An Incredible Lineage of Stories and Songs

My grandmother Romila Arora at Humayun’s Tomb. Delhi . 1956

Image and Narrative contributed by Mansi Multani, with the help of her grand-aunt Geeta Agrawala, New Delhi, India

This photograph of my grandmother Romila Arora holds stories of her legacy, youth, talent, dreams and her struggles, but most of all her zest for life. The story of this photograph comes with a background of my fascinating ancestors.

My grandmother Romila now 87 years old, belongs to an illustrious aristocratic Sahgal family of Lahore (now in Pakistan) that was helmed by my great-great-great-grandfather – Rai Bahadur Boota Mal Sahgal. The title ‘Rai Bahadur’ was a title of honour bestowed by the British to Indian individuals for faithful service to the Empire. Boota Mal had four sons – one of whom was Rai Sab Moolchand, my great-great grandfather. It was the early 20th century, the family was wealthy and resided in the luxurious Burjawali Kothi on Number 3, Nisbat road in Lahore (now in Pakistan).

My great-great-grandfather Moolchand, along with being a Sessions judge, owned several assets including 136 shops in a district near Lahore called Kot Radha Kishan (named after his eldest son Radha Kishen). He valued good education and so around 1925, his youngest son of four, Amir Chand (my great grandfather) was sent to University of Oxford to study law. However after Moolchand died under mysterious circumstances, his eldest son Radha Kishen refused to pay for the younger brother Amir Chand’s education, nor did he send him a return ticket home.

Amir Chand somehow made his way back to Lahore, suspending his academic course. At home, a battle over property ensued, and Amir Chand was simply left out of his most of his inheritance. Amir Chand then decided to earn his own living rather than drag his brothers to court, proclaiming -“Mein footpath pe so jaunga par apne bhaiyon ko kachehri nahin le jaunga”. (I would rather sleep on the streets, than drag my brothers to court). Nonetheless, while the brothers held onto the properties, my grandfather retained an allowance, rations, and house help.

While in Lahore and dealing with family troubles, Amir Chand now 30 years old, confided in a friend and advocate, Manohar Lal Vachar whom he played Badminton with, of his desire to marry a simple girl. Manohar recommended his own 18 year old sister, a lovely Punjabi girl called Iqbal. Contrary to the current age, the subcontinent was more secular at heart, and Iqbal, a Persian name, was commonly used by Sardars and Mohammedans alike. The Vachar family were Zamindars (elite landowners) from a village called Saranki (now in Pakistan). A match was arranged, and my great grandparents Amir and Iqbal got married in 1933 – and then they moved to Delhi.

The couple rented a home in Ram Nagar near Paharganj in Delhi, and it was there that their eldest child, my grandmother Romila was born on September 4, 1934 – they went on to have three more daughters and two sons. With continuing monthly allowances, rations, and house-help facilitated by Amir Chand’s brothers, the children’s early years were spent in abundance and luxury. Amir Chand did follow up on his ambition to work for himself – at first as a job as a Manager at the Oriental Bank of Commerce, New Delhi. Then he joined Bisheshwarnath & Sons at 15, Barakhamba Road, a firm that manufactured ball bearings and tents for the military in WW II. Proficient in five languages, English,Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and German, he was also offered a role to teach at the Max Mueller, but he declined. It seems that a man used to luxury in tough times was unable to sustain a job for long. Yet his core values, simplicity and his sense of humour were his biggest gifts. He would often joke with his kids – “I went to Oxford as a VIP and returned in a dog van (like a slave)” and that “I am a landlord, the land may be left in Pakistan, but the lord still exists!” .

Romila’s parents were a big influence on her life and talents. Iqbal, my great grandmother although formally uneducated, was a gifted poet and writer – she was keenly into the arts, theatre as well as the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures). She penned poems that my grandmother has held onto. Amir Chand was a wonderful singer and could be found singing aloud while drumming the chest of drawers by his side making up songs for his children. Romila most likely received her musical genes from him and even partook in theatre as a school girl in a group Balkan ji Bari in Delhi. She was his princess. My grand-aunt Geeta remembers the home being full of laughter- and that somehow money was never an issue. Post-partition, they didn’t even have enough, but they were always happy. Amir Chand meanwhile did not forget his elite legacy and taught all the children perfect western table manners- how to eat a three course dinner, which fork and spoon were to be used for what. He was also very particular about English pronunciation.

My grandmother’s initial education was at the reputed Queen Mary’s school (now Queen’s Convent). But after India Pakistan partition in 1947, when Romila was about 13, all amenities from his home in Lahore were withdrawn and her father could no longer afford the tuition fee, and she attended a more humble Raghumal Arya Girls School (RM Arya) in Connaught Place.

After Partition the entire Sahgal family left Lahore and found new lives, with high positions, ranks and wealth in India. In the early 1950s, the Indian government began offering Indians a claim of property on Indian land in lieu of their share of ancestral land in Pakistan. My great grandfather Amir Chand received an offer as either two flats in Patel Nagar, or a single-story house on Babar road, New Delhi. But he was in no mood to deal with complicated and tainted property matters and gave up his claim papers to his nephew Amrit Sehgal (later related to the Nehrus by marriage) in exchange for cash. Amrit Sahgal gave him some of the money with the assurance that the rest would follow. However that never happened. Over time, while his relations with his family were just about dutifully cordial, Amir Chand experiences of betrayal with people – known or unknown, compounded by the traumatising events around partition, made him fearful and mistrustful.

My grandmother Romila grew up into a beautiful and lively woman. She pursued a BA course by correspondence so she could work and help augment the family income. With the exception of her youngest sister Geeta, who was the only one of the six siblings who attended college, the rest pursued a correspondence course. Romila also had a gifted voice and though untrained, she would sing at all gatherings, school functions and weddings with incredible skill. In the 1950s, she was introduced to The Voice of America and All India Radio (AIR) studios by an employee and neighbour Kuku Mathur, and my grandmother began singing in childrens’ shows, and voicing for radio dramas scripted by B.R Nagar, a veteran broadcaster. Her mother tongue – Lahori Punjabi made her proficient in Punjabi folk songs, Urdu ghazals and regular film songs. Her pay was around Rs.50 for every ten programmes, and for those days it was a reasonable sum. Her contemporaries at AIR were Ameen Sayani, Sushma Seth, Vinod Nagpal, Surinder Kaur, Pushpa Hans, Pannalal and Satish Bhatia, all known for their immense contribution in the field of arts.

At the All India Radio studios, my 22 year old Romila met Jawahar, a young man who became her dear friend, and they fell in love with each other. The photograph you see here, was taken in 1956 by Jawahar at a picnic at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi; he always carried a camera with him. Romila’s parents too came to be very fond of Jawahar, and perhaps expected a marriage proposal. But Jawahar was offered a post in the USA by the Voice of America, and he instead chose to move countries and further his career. I am told by my grand-aunt Geeta, that my grandmother’s heart was shattered.

Two years passed, and in 1958 my grandmother had begun to work as the custodian of Punjab National Bank (PNB). Meanwhile, her marriage was being arranged at a Ladies Kitty Party by her aunts with Amritsar’s reputed business family – Sardar Hukkam Singh’s son Joginder Singh Arora, lovingly called Juggi. Juggi was extremely handsome, and lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata). After a covert moment when his sister and mother went to the bank to check her out secretly, it was approval at first sight. A quick meeting between the two was organised at the Kwality restaurant in Delhi, and the marriage was finalised. Suspicious of everyone, including Romila’s future family, my great grandfather Amir Chand had a contact at CID (Criminal Investigation Department) do a background check before agreeing to the match.

After their marriage, and a promotion at work, my grandmother was awarded a transfer to the PNB Calcutta branch. But Juggi did not like the idea of her working, and she had to resign. When she decided to learn Hindustani Classical music formally at the Sangeet Kala Kendra, there was no support from her husband – And the dream to sing more widely remained unfulfilled, and so my grandmother satisfied herself by singing in celebratory functions, social gatherings, and in cultural programmes at the Calcutta Club, that were as usual met with ecstatic applause – Her voice was magical.

Thus also began a marriage with struggles – my grandparents belonged to two different worlds. She had been brought up in a family where everyone had to work for a living, whereas Juggi belonged to a large business family. Ironically, he was exactly like her father, who could not find a stronghold in his family, and was left to fend for himself. Driven and motivated, my grandmother then decided to join her husband in his ready-made garments export business (co-owned by his brother) called the Eastern Commerce Company. Turned out that Juggi didn’t have much knack for the business by himself, and it was Romila who then handled a lot of the administrative work and orders, expertly. She became an active partner in his business as well. My grandmother continued to work full time even after the birth of their three daughters, and also went on a world tour with Juggi- she loved Europe. In 2009, my grandfather Juggi died of a cardiac arrest and my grandmother meanwhile found ways to carry on and renewed the zest in her life gloriously.

My grandmother Romila always wanted her children to be in the arts. And so when I, her granddaughter, decided to become a singer and an actor, she was so proud to know that I am taking her dream forward. She watched the internationally acclaimed Hindi play I had performed in, called Piya Behrupiya four times. One of the songs in the play “Pind Daya Lambardaara” is from her treasure of melodies. At one of her attendances, she shared with us a curtain call and received a standing ovation on stage. That has been a truly special memory for her.

At 87 years, my grandmother’s die hard spirit is still alive today. Her voice – ageless, and authentic. She could have been so much more had her life permitted. Yet I am fortunate to be a part of her lineage, and to have learnt from her. Singing together is the most special part of our bond.

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