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These Ladies Recall their Lives in the Old Country for Future Generations

Shakuntla Malhotra (left) and Kanwal Bhalla sat for interviews of their lives for the Foundation of Indian Studies Oral History Project this past Saturday, February 10. Jawahar Malhotra (center) conducted the interviews

Shakuntla Malhotra (left) and Kanwal Bhalla sat for interviews of their lives for the Foundation of Indian Studies Oral History Project this past Saturday, February 10. Jawahar Malhotra (center) conducted the interviews

By Jawahar Malhotra


She was a bit nervous at first, which was to be expected, and perhaps a little vexed that her husband had pushed her to take part, but once Kanwal Bhalla started recalling her past memories and how her life had waxed and waned as it moved from India to the US, she warmed up and forgot that the camera was on her.

The petite 81 year-old with the twinkle in her eye and a sweet smile reached back through the decades and remembered her family’s large estate northwest of Lahore in British-0ccupied India and reminisced about her immediate family.

Bhalla was taking part in the Foundation for Indian Studies program’s Oral History project and is the latest person who was having her story videotaped for posterity. Coincidentally, her husband, Dr. Raj. S. Bhalla, a most admired and beloved elder of the community, was the first person whose life history was recorded about eight years ago, with this reporter serving as the interviewer. The second person interviewed right afterwards, on the same day, was Dr. Paul Mehta, now deceased, who was the Dean of Education at Prairie View A&M University.

Almost a decade later, Raj Bhalla was able to convince his devoted wife that she should take part in this project, and she sat for it in her living room in Sugar Land. Slowly, she related how she and her husband first came to the US in 1960 for a year of study for him and then, after he retired from the Indian Army, came back to settle with their two young boys in Long Island, New York.

She told of the Indian restaurant called Paul’s Mughlai which she owned and operated for ten years and how they moved to Houston 24 years ago when Raj was transferred and then later retired here.

But before that, she recalled how she was a young 11 year-old when the Partition of India happened and how her family was able to transfer some of a large portion of their wealth to Delhi just before the fateful moment on August 15, 1947.

After Kanwal Bhalla’s interview, another elderly and equally respected and loved member of the local community had a chance to talk about her experiences during the Indian Partition. Shakuntla Malhotra, now 89 years-old, was a young 19 year-old who waited with her husband Jagdish Chander Malhotra at the railway station in Lyallpur (since renamed Faisalabad) when the Partition took place.

They waited for 3 days for the train to come, “and when it finally came it was so crowded and packed,” she remembered as clearly as if it was happening now, “that my uncle had to throw me on-board through an open window.” She and her husband had gone back to Lyallpur a few days before the Partition date to get some valuables and were almost stuck there.

Malhotra has previously been interviewed for the Oral History Project and this is her second time to add to it with her recollection of the Partition. In halting but careful English, she remembered how her extended family was dispersed throughout East Punjab and how some were able to come together again, eventually living in a two-room flat in Delhi.

Her family also were zamindaars (landowners) who lost everything as they left their homes. “My grandfather would say ‘Governments change but not the people’ and had faith that we would come back after a few days.” She remembered. Of course, that was not to be the case.

Both ladies were interviewed this past Saturday, February 10 by this reporter, who couldn’t resist the opportunity to guide Kanwalji and his own mother, Shakuntlaji! Their oral histories will be available with all the others on the Houston Public Library’s servers.

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