The Sikh Families of Assam

My family and me. Tezpur, Assam. 1981

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

Image and narrative points contributed by Surjit Kaur, Assam

This photograph was taken in 1981, in a photo studio under the oldest movie theatre of Assam, Jonaki Cinema Hall. While the cinema hall is still functional, the studio no longer exists. In the photograph are me, Surjit Kaur seated at the extreme left, two of my husband’s younger siblings – Narinder Kaur, Kuljeet Singh, and my three children.

My husband Baldev Singh was born in Saloh village, Gurdaspur district, in Punjab, in 1946. His family owned a Lakkad ka taal (a Sawmill). They had land, but they did not work on it themselves, and instead had agreements with other people to cultivate it for them. My husband  studied till 8th grade, and then migrated to Tezpur in 1964. It seems that he went along on a trip with a transport contractor for the army all the way to Assam, and then simply began driving trucks. That his own uncle (chacha) was already working here in Tezpur, also driving trucks, would have helped. After working for a few years as a driver, he started a small kirana/gelamaal (grocery) shop in Tenga Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. He also founded a hotel that ran for around seven years. Eventually he got around to buying some trucks and built a transport business for himself – a few contracts with the Indian Army hastened the cause. 

Baldev and I got married in December 1977. I am also from Gurdaspur, but from a village next to Baldev’s. We too were a family of farmers. I was only four months old, and the youngest, when my father passed away. I had five elder brothers who really cared for me and when Baldev and I were matched they were not happy about their little sister going away to a place so far away. They also worried that my recently deceased mother-in-law had left behind young children (my husband’s siblings) of her own. I would have to be responsible for family care in both places – In Punjab as well as in Assam. But since my mother, Sham Kaur, had given her word to the groom’s family, my brothers had no choice but to relent. As for me, we girls did not really have a say in any of these matters. 

Around five or six months after our marriage, I travelled with Baldev to Tenga valley in 1978. It was such a new and different place, so very far from my home – but I adjusted, and we also developed some friendships with the people around. After roughly six months, I went back to Punjab, and Baldev would visit whenever he could. In the last leg of 1981, I returned to Tezpur and we decided that this is where we will build a home, and where our children would be brought up. There were already some 10-12 Sikh families living in Tezpur and through them I remained connected with my own culture while also sharing the local culture of Assam. For a while I struggled with the local dialects of Tenga Valley, and Assam as well. To tell you the truth, even after all these years, I still struggle with Assamese and must switch to Hindi to communicate. My children, however, were born here, and they can speak Assamese as well as anyone else here.

Our family was not small. There was my husband – the eldest of several younger siblings, his nephew, his father, we had three children of our own and we were all living together in Tenga Valley. My husband was away a lot because of his business, and I stayed home to take care of the family. My elder son Varinder was enrolled in Guru Nanak school here Tezpur but then in 1998 we all moved to Punjab again, and only my husband remained in Assam to run the business, travelling between Tenga Valley, Tezpur and Punjab. 

In 2001, my husband was kidnapped. He was picked up and held for a day – it was probably a case of extortion by militants but we have never known for sure and because he refused to tell us much about it, except that the kidnappers were paid a ransom. After this incident my younger son Harpal Singh returned to Tezpur after his 10+2 (matriculation) and began helping out in the business. I remained in Punjab for another 10 years travelling to Assam now and then. It may sound like we lived crazy lives, but really God was with us ; it all worked out without too much difficulty. We settled down in Tezpur properly in 2004, when my husband developed heart problems, and the doctor advised him against going to hilly areas. He was a cheerful man, he loved people, and loved helping and engaging with the community. Unfortunately, he passed away from a stroke last year in 2020 here in Tezpur.

My daughter teaches in a school in Amritsar, while both of my sons are engaged in business – the elder in Chandigarh, and the younger one here in Tezpur. I live with my younger son Harpal, his wife Daisy, and my lovely little granddaughter. It has been a good and adventurous life, I don’t have any complaints.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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