When he was barely 10 years old, Sardar Avtar Singh’s parents were killed in the violence that followed the partition of India and Pakistan. He survived and trekked across the border from modern-day Pakistan, tagging along with strangers who were travelling along the same route. Not the one to give up, the boy not only survived but flourished as a baker and built himself a home in Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir.
His legacy shines through Khalsa Bakery – a popular hangout selling cakes and cookies. Behind the bakery’s success is the young boy’s grit to survive.
When I walked into the town’s busy market, every second person suggested a bakery of the “good man”. Curious, I reached the shop and found a turbaned man selling freshly-baked bread and brown rusks – the man was not Avtar Singh.
“He passed away a few years ago. I am his son. Please come home and meet our family,” said the son, Surinder Khalsa.
When we reached his house, the women in the gregarious Punjabi family welcomed me warmly and soon there were trays of cold beverages and dry fruits, followed by some wonderful conversations.
Soon, the topic veered towards the late patriarch, whose photograph hung on a wall – flaunting a pleasant but restrained smile. “It was at his funeral that we realised the impact papaji (father) had created on people’s lives. Dozens of locals were in tears when they recounted the tales of the financial help or opportunities they received from him – all in secrecy. Even we were taken aback, for we never knew of any of these aids,” said Surinder.
He then elaborated on the side of his father that he was aware of. “Papaji often brought home the Amarnath Yatris stranded en route or fed the underprivileged on the streets. Our house was always brimming with extra sacks of rice and other provisions. It was much later that we realised that this eagerness to stock extra was to compensate for the hungry days of his childhood.”
Scrolling through photographs, the family tried retracing the senior Singh’s journey.
“First stop was at a Gurudwara in Udhampur. He was then taken in by a distant relative, where he was loved, but soon grew isolated. He then shifted out to earn his own money,” elaborated Surinder.
As a child, after he moved on from his relative’s house, Avtar took shelter in a graveyard. A “Babaji” took him in and gave him the job to make ‘bhaang patti’ (marijuana patty). “He was still a child and unaware of the consequences of unlawful labour. Perhaps, he enjoyed the freedom and the shelter provided by the caretaker Babaji.”
He moved on from there, and as a teenager, Avtar Singh sold peanuts on a train and got off a station in Uttarakhand. A baker employed him as a help. However, the astute and observant Avtar Singh started to learn the process of making bread. Soon, he could measure the flour, knead the dough and mix the ingredients. Having learnt the art, 19-year-old Avtar Singh returned to Udhampur and started Khalsa Bakery.
The proud entrepreneur had found his calling – decorating shelves with namkeen, pickles, bread and brownies. Today, with the business expanding, there are bigger bakeries and the old shop (the first one opened by Avtar Singh) is now a storage unit. “Even in his old age and despite his staff, Papaji made bread with his own hands and supervised the process every day,” the proud son recounts.
However, Avtar was not an easy husband. “Our mother-in-law once narrated the story of how Sardarji angrily threw peanuts at his young bride when she asked him to share food with her. ‘Le sab khale,’ he had retorted. This goes on to show that he was very protective of his food, owing to the hardships he had been through. By the time, however, we got married and came to this household; he was a completely changed man. Our kitchen cabinets were always brimming with love,” Jasbir, Avtar Singh’s daughter-in-law, reminisces. “Our household was always stocked up and we had extra provisions to ensure no guest went hungry and the family got all the comforts.”
Not all was a tale of happily-ever-after in Avtar Singh’s life. He had a wound festering in his heart, till the very end.
“When they left Pakistan, he had his younger sister with him who walked with him. Soon she was taken away by some relative. Papaji tried to find her throughout his life, but couldn’t. One day, he even invited a spiritual man to our home and showed him his horoscope. ‘You will never be able to meet your sister again. Your horoscope shows no such possibility’ the holy man had said. After that, Papaji shut himself in the room and cried all night. Even the next day, he refused to eat anything and was curled up in a blanket. We could hear him sobbing all day,” recounts his granddaughter, Gagan Khalsa.
The shop was targeted in 1984, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the ensuing anti-Sikh riots. However, even as he rebuilt the bakery, Singh refused to let hatred find any place in his heart. “Recently, a man came to the shop enquiring about our father. We told him that he had passed on. On hearing, this man burst into tears. He recounted how he was from another village and his wife had suddenly taken ill. On hearing of his predicament, Papaji had given him Rs 30,000 for his wife’s medical treatment. It was Papaji’s timely intervention that saved the woman’s life and the man’s time to rush to his village to arrange for the money,” says Surinder.
“I am a proud son,” he says with his eyes glistening with tears and voice choked with emotions. “We have everything today owing to his blessings and hard work. He ensured our welfare.”
Avtar Singh’s sons and their families live together in a huge house in Udhampur. However, each one in the family is grounded.
The man trekked from Pakistan and reached Udhampur all alone. However, when he left the mortal world, he had earned the goodwill of an entire town and community and will be remembered for his generosity and the delicious bread he baked.