Pritam Kaur and Bhagwan Singh Maini had met just once when they got engaged. The second time they met was at one of the teeming refugee camps that dotted Amritsar.
Some of the greatest love stories go unseen, unheard and undocumented, simply because they’re ordinary couples living their lives. So this Valentine’s Day, we try to showcase such stories—everyday people and their extraordinary love!
It was the year, 1947. Pritam Kaur, a 22-year-old girl from Gujranwala, north of Lahore, was put on a train to Amritsar by her family. This train, they were confident, would save their daughter from imminent riots. Clutching her bag, weighed down with a heavily embroidered phulkari jacket, and holding tightly on to her two-year-old brother, Pritam embarked upon the journey, unsure of their future.
With a lifetime of memories woven into its fabric—the beautiful jacket would now be her only prized possession.
Pritam cursed her fate. She had been forced to flee the city she loved, the parents she worshipped, and a future that had shone bright—albeit for only some time. Just a few days past she had met Bhagwan Singh Maini, a 30-year-old man from Mianwali and had gotten engaged to him on the same day, as was common at the time. Her fiancé had no idea that she had left the new country of Pakistan.
While Pritam continued her mental tirade against fate, it seems fate was on her side after all.
The unrelenting riots and mass slaughters all around her could have taken Pritam’s life – perhaps on the very train to Amritsar – she was on. But, she found her way safely to a refugee camp.
A camp with one other – unique- refugee.
Bhagwan, who originally lived 250 kms away from Pritam, had been facing the consequences of communal violence up close. Three of his brothers were killed in the slaughter, and it was evident to Bhagwan that if he didn’t flee, death would claim him too.
Stuffing a brown briefcase with his certificates and property claims, he too boarded a train to Amritsar.
Pritam and Bhagwan were only two out of the 12 million people who, after being torn from their families, had to settle in refugee camps in and around Amritsar. Though the engaged couple had reached the same city safely, there was little statistical chance of them reuniting. They had to start life from scratch and reminiscing over the past would not have helped them.
The refugee camps were a harrowing experience in themselves. Restricted to a tent made of half-torn canvas and at the mercy of the weather, refugee families needed physical and mental endurance to rough it out. Every day, a truck with food packets would see a long line of refugees jostling each other to reach it, fearful of going back empty-handed.
One day, while Pritam was in one such queue, a familiar voice asked “Are you the same person?”
She turned to find Bhagwan standing there, her fiancé whom she had lost all hopes of seeing again.
Fate had smiled on Pritam at last.
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After this extraordinary turn of events, Bhagwan and Pritam frequently met, telling each other about their losses, how they had reached Amritsar and supporting each other in rebuilding their lives.
Speaking to the BBC, the couple’s daughter-in-law, Cookie Maini said, “They exchanged notes about their tragedies, wondering if it was destiny that had brought them together once more. Their families, or whatever was left of them, also reunited in due course.”
In March 1948, amidst the chaos around them, Pritam and Bhagwan got married in a small ceremony.
Pritam wore her favourite phulkari jacket.
The riots were dying down, and the newlyweds began to put the pieces of their broken lives back together.
The brown briefcase played its part in securing the couple a good future. Bhagwan used his certificates to get a job in the judicial services and provide a steady foundation to his family.
“The jacket and the briefcase are [a] testimony to the life they lost and found together,” Cookie tells BBC.
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Slowly and steadily, the Mainis returned to normalcy. They had two children, both of whom served as civil servants in independent India.
Bhagwan passed away about 30 years ago, and Pritam died in 2002. However, their legacy lives on in Amritsar as a testimony to the struggles, stories and the history of millions of those who lost everything but had the will to rebuild their lives from scratch in a new country.
Displayed in the Partition Museum in Amritsar—the Phulkari jacket and the brown briefcase—tell one of the most heart-warming love stories of the partition.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)