By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed
9th June 2013
Lady Flather and her family had to run away from Lahore in May 1947 to avoid murderous attacks. Now is hopefully time to close that painful chapter
On February 17, 2013, the fourth and final day of the prestigious Karachi Literature Festival, the awards for different creative and intellectual contributions climaxed with the jury announcing the Best Non-Fiction Book of 2012. The citation read as follows: “We, the members of the jury, have unanimously selected The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed by Ishtiaq Ahmed for the Karachi Literature Festival Coca-Cola Best Non-fiction Book Prize for 2012. This is a book that we found to be the most outstanding among all the entries for the originality and depth of its research, for uncovering new details about the events surrounding the partition of 1947, and the scholarly and objective analysis of these events, and for the overall readability of the book.”
Readers will recall that in my article of December 15, 2012 in Daily Times, “Help a mother find her children”, I had shared the stranger-than-fiction ordeal of Harbhajan Kaur/Shahnaz Begum and her children. Briefly, a Sikh woman captured by Muslims while crossing the border at Lahore in 1947 was married to an elderly man, Afzal Khan. They had five children, but when in 1962 they visited Kaur’s home town, her parents kept her and sent Khan and the children to Pakistan. The mother and children never met again.
Romy Singh, stepson of Kaur, had read the story of one of the interviewees in my book, Nasim Hassan, who escaped from Simla in 1947. Singh and Kaur live in Baltimore, the US; Mr Hassan in Hokessin, Delaware, US. Mr Hassan requested me for help, hence the December 15, 2012 Daily Times article.
I left for India on January 30, 2013 for a lecture tour. On the morning of February 15 when I checked my email in Mumbai, one from Jameela Begum (also known as Parishey Pari, 63) greatly surprised me. She was Shahnaz Begum’s (Harbhajan Kaur’s) daughter. She had read an Urdu translation of my Daily Times article published in the daily Jang of Karachi. I talked to her on the phone. She was desperate to talk to her mother. There was a problem, however. The world being round would be sleeping at that time. She had to wait. Thus began perhaps the longest wait I know of. Those few hours seemed longer than the 50 years that had passed; this is the feeling I got as I talked to Jameela Begum.
By early afternoon Indian time, Mr Hassan responded. Mother and daughter spoke to each other. Jameela Begum told me a miracle had happened (she and her siblings believed their mother had died long ago). Her elder sister, Khurshid Begum (66), was at that time in Canada with her son. She flew out to meet her mother in Baltimore.
From the time I left for India the following had happened. An elderly gentleman Tufail Uppal lived in Baltimore with his children and when Romy Singh wrote to Mr Hassan he talked to Mr Uppal. He not only knew Kaur but had also attended her marriage in 1946. Mr Hassan arranged for Singh and Kaur to meet Mr Uppal. Mr Uppal and Kaur recognised each other after 65 years. Mr Uppal’s daughter, Fazilat, remained in touch with Singh and Kaur. Mr Uppal’s son-in-law Waseem Sheikh arranged the publication of the story in Jang. It gave my email as the contact address, hence Jameela Begum contacting me.
The publication of the story coincided with another investigation initiated in Karachi by a family friend of the Uppals, Khalid. He was able to locate the shop in Karachi from where Afzal Khan used to supply his facial cream product. The shop owner’s son remembered his father talking about Khan who had died long ago. He also knew Rizwan, the youngest son of Kaur, who was only two when he was separated from his mother. Just then the story was published in Jang. The shop owner’s son contacted Rizwan who did not believe it. He thought it was a hoax. However, modern technology worked a wonder: Kaur and her children saw each other on Skype and talked.
Singh then obtained a visa for Pakistan. They first went to Amritsar on April 13, 2013. After one week in India they crossed the border at Wagha on April 20 and entered Pakistan. Khurshid, the eldest daughter whom they had met already when she came from Canada to Baltimore was waiting for them. Together they visited Nankana Sahib. Finally, on April 22, they arrived in Karachi: the family met. Later, all of them went to Hyderabad because Khurshid had better accommodation there and it was not a troubled place like Karachi.
The family had grown and Kaur had many grandchildren. On April 30, 2013, Singh and his mom returned to Baltimore. Sadly, Mr Uppal died soon after Kaur and her children had made the initial contact. However, he and his children and family friends, Singh and Mr Hassan, all had participated in the healing and uniting process the Punjab book had set in motion. The ubiquitous Internet had made this possible.
On July 15, 2013, I shall be presenting Baroness Lady Shreela Flather, conservative member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament, my book. She is the great granddaughter of Sir Ganga Ram (1851-1927), the greatest philanthropist of the undivided Punjab, who personified the best traditions of the Punjab based on tolerance, amity and compassion. A number of eminent speakers will express their views.
In 1962, I was operated upon in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital for the removal of an inflamed appendix. I am, therefore, one of the millions of Pakistanis who have personally benefited from that great gift of Sir Ganga Ram to the people of Lahore. Lady Flather and her family had to run away from Lahore in May 1947 to avoid murderous attacks. Now is hopefully time to close that painful chapter.
Guests would be invited, and those of you who would be in London on that day and wish to attend the ceremony please let me know. I would be greatly honoured by your presence on that historic occasion. Security check and other procedures would apply and only a limited number of guests can be invited.
Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed is a PhD (Stockholm University); Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2013; The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011).