"Asha Devi" An article by Bhagat Puran Singh
In 1948 my dwelling was located inside the boundary of the railway station. There is a Pipal tree on the road in front of the Railway post office; there is also a footpath along the road. This is where I spent a couple of months. At this place we had four children. Among them were two cripples, one was afflicted with paralysis, another was a healthy boy of about four years of age. We used to keep all the boys on the footpath and used to collect food from food stalls and houses. At about half past one in the afternoon I used to take the left over food to Guru Teg Bahadur hospital and distribute it among the patients sitting under the trees or to the poor people on the roadside.
Late Dr Sohan Singh was a very famous eye surgeon of Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, his son Dr Kulbir Singh was also employed in the same hospital. He is a conscientious, religious and kind hearted person. I used to borrow his English Tribune newspaper for reading. One day at about four O'clock in the afternoon when I got up to leave, I saw a woman aged about 30 years lying on a jute bag in the verandah of the X-ray department. The bag also contained two or three clothes for a child. She appeared to be completely helpless. The child who looked very sad was about four years old and was sitting by her side.
I approached the woman and asked her to show me her hospital chit. Her hospital chit read ‘Asha Devi Pulmonary Tuberculosis Referred to T.B Clinic'.
My experience of suffering of Asha Devi
Now, the T. B. Clinic is a place where you are prescribed or given medicine but are not admitted. This woman was not even able to get up. I had seen her going to the toilet crawling on her fours as she could not walk. Her lungs were in such a bad condition that she was unable to get up. Guru Teg Bahadur hospital was not dealing with T.B cases. T. B hospital was on the Majitha road and the T.B clinic was about two furlongs from the gate of the Clock Tower near Darbar sahib.
I saw the condition of the woman, her four year old child and her being in the wrong hospital. I was afraid that at night the watchman might throw her out of the hospital and she along with her child would be on the roadside. Therefore, I went back to Dr Kulbir Singh and requested him to instruct the watchman to let the woman stay in the verandah for the night. Dr Kulbir Singh called the watchman and passed the necessary instructions in front of me.
I picked up her child and took him to a milk shop. I had no money with me so I requested some passer by to pay for his milk and may be for a chappati also. I cannot recollect whether I took some food for the woman also perhaps I did. But I write this with some apprehension that I may be wrong. I told the woman that I will come in the morning and take her to the T.B clinic.
Asha Devi's TB is serious
Like I have mentioned earlier that I had four children. I alone used to wash them, look after their toilet requirements and feed them. All this I used to do by begging. By begging, I mean I used to watch out for some generous soul or the people I knew little bit, and request them for some donations.
The next day due to my preoccupation with looking after the children, I could not reach the hospital in time. Asha Devi's son felt hungry in the morning. He asked his mother for food. But how could Asha Devi feed him. She had no money on her. If she had some money she could have given it to her son and continue to lie down. But now she had to crawl to a place where people come to get medicines so that seeing her crying child some kind soul would give her some money. If I had some money I would have given her in the evening itself.
On the third day I took Asha Devi from Guru Teg Bahadur hospital to the T.B clinic. Her lungs were full of cavities and she use to spit out phlegm continuously. I thought of taking only one Tonga for coming and going thinking that the Tonga would get infected with her phlegm. But it took considerable time to get her examined in the clinic and the hiring charges came to five rupees. I had no money with me and I had to collect it from near the clinic only.
Collecting money for the fare
Near the clinic there was a market named "Katra Ahluwalia". On reaching Amritsar, I had come to know that Lali Shah and Gokul Chand were two rich men of this market. I went to Lali Shah and told him that I had brought one destitute T.B patient to the clinic and the hiring charges for the Tonga had come to five rupees and asked him to pay the money. Lali Shah was the president of the market, he asked me why did I make the Tonga wait for so long.
I used to look like a beggar and from my appearance it was difficult to fathom the nature of my work. But I was adamant and persisted with my mission. Then people used to realise that I was an educated, truthful and sincere worker. Lali Shah sent me to his marketing committee office. His staff was very reluctant to part with the money. But I argued with them and forced them to give me five rupees.
X-ray done by Dr Manmohan Singh
From the clinic I must have returned by one O'clock in the afternoon. I brought her to Guru Teg Bahadur hospital and got the screen test done of her chest. Doctor Manmohan Singh in charge of the X-ray department was known to me from Lahore days. He finished the screening immediately and wrote down the observation on the chit it read ‘Her lungs are riddled with cavities'. After the screening I asked the doctor in the T.B hospital to admit her. He told me that at that time there were eighty T.B patients in the ward whereas they were authorise expenditure for twenty patients only. Because of the refugees from Pakistan they had to admit 60 extra patients and slowly their number was being reduced to twenty.
Now the question arose where could I keep Asha Devi. We were living on the footpath in the railway station area. I could not keep a dying patient there because people were using that footpath. Then Asha Devi was a young woman and unable to move. She had to carry out all her ablutions at the same place only. Outside the hospital there is a corridor which was constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. I made her lie down there. The watchman there refused to allow her inside the corridor. From there I took her to the shed under which temporary refugee camp had been established.
Asha Devi's condition deteriorates
The first day on which I had seen this woman was 28th or 29th July. She died on the 13th of August. Near the shed there was a tent in the open ground which was vacant. I bought a bed for her and put her in the tent. She continuously used to spit out phlegm and I used to keep covering it with mud. From a house in front of the Majitha house I used to get excellent food and cooked vegetables. I used to feed her that food along with the grapes I used to buy from the market.
Asha Devi was unable to look after the child, she could not even talk and used to lie quietly. So naturally I had to keep her son, Jeeta in my lap. Jeeta was a beautiful child. I always used to keep him in my lap as my mother used to love me. Asha Devi had seen that I was getting attached to the child and perhaps she had started doubting my intentions that I was just waiting for her to die so that I could take over the child. She begged me to save her from death and in turn promised that she would let me keep the child. When she had handed over the child to me she had kissed both his feet.
A few days before her death she became delirious and said that she was going to Darbar Sahib and would take bath under the ‘Dukh Bhanjani Beri'. After taking her bath she would go to the ‘langar' and would sit on the mound of ash on which the used utensils are cleaned. She would make that place her permanent abode. I asked her whether she would take Jeeta with her, to which she replied in negative. I asked her whether I could bring Jeeta to meet her near the mound of ash to which she replied that she would like to meet Jeeta once in a while. She died on the 13th of August after my looking after her for about 15-16 days.
Asha Devi's last days
Listening to Asha Devi during her last days that she wanted to devote her life for cleaning the utensils and made that place as her permanent abode had earned my respect. In those days many refugees from Pakistan used to die on the road side. Municipal Committee had reserved one truck to take the dead bodies and bury them. No Post-mortem was done to find the cause of the death. On receiving the information, the truck used to come, take the body and throw it in a ditch. The dead bodies were not cremated. But I thought that Asha Devi's dead body must be given a bath and then cremated as per the Sikh traditions.
Under the same shed one sweeper used to stay. His wife was also staying with him so I asked her to give the dead body a bath and promised her to pay her the money. But she was scared of the infectious disease and refused to give the bath.
Narain Singh also used to come from Tarn Taran to help me during the day time. He also used to collect the food from the houses. He was endowed with the feeling of service, used to say his five prayers regularly and was now quite old. He was married and had children. I told him that Asha Devi's dead body must be given a bath. As the dead body was of a young woman and as a bachelor and young man I did not want to touch it. So I asked Narain Singh to give her the bath which he did. He also said the prayer (Ardas). Both of us put the body on the cot, he lifted it from behind with me in front we took her to Durgiana cremation grounds.
Jeeta was left behind. But he was now very fond of me and did not miss his mother. I never used to leave him alone and always kept him in my lap.
A respectful cremation for Asha Devi
This place was a temporary refugee camp. The district civil surgeon used to come and inspect this place. The place where we had given bath to Asha Devi was washed thoroughly to get rid of the germs. When the Civil Surgeon came, I told him that we had looked after a woman afflicted with T.B. She had died the same very day and we had given her the bath at the place which was still wet. He was angry with me that I had kept a T.B patient there.
Asha Devi was from a Kashmiri Brahmin family. She told me that she was from the Poonch area of Jammu & Kashmir. She and her son were left in the hospital by a devotee of Darbar Sahib. In 1947, when Kashmir was attacked by the tribals, three members of her family were killed. It was night time and she was preparing the food. Rice was ready and everyone was getting ready for the dinner when about 25 tribals entered her house like a whirlwind. They immediately massacred her son, her husband and her mother-in-law. They took her and her young son to the tribal camp and imprisoned her.
When after eight months the tribal camp was abandoned, they were sent to India by train. In that train there were two thousand refugees including men, women and children. In India the first stoppage of the train was Amritsar. She got down from the train and reached Darbar Sahib along with her child.
Asha Devi last days in Amritsar
She spent three months in the area of Darbar Sahib, on the footpath between Manji Sahib and Baba Atal Sahib near Guru Ka Bagh (This path has been closed after construction of a hall in Manji Sahib). She used to spend all her time there. Her son used to get the food from the Gurdwara Kitchen in the morning and in the evening, which both of them used to eat. Many men and women used to pass that way to pay homage at Baba Atal some of them used to urge her to get admitted in a hospital but she did not want to go to a hospital.
She used to sit as a beggar on the path from Manji Sahib to Baba Atal and many passers-by must be giving her some money or eatables. When she reached Darbar Sahib her son was one month short of completing four years of age. He used to sleep and eat with her only. Jeeta was a beautiful child. He was fair in colour and had very fine hairs.
Jeeta becomes ill
I have never married and have remained a bachelor throughout my life. I used to look after him with great love and care. I thought that I will provide him with the best education. I used to give him bath and apply oil to his hairs. ‘Jai wadi jeeti, kuti kapati jeeti'. One day after giving him the bath when I put him on the bed I felt that his body was quite warm.
The next day I took him to Dr Gupta. He was the senior most doctor in the T.B hospital and was a Bengali. He checked up the child with great love and care. I don't remember whether he asked for screening or X-ray report. I got the screening or the X-Ray done. The report indicated that although his lungs were not full of cavities he was in the advance stage of the T.B.
TB has progressed too far
In those days Streptomycin had just come into the market. I told Dr Gupta that the child needed this new medicine. But he told me that the time for that medicine was well passed. On his saying I could do nothing but wait for his death with great pain in my heart.
Being the only son of my mother I had received ample amount of love from my mother and she was extremely generous in loving me. The amount of love she gave me was maximum that a mother can give to her child. She went through all the hardships which are possible for a poor woman to go through to bring me up.
Jeeta, the T.B patient slept with me for about five months. For three days before he died he did not leave my lap even for a minute. He died in my lap. While in my lap his face was quite close to mine therefore I wrapped a cloth around my mouth so that I could get some protection from the infectious disease.
I shower all my love
When Jeeta was sick I used to keep him with me all the time. I thought that he has been sleeping with me for months and in his last days I did not want him to leave my lap. If I were to contact T.B and die there of, my mother's soul would ask my soul “you died because of contacting the disease from a stranger's son. Why did you waste you life for a stranger? Why did you made him sleep with you for about five months and for three days before his death. Why did you kept him in your lap?”
Then I would reply “If I were to contact T.B at four years of age and it took many months and years for me to die. In that state would you have refused to sleep by my side. If I were to spend my last few days or weeks in your lap would you have refused me that”. I know my mother would never had refused me her lap or her company however contagious my disease might have been.
“Oh my dear mother, if you had not given me all the love, I could never have loved a stranger so much. Mother, I was so full of your love that I had to shower it on the stranger which I did with a heavy heart. So mother you should be happy that your love has blossomed. In front of my love for this child, the fact of me contacting the contagious disease was most insignificant. My dear mother, all these feelings were fostered in my heart by you only. Why shouldn't you be proud of my sacrifice.”
Last moments with Jeeta
I used to sit on the roadside near the Hussainpur railway gate with Jeeta in my lap. He died at about 10 O'clock at night in my lap. He remained in his senses till his last breath. He could not sleep or lie down. Just before he died he uttered “oohhn” which meant that I should keep him straight. He died immediately after uttering this word. I could not help crying out “Jeetia, is that all, now you have left me”.
Next morning I gave him a bath and cried over him. Kunda Singh was with me, he also loved Jeeta very much. Both of us carried his body to the cremation grounds. When I lit his pyre, again I burst into tears. When his pyre was burning I kept repeating ‘Jai wadi jeeti, kuti kapati jeeti'. I did not leave the cremation grounds till the fire had burnt itself out. I said “Jeetia, I will not leave your pyre.”