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A Long Way Home ✤ Our Journey ✤ Raghu & Sheela Singh


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A Long Way home our journey Sheela and Raghu Raj Singh


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Sheela Singh


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Sheela Singh’s Family Tree Devi Singh Pratap Singh Devnarayan Singh (m. Suryakali) Sukhdev Singh Vasudev Singh Baldev Singh Raj Kumari Sudha Vinay Kumar Rani Harsh Kumar Sharda Sheela (m. Raghu Singh) Siddharth Bass (m. Karen Manas) Sasha Milan Sapna (m. Sanjeevv Rathi) Raveen Serena Shan Swati (m. Sanjay Bansal) Nikhil Neil


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Than Singh Bechu Singh Durga Singh Heera Singh Ram Singh Surjan Singh (m. Rampyari Dikhit) Jeet Kunwar Chandan Singh Janakdulari Tej Bahadur Singh (m. Nirmala Singh) Satywati (m. Virendra S. Chauhan) Vikram (m. Sangeeta Chauhan) Prithvi Raj (m. Shipra Singh) Sujata (m. Anoop Chauhan) Devika Chandravardhan Tanushree Udit Raj Rohan Aneesha Sushil Sunil (m. Manju B.) (m. Maniska) Suchitra Tina Abhijeet Jaya Ravi (m. Rajni) Ajeet (m. Rita) Tinki Manu Rita (m. Aditya Singh) Vijaya Arpita Shantanu Sweeta (m. Narendra) Anirudha (m. Malvika Gupta) Arjun Rohan


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M y life almost ended before it even began. When I was born two months prematurely on December 29, 1943, in the village of Kathara in North India, the midwife who delivered me thought I was dead. I didn’t cry and didn’t seem to be breathing. My mother assumed she’d lost me. My father was not in the village that day; he’d gone to the city of Gwalior, 160 miles away, to collect his pension, leaving my mother at home with his mother. When word spread through the village that I had been born dead, my uncles came to collect my body, but since the sun already had gone down, they decided to wait until morning to bury me, as was Indian custom. I was left that night on a little cot near a warm fire in the room with my mother. Sometime during the night, my mother heard me whimper and realized I was alive after all. When my uncles came back in the morning, my mother and grandmother surprised them with the news, telling them, “She’s alive!” At the time of my birth, my mother, Rampyari (nickname Kamla), was 41 years old, and my father, Surjan Singh, was 51. My brother, Tej Bahadur, was 15, and my sister, Satyavati, was eight. I’d had another older sister who had died from pneumonia at about eight years old, and my mother had had a lot of miscarriages along the way. That’s why there are such big gaps in years between my brother, my sister, and me. By the time I was born, my father already had retired from his position as a Risaldar major in the army of the Maharaja of the princely state of Gwalior. (After India won independence in 1947, the Maharaja acceded to the Indian government, and the kingdom of Gwalior became part of the new state of Madhya Bharat, which in 1956 merged into Madhya Pradesh state.) 3


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4 Sheela Singh While my father was serving in the Maharaja’s army, my family lived in the city of Gwalior. That’s where my brother and sister were born. After my father retired, my family moved back to Kathara, the farming village in the Kanpur District—now in the state of Uttar Pradesh— where my father had been born and where his family had lived for generations. My Early Years in the Village: 1943–1952 I spent the first nine years of my life living in the village, and I have good memories of those years. We were surrounded by my father’s relatives, and we had a nice life. We lived in a big house that my father had built when he moved back to the village after retiring. My paternal grandmother, whom we called Dadi (the Hindi nickname for a paternal grandmother), lived with us. By then my paternal grandfather, Heera Singh, already had died. Once my family had moved into the new house, my father turned over his family’s ancestral house in Kathara, in which he had grown up, to his older and only brother. My uncle was educated and he worked, but he also gambled and, as a result, always had money problems. My father disapproved of his brother’s gambling and would never allow any card playing in our house. My father was widely respected in our village. He not only was financially well-off and a former state army officer but also was also the sarpanch, or head of the village council, so people would come to him for advice. In the village, we lived in a neighborhood populated mostly by members of the Rajput caste to which we belonged. Many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins lived right nearby. Our homes were so close to each other that we could walk over to see one another anytime we wanted. If our uncle or cousin went to market, he would stop by to see if anyone else needed anything. We lived as one big, close, joint family. Not all of the people I called “auntie,” “uncle,” and “cousin brother” and “cousin sister” were actually related to us by blood. Some were just close friends of our family, but I always knew who was actually related to us by blood and who was just a good friend. Also living in the village were people we didn’t know as well. There were Muslims and Hindu


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A L o n g Wa y Ho m e : O u r Jo u r n e y 5 people from other castes, not Rajputs like us. All the different groups lived in separate little colonies or neighborhoods in the village. They had their own festivals and traditions. My mother grew up in another farming village called Birugadhi, which is in District Unnao in the state of Uttar Pradesh. She moved to my father’s village after getting married in 1920, which was typical for women in India. I’m sure that my mother and father’s marriage had been arranged by their parents—all the marriages were arranged back then—but I don’t know how their families knew each other. While I was growing up, we took the train from Kathara to Birugadhi a couple of times to visit my mother’s relatives. I never knew my maternal grandmother and grandfather, Surjan and Ratan Singh; they had died before I was born. My mother was an only child. One of my mother’s uncles, Jhham Singh, was still alive and living in Birugadhi. I always thought of him and his wife as my grandfather and grandmother. (I called them Nani and Nana, the Hindi nicknames for maternal grandparents.) We visited that uncle and aunt as well as other cousins of my mother’s in her village on the two trips I remember taking there. My mother had two cousins, one of whom, Yuvraj Singh, had a wife and family and took care of a farm. The other, Dhanpat Singh, was known as something of an outlaw. As a young adult, this cousin had been a champion bullock cart racer. However, he was once cheated out of an important annual race, one that he had always won. Many in the family thought that injustice caused him to become something of a vigilante. He always seemed nice to me when we saw him in the village. In Kathara, my father and his relatives all owned farms, on which we Sheela with Dadi Ji, her paternal grandmother. grew wheat, lentils, and all kinds of veg-


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6 Sheela Singh etables and fruits. But no one in our family actually worked in the fields; we hired people to do the farming, and in exchange for their labor, we let them take a portion of what they grew for themselves. I never even visited our farm fields. None of the girls or ladies went out to the fields. My father would go out to his fields once in awhile to make rounds and supervise the farm workers. But he wasn’t out there every day. My parents earned most of their income from the farm, but they also relied on my father’s army pension. My father also loaned money to various people in the village, and he collected interest on those loans. (Not all his loans were written down, so when he died, the family lost a substantial amount of money from debtors who knew they were off the hook.) Back in those days, we didn’t have any of the modern conveniences in the village that we are used to today. We had no indoor plumbing; our water came from a well. We didn’t have to fetch the water from the well ourselves; a woman would come every day in the morning and again in the evening to pump water from the well and fill the tanks Sheela’s parents, Thakur Surjan Singh and Mrs. Rampyari Singh.



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