Enduring bonds

My Other Two Daughters

by Surjit Singh Barnala. Vetri Publishers, New Delhi. Pages 118. Rs 200.

Many of us have, at some time or another in our lives, met a child who has struck a chord in our hearts. Often, as we travel, we come across people who have a spark, visible even under the grime of their daily grind, especially among those who are not as well placed as we are.

The author was a young practicing lawyer in Barnala when he went for a holiday in 1949 to Kashmir. He chanced on a little girl while lazing around near Nishat Garden. He spoke to her, and asked her to take him to her home, where he met her impoverished parents and her brother. When the young Barnala found out that the girl’s mother was sick, he was touched.

“Somehow, I liked these simple and poor people and said that I would come next day with a doctor. He (the girl’s father) offered me tea, which I declined.” Barnala returned with a doctor, commiserated with and son and became involved with this poor Kashmiri family, whose daughter Naseem called him Chotta Abbu (Younger Father).

This would be a touching story, even if it finished here, but Barnala was back in Srinagar the next year, with many presents for the child and her family. He eventually bought them a houseboat and it seemed that the family was well settled, but tragedy was to strike them. What happened, and how Barnala coped with it is a story that you will have to read in the book.

The author met his second daughter in 1974. She was not a red-cheeked Kashmiri but a blond American, Kiran Jot Kaur, who had converted to Sikhism and was a follower of Harbhajan Singh Yogi.

He met Kiran Jot on a visit to the US, when she was engaged to a handsome young Sikh who recited gurbani beautifully. The next time Barnala met her, it was in Amritsar. Kiran Jot had an urn in her hands and tears streaming down her cheeks. Her fianc`E9 had died in a road accident and she wanted to take the ashes to Kiratpur Sahib. Barnala helped her, and then helped her with the pronunciation of Jap Sahib. One day, the American Sikhs organised a party, and only on attending it did Barnala realise that they were celebrating his 50th birthday!

Just before they were to go back to the US, she asked him if she could call him Papa.

“I told her that I already had a sweet and loving daughter, Amrit, slightly younger to her, and jokingly I said, ‘In India, daughters are considered as a burden, I cannot afford to have another daughter.’ Her face suddenly saddened and she slumped into a chair.” When Barnala found out that her father had died when she was young, he said: “I accept you as my daughter, Kiran Jot.”

History and geography add a twist to the tale hereafter, but the author had forged enduring bonds with this daughter, too. And he was a real Papa to her, right till the very end.

These simple stories are told in a straightforward manner. But then, fancy frills would have detracted from the core of this book. As you turn the pages, you admire the essential goodness of this person who manages to forge relationships in unlikely situations — and sustain them.

This review was published in The Tribune on March 9, 2008.