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An Uncle’s Keepsake

As children if we ever called Nihal, an elderly helper in our household, by his name, our grandfather or father would chide us and strictly exhort us to address him respectfully as “Bhai ji. Many were the occasions when our mother, grandmother, father or grandfather took us to task for forgetting their instruction and calling him Nihala. In childhood this was beyond our understanding because Nihala was one of many servants in the family, like Gura or Fika, and we called all of them by their names. Then what was so different about Nihal Masih to deserve this extra bit of reverence. But as we grew older we realized the significance of what Nihal Masih had done for our family and we went around telling people of his unparalleled sacrifice. It was in 1947, the year of the partition of the country after independence, when our family crossed the border at Wahga entering India with a few necessary belongings, leaving our father to come with the refugee caravan bringing the rest of the goods in a cart. When the cart had been loaded and my father was about to leave the village, he found the old retainer of his grand father, Nihal Masih and his twelve year old son, standing next to the cart all ready to leave with him. They had packed a few clothes in a large carpet bag. Every one in the village was amazed to see them standing with the crowd of Hindu and Sikh refugees about to leave. All the other Christian families were either coolly watching or saying goodbyes to the departing ones. On coming to say his goodbye to Nihal, my father was amazed to hear his request. Nihal had decided to accompany my father on his way to India. All his efforts to make him understand the gravity of the situation and the possible danger to life, as also the uncertainty of future abode or the likelihood of ever reaching there safely, were in vain. My father tried his best to dissuade him by telling him that he might be taken for a Hindu or a Muslim and killed by the communal bigots of either faith. Even the other villagers advised him not to follow my father on this journey. But Nihal paid no heed to all these arguments .With tearful eyes he stuck to his resolve, saying all the while that “how could it be. The  Nambardar’ had helped us so often on many an occasion. How could I betray him in his time of need. Even if I have to face death I would do that happily but I would not let him go alone in this dangerous time.” With this said, he jumped to the front of the cart taking hold of the reins, while his son Wadhawa and my father settled on the back seat. They crossed about eight or ten fields to join the
caravan of refugees; and once again my father tried to impress upon Nihal the wisdom of going back as in such a time and situation even the relatives did not
help one another. Why then should Nihal expose himself to danger. He should return to his own kin and remain safe. But Nihal was adamant in his resolve to accompany my father. On the way many Muslims were meeting and embracing their known Hindus and Sikhs, but none of them could make any sense of what was happening, and what would be the outcome of all this. With tears in their eyes they were all hopeful that soon every thing would be all right and that they would be returning home; occupying the same houses that they had vacated themselves so recently. If nothing else at least they would be meeting one another. While moving onwards, their eyes turned time and again to look longingly and lingeringly at their forsaken houses. With this hope in his mind ‘Bhai ji’ stayed on for three or maybe four months in our new house on this side. This was the period when he could easily have gone back if he so much as wished it. But then after, the respective authorities in both countries issued a permit to make any visit. Even this would not have proved a difficulty. And then one day my grandfather reasoned thus with Nihal Masih, “As you have to work on land with your hands here as well as there, if you so wish, why don’t you stay on here only,” and he got one of his allotted houses rebuilt and gave it to Nihal, who then on decided to stay on permanently. His son Wadhawa got married, and Bhai ji soon had grand children. And then he started feeling homesick, missing his brothers and his birth place.

He applied for a passport. But he was discouraged by the heavy paperwork and the objections, like a wrong birth date or some other misinformation. In those days one had to go to Delhi for the issuance of a passport and this would prove too much for him; and he would give up. But then his nostalgia would surface again in the form of a dream. He would dream of his father saying “the graves in Chak 96 are waiting for you. Why don’t you go back and rest in the graves adjacent to your brother’s.”

He would continue in this vein for some days, then forget it all. The wish to see his family would crop up again. The application for the passport would again be lodged but the half-hearted effort had to be forsaken. At last, it seemed as if he had either given up the desire to ever meet his separated family or may  be he had just repressed it. He never talked about it, and nobody ever asked him whether he had anything to say.

Then in 1971 my grandfather suffered a brain hemorrhage and a resultant stroke. We placed his bed in the courtyard under the sun. I was so upset that I could not do anything that day. The doctor made the visit but was not much hopeful of recovery. My grandfather went on looking fixedly with glazed eyes
at every one but could not speak. When Nihal Masih got to know he left every thing and rushed to my grandfather’s bedside. He started pressing his legs, but
Bhaia ji (my grandfather) did not speak and his eyes were still fixed in their gaze, though I could see that his eyes were brimming with tears. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen him cry. He had never admitted defeat and I knew that he had gone through a lot. He had faced many a crisis with fortitude.
Having lost acres of ancestral land and a mansion which could accommodate at least a hundred guests, not to talk of smaller houses, horses, servants, and a farming arrangement of at least eleven ploughs at a time when tractors were not available, all this and much more, was not a small sacrifice. May be all this was going through his mind, and in my mind also, while Nihal was still pressing his legs showing the deep and special bond between the master and the attendant. At night we took his bed inside. Nihal Masih came again at 10 o’clock that night. He was carrying a Bible wrapped in a beautiful cloth. He would put the Bible repeatedly on his head while murmuring words of prayer in his mouth. I knew he could not read. He was squatting on the floor and was saying the prayers with his eyes closed all the time. My father asked him again and again to take a seat on a chair or a bed but he would decline with his head, while all the time his lips were chanting a litany of prayers.

Later that night my grandfather died. Bhai Nihal went on sitting by his bedside till the dead body was taken for the funeral. All this while he did not take even
a morsel of food. Nihal Masih had lived for nearly a hundred years when he died in 1995. His deep attachment for Bhaia ji Grand Father made itself manifest in his reminiscences of his time spent with his master. By now he had even stopped wishing about meeting his brothers, and nephews. If some one ever asked him about them he would himself wonder if any one of them would even be living, as he had not heard from them for ages. However he would bless them, even though he felt that he was no longer sure of his ability to recognize their faces were he ever to see them face to face.

Recently when I got a chance to visit Pakistan, I went specially to see my father in my village so that I could take with me the names and addresses of the people living in our old village in Pakistan. I sent for Nihal’s son Wadhawa and asked for the names of his uncles and their sons. He was insistent that I should
meet his relatives and bring back the news of their well-being. On reaching our old village Chak no.96 I was warmly welcomed and surrounded by curious eyes. I talked about a lot of old-timers, and then I asked about the family of Nihal Masih. I was told that all his brothers had died long time back and that only his nephews were still living in the village. One of the men went to inform the family and soon returned with Aziz Masih, a nephew of Nihal. Aziz was around seventy years old. He immediately asked about his uncle and his son Wadhawa. He kept on saying that he had heard a lot about us and his uncle from his own father and uncles, and that his father used to say that the family that Nihal had accompanied would definitely take very good care of him. When
I informed him of his uncle’s death, he went on to say that Nihal was already nearing sixty at the time of Partition. However he was a very courageous person as every one in the village informed me of his qualities of progressiveness and efficiency. He was highly missed by the villagers who sometime even went to the extent of questioning the wisdom of his decision to leave his native place, because it deprived him of the chance of ever meeting his immediate family that now comprised of nearly seventy to eighty persons.
I accompanied Aziz to his home. His house was some what similar to  Wadhawa’s house on our side, made of mud and brick. The ladies and the children were surprised to see me. But when Aziz informed them that I had come from Nihal uncle’s place the whole family eagerly surrounded me. They wanted to know everything about their relatives from me and plied me with question after question. Even the womenfolk were very curious. When I told them that even though Nihal had gone away and now had a flourishing family of almost equal number as their’s and that his great grand children were now ready for marriage, they asked myriad more questions as if they wanted to fill the gap of sixty years in minutes. Their questions were many and varied and I was alone to answer their queries. I could see easily that they were not educated and that they seemed to be involved in manual labor.

Then Aziz brought two metal plates and two tumblers from an inner room and showed me the name of Nihal etched on them. I was surprised to see how they had faithfully kept these utensils as their uncle’s keepsakes for sixty years. They told me how their uncle had left everything behind when he had gone off with my father; every thing like beds, household goods, possessions etc. His brothers had waited a long time for him. They dreamed about his return and would talk for hours about him. This would lead them to wonder at the nature of this untold of division, this partition that forbade their ever meeting again. It was so difficult to visit each other even though they were blood relations.

I requested Aziz to give me those utensils so that I could take them to Wadhawa. His wife brought a well embroidered cloth bag and put those utensils in. My mind was busy imagining the time when Nihal had packed his things in a cloth bag to accompany my father, may be his bag was similar to this one. I noticed that after this there was a sudden change in Aziz. He became increasingly quiet and absent minded and would not immediately answer my questions. By this time more and more people had gathered in the courtyard, many others were sitting on their roof tops watching us, and Aziz’s wife was telling them that I had come from their uncle’s village.

My companion Farookh reminded me that it was time to leave for Multan as there was no other bus plying after one o’clock. I had to reach Multan that very day as I had to join the rest of the delegation with whom I had come. Aziz had become absolutely silent by now. At last I took leave from them and taking hold of the cloth bag I turned towards the door. All this while, Aziz was holding my hand. Reaching the door I gave him a warm hug. He started crying and pressing my hand said, ”Sardar ji, please give back these utensils. These are my uncle’s sole remembrance, they remind us of him…….” And could not speak any more. The truth is that even I had nothing to say.


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