In 1945, in the twilight of Second World War, a troopship set sail from Bombay in India on a two-week journey to Southampton in England. On board were 500 soldiers, returning from the ordeal of war, and two women – one of whom was my mother Kailash Puri.
Her journey had started in Kallar, then a small but important village about 20 miles from Rawalpindi in the Pothwar plateau of Punjab. Summers were hot and winters were chilly, but nothing compared to the bracing cold of England that awaited her. She married Gopal Singh Puri, a PhD student in botany at University College, at age 17 and, with little knowledge of English, set off at age 18 to be with him in London.
They lived in a one-bedroom flat in Bayswater. Each day he walked or took the Underground to his college, while she spent time getting acquainted with life that had no resemblance to the bustle of Kallar. Post-war London, a welcoming place to salwar kameez-wearing people, was a revelation to her. It changed her worldview.
Over the next 20 years, the naïve, young Pothwaran transformed into a sophisticated, educated and accomplished author. She edited Subhaghvati, the first and only Punjabi language magazine devoted to the needs of Punjabi women, and later the magazine Roopvati. As the circulation of Subhaghvati increased, her thoughtful writing became essential reading among Punjabi women not only in Punjab, but also in Canada, US, East Africa and South East Asia – wherever the Punjabi diaspora had settled.
In those days, Punjabis were migrating far from the simple life of Pothwar, and they were taking their customs with them. A bedlam of cultural clashes and language barriers faced them. In this new world, Punjabi patriarchy was under threat. Too many women were scorched by the conflicts – and that is where Kailash, strongly supported by her husband, came in.
The cultural collisions were most pronounced in the mid-1960s in England and much of the West, where love, marriage and divorce were emerging from old Victorian constrictions. The Punjabi diaspora, plunged into this emerging maelstrom, was struggling with internal pressures – “Should we allow young girls to go out?”, “Should we allow young, newly-married women to work and will it shame the man of the house?” For Punjabi men and women, mothers and fathers, the biggest, near-impossible wall to surmount was the new sexual mores.
Boldly, without any hesitation, Kailash plunged headlong into understanding, advising and helping stricken Punjabi families, whether Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims. Women wrote to her, many anonymously. Men wrote to her and visited her Victorian house for consultations with their estranged wives or mothers-in-law in tow. She listened. She counselled. She intervened. She spoke to mothers-in-law, fathers and grandfathers. She went to gurdwaras and appeared on Asian TV and radio stations to speak about the relations between men and women, between couples that struggled with the pressures outside their multi-generational and cramped houses.
The Granthis in the gurdwaras, the self-appointed leaders of the Asian community, turned on her – how dare she destabilise the patriarchal order Punjabis had lived under for centuries?
Malicious rumours flew about the community. Men with offended pride and mothers-in-law with lost maternal control, fumed and fussed over her views. She was undeterred. She kept getting cries for help from unhappy men and women in letters, phone calls and messages – and she continued advising, consoling and replying to them, becoming the Asian Agony Aunt.
So what was her message to this community crossing over from the rigid traditions of Punjab to a Europe of greater equality and individualism?
In her mind, the message was “stay true to your culture” and “heed the voice of justice”. The same message that was propounded by the Sikh gurus but was regrettably disregarded and mangled over time. The gurus’ messages, as pronounced by Kailash, were “men and women are equal”; “men and women form an indestructible bond of equality in marriage”; “men and women resolve their differences by dialogue and conversation”. There is no place for tyranny: neither the tyranny of the mother-in-law nor the tyranny of the patriarchal man.
In 2014, Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed described her autobiography Pool of Life as a must-read in the Daily Times, adding that “it all started in and around Rawalpindi”. A girl who left Kallar as a teenager, with little education, was awarded dozens of times, for journalism, for literature and for promoting the Punjabi language. She was recognised by Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and a series of parliamentarians in the UK, US, India and Canada. Everywhere, her message was the same – equality and recognition for women, elimination of patriarchal tyranny, and grasping the new age with confidence.
Her enduring work cemented her place in the long line of colossuses who empowered women despite social pushback. It is because of people like my mother that today you see women, including many Punjabis, playing leading roles in journalism, politics, business, academia, medicine and the sciences.
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