Portrait of a Grandmother

Hari Rani Sahni, nee Sethi (1890-1924) 
Aside from Environment, food, spirituality, economy and much else about life, I have from time to time included sketches of my immediate family too in this blog. Recently a cousin Manoj Sahni who now lives in San Francisco, USA sent me a family heirloom, a photo of my grandmother dating from around 1916 or so.

My mother (Nand Rani Sahni) had described her as a beautiful and graceful lady who died a month after the birth of my mother in 1924. I am not certain of her birthday but it may have been somewhere around 1890. She was the daughter of Lachman Dass (Sethi) and wife of Lala Gurdas Ram Sahni. At a relatively young age in his early forties her father Lachman Dass became the Chief Administrative and Judicial officer (Sherishtadar) of the Quetta –Pishin Districts of Baluchistan. This was the most developed of the six districts of the large province of Baluchistan which had been a part of the Sultanate of Oman, British India and now Pakistan. In 1915 Lachman Das was awarded the title of Rai Sahib by the King Emperor of India, George the fifth on his birthday as recorded in Biographical indexes (also on Wikipedia). After 1920 when the British permitted native Indians to occupy the senior most positions in administration he rose to become the Political agent (Deputy Commissioner) of Quetta-Pishin and also functioned from time to time as the interim Political agent  (Commissioner) of the entire province of Baluchistan (a position mostly reserved for the British Peerage and their descendants during British rule of India) as per the history I could gather from the family and the little research I was able to do on the topic. Historical records from that era are few and scanty and difficult to obtain..

After her marriage, my grandmother came to live with my grandfather in Lahore who too belonged to a leading family of North-Western India until her demise in 1924. After the death of her mother, my grandfather arranged a wet nurse for my mother. When she was a little older, he sent her to live for sometime with her grandfather and grandmother in Quetta so that she would find motherly love. Later she joined boarding school and then college for girls in Lahore coming home to my grandfather in holidays. My mother had a kind heart and every time before returning home from boarding school she would give away her quilt and blankets to a poor worker around the boarding school and my grandfather had to get new ones made every year. He would tease her about it but she would insist that they were very poor and needed that bedding. Another thing my mother described is that grandfather would order a clothing merchant to arrive every year with his wares and my mother was ordered to select six new suits every time. However the year she was to get married, 1943, their were bumper crops on his lands and he was flush with cash that he passed on to her to shop to her hearts content for jewellery and clothes in the largest market of Lahore - Anarkali. Two of her purchases were saris woven with wires of pure gold and fine silk. One of these remained with her till her demise in 1999 and as per her earlier instructions, she was cremated in that sari.

My grandfather lived on the income from his Landholdings that were sporadic. He lived very well with a retinue of attendants and staff but there were times when it was a bad agricultural year he fell short of cash. Nevertheless being a spiritual man he never worried about tomorrow believing that the Lord will take care of him. On one such occasion when he ran out of money for shopping he was wondering what to do when a pigeon flew by dropping a silver coin in the yard. He grabbed the coin and yelled out to the servants to go to the market for the day’s dinner that included for him everyday the soup of a six month old chicken, mutton cutlets and a dish of spinach along with lentils and seasonal stir fried vegetables served on his large dining table where besides the family, guests would arrive from time to time, that included the Premier of the Province – Khizer Hyat (sp?) his father Major General Sir Malik Umar Hayat Khan Tiwana who acted as honorary aide-de-camp to George V and George VI, and son, nephew besides. His son/nephew Shaukat was about the same age as my uncle and his mother too had died when he was young remained life long friends, meeting in UK after India was divided. The friendships in the group were strengthened because they were all Freemasons. My mother said that the dinner was the best of dinners but the attendant cum butlers ensured that everyone got fixed portions and no more than two small mutton cutlets each. My uncles who were tall and big built did not mind though because they frequently snacked up on nuts before dinner so they were not hungry at dinner time and pine nuts (Chilgoza) were the favorite of my uncles. My mother on the other hand loved the humble roasted peanut in shells most and loved to dip that in salt before eating. She would however never eat shelled peanuts and it seems that just the act of shelling them was a meditative exercise for her as was her knitting and she would knit for any new child being born in the family. She did that for my two daughters too when they were infants.

After her wedding to my father my mother moved to the North West Frontier province around 1947. At that time India was suddenly split into two countries India and Pakistan and a hurried movement of Hindu and Muslim population began across the borders as riots broke out between the two communities that had lived together largely in peace for a thousand years. The insensitive division of countries by colonial powers have left countries in strife from Palestine to India. My father was then already in Roorkee India on a military assignment and he arranged a large bungalow in Roorkee for the family. My mother (Nand Rani Sahni) with her two children (my elder brother and sister) and in-laws caught the train for Delhi. At Lahore however my mother disembarked because she wished to visit her father. At that time there were riots on in Lahore and a curfew through the city. She was trapped at the railway station when the thought occurred to her to call the Premier Khizer Hyat, the family friend for help. On receiving the call, Khizereryat sent an official cavalcade to take her to my grandfather and back after the meeting. My grandfather sent her back saying that he would follow later but he was killed in the following riots and never made it to India. A life-long attendant ( by the name of Gurditta) who reached India later said that a posse of Muslim fanatics had broken into the home and asked my grandfather to read some verses from the Holy Koran or lose his life. The servants read those and urged my grandfather to do the same but he refused and was killed on the spot. Unlike me and my mother who had liberal religious beliefs believing in the goodness of all religions, my grandfather was somewhat rigid about his.

It was later, one of my mother’s brothers P. N. Sahni, who too became one of the senior most administrative officers of Northern India who helped to rehabilitate the attendant Gurditta in his hometown of Ferozepur for retirement as he did with his own life-long attendant by the Name of Dharma many years later. Presently I am in the process of setting up my own attendant – Shyamu – true to the best of traditions of the family. The present photo of my grandmother was preserved by my other younger uncle Dr./Prof. R.N Sahni and was passed on to his son Manoj mentioned at the outset.

More about me and family:

A bit about my childhood
A Portrait of my Mother is here:
A bit about my father is here:
Portraits of my brothers are included here:
And finally about me is here:
A Spiritual incident from my life is here:
Some pictures of  my home and family are here:


keiko amano said…

Lahore seemed a fascinatingly modern city in 1900s. This is very interesting story. I hope you'll find more old photos and records.
ashok said…
Yes my mother said the same thing. Even in the seventies she said that Lahore of forties was more modern than present day Delhi or Jaipur. She said that even in the forties there were night clubs and cabarets in Lahore and its fashion statement competed with Paris. The Indian film industry called Bollywood was centered in Lahore it moved to Bombay later. However, it seems present day Lahore under Pakistan rule is no more modern and the city has returned to chaos.
keiko amano said…
Yes, I've read about Lahore and the film industry when I read the poems by Urdu authors.One is Faiz Ahmed Faiz. But I cannot remember his name. I have his book here, so I could type it this time.
ashok said…
The most famous of Urdu poets is Mirza Ghalib. He was from Delhi 1800 something.

However aside from that Delhi was never so modern in 1800 and upto 1970. The modern metropolitan cities of India in early 1900's were Bombay, Lahore and Calcutta and the prettiest were Nainital, Mussorie and Simla all in the himalayas.
Vinod Khurana said…
Dear Ashok,Very well written.If partition hadn't taken place, would we have been better off economically and in our value system?Mahatama Gandhi would have liked to wait,rather than be confronted with truncated freedom!
ashok said…
Absolutely Vinod. We definitely would have been better off and stronger and there would be no Kashmir problem. As regards Hindu Muslim problem that would not have been any more or less than today , probably less because of no inducements for strife from across a border. and most likey there would be no Afghanistan problem either. the united India would have contained it and there would not have been any Taliban.
ashok said…
Keiko, since my last comment I added some more content to the post.
Vinod Khurana said…
Dear Ashok ji,Thanks a lot. Very well analysed and explained.
ashok said…
Do let me know when you have a new poem on your blog Vinod, either as a comment in this blog or by email.
Vinod Khurana said…
Ashok ji, Surely I shall do that.
Your suggestions help me a lot.
Thanks very much.
ashok said…
My Pleasure Vinod :)
vinod khurana said…
Dear Ashok ji, One more poem is posted on my blog.I would be grateful for your kind comments.
Vinod Khurana said…
Very well written and deeply informative article.Shyamu is indeed lucky to have you as his godfather. May God bless you more and more.
with warm regards
Ashok said…
Dear Vinod, I am lucky to have Shyamu too. He has been of great help to me in my life especially in days of need. Thanks again for such nice words.

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