Fom: Punjabi Century 1857-1947
by Parkash Tandon
FOR the first generation of professional men in the Punjab it had been the natural thing after retirement to go back to the place they came from, and spend their last years as respected elder, village or small town society. But father’s generation had grown away from their background, for them it was a question to find a congenial place to settle down. While I was still in England my father retired from service, and built himself a house in Model Town, a suburb six miles out of Lahore.
Model Town was a place, the like of which had never been and will never be seen again. It was almost entirely populated by retired government officials, who all addressed each other as Rai Sahib, Rai Bahadur, Khan Sahib or Khan Bahadur, Sardar Sahib or Sardar Bahadur.
Somebody had conceived the idea in 1925 of acquiring a big tract of jungle wasteland, a few miles out of Lahore, dividing it up into plots, and constituting it as The Model Town Co-operative Society. Everyone who bought a plot became a member with a vote in the Society. The plan of the town was completely geometrical. It had a series of concentric circular roads, crossed by four main roads at right angles, and smaller roads in between, all beginning from the inner circle and dividing the area into equal segments. The roads had no name, but the blocks were alphabetically numbered, so that our address was 12G while the house opposite was 12F. To the old school of thought this was quite enough to paint on the gate. Later arrivals started giving their homes poetical names.
The big circular area in the middle was common property and traversed only by footpaths. Only thorny shrubs grew there, but it was intended to become a public park. On its periphery were marked the sites for library, school, barat ghar for housing wedding parties, and other public institutions. Only the club, the hospital and dispensary, and the women’s club had been built so far. There were several private schools. Special areas were set apart for markets and shops. There were a mosque and a temple, perhaps the most attractive examples of modem religious architecture I have seen in India, and a Sikh Gurdwara. For practical measure there were also cremation and burial grounds.
On paper it looked a picture of complete equality, but Model Town already from the beginning had its distinctions. On the site of the club had originally stood a dak bungalow, and the road leading up to it was flanked by beautiful tall trees. As it was also farthest away from the main market and the road to Lahore, the areas on both sides of this road became the exclusive part of the town. The blocks diametrically opposite, clustered along the road to the city, were to a great extent taken up by shopkeepers and people who had business or work in Lahore.
Regular and well ordered as Model Town looked on the map, so were the lives its citizens lived. The transition from active working life to a retired existence was made easier by the pleasant task of first having to build your own house. One after the other, old engineers, army doctors, retired civilians and sessions judges arrived on the spot and started laying their foundations. The results of their efforts were all curiously alike, because they were all patterned on the government bungalows which had been their homes, and the dak bungalows which had been the scenes of so much of their activity. Each house was divided into two parts by a huge vestibule in the middle. On one side were dining and drawing-room and an office room; on the other side the bedrooms, with dressing-rooms and bathrooms. The front verandah over looked a lawn surrounded by flower-beds and cypresses. Here male visitors were received. On the other side was a verandah, where meals were served except on winter evenings, and an enclosed paved courtyard, the Women’s domain, with kitchen and storerooms. Then there were the servants’ quarters, spacious kitchen gardens and usually a small orchard.
Our house was a real work of love. All father’s skill, conscientiousness and care for detail went into it. It had enormously thick walls to keep out the summer heat, and consequently it was like an icebox on near-freezing winter evenings, when father with his spartan outlook did not condescend to use the fireplaces. The house had three suites of rooms so that all the brothers, at a future date, should be able to live in it with their families, which as it happened never came to pass. Once we all three brothers had a holiday there together, but then the youngest one was still unmarried. It was typical of father’s foresight that, although he sold his car when he retired, he built two garages. One of the garages was filled with beds, so you could put up any amount of people. In summer, there were three terraces for your choice to sleep on, the lower one over the back verandah, the main one, and a small terrace on the top of the barsati, a covered shelter from the rain. In its own way the house was like the British bungalows in front and grand-uncle’s house at the back.
The furnishings, apart from a few sophisticated houses, were also reminiscent of the dak bungalows and strictly utilitarian. The only touch of luxury in our drawing-room was a big Persian carpet, commemorating father’s Kashmir holiday. Round this carpet were arranged in precise symmetry two sofas and six chairs and in front of each sofa was a table adorned with tasseled silk net. Gärd always tried to improve it by upsetting the symmetry and removing the silk tassels, but our old servant restored the order every morning till she gave up. The pictures consisted of my brother’s wedding. Ravi Varma’s Shakuntala, and the Stages of Life, which Gärd recognized from Swedish farmhouses in her childhood.
In the dry climate the upkeep of such a well-built house was easy, but the garden afforded continuous interest. Here too, father’s inclination was utilitarian. The few flowers in the front garden looked after themselves, but the orchard included every variety of fruit that could possibly grow in the Punjab. That was in fact its weakness, for as the few of each kind bore fruit at different times, it was not worth guarding them, and apart from the oranges, the parrots had most of it. The vegetable garden was his main interest, and in season it produced more than enough for the need of the house, and father, like a good Punjabi, looked with pride at the size and whiteness of his cauliflowers.
All the old men began their day early. They believed in exercise, and on summer mornings at half past four the circular road was full of early risen doing their ‘chukkar’. Then they were too busy to talk, their minds were purely on the exercise. On cold winter mornings you heard father’s alarm clock at six, and while you snuggled deeper into your quilt he was fairly running round the circle to keep himself warm. Surely the day was long enough and he had nothing much to fill it with, but it would have been against his principles to get up later. For rainy mornings he had measured up the back verandah to know exactly how many times he ought to walk it up and down.
The evening walks were livelier and reserved for talk. Father used to set out in the company of a neighbor and old friend who had been minister in Bikaner, and during the chukkar they often stopped to talk to other Rai Sahibs and Rai Bahadurs, generally enquiring about each other’s health in great detail, recommending cures and comparing notes on the efficiency of their favourite medicines. They were great believers in old herbal remedies. One of the subjects was of course the pleasure-loving younger generation, who-just imagine-wanted to have a cinema in Model Town. ‘Not as long as we are alive. It would only make the servants lazy and take the children’s minds of their studies.’ Most of them had never seen a film. I overheard someone saying in ‘I believe that now they talk all the time in the films.’
But the most absorbing subject was the affairs and politics of the Model Town Co-operative Society. Having spent their lives as officials, they now all tried to run the Society office and its poor secretary, who usually never stayed in the job for long. The retired conservator of forests took him and the malis to task about the trees and road hedges; the engineers, depending upon the branch of P.W.D. they had belonged to, forced their advice about roads, buildings, canal water ditches and electricity; while the retired I.C.S. just laid the law down about everything. When the time came for the annual elections to the various offices, there was hectic activity all round. Father was seen at home only at mealtimes, and spent his day running around canvassing. But he was too straightforward and devoid of all the traits that make a politician, ever to become an office bearer. Gärd, who once accompanied him to an annual meeting, told me that he was very pleased to be asked to count the votes, and that was all his activity. She also got the answer to a question that had puzzled her, why there were ink stains all over the walls. When members got heated in the debate, ink bottles flew in all directions. She was very happy to sit in the section reserved for ladies.
Gärd actually knew Model Town life more than I did, as she used to spend some time there every year until partition. When she had been in Bombay for a few months, got acclimatized and learnt some Hindi, she went to Lahore accompanied by my younger brother, Krishan, whom mother, I think, had sent to look at his new sister-in-law. Father and mother met her at the station, and she was pleasantly surprised to find father much younger looking and livelier than she had expected. Actually, European women always found father charming, for as they did not address him with the respectful restraint enjoined by custom, he also felt at ease with them and could talk very animatedly. Mother greeted her very affectionately. Many women had asked her if it wasn’t a shock to her to get a foreign daughter-in-law. In her lovely simplicity she answered, ‘Isn’t it better that he makes a foreign girl happy than that he should make a Punjabi girl unhappy?’
This was in August, and Gärd, anxious to create a good impression, was quite happy to go for a walk at half-past four in the morning, the only time she could enjoy some cool air. Father introduced her to his old friends and told them she was an M.A. It was a source of pride to him that both his daughters-in-law had double degrees, and he had seriously offered both to study medicine at his expense, as his ambition was to have a ‘lady doctor’ in the family. They politely declined, but eventually his niece satisfied him.
In the evenings, when the worst heat was over, and everybody had bathed and changed, the women used to call to see the new bride. They sat in the freshly sprinkled courtyard and each gave her two silver rupees, and complimented her on her stuttering Hindi. Whatever their own views might have been on such an unorthodox marriage, the women all did their best to put her at ease and make her feel at home. Almost every evening a neighbor, who was also a Tandon, came with her five pretty daughters ranging from sixteen to seven, all very curious about this new sister-in-law and eager to practice their English on her. In due course mother took her to return the calls, and so time passed until I arrived for a few days’ work.
Now mother got the chance to have a real marriage performed. An Arya Satnaj pandit was called in, the sacred fire was lit in the front verandah, and Gärd was first purified into the faith of our ancestors and gurus, as a symbol of which she was given a sanskrit name. Then tied together we walked the seven steps. It was a short ceremony, with only a few friends and relations present, but it made mother happy. She distributed sweets according to custom. It also pleased Gärd who said a registrar’s office in Bombay with two hired witnesses does not make you feel properly married, and her mother would also like to hear about the family wedding.
Two days after I left for the station, and to everybody’s surprise came back. The war in Europe had broken out, I learnt at the station, so I waited for revised instructions. Next day I was off and shortly after Gärd left to visit my elder brother and sister-in- law in North Bihar. Soon after her return to Bombay we got a telegram about mother’s sudden death following an operation.
Being cast in the stoic mould, father did not give vent to excessive grief; neither did he expect it from his sons. To us he wired, Do not trouble to come.’ My sister-in-law was there to take charge. After mother’s death father continued his old routine, with his trusted old servant Chatter Singh, who had been in the family for fifty years, to look after his needs. He spent some months with us in Bombay after the birth of our daughter, Maya, but apart from us and the baby he did not have much to take interest in, and missed the company of his own age. So he lived on in Model Town, and we sons took turns to send our families to stay with him. Before partition the youngest also had started a family.
Though every day was like the other, Gärd liked life in Model Town. Although she was never hurt by any social ostracism, Bombay irked her as a place dominated by Europeans, who hardly counted Indians as existing, and she felt happier in the completely Indian surroundings of Lahore. The small Swedish community totally ignored her. But from the moment she had unloaded her baggage, ever increasing as the children increased from one to two to three, on the tongas at the Lahore station, she felt at home. And when at last the cavalcade reached Model Town, people on the road welcomed her back. Life in Model Town was more self-centred than ever during the war years. Cars were laid up for lack of petrol; six miles by tonga into Lahore on a hot day was no joke, and the buses had to be booked long in advance. The Model Town buses looked like trucks, and besides their human overload always carried an enormous amount of trunks, bicycles and other heavy goods on top. The ‘lorry’, as it was appropriately called, had a purdah section in front, and only if that was completely crammed could a woman decently sit amongst the men. Old ‘Princess’ Sutherland, widow of an English army doctor, and last descendant of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was heard complaining that she could not get a seat in the lorry, when all Punjab should have been hers! The old lady had settled in Model Town and spent her days dreaming about her ancestral glory.
Model Town was not only a city of the aged, for some old government servants, who had outlived their wives and married much younger women, kept on raising a family long after retirement. Sometimes it happened that there were three happy events in the family when mother, daughter and daughter-in-law were simultaneously delivered. But the younger generation had not yet put their mark on Model Town. Its only social events were weddings and head-shavings. Old women used to come to the house to ask father’s advice about a boy or girl suggested for marriage, as he had a wide acquaintance. This always pleased him. If the match came off the same old lady would in due course arrive with a big bag of sweets as a wedding invitation. Father always asked Gärd to go to these functions, not for the pleasure of it. but out of duty, adding that it was a good thing she was conspicuous as everyone would know that she had represented the family.
The two clubs, one for men and one for women, offered facilities for games, but no club life. Once some young people ventured upon something drastically new; a mixed whist drive at the men’s club. This did not meet with approval particularly as it ended as late as eleven at night. Another novelty was a tea party the day after a wedding, in the last year before partition. Though there was no purdah, except in some Muslim families, there was no real social mixing of the sexes. Even husbands and wives did not always go for walks together. She would walk with her own women friends in the evening. Even young people home on leave would often conform.
So life would have gone on in a peaceful routine until the end for all these old engineers, doctors and civil servants, if they had not had to pay the price for the freedom of India. A few died peacefully before partition, but most had to start life anew, living in small flats with sons, and sometimes even, swallowing their pride, with daughters. And their wives had to leave their spacious courtyards, where they had ruled over servants and daughters-in-law, to be dependent on a son, and happy if they were a help and not an unwelcome intruder. Wherever they had to go, they were uprooted from the life they had themselves created.