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Friday, September 18, 2020

Tracing my grandparents’ pre-partition house, Kohli Kutya in Sialkot

A black and white image of 'Kohli kutya', sent by my aunt was where it all started. I needed to find out more about the other half of my roots, about my grandparents' pre-partition life,  about where they lived, and how they migrated.

New Delhi | Updated: August 14, 2020 8:32:36 pm
Independence day, Patition, 74th independence day 2020, Indian independence day, Indian independence day 2020, independence day 2020, Independence day history, Partition history, Independence day news, Partition stories, Indian ExpressMy grandfather's house in Sialkot, that is now transformed into a girls' college. (Collection of Avina Kohli)

Written by Avina Kohli

“Your grandparents had a beautiful house in Pakistan. It was called Kohli Kutya”

“But why did they live in Pakistan?”

“Because once upon a time India and Pakistan were the same country and your grandparents lived in Sialkot”.

“What happened after that?”

 I was a child when I first heard about Kohli Kutya- the house my great-grandparents Heera Deyi and Sant Ram Kohli built in the city of Sialkot, now in Pakistan. Little did I know the significance this physical structure would come to hold in the search for my roots, two decades later.

I am a grandchild of Partition, with my maternal grandparents migrating from Mandi Bahauddin and my paternal side from Sialkot. Spending many a summer’s moons with my maternal grandparents, I came to byheart many aspects of their lives and one half of my family’s history. The orchards in their village, Shaheedanwali, the tin full of panjeeri that my great-grandmother made for the journey in October 1947, my great-grandfather’s kalamdaan (pen stand) that made its way across the border, the narrow escape of grandfather’s brother whilst he surrendered his infant daughter’s dead body to a nehar near Attari, are anecdotes that I reach out to now and then.

Independence day, Patition, 74th independence day 2020, Indian independence day, Indian independence day 2020, independence day 2020, Independence day history, Partition history, Independence day news, Partition stories, Indian Express The door of Kohli Kutya, opening in the lane next to the main road. The door has not been changed . (Collection of Avina Kohli)

However,  I remained unaware of my paternal history. My grandparents on this side had rarely ever shared bits about their life in Sialkot or the journey after, with their children. Like many Partition survivors, my grandparents chose to forget their traumatic experiences — a theme that is recurrent in my interviews with Partition survivors.  How could it not be when forgetting was the only survival strategy they knew of, after having lived through losing everything they loved? As a character from Difficult Daughters, a novel based on Partition, says, “It does no good to remember, no good to think of those things; we had to get on with our lives. If we thought too much, we would go mad…

Forgetting in one generation becomes ignorance and eventually, indifference in the subsequent generations — a pattern I was by now familiar with but not ready to accept in my own case. Not just yet. I needed to find out more about the other half of my roots, about my grandparents’ pre-partition life,  about where they lived, and how they migrated.

I knew I had to start with what I could get from my father’s eldest sister, my Buaji, who was two in August 1947. Buaji, with her classic sense of humour but trying best to evade my questions, said “If only someone had told me back then that you would ask me this, I would have asked your dada-dadi about it.” I persisted and Buaji began with the end, just like I had expected.

Buaji knew very little apart from the date of the departure and the mob that had forced the family to flee. There was milk boiling in their kitchen, but there wasn’t enough time to put it off the stove. They wanted to pick up a glass in case the kids with them felt thirsty on the journey, but were not allowed to by the mob that attacked the house.  

Also read: Voices of Partition: One UP Muslim and two Pakistan born Hindus recollect the horrors of 1947

The conversation with Buaji had soon drifted to other family stories and while I knew something about my grandparents, it was not enough to paint an image. It was only as I was leaving, that Buaji realised she could arrange a picture, from one of our distant relatives, of the house in Sialkot. I soon received a black and white Whatsapp image of a house which read “Kohli Kutya”- and there it was! My starting point.

Independence day, Patition, 74th independence day 2020, Indian independence day, Indian independence day 2020, independence day 2020, Independence day history, Partition history, Independence day news, Partition stories, Indian Express Black and white picture of Kohli Kutya that I received from a relative (Collection of Avina Kohli)

The excitement faded before it could even sink in. What was I going to do with a picture of a house that once stood on the Abbot Road in the city of Sialkot? I wanted to touch the walls of the house that my great-grandparents built, and my grandparents nourished – would that make for a good enough reason for a visa to be granted? The fact that visiting Kohli Kutya would be the closest I would ever get to my grandparents, would be irrelevant in a visa application, wouldn’t it? More than that, I didn’t even know if Kohli Kutya still stood. The only way was to find out through getting in touch with people in Sialkot.

I knew of a man called Tahir Malik from Sialkot who is pretty active on Twitter. I took my chance and sent him a message. I sent him the picture of Kohli Kutya, and he promised to look for it as soon as he could. The next day, he sent me a video from Abbot Road, focusing on every house that looked old enough to have been built pre-Partition. No house resembled the one in the black and white picture. Tahir introduced me to a property consultant, Mubashar Ahmad, whose work often took him to the office of the settlement commissioner. We decided that the allotment papers would be able to give us some clue about the location as well as the current situation of the house.

While I was impatiently waiting to hear from people who were looking for the allotment papers, I often wondered about what it was that I wanted to find by searching for the house? What would it mean to me if I found out that the house still stands? What if I even met the people who asked my grandparents to leave? What would it even tell me about my grandparents? Would I know anything more about my grandfather, Inderjeet Kohli, other than knowing that he was a fair and tall man who resembled Raj Kapoor owing to his ruddy cheeks? Or about my grandmother, Raj Rani Kohli, who would go to the terrace every August 14 so that no one could see her crying? Before I could even dwell on these, Mubashar Ahmad told me that the house had probably been taken down. He had searched Abbot Road a few times looking for any building that resembled the picture but to no avail.

Independence day, Patition, 74th independence day 2020, Indian independence day, Indian independence day 2020, independence day 2020, Independence day history, Partition history, Independence day news, Partition stories, Indian Express Abbot Road from the terrace of Kohli Kutya, (picture taken by Usman, circa 1996)

A month later from that day and about a year ago from today, Mubashar Ahmad sent me a text which read- “Hi Avina, aap ki Kohli Kutya mil gayi“. I expected to feel a gush of shifting emotions. After all, this was a major step forward in tracing backwards. Instead, what I felt was a kaleidoscope of emotions. I wanted more details, I wanted specific details, I wanted to get in touch with people who inhabited the house. There was a curiosity compiled with an urgency that I had only experienced on tight deadlines on the field, as a researcher.

Mubashar Ahmad had, by a sheer stroke of fate, chanced upon the allotment papers of Kohli Kutya. The papers, which had names of my great-grandfather and his two sons, told us that the house was allotted in the name of KH Khurshid, and was sold off in mid-80, to be later converted into a girls’ college.

KH Khurshid, who was Private Secretary to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was also a well-known figure in Kashmir’s politics and became the first President of the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. I was elated, because it would not be difficult to find members of a family as renowned as this, or so I thought until I went from a virtual pillar to post for the next seven-eight months.

Independence day, Patition, 74th independence day 2020, Indian independence day, Indian independence day 2020, independence day 2020, Independence day history, Partition history, Independence day news, Partition stories, Indian Express The front view of Kohli Kutya, now as a college (Collection of Avina Kohli)

I would have perhaps given up on this search had it not been for a casual conversation with Tahir Malik. The man who had helped me kickstart initially was now also smoothening the way when I hit a roadblock. Without delving into details, a few days after the conversation, I had the email address of  KH Khurshid’s son, Dr. Khurram Khurshid, a professor who had moved to Canada 20 years ago. I wrote to him and waited, as I refreshed my inbox every hour for the next two days. On the third day, I woke up to his email and, lo and behold, he was surprised how his father’s name had featured in the allotment papers for he had never heard of Kohli Kutya. He had family living in Sialkot but none on Abbot Road. 

Dr. Khurram wrote to me a few hours later after having spoken to his cousin.  He informed me that it was KH Khurshid’s sister Rashida Ishaque Qureshi who lived in Kohli Kutya with her family, not KH Khurshid, and also gave me his cousin’s email address in case I wished to speak to him. 

Usman Qureshi, Dr. Khurram’s cousin and Rashida’s son, is unarguably the most endearing character of this story. When I first emailed him, he wrote back with multiple pictures of Kohli Kutya. Each picture had a tale, and tales he did tell! Usman was born 10 years after his parents moved to Kohli Kutya in 1948. While his father’s side had a relatively smooth migration from Jammu to Sialkot, it was his mother Rashida, a medical student in Amritsar, who witnessed the time of madness. A violent mob had attacked the hostel she was staying in. As she and one of her Sikh friends ran for safety, holding hands, the friend was shot dead. The chaos did not give her enough time to even look back at her friend. Like most others who had crossed borders in a haste demanded by the brutality of that time, this family too did not carry any belongings with them, and used much of what was found in the house they moved to, at least for the initial few years. 

Consequently, I asked Usman many questions about the pieces of furniture, utensils, and other household items after he patiently explained the structure of Kohli Kutya. I asked him if they had ever found any cigarette cases because my grandfather loved his cigarette cases just as he loved his cigarettes. Usman said that there was a wooden cigarette case that was later used to keep photographs because no one in his family smoked. I asked him if they had found any portraits. and he described a black and white portrait of a man; by its description, I believe it was my great-grandfather. Amongst other things, there were stained glass cupboards that Rashida was very fond of, and she took them when they moved from Sialkot to Lahore in 1969/1970. 

Independence day, Patition, 74th independence day 2020, Indian independence day, Indian independence day 2020, independence day 2020, Independence day history, Partition history, Independence day news, Partition stories, Indian Express Usman and his friends at the house, Circa 1996 (Collection of Avina Kohli)

While the family lived in Kohli Kutya for about two decades, this was not the first house that they moved to after Partition. As another of Usman’s cousins, Rafi Aziz, told me, the family had initially moved to a house called ‘Jamiat Rai ki Haveli’ on Paris Road, Sialkot while Kohli Kutya had been under the control of the army. However, Jamiat Rai ki Haveli was demanded by the younger brother of Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, the president of the Muslim Conference Party. While Usman’s father was also a politician, in a show of power, it was Ghulam Abbas who prevailed.

Perhaps this could somewhat explain the allotment of Kohli Kutya in the name of  KH Khurshid instead of Usman’s father. Quite unsurprisingly then, relief and rehabilitation was not very different on either side of the border. In India, as opposed to the official account, narrated in a report, titled “The Rehabilitation Story” (published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting), which portrayed the refugee experience as by and large homogenous, a wide range of scholarly literature establishes that the relief and rehabilitation varied on every marker of socio-economic status. Those who had access to government officials or could afford to bribe clerks went through a relatively smoother experience of allotments. As one goes higher up the socio-economic ladder of caste and class, the refugees who were part of the government had the choicest evacuee properties ‘allotted’ in their names. The corruption within the Custodian and Evacuee Department has been documented through multiple sources in various accounts of rehabilitation processes. It was not uncommon for newspapers, at the time, to carry reports and letters that spoke about people not being able to submit their forms at the Custodian Office because the clerks would only give receipts to those who were known to them. The grievances did not end with allotment of houses. In some cases, especially where agricultural land was also allotted, problems persisted even after the formal procedures were over. In most of these cases, geographical distance was not taken into consideration.

During my fieldwork, I came across a family who was allotted a house in Gurgaon and the agricultural land, which happened to be their main source of income, in Ropar. Perhaps, the only instance where the state did take the geographical distance into account, was in the allotment of houses to Dalits in Amritsar. The Haripura Refugee Colony for Untouchables was established outside the main localities of the city of Amritsar.

Refugees at a camp in Delhi waiting in line for water, 1947 (Wikimedia Commens)

However, a number of informal, non-state related arrangements took place in small towns and villages, where the state could reach neither for the capture of evacuee property nor for the rehabilitation process. The minuscule Hindu population of Shahbad Markanda, a subdivision of Kurukshetra, saw the caravan of the refugees from the Sargodha region move in, as the caravan of the Pathans moved out. Today, most of the families living in Shahbad Markanda are those that had migrated from Sargodha, Pakistan. In other instances, people who knew Hindus and Muslims across the border, ‘exchanged’ house keys as a barter.

As for my own family’s allotment, they never applied for one. From Sialkot, they moved to Delhi and stayed put with the hope that they will soon go back. When they realised that going back was not an option, grandfather travelled places for work. The search took him to Meerut, Calcutta, Barrackpur, Kota, and then finally, to Bhopal where my grandparents settled with whatever little sense of settlement they could gather. Perhaps, the “settlement” was never complete. Why else would their granddaughter search for her roots over five decades since?

Avina is an oral historian, previously associated with The 1947 Partition Archive

Note: Going by the account of a Parsi family that lived on Abbot Road and stayed behind Partition, the families who originally owned Jamiat Rai ki haveli, Kohli Kutya and Pillar Palace (on Paris Road) were closely connected to each other, and had migrated to Delhi. If the reader knows members of families who lived in Jamiat Rai ki Haveli and/or Pillar Palace, please write to avinakohli@gmail.com Thanks in anticipation!

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