Earlier this month, sitting on a cot in Mailsi town of Pakistan’s Punjab province, 86-year-old Daphia Bai alias Aisha plugged in earphones, with some help, and focused on the mobile screen, her eyes already moist in anticipation. When she finally saw her nephews and grandsons on the video call, she couldn’t stop kissing the screen or hold back her tears: it was the first time since Partition that she had laid eyes on a member of her long-lost family.
On the other side, in Bikaner’s Morkhana town, 266 km away, were Khoju Ram and Kalu Ram, grandsons of Daphia’s brothers, among others. More tears were exchanged than words as Daphia spoke in Saraiki and the Bikaner family in Marwari, as a person tried to translate. “I spent all my life crying, I offered money, ghee to people to help locate my family,” she said, sobbing.
In the seven decades apart, there were some words Daphia had held close to her heart: the names of her siblings, and a place with a lot of “mor (peacocks)”, where her family had land. It were these that finally ended the search that began more than a year ago, in August 2019, when Pakistani YouTuber Muhammad Alamgir shared a video of Daphia, asking if anyone knew about the family of a 13-year-old who had got left behind when they moved to India in 1947.
Before Partition, the family belonging to the Meghwal caste used to freely move between Bikaner and the part of Punjab now in Pakistan. When the border came up, they chose Bikaner, right next to the line. In the confusion of moving, Daphia was allegedly kidnapped, and subsequently converted to Islam, married and bore seven children. However, she kept searching, for the other part of her family.
Speaking on the phone from Pakistan, Daphia’s grandson Naseer Khan, 40, says, “She would remember her siblings Alsu, Chothu and Mira; how Alsu had an injury in one eye and couldn’t see from it. She used to tell us about a place in India which had a lot of peacocks… She used to talk about attending her mamu’s (uncle’s) wedding in that town.”
Alamgir heard about her through friend Munawwar Ali Shaikh, who knew Naseer.
It was Zaid Muhammad Khan, 34, based in Delhi, who first noticed the video Alamgir put up. Interested in Partition stories, he decided to look for Daphia’s family, based on the things she had talked about in the clip.
Khan went on Facebook and shared Daphia’s story with some people in Bikaner, especially Morkhana (he guessed that was the place she was talking about). Khan also scoured publicly available revenue records for the siblings Daphia mentioned — Alsu Ram, Chothu Ram, relatives Mesa Ram, Budla Ram, Gangu Ram, Moti Ram, and sister Mira Bai. The names, however, were too common for him to make much headway.
One of the people Khan contacted was Bharat Singh, 20, who runs a shop in Morkhana. Singh began looking for Meghwal families whose family members may have been lost during Partition. In the second week of September, he came across a family in Morkhana whose elders used to talk about a sister that had got left behind. They had looked for her for years.
On September 13, days after Singh had knocked on their doors, the call came from Pakistan. Twenty family members crowded around the phone of Khoju Ram, 30, a farmer, and the grandson of Chothu alias Sheela Ram. “First they called, and then I made a WhatsApp video call to them,” says Khoju Ram.
Kalu Ram, 23, the grandson of Alsu, says, “It was so good to finally see her.” The families exchanged photos.
The family of Mira Bai couldn’t be part of the phone call, as she lives about 50 km away. “We’ll go sometime soon and tell her about her sister,” Kalu says, adding that they had lost touch with Mira Bai.
It were the deaths of her children (only two of her daughters remain) and her own passing years that made her search more desperate, Naseer says. “She kept repeating ‘Morkhana’, she didn’t know about Bikaner. About 15-20 years ago, we took her to Yazman Tehsil in Bahawalpur district (in Pakistan), which still has some Meghwal families. Some elders, moved by her search, would tell her they are her brothers. They would also visit us in Mailsi,” Naseer says.
Around the same time the YouTube video came out, on Pakistan’s Independence Day, Daphia put out an advertisement in local Urdu newspapers, along with her photo, saying, “I belonged to a Hindu family. At the age of 13, during Pakistan’s independence, I was separated from my family… (and then) Bakshinda Khan ke hathhe chadh gayi, jisne ek bayl lekar mujhe Ahmad Baksh wald Ghulam Rasool ko farokht kar diya (I was condemned to Bakshinda Khan, who sold me off to Ahmad Baksh, son of Ghulam Rasool, for an ox).” Baksh and she eventually married.
The ad added, “I was made to recite the Prophet’s word and became a Muslim: Aisha Bibi. I had three sons and four daughters and am now living happily. But every year, during [Pakistan’s] Independence Day… I remember my separated family so much that my heart cries. I want to be reunited with my family so that before dying, I can meet my loved ones.”
Now Daphia has just one more wish, as have both sides of her family: a visa, so she can travel to India.
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