Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry: Bhainji Parmeshri
I retired yesterday. I completed forty years of service. Forty years is a long time. People who knew me were calculating that this way I should have started my job at eighteen. But that is not true. I knew well that I was twenty four when I started working. My 40 years of service was a gift by Bhainji1 Parmeshri to me.
Bhainji Parmeshri… the memory takes me back to my childhood… years of so much distrust, yet years of trust as compared to today. Years of separation, yet years of meeting. Years of unsettling and resettling. Years of suffering, yet years that brought some joy. Mixed feelings of pain accompanied with a strange hope, hope for a better tomorrow. We all lost in the conundrum of an unforeseeable future. India rising to a new hope. My parents had moved from Pakistan to India amidst the storms of violence with fear, distrust and still some hope in the heart. Bhainji Parmeshri was one of the several who had witnessed those times. Where people had lost home, family and children, Bhainji found one for herself. I wonder if she got freedom or was trapped in domesticity!
Bhainji Parmeshri was the only woman around us who could read. In 1947, the year India was partitioned, my parents settled in Kurukshetra, we were children then. A couple of years after that saw various schemes and attempts at resettling. One day there was an announcement that a Government school had been opened in our mullah2. Bhainji Parmeshri collected all the children and took them for admission. She was the only person who could read the form. She dictated the names and date of birth of each child to the school Principal who filled the form. When it was my turn Bhainji announced I was seven, while actually I was thirteen years old. Wonder how no one could make out the difference between a 7-year-old and a 13-year-old?
Bhainji was a very beautiful woman. Tall, fair and long hair. She had a very sensuous appeal and knew how to carry herself in different situations. All said and done, her appeal was captivating. There was a gossip around Bhainji that she was once a prostitute.
My parents had occupied a huge Muslim haveli3on their arrival at Kurukshetra. After partition when they reached Kurukshetra, riots broke out and they hid themselves in this haveli. They were there for more than three months. Since no one came to inquire, they continued staying there.
Bhainji Parmeshri lived just opposite this haveli. It is believed that a Muslim Nawab stayed in this haveli. My grandmother knew all details of her past as Parmo, now known as Bhainji Parmeshri, had her afternoon tea with her. Both shared their joys and sufferings with each other. I suspected my grandmother to be carrying a secret with her. Only Parmo knew of that secret. I had seen them whispering and my grandmother crying often. My grandmother was left back in Pakistan and was brought back almost a year after others had come. It is believed that she had stayed in a Muslim family and had been rescued from there. I feel that my grandmother had developed a strong feeling for her Muslim partner which she never disclosed to anyone except Bhainji Parmeshri. I was once hiding under her cot to escape my mother’s beating for having torn away her new dupatta4; I felt asleep there only to wake up to the chit-chat of my grandmother and Bhainji to their utter ignorance that there was a listener to their secretive moments of shared intimacy.
That was my grandmother…but the Nawab and Parmo…. Every morning Nawab climbed the Kotha5 to get a glance of Parmo, who came out to dry her lovely, long hair. She looked up to see Nawab Sahib watching her. Every day, her blouse would get deeper revealing the cleavage. Or the dupatta would be so transparent that one could clearly see the beautifully shaped, round and pointed breasts. If Nawab Sahib were out of station, he would miss Parmo and Parmo would be disappointed and angry that the Nawab had ignored her, not knowing that he was out. On his reappearance, the next day, she would be as satisfied as the Nawab.
This had continued for more than a month now and Parmo wondered why Nawab did not visit her. Totally frustrated, Parmo told her brothel mate, Lajjo, that she would make sure that the Nawab visited her that very night. She saw Nawab standing at the Kotha and moved out into the street. As she left the door, women looked at her and called her different names. The men walking around gathered to see her beauty. Some stood agape and some teased her. Every remark she received was a matter of honour for her. But today she was lost, perhaps in love for the first time.
She looked back and did not see the Nawab. Disappointed, she pulled herself to the pan6 shop. There she made it. Nawab came and stood next to her. She ordered for pan-daan7. No sooner did the shopkeeper go inside to get the box, she asked Nawab “Why don’t you visit me?” Nawab replied “I can’t come from the front door. My wife would get to know immediately. My haveli is right in front of your house.” Parmo breathed a sigh of relief “Oh! Only this?” She laughed “We have a secret door, enter into the gali8 left to Preetam’s shop. There is just one door. I’ll leave it open tonight. Enter without knocking.”
That night the Nawab came. They went into the room. For Nawab it was a dream come true. He touched her long hair. He just loved it. There wasn’t any night when Nawab did not visit her after that. Both of them started dwelling in each other’s love.
Nawab was very fond of Urdu poetry. He started teaching Parmo Urdu so that she could read and sing poetry to him. She had a lovely voice. Parmo was very intelligent, she picked up the words very quickly. Nawab brought her books by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Rashid and ‘Miraji.’ She was picking up well, memorising their poems and singing them every night to Nawab. He had found a soul mate and he loved her immensely. Their love was beyond boundaries, not knowing that the Government was setting boundaries for them.
Partition was announced. Nawab had to leave India. He offered that Parmo accompany them. Parmo decided not to. She was a Hindu and she did not want to change her religion. Somewhere she knew, love couldn’t provide her that kind of respect and by changing her religion she would have to lose her own self. She chose to stay back. He moved on. Lajjo, her brothel mate was a Muslim, she left and went to Pakistan. Parmo was alone now.
One stormy night there was a bang on her door. Somebody was knocking at the door loudly. Parmo opened to see a Sikh man with his wife and a new born child. He was asking for shelter. She allowed them in. The wife was in a very bad state. She tended her for more than a month, but to no avail. They could not save her. The child was too small to let go. Parmo put her heart and soul in looking after the child. The Sikh man offered to marry her. He gave her all the gold he was carrying. Parmo was never as confused in life as now. She told Basant Singh, the Sikh man, about her profession in the past so that he would leave her. Rather, he said “I have seen you as a mother. I haven’t ever seen you as a prostitute. Forget your past and be a mother now, be a wife. From now on you are Parmeshri.” In her hearts of hearts, she had never liked this agreement but she made a new beginning, also because the child had won her heart. The memories of Nawab remained fresh and locked in her heart to be felt on her lips dancing to the tune of ghazals she sang all the time. As neighbours came and settled around the house, Parmo became Bhainji Parmeshri. The door at the back was removed and a brick wall erected.
1 Bhainji: A Punjabi word for a respectful woman, usually somebody elder.
2 Mullah: Street.
3 Haveli: Mansion-like house.
4 Dupatta: Scarf.
5 Kotha: Rooftop.
6 Pan: Beetle leaf.
7 Pan-daan: A box in which beetle leaves are kept
8 Gali: Narrow lane