked in a cloth bag. The coins jingled. To make it a pleasant occasion for all children of the street, he would bring sweets from a Halwai shop in the bazaar. The kids waited for him on every first of the month. He was perhaps the only Government servant in this area earning a good salary every month in fresh silver coins. Neighbours came to him for all kinds of advice, legal, business or related to government. He - with greying beard - was respected by all.


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