House #4: B block Ashok Vihar:
We returned back to Delhi in end April 1977.
After staying a week or so with our cousins at Jama Masjid, one day Papa Ammi came back happy that they have found a house in Ashok Vihar after a long search. One of the reasons to choose Ashok Vihar was that in less than 6 months Papa was planning to start the construction of our house in Vaishali, a University Teachers Housing Cooperative colony at Pitampura. Then, Minocha Uncle, one of Papa’s old friends and colleague had suggested that Ashok Vihar would be an ideal location, if he wanted to put us kids in a good school. Montfort School was one of the best schools there.
Even in 1977, it was still not an easy task to find a house in a locality which were vast majority BJP voters.
But Papa Ammi’s liberal appearance and charisma worked. The house they finally succeeded to rent was owned by a couple who were both active workers of RSS in the area. It was a very small 2 bedroom portion on the first floor, but had a big terrace. Papa, as he would always do, took all three of us siblings into confidence and explained, “Dont worry, the house is small. We have to stay only 6 months to an year here, and then we will have our own big house. And of course you will miss the openness of Kashmir, but this house has a big terrace and it faces the green belt jungle and a railway line passes from the far end of the green belt.” He was trying to console us in a very positive way. Eventually, as Papa loved the verandah in Kashmir, most of his and all our evenings were spent on the terrace in this house too.
There were terrible summers when we arrived in Delhi. I still recall those days with a shudder. This was our first encounter with such high temperatures, in our living memory. In a few weeks as the mercury soared higher in May, and the heat became far more suffocating, all three of us kids fell sick with Malaria. Papa and Ammi were nervous, and ran all over the markets, looking for desert coolers. It was peak summer so they were all sold out. Ammi has always been very innovative. Imagine what she did to cool the house. She would open the showers in the bathrooms, and place a table fan in front of it, with the bathroom door open, so the air that blew from the fan was humid and cool. In a couple of weeks, or less, finally the rooms were fitted with desert coolers.
I was still not able to fathom why on earth were Ammi Papa still so happy in Delhi? What was it that we all had to leave Kashmir, when most of our friends happily continued to live in that beautiful valley? Papa’s biggest source of excitement was the prospect of constructing his own home. This was a dream since his days when he lived in his father’s house in Jama Masjid- to have a house of his own. Long before my birth, he had become a member of a housing scheme for Delhi University teachers in 1964. Like any such housing cooperatives, it took from 1964 to 1977 for the land to be finally allotted for construction. Delhi was a congested city and houses were expensive even in mid 70s, and salaries in India were very modest. So it was well out of reach of a salaried class person to purchase a land and then build a house. With this background, it was indeed commendable for a self-made man like Papa to acquire land and build a house. Most of his friends and family were in awe. And Ammi Papa were nervously planning the funds for the next stage- the house construction.
In the meantime, as tenants, we were faced with a senior couple as our landlords, who were old workers of RSS- a radical Hindu extremist organization. Being fussy about what should not be cooked in their rented home, even the other Punjabi families wouldn’t feel comfortable renting their home. Due to stringent conditions to renters, the property dealers generally avoided showing their house to prospective tenants. One day, when Ammi Papa were exhausted looking for a house with the property dealer, he asked, “There is a house which is vacant since a long time. But the landlords are difficult and you are Muslims. They might not even consider you.”
Papa was always very optimistic, he told him, “Take us there, we will talk out with them.”
Not sure, what transpired, but he managed to convince the landlord to rent it to us.
My parents, being moderate Muslims, were respectful of their religious sentiments, and were in dire need of a short term rental place. They thought they would be able to spend next six months as tenants there, without any problems. The owners had put restrictions on us to not cook non-vegetarian food items on two days, Tuesdays and Saturdays and never bring certain meat parts(like organ meat, trots, and beef) to the house. It did make Ammi Papa uncomfortable but out of respect and religious sentiments, they strictly followed their rules.
Auntie, the landlady, as my parents called her, would quietly sneak into the terrace, and come to check what was cooking in the kitchen. But since my parents were complying to their demands and respecting their sentiments, they did not object. In fact, they invited her in and let her reassure herself. Ammi’s name was Meraj. But Auntie told her, “I will call you Meera.” So from that time, Ammi became Meera, not only for her, but to all the other neighbors.
My brothers would go down to the park across the house to play football with other boys. They were barely 11. One day a boy asked them, “Tum log musalman ho? Lekin tumhari tou daarhi nai hai.” (You people are Muslims? But you don’t have a beard?) 😀 I swear I am not exaggerating or making it up. This was the exact question asked.
Another boy some other time remarked, “Hum nai pata tha Muslims itne ache bhi hote hain.” (We didn’t know Muslims can be this good).
In a few months, one of the neighbors who my parents and brothers had become friends with, started preparations for the wedding of their eldest son. They went on distributing invitation cards in the area. I remember we were so anxiously waiting for our invitation, that never arrived. We would stand by the terrace fence and watch their home being decorated, crates of Coke being brought in, boxes of mithais, marigold flowers, rental crockery etc for the preparations. One day a huge tent was set up in the same park the kids played together. All the families in the colony went to the wedding, but we three kids just kept watching the hustle bustle and the music and dance from our terrace in the dark of the night, so that nobody would know we were watching. Papa had noticed our disappointment, and again he sat down on the dining table with us siblings and talked to us. My brother said, “I think we were not invited because we are Muslims.” But Papa very tactfully explained, “Beta we are just short term tenants here, that’s why they did not invited us.” It didn’t make us feel better at all. But of course in few days all was forgotten.
We kids were admitted in Montfort School and were the only and first Muslims in the School then. Papa bought us bicycles to ride to school. Bro. John of S.H. who was the principal, was unusually impressed by Papa, his secular credentials and his pursuit to educate his children including ‘the daughter’ in a convent school contrary to his stereotypical views on Muslims.
In the first year, he told Papa, “Its middle of the session and I have no vacancy in the classes. But I will take your daughter in the school.” So I was in. Hilmi & Subhi had to go to a Sikh School, Mata Jai Kaur Public School, for one year, before they joined Montfort, a year later.
Montfort School and Bro. John have been a huge influence in my life and will be writing about it in the next blog on Vaishali. Not sure for the reason then, but I was showered an unusually special attention by Brother John. Whenever Brother John, as school principal came to our class, or saw me in the break time, he would give a wide smile and ask, “Baby, how are you doing? Hope no one is troubling you?” In front of the entire class, it was quite embarrassing to be made the center of attention, but quite flattering too, to be honest.
My class fellows who called me Illu, and specially the boys, teased me for this special attention from Brother John. “Yaar Illu ko dekh ker pata nahin Bro. John kyun itna muskurata hai?”
Brother told Papa, more than once, that being the only Muslim girl in the school, he gave special attention to me and wanted to see me thrive. He had even shared with Papa that when he was the Principal of Montfort School branch in Sardana, most Muslim families there only wanted their boys to go to the ‘pricey’ convent school.
Brother John was generally an affectionate person and was kind to my brothers, and to all kids in the school. Most parents liked him. But I had the privilege of some extra attention. Looking back I can say he was not by any means wanton in his affection, (as some may presume while reading) otherwise that would have rung the bell instantaneously. He was just fascinated by a progressive, educated Muslim family and had massive respect for Papa and Ammi.
In August that year, Papa’s Khala in Lahore fell sick, and asked Papa to come and visit her. All of Papa’s maternal side had moved to Pakistan and were settled in Lahore. Papa had to take specially permission from Bro. John for a 2 week break for us. Incidentally, Papa met the Pakistani Ambassador in some function in Delhi and mentioned about his Khala to him. The ambassador invited Papa to come to his embassy and get the visa. Within hours our entire family was issued the visa too. (Those were the days I swear !) My brothers and I returned from the school one day and Papa Ammi gave us a news, “We are going to Pakistan.” My parents went down to inform uncle and auntie that we were going for a visit to Pakistan, very cautiously, expecting that a negative reaction may come from them. They didn’t react. Honestly, I wasn’t very excited either. “Visit Pakistan? Of all the places?” I must have thought.
To their utter surprise, a day later, both Uncle and Auntie came upstairs and made an emotional appeal to Papa. As Uncle was well versed in Urdu and had studied the language in pre-partition days, he asked Papa, “Professor Sb aap se ek guzaarish hai.” He explained that they lived as newly weds in a house in Lahore before they migrated to India in 1947. He requested if we could go and visit that house in Lahore and bring back a picture of that house for them. “Ham per ye aapka ek bahut bara ehsaan hoga.” (It would mean a great deal to us). They remembered the house address, and the details of where in the gali to turn, 29 years later. The sparkle in their eyes and the excitement with which he talked, could tell that their bond of love for their home city Lahore was still strong and the memories of their newly married days in that house were still very fresh.
The address was (some number, am unable to recall), Ram Gali, Lahore.
We took the train from Delhi to Amritsar, and then crossed the Wagah-Atari border in another train and, in barely an hour there we were on Lahore Railway Station. Papa’s first cousin, Mohammed Mian, was there to receive us at the station. A few days later, we went to visit Ramgali and Papa took tons of photographs. The current residents were quite hospitable and showed us around, pointing at all the curious things in the house they had left exactly as they were with the previous owners. One such thing was the “Om” emblem installed at the head of the entrance of the house. It was a huge surprise for my parents too.
After almost a hurricane fortnight in Lahore and Karachi, when we returned back to Delhi, first thing my father did was to develop the photos of our trip. He collected the pictures of the house in Ram Gali, Lahore into a small album and presented it to the landlords.
Going through the pictures in the album, the old couple broke down. Tears admixed with smiles lit their eyes and faces bright, as they flipped through the album, back and forth, noticing minute details in the pictures. My parents gave them a verbal synopsis of our visit to their house in Lahore. Auntie was particularly moved by the symbol “Om” still being in its original place, and that even the name of the street still being Ram Gali. They even acknowledged with honesty that they have heard no names have been changed in Pakistan, unlike how they changed in India, post partition. Auntie Uncle were different humans after that day.
Around the same time, my Nani (maternal grandmother) had passed away, and Ammi would feel depressed. Auntie would then console her by saying, “Meera, you are my daughter; as it is I have none.” She had two sons, and they, too, were living away in different cities. Her maternal instincts now were no more stymied by differences of faith. Auntie never came up to check for non-veg being cooked in the kitchen again. But she did visit to give us guavas from her tree in the backyard or chameli (jasmine) flowers from the garden, which my mother loved so much.
Our new house in Vaishali was under construction and Ammi Papa would be gone there after their jobs and returned late. Auntie Uncle reassured them that they will keep and eye on us kids. And would occasionally call us from the stairs to check of we needed anything. “Almana, Hilloo, Gulloo, beta aap ko kuch chahiye?”
One day Uncle offered to Papa, “Professor, take me to the construction site, as I have experience in house building and will be able to give you some suggestions.” He then became the go-to person for any trouble-shoot during the construction. Papa’s very old friend Kohli Uncle became our contractor and his son Narendra Kohli was the architect. Uncle insisted to sit down with them to design the house to facilitate cost effectiveness.
We ended up staying almost 2 years in Ashok Vihar. By this time, our house was almost built and needed only some finishing touches. Papa was anxious to shift into his dream home by the time second contract at Ashok Vihar ended. But the house was still not completed. We moved out of Ashok Vihar in April 1980 after writing my 10th grade Board exams. This meant we would have to commute in DTC buses to come to school from Vaishali. Since the rooms were not ready, Papa decided that we shift to our ancestral home in Jama Masjid for a few months before shifting to Vaishali.
The next blog would be about Jama Masjid and Vaishali homes.
One thing that became very glaringly clear to me, from these personal experiences is what Raza Aslan, the Iranian-American author has said, and I quote, “It’s not knowledge but relationships that change minds.” And since then, I carry this wisdom up on my sleeves, and yet each time need to consciously remind myself of my unconscious biases.
Our visit to Pakistan, and Uncle Auntie’s emotional reaction to the pictures we gave them, was perhaps the moment, when my own apprehensions against Pakistan were removed from my psyche. Though still a very patriotic Indian, but this definitely helped me take the decision years later to marry Fasih, a Pakistani, with ease.
Uncle Auntie were already in their 70s and they passed away a few years after we moved to Vaishali.
Brother John remained an integral part of the lives of our whole family even long after we left school. Papa Ammi visited him on every Christmas Eve and invited him for lunch on Eid. Whenever I was visiting Delhi after shaadi, a visit to him with kids was a must. Much to my children’s amusement, he still called me ‘Baby’. Brother John passed away some 5 years ago. There are more stories of Bro John to share while were were in Vaishali.
We made lifelong friends in school, and all the classmates and some juniors and seniors are now great FB friends and part of whatsapp groups. Social media has been a gamechanger, indeed.
Kohli Uncle was much older than Papa and he passed away a few years later. Narendra bhaiya is still on my FB friends, list, though I have not met him for 3 decades at least.
While I hunt for some Ashok Vihar pics from school days, and these school friends, here are some pics with school from much later days.