Anita Rani was born two years after her maternal grandfather, Sant Singh, died. Nevertheless, he’s an important figure to the TV presenter, both because her own mother “idolised” Sant, and because Anita knows he endured the tragedy of losing his first family. “I’ve wanted to know more about this guy my entire life,” she says.
A family brings home to Anita just how little the family knows, not even Sant’s date of birth or where he was born. But she does hear disquieting stories of Partition in August 1947, when Pakistan and India became separate nations, and sectarian violence erupted between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. Can it really be true Sant’s son was murdered? Or that his first wife committed suicide?
To learn more, Anita heads for India’s capital, New Delhi. From military records, she learns Sant was born in 1916 and joined the British Army in 1942. Before military service, he was a sub-overseer working on canals in the Montgomery district of the Punjab. There’s another crucial detail. In 1947 and 1948, when there was violence in the Punjab, Sant was posted to the south of India.
Once in India, Anita met up with author Gillian Wright in the village where Sant Singh lived
A diary sent by an uncle offers further information. Sant’s mother was a victim of the influenza pandemic that swept the world in the wake of the first world war. Anita also learns that Sant was originally from Sarhali, 80 miles from the border with Pakistan in the Punjab. Anita visits the village, where she meets members of her extended family, a joyous occasion.
Darker discoveries lie ahead. Sant’s father was a trader who moved to the Montgomery district of the Punjab, which was transformed when the British oversaw the construction of a system of irrigation canals. He did well, but then came a crisis: at Partition, the region was within Pakistan.
What would this have meant for a Hindu or Sikh? In Amritsar, Anita meets a witness to the sectarian violence, who recalls how his father killed his own daughter rather than let her be taken by Muslims. (It’s worth emphasising all sides committed terrible acts.) Echoing Anita’s family history, he also says his mother committed suicide by throwing herself down a well. A confused Anita is angry that men “killed their own daughters”. She meets feminist and writer Ritu Menon, who says, “The women tell it as a story of no choice.” This was a conservative and patriarchal society.
Anita’s uncle was able to show her pictures of Sant Singh’s first wife and son
Anita is almost at the end of her journey, but first she sees another document from the archives, which reveal that Sant did indeed have a son and, forgotten in family stories, a daughter, Mahindra. Learning this name is clearly important to Anita. “This moment has changed who I am,” she says of her discoveries.
At the home of an uncle, Anita sees a picture of Sant’s first wife and his son, Raj. The boy, she learns, died of a spear wound, attacked as he and his grandfather tried to get the Indian side of the new border.
Finally, Anita heads for Haridwar on the Ganges, where Brahmins keep genealogical records. She adds what she’s learnt to her family tree and sees Sant’s signature, from when he made the same journey. “Had they survived, I wouldn’t have existed,” reflects Anita of her lost relatives. But, she adds, “[Sant’s] story will continue through me, and that’s wonderful.”