Sant Kaur Bajwa was the ultimate matriarch, personally raising three generations, and was remembered by her family for her “unconditional love”.
The 115-year-old who lived in Southall, west London, is thought to have been the oldest person in the world when she died last Friday.
Born in January 1898 in what is now Pakistan, she moved to Britain, in the 1960s. In a tale marred by tragedy, she lost her parents at a young age, then her husband of six years, and finally all of her own children.
When her daughter died at in 1972, at just 36 years old, she took on the role of caring for all her five boys, including twin sons, who were months away from turning six.
She was 74 years old. Later on in life, she helped raise their children. She is survived by 12 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
Her life spanned three centuries, two continents and two world wars.
“There are a few words that capture the essence of who she was. Those words are absolute unconditional love, complete sacrifice, and absolute devotion to her children and grandchildren,” said Jim Rai, her 46-year-old twin grandson in a speech at her funeral yesterday.
The lawyer has written a life-awareness book, to be published later this year, which he said is inspired by Mrs Bajwa.
Mr Rai told The Independent his grandmother was always driven by her family’s needs, despite being diagnosed with dementia in her later years. She lived with her son-in-law, Ajit Singh Rai, 89, and his second wife, before she died, while the extended family all lived within 10 minutes from her. So many people wanted to attend her funeral yesterday that her family had to book two coaches to bring them to her local gurdwara [Sikh place of worship].
“She was surrounded by a very large family, which gave her the spirit to continue,” Mr Rai added. “She raised generations before us, and then she raised us and our children. Even up until 10 years ago, she was cooking for 10 or 15 people without any difficulty at all. She would be very caring, but had a bit of a temper on her. It’s like the weather: sunny, warm and hot, with an odd thunderstorm. That was our gran.”
And life was far from easy. Mrs Bajwa, who is described as “full of her beans” by her grandsons, lived through the second industrial revolution, or the technical revolution, and lived through a total of six monarchs and 27 British prime ministers. She was born before the first aeroplane was invented, the first radio transmission and the discovery of penicillin.
But perhaps the most harrowing historical event she lived through was India’s independence and the Partition. In 1947, she was forced to migrate to Shukarpura in the Punjab in India, when she lost her baby boy, who was aged between one and two years old.
She learnt to sew with a sewing machine donated by the Indian government and sold the clothing she made. She used the money she earned to educate her children. Her move to London was not intended to be permanent, but once her daughter died, she felt she could not leave the young family. Religion, and in particular Sikhism, was key to her resolve.
“It was quite a remarkable and sombre life in those sorts of tragic circumstances,” said her 56-year-old grandson Kulwant Singh Rai. “She was the youngest of five sisters and little value was attached to her as a human being. [But] she was a staunch devout Sikh woman. For comfort and resolve, she attended the gurdwara and she was a pillar for us. If anything was held very dear to her, it was her God.”
Mrs Bajwa spent her first few decades in Britain living above the family-owned grocery shop in Southall, in a seven to eight-bedroom flat shared with her five grandsons, her son-in-law and then his new wife. Even after the boys got married, she often insisted on making the food and looking after their home, said Bob Rai, her other twin grandson. “Our house was a bit of a circus. People came in and out all day long and the doors were always open. She fended for us in every respect. She was always there.”
After the family sold the grocery store, the indefatigable caregiver then spent almost three years living with Bob and his young family, helping to raise his three children, before moving back in with her son-in-law and his wife.
“She was more than a mother; she was like a lioness that protected her cubs. She was very diligent,” he added.
And with more than 150 people paying their respects to her yesterday, it seems she will not be forgotten. “She had a grand sending off,” Bob said. “She would have wanted to go out in style and she certainly has.”
Mrs Bajwa’s age was confirmed by the date of birth in her passport, although her family have not had this officially verified. Guinness World Records said that it needed to see a birth certificate and a passport formally to verify her age.
The oldest surviving person listed in the record book is Misao Okawa, from Japan, who is 115 years and 99 days old.
Sant Kaur Bajwa: A life in numbers
5 The number of children she had, all of whom she outlived
12 The number of grandchildren she had, five of whom she raised herself
28 The number of great-grandchildren she had
2 The number of World Wars she lived through
199 The number of days Mrs Bajwa lived after her 115th birthday
27 The number of British Prime Ministers who served during her lifetime