Families lost, found, and lost again

My paternal grandfather Bakshi Mela Ram. Poona (now Pune), Maharastra. Circa 1958

Image and Narrative contributed by Mimansa Sharma, Jammu, Jammu & Kashmir

This is a photograph of my paternal grandfather Bakshi Mela Ram, son of Brinda Ban and Paiya Devi, and a brother to six siblings. My family believes that it was photographed in the late 1950s when he was posted in Poona (now Pune) in Maharastra, serving the Indian Army.  

My grandfather belonged to a large family that was traditionally a land owning class and keepers of the crown’s land under the Dogra kings. After his matriculation he moved from his village Kalyal Bainsi (in distt. Mirpur, now Pakistan territory of Jammu) to Jammu city (now in Indian territory) to earn a living as a teacher. But his life was to witness a different plan, when his cousin filled out a form for him to enlist in army.

On getting enlisted, at the age of 21 in 1941, Bakshi Mela Ram was to prepare for a posting in Iraq as Lance Naik in the Army Supply Corps and serve in the World War II. But his training in the southern India military city of Bangalore was cut short, as there was a sudden call for them to leave for the war immediately. This was his first on ground assignment after joining the army, and he was extremely nervous. My grandfather’s mother was terribly anxious about him going abroad during a wartime situation and had in fact already begun mourning for him, but what she or my grandfather Bakshi Mela Ram didn’t know was the good news that the war was going to bring for the family. A ‘gain’, instead of a ‘loss’.

Based in Iraq as an in-charge corporal of receiving war supplies from Palestine, Bakshi Mela Ram on one occasion noticed a signature on the document attached to a consignment. The signature was of a corporal in-charge at the other end, sending the supply from Palestine and to my grandfather, an instantly familiar one – it was of a person that he, and his family had known and had long thought to be dead. Obviously, my grandfather was puzzled, and scratched his head in disbelief, but to quell his doubts requested the delivery corporal bearing the document, to inquire and confirm the name of the signatory without letting the person-in-question know.

Thus began an eager wait of several days for the next consignment to arrive. When the delivery corporal arrived with consignment in tow, he confirmed my grandfather’s query. The man on the other side of the consignment was indeed his long lost nephew, the son of his eldest sister, Kasturi Lal Datta who had gone missing from the village some five years ago. Kasturi was considered to be a trouble maker, and his notoriety and mischievousness had often gotten him at odds with family members on multiple occasions – usually leading up to him being beaten up. On one such occasion, he fled from home, crossed the Jhelum river and was never heard from again. For five years, the family was in complete dark about his whereabouts, and they made peace with the idea of deeming him dead.

Bakshi Mela Ram travelled to Palestine to see his nephew Kasturi Lal, and after a long conversation, all of their differences were reconciled. A letter was sent back home to the family conveying that Kasturi was alive and serving the army. The family was overjoyed.

But the ordeal of separation between Kasturi and our family was not about to end just yet. The families were torn apart again during India Pakistan partition in 1947, with nephew and uncle, Kasturi and Bakshi Mela Ram in the newly formed India serving their postings and other family members of still in Mirpur that had been enveloped into Pakistan territory . While a few family members managed to cross over from Pakistan and find refuge in India in refugee camps, some died on the way and some were stranded in Mirpur. The ones who remained, eventually decided to convert to Islam to protect themselves from violent attacks, as was advised by their village men. Nonetheless, it was not until 1950 that 18 of the stranded family members in Mirpur eventually managed to reach India.

After a decade of separations, moving between Delhi Cantt and Amritsar Camp, caused by bureaucratic lapses, voluntary decisions, army duties, or even reasons beyond them, the final union for the family occurred in 1950. The union however did not mean that everyone stayed together hereafter, but that they were no longer in a now “foreign” land that they once called home. Several of the family members relocated to other towns and cities and found jobs. Many remained uncomfortable and distant because of the traumas, violence and choices they had had to suffer, except for occasional meet ups.

Later, some family members, including Bakshi Mela Ram and Kasturi Lal Dutta received ex-gratia relief in the form of land in village Supwal, Distt. Samba, Jammu and Kashmir. Bakshi Mela Ram continued to serve in the Army till 1969, amounting to 28 years of service. Kasturi Lal Datta took a voluntary retirement and left the army before his service was to end – he too made a home in Supwal. He, in fact, looked after all the land until Bakshi Mela Ram could take charge of his while in service. Kasturi also took up various jobs, including supervision of fruit supplies to the local mandi (market).  The next generation in the family saw some members in the Defence services. My father, on the other hand, worked for a PSU and I am a History student.

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