Memories of my Ferozepur and my mother

Chandra Sayal



Chandra Sayal is a retired doctor, now living in Derby, England. She worked for over 30 years in the NHS in UK. She was a specialist in Community Medicine and Public Health.

This story was facilitated by Rakshat Hooja, great-grandson of Mata Hooja.

In 1944, my mother, Lajjawati (Mata Hooja), was in Jabbalpore. She was staying with my brother, who was seconded for the army duties during the war. Here, she got the terrible news that Karuna, her 23 year old daughter, had passed away suddenly at Lahore. At the untimely death of her daughter, she was shattered to pieces and could not pull herself together. Karuna was a bright girl, and an extrovert. She had a great future ahead. At such a young age, she had already gained MA, BT and MOL. She was soon to start a new job as a School Inspector in Dera Ghazi Khan District, her ancestral home and was looking forward to this post.

When the war ended, my brother came back to his Civil Service duties as a magistrate and was posted at Ferozepur, 60 miles away from Lahore. My mother was still grieving the loss of her daughter.

Just at that time, All Indian Women's Conference was being held at Lahore with Sucheta Kriplani as its President. My brother suggested that my mother should also attend as a way of her coming out of her grief. At the conference, she met young and intelligent women including Prem Bhatia and Perrin Barucha, the daughter of Col. Barucha, a famous surgeon of Lahore. These women took to my mother straightaway and made her an official delegate for the future conferences.

It became the ‘point of no return' for my mother. She put all her energies towards the cause of women. Her work focused on widows or those left by their husbands for second wives. They had no means of livelihood and were entirely at the mercy of the members of the family, who were often cruel towards them.

My mother decided to give them work for which they would be paid. She hired a place where the women could work or take work home, because some of them had young children. They were given sewing or embroidery work. My mother approached the ladies from the middle classes and took orders. Gradually, the business flourished to such an extent that she decided to hire a teacher to open a school to train the young girls in the town.  This also brought extra income.

The ladies of the town gave my mother their wholehearted support, so much so that after my mother left Ferozepur, a local lady called Mrs Syal took charge of the centre as its Head and afterwards her daughter. It so happened that a few years later, I met a young woman from Ferozepur in London. She told me that the centre was now recognised officially as a training school and sponsored by the Government, same as the Blind School in Delhi which was established by her in 1950 and financed by Chandra Kumari Ji, a philanthropist from Amritsar.

In the beginning, my mother used to go to the officials in the town and introduced herself as the mother of Mr GBK Hooja, my brother. But, a few years later due to her work with the refugees in 1947, she made her own name to an extent that when my brother, among many others were being presented to the Governor of Punjab, who came to Ferozepur, he was instantly asked by the Governor whether he was Mata Hooja's son. By now she was known all over the province and even to Lady Mountbatten, the Viceroy's wife, who after the partition sent her to Pakistan to help in the repatriation of Hindu girls.

With the victory of 1945, there was great elation throughout the country, and celebrations were held all over. Even Ferozepur had its big share with the military bands and tattoos, along with parades, also stage plays, dances as well as fireworks in the Civil Gardens, which everyone enjoyed.

But soon after, the independence movement re-started, Ferozepur, a cantonment, had a great impact with large signs and graffitis on the walls of important places, like cinemas and also on the English Clubs. Indians took pride in it, but it was frightening for the English soldiers and army officers as many of them were young. But, worse was to follow with the great chaos in 1947. Ferozepur was a border town dividing the country into two and it became a hell.

Before the Partition in 1947, Ferozepur was a nice and peaceful town. I have fond of memories of this place. My brother first had a house at the border of the City and Cantonment. In fact, this place was called the chungi (the toll house of olden days), and one had an easy access to both sides, which enabled us to get acquainted to the local families. Some of them were very affluent and most of them were landlords, land owners or owned factories.

The nearest to us and in the city, lived Mrs Sethi, a widow, who had two stepsons, almost her age living in London, one a doctor and other a dental surgeon. They were sent abroad to study, but as the war broke out, they were unable to come home. One of them even got married to an English girl. Mrs Sethi was particularly kind as she gave them their share of the property after the death of her husband. I remember meeting the English girl as she visited her in-laws and we played badminton in their court, her wearing salwar kameez with no chunni, which looked odd to us at the time.

Inside the walled city, there was the Ansell family with three sisters and a brother with a beautiful wife, and we befriended them. As they sent their carriage to fetch us, we passed through the gates of the city entering on the narrow streets, until we reached a large house with a huge courtyard, and inside the rooms were furnished in modern design. The eldest sister was called Raj, a pretty girl, who was educated at Kinnaird College for Women, a very prestigious college at Lahore. The middle one, Sudershan was at Lahore College for Women, and the youngest, Anil, in her teens was at a Convent, also at Lahore. Anil was not happy at the Convent because it was all about Christ. Since she was under her grandmother's influence, she was deeply religious and believed only in Lord Krishna, so she left the Convent.

The brother's wife was called Kanta, petite, delicate, and soft-spoken person. She took fancy to my brother Bhupi and wanted him to marry her younger sister. In fact, I had another young girl called Satya Skirl in mind for him. She was helping my mother in her work.  But Bhupi was not yet ready to support a wife. I was told that they used to send their clothes to Lahore for dry cleaning. Anyway, all of them were delightful and a good company. So we spent a lot of time together in going for picnics, to cinemas and on trips in boats at Sutlej River, which were particularly enjoyable in moonlight. Since the local swimming pool was just across my brother's house, we often booked it privately during the early hours of the morning or late at night with full moon, when we all bought food and shared it together.

Later on, my brother moved to the Cantonment and hired a bungalow in a complex, which belonged to Sayal family. In this compound, there was a large house, and surrounding it were a few smaller, but separate houses, one for an aunt, now a widow with children\; and another for the grandmother, and opposite this was the house, which my brother had rented.

The real entrance of my brother's house was from the main road with a Bookstore selling English books and newspapers. So the army soldiers and officers frequently visited it. However, we preferred to use the side entrance to the complex. In the large house lived a middle-aged couple with four daughters and a son. The eldest, Karuna, had studied at Lahore, the next was Krishna who was of my age and studying at Lahore at the same time, and the younger two were still at school in Ferozepur. So was the son, who was the youngest. There were also two brothers, older, who lived in the same house, which really belonged to their diseased parents. So they now lived as one family sharing meals. Surrounding the boundary of the Complex and on its outskirts were shops rented mainly by the Muslims for tailoring, bakery, groceries, etc.

By now we had added more young people in the group for our company. During this period, Miss Rana, our English teacher at Jalandhar also came with her younger sisters to spend holidays with relatives, who were in the army, when we decided to hold concerts and plays. I remember, in one of those, our opening scene was with Jan Gan Adhinaik Jai Hey, that we had learnt at KMV in Jalandhar, long before it became the National song, with Miss Rana sitting in the centre as Bharat Mata (Mother India) and surrounding her were all of us presenting each province one by one in different attires as we came forward singing our lines.

I think Karuna was from Maratha, her younger sister Kamla, Bengal, I from Dravin, and Bhupi, came as a Parsi since we had a full version of the song describing people too. Unfortunately, our carefree days were not there to last long because horrible and unforgettable events were on the horizon. Ferozepur had its toll as it was situated on Sutlej River that divided the country into two.

Since my mother was involved mostly with women, she was to deal with more horrendous tasks now and take care of the persons, who got uprooted from their hometowns and had taken shelter in Ferozepur.

I remember, it was April 1947 as I had come to Ferozepur during the Easter vacations when I was a third year medical student, and my mother was dealing with a full term pregnant woman, widow of a Police Superintendent, who was murdered at Rawalpindi in March. As the woman was to be taken to the hospital in the middle of the night, and with no ambulance or even a car available in those days, my mother asked Syal family to spare their horse and cart with the driver for this purpose, and I accompanied them. This was the very first delivery, I witnessed with a head of black hair appearing gradually and it shocked me. The next morning as the grandmother, being old fashioned, asked me if I had a bath after being in the delivery room. To please her, I said I did, even though I had not.

From now on, my mother's work turned into rehabilitating such persons as well, for which she had to expand her network with more ladies as volunteers, who were more than happy to help. Even the high officials took notice as her workload increased and by the time of Partition, she was in control and in full swing helping refugees. As a matter of fact, that summer and before the 15th August, when there was complete chaos and anarchy with arsons, looting and killings on the streets, curfew orders were introduced. It was to keep Hindus and Muslims apart and come close to each other at the same time. For this purpose, both communities had different hours of the day, but Authorities gave special privilege to my mother and supplied her with a jeep and driver to carry out her work. My mother was truly Mother Teresa of her time, working relentlessly in heat and dust all the time.

There was yet another problem to face for the people like us, who were kind and not fanatic. It was the safety of the Muslims, who worked in the shops surrounding the Complex and were the target for some, whom we knew personally on friendly terms, but we abhorred their intentions, and they were not pleased with us when they discovered that we had sent these people back to Pakistan safely.

At that time, my brother was in charge of supplying coupons for the petrol, which was in short supply. When the drivers of the buses and trucks, mainly Sikhs came, my brother made sure that they took a load of Muslim families across the border to Kasur, before they could get their full quota and among them, one load was the people surrounding the Complex. But one man did not want to go since his family was in UP and he did not want to go without them. So we gave them shelter in our house for a few days with servants and changed his appearance as a Hindu with appropriate clothing and tilak on his head as well as mala in his hand, and finally Mrs Syal from the main house took him to the railway station in her carriage. Whether he reached safely to his place or not, we do not know, but one person from the bus load did, as he came to thank my brother, who was posted as Liaison Officer at Lahore in 1948. At that time my mother's work in Pakistan also continued in recovering Hindu girls, as she went from one village to the other tracing them. After that, she worked as a Camp Commandant of many refugee camps, until these came to cease.  

Front row, L to R: Mrs. Sukhadia, wife of Rajasthan's Chief Minister, Mata Hooja, Mohan Lal Sukhadia, Rajasthan's Chief Ministr, Prime Minister Nehru. Nagaur, Rajasthan, 1959.

This photo is from a Hindi newspaper. The heading translates as:

The Historic Moment Fifty Years Ago: Nehruji sitting with workers after the very first Panchayat in the country in Nagaur.

The footer of the photo translates as:

On 2nd October 1959, after the inauguration of the first Panchayat in the country, then Prime Minister Nehru sitting with workers and functionaries.

© Chandra Sayal 2018


Thanks for sharing your memories Chandra Bua. please keep writing more such pieces

Add new comment