Doomed by Circumstances
By Amarinder Gill
As India celebrated her 70 years of Independence, many remembered 70 years of displacement, killings, rapes, pillage, and forced conversions. Nehru made his famous speech: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will wake to life and freedom.” The newly created countries witnessed the greatest exodus in history and also a massive genocide.
During the times of turmoil, women are the easiest and softest victims. This is exactly what happened during the Partition period. The displaced women on either sides of the border suffered mutely. The coming generations will read about Partition only in history and literary narratives. My generation heard about it first hand from the people who experienced it. There were those who crossed over the border and there were those who got left behind. My narrative is about a displaced soul who got left behind.
I write the story of a lady from my extended family who was abducted, sexually violated but learnt the art of survival. Let us call her Jaspal Kaur, wife of Major Jasdev Singh. She was my father’s chachi and her Muslim identity is an open secret. I know her as a devout Sikh who reads the Japji Sahib and Rehraas Sahib every day, along with the Sukhmani Sahib. Till a few years back, she wore a mangalsutra, an ornament not very common among married Sikh women. She also has her name tattooed on her left arm which says Jaspal Kaur in the Gurmukhi script.
Let us assume that Jaspal Kaur was christened Husna at birth. When India was split into two, Husna was abducted from her father’s house. After passing from one man to another, Husna came Jasdev Singh’s way. Jasdev Singh, my father’s chacha, was a young, strapping sardar, who looked for pleasure outside the institution of marriage. He was a qualified doctor and stood to inherit hundreds of acres of land this side of the border. He was also a much married man who had fathered a son and two daughters. Husna was a beautiful woman – a mere teenager with skin like cream and peaches. People said that her mother was a Kashmiri and her makhan and sindoor complexion enamoured the young Jat lad. Jasdev Singh later told his village cronies that he was enchanted by her innocence and in her company forgot his shrewish wife. Husna’s were not the first arms he sought but they were the last.
Jasdev Singh brought Husna home and introduced her to the family as his new bride. Polygamy was a way of life and most rich landlords had more than one wife. Gurbans Kaur, Jasdev Singh’s mother ignored the new bride and showed her annoyance at this futile arrangement. She was curious about the new arrival and asked one of her granddaughters, “Is the new one pretty?’’ Once she came to know about the daughter-in-law’s Muslim origins, the old woman wailed, “We are doomed!”
When Husna became Jaspal Kaur, no one knows. In the first few years of the marriage, her husband kept Jaspal Kaur confined to their room. Her rustic upbringing became evident as she did not possess the sophistication and demureness expected of a female of a feudal family. The family found her uncouth and looked at her in distaste. They bore her presence hoping that her novelty would soon wear off and she would be palmed off to someone else. Still a nubile lass, Jaspal Kaur loved to play hopscotch and often skipped a rope with the children of the family. Kutti Musli (Muslim bitch) was a common abuse often hurled at her by the women of the household. In the extended family, she was the butt of all jokes and many pranks were played at her expense. She dared not tell her husband anything for fear of angering the members of the extended family.
As word spread of this Muslim acquisition, female relatives would drop in to view the new bride. She was like a commodity on display and the viewing sessions came to an end only when Jasdev Singh reacted sharply and threatened to leave the house for good. In order to beat the mundane routine, Jaspal Kaur got her name tattooed on her left arm in the Gurmukhi script. Little did she realise that she had been branded with her new religious identity. In her twilight years, she did mention that the tattoo helped her get rid of her kept woman tag. She wore her tattoo like an armour and it helped her deny her minority origins.
In 1949 when the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill was enacted, abducted women were taken away from their new homes and families to be restored to their natal families. Most did not want to go back as they considered themselves impure and bore the stigma of being sexually violated. The shame is always of the female body, which has been ravaged and never of the violator. As news spread of Liaison Officers searching households for such women, Jasdev Singh packed off his second wife to relatives in the Patiala Riyasat. The kinsmen knew how to maintain secrecy and there were lesser chances of discovery there. The Jat zamindars did keep Muslim mirasins as concubines but never did the master of the house marry one. Here was the waaris who would inherit his father’s lands and still gave his new plaything the right of a wife. She who would have trekked with her Muslim brethren to the newly constituted state of Pakistan chose to stay back.
Tired of taunts and the stigma the couple had to face, Jasdev Singh joined the Indian army serving as a doctor in the Army Medical Corps. The army offered the couple a great deal of anonymity. No one delved into their roots. They were just the doctor couple. In good time, Jaspal Kaur learnt the gurmukhi script and how to recite the Sikh prayers. Her fingers churned out the most sumptuous meals. It was only in the army life that she laughed with gay abandon. The couple was blessed with a girl child, who further cemented their relationship. As Jaspal Kaur’s self-esteem grew, she became garrulous and always talked of her husband’s affluent background. She gained sophistication and became groomed for her role as the wife of an army officer. She maintained decorum and observed awaaz aura ankh ka pardah. She was happiest when they were posted in Srinagar away from the nagging and mind-games of the extended family. The Dharangdhara posting was the best thing that happened to the couple. They were in Gujarat – away from Punjab, the belittling and the ridicule associated with that place. The years in the army boosted Jaspal Kaur’s morale. No one knew of her circumstances here and she was just another officer’s wife and a part of an organisation, which had people from all over the newly founded democracy. Jaspal Kaur took to wearing a mangalsutra, a sign that marked her status as a married woman.
Jasdev Singh did look after the needs of his first wife and his children from his first marriage. His son was given preferential treatment as he was the heir, who would carry on the family name. But his daughter from the second marriage was the apple of his eye. She was the miracle child. Though the child knew about her step brother and sisters, her mother’s Islamic background was kept a secret. She was not allowed to mingle with any cousin or relative lest someone dropped a hint of the circumstances of her parents’ marriage.
Health issues made Jasdev Singh resign his commission and he came back to the village. Jaspal Kaur was forced to come back to the life, which she loathed so much. Her return to the hinterland saw her transformation from a nubile teenager to that of a mature woman. As bigamy was now banned by law, the doctor divorced his first wife and Jaspal Kaur was now his legally wedded wife. The couple lived a normal life with regular bickering between the two wives. The first wife lived in one house and the ‘other’ lived in a separate house with her husband. No one would dare say anything to Jaspal Kaur for fear of enraging her husband. Very often Jaspal Kaur did use her husband’s affection to the best of her advantage. The displaced woman had found her roots and had a firm hold in the family.
As the threesome were settling down to the humdrum family life, a reminder of the past appeared at their doorstep – Jaspal Kaur’s father! Will her past never leave us, thought Jasdev Singh. Jaspal Kaur did not know how to react. When she was called by her husband to meet her father, Jaspal Kaur was overwhelmed. Before her stood her father, an old man with a flowing white beard and a turban on his head. On his lean wrist, he supported a kara – an emblem of Sikh faith. He too had converted to Sikhism and what more, he was alive!
He called his daughter, “Husna!”
“She is Jaspal Kaur now,” thundered Jasdev Singh.
According to her husband’s command, Jaspal Kaur stayed indoors while the old father stayed in the outer quarters reserved for the men. For Jasdev Singh, he was a perpetual embarrassment and a nuisance – a reminder of his wife’s origins. Baba, Jaspal Kaur’s father was soon accepted in the predominantly Sikh village. He never spoke about his conversion and was just happy that his daughter was alive and did not suffer a fate which other Muslim women had to endure. Whatever had been her circumstances, she was now a respectfully married woman. If he did enter the inner courtyard, Jasdev Singh snubbed him and ignored him as if he did not even exist. Baba died a natural death and was cremated in the village according to Sikh rites. The villagers mourned this pious man, who had suffered at the hands of fate. Husna’s last link with her early life was broken. She mourned her dead father silently and shed many hidden tears, but never in the presence of Jasdev Singh. Jaspal Kaur may have been displaced but she never let her past overshadow her present.
It is very difficult to put one’s origins behind because somewhere or the other they catch up with you. When their daughter became of marriageable age, Jasdev Singh and Jaspal Kaur did not get proposals from the who-is-who of Punjab. Their daughter had a good public school education and to top it all she had a university degree. She also did not lag behind in the looks department. But patriarchy works in different ways and when marriages have to be fixed, pedigree counts. The father was a Sikh but the mother’s background was questionable. The mother’s dubious origins had a direct bearing with the daughter’s marriage prospects. After much deliberation, the daughter was married into an urban family which did not possess much land and the groom was in the armed forces. It was assumed that the couple would be away from the state and no gossip would follow them due to frequent transfers. But the marriage itself was doomed.
Displaced women learn the art of survival early. In a war or any social calamity, women are the easiest targets. They either learn how to survive or they perish. Jaspal Kaur stands as an epitome of survival of the fittest. Maintaining a stiff upper lip, she faced circumstances head-on. Her conversion to a new faith and learning a different way of life is exemplary. Had she gone to Pakistan, would she have met a better fate? Would she have shuffled from one refugee camp to another or from one man to another? She stayed back with a man, who gave her his name and offered her a decent life. Jaspal Kaur resigned herself to her fate as she has been accepted by the village in particular and society in general.
When Jasdev Singh died at the ripe age of 85, I went to pay my condolences to Jaspal Kaur. She said, “Your Babaji was a decent man and gave me all the respect a woman deserved.” She now shuffles around her house with a walking stick. Her head is covered with a white chiffon dupatta and she goes about reciting a shabad. Some called her kutti musli, some empathised with her. She was a woman doomed by circumstances and fate must have taken pity on her. My next generation knows her only as Beybeyji (granny).They touch her feet as she blesses them. They do not need to know her background.
Dr. Amarinder Gill holds a doctorate in Sociology from the Punjab University. Currently she is employed as an academician, working with the Chandigarh Administration. Her area of specialisation is Gender Studies.
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