“Sometimes…” Sitara Fiyaz Ali said when we meet in Gulberg, Lahore, in 2014, “sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still see the house we left behind in 1947 in Dalhousie. I remember the rounded windows and green wooden shutters. My father built it with great love and passion, and nearly 70 years later, in my memory that house is still a home.” Her eyes are moist. She knows that this is a home never to be seen again.

Fiyaz Ali’s father, Mian Afzal Husain, was the principal of the University of Agriculture in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and later went on to become the first Muslim vice-chancellor of Punjab University in Lahore for two terms (1938-’44 and 1954-’65). He is remembered as a great educational reformist, promoting programmes in fine and performing arts and humanities, particularly for women, being a father to four daughters himself. To construct a summer property for the family, he bought land in Dalhousie in 1932 and by 1943, the cottage with green shutters – Kehkashan – was standing on the eastern aspect of the Upper Bakrota Hill.

Through the two photographs Fiyaz Ali shows me, a black and white one taken by the family in 1947 and the other in colour taken by a family friend who visited Dalhousie decades later, I can see the construction of the house has remained unchanged. The highlight is still the incredible rounded formal living room, above which sits a bedroom, built as if in the shape of an observatory looking up at the sky. Into the ceiling of the bedroom, she recalls, were carved a large semi-circular sun and a constellation of stars, and then smiling, she reveals that Kehkashan means galaxy – the house inspired by her, Sitara (star) and her sister, Surya (sun).

Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

When I ask her about their migration to Pakistan, she says that in the summer of ’47, she and her daughter, Shahnaz (a year old at the time), came up from Gurgaon, where they lived, to meet the family for a reunion in the hills. Meanwhile, Partition was announced and they were forced to flee across the border to Mianwali and Lahore. Mian Afzal Husain was the last to leave, unable to believe that the country could be divided, unable to so abruptly leave his beloved Kehkashan behind. The family had always supported the Unionist Party, and Hussain was the half-brother of one of the party’s founding members, Sir Fazl-i-Hussain.

Upon inquiring about who lives in that house now, she shrugged and said, “The last we heard, two brothers live there with their families. Everything about the house seems to be unchanged…well, everything except the ownership.” On those words, I leave her in Lahore, finish writing the chapter about her family for my book, Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, and consider it to be the end of my association with a house called Kehkashan.

Sitara Fiyaz Ali (left) and her daughter, Shahnaz Akhtar. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Sitara Fiyaz Ali (left) and her daughter, Shahnaz Akhtar. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

Common ground

Two months after the book is published, a Sikh gentleman walks into Bahrisons Bookshop, owned by my family in the Delhi’s Khan Market. “I need to speak to the author of this book,” he stressed, pointing at the bright blue stack with my name on it. “The house…chapter 17…my house, Kehkashan, is in it. But how?”

My parents invite him for a cup of tea and then a serendipitous truth is revealed. “My wife bought me this book because she knows how much I enjoy literature on the Partition. And as I was reading, I reached chapter 17 and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was an instantaneous recognition, but I was nonplussed. On the opening page was the photograph of the house my father bought as evacuee property in lieu of the ancestral home, Bedi Mahal, we left behind in Kallar Syedan in Pakistan – the photo showed the same windows, the same green shutters, and the same location. But I thought to myself, ‘It just couldn’t be!’ and didn’t sleep the whole night.”

When I hear of this incident, I can’t fathom the sheer coincidence and my first thoughts are of Fiyaz Ali and Shahnaz Akhtar. Before I know it, tears are running down my cheeks as I dial the Lahori number. I tell Akhtar about what has happened. “Maybe they will send us a photograph or a video,” she said.

The next week, the brothers who now live in Kehkashan – Gurdip Singh Bedi, a retired diplomat, and Colonel Harinder Singh Bedi, sons of Baba Surinder Singh Bedi, the 15th descendant of Guru Nanak – meet me at the Gymkhana Club in Delhi. We talk about the house, which now we are certain divides its history between the generations of a Pakistani and an Indian family. During the Partition, the Bedis migrated to Kasauli and their father later bought six properties – one for each of his sons – in Dalhousie in 1953. Kehkashan was divided among three sons. Later, the eldest son who lives in New Zealand sold his share and the house was divided into just two sections, making additions to both sides as required.

Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

When the family first bought the bungalow, it was in rough condition, retaining only the original sofa sets, a writing desk, the dining table and cane chairs. By 1956-’57, they had restored it enough to be lived in. In fact, the two brothers remember buying a can of green paint to revive the vibrant colour of the house’s exterior. They laugh when they recall playing ping-pong on the dining table, proving it sturdiness. They also remember a chowkidar named Biaju, who had continued on from Mian Afzal Husain’s time. And so much like Husain’s family, the Bedis too began to use Kehkashan as a summer home.

When I come home from this meeting, I search through the notes of my interview with Fiyaz Ali. Written in my untidy scrawl are the words “Kehkashaan – father’s house” and “given to Sikh family”. And poignantly sitting at the bottom right corner of the page were a string of words I’d never paid attention to before: “…my father always said that everything of his had remained in India.”

Time travel

Inspired by these events, I decide to visit Dalhousie. When I arrive at Kehkashan, I hold up a print of the photo from 1947 in comparison and conclude that great efforts have been made to retain the original character. The Bedi brothers have divided the rooms within themselves to create a home each on the left and on the right. I am received by Harleen Bedi, Colonel Bedi’s eldest daughter, and we spend the evening talking about what she remembers of Kehkashan and her grandfather, whose regal-looking portrait hangs in the dining room.

Baba Surinder Singh Bedi would travel to Dalhousie with his many dogs and falcons and spend months there, always occupying the master bedroom. Harleen Bedi talks about how Kehkashan has fostered generations of her family, how it continues to be a source of solace for her personally, and how she is certain that it has a soul. Then suddenly smiling, she recalls that in the late 1990s, she accidentally discovered a hidden drawer in the original writing desk. And finally, at the end of the night, with great reverence, presents me with a rectangular white ceramic name plate mounted on wood, bearing in royal blue letters, the name M. AFZAL HUSAIN.

Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

“This is a memento from the past that we have preserved. It is precious to us and I doubt we could ever part with it,” Bedi said. Overwhelmed by the warmth of the gesture, I send a photo of it to the family across the border.

“I am in tears,” Akhtar responded immediately.

The next morning, I walk around the house, photographing it from every angle. After breakfast, Bedi calls me into the bedroom she is in and shows me the ceiling and just as Fiyaz Ali had described it, the ceiling is carved in with a semi-circular sun and a galaxy of stars. A few years ago, Bedi painted them golden and now they sparkle in the sunshine.

From the residents of Upper Bakrota, I learn that Lord Dalhousie first established the town as a sanatorium for the British often suffered from ill health. In the early 20th century, it served as a popular alternative to the crowded Shimla, housing mostly English families. In due course, the British began to invite members of the Punjabi aristocracy to purchase land in Dalhousie, and most of these families at the time happened to be Muslim. They further invited acquaintances of repute to populate the hill.

Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

I am keen to look through the records of the old houses on the hill and spend my afternoon at the municipal office. From stacks of dusty papers, a file is extracted bearing the words “123 /Buildings of M. Afzal Husain” containing a chronological record of all correspondences regarding Kehkashan. In 1932, the plot of land is bought. In June 1938, the plans for a bungalow on Upper Bakrota are sanctioned. Under Husain’s signature reads “Vice Chancellor, Punjab University”.

By 1938-’39, the major portion of the house is constructed, and later correspondences show that while work begins on drainage and sanitation, the house remains unfinished. It becomes evident from Husain’s painstaking letters that it is difficult to construct in the hills. As I come to the final letter that bears Husain’s name requesting to continue work on the kitchen in May 1947, just months before the Partition, I realise that there were no plans to migrate, no intention of abandoning the house, no reason to leave. Until there was no choice.

For three days from August 14, 1947, there fluttered in Dalhousie’s Gandhi Chowk, the flag of Pakistan, for it was rumored that Gurdaspur District (of which Dalhousie was a part) had been awarded to the new Muslim state. But on August 17, the Tricolour took its place, forcing all the elite Muslim families that had gathered for their summer breaks in the hill station to migrate across the border in a single kafila.

Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

That evening, I think about how Fiyaz Ali described having to leave Kehkashan with no prior notice or planning. I think about the way she held the photo of the house with both her hands like a treasure and the lament which infused her voice when she remembered the kothi, certain never to see it again. That night, I fall asleep with a smile on my face because I know tomorrow will be a very big day.

Coming full circle

“Are you ready?” I asked Harleen Bedi and she nods nervously. She has fixed her hair and re-applied lipstick twice already. I understand her apprehension. Then taking a deep breath in, I place the call. It rings a few times before the video starts.

“As-Salaam-Alaikum, Aanchal beti,” said Shahnaz Akhtar. Beside her is her mother – shy, smiling, her white hair parted neatly in the centre, the dupatta immaculately draped across her neck. I turn the camera towards the house and, for the first time in 70 years, Fiyaz Ali sees Kehkeshan again. Her smile widens to a size I have never seen before, her 93 years of age seem to dissolve and she becomes the young woman who once spent her summers here. She doesn’t say a single word, not even one, but her eyes are lined with tears. I take her on a walk through the front garden, showing her how much of her father has remained in this house. I point out the stars he carved on the outer surfaces of the house, hidden to the naked eye but thematic clues relating to constellations. I tell her about the Bedi family and then I invite Harleen Bedi into the frame.

Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

At first, both sides are nervous – this much is obvious through their anxious laughter and hesitation. They are looking at each other, not as Indian or Pakistani, but as people who share the history of a home.

“Namaste,” Harleen Bedi said finally, and “Hello” came a shy reply.

She takes the mother-daughter duo on a tour of the inside of the house, showing them the original facades and furnishings. The highlight is of course, the rounded room on the first floor, which bears Fiyaz Ali’s namesake stars on its ceiling. Few words are spoken on this tour, but from time to time, Fiyaz Ali said, “Kuch nahi badla, they have changed nothing. Sab waisa hi hai, it is still the same. Kehkashan…” At the end of the call, Bedi makes sure to tell them that in the summer of 2018, the pair must come to India to stay in Kehkashan. “Humare ghar mein, in our house,” she said, stressing the shared ownership, smiling from ear to ear.