Growing up in the Midlands, writer and actress Meera Syal thought of herself as “an oddball”. It’s one reason she wants to trace her family history, to search for her rebel roots, clues about why she’s so unconventional. “I hope that I find out things that completely surprise me or delight me,” she says.
Unusually for Indians of their generation, Meera’s parents Surendra Syal and Surrinder Uppal didn’t go through an arranged marriage. Instead, they married for love after a seven-year romance conducted largely in secret. Surendra is a Hindu, Surrinder is a Sikh. They settled in England after Surendra came to the country to study accountancy in 1960.
Both had fathers who protested against British rule in India during the last days of the Raj. In order to discover more, Meera heads to New Delhi. It was here that her paternal grandfather, Tek Chand Syal, worked as a journalist. “We had a lot of trouble with him as a trade unionist,” recalls the son of one former employer.
It’s a comment that’s consistent with Tek Chand’s life. In the 1930s, when he was living in Lahore, Tek Chand became politically active, working for a radical paper, Milap. He campaigned against the British policy of divide and rule, a policy that pitted religions against each other. It’s ironic then that Tek Chand was eventually forced to leave Lahore because, when it became part of Pakistan because of the Partition that followed independence, it wasn’t safe for him to remain in the city as a Hindu.
To learn more about Tek Chand’s forebears, Meera, accompanied by her uncle and aunt, travels to the holy town of Haridwar on the Gangees to meet the family’s priest. He holds details of the family’s genealogy going back generations and Meera is able to make her own entry in records where the names of forebears from the 18th century are recorded.
For generations, these forebears lived in Lasara, a village in the Punjab. Having offered flowers and milk to the river in a traditional ceremony, Meera takes an 11-hour drive to see the house where Tek Chand once lived.
She also sees her maternal grandfather’s former home, in the village of Bassian, two hours from Lasara. Phuman Singh Uppal was a dissenter too. In 1924, he was one of hundreds of Sikhs who took part in a struggle against the British centred on the Punjab village of Jaito. The marches were in protest at the British banning meetings in the local temple.
Phuman Singh was part of the 11th Jatha (a group of Sikhs) to march to Jaito. It was a dangerous journey. When the first Jatha arrived, the British opened fire. A cavalry charge followed. It’s estimated that more than 300 Sikhs died during these protests.
Many others were imprisoned, including Phuman Singh, who spent 15 months in jail. At the reference library of the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s most sacred site, in Amritsar, Meera sees her grandfather’s entry in the Who’s Who of Punjab Freedom Fighters. She also sees photographs from the 1920s that vividly and horrifically convey the violence at Jaito.
For Meera, what started as a journey to discover more about her family has become something much more. “This journey’s been more like a pilgrimage than anything else,” she says, adding that her grandfathers’ stories have been the key to her learning about the history of the Punjab.
But the personal is always important. Back in England, Meera’s able to give her father a gift: a brick from the house where his family once lived. “Even if you only go back one generation, you will experience a lot, just on the journey,” concludes Meera.