Shakuntla ‘Mama’ Malhotra: 1928-2024

With Her Heart in Ancestral Punjab, Mama Adapted to Life’s Many Changes

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: She never forgot the ancestral homes in Jhang and Lyallpur she grew up in and especially the galli mohalays where her grandfather’s large joint family lived in a house with a central compound where on one side there was a shed for the cows and another for the stacked charpies. On one side of the property wall was a Anglical church and the British priest would often shoo away people in heavily accented Punjabi.

Shakuntla Malhotra was a true Daughter of the Punjab as she often recalled how the family had lands where tenant farmers grew crops and how the produce was divided among the families. In her last days, she recalled her life there where her beloved dadaji Mastan Chand Mehra was a well-respected District Commissioner of Lyallpur and her father, the tall, handsome Sundar Lal Talwar worked at the Chenab River dam.

It was with these thoughts in her mind that Shakuntla Malhotra – who had become Mama to all – slipped away peacefully in her sleep on Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 5:17 am in her home in Houston, with her two sons by her side, as her weakened kidneys finally gave up on her.

Mama was just 19 years-old when her whole pastoral life collapsed in violence and flames as India erupted in the hatred fueled by the Partition. She managed to ride a military convoy to Lahore, waited for a train for three days and was flung into a third class cabin through the window by her cousin Mohan. She sat on the luggage rack clinging to a small metal trunk full of the family jewelry and reached Delhi where her husband, Jagdish Chander Malhotra, had landed a job in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

In Delhi, her husband’s family took over a one bedroom flat and 35 people lived together. Mama recalled doing the cooking and sewing all their clothes. “There was no shame at doing even menial jobs,” mama remembered, “we all pulled together to get back on our feet.”

It was in these circumstances that Mama learnt her skills for adaptability, self-reliance, hospitality, congeniality, sacrifice and a nascent knack for business, skills which helped her throughout her life and which she passed along to her sons, Jayant and Jawahar. She was also had a fine mastery of embroidery, crocheting with beautiful pieces that adorn many tables and knitting: she made many sweaters, mufflers and blankets which are so treasured by those who received them.

As her husband joined the nascent Indian Foreign Service, these two stages of her life closed behind her and she traveled the world for the next 25 years as the wife of a Diplomat. The young woman who had only completed Metric or 10th grade, quickly learnt English and the art of being a hostess at parties in London where her life blossomed and she even started a small contract curtain-sewing business. From there, the family was transferred to Karachi, Pakistan; Teheran, Iran; Bern, Switzerland; Bucharest, Romania and finally Kabul, Afghanistan before papaji reached the mandatory retirement age 55. He went on to become the General Manager of the Plaza Cinema in Connaught Place, New Delhi, well into his late 70’s.

The horror of the Partition had taught them to be thrifty by nature, and in 1960 the couple managed to sell mama’s gold bangles and buy a plot of land in the new colony of Rajouri Garden, New Delhi where they built their home in 1962. After retirement, they entered the fourth stage of their life in their  home at V-47 Rajouri, and as the colony grew tremendously, added two floors to the house. Using her enterprising skills, mama started renting of the bottom floor as a shaadi ghar business. Her older son Jayant was married to Shashi in Delhi and her younger son Jawahar was married to Claudine in the huge vacant lot catty-corner from the house.

When her husband died on Tuesday, February 23, 2003, at the insistence of her sons, mama sold the beloved house in Rajouri and a year later moved to the US to begin the fifth stage of her life. Though it was extremely painful to give up the home she had built from the ground up, and the transition took a year to complete, in 2004, mama moved to be with her sons – a few months with Jayant in Chicago and the cold and winter months in Houston.

As her son Jawahar was involved in the media, mama found another outlet for her tremendous energy and gradually lived year-round in Houston. As she was a gifted natural cook, Jawahar encouraged her to write Punjabi recipes which were printed in the community weekly, Indo American News, for three years and are still on the website. She also was much sought out for her reminisces of the Partition and was a fixture at community events on weekends and was a devout Hindu. Very soon, she became everyone’s “Mama”, and for the past 15 years, Jawahar had a huge annual birthday celebration for her.

Mama endeared herself to everyone with the same qualities that helped her survive during the Partition and the all-embracing love and grace that her persona exuded. Her affection became legendary as she showed her caring and broad smiles of recognition to all she met. As she slowly aged and went from being able to walk alone, to using a cane, then a walker and finally a wheelchair, mama’s zest for life was remarkable and her blessings were always eagerly sought out.

In addition to her sons Jayant and Jawahar, mama is survived by her granddaughter Meena (Dan) Murphy and her kids Shashi and Shiva all of Chicago, Illinois; grandson Sanjay Stefan (Alexandra) Malhotra and his kids Camille and Remi of Houston, and grandson Jeremy Gyan (Kathryn) Malhotra and his kids Theo and Julian all of Washington, DC.

She is also survived by her sisters-in-law Mohini Talwar of Anchorage and Tara Talwar of Washington, DC; and brothers-in-law Bhushan Malhotra of New Delhi and Ramesh Malhotra of Faridabad and their families; many nieces and nephews; and an extended family scattered across New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Meerut, Bhopal, Jullunder, Shimla and Chandigarh in India; in Canada and Australia; and in the USA in Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Milwaukee, New York, Seattle, Anchorage, Washinton DC, Charlotte and New York.