The vagaries of time were writ large on her face. Strangely, despite being Gen X, I connected to the many stories that ran across her wrinkled forehead. A young orphaned refugee who witnessed the horrors of the great divide of 1947. The pain of losing home and hearth swelled up in her eyes, like the tumultuous waters of the Chenab, even today.
The frail figure sat slumped near the only window of the ‘chabara’ in the nearly obliterated house in this border village. The ‘chabara’ now overlooked a growing cluster of houses but Mataji still visualised the distant yet panoramic splendour of lush fields. She sat for hours with eyes closed as if feeling the light breeze carrying the perfume of ripening crops and caressing her face. I loved to capture this plethora of expressions through my camera lens. It wasn’t giving me memories; I was captivating priceless emotions forever in time.
The task to ferry her from halfway across the country to this border village every year on August 30 was consuming but had to be done. The date was symbolic and so was her quiet. She had stopped speaking when her soulmate, my great grandfather breathed his last. Being the only great grandson, I knew the relevance of not just the date but also the place. The ‘neary obliterated house’ was ‘The Haveli’ and it posed an uncanny attraction. Probably it was true that roots never loosen their grip.
The moment we set foot in The Haveli, the tattered cupboard was opened and the glistening radio taken out. Batteries replaced and the frequency set to what Mataji’s heart desired. She conveyed her preferences through her expressions.
“How has this antique survived the vagaries of time?” I wondered. This was probably the only material that Mataji was attached to. The radio had changed places till it found its rightful place here; in the village. It was a glistening silver Murphy, imported from Britain on a special demand by Mataji’s father. He was an acknowledged connoisseur of some of the loveliest pieces of art and furniture from around the world. His closeness to many British officers and senior royals was not hidden from the high society of Lahore.
“Mataji had a life of abundance”, exclaimed Reshma as she stepped down the steep ladder. Reshma was the housekeeper’s daughter, an extended family relation.
I waved to her as she continued, “Therefore nothing had prepared her for the harshness of the partition when she had been pushed into the train to Amritsar from the Lahore station by her father. The intention had been to get her and the older sisters along with their mother out of there. But fate had planned otherwise. Mataji was pulled into the train by a kind family while the others lost the struggle to gain a foothold on the train teaming with thousands!”
“Amongst the belongings, she had packed, the radio was the most carefully wrapped. She continued to tune into the Indian and Pakistani radio stations where they announced names of people who were declared missing. All in the hope of connecting with the family.”
Reshma was definitely the door to the well of secrets for me. I smiled as she gestured me to sit and continued, “The radio remained her constant companion. She was adopted by the family who brought her along from Lahore. As the scars of the violence and hatred started to fade with time, the radio continued to embalm her soul throughout her youth. From humming to singing, it wasn’t long before music and melodies paved a way for her to become one of the first hosts on All India Radio hosting the show, ‘Farmaishyein’”.
“So……Manmeet. This is what my father told me before he passed away leaving me the guardian of the radio”, Reshma ended the narrative with a smile.
“How could I have missed this chapter of Mataji’s life?”
“Thank God…..Mum got busy and I had to make this trip. Why had anyone in the family never mentioned this accomplishment?” Had I not bumped into Reshma, Mataji’s attachment for the radio would have left the world in anonymity. I rushed upstairs wanting to hug her real tight.
“Mataji…..Mataji…..I couldn’t hold my excitement”.
As I leapt on to her feeble frame, her head dropped into my arms with a THUD……and…..and my heart skipped a beat as I turned her over to see the eyes wide open, staring into mine. She had left…..without a goodbye……but the thought that she breathed her last amidst the love and warmth she was attracted to was comforting.
I went on to publish the photo collection on Independence Day eve captioning it “An Ode to Love beyond Borders”. It was dedicated to All India Radio’s first woman host!
*Chabara :- is a one room set on the first floor of a village house. Local dialect
**Farmaishyein:- request (also the name of a popular program on All India Radio where people made special requests for songs)
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