Mother Courage

If you were a Christian and did not roam about the streets too often, 
you had a ring side and comparatively safe view of the Partition from 
your terrace in your small house near the Delhi University



Sophie James Josephees 

 Sophie James Joseph died at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi two years ago of asthma. She had herself been a nurse in a Delhi hospital, and knew that asthma could kill. She had lived for the years of her retirement with her ailment, her racking cough often keeping her awake late into the night. You cannot dream, nor have nightmares, lying awake in bed on the third floor of a DDA flat in Lawrence Road in the highly industrialised West Delhi. But you can occasionally have total recall. She would sometimes tell me of her memories. Of the more recent ones I myself was a part.

Sophie, daughter of South Indian parents who worked in the Railways had lived in Delhi since the late thirties. She was my aunt. The deepest memories were, of course, of the Partition. If you were a Christian and did not roam about the streets too often, you had a ring side and comparatively safe view of the Partition from your terrace in your small house near the Delhi University, where Jawahar Nagar now stands as a middle class slum. 

This area was designed for major tragedy. It population was a mix of poor and rich Muslims and arrogant and strong rustics of the north, not fanatics or Hindutvawadis as we would now use terms, but extremely clannish, thinking and acting not as individual persons, but as a single organism with a single mind thinking for all of them, identical adrenaline flowing through their collective veins. Not too far away were three Railway stations — the Old Delhi Main, famous for its red British Castle battlements, another called Subzi Mandi and the third at Kishan Gunj. 

In the days before meter gauge and the population explosion in the now posh South Delhi, these stations were almost the only entry points to the national capital, particularly for people coming in from the East, the North, and the West. This is where the trains passed through from Lucknow and Allahabad and Bihar Sharief, full of Muslims fleeing the divided India. This is where the trains came in from Lahore, filled sometimes with decapitated and mutilated bodies of Hindus, and sometimes with greater pathos, women wailing in pain from their ravaged bodies, gang raped and stabbed as they were caught on some wayside station. 

These were the saltpetre and the tinder which set fire to this benign part of Old Delhi. Within hours, Sophie remembers, of the first news of carnage, the area itself had erupted in massive explosion of violence, of terror the likes of which she had never heard even in a city whose collective memory goes back to the sacking of the town by Ghaznavi. What she could not see from her balconies, she heard from her brother–in–law, part of a contingent of a southern regiment rushed to the capital as a neutral force to quell the violence. 

Men like her brother–in–law, and the man from the same army formation who would later wed her, hardened soldiers barely out of the Second World War, would come home with tears in their eyes at the sight they had seen. Men slaughtered on the run, young boys turned butchers. Of children snatched from their brother and thrown up into the air, only to be impaled on swords and ballams, the rural lances, that many kept in their homes. 

Sophie did not tell me stories of the women. She could not bear to. The kindest thing that could happen to Muslim women in Delhi — and perhaps to their counterparts across the border, too — was to be abducted by some young or middle aged man who had the physical strength and courage to keep her safe from others, and the financial wherewithal to keep her as his woman, eventually his wife in the common–law marriages that then took place as convenience and succour. Sophie would also tell stories of heroism, and greed. 

Many Hindus saved lives, in return for all the cash they could carry, or for rights over the house that would soon be vacated. Others saved their neighbours out of love. Many lived to cross the borders not because the army men protected them, but because the neighbours risked their lives to save them from other marauding neighbours. 

Sophie, then in her teens, remembered all this. She was no heroine and her lower middle class family was not the stuff of which role models are made, but they were happy they connived in the saving of lives. That lives could be saved if there was courage of conviction was a lesson she learnt. Her lesson would come in handy almost thirty five years later, save many more lives of other neighbours. 

She was now living in the DDA colony at Lawrence, recently re-christened Kesavapuram. She was the only Christian in her block, A–1. Ironically, almost all her neighbours were refugees from Pakistan, who had come into the city in 1947 and 1948, shattered, their souls wounded, and had rebuild comfortable lives for themselves. For years, Sophie thought she was the only member of a minority community in the block. Her neighbours also thought she was the only minority member. Exotic, as a matter of fact. 

When she decorated her home for Christmas, children from other blocks would come to see the nativity tableau. One day the block woke up to the realisation that there was another minority community living amongst them. On 31 October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead. Within hours, Delhi was on fire; or rather Sikh shops were on fire. In another hour, 3,500 Sikhs, young men and old but mostly men, were dragged down from buses, pushed off their motorcycles, cycles and scooters, doused. In Lawrence road, the frenzy was as much. Rumours flew as thick as the smoke from the burning, living bodies.

In Block A–1, tiny Bobby was unaware of the momentous event, that a Big Tree Had Fallen and Shaken the Ground. As he played in the house of Sophie, noises were heard outside the Block. There was a mob from another block, from nearby A–2 or from the slums of Trinagar, also close by. They were looking for Sikh families, to burn. These were the days before they built the steel barricades in colonies. 

The mob was already inside A–1 when HS Chaddha, Bobby’s father realised he was the only Sikh in the block, and the crowds were after him. Chaddha, too, had a corner flat on the third floor. It was a coveted flat, with extra space which the DDA brochure called a Lucky House. HS Chaddha had paid a little more than Sophie had for his house, but he was suddenly glad he was on the same floor, just across the landing of the staircase from the Christian house. 

Sophie came out and called Bobby’s mother. Come in, she said. The Chaddha clan trooped in, in tears and afraid, mumbling their prayers. Sophie calmed them down, and took them to her own bedroom. They were safe, she said. Her husband was a former army officer. Her nephew knew all the big shots in Delhi, particularly the police commissioner. They were safe, Mother Sophie said. She would guard them with her life. She did. She chided the neighbours, tried to din some courage into them. She scolded them, and she remained extremely quite on who were inside her house. Chaddha and other similar families from the neighbourhood. Safe from the mobs as long as Sophie lived. 

The crowds looked at her, and turned away. Not daring her any further, not daring to test if she meant what she said. Not entering her house. Her courage infused a sense of community in the block. They were bound to a conspiracy of silence at least. A section of police jawans came to her block a day later, and stood guard, on and off. It was days before Bobby and his parents went back to their home. No thanks were needed. No formal thanks were said. The eyes said it all. 

Years later, Bobby was a young handsome Sikh, with a curly beard. He was in tears at a prayer meeting held on the roof top terrace of Block A–1 for someone who had died the previous day, and had been buried that evening. As the prayers hummed low, someone spoke of Sophie, witness to 1947, a small heroine of 1984. That is how they remembered the old nurse. As Mother Courage. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2001,  Anniversary Issue (8th) Year 8  No. 71, Cover Story 2



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