“When things have to happen, everything falls into place,” said Sonali Khullar as her mother Reena Varma made her way to her ancestral home in Rawalpindi, Pakistasn, 75 years after leaving the country at the time of Partition. Ninety-year-old Verma reached Lahore via the Wagah-Attari border on Saturday.
Earlier this year, she was granted a visa by Hina Rabbani Khar, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, after her video for a visa appeal went viral on social media. “She has always wanted to go back to her ancestral home in Rawalpindi. She tried a few times but somehow, it never worked out for her. She had visited Lahore with her friends once when at the time, the governments allowed fans from both nations to watch test matches. Then circumstances of life, as well as the tensions between the two countries after the 1965 and the 1971 wars just further diluted her plans,” said Khullar.
She said that while her mother always narrated her stories, it was in the last four-five years that she was more determined to visit her parental home, Prem Nivas, on Prem Gali named after her father.
“They were a family of eight, with six siblings. She moved to Solan during Partition and her mother hoped that they would go back, which never did happen. At the time, her elder brother was in the army and the family moved with him on his postings…After my mother lost her last sibling, she started to reminisce about her home, her family and her childhood. She had started to recall the minutest of details — the number of rooms in the house, the names of her neighbours there,” she said.
While city-based Varma was coached on technology and social media over the years by her granddaughter to stay in tune with newer ways of communication, she got more involved during the pandemic. Around the same time, she chanced upon an open group called Punjab Heritage on Facebook. Founded by Pakistani citizen Imran William and co-run by Zihar, the group has an intent to unite the people of Punjab from both countries. People share their stories, culturally significant anecdotes and pictures of heritage sites.
“The group intrigued my mother and she posted her story on it. People were interested to have someone from that time on social media. She posted pictures and stories of her times in Rawalpindi, Murre, Lahore…She received several friend requests from people who asked her to visit…soon she was in touch with Rawalpindi-based journalist Sajjad Haider. He found her house and sent my mother photographs to confirm it. The house and the board which read the name were still present. So, after two years of the pandemic, she voiced her desire to visit her home,” said Khullar.
They applied for the visa earlier this March and got sponsorship letters from her friends across the border as well as a distant relative she found later living in Chakwal. But for some reason, the embassy rejected it.
“I asked my mother not to be disheartened by the outcome but all she said was, “It is alright that they rejected it but I am visiting for sure.” She relayed the same to her friends in Pakistan and another journalist, Beenish Siddiqa, who had been writing about her, suggested that she make a video for a visa appeal. She tweeted the video and soon it reached Hina Rabbani Khar who then tweeted that they will grant her the visa. The next morning, I got the call for the same.”