Gurdev Kaur Sundhu: Partition survivor. Immigrant. Matriarch. Sister. Born May 23, 1929 in Punjab, India; died Aug. 15, 2020, in Vancouver, of cardiac arrest; aged 91.
Gurdev (Devvie) Kaur Sundhu was born in Chakkar village in the northwestern province of Punjab, India. The partition of India in 1947 was accompanied by extreme violence during which Devvie was separated from her entire family. She was alone and vulnerable, and a marriage was arranged by village elders to Rattan Singh Sundhu, who was also without any surviving family. They set about rebuilding their lives together, and about 1950 the couple immigrated to Canada. They worked on a farm near Vancouver for eight years. Days were long, and winter felt dark and cold. There were dozens of cows to milk twice daily by hand. Devvie recalled tying a rope to get to and from the barn during a blizzard.
In 1957, Rattan moved to Williams Lake, in the B.C. interior, to become a millworker, becoming the first Sikh in the small village. Devvie and their son Bill joined him after he found a place to live with indoor plumbing. A daughter, Sandra, arrived in 1964. In 1968, Rattan suffered a severe brain injury and was disabled. Devvie had to care for her two young children, so she went to work cleaning floors and washing dishes in a local hotel.
Despite the tough times, Devvie was a real character: a gregarious woman who enjoyed BC Lions games and TV wrestling (she could sometimes be heard swearing at the villains). She was outspoken and tough, a community matriarch and a feminist ahead of her time without knowing the meaning of the word.
She may have had no formal education but she was determined that her son and daughter would achieve university degrees. She pressed on facing racial prejudice, long hours at work, and her husband’s gradual deterioration. Rattan died in 1978. Eventually, she became a cook in the hotel’s restaurant and it was said that at one time or another she fed almost everybody in Williams Lake, her home for 45 years.
In retirement, Devvie moved to Kamloops to help raise her grandchildren. She took Ellora to taekwondo lessons and watched Sachin’s hockey games. She often treated them at 7-Eleven, or “leven-seven” as she would say in her version of English/Punjabi. She also had the patience to watch many hours of children’s cartoons (and thus relieving their parents).
In 2011, Devvie made her final move to Vancouver where she lived with her daughter and son-in-law and was able to attend more BC Lions games.
In 2018, Devvie was interviewed on her life story for a YouTube series called Exploring the History of Punjab. She revealed painful stories about losing her entire family, the horrors of partition violence and her experiences overcoming barriers in Canada. She was a thoroughly proud Canadian and said, “We worked hard, Canada gave us everything.” She never returned to visit India.
The video connected Devvie with a sister living in Pakistan! After 72 years apart, neither woman knew the other survived. Niamit Bibi called Devvie in Canada, it was the first of many conversations between the sisters as they shared the story of their lives. The connection was bittersweet for Devvie, she was comforted to discover the missing pieces but sad to resurrect painful memories. For her family, it helped them understand their roots.
Devvie collapsed while out for her daily walk on Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day. It was a poignant irony. Independence was coupled with Partition, and because of the horrors she and so many people experienced, she felt no joy or happy memories on the day.
Devvie cared deeply about her family and always gave generously of her love until her last day.
Bill Sundhu is Devvie’s son.
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