Life

“Because I Was So Young, I Don’t Think I Knew the Meaning of the Freedom Struggle”

Meet Usha Kiran Pahwa, age 86, from Delhi, India.

Photo illustration of Usha Pahwa
Usha Pahwa, age 86
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Usha Pahwa, rocknwool/Unsplash, and Jessica Ruscello/Unsplash.

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person“—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Nitish Pahwa (Usha’s grandson): What is your first memory?

Usha Pahwa: My mother had some leg disease in her younger days. She used to cry in a lot in pain. Doctors attended to her, and they made me sit outside the room. I remember standing at the door, hearing her cry loudly. Those cries are still etched in my memory.

How many times have you been in love?

In our time, in India, the question didn’t arise because there were only arranged marriages.

So then how did you meet Dadaji [my late grandfather]?

He was the younger brother of my sister’s husband, so it became natural that we meet.

What was your favorite age?

My favorite age was when I was a schoolgirl. I remember my father’s house, which had the most lovely garden, looking after the flowers and everything, hordes of servants, a chauffeur, a canal near our house. Going for picnics on the weekend. Having a car in those days in India. Me and two of my sisters, we being the youngest ones in a big family of seven, somehow we used to cram ourselves into the car seats so tightly that moving would have meant hurting the elders. But we somehow managed to reach our destination in that cramped situation. That was my favorite.

What do you miss most about that time?

I miss the carefree nature of those days, the open spaces, the simplicity.

Every age and time has its own charm. There were good times, there were bad times. The way servants were treated in our house, as a child, I didn’t like it. But then slowly that crept into our system also. Now when I look back, who was responsible? The British who ruled us for so many years? And then we started copying them? Power can corrupt the outsiders. That system was bad from start to finish.

I recently read the book The Diary of Anne Frank. She writes her trauma of imprisonment at her house in Amsterdam. What was her feeling at 13 years of age—I was at that age at the time of the Partition. Now recently, I found the book I Am Malala. She was around that age, 15, when she had to leave her house in Afghanistan. But she still remembers her hometown like I remember my house in Lahore. She wanted to grow up in height to only 5 feet. I also wanted to grow only to that height. What she went through is very remarkable. I admire her. I’ve also achieved, to some extent, a peaceful life with a loving family, and I’m very happy.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Whatever you want, you will get. Think sincerely. If you want love and respect, you will get it. If you want power, you will get power. Be happy. Do your job sincerely. Don’t think of when, where, and how. You will get it. Leave everything to God.

What was the happiest day of your life?

When I got married.

When was that?

Jan. 21, 1951. I was 18 ½.

Usha Pahwa with her family.
The only surviving photo from Usha’s childhood.
Usha Pahwa

What was the saddest day of your life?

When we came to know that, in the new nation of Pakistan, we could not go back to our lovely house and meet our old friends. Our family photographs were all left there. Only one we could manage to keep, the only one of my childhood.

What makes you happiest now?

When I meet my family: my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The last time I saw all of you was at your father’s 60th birthday, and that family photograph is my prized possession.

Who is the first person you voted for?

It was Jawaharlal Nehru in the Congress Party. Since my childhood, we had only looked up to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Didn’t they give us freedom? But freedom at what cost? That still hurts us. But I voted for Nehru because he was the hero of my younger days.

Tell me more about that.

My elder sisters, who attended college in Lahore, took part in India’s freedom struggle, specifically during Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement in 1942. One of my sisters was even jailed for four days. Of course, my father, being in a government job, he had to apologize. Through what that means, I have no idea; she was freed. I too wanted to take part in the freedom struggle. Although, because I was so young, I don’t think I even knew the meaning of the freedom struggle.

After Partition, we were all looking forward to settling in Delhi. We had no place to stay in the rest of India because all of our relatives were from Pakistan. But one thing we were looking forward to was going to see Gandhi in person. He held evening prayers that anyone could join.
Unfortunately, while listening to the radio one evening, we found out Gandhi had been shot dead. How much me and my sisters cried, knowing we wouldn’t be able to see and hear our hero. All our hopes of seeing him in flesh and blood were shattered.

Do you use the internet?

No. [Laughs]

Usha Pahwa
Usha in her younger days.
Usha Pahwa

How are you different from other people your age?

I hate to hurt people. I hate gossiping. But now I’ve started enjoying, at this age, I’ve started a bit of gossip, just to have that salty feeling, when I meet my old friends. Still, we don’t hurt people. We don’t say anything bad.

What is something you do every day?

I get up at 5 a.m., do yoga and morning prayers, meditation, have my tea, and I used to go for morning walks, which have become rare now since I had a very bad fall recently.

No more walks, ever?

No walks. Sometimes, when the weather is fine, I go and sit in the park and chat with my friends of my age.

What is your biggest regret?

That I should have been more mature and kindhearted. When I see youngsters now, they are more wise, independent, and loving, like you are.

Also, we were six daughters in the family, and in India, that proved a big problem. Though I wanted to study further, I couldn’t because I was the youngest in the family. My father was in a hurry to get us married. Still, I was happy for some time. But I regret that I couldn’t study and achieve what I wanted in my life. That still is there.

What are you most looking forward to right now?

There was a time when I had multiple diseases: diabetes, heart problems, asthma, all of which were major forces and, with extra precaution and care of my body, I have almost cured them all. And my youngest daughter-in-law, your mother, tells me to write and help people, to tell of how I have achieved this. I’ve tried to lead a life of love and peace. By God’s grace, I’m very happy and peaceful, but I want to write something more beautiful so that I can help people of my age, or those who are suffering, be prepared for these adult days. They’re not impossible. You can do it. One can do it if one is determined.

How can I live to be your age?

As a grandmother, my advice to you and to all the youngsters is: Life is meant to give what you ask for. Whatever you think of, anything, you will get. If you treat people with love and respect, you will get no tension. Only be happy and peaceful. Don’t think of when, where, and how. Only leave everything to God, and you will get it in due course.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.