Story in the skies

It’s true what they say – some of the best stories are often told by complete strangers – people that in all probability we will never meet again. On my Air Canada flight from London to Toronto, I met such a stranger – Paul something – a Polish name that I couldn’t pronounce. After the basic pleasantries – I was told by Paul that he had just returned from a 2 week trip to India. I asked the next inevitable question- where did you go? “Valivade, near Kolhapur”. First I thought I hadn’t heard correctly, or maybe the pronunciation was off. Or maybe Kolhapur meant Kerala. What followed was a conversation that completely engrossed me for 4 hours with meal breaks in-between. Here is the story in a nutshell. Paul was 6 years old when the USSR that was initially an ally of Nazi Germany, invaded Poland from the East. Countless Poles were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan, etc, as forced labor – ethnic cleansing in modern terms. Paul’s family was one of them. Stalin, under pressure from the West, released the Poles. While the men joined the Allied Forces in North Africa, Paul, his mother and sister were then sent to India. To Valivade, near Kolhapur. The camp housed about 5,000 Polish refugees. They were on the whole single parents- mothers whose husbands were either dead or in the allied forces- and the elderly. It was here that Paul lived for the next 2 years. The families lived in barracks and had two rooms and a kitchenette where they prepared their own meals from supplies they were able to purchase) from the 40 rupee allowance they were given every month. The kids attended school, where all instruction was in Polish. Paul remembered once when the boys had climbed over the wall into the Maharaja of Kolhapur’s garden to pluck mangoes, and were reprimanded by the priest at the camp. Though interaction with the locals was kept at a minimum, he remembered the locals being gracious and there never being any bad ‘incidents’ with them. Paul remembers a smattering of Marathi and Hindi. The small community thrived into a bustling town with a barber shop, shoe shop, postal service that regularly brought letters from Poland, a restaurant, and even a theatre that showed Hindi movies. There were masses held daily in the camp church, often memorial services for family that had lost their loved ones, or just for solace. With the Allied Forces winning World War II, the families were resettled in new territories like Canada and Australia if they had families there. Others didn’t have a choice but to remain in what had formerly been Polish land and was now incorporated into the USSR. Seventy years later a bunch of those young Poles decided to travel back to Kolhapur. Did he see a change? Of course some of the old buildings remained were now government offices. The conversation was peppered with anecdotes from his trip to India and clichés about what he saw. I took his number down on a piece of tissue, envisaging Paul’s story being made into a documentary on PBS. I did call him once and though he was friendly, he made it clear that our conversation was a one time hear, in the air, and to let some things rest. Incidentally Valivade was not the only Polish camp there was the smaller camp at Balachadi camp near Jamnagar. Valivade was disbanded near the time of Indian independence- it was renamed Gandhinagar.

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