- Nikhil Dhawan
The Time I Went Searching For My Dad's Birthplace
The date is June 22, 2017. I'm in Himachal Pradesh, the northern tip of India, near Pakistan's border. It's about 6 a.m., and I'm getting into a local taxi, heading to a small town called Saloh, which I recently found out was where my dad was born.
I just finished spending ten weeks in Nepal trekking and volunteering. India was my last stop before heading back home to Los Angeles. I have a few days left to soak in the mountains.
This particular road trip began in Leh, Ladakh. I spent a few days at a guesthouse there and started to make my way downhill. Next, I spent a night at Pangong Lake, went down to Manali for a few nights, then continued onwards towards Dharmshala/Dharamkhot. The drive from Ladakh to Pangong was about 5 hours. From Pangong to Manali was almost 20 hours, and from Manali to Dharamkhot was 8 hours. Being in a car for that long was getting exhausting.
Upon reaching Dharamkhot, I was ready to chill. But when I connected to WiFi, there was a WhatsApp message from my mom saying, "Since you're going from Manali to Dharamsala, you should stop in Saloh. That's where your dad was born."
My response was, "I thought he was born in Shimla."
Here's the historical backstory:
My dad was born in 1947 at the end of June. At the time, India was in the process of gaining independence from the British. The land was being divided, but the exact border was yet to be determined.
At the time, my dad's dad (Pita Ji) was a Chief Auditor for the Government of India, and his post was in Lahore, Punjab. They didn't know if Lahore would end up being a part of India, or a portion of Pakistan. Due to the civil unrest, Pita Ji sent his pregnant wife (Mata Ji) and family away from the city in April of 1947. He knew a friend of a friend who owned tea gardens at a hill station and hoped the family could stay there. Pita Ji stayed at his job to support the family and keep their home safe in case Lahore remained a part of India.
The train ride through the Himalayan mountain range is challenging, like most mountainous regions. The altitude reaches a peak of 18,000 feet, and the ride is bumpy and long. Approximately 300 kilometers, or 180 miles later, the family finally reached Palampur. The main road in the mountains is like a flowing river; it starts at the top and finds its way down. In between, you have small streams that shoot off like branches. Palampur is one of those little branches that stems out of the main tree.
In Palampur, the family came across "chai ke bhageeche," or the tea gardens and met the owner, Revat Ram, who had offered them a place to stay in his guest house in Saloh. The town of Saloh is like a riverbank; it's the last bit of water remaining from the stream. He saw that Mata Ji was pregnant and had three adolescent children. Revat Ram also had children that were ages 6-15.
After spending a few days at the guest house, Revat Ram's daughter and my dad's sisters all started to get along; they were around 14-15 years old. Mata Ji was in her third trimester, and Revat Ram knew how dangerous it would be for her to continue traveling. They offered the family to continue staying in the guest house until she gave birth, and the civil unrest settled down.
Mata Ji felt safe and thought it was a good idea to stay. The family gratefully spent a few months in Saloh. My dad was born at the guest house on June 29, 1947. A few weeks after he was born, mother and baby were safe and healthy, so the family traveled back to Lahore in hopes of moving back permanently.
On July 15, 1947, the Indian Independence Act 1947 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom stipulated that British Rule in India would come to an end just one month later. The act also designated the partition of India and Pakistan. A British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, was commissioned to draw the borders that would officially divide the two countries into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Radcliffe had never been to India.
Pita Ji, working for the government, got wind that Lahore might end up being a part of Pakistan. His government job was talking of relocating to Shimla, which was further down the mountain range from Saloh, Palampur. Before things got out of hand, the family packed up and left Lahore on August 11.
When the clock struck midnight on August 15, 1947, fireworks went off, and the people celebrated. Independence from the British was finally won after a 90-year movement. On August 17, Sir Cyril Radcliffe officially announced the demarcation line. Fourteen million people were displaced instantaneously and sought refuge. Of those, the consensus remains that about one million died along the way. Some were slaughtered, while others starved.
Fortunately, Pita Ji, Mata Ji, and the family had safely made it to Shimla. Pita Ji resumed his post as the Chief Auditor for India's government, and the family spent the next few years in Shimla.
When I was growing up, my dad would always tell me stories of Shimla; hence, I thought he was born there. I didn't know the details of his arrival into this world until the WhatsApp message came in.
By the time I saw the message, I had spent more than 24 hours in a car, traveling through the mountains over the last seven days and was looking forward to relaxing. I responded to my mom, letting her know we had already passed Saloh, and I probably wouldn't be able to go back.
Over the next couple of days, I mulled over it and figured I'd have plenty of time to rest. It would be cool to visit the town where my dad was born. I could wake up extra early one day, go on a road trip to check out Saloh, then come back and spend the remainder of the day with my friends.
I called my mom and asked her, "When I go to Palampur, what am I looking for?"
My mom then contacted my dad's two sisters, who were 14 and 15 at the time. They remember that trip vividly; they mentioned the tea gardens and the guest house and said to find anyone who knew anything about Revat Ram.
Back in the taxi, I'm chit-chatting with the driver, Anu, about his life. After a while, he asks me, "So why do you want to go to this random town?" The drive was just over two hours, so I had plenty of time to tell him the entire story that I had just learned about my dad.
Anu gets more intrigued as the story goes on. His sense of purpose is peaking, and he's now on this mission with me. Palampur was easier to find, but he wasn't so sure about Saloh. He had never been there, but was willing to take the time to figure it out. Along the main road of Palampur, we stopped a few times to ask locals about Saloh. After a few turns, we finally found our way.
Upon entering Saloh, Anu drove a couple of miles to the end, then doubled back and parked the car in the middle. At this point, it's 9 a.m., and the town is quiet. We don't have a game plan, but we're excited to have made it to Saloh. I imagine I'll take some pictures, ask around for Revat Ram, and head back to Dharamkhot.
I step out of the car and start walking up and down the road, taking pictures of everything I see. A school board that says, "Saloh," the view of the mountains, nature, homes. Everything rests peacefully on the eyes, and the sound of the morning birds are music to the ears.
Over the next hour, Saloh started to open its corner shops, schools, and temples. I stand out like a sore thumb wearing purple basketball shorts, a black t-shirt and have a camera hanging around my neck. I don't always look Indian, and now I look like a tourist, but when I speak in Hindi, the reactions are priceless.
I went to the first person that I saw and said, "Excuse me, aapne kabhi Revat Ram ka naam suna hai? [Have you ever heard the name, Revat Ram?]"
He looked at me funny and said he hadn't, so I smiled and moved on. This happened several times, but I don't think I was expecting anyone to say yes. The original story took place in 1947 when Revat Ram was already a full-grown adult, and it was now 2017. He probably wouldn't be alive, but maybe somebody had heard of him or his tea gardens.
I continued walking down the road, which incorporated all of Saloh. At the edge, the path began to narrow and curve and blend in with the mountains. I had reached the end of Saloh, the town. Right before the hills, there was one last small corner store that appeared through the clouds. Before I entered, I could see an older man working and setting up his shop for the day. His thick gray hair held wisdom from the years; this was a great sign.
"Excuse me, sir, aapne kabhi Revat Ram ka naam suna hai?" I asked. He looks at me guardedly and says, "Kaam kya hai? [What work do you have with him?]"
I responded, smiling, "Acha, toh aap jaante hai unhe! [Oh, so that means you know of him!]"
He again responds, asking what work I have with him. So I decided to share the entire back story in full detail for the second time that day.
His jaw drops, and he gives me all the information he has. It turns out, Revat Ram passed away in the '60s, not long after independence. "He is survived by his son, daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They still own and run the tea gardens, and they live in a kothi [bungalow] up the road at the beginning of Saloh," he says. I'm in awe.
He tells me to go all the way up the road and past the temple, then I'll see a pump. The big bungalow next to the pump is the family's house. Excitedly, I dart out of the corner shop and double up the road that I had just came down. When he said pump, I thought of a gas pump, so I'm looking for a sort of mini gas station. Finally, I see Anu, and he tells me he couldn't find anyone that knew Revat Ram. Then he noticed the glint in my eye and asked me what I knew. I told him about the older man and that I was looking for the pump, but couldn't find it. He turns and points at something that seems to me like a small oil drill.
"That's the pump right there," he said. Anu could tell by my confusion that I wasn't expecting the community water pump. Right above the pump, we saw two kothis. We both looked at each other and had a moment.
How far was this story going to take us today?
I walked up to the first bungalow and didn't know how to get in, so I yelled, "Excuse me!" Between the main gate and the home, there was a big courtyard. The main entrance wasn't locked, so I walked into the yard and started to look for someone to talk to. A friendly middle-aged woman came out and asked how she could help. I asked if she knew Revat Ram or his family. She told me that she had just married into this family and moved in, but to go to the next kothi, since they had been living there for several years.
I went next door and saw this lady walking with her son in the front yard. I, of course, asked her if she knew Revat Ram. By this point, I'm starting to sound like a broken record, and Anu is laughing at my persistence. She smiled at me and told me to wait a minute. She went inside and came back with a much older man who used a cane for support.
He held a commanding presence and asked me what I knew about Revat Ram. After sharing the entire story for the third time that day, he pulled out two picture frames, and said to me, "This is Revat Ram, and this is him with my sister and me. I am Revat Ram's son."
My heart jumped to my throat, and my eyes welled. How did this happen? How did we make it this far? I look at Anu as he wipes away a tear while smiling.
Revat Ram's son invited Anu and me to join him and his family for tea. His wife joined us on the patio outside, and we all discussed the events of 1947; our lives forever intertwined. He was trying his best to recall what happened, but he was too young, maybe about six years old. His older sister, or Didi, was 15 at the time, and she's still alive. He said that Didi has an excellent memory, and I should meet her also. He pointed to the first kothi I walked into and said she lives there, but she's out grocery shopping.
"In the meantime, would you like to see the tea gardens my dad owned?" said Revat Ram's son. "We still own them, and my son is working there now, you can meet him too." I looked over at Anu, and by now, he knew how invested I was. Immediately, he said, "Chalo." Let's go.
On the drive over, Anu and I were utterly silent. We were shocked by how far we had made it and were still soaking it all in. I started sending my mom pictures and said, "Don't tell Dad, I'm going to surprise him."
We arrived at the tea gardens a few minutes later and were greeted by Revat Ram's grandsons. One was the son of the man we had just met, and the other was his first cousin or Didi's son. We sat in their office, exchanging stories, and trying to get a hold of Didi. When she finally got on the phone, she said to her son, "Tell him to come over; there is something he'll want to see."
After spending some time together in the office, we roamed the tea gardens, and they told me all about the different types of tea. I learned how organic tea is grown and the various strains of tea they make. The cousins also explained the harvesting season, weather patterns, and how the business has evolved over the years.
Before Anu and I left for the guest house, the cousins requested some of the workers to pack tea in a travel pouch. They proceeded to hand me organic black tea and green tea and said, "Give this to your dad next week on his birthday and tell him it's from the tea garden where he was born." My eyes welled up again. I had no idea how any of this was happening.
After saying our farewells and taking some pictures, we set off back to the first kothi where Didi lives. That was the same bungalow I had walked into after finding the water pump.
When we got there, Didi had us sit down in the living room and share stories while drinking tea again. She said she was 15 when my dad was born, and she remembers my dad's sisters well. Didi recalled there were two sisters, and they all used to play together. She also remembered that they were only in Saloh for a few months and left soon after my dad was born. Their paths never crossed again.
After a while, Didi says, "By the way, we've renovated this entire living area and the common areas, but we never restored the guest house, we left it as is. Do you want to see it?"
Appalled, I said, "Do you literally mean the guest house where my dad was born?" She smiled and said, "Yes."
The next few moments were silent. Didi walked in front while I shuffled behind. We walked to a far corner of the house; then she opened a door.
There I stood. Old carpeted floors. Chipped paint on the walls. Wooden panels on the ceiling. Dim lighting. An old blue cabinet. And then a smaller room. Green walls. Small windows. "This is the guest house where your family stayed, and where your dad was born."
I don't know if I cried, smiled, or even breathed. I couldn't stop imagining that 70 years ago, this week, my dad came into the world in this very room. In this obscure town in the middle of nowhere, seemingly. Yet, I'm here. I get to see it. It's the closest thing I've ever been to a time machine.
From being born and raised in Los Angeles to somehow finding the exact room where my dad was born on the other side of the world is wild to me; to this day.
I thanked the family and their ancestors for keeping mine safe. I thanked them for giving us shelter and safety. I bid them farewell and promised to send my dad someday to visit them. I couldn't fathom the emotion that would sweep over him if he saw his birthplace.
After spending a few more days in Dharamkhot, Anu dropped my friend and I off to the airport in Dharamsala. I got one last picture with him, and he said to tell my dad a happy birthday on the 29th. He then shows me his I.D. and says, "My birthday is also June 29. Thank you for giving me this journey as a gift."
When I returned to Delhi, my friend gave me the brilliant idea to make an album of all the pictures and give it to my dad for his birthday. I made three copies and shared the first two with my Bhuas. They were 14 and 15 in 1947, and they remembered everything; they shared their account me with as well.
On June 29, 2017, on my dad's 70th birthday, my family and I went out to The Strandhouse in Manhattan Beach, CA. I secretly brought the album and the tea with me but hadn't told my dad anything yet. When we got there, we started with a scotch, neat. We sat around a fire and enjoyed our drink. After ordering the second drink, I told the waitress to give us a few minutes.
I pulled out the album and said, "By the way, remember how I was in Dharamkhot? Mom told me about Saloh, so I thought I'd go check out the town and take some pictures."
The album started with the mountains, roads, Saloh signs, and the scenery. Then the story got juicier, and I showed him the kothi. After that, we got to Revat Ram's son, the tea gardens, the cousins, and eventually the guest house. When he saw the room, we embraced. There are certain moments that you never forget, that was one of them. When I gave him the tea, he had no words left to say.
That tea was harvested on the same land where he came into existence. It hit home, literally.
In November 2019, my dad was going to Delhi for a wedding and said he was going to take two days out to see if he can visit his birthplace. I sent Anu a message on WhatsApp and asked if he still lived there and wanted to take my dad. He was thrilled with the idea.
My parents and cousin booked a flight to Dharamshala from Delhi. Anu picked them up from the airport and let them rest for the first day. Day two, they went on the same journey as I had, and Anu showed them all the places we went to, where we ate and how we found Saloh.
That same day, my dad got to meet the entire family and see his birthplace. They reminisced about my visit and were happy to know that I fulfilled my promise to send my dad back.
The real story took place 73 years ago, this week.
My discovery occurred three years ago, this week.
I'm writing and sharing it in 2020, the same week.
Happy Birthday, dad!
#india #mountains #birthday #birthplace #family #ancestors #partition #history #quest #adventure #journey