Review of Indira Varma’s Lest We Forget — How Three Sisters Braved the Partition: Lost and found

This is the story of three sisters, who reinvented their lives after Partition. The ex-aristocratic Singh family lived between Kanpur, Aligarh, Dehradun and Delhi, doing odd jobs like pasting stickers on bottles and making candles 

Published - March 15, 2024 09:00 am IST

Uma, Roopy Mathur and Indira Varma.

Uma, Roopy Mathur and Indira Varma. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The shadows of the past follow us all our lives. Our history becomes our inheritance; its events, our legacy. Indira Varma, seven years old in the autumn of 1947, inherited the loss — of her childhood, her home, family, and their life in Peshawar — amidst the new found, bitter-sweet “independence”. Overnight, her home is in “another country”, no longer theirs. She carries the weight of this legacy all her life. In all new beginnings, she reminisces the loss of what is left behind — the gardens, fields and farms, a house with hundred rooms, rich fruit and richer meat, horses, sports, pigeons, and guns that her grandfather polished with great pride. Lest We Forget follows the transition and reinvention of their lives.

Vineer, Geetika and Suneet

Vineer, Geetika and Suneet | Photo Credit: special arrangement

At the announcement of partition, Indira Varma, her two sisters, a mother and grandparents, leave their life of abundance behind and enter a life of decades of uncertainty, hardship and depravation. The three sisters, of which Indira is the middle-child, grow up before their time. The ex-aristocratic Singh family lives between Kanpur, Aligarh, Dehradun and Delhi, doing odd jobs like pasting stickers on bottles and making candles. For the elders, “the loss of home was the loss of identity, the loss of roots, a way of living... it was the loss of self.”

Presumably, their childhood house in Peshawar.

Presumably, their childhood house in Peshawar. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Kindness amid adversity

However, in the face of every adversity — displacement, hunger, poverty, unemployment — kindness is found in strangers. Slowly, with resilience, the three sisters start building a life for themselves. The eldest, Uma, who had started earning at 13, later finds a stable job at Delhi’s Cottage Industries Emporium. The youngest, Roopy, becomes a stewardess and later settles in London. Indira, who once wanted to be a doctor, marries into a stable, large family, to a husband with cultural tastes like hers. After the birth of her three children, she begins a career-driven life, from working at Citibank, to travelling for Thomas Cook, to being the Honorary Director of Travel for Festival of India, to being an entrepreneur, starting the first ever visa service provider company in India, ‘International Visa Service’, and finally a writer.

The sisters hold one another through other losses of life, death of parents, grandparents and spouses. They travel the world and when life allows, they visit the place of their lost childhood in Pakistan, to find that only the clocktower built by their great-grandfather stands as a remnant.

Vineer, Suneet and Geetika in Aligarh, 1964.

Vineer, Suneet and Geetika in Aligarh, 1964. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

In her 83 years, Indira Varma learns that, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” With her love of music, ghazals, poetry and language, she builds a life with “music-minded” people. Her ‘glass half-full’ philosophy and keenness to learn, empowers her to rebuild her life. Written between quotes from literature and history, nazms, odes, correspondence and testimonials, Lest We Forget makes for a complete memoir of a life lived fully.

Although the life trajectory of Indira Varma and her family is not typical of most Partition refugees, she lives through the haunting grief of batwara (partition)in her own way. It may be easy to assume her comfort and luxury to be eternal and infinite — as is generally easy to dismiss others’ share of collective history, especially when it comes at a personal cost — but her memoir is fair and honest. It preserves the culture of oral history, at a time when the last generation of Partition survivors is disappearing. Most importantly, it restores the hope of success in life, despite grim circumstances.

Lest We Forget: How Three Sisters Braved the Partition; Indira Varma, Westland Publications, ₹599.

The reviewer is a freelance feature writer. She reviews books on Instagram @read.dream.repeat.

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