Pain of partition and a life of struggle

Life is a game Ramchandra Tahlani and Sheela Tahlani at her house in Kolkata

Life is a game Ramchandra Tahlani and Sheela Tahlani at her house in Kolkata | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ramchandra Tahlani, 78, seated next to his sister-in-law Sheela Devi, who is nearing 90, recalls: “The two of us would be seated like this even back then. We would be up through the night — I would be studying and she stitching clothes.” 

The time Tahlani is referring to is his boyhood, in the early 1950s, when his family had just settled in Varanasi to a life dictated by poverty, having arrived to the newly-born India from the province of Sindh. He studied at nights because during the day he sold biscuits; while his sister-in-law mended clothes to add to their income. His mother washed vessels in neighbouring homes, while his father found employment at a household in Katihar, Bihar, for ₹100 a month. His elder brother — Sheela’s husband — worked as a cook in Kolkata.

Today the family lives together in Kolkata, where they own brick kilns. But memories of those dark days refuse to fade; in fact, they remain a source of strength in moments of crisis. “Those were the days when extra water would be put in the dal so that everybody at home got to eat. But in spite of such measures, there were days when my mother chose not to eat so that others could,” says Tahlani. 

His family — of landowners — hailed from Sukkur in Sindh, and they left everything behind in 1947 in the hope that they would return once the communal violence subsided. They had no idea that the displacement would be permanent. Tahlani was three years old then.  

“What I heard is that at the refugee camp in Pimpri, Maharashtra, our people refused to accept the food given by officials. The men sold fruits and vegetables in the town and fed their families from whatever little they earned. Sindhis don’t like to accept charity,” he says. “ When I sold biscuits in Varanasi, I remember, one day I was walking past an ashram when a holy man sitting there paid for all the biscuits but took only one from me. I got back home thinking my mother would be happy, but she scolded me. She said the biscuits belonged to him since he had paid for it. I went back to give him the biscuits.” 

Sheela was 13 during the Partition. She has several childhood memories of Sindh, one of them being tagging along with her mother to a house in the neighbourhood where a child had just been born. She had no idea, of course, that the newborn was her future husband. 

“I studied up to Class 4. Back then girls were meant to stay home. . When the migration began, girls as young as 11 or 12 were being married off before they crossed the border because girls who had sindoor (vermillion) on their heads were usually spared by mobs,” recalls Sheela . 

She was spared of an early marriage because her family migrated in 1948, after the violence subsided. They took the train to Karachi, where they boarded a ship to Bombay (Mumbai) and found their way to Calcutta (Kolkata), where her elder sister already lived. It was here that her marriage was fixed, and the wedding took place in Katni, Madhya Pradesh, where the Tahlani family lived briefly after leaving the refugee camp and before settling in Varanasi. 

Tahlani says: “Over the years, Varanasi became our family headquarters and Calcutta our business headquarters. My father and my elder brother opened a grocery store and I started coming here in 1965, doing odd jobs at first and then running a brick kiln in partnership with a distant relative . We were no longer poor but life has had its share of ups and downs. I have been able to tide over bad times; I have had suicidal thoughts when I was young and in later years I have come out of coma twice. That’s because of all the love I received in Kolkata. ” 

Sheela’s husband died in 2010 and she lives with her two sons in Kolkata now. “My memories are mostly of hardship,” she says. “We struggled a lot. But one thing I remember about my childhood in Sindh is the joy of saving coins to buy date candy. !”

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Printable version | Aug 16, 2022 10:48:20 am |