A Tribute to a Great Lady
My Assam wali Bhuaji Surjit Kaur (Sita Devi)
My first memories of her are from early 50s before her marriage. Her favorite friend was a girl from our neighbors on the north side. Both were about the same age and I still remember clearly how they used to play hide and seek around our houses and roof tops. Even then she spoke with a very soft low volume voice. I had never seen her raise her voice to her best friend or anybody else. Soon she got married and moved to Gauhati, Assam. For me she will always be Assam wali Bhuaji.
She must have been born in mid-30s. She was younger to my father Prithvipal Singh (Dinanath) and my older uncle Amar Singh (Amarnath). My other uncle Om Prakash Rahi Jamalpuri (Bhupinder Singh) and chhoti bhua Saranjit Kaur are younger to her. [In our family Sikhism began with my late father. So in the transition period all children had two names. The later generations all have only the Singh/Kaur names.] My grandmother, Ishwra Devi and my grandfather Mansaram always called her Sita. When she got married to Balbir Singh Devgan of Khanna, her name became Surjit Kaur. I remember seeing her off at the Ludhiana Railway Station. After a few weeks we received a letter that they reached safely. She may have come to my father's marriage (second, my mother having passed away in 1953) around 1956-57, I am not sure. Next time I remember seeing her and many of her in-laws was around 1960 when they visited Panjab to celebrate one of their son Paramvir's functions.
My first visit to Assam
Our family had moved to Ludhiana. She came to attend a marriage. She had been accompanied by her sister-in-law and her family while coming. They were staying for a while. So, I was recruited to accompany Bhuaji (and a few other relatives) from Ludhiana to Gauhati. In those days, you had to change trains and the shorter route was through upper Bihar. Bihar was a 'dangerous' state to pass through, even in 1964. There were lots of incidents of locals pulling chains to stop the train and harassing, looting and hurting passengers. I had just finished my second year BSc exams and was waiting for my results. So I went with them and did the usual things, get water, tea and snacks from the stations. Finally, after a long journey (two nights) we reached Gauhati main station.
They lived at the foothills of the famous Kamakhya temple. It was a joint family. I remember Gurdev Singh (who walked, talked and carried himself with authority), his wife Joginder Kaur, another very nice lady from a very good family. There were many cousins living nearby. They took me to many places in Gauhati, Fancy Bazaar (of course), Airport, some old Ashram, Kamakhya temple (of course), Maligaon Gurdwara (of course). We also visited some relatives in the main city and another on the road to Shillong. We did not visit Shillong.
I remember Assam wali Bhuaji merrily going around doing her chores cheerfully. She seemed well-settled in her new role as chhoti bahu. The two bahus liked and respected each other very much. Bhuaji always had a very positive and optimistic attitude towards life. She absolutely made sure that I was well-taken care of at all times.
She was called Surjit here. By this time, I had also gotten used to my 'official' name Surjit Singh. [My own family always called me Punnu, same as Punnu of the Sassi-Punnu fame, because both the legendary lover and I were born on Punnya, full moon day.] So it happened more than once that somebody would call 'Surjit' and both I and Bhuaji would say haanji!
I have one more vivid memory. I and many other kids went to the back of their saw mill-cum-house and climbed all the way to the Kamakhya temple, carefully crossing the winding motor road that came our way. We ate and drank there and played for a while. Then, when coming down hill, somebody suggested that we make a race of it So all of us ran down the hill as fast as we could, slowing down only for the roads. Thank god, we all reached home safely, otherwise I , being the oldest and a college-going boy, would have been in big trouble. Bhuaji asked why we were all panting; I mumbled something about being tired from playing.
I returned from Gauhati all by myself, changing trains, half-sleepy, reached Ludhiana one early morning, walked home. In the meantime, my BSc second year results had been declared and I had stood first in the Panjab University, as usual.
My second visit to Assam
I don't believe I saw her again till 1975 when I returned from US after finishing my PhD. I and my father went to visit Bhuaji and her family during April 1975. In between Om Prakash chachaji had spent a lot of time in Gauhati with Bhuaji's house. They absolutely took good care of him and treated him like a family member.
The family had grown by now and I had many more cousins. I had been hearing about them from my father in his letters. Bhuaji did not seem to have changed at all in her appearance or habits. She still remained the same pillar of strength for her family, soft-spoken, loving and caring as before. Paramvir and Gurcharan had grown and Channi was his usual self :). All the kids spoke Panjabi, Hindi, English and Assamese. Once again Bhuaji made sure that we were as comfortable as possible.
Married and living in Shillong
I got married to Harmesh in 1977 and got a lecturer-ship in the new Central University, North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong. Harmesh lived in Gauhati with Bhuaji until I found a place to live. Everybody visited us in Shillong and we were in Gauhati twice a month in the weekends. We were treated not like some relatives from Panjab but as members of their own family. Everybody in Gauhati was so very friendly that we always felt we were a part of their family. Bhuaji treated Harmesh like her own daughter-in-law, in fact as her own daughter. Reciprocally, Harmesh also respected her very much and treated her like her own mother. Then Jaideep was born and he was fawned upon all the time. Later Paramvir got married to Tarlochan and, amazingly, the two youngest bahus got along very well even though they came from very different backgrounds. Bhuaji and Tarlochan got along extremely well and, in fact, Tarlochan took over her position as Bhuaji's right hand.
Around this time, Daljit (my younger brother) also went to Gauhati for education. He obtained his Diploma in Fine Arts there.
Settling in US
In 1983 we moved to Canada and settled in US beginning in 1987. We visited India roughly every five years. By this time Assam wali Bhuaji and her family had moved to Khanna. Of course, we were always very happy to meet bhuaji and her growing family, as was she. We were always welcomed very warmly by her and we enjoyed everybody's company. We always found the whole family, daughters-in-law and their children very closely knit. This is surely in no small measure due to the personality and influence of Assam wali Bhuaji. I regret not having talked to her as frequently as I should have, but whenever I talked to Daljit, I always inquired about her health and all her family members.
Surjit Kaur = Balbir Singh [Generations are indicated by > second generation etc and are also color-coded.]
> Paramvir Singh = Tarlochan Kaur (2 sons)
>> Jitender Jit Singh = Rajwant Kaur (1 daughter)
>>> Japleen Kaur
>> Harminder Singh = Karamjit Kaur
>>> Angad Singh
> Jasbir Singh = Balwinder Kaur (2 daughters)
>> Navjot Kaur
>> Prabhjot Kaur
> Jagbir Singh = Harbans Kaur (2 sons)
>> Prabhjot Singh
>> Inderpreet Singh
> Gurpreet Kaur = Navtej Singh (1 son, 1 daughter)
>> Tejpreet Kaur
>> Anujeet Singh
Joginder Kaur = Gurdev Singh
> Gurcharan Singh = Darshan Kaur (2 daughters)
>> Bhupinder Kaur = Avtar Singh (1 son, 1 daughter)
>>> Jasleen Kaur
>>> Channan Singh
>> Chamanjit Kaur = Kirpal Singh (1 daughter)
> Charan Kamal Singh = Jasbir Kaur (2 sons)
>> Gurkamal Singh
>> Jaideep Singh
I wish to thank Paramvir. Jitender Jit and Harminder for their valuable comments and suggestions.