Pool of Life: The Autobiography of a Punjabi Agony Aunt

Pool of Life: The Autobiography of a Punjabi Agony Aunt

by Kailash Puri, Eleanor Nesbitt


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845196028
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: The Sussex Library of Asian Studies Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Kailash Puri is an author, a poet, an advice columnist, and a sexologist. She is the author of The Myth of UK Integration. Eleanor Nesbitt is professor emeritus in religions and education at the University of Warwick and a founding member of Punjab Research Group. She is the author of several books, including Intercultural Education: Ethnographic and Religious Approaches and Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction.

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Pool of Life

The Autobiography of a Punjabi Agony Aunt

By Kailash Puri, Eleanor Nesbitt

Sussex Academic Press

Copyright © 2014 Kailash Puri and Eleanor Nesbitt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84519-602-8



"Another girl!" Despite my two grandmothers' ceaseless prayers for a male child my mother had borne a fifth daughter, me. The dai (midwife) too had hoped to deliver a son. Sons meant ampler payment for her services. She ran to break the unwelcome news to my father, who was pacing up and down the courtyard outside. He did not enquire after the well-being of mother or child. Distraught, he mounted his bicycle and rode off to withdraw his deposit on a piece of land. No need now to increase his property, no sense in doing business. He had no son to carry on the family name — only four daughters (for one had already died), who would all be lost to other men's families. He did not return until after midnight.

Ever since the birth of Vanti, my eldest sister, our mother, on my grandmother's advice, had gone, every full-moon day, to Guru Nanak's shrine at Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal, 30 miles from Rawalpindi, where his handprint is still clearly visible on the rock-face. Here, in the water that had originally gushed up at the Guru's command to quench his followers' thirst, my mother would bathe, praying for a son. Once more her prayers had been useless, but, undeterred, she taught me to put my tiny hands together and bow reverently before the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures installed in the miani, a small upstairs room, airy and full of light, that served as our family's chapel. Here my mother would intone earnestly:

Panja Sahib jasan
Te vir leke asan.
I will go to Panja Sahib
And return with a brother.

In the same spirit of determined optimism my parents gave me the name Viranwali, meaning the girl who has brothers, just as my school friend had been called Satbhrai (seven brothers) when in fact she was one of seven daughters. In my case, as in hers, there was no ritual opening of the Guru Granth Sahib to find the initial of my name. I was to be Viranwali, sister of brothers, the idea being in our community that after giving a daughter such a name the next child would certainly be a son.

I was born in my parents' house in Arya Mahalla, Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), and spent most of my childhood either there or in Lahore. Our Rawalpindi house was a large, terraced family house built by my father who was a building contractor. It had a spacious baithak (drawing room) with two doors opening onto the galli (alley-way), and letting in plenty of light. This baithak was on the right hand side of the deori (entrance), and on the left was a dark gusal-khana (bathroom). There were five other rooms — we did not distinguish rooms further as "bedrooms". A few steps away from the deori was our courtyard which was open to the sky. To the right of that was the rasoi (kitchen). Outside it in the corner was a wood-fuelled chulha (low stove fashioned from hardened clay) on which my mother and elder sisters cooked chapatis and other food at least three times a day. Upstairs were the miani and a storeroom, a refuge from childhood squabbles.

But, when I think of home, it is to Kallar village that I return in spirit. Here in my father's parents' house, with cousins, aunts and uncles, I grew to the village's more primal rhythm, secure in the love of the extended family. My father, Sohan Singh Puri, would happily have stayed forever in his parents' house, but he gave way to pressure from my mother who fancied herself born to a more sophisticated, urban setting. Until the savage dislocation of Partition in 1947, every marriage in our scattered khandan was celebrated in the ancestral village, and we returned here for our holidays. Our khandan numbered about two hundred — a network of kin among whom kinship bonds were still real, renewed at festivals and weddings.

Kallar lies twenty-five miles from Rawalpindi in the foothills of the Shivalik hills, now famous for theeir fossil remains. In Kallarthere were no level roads, but rough boulder-strewn gallis between the houses on the slope to the west of the Kanshi river. The river-bed, more stones than water except during the rainy season, was flanked by berry-covered bushes skirting rows of fruit trees — jamun plums, pomegranates, apricots, amla, as well as orchards of oranges and mangoes. When the greenish bunches of flowers hung from the mango branches the koel (Indian cuckoo) sang exquisitely. There were mulberry trees in abundance as the thin, supple twigs were needed for weaving baskets.

About five hundred people lived in Kallar. It was connected by a fair-weather road to the telegraph office nine miles away and to the railway station of Mankiala twenty-one miles distant. Once or twice daily a bus clattered into the village, raising clouds of dust or spattering the unwary with soupy mud according to the season. It took an hour to reach Gujranwala, a sought after kasba (town), and twice that time to reach Rawalpindi where the nearest hospital was.

My father's family had not always lived in Kallar. My grandfather, Kharak Singh, had served as a vazir (minister) to Raja Sir Gurbaksh Singh Ji, and must have settled in Kallar to be near his princely master. There were close bonds between the Puris, my father's family, and Raja Sir Gurbaksh Singh Ji's clan, the Bedis.

Raja Sir Gurbaksh Singh Ji was respected locally as the biggest landowner, living with his wife and three sons in a mansion known in Kallar as the mahal or palace, decorated with brilliantly coloured murals of Hindu deities. We revered him above all for his spiritual aura as a direct descendant of the noblest Bedi, Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak's visionary message first kindled our Sikh faith at the time that Martin Luther was preaching Reformation in Europe. The pure light of Nanak's Guruship shone next in Angad, his devoted disciple. Guru Nanak's elder son Sri Chand, a deeply religious man, chose the ascetic path of celibacy. His younger son, Lakhmi Das, married. Of his descendants the most famous must have been Baba Sahib Singh, great-great grandfather of our Raja Sir Gurbaksh Singh Ji. The line of human Gurus had ended nearly a hundred years before with the passing of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, and all Sikhs have since then revered the sacred volume, the Granth Sahib, as Guru. Nevertheless Baba Sahib Singh commanded unique respect. He it was who marked with holy vermilion powder the brow of the victorious warrior, Ranjit Singh, in 1799. Only then was Ranjit Singh acknowledged as the divinely ordained Maharaja of the Punjab.

Sir Baba Khem Singh Bedi, father of Raja Sir Gurbaksh Singh Ji, had been one of the founders of the Sikhs' Singh Sabha reform movement in Punjab. Challenged by the proselytising, educational and medical outreach of British missionaries, and by the activities of the Arya Samaj (a Hindu reform movement), enlightened Sikhs strove to spread education among the Sikh masses. Khalsa High School, Kallar, was one of the first schools to be established. My feeling of pride in my village and our devotion to the Bedis cannot be separated.

My grandfather had indeed been privileged to serve Baba Khem Singh's son, Baba Sahib Singh's great-great grandson and the fourteenth in line from Guru Nanak. Moreover, the Bedis trace their descent from God incarnate, Lord Rama himself — an illustrious family tree by any criteria. Many years before my birth the Bedis and their entourage had settled in Kallar, abandoning Pakka, now a forlorn, rocky site. Raja Sir Gurbaksh Singh Ji enjoyed the blessing not only of his divine antecedents, but also of his foreign masters. He had provided the British with men and money during World War I. He kept race horses, greyhounds and a battalion of servants, including a tutor, Master Hara Singh (of whom more anon), for his sons.

I can picture my grandfather from the framed photograph on our mantelpiece. He wore an imposing white turban and hanging over his shoulders was a white stole such as you still see men wearing to officiate in the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). To his grandchildren he was Lalaji, and I treasure a loving memory of him, dressed from head to foot in white cotton, sitting in his baithak, while the frills of the pankha stirred the warm air to a more tolerable coolness. The pankha was suspended across the ceiling and moved back and forth as the pankhawala, Fazal Din, outside in the galli, pulled on its cord and kept everyone cool.

My Lalaji died when I was very young. The news broke as villagers heard the call "Lakar suto, lakar suto" (give us a log, give us a log) and then the name of the deceased. Every household contributed a log from its wood-store for the pyre. All the villagers joined the procession and carried any logs that had been put out along the galli. They moved to the percussion of the dhol, a drum beaten at both ends, and the chimta, an instrument like a massive pair of fire tongs with jingling metal discs along both of its arms. Guru Arjan Dev's words sustained the mourners' spirits.

O God, the fulfiller of desires and the knower of hearts, kindly fulfill my desire. I am your humble slave. Make me the devotee of the enlightened saints. Grant me true peace.

Men and women thronged the narrow streets between the houses and down to the riverside. Here the pyre was laid and lit, and the cremation rites were performed to verses of Kirtan Sohila, Sikhs' late evening prayer. Next day my grandfather's ashes were collected to be taken at some later date to the sacred Ganges river at Hardwar or it may have been Kiratpur, a Sikh holy place where the river flows beside the gurdwara as if ready to carry away the ashes of Sikh men and women.

I picture Beyji, my grandmother. Like everyone else over the age of about thirty she wore only white, and passed on colourful clothes to younger relatives. Whether or not male in-laws were there, her head remained covered by a gauzy, white dupatta three yards in length and a yard and a quarter wide. Her loose fitting kamiz reached below her knees and had long, full sleeves. It took thirteen yards of cloth to make her salvar, the pair of loose trousers which tapered at the ankle. (Many separate pieces of cloth were ingeniously fitted together.) Today's salvars are simpler affairs, but in those days it was thought undignified for ladies of her status to wear salvars made of less cloth.

When I think of Beyji I visualise her sitting in the twilit courtyard singing Guru Nanak's evening hymn, the Arati:

The sky is your silver tray.
The sun and moon your oil wick lights,
The galaxy of stars are the pearls studding it.
The sandalwood is your incense ...

We grandchildren clustered around her on the charpoy, the wooden bedstead with its jute webbing, and sang along with her:

You have a million eyes,
But no mortal eye.
You have a million lotus feet
But no mortal feet.

Our young souls were afire with praise for the Almighty, but perhaps rather more with the prospect of tasting some of Beyji's special, soft chapati. She had no dentures to compensate for the teeth she had lost, and all our food required vigorous chewing, so my mother added sodium bicarbonate to the dough to make her chapatis softer. If we pleased Beyji by singing Arati we could eat the crisp edges of the chapati that were too tough for her gums.

As the bee is ravished with the flower,
So my mind is ravished.
O Lord, give the holy water of your grace
To this little bird -
The heart thirsting for you.

Darkness had fallen and we had earned our more tangible reward.

Years later I asked my mother whether my grandparents loved one another. "Yes," she said, "Lalaji would call Beyji to sit with him in his baithak. They loved one another very much." My mother looked down shyly as she said this because "love" was not expressed in those days. Although embarrassed, she explained that Lalaji would invite his wife to sit near him on his palang (bed) and to recite the morning hymn. Then they would both go to the gurdwara together.

Lalaji was impressive; he wore a big, loosely tied turban, a white kurta (tunic shirt) and pajama (loose cotton trousers) and a white dupatta around his neck. In his hand he always had his walking stick.

Lalaji and Beyji's spacious house in Kallar was like a museum to us grandchildren, a house full of wonders for us to investigate. During one visit from Lahore we went exploring as usual in the various rooms and wardrobes. I was poring over water colours my father had painted as a schoolboy when I came upon a temptingly beautiful find. It was a kangri, the sort of portable heater carried in Kashmir when temperatures fall far below freezing. Its earthenware bowl to hold live charcoal embers sat in a prettily woven basket decorated with red, blue and green shiny paper. The front of the kangri opened so that the charcoal could be replenished. "Beyji must have hidden something nice in here," I thought, so I picked up the kangri and put my hand inside. The next second I had dropped the kangri and rushed out. My fingers had touched something slimy and soft. A mouse had already fallen for the kangri, and given birth to ten babies.

The downstairs rooms opened off a veranda, covered by a steel roof which could be opened up to allow charpoys (the simple strung bedsteads which served as daytime seating) to be lowered or hoisted up. The staircase was too narrow for furniture to be carried up and down it. On one side of the house was Lalaji's baithak, his sitting room with its manually operated ceiling fan. On another was the cooking area, the chauka, with its hearth, the shoe-shaped chulha for cooking, angithi (a small bucket-shaped stove stoked with embers) and clay-lined tandoor. All our meals were prepared at floor level, and here groceries and brightly gleaming utensils were stored. A veranda led off from the chauka. Sacks of wheat and maize were piled up here ceiling-high in three rows. The muzaras, our farm-workers, beat the cobs and put the loose golden grains in sacks. In two small rooms lentils, rice and wheat flour were stored, as well as mango preserve, pickles and other foodstuffs.

Also on the ground floor was the supha, a long room like a baithak. The family slept here as well as upstairs. Beyji's supha was artistically arranged and I loved to hide away here, looking at her belongings.

Small store-rooms contained trunks, six feet long and three and a half feet wide, for storing quilts, pillows, sheets and heavy winter coats. The trunk-room was full of suitcases, including a special leather one, "Beyji's suitcase". Beyji's small almirah stood there too, and held a range of scent-bottles of different shapes and sizes which she kept locked away.

My grandparents and my parents were overjoyed when, two and a half years after my birth, the dai delivered a baby boy. This was my brother, Gurdip, my mother's first male child. But one superstition bothered them all: when a boy was born after three girls in succession or a girl after three boys the child was "bhara", the possible bearer of misfortune. Such a child was referred to as "trikhal". My elders feared that Gurdip's birth might herald business losses for my father. To counteract this they consulted the family astrologers who said that certain rituals must immediately be performed. A hole was made in one of the circular metal alloy trays (thali) from which we ate. My brother's diminutive body was passed through this hole to ward off any evil. From the roof top we heard the gong being beaten as someone shouted, "Chor agia, chor agia, sade ghar chor agia": bad luck would be driven away by these words: "A thief has come, a thief has come to our house."

My eldest sister, Bahin Vanti, was nearly ten years my senior. Her daughter, Updesh, is nearer my age. In Punjab a woman's parents could not be entertained in the house of her parents-in-law, and when Vanti married this tradition was rigidly observed. Bahin Vanti lived in the house of her father-in-law, a well-known doctor. After a few years of marriage she succumbed to tuberculosis. She never recovered. Heavy with apprehension my parents visited daily. After sitting with her in silence for several hours they would come back home for a meal, then return to be with her for a few more weary hours. Bahin Vanti's parents-in-law felt embarrassed, too bound by tradition to offer any food or drink. Tradition prevented my parents requesting even a sip of water. They prayed for her daily but she did not survive.


Excerpted from Pool of Life by Kailash Puri, Eleanor Nesbitt. Copyright © 2014 Kailash Puri and Eleanor Nesbitt. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Series Editor's Preface,
1 Childhood,
2 Tradition,
3 Rawalpindi and Lahore,
4 Marriage,
5 London,
6 India again,
7 West Africa,
8 Slough and Southall,
9 Liverpool,
10 Writing and Public Speaking,
11 "A shoulder to cry on",
12 Pakistan,
Suggested Further Reading,

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