Reena Varma, A Wish Fulfilled

The welcoming committee at Wagah, from left: Laila, Zahir Mehmood, Afshan and Imran William, with Reena Varma in centre.

Flashback: 30th January 1932. Reena Varma, youngest of six siblings – four sisters and two brothers – was born to Dharmpriya and Bhai Prem Chand Chhibber at Prem Nivas, Prem Gali, DAV College Road in Rawalpindi.

Flashforward: Petite Reena Varma, 90+ is a gregarious, spirited personality with the maxim “doing what needs to be fulfilled”. She defied norms on 20th July 2022, when after 75 years, she visited the home where she had spent the first 15 years of her life. Nine decades later, the house presently belonging to the Hussain family, has proudly been renamed ‘Reena’s House’.

Dressed in a saffron salwar kamiz and green phulkari dupatta, Reena Varma was ‘home again’. Welcoming her, Sajjad Haider who was instrumental in organising the Rawalpindi section and the symbolic ‘last mile’ to Reena’s ancestral home, introduced her to the Hussains, the third owners of Prem Nivas since Partition. 

Reena Varma at Prem Nivas, Rawalpindi, in 1945. 

“This was a home where my entire family lived together. As the only survivor of the Chhibber family, I felt blessed that at least one member was able to finally come back home,” the lady enthused.

Designed and built by her father, a government employee during the British Raj, numerous facets of the three-storey house and terrace remained unchanged. There were Bari and Choti Baithaks (drawing rooms), dining room, and vedda (courtyard), plus eight bedrooms.

Entering, the Bari Baithak Reena recalls, “I could ‘see’ my parents standing there. The patterned floor tiles indoors were originals. Four almirahs, one for each older sibling, had lined a wall. I ‘felt’ our music corner comprising the radio, gramophone and records collection. ‘Hum sab music ke bahut shaukeen they. Music, dance and travelling continue as preferred interests.” 

Climbing the same familiar stairs to the first floor Reena crossed her bedroom and stepped onto the grilled balcony. “I would spend hours here, singing,” and she burst into Barsat ki ritu chayi ghata…’.

“During the three hours, neighbours and media kept me busy answering questions. Next night, the hospitable Hussains kind heartedly invited me to stay in ‘my’ precious bedroom. Sleep was evasive! Initial feeling was of pride that my father had built such a strong house which stood the test of time. I kept ‘seeing’ my family there. An inexplicable yet comforting feeling. Next morning after a breakfast of kulche channe and fruit, saying ‘good bye’ to a chapter of my childhood, I was overwhelmed when the Hussains presented me a plaque reading ‘Reena’s House’,” she avers.

L -Imran holds Reena as she breaks into bhangra to the dholki beat, as rose petals are showered on her, and she wipes tears of joy. 
C – The original fireplace and mantlepiece which decades ago had autographed photos of KL Saigal and actress Sabita.
R – At her balcony where she would sing ‘Barsat ki ritu chayi ghata…’.

Ten days later, back home, Reena delved into her faraway past. “We left Rawalpindi in May 1947 taking a few belongings for our family’s annual, summer vacation to Solan. Never realising we wouldn’t return home again. Loud whispers about the Divide strengthened….”

Years rolled by. Reena, after graduating from Modern College, Amritsar, completed her B.Ed from Dev Samaj College, Ferozpur. In 1965 she married Inder Prakash Varma, fondly called Biki’s, an engineer in HAL. They had two children, a son, Rahul whom they lost at 48, and daughter Sonali Khullar who lives with her family in Gurugram.

Reena’s yearning to revisit her bachpan ka Prem Nivas manifested into a passion. “In 2021, Karachi-based Pakistani journalist Beenish Sadiqua saw my post on Facebook. She suggested I make a video about my mission, which went viral.”

Early 2022, via Facebook, Zahir Mehmood, India Pakistan Heritage Club (IPHC) member, introduced Reena to Founder Imran Williams. This organisation was reputed for transforming post-Partition Indians’ and Pakistanis’ aspirations into reality by facilitating visits to their homes, family and friends on either side of the Border.

“Imran gave me such a positive feeling to pursue my desire, and assured me they would look after me in Pakistan,” says the overnight celebrity and media darling.

In addition, print, visual and social media helped immensely in fulfilling her wish. Articles titled, ‘I am finally going home,’ Pune granny to visit Pak after 75 years; TV anchors vying for interviews, and Twitter and Instagram followers commending her fervour, zeal and determination, provided impetus. 

“My application for a visa in March 2022 was rejected. By then journalist-film maker Beena Sarwar sent my video to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister of State, Hina Rabbani Khar. Acting upon the Minister’s instructions, the Foreign Office issued the visa. In May 2022 the Pakistan High Commission, New Delhi, called me to collect my visa!” she exclaims.  

Finally, D-Day dawned. On 15th July, Reena, accompanied by her daughter, Sonali, arrived at the Attari-Wagah border between Amritsar and Lahore.

“Standing at a Line which became a Border dividing one country into two, tears of melancholy flowed. I just longed to see my home,” she states.

L -At the door of Reena’s House with Zahir Mehmood. 
C – The room where Lahore Government College student Allama Iqbal resided for five years. Pakistan’s National poet was famed for having written ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindustan Hamara…’.in 1904. 
R – At the pre-Partition Lintott’s Cafe in Murree  where Raja Haroon Mushtaq Sarwar and Ashfaq Ahmad escorted the ‘Murree ki Beti’ to a welcome of garlands and shawls.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, along with the Welcoming Committee, Imran confirmed, “Our main responsibility is to take Reenaji to her home where she can touch the walls again.”

Reena’s Pakistani sojourn began with three days in Lahore. Zahir Mehmood had arranged one night at the Government College campus, where student-poet Iqbal’s room is now a memorial. Reena revisited Jail Road and Waris Road where the Varmas, her in-laws, lived till Partition; and met a dear friend’s relative, Iqbal Sahney.

L-R – Imran William, Afshan, house owner Muzamil Hussain presenting Reena the plaque with her name, Laila, Sajjad and Zahir. Azaz Syed, at back.

Enroute to Rawalpindi on the 19th, stopping at the famed Katas Raj Temples complex, they had lunch with “our relative, Ravinder Chhibber, happily settled only Hindu family in Karyala.”

Later, in Rawalpindi, Reena Varma was graciously hosted at Hotel Avari Xpress Hotel for four nights plus one night in Lahore. “I cried to see my Modern School here replaced by a new building. Walked towards my Tayaji, Bhai Diwan Chand Chhibber’s house, but it was demolished,” she adds

Back in Lahore, Noshaba of IPHC and her husband Shehzad Masud hosted Reena with a filled itinerary. Next day, 25th July, “the wonderful Masud couple saw me off, crossing the Border to my homeland, India, again, my manat fulfilled,” said the returnee.   

“Among my keepsakes is a book of short stories authored by Zahir Mehmood. I feel proud he was recently awarded ‘Youth Peace Award’ on Pakistan’s Independence Day 2022 for his role in my visit.”

Noshaba Masud bids farewell to Reena Varma at the Wagah Border. 

The feisty nonagenarian then sums up in conclusion, “My only request is that crossing between our countries should be easier – for those wanting to meet old friends and visit their homes. How can I forget the caring strangers who hosted me, took me around, not letting me feel alone for a moment? Most overwhelming was the fact that my parental home was still in such good hands. I believe Humanity should be everyone’s top religion. Then we will respect all religions – Jai Hind!”



Read more by Amita Sarwal

27 thoughts on “Reena Varma, A Wish Fulfilled”

  1. Heart rending! A story which clearly established the complete idiocy of partition! It’s time that enlightened leaders step in and reverse this blunder!

  2. A good write up, very nostalgic. It’s high time travel between 2 countries is made easier on humanitarian ground if nothing else!!!

  3. Happy that “the journey home” was such a positive experience for Reena. My mother could not talk about the horrors till her death 75 years later – although she always told us that their good Sindhi Muslim neighbors saved their lives from the frenzied mobs.

  4. Amita you have done full justice to mom’s journey. Beautiful write up with such attention to detail. She dreamed of this for so many years and to have it materialise the way it did was no less than a miracle.

    1. Sonali, it’s always the ‘Inspiration’ that motivates our writing. Your Mom is the epitome of will power.
      ‘Bahut shukriya’ to you both for your patience and support in getting this story told. And to Tejal for the Vital Video!
      Am proud I am related to Reena mami – who has touched my life so significantly. 💞

  5. Wonderful article by Anitaji. Was overwhelmed by Reenajis tour of her home in Pakistan.All those stories told by my parents( who are not living any more) about their childhood were revived and my thirst to go and see my parents hometown resurfaced. I hope and wish I am able to connect some part of my ancestors life in Pakistan and make a visit to Pakistan sometime in the future.

  6. Hi Amita
    Excellent narration of human emotions of revisiting their roots.
    Kudos to the brave ❤️ Reena#90+

  7. What an amazing & inspiring article by Ms Amita Sarwal ! Reena ji’s strong desire to visit her childhood home, all the help extended by our Pakistani neighbours to make her dream come true really shows that human connect is much stronger than the petty politics. Cheers !!

  8. I’m amazed with reena ji’s enthusiasm and will. Her will was so strong that the universe conspired to get her what her heart so desired . Wonderful narration of reena’s journey to her roots Amita ji !!

  9. I start with multiple emotions. Tears of joy,goose bumps & past which never leave me because this was a gift from God given to Reenaji. Every sentiment inked by Reenaji is so pure & taps my heart because she is truly blessed to fulfil her wish to enter a territory which cld be impossible. Bless u beautiful lady Reenaji 🙏hugs from Rima Soni (Dxb)

  10. Excellent write up Amita. What could be a better thing
    In Reena Ji’s life to visit her childhood home!!
    My regards to your aunt.

  11. Having been born in Lahore I can feel the emotions of seeing one’s childhood home come through.
    Great write up Amita
    Regards

  12. Nostalgic, though my Father came to Delhi looking for a job before the Partition and I was born in Delhi but have heard a lot about village Jamkiyan in Dist Sialkot that hope to visit one day to relive those memories. Reena Vermaji’s visit has rekindled the desire into.
    Very well narrated Amita Sarwal.

  13. Beautifully written as usual Amita! So heart warming to know that there are such wonderful hospitable people still there. Renews one’s faith in mankind!

  14. Beautifully written, takes you through the journey. Admire Reena ji’s spirit and the hospitality of our neighbors. Kudos to all who made this possible in such turbulent times

  15. Very Beautifully well written article it sure was a nostalgic trip& a dream come true Admire the will power determination & the cool attitude of our dearest Reena Masi Her journey has been very inspiring for all in her case the saying Where there is a will there is a way is very apt

  16. It was really very nice to host you Maa ji, I’m still surrounded by the aroma of your sweet memories which we made together here. Wishing you good health and a long healthy life.

  17. A truly heart warming tale of reuniting with one’s heritage. What an inspiration this lady is! And Amitaji’s poignant and engaging style of writing has moved me to tears. Beautiful!

  18. What an awesome article by Amita. Magically woven true story. It has rekindled my desire to visit the land of my parents’ home. I heard so many stories from them and this one by Amita brought it all alive. Amita’s writings are not to be missed. Good luck to the very determined lady who travelled so far at her age. Beautiful

  19. What a lady & what a narration of the story 👏 .Gave me such goose bumps going through your Mami’s journey & as usual Amita how well you have written each details ..nothing left to imagination !

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