Tag Archives: Coventry

What is in a name?

21 May

It was in late September 1970, when my father finally decided to ‘pack his bags’ and return to his large extended family in India that he had left behind in Punjab more than a decade previously. He would be carrying back a little more ‘baggage’ than he had come to the UK with in early 1950’s when he stepped off the aeroplane at Heathrow with little more than a suitcase and a few rupees in his pocket.

Mum & Dad newly married

Mum & Dad newly married in their teens

He would be returning with mum and us five siblings (all but my eldest sister born here in the UK), plus whatever belongings he could take with him having sold his regency house in Royal Leamington Spa, having given away most of the furniture to friends and relatives. Many of my earlier memories are tied up in that house right in the centre of this Victorian town in the heart of England where my dad had accommodated a whole succession of families as they first arrived in the country. There was no Gurdwara (or Sikh temple) in L/Spa in those early days, so a family relative known as Giani uncle had conducted more than one marriage in our house including my own chachaji’s (fathers younger brother).

Having come from a large farming family in a typical Punjab village Musapur in Nawanshehr district (Now named Bhagat Singh Nagar),

1972 Dad with Brothers on Farm in Bazpur

1972 Dad with Brothers on Farm in Bazpur

my father had been persuaded to make a life for himself in England by my Nanaji (maternal grandfather) who had been one of the very first Punjabi settlers in Coventry in early 1950’s. My Nanaji had himself spent several years in Argentina before setting up home in Coventry,England. He was soon followed by many of his nephews and other pendu’s (fellow villagers) from his village Littraan (Nakodar,Punjab) later joined by my Dad & other pendu’s from Musapur village.

Dad soon after arriving in UK without a turban

Dad soon after arriving in UK mid 1950’s

Dad without his long hair & turban soon after arriving in UK

Dad late 1950s

Dad(left) with fellow Pendus(villagers) in Coventry

Dad(left) with fellow Pendus(villagers) in Coventry

Working in Courtaulds textile and chemical factory, father had made Coventry his home until he moved to Leamington Spa after getting a job with Midland Red Bus Company.

Dad in Midland Red Bus Uniform

Dad in Midland Red Bus Uniform

Although he had a close knit circle of family and friends around him, nevertheless he still missed his six brothers, one sister and parents that he had left behind in India, so much so that he would work extra overtime and accumulate as much holiday entitlement as he could so that he could spend a few weeks with his family in India every year.

Dad with Brother, Nephew & Puaji

Dad with Brother, Nephew & Puaji

He had seen his younger brothers get married one by one, so the family grew larger each time he returned, with nephews & nieces adding to the list year on year.

Dad at Heathrow 1963

Dad at Heathrow 1963

One of Dad’s younger brothers, my Chachaji joined us later in late 60s.

Pittaji (my paternal grandfather) had retired from the army and had sent my eldest tayaji (fathers eldest brother) to U.P. (Uttar Pradesh) to start farming on newly acquired land amongst jungle country around the small town of Bazpur at the base of Nainital hill district at a time when few farming families had ventured outside Punjab to farm in other parts of the country. In 50’s, the Indian government had settled post-partition refugees originally from West Punjab(now in Pakistan) and from Bangladesh(then East Pakistan) in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh bordering the Himalayan foothills & Nepal. Most settlers from West Punjab had been land owning Sikh farmers hence they were allotted land smallholdings in this district which would in time become as productive agriculturally as the lands left behind, especially with abundance of underground water & rich fertile land due to the climate at the base of the foothills.

Grandfather in the British Army

Grandfather in the British Army

My tayaji would tell us the story about how when he first arrived in U.P. as a newly married person, tigers roamed the jungle freely.  All of Dad’s family soon shifted to their new home in Terai region of UP, a fertile belt on the plains below the Kumaon range of the Himalayan foothills.

Punian Family Military Service World War Medals

Punian Family Military Service World War Medals

Midland Red Bus Crew 1982

Midland Red Bus Crew 1982

If his decision to move back to his country of birth was unusual in so far as it was swimming against the tide which was flowing in the other direction with mass immigration in to post war Britain, his chosen mode of transport to return was even more daring, he had decided to fulfill his ambition of travelling by road thus visiting several countries spread over two continents. One day, whilst I was watching a newly converted DVD copy of an old super8 projector cine film of that very day when we had set off in a German Commer Van all those years back, I asked him “Daddiji, why did you choose to travel by road?”, he told me “Six of us fellow drinkers in a pub one evening had decided we will head back together in a convoy by road back to India later in the year“. So naturally I questioned him, “How come only you headed back with your family” his reply “One by one they dropped out of the plan, but I was adamant that is what I was going to do so I put my house up for sale and sold my Car and bought a camper van instead“. Knowing my mum and dad I realised the true sacrifice to allow him to uproot once again must have been made by my mum who had brought up five children in a place that had become home.

Dad Mataji tayaji

Dad Mataji tayaji

The plan had been made by dad to send my three elder siblings by air earlier in the year so they could commence their convent school education at the christian missionary boarding schools in the picturesque hillstation of Nainital (lake district) to join their cousins already studying there. As a seven year old I can vividly remember the day we waived my older brother and sisters goodbye at Heathrow through the wide gallery window overlooking the departure lounge as they disappeared out of our view, i caught a side glance of mum standing to my right with tears rolling down her cheeks. It was then I realised the courageous person she was to allow dad to send her three young children 9yr to 14yr unaccompanied on an aeroplane to a country they had never been to and an extended family they had never met!  Suffice it to say that they were going to be received and welcomed with open arms and lots and lots of love not only from their grandparents but also from their extended family, particularly tayaji who would become like a father figure to all of us, so much so that after passing away of the grandparents tayaji would be the glue which held the family together through his equal love and affection for all of us and our cousins that numbered in the dozens.

So in November 1970, the day had cometh when we would bid farewell to friends and relatives gathered around to see us off from uncle’s house in Warwick. Dad had installed a port-a-loo in the van, seats had been removed to form a double bed at the rear, I and my younger brother aged five would sleep on the bench seats, it was cosy and functional. Mum had packed what ever grocery rations she could as well as a paraffin operated portable stove for cooking. What was left of our belongings was tied to the roof rack covered in tarpaulin! So finally, we waived good bye to leave behind the only friends & relatives we had known, and departed for dover for ferry crossing to Belgium and beyond.

Dad had signed up as a member of AA who had been very helpful in providing a detailed route map of the journey. Wisely, dad had got himself a firearm license and purchased a pistol for security, but it added to the paperwork of which their was plenty to keep in order for smooth transition through land borders across western Europe, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan finally crossing in to India. The final leg of the route through Pakistan would require alteration as we discovered before disembarking due to a build up of hostilities between the neighbouring countries leading to eventual war.

I have many memories of the four week journey which I hope to share with you in a separate blog, but I now turn to the incident which occurred en-route thus giving the title to this blog. The van provided a safe haven and for the best part of the journey it did not give dad (the only driver as mum could not drive in those days or even now for that matter) any trouble. However, the inevitable happened, it broke down somewhere in the border region between what was then Yugoslavia and Bulgaria (unfortunately I do not know which side of the border this happened and cannot ask dad as he left us for heavenly abode three and a half years ago). Dad managed to locate a public phone nearby but knowing that English was not widely spoken in these parts he glanced through the pages of the phone directory and located a Dr Singh. The tenth Guru of the Sikhs had ordained all followers of the religion to adopt the surname Singh for men, (means lion) or Kaur for women ( means princess) and follow the 5 K’s (the five symbols of the Khalsa Panth beginning with letter K: Kesh(Uncut Hair), Kanga(Comb), Kachchaa(a loose undergarment), Karra (Steel bangle) and Kirpan (Sword). The tenth and last guru of the Sikhs in the human manifestation had given this command so that a Khalsa (a baptised Sikh) would be visible from a far as one of the ‘Warrior Saint’ panth(religious order of purity). Now, dad himself was a Sikh, and a turban wearing Sikh just like his father and brothers, when he left India for England, however he had cut his hair soon after arriving to blend in and make himself less ‘conspicuous’ in an effort to avoid facing prejudice in finding a job etc. He phoned the number and the voice at the other end was pleasantly surprised to hear a fellow Punjabi, “Wait where you are and I will be there shortly” came the reply from Dr Singh. Suffice it to say he was only too pleased to help a fellow Sikh get back on the road.

It is ironic that dad had cut his hair to make himself look less conspicuous and blend in to a sea of people in his adopted home in England, yet it was the conspicuousness installed upon Sikhs by the tenth Guru Govind Singh that makes the Sikh stand out in a crowd, by sight (uncut hair, beard, turban) and by name ‘Singh’ in a sea of names. It was only some years later dad told us that on his first return flight from UK to India, on meeting him at the airport at Delhi our grandfather refused to speak to him because he was saddened to see my dad had cut his hair, thus no longer wore a turban.

Dad & his brothers, us & cousins in Corbett Tiger Reserve lodge

Dad & his brothers, us & cousins in Corbett Tiger Reserve lodge

The last leg of our 1970 road journey home was onboard a cargo ship from Basra (Iraq), where the van was lifted by way of a crane in to the cargo hold. The ship would dock in the port of Karachi but we could not disembark due to escalation in hostilities between Pakistan & India, thus we had to bribe workers to bring fresh food onboard until we were given clearance to sail three days later.

Dad & grandson with family in Corbett Tiger Reserve

Dad & grandson with family in Corbett Tiger Reserve

Four weeks after departing from England, it was in Bombay, on 24th October 1970 we finally met our granparents who had travelled from U.P. by train to receive us at the sea port. It took three further days of quibbling with customs and bribing a few of them to secure release of our goods including van, sewing machine, revolver, cine camera, projector etc. After a couple of days, we finally arrived late at night at our farm in Bazpur, to be greeted by our new family of tayaji’s and tayiji’s, chachaji’s and chachiji’s, as well as several cousins who would become our brothers and sisters in this new wonderful family in a corner of what is now known as Udham Singh Nagar district (Punjabi’s have made the terai region their home from home, it is bustling green fertile farming area) in Uttarakhand state carved out of U.P. My recollection of those first few days includes those joyous congregations in our verandah where surrounding villagers would also gather to watch the hilarious black and white silent projector movies of Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, which Dad bought enroute from West Germany along with the Super8 Cine Camera/Projector. The van or should I say the shell that is body of the van still lies in a corner of the farm yard to this day.

Just like every Punjabi from Punjab longs to return to their village in Punjab, our childhood was spent in Bazpur and our Schooling was in Bazpour/Nainital that is our home away from home. In the school holidays, we would look forward to the 12 hour drive due west to Punjab where we would spend happy times with our Naanke (maternal grandparents & family) in Nakodar.

There are many memories of the epic road journey across the plains of Europe and Asia, few would dare to take nowadays especially with a young family.

Suffice, it to say, we returned to England five years later in time for our secondary/higher education in England followed by my siblings( Alumni All Saints School/Colledge Nainital, Col. Brown School Dehradun, Bishops Cotton School Shimla, St. Bede’s Colledge Shimla) the following year in time for their A’Levels/Degree For mum and dad it meant setting up home all over again, but there is no regret, for we gained more than we lost. We gained the love and affection of our extended family and knowledge about our beautiful country of origin and its varied cultures, traditions, languages and people, basically it added another dimension to our lives. We siblings graduated and followed our professional careers in England/Canada but there is a corner of our hearts which is forever in Bazpur, just like our dad did before us we return to see our cousins and each time the family is ever bigger with new additions…..most of our cousins continue farming the land and many of their children attend the schools we did a generation before.

Thanks dad. RIP    http://youtu.be/GWGKHFapkcY
Twitter @Singh_Mo

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