August 15, 2012

The O'Briens of India and Pakistan

Thoughts on Independence Day

Each year, on August 15, I find myself thinking of my great-grandmother – my father’s paternal grand-mother, Nellie Bella, as she was named when born into a well-to-do Bengali Christian family. She lived at various times in Jalpaiguri, Dharamtalla and finally in Jamir Lane (Ballygunge) where she built what was to be our family home and formed part of my earliest memories. She died in 1969, when I was a small schoolboy. Yet even by then she had come to represent an influential figure for me – the familiar matriarch, caring but firm, who taught the three of us, my brothers and me, to speak Bengali.

To my young mind, Nellie Bella O’Brien, as she became on marrying a second-generation Irish settler (Anglo-Indian) in India – symbolized history. She was a walking, talking monument of history. To my innocent eyes, she seemed to stand for Mother India: a venerable and iconic figure who shed a silent tear in August 1947 when one country became two nations, and a composite society was split forever.

Nellie Bella cried in August 1947, she cried every day from 1947 to 1969. She cried for the line in the sand that Partition drew. She cried for Patrick, her first-born, her beloved son who stayed on in Peshawar and later in Lahore.

The narrative of Partition has been written in terms of the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims. Christians have had only a small role. Anglo-Indians – the community I belong to and which makes up a minuscule section of India’s Christians – have had just a walk-on part.

Yet Partition had a dramatic impact on my extended family. My paternal grandfather, Amos – Nellie’s second son – was one of three brothers. The eldest of them, Patrick, was  a civil servant who worked in Peshawar and Lahore, and served as personal assistant to Sir Olaf Caroe, governor of the Northwest Frontier Province and later Sir George Cunningham. Much of the rest of the family was in Kolkata, including my grandfather.

One day, without quite realizing its implications, these wings of the O’Brien family became citizens of separate countries. Within months India and Pakistan were at war. Patrick, the son who had stayed on in Pakistan, had a large family – one of his daughters married a fighter pilot, who stayed on in the Indian Air Force. His brother, also a fighter pilot, opted for the Pakistani Air Force.


Imagine Nellie’s plight, and that of her granddaughter in India – my father’s cousin. Night after night she stayed up, I’ve been told, wondering if her husband would come home or if her brother in-law, was safe – or if these two men, comrades and brothers in the same air force till only a few weeks earlier, would battle each other in the eerie anonymity of the skies.

Thankfully neither died in that war, but a distance emerged.  Father and daughter, sister and sister, cousin and cousin, my Indian grandfather and his Pakistani brother, Nellie and Patrick – they lost touch.

My brothers and I grew up in a very different environment. We were the only Christian family in a middle-class, predominantly Bengali-Hindu neighbourhood in Kolkata, living, in one of those ironies that make India just so captivating, in a lane named after a Muslim. We lived in the house Nellie had built in 1938. She was  widowed early, left with three sons to bring up and bravely took up the study of medicine. Her training as a doctor – she was among the earliest women to enter medical college in Bengal – came in useful and she established a fulfilling practice, the earnings from which financed the house which became our family home.

In the mid-1940s, during the Great Calcutta Killings and the pre-Partition riots, she would walk down by the railway lines, from Sealdah to Ballygunge, tending to the injured. She was never harmed, not by Hindus and not by Muslims. The stethoscope around her neck established her credentials; the determined walk established her purpose. She would not be stopped, she would not be moved.

Nellie Bella O’Brien died at the ripe old age of 78 in 1969. She was surrounded and mourned by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All of Jamir Lane, it seemed, turned out for her funeral.  She wasn’t just my father’s grandmother, she was everybody’s. The only one missing was Patrick, the son the mother had not seen for 23 years.


Time passed. In 1984, my brother Andy, then a sports journalist, travelled to Karachi for hockey’s Champions Trophy. He was determined to trace the lost O’Briens of Pakistan.  Eventually he found them and renewed contact. My father’s uncle Patrick was dead, but the rest of the family was still there and greeted their Indian cousin very warmly.  They continued to refer to the Jamir Lane residence in Kolkata as “home”.  Nellie was a legend for her grandchildren there as well.

Nevertheless there were sobering realities.  Most of the men of my father’s generation migrated to England or Canada, the women had converted to Islam.

Andy came home and told us the strange and somber story of the Muslim Anglo-Indian clan – or maybe it should be the Muslim Irish-Bengali clan – of Lahore and Karachi. We sat in silence, still digesting it. I thought of our life in India, the freedom to go to church, the freedom to pratise my faith, the freedom to be myself, the freedom that my country gave its minorities. I’ve never felt prouder of being an Indian.

I think about my cousins in Pakistan now and then. Would they be able to join a mainstream political movement, as I was so willingly accepted as part of Mamata Banerjee’s struggle? Would they find opportunity to go to Parliament as regular politicians?

I was fortunate, I guess. I was fortunate Nellie encouraged me to learn Bengali and help to be part of the para Saraswati Puja – “It’s a celebration of wisdom and learning” – and integrate with my larger community. I was fortunate India, and Bengal, allowed me to do this without making unfair demands on me. I was fortunate to have been nurtured by India’s Nellie – and Nellie’s India.

Happy Independence Day!