Twice a year she would walk up our drive with a large knotted cloth bundle on her head. She would greet us with a smile that let out a hundred suns and would then continue up the drive holding our hands and balancing her load with the poise of an acrobat. On entering the house, she would put down the bundle on the carpet and sit next to it, while my mother fussed over her with a glass of water followed by tea.
Taj Bibi symbolised a bygone age when relationships were based on pure affection, simplicity and truth. Her mother had been my great grandmother’s constant companion, helping her through an early widowhood and the attendant difficulties of raising five young boys and girls. Her elder sister had donned the same mantle with regards to my mother and in addition had cared for me as an infant. The family came from a village on the outskirts of Lahore and while her sister and mother lived inside the walled city, Taj Bibi continued to live in her rural setting.
We would hover around her till she had finished her tea and then would come the moment we had been waiting for - the opening of the bundle. Out would pop a generous supply of murunda (biscuits made of rice sweetened with caramelised sugarcane syrup), and an earthen handi containing saag, makai ki roti and lumps of gur. This wonderful woman would spend the next three days helping my mother around the house and demanded nothing in return for she was simply keeping alive, a lifelong tradition that bespoke of loyalty, love and devotion.
Bua Lucknow Wali and Amna Bua were my paternal grandmother’s companions before independence. Bua Lukhnow Wali was a small, chubby and effervescent woman in her forties, who reminded one of a chirpy sparrow. Separated from our family during the ‘great migration’, she had somehow found her way to Pakistan and taken up a job in Ganga Ram Hospital. It was during one of my grandmother’s visits there that they were dramatically reunited and since that day Bua Lukhnow Wali became a regular visitor to our house. Such was this remarkable woman’s loyalty and devotion that she did not miss a single day visiting the grand old lady till the day the latter passed away.
Amna Bua chose to brave the risks of the train journey, as she accompanied my grandmother from Delhi at the peak of the bloodbath that accompanied partition. She remained the old lady’s companion till the day of her demise, epitomising strength of character, integrity and undying commitment.
One could spot him unfailingly pedalling up our drive during the first week of April every year. Suri Sahib, as everyone called him, ran a thriving electrical appliance repair and maintenance business in Anarkali and had adopted our household as his own. On arrival, he would put his heavy bag of tools in the verandah and begin the annual cleaning of our ceiling fans in preparation for the long Lahori summer. The only interruption in his work occurred when he momentarily paused to light up his favourite smoke - a beeri. I learnt many things from this great man - dignity, hard work, courtesy and the art of speaking softly - attributes that resonated with the story that Suri Sahib belonged to a good and prosperous family from somewhere in undivided India, but lost everything as the winds of violence swept through the subcontinent in 1947.
We would point our finger at him and run chanting his parodied name at the top of our little voices with old Shafi chasing us in mock anger. This amazing man had been my grandfather’s orderly before independence and had settled with his family somewhere around Vehari after undertaking the hazardous journey to Pakistan. Every year, he journeyed from his house by bus, accompanied by two of the finest sacrificial doombas I have ever seen, to spend Eid-ul-Azha with his Sahib.
He was Shafi Chacha to all and sundry, including my mother, whom he treated like a daughter. He would sleep in our annex, have his meals sitting next to my grandfather and was treated like any other older member of the family. His Eid ritual continued unbroken till he succumbed to age and illness and went to his eternal rest.
These then are a few stories of the unforgettable men and women that time, Western education and ‘enlightened’ grooming rendered extinct. They were better people than the likes of us, who wallow in our comforts and social standing. Hopefully, many from my generation will remember what life was like, when such characters were around us, portraying selfless love, loyalty and devotion that turned everyday into a Valentine’s Day!
The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.