Bauji’s red file

Durga Prasad Ummat

TEXT BY BELA KAPOOR AND NAVDHA MALHOTRA
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NAVDHA MALHOTRA

Chandigarh, India

There is a crystal-clear picture in my head of my paternal grandfather. Of him walking towards our house after shopping- fruits in one hand and walking stick in the other. If he saw any of the children hanging around, he would call out to us loudly to help.

Durga Prasad Ummat, Bauji as he was fondly known, was born on 25th April, 1896 and passed away in 1986. After my father passed in 2015 there was lot of paperwork to be attended to. It was on one such day, while rummaging through documents that I came across some certificates and letters with Bauji’s name. In some he had used the last name Varma and Khatri in others. And some were devoid of any last name! When and why Bauji’s generation adopted the ‘Ummat’ name I am not exactly sure.

It is an incongruity that we, as a Hindu family, have a last name that has Persian links. This strangeness didn’t really strike me when I was younger as we never knew what Ummat really meant. It being our last name was just a matter of fact. Much later my father, Adarsh Kumar Ummat, Daddy as I always called him, told us stories of what the name meant and how it originated. The word Ummat in Urdu means follower. There was a Pir Baba that people used to follow, and somewhere in our ancestry there were followers of him too. Maybe that is where it came from.

Ummats as a clan belonged to Nawanshahr, Hoshiarpur district in Punjab. The two main clans in Nawanshahr were Ummats and Bhuchchars- both came from elsewhere and laid the foundations of Nawanshehr, literally meaning ‘a new city’. The land was incredibly rich and fertile and both clans owned a massive amount of land. Bauji always told us that if all the Ummats in the world come together, we could go back and stake claim to our ancestral lands.

Around 10-15 years ago, while searching the internet to learn more about our roots, I discovered that there is also a newspaper in Pakistan called Ummatt. I also came across this website tracing the Ummat family. Ummat is a pretty rare name and there aren’t too many of us so I decided to contact them to find out more. In fact, I was able to interact with a gentleman named Ashok Ummat and even shared with him what I was able to put together so that they could add to it. If you see the family tree- Baba Joga Jit was one of my ancestors and where my immediate family would start from. I remember them telling me that they were going to close the website to the public and keep it for their immediate family only. I think earlier each of these names used to be clickable and you could see their individual family tree under it. I guess they have removed it now.

Daddy’s filing system was the best in the world! I truly wish I had learnt more from him. He kept everybody’s documents safely filed – from my papers to my nieces, he maintained them all. On one of my regular visits to my parents’ home in Chandigarh I was looking through some papers only to find this old red plastic folder with a treasure house of over 100 years old – disintegrating yet preserved. This red file was a result of Daddy’s persevering and preserving nature!

Documents received, written and signed by my grandfather- whose handwriting is almost as if it has been calligraphed. His certificates, His date of birth- Oh my god, I am getting goosebumps and teary-eyed as I write this today! Along with the file was also an old ‘daftar’ style cardboard folder used in offices that were used to tie up various documents together. I wish I had discovered all this with my father around so that I would have been able to acquire more stories.

My grandparents lived with us and a lot of what I know about Bauji and Bhabhiji, my grandmother is from my interactions with them and stories narrated by Daddy. He would lovingly share these with us- more about his mom than about his dad. Bauji as I understood was mostly posted outside Patiala and my grandmother would not join him on his postings as she was completely dedicated to the cause of education of her children. However, it is through piecing together these documents that I have really learnt about the man he was. Most of these are revelations after he has been gone for 34 years and today there is this regret that I wish we had asked him more about his life when he was around…

Bauji was presumably born in Patiala or Nawanshehr but his education was clearly in Patiala. He was the eldest of the four siblings- two sisters and a younger brother. Bauji’s father Lala Bihari Lal had another brother, Gurcharan Parsad or Das– I am not sure. The lineage from Gurcharan Parsad are my dad’s second cousins and Chachas to me and their children are my third cousins. We are in constant touch with one another and there is a lot of love. I think this is the result of being a relatively small family as I gather that not many had children that survived.

I am not sure why they moved to Patiala from Nawanshehr but based on these documents and family stories, I think it is safe to say, they moved for work. After Partition, Patiala was a part of PEPSU, the Patiala and Eastern Punjab States Union. PEPSU was a state uniting eight princely states between 1948-1956, of which Patiala was the Capital and the seat of Government. Patiala, Jind, Kapurthala, Nabha, Faridkot, Malerkotla, Kalsia and Nalagarh together constituted PEPSU. PEPSU was merged within Punjab on 1 November, 1956 as part of the States Reorganisation Act.

Daddy’s first job as a Sub-Divisional Engineer was with PEPSU and his first posting was also in Patiala. My son, Tanay also ended up studying in Patiala and there is a deep sense of fulfilment to have my son go to a place where both my grandfather and father were. It was like divine intervention; else my son would never have been connected to Patiala directly. During each of my trips to visit my son, I would visit places that I had seen as a child with my parents and grandparents!

Bauji's BA Certificate from University of Panjab
Durga Prasad Ummat’s BA Certificate from University of Panjab, December 1923

I remember Bauji as a very tough and disciplined man with a commanding voice. He wasn’t orthodox but the family had very conservative values. He was quite a disciplinarian and we were quite scared of him. In one of these reference letters, someone has written that he wasn’t rigid. This is so surprising to me as he was known for his anger. My grandmother, Taradevi Ummat, Bhabhiji used to tell us that he was authoritarian and would get angry easily, ‘Bauji nu gussa bhaut aanda hai’. But he respected Bhabhiji for the decisions that she took for the children. It was her far sightedness and determination with which daddy went on to become an engineer and reach the highest Government post of a Chief Engineer, their second son a doctor, third son an engineer and their fourth child, a daughter received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954.

Bauji was obviously quite a learned man- That discovery I made only now. He had a Bachelor of Arts from Panjab University and a Licentiate of Teaching from Benaras Hindu University. He was a part of BoyScouts, learnt Persian and in fact authored school textbooks! Being in the teaching fraternity myself, it makes me so proud to know that he authored school textbooks that were used in the school education board in PEPSU. I know this from a letter I found in this red file. A letter dated 22 November, 1948 addressed to Mohammed Abdullah Sheikh , the then Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister, requesting for Durga Prasad Ummat’s Arithmetic and Geometry books to be prescribed as school text books in Kashmir. It is written by Brish Bhan, a Freedom Fighter, Civil and Criminal Lawyer and former Chief Minister of PEPSU (1953-1956). Abdullah Sheikh served as the first elected Prime Minister of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir after its accession to India in 1947. I am not sure if the letter was responded to and the textbooks were published in J&K.

Bauji was an academician and devoted his life to education of others and his wife to that of her children. He was a great teacher and used a lot of examples that made his teaching very participative! When we were young, we were told ‘Pehle Padhhai kar lo, Pher hor kamm kar lena‘. Not only did he teach the three of us grandkids but also our cousins. I remember him teaching perfect English grammar and theorem. Daddy once told me that he made him practice each math sum so many times that he knew the answer without solving it. He ended up topping his tenth exam and earning a scholarship because he had practiced every question repeatedly and knew 100 % of the answers. After his teaching tenure, Bauji went on to become a Schools Inspector- a post in the Education Department of the Government, reporting to the Director of Public Institutions, where one evaluates government schools’ performances annually.

Bauji's Licentiate of Teaching Certificate from Benaras Hindu University
Bauji’s Licentiate of Teaching Certificate from Benaras Hindu University

I remember being quite scared of my grandparents and my interactions with them were one based on fear. Grandparents were quite strict you know, they wanted you to stay home, they were quite interfering, or so I felt at that time not only in children’s lives but in the lives of my parents too. There is one incident etched in my mind from October-November 1984- it was the day of my interview for the Lecturer post at the Government Home Science College in Chandigarh. Bauji was old and frail and sitting in our front lawn. I went to him and said “Bauji aaj mera interview hai, lecturer ke liye. I want your best wishes” and he replied “No girl in our clan has worked outside the house but you go and be successful. I wish you best of luck!” 

I am not sure of the year my grandparents got married but it must have been between 1920-22. Bhabhiji was his second wife, 10 years younger to him and the first Bhabhi in the extended family. Thus, she was called Bhabhiji by one an all including her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews too.  She was known to be very worldly-wise and held the entire family together. Everyone would come to her for ‘Salah’ or advice and then adhere to it. I remember my grandmother reading out the Urdu newspaper to my grandfather many times after his bath while he would rest. They had five children including two daughters and three sons. Apparently, the eldest daughter was not vaccinated against smallpox on the insistence of either Bhabhiji’s mother or Bauji’s bua who used to live with them. While the boys were vaccinated and protected, the daughter died at the age of eight.

Bauji lost his father at a very tender age. Though I am not a believer of patris or horoscopes that many Indians follow but his horoscope has this mentioned,“Is balak ki kismet mein maa baap ka sukh nahin hai.” Bauji and his younger brother, Janki Parsad, were looked after by their aunt. The Bua, a baal-vidhwa was quite foul mouthed and often was forgiven for her venomous behaviour relegating it to her frustration in life. An interesting family custom emerged with her becoming a baal-vidhwa at the age of 11 while still wearing her wedding Chuda (a set of red bangles that are customary to Hindu weddings). The Ummat women from there on were forbidden to wear a red coloured chuda and wore a white haathi daanth or ivory chuda until ivory was banned.

Our ancestral home in Patiala, was a plot that Bauji’s grandfather had bought and came to be inherited by Bauji, his brother and cousins. I remember clearly that the house was in the Lal Bagh area and had a red cemented raised platform called ‘Chabutra’, a foyer called ‘Deori’ and a well. I am told that my father and his siblings studied under a streetlight or in daylight and the village only received electricity after my parents’ marriage. 

After Bauji’s retirement, my grandparents moved to Nairobi to live with my Sudesh Chacha who is a Doctor. My Chachi is Indian of Kenyan origin and they moved back to her hometown after a small stint in a small city called Mahalkalan. Bauji and Bhabhiji travelled to Nairobi by ship from Mumbai in 1967. The journey was a month each way for this travel. They came back for a visit in 1968 and eventually returned to India 1969 as my Chacha was keen to immigrate to Canada which he did sometime in 1968. Bauji and Bhabhiji stayed on for another year in Nairobi as he had started working at a school there.

In the early 1980s, between 1981-1984, Bauji went for physiotherapy to PGI (Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, Chandigarh) for his spinal stenosis. After Bhabhiji passed away in 1980, the trip for the sessions was his only outing in a day. A rickshaw would come and pick him up and he’d go alone. One day, he came home and told us that Giani Zail Singh, the then President of India met him at the hospital and that he came and touched his feet! Giani Zail Singh, India’s seventh President between 1982-1987, was one of Bauji’s students. This incident became such a huge family story and was quite a big deal because the President of the country came and touched his feet! If students are the building blocks of the future of any nation, then teachers are those that shape these blocks. However, they usually go unacknowledged. But here was such a great acknowledgement that he was thrilled beyond limits!

I know that some ‘khufiya’ (secret) meetings used to take place at our house in Patiala before Partition and Giani Zail Singh was also present at them. Since it was an academician’s house, it was considered a safe haven. Two of my grandfather’s nieces’ husbands were freedom fighters. Walati Ram Bedi and Sunder Lal Markan. Walati Ram was a Gandhian and his entire family always wore khadi and Sunder Lal was an Advocate. Bhabhiji used to tell Bauji to say no since it was dangerous- but Bauji felt that he couldn’t refuse as they were his sister’s jamais, or sons-in-law. I am not sure of the years or exact incidents but have heard about these from Daddy and Sunder Lal Jijaji when they were alive.

Getting my hands on any more Ummat stories ended in 2015 with Daddy’s passing. However, today these documents that are more than a hundred years old have talked to me so much that it almost seems as if they were there to tell the stories that the human mind had forgotten to pass down to coming generations! Thank you Bauji for giving us this glorious family history and thank you, Daddy, for preserving this history so well. It is only because of both of them that I could share these stories for their future generations.

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