By Nasim Hassan, Delaware
I am sharing this story because this has touched our common humanity transcending the borders and religious divide.
A few years ago I wrote about the partition of India. First was “Farewell to Shimla” about the migration of my family from Shimla to Lahore. The second was based on firsthand experience of Mr. Tufail Uppal who saw the events of partition unfolding as an adult. This was titled “Common People and Partition of India”. Mr. Uppal migrated from Raja Sansi, a town near Amritsar. I did not know at that time that these articles would be helpful in uniting a family after half a century (51 years) of separation.
Early morning on Saturday in November, 2012, I received a call from Romy Singh. He asked me for help because he had read my article on the partition of India. He told me a story about his mother Harbhajan Kaur. Briefly the story in her words is as follows:
“My name is Harbhajan Kaur. I am now 82 years old. My father Sher Singh was a landlord in Raja Sansi town near Amritsar. I was married to a Sardar Harbil Singh in Lahore in 1946. In 1947, while migrating from Lahore to Amritsar our truck was attacked and the mobsters killed everyone except the girls. I was one of the surviving girls.
“After changing hands, a person named Afzal Khan married me and renamed me Shahnaz Begum. Afzal Khan was 16 years older than me. After marrying Afzal Khan I moved to Karachi and we had five children. The name of the kids are: Khurshid, Zubeda, Jamila, Bala (Iqbal) and Rizwan. Afzal Khan lived in Kola Godaam (Coal Depot) area of Karachi. He was in cosmetic business.
“In 1962 the visa restrictions were relaxed and I decided to visit Raja Sansi. The two people who helped me were: Bashir Ahmed and Zahoor Ahmed in Akbari Mandi Lahore. In fact their mother-in-law was like a God mother to me.
“So I proceeded with my husband Afzal Khan to Raja Sansi (Amritsar area) with my children. The youngest one Rizwan, born in 1960, was two years old.
“In Raja Sansi, my parent did not allow me to go back to Pakistan but my husband Afzal Khan and children were sent back to Pakistan.
“In 1969, I was married to a Sardar Gurbachan Singh whose wife had died and needed someone to take care of his son Romy Singh who was five years. Romy Singh migrated to the USA in 1989. After Romy established business he invited me and my husband and we moved to the USA in 1997. My husband passed away in 2007.
“Although I never revealed the story to my son Romy Singh but he found out from other sources. I am now 82 years old and Romy asked me if I wanted to contact my kids in Pakistan. Now they must have grown up and God knows where they live at this time."
My search started from this point onward. I asked Romy Singh to get as many details as possible from his mother about the various people and places in Karachi so that we could focus our research on a specific area. After more than fifty years there was a possibility of family scattering all over Pakistan and other countries.
I published the above information in Pakistan Link on December 7, 2012. In fact the editor Akhtar Faruqui encouraged me in this pursuit. I shared this story with various press groups in Pakistan. I sent this brief to Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed who writes a regular column for “Daily Times” a newspaper in Lahore.
I also discussed this story with Mr. Tufail Uppal who had a vivid memory of partition. Here the story becomes more interesting. Mr. Uppal not only knew the family of Harbhajan Kaur, he had attended her marriage in 1946. He had personal friendship with her father Sher Singh and her family.
He had in fact met Harbhajan Kaur in Lahore while she was on her way to see her family in Raja Sansi in 1962. Since he had known the family he had kept track of the events till 1963. During this time he narrated that Afzal Khan went to the court in Amritsar for sake of his small kids. The youngest son Rizwan was only two years old. However the court decided that Afzal can take his kids to Pakistan but Harbhajan Kaur would stay in India. Religious sentiments and wounds of partition were still festering. So Harbhajan Kaur who became Shahnaz Begum after her marriage to Afzal Khan became a victim of partition again. Daily News of Karachi published this story as “ Wife, Who Never Was” on April 8, 1963. Mr. Uppal kept this published story in his personal archives for more than fifty years.
I continued my search by sending this story to many personal friends in Pakistan and the USA. Meanwhile Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed published this story in Daily Times of Lahore on December 16, 2012. Dr. Ishtiaq was very interested in this story as he had already published a book on partition, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2012). So he actively joined the search.
I kept in touch with Romy Singh to get more information. Romy Singh shared with me more details about his family. His father Gurbachan Singh was a writer, poet and migrated from Lyall Pur (Faisal Abad). He could read and understand Urdu and Persian. His wife had passed away leaving two sons who needed care. He named his son Romy Singh after Jallalud Din Rumi.
Romy was about five years old when his father Gurbachan Singh married Harbhajan Kaur. So for Romy Singh and his older brother, Harbhajan Kaur provided the motherly care after her marriage in 1969. As time went by, Romy Singh migrated to the USA in 1989. He brought his parents (Gurbachan Singh and Harbhajan Kaur) in 1997. The family lived in the greater Baltimore area of Maryland.
Romy Singh learned the past history of his mother from papers of his father Gurbachan Singh but he never mentioned the past to avoid hurting her feelings. His father passed away in 2007. Romy Singh asked his mother if she wanted to see her kids in Pakistan. Initially she avoided the subject but in 2012 she agreed to pursue the search if it was possible after half century of separation. At that time Romy started active search in India and the Internet. He learned that his relatives had received a few letters from Pakistan asking for Harbhajan Kaur/Shahnaz Begum. But his relatives simply ignored the pleas and dumped the letters in the garbage. While searching Partition of India he came across my article on the subject.
Our search continued now Dr. Ishtiaq joining the effort. I shared the story with human rights organizations in Pakistan and my face book contacts. No lead was coming through on this subject. We also explored the possibility of searching the NADRA data base in Pakistan.
During the second week of January, 2013, we invited Romy Singh family including his mother Harbhajan Kaur to meet Tufail Uppal. In that gathering other members of Uppal family also came. Tufail Uppal’s daughter Fazilat and his son in law Waseem Sheikh came to meet Romy Singh family.
In that meeting we decided to publish the story in an Urdu newspaper Jang in Karachi. Waseem Sheikh contacted his friends in Pakistan while Fazilat mobilized the search in Karachi through her personal friends. The story published in Daily Times by Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed was translated in Urdu by Tariq Bashir of Jang newspaper. We provided all the relevant details to pursue the search in the area of Kola Godaam. This name referred to a Coal Storage Depot that has disappeared long time ago. However there are still people who recall the name in Lyari area of Karachi. So as the Jang newspaper was preparing the story for publication another person was going and asking around the people if anyone knew Afzal Khan in Lyari area of yester years.
The story of Harbhajan Kaur/Shahnaz Begum appeared on February 9, 2013 in the Jang Newspaper in Urdu. On February 12, 2013, there was a breakthrough in Karachi where a shop keeper was found who had heard this story from his father. He also knew Rizwan as a friend. Initially Rizwan thought it was a kind of hoax because he believed his mother had passed away like his father Afzal Khan.
Meanwhile the Jamila Begum the daughter of Harbhajan Kaur/ Shahnaz Begum read the story in Jang and sent an email to Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed on February 14, 2013.. I sent the phone number of Romy Singh to Dr. Ishtiaq and Jamila Begum while Rizwan got through the Karachi contact the news of his mother being alive and well in Maryland.
The elder daughter Khurshid Begum contacted her mother from Canada. Within few hours on February 14, 2013, the whole family got connected on Skype. Khurshid Begum came from Canada and met her mother first time after more than fifty years. She has grand kids of her own at this time. Khurshid Begum had lived in New Jersey area for about ten years while her mother was in Maryland area.
During this time Tufail Uppal was admitted to the Christiana Hospital for the treatment of respiratory infection. Although he was very sick at the age of over 92 years, he was very pleased to learn about the news of Harbhajan Kaur finding her kids in Pakistan. He smiled and conveyed his good wishes. After one week of this discovery, Tufail Uppal passed away in peace.
Romy Singh planned his trip to India and Pakistan. He applied for a visa for his mother and himself. Both of them went first to Amritsar on April 13, 2013. They crossed over to Lahore via Wagha border after one week stay with their relatives. Romy Singh shared that he did not provide any details to his relatives in India about the visit to Pakistan. Khurshid, the eldest daughter travelled from Canada to receive them in Lahore.
Romy Singh and his mom first went to pay their respect to Guru Nanak birth place Nankana, a town in West Punjab. After their prayer in Nankana, they took a flight from Lahore to Karachi. In Karachi the whole family including Zubeda, Jamila, Bala (Iqbal) and Rizwan met after more than 51 years. Khurshid, the eldest daughter was accompanying her mother from Lahore.
After one day the whole family went to Hyder Abad where the Khurshid owns a comfortable home. The family has grown. Afzal Khan had married after his return from India to take care of his five young children. He had two more children from his second wife. Afzal Khan and his wife passed away many years ago. The larger family takes care of his younger kids. The eldest daughter, Khurshid has now become a grandmother. The family has grown with kids having their own family. There are many visitors every day of their stay.
After one week stay, Romy Singh and his mom Harbhajan Kaur have safely returned to their home in Maryland. Their stay in Pakistan was very pleasant. They did not encounter any hatred, prejudice or threats of any kind.
In the beginning of this search, we thought that this will take time. However the technology has made it very easy to search people in all countries.
This story gives me hope about human decency of people from all religions. I wish them well as they try to reconnect and makeup for the lost time.
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