‘Visiting Lehnda Punjab was a journey back into my family’s past’

Dr Tarunjit Singh Butalia is the author of the book: My Journey Home: Going Back to Lehnda Punjab (Mera Ghar Da Safar: Lehnday Punjab Wapsi). The book is based on his journey to Pakistan to explore his family roots

The News on Sunday (TNS): How did you become interested in exploring your roots in West Punjab?

Dr Tarunjit Singh Butalia (TSB): An uncle of my father’s used to tell me about details of my family and various places in Lehnda Punjab to which my ancestors had connections. However, the real inspiration was my paternal grandmother who would always tell me stories related to Lenhda Punjab. She, in fact, tried to share her memories with me. Interestingly, my father was not much interested in these things. Anyhow, I went to the United States and specialised in engineering. Since everybody would love to trace family roots, I was also encouraged and excited to go see the land of our Gurus and of my family.

TNS: How did the Butalia name emerge? I mean, why are you people called Butalias?

TSB: I was told very early on that we are called Butalias because we owned forty-two (42) jagirs in the Punjab but I thought it was just gup shup. I know families do gup shup to invent lofty origins and lost status. However, I was stunned to locate a document in the British Library Archival Section that contained details of exactly forty-two jagirs that my family had owned. Then my resolve to explore family roots became firmer.

TNS: what were your expectations when you reached Lahore?

TSB: Most of the Indians who visit Pakistan are basically tourists. I, too, was a tourist but with a special connections to the area. First, I was interested to see the land of the Gurus, the Janamasthan of Baba Guru Nanak and then Kartarpur, where the first Guru had farmed his lands as a farmer, and written [parts of] Granth Sahib: so, this was my connection as a Sikh. Second, my family had a long history of serving as leaders and marshals during the Sikh period and afterwards. While on The Mall, I saw the Aitchison College and tears swelled in my eyes. I realised during this visit that there are moments when you are unable to process what you see because your mind is overwhelmed with emotions. My father, grandfather and great grandfather had all studied here. I also located and visited Bedi House of my maternal family in Kallar Syedan; visited Sodhi House in the Walled City of Lahore and went to the shrine of Baba Farid. All this made my mind numb and I was enthralled by the feelings the like of which I had not experienced in my life. For instance, when I visited Anarkali’s tomb, I could imagine the Kutchery located nearby where my grandfather had served as chief justice of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There were so many feelings that my brain was unable to process those at that time.

TNS: How is your family linked to the shrine of Baba Farid?

TSB: I visited the place because my family had remained connected with this shrine for nearly 750 years. Baba Farid had himself granted the title of “bhandari” to us because the main task that my family had performed throughout this long period was the distribution of langar (free meal). Offering and serving langar are two important tasks.

TNS: Tell us about your book.

TSB: My book can be called a history of emotions. God bestows everyone with some gift: the gift He bestowed on me is that when I write emotionally, my writing can carry the reader along.

TNS: What are your thoughts about the Pakistan-India relations?

TSB: I think that Pakistanis are fully aware of results of religious extremism and ideologies of hate. So they have actually taken the right path now. It is the US and India which are hastily drifting towards hate and extremism. This time, India is heading in the wrong direction and Pakistan in the right direction. Some Indians told me that Pakistan had opened up the Kartarpur corridor because of the Khalistan issue. I replied that I had met thousands of Pakistanis but no one had talked to me about Khalistan. I don’t believe this.

TNS: How would you describe your overall experience in Pakistan?

TSB: Once I was asked by a lady in the US how we can know that the people of a religion are better in comparative terms. I told her that the best way is to make friends with the people of the religion you are interested in; you will ultimately reach the conclusion that they are just like yourself. Pakistanis, especially those in Lehnda Punjab, love Indians. They may not like the Indian government but they do love Indian people. They are clear about this distinction between the government and the people. There can be enmity between governments but there is no enmity between the people on both sides.

Dr Muhammad Abrar Zahoor has a PhD in    history from  Quaid-i-Azam     University Islamabad and is Head of History Department at Sargodha University. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets at    @AbrarZahoor1

‘Visiting Lehnda Punjab was a journey back into my family’s past’