Eighty-seven-year-old Zelma Collier was only eight years old in 1940, when an unusual event took place in her small country town of Euroa (150 km from Melbourne).
“The memory is etched in my mind”, Ms Collier told SBS Punjabi, as she recalled every detail of the cremation of an Indian hawker they called PooNoo Singh, or Poonah in short.
“Poonah resided in the blacksmith’s shop owned by Bingy Constable. My Dad helped him repair wagons and tended to horses’ feet.
“We had a lot to do with the Indians, because of the shop, and sometimes they came to our house looking for Bingy.
Zelma Collier Source: SBS Punjabi
“Poonah was retired and ended up living in the back of the shop. He had his wagon there as well, but I’m not sure if he slept in it. The shop would have been very cold in winter and very hot in summer due to the forge.
“I remember he always had a fire going - for comfort, as well as for cooking. He used to make johnny cakes, and kids like me went there after school to eat them.
‘He was a happy man, well respected by everyone in Euroa. He often hung out with the men at the billiards room.”
Naze Mimas was one of the locals who spent time with Poonah at the billiards room, and Ms Collier says, “Poonah had predicted that Naze would live a long life. And what a prediction that was, since he only passed away recently aged 100.”
This is an existing house in Euroa, and Zelma believed it was formerly the drapery shop of Lala Ranji - the man who performed last rites at Poonah's cremation Source: SBS Punjabi
“In January 1940, Poonah became unwell and was admitted to the Mooroopna hospital,” she recalls.
“He passed away on January 7. My Dad, Bingy Constable and Pod Sheargold went to Mooroopna to collect Poonah’s body. His remains were brought back to Euroa in a coffin, which was made at Bingy Constable’s foundry.
‘I remember his body was kept in the blacksmith’s shop for a couple of days before it was cremated.”
It is believed that Poonah’s cremation was conducted on 10 January 1940, in the presence of some locals.
“The funeral pyre was built at the brick kiln gully, which the children usually used as a billy cart track,” continues Ms Collier, adding, “memories of that day will always linger in my mind.”
The place chosen for the open cremation was less than 100 metres away from Ms Collier’s backyard.
“I had just come home from school with my girlfriend and we were told not to go out from the back gate. But curiosity killed the cat and of course, we peeped.”
Poonah Singh was cremated on an open ground in Euroa. Zelma Collier points to the location where his pyre was lit in January, 1940. Source: SBS Punjabi
Ms Collier remembers that Naze Mimas drove the car with Poonah’s body from the blacksmith’s shop to the brick kiln gully where the pyre was set up.
“It was a very hot summer day and the pyre was lit in the afternoon. I believe the wood was of some special specification and butter had to be used.
“Because of the war (World War I), the butter was hard to get and could only be bought from the butter factory through coupons. I assume, the butter was brought from there."
She says Bingy Constable and Pod Sheargold looked after all of the formalities, and Lala Ranji, another Indian tradesman who ran the local drapery in Euroa, carried out the last rites.
“Very few people were present when the cremation took place, and even though we children had been told to stay away, we saw it all. I distinctly recall that a man wearing a pink turban had come from Wangaratta and he attended the cremation too.
"By about 7pm, the smell from the pyre took over the town. I still remember how the air was filled with stench."
Many others in Euroa still talk about the pervasive smell in the town that day, that lingered on till late at night.
A photo taken in 1939 near Albury, of the cremation of an early Indian pioneer named Rule Singh. A fellow countryman can be seen performing the last rites Source: Albury City Council
Mystery of Poonah’s ashes
The site of the cremation was a stone’s throw from Ms Collier’s house back then and she remembers her father was tasked with keeping an eye on the funeral pyre during the night.
“My father stoked the fire through the night. He was meant to go back early in the morning with Lala Ranji to collect Poonah’s ashes.
“We knew his wishes would have been to send his ashes back to India.
"But when he went there in the morning, the ashes had been swept clean. There were no ashes, there was no Ranji.
"To this day, I wonder whether Ranji actually collected the ashes, and whether they made it back to India, or were they swept away into the clay and the murky waters nearby.”
Euroa resident Zelma Collier vividly remembers the cremation of the Indian hawker Poonah Singh (also called PooNoo Singh) in her home town, almost 80 years ago.
‘The funeral pyre was built on the course of the billy cart track, which most boys used back then,” says Ms Collier.
“Another local resident, George Harrison told me that the boys never used the billy track cart again. You can imagine it was a very eerie thing for us children.
“In the evening, if the kids saw any flickering lights, they would immediately disperse and go home, scared that it was actually Poonah’s ghost!
"Obviously we children had great imagination and the ghost story was probably all in our minds", says Ms Collier, but it is quite evident that Poonah’s memories certainly live on till this day.
Poonah Singh and other Indian hawkers in Euroa
Zelma Collier says, “It’s nice to remember the Indian hawkers, their wagons and their wares” after all these years.
“They sold pots, pans, enamelled mugs, clothing, towels, linen and many other things. People waited for the hawkers, anticipating their visit to the town.”
Source: Museum Victoria
Ms Collier believes Poonah had ‘retired’, meaning he didn’t travel from town anymore, and in fact called Euroa home.
“Living at the back of the blacksmith’s shop, he loved talking to all the travelling hawkers that came by.
“He was well liked by everyone in the town, including us children. Apart from making Johnny cakes for us, sometimes he boiled the billy on the stove and we drank the tea he made with sugar.
“He sometimes wore a turban, but mostly, would step out wearing a neat black suit, and a black felt hat with a time brim.”
"Lala Ranji, on the other hand, was a surly man. The children seldom spoke to him. He ran the local drapery shop and everyone said he sold the best quality clothes.
“I know other travelling hawkers also came to town, but I didn’t speak to them or know their names.”
Another Euroa resident, Kevin McFarlane has collected oral history about Poonah Singh and other Indian hawkers who visited the area in the early -mid 1900's. He agrees that Poonah was well loved by the locals, and all the old -time residents talked about his cremation for a long time.
Roma Joyce, who works at the Euroa Historical Society has provided more information about Poonah and the other hawkers. And she clears up one thing about the legend of Ned Kelly robbing the local bank and escaping in a hawker's wagon with his hostages. " I can say with a fair bit of certainty that it wasn't an Indian hawker's wagon that was used by Ned Kelly and his gang to escape after the robbery."
SBS Punjabi will share interviews with Ms Joyce and Mr McFarlane soon.
Remembering Poonah almost 80 years after his cremation
People from Euroa do recall at least one other cremation in their town but are not sure of the Indian hawker’s name who was cremated.
But almost everyone knows of Poonah, or PooNoo Singh and 87-year-old Zelma Collier says, “I always think of Poonah when I come here – but everything has changed. The brick kiln is gone, the building is gone, the dams are gone, and his ashes are gone too.
“It would be nice to have a little marker or a plaque at this place – something to remember him by. After all, he lived and died here.”
Please note: The photos of the cremation of Indian hawker Rule Singh were published with the consent of Albury City Council. They were taken in 1939 by a photographer named Fielder, and must not be confused as actual photos of Poonah Singh's cremation.
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