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Adoption

175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

Image contributed by Jay Varma, Text by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi

(This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive.)

It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his ‘nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen.

The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne.

In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the fulfilment of their desire. And thus when the girls were born, they were named Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (seated right) respectively, with the prefix ‘Sethu’ denoting their divine origins from the lord of Sethu Samudram in Rameswaram.

The girls grew up in Trivandrum Fort as ‘Junior Maharani’ (Sethu Parvathi Bayi) and ‘Senior Maharani’ (Sethu Lakshmi Bayi) respectively. Indian as well as Anglo-Indian tutors were appointed for them and before long they were able to speak the King’s English, cultivating manners that marked Edwardian high society. They played tennis, golf, and croquet, all in their traditional costumes. In music they mastered the piano and the veena, and they read voraciously, becoming expert conversationalists, impressing everyone who met them.

When they turned 10, a set of boys from the aristocracy was presented to them to select one each as their consorts (the men were never officially called ‘husbands’). Though these consorts were wedded to the Maharanis, they were considered subjects: they lived in separate palaces and only visited their royal wives when summoned; they had to bow to them and refer to them as Highnesses. In public, they were prohibited from being seated in the presence of their highborn brides. The little Maharanis spent several years playing hopscotch with their husbands, and reading fairytales together in the palace library until in their teens the marriages were consummated on nights when the stars were in perfect alignment.

It was the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who gave birth to a boy, Chithira Thirunal, in 1912. But until he came of age, for over seven years, the destinies of Travancore were entrusted to the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had two daughters but no sons. Power corrupted relations between the two royal matriarchs and records speak of the Junior Maharani as ‘the villain’. She felt that as mother of the future Maharajah, she ought to have been allowed to rule Travancore on his behalf and not her sister. But law and tradition decreed that only the Senior Maharani could reign.

So it was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled Travancore in the 1920s. She initiated far-reaching reforms constructing highways, bringing electricity and telephone services to her people, spending nearly a fifth of her revenues on education, which augmented Kerala’s high rate of literacy, developing Cochin (now Kochi) into the modern trading port it is today, appointing the first female minister in India, employing hundreds of educated women in her government, and thousands as teachers and nurses, installing the first Dalit and Muslim judges in the state, selecting a Christian Prime Minister instead of a traditional Brahmin or Nair; and opening up public roads to all in Travancore, hitherto accessible only to high caste Hindus.

By the end of 1931, the Senior Maharani relinquished power and handed the mantle of state to her nephew Chithira Thirunal, the Junior Maharani’s son. By then relations between the sisters had deteriorated irreparably, with palace intrigue, black magic, and more vitiating the air at court. For the next many years, the Senior Maharani, despite her acclaimed services to the five million people of Travancore, lived under the vexing control of the Junior Maharani. British authorities noted that while the Senior Maharani was ‘popular and respected’ and ‘held in the greatest reverence and esteem throughout the state’, the Junior was ‘cordially hated’ by their subjects, and was a ‘jealous and masterful’ modern day Catherine de’ Medici. There was perhaps bias, for the Junior Maharani who showed great independence and held unorthodox views, but the man on the ground held her in fear, and not love.

In 1947, when India became independent, the Senior Maharani’s family sensed relief and freedom from control of the Junior Maharani. Her daughters moved to Bangalore and Madras (now Bengaluru and Chennai), leading new lives as ordinary citizens; they cooked their own food, drove their own cars, and brought up their children as regular citizens. In 1957, the Senior Maharani decided to leave her palace and renounce her royal past. From being ‘Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Maharajah, Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India and Senior Maharani of Travancore,’ she retired to Bangalore simply as ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’. From a palace with 300 servants, she moved into an ordinary bungalow with a staff of seven and spent the remainder of her days as a quiet recluse. She gave up her palaces to the people of Kerala; her summer palace is now with the Agriculture College; her official residence is a medical research institute; her beach resort was given to the ITDC.

Some years before her death, bedridden, she remarked wistfully with a stoic smile, to a visitor: ‘Once I had a kingdom, but it is gone. Then I thought the palace was mine but that is gone too. Then I thought I had this house, but now I can only say I have this room.’

In 1983 the Junior Maharani died in her stately palace in Trivandrum where she and her family had continued to reside as royalty. She was granted a state funeral by the Government of Kerala, attended by celebrities and politicians alike. In 1985, the Senior Maharani died in a general hospital in Bangalore. She was cremated at the Wilson Gardens Electric Crematorium, like just anybody else, surrounded by family members. She wrote many years earlier, ‘I have emerged a wiser woman learning that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self-seeker wins half pence.’

And thus ended the saga of the two Sethus, daughters of providence adopted and raised to princely ranks, with one dying as a nobody, faraway from the land she loved and served, and the other meeting her maker in the comforts of her palace, still a queen long after time dissolved her kingdom into the pages of history.


Winner of the 2017  Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Manu S Pillai is the author of the award winning book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’. The book can be purchased here. 


174 – Founder of the first Waldorf kindergarten in Karnataka

My mother, Lalitha Mandana. Madras (now Chennai), Tamil Nadu. 1958

Image and Narrative contributed by Jyotsna Mandana, Bengaluru

This is a photograph of my mother, Lalitha Mandana (née Belliappa) and it was taken around the time when she was 18 years old. Born on January 18, 1940 to Kodava (Warrior community of Coorg) parents in Tabora, Tanzania, my mother and her four siblings lived in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania or (formerly Tanganyika), till the age of 18.

My Tatha’s (grandfather) name, was Chendrimada Kuttappa Belliappa. He came from Madikeri, the capital of Coorg (now in Karnataka State). In 1919, at the age of 15, he ran away from home and managed to reach Bombay, where he bet on a horse and won Rs. 50. He immediately boarded a ship bound for South Africa and paid his boarding and lodging by working on the ship.

We don’t know how he survived till his 20s but at the age of 28, he returned to marry my grandmother, Biddannda Seetha Achaya who was a 18 yrs old from Pollibetta, South Coorg (now Mysore district). She was the youngest of seven children ( born July 12,1914) and had just completed high school – She was brilliant, but naive. She was happy to be married to Thatha so that she would get her new sarees as she was tired of wearing her sister’s hand-me-downs. Eventually my grandfather became the Chief Clerk in the East African Railways and Harbour, while my grandmother became a middle school teacher at the Aga Khan Girls High School.

My mother whom I call ‘Ma’ is the third born among her four siblings, her dark skin and dusky features always set her apart from the others. At the tender age of two, just after World War II, she was sent to India to live with her mother’s elder sister, for four years. The aunt had five children of her own, but included Ma as her own. My mother says she was usually left to herself, which in retrospect, she considers a blessing. A keen observer, Ma watched and absorbed the talents of her new mother who was an extremely skilled, kind and spiritual person.

At the end of four eventful years, my biological grandparents, returned from Africa to pick her up, but my mother announced that her adopted family was her family as she knew it and she did not want to return. Nonetheless, she went back home with them to Africa, where she started life anew, struggling to fit in with her own siblings. Things were tough for Ma there – she was aware of her darker skin, and the troubles it caused her – it wasn’t easy to fit in. My mother held the memories of her time in India close, with a decision to find a way back to the place she knew as home.

In 1946, Ma, a non-English speaker, was enrolled into St. Josephs Convent run by Swiss nuns, where she was introduced to the quasi Waldorf system of education. In the matter of a year, by the age of seven, she had grasped English. She learnt to knit and crochet by the time she was eight, and stitched her own clothes at the age of 11. By 12 she had exhausted all the stitching sets imported from England and graduated to using the sewing machine. By 13, she was perming her own hair and her friends. She steadily acquired several skills, but was not encouraged to question any of them, so much of her learning took place by challenging herself. At the age of 15, she watched a tailor cut and stitch a dress. When she returned home, she chopped her mother’s beloved voile sari and created a beautiful flared skirt, much to her mother’s horror.

Although, Ma had the opportunity to pursue medicine in England she chose to come back to  India and earned her own passage to India in 1958 at the age of 18. This photograph was taken around that time, a little after she reached India.

When she didn’t secure a seat in medicine, she pursued her next best love, art and went on to complete her MA in History of Fine Arts/Architecture/Sculpture and Painting, from Stella Maris College in Madras (now Chennai). Unlike what society considered appropriate in those days, she got married much later, at the age of 31 to my father, who is five years younger than her. She went on to do her Montessori training, followed by her B.Ed, and became the head mistress of a school with 600 hundred children and me (I was all of seven years old).

In the years after that, she went on to pursue her first love, healing & medicine and eventually learnt Homeopathy at the age of 39 and started her own free clinic when she was 42. Decades later, she became a teacher again when she founded Promise Centre Kindergarten in Bangalore, making us the first Waldorf kindergarten in Karnataka. I took over the reigns from her in 2009.

My mother has redefined a mother-child relationship through her parenting and grandparenting style. She maybe one among a handful from her generation who can even claim to have an amazing relationship with their child. We had conversations with each other that I never heard other children having with their parents and most times still don’t. She climbed trees and rocks with the children at the school until an accident left her with a broken leg at the age of 70. Although, the broken leg troubles her, she doesn’t let it get in the way of all that she loves to do, from parent education to being a core member on the board of trustees at Advaya Shaale, the second Waldorf Grade school in Bangalore (now Bengaluru, Karnataka).

Even today, my mother is dressed in her impeccably creaseless cotton kurtas and with the glint of a curious two year old in her eyes. Her positivity and composure are enviable. She has touched and inspired thousands of lives from the children to their parents in the course of running the kindergarten. However, if you compliment her, she will humbly say, “but I haven’t done anything yet.”

 


170 – Mixed marriages of the Indian Subcontinent and Africa

My wife's aunt & uncle. Circa 1930s. Kenya [Composited with an colour background at a later date]

My wife’s aunt & uncle. Circa 1930s-1940s. Kenya [Composited with colour at a later date]

Image & Text contributed by Krishan Lal, Kenya (with help from his son Dileep Nagpal)

This image is of my wife’s relatives in Kenya as a reference to the narrative below.

In the late 19th century, an enterprising and adventurous Parsi Indian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee left Karachi (now Pakistan) and sailed to Australia. As a house-to-house hawker, he managed to gain some knowledge of the English language and eventually migrated to East Africa in 1890. There, he established contact with British investors who were looking for some help to manage the planned Uganda Railways. After five years, Jeevanjee was awarded the contract to recruit Indian labourers from Punjab,  to build the Uganda Railways in Kenya  and the IBEAC (Imperial British East Africa Company) began building the railways construction from Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa.

Beginning 1891, thousands of the Indian ‘coolies‘  (today this word is considered a racial slur in many African countries), mainly Sikhs & Punjabis, were recruited for a three-year-contract to build Kenya Uganda Railways. Almost all of them came alone, leaving their wives in India.

One of the reasons why Indian labourers, instead of locals, were recruited was that the British faced severely hostility from the citizens of that country. The Indians on the other hand were there purely for economical reasons. They were also strong, tough and reliable hard workers and had previous experience with construction of building railways, roads, bridges and canals in India. In Kenya though, they had to face several hardships. Living in huddled groups in tents, they worked tirelessly to clear thick jungles, and break routes through hills and mountain stone with steel hammers and bare hands. Under harsh weathers, mosquitoes, snakebites, wild beast attacks, injuries and fevers were fervent. Hundred were dragged from their tents and eaten by Lions.

Amongst them was my maternal grandfather Makhan Ram Vadvae, a technically savvy man who came from Lahore, (now Pakistan) leaving his wife in India. He was appointed foreman and would check the rail tracks while seated on trolley pushed by fellow workers. His name in the labor force records is signed in Urdu as “Man eater of Tsavo”.

After the completion of railways in 1905, and the end of their contract – 51% of the workforce returned back to India, most in bad health, 8% of the work force died on job, 21% did not take their entitled return tickets and chose to stay in East Africa – setting up businesses along the railway lines, towns and cities. By year 1911, 12,000 Indians mainly Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Parsees (compared to 3,000 Europeans) were living in Kenya.  A good number of them married local African women, others married mixed blood women and settled in East Africa giving birth to four generations of people with Indian-Kenyan origin.  My maternal grandfather Makhan Ram too married a Kenyan woman, had children with her and settled in Kenya. He never went back to India.

While things have changed for the better over time, the colour and gene based racism was rampant at the time and with the exception of Parsees, within most other Indians. The mixed blooded children of Indian men who married local African were frowned upon. Rejected and segregated by Indians themselves, they had a terrible time trying to fit into their father’s communities, schools, neighborhoods, work places, temples and Gurudwaras. Some were treated so badly by the father’s families that it forced them to convert to Islam and Christianity – communities where they were received well and given equal place in society. Ironically, visually, majority of mixed blood children were of fair colour and beautiful features – skin-deep characteristics that many Indians preferred over any other.

My father Jagan Nath Nagpal too came to Kenya from Gujranwala, Punjab (now Partly Pakistan territory) around 1912 and began a tea stall at a railway station. Eventually he established a confectionery shop in the capital city, Nairobi. He married my mother, Maya Devi, Makhan Ram’s daughter. Two years after his marriage in 1914, he invited his elder brother from Punjab to Kenya, handed over the shop to him and decided to return to India.

Around 1938, when I was around five years old and my sister Krishna was 10, my father decided to return to Kenya. I remember the four of us sailed to Kenya in an over crowded dhow (carrying 300+ people) from Porbander, Gujarat to Mombasa. It was a perilous journey of three months, during which many people died at sea, sick with typhoid, diarrhea and malnutrition. When we landed ashore in Mombasa, most people due to being crammed on the dhow and sitting in postulate positions for weeks & months had forgotten how to walk – people were falling down, whilst others were walking backwards. Almost all children and some adults had lice in their hair.

Perhaps in India my father had gained more skills and in Kenya he became a skilled Halwai (sweets & dessert maker) who could make all kinds of delicious North Indian sweets. Later my parents had seven more children -Shakuntala, Baldev, Raji, Swarni, Subhash, Sukversha and Ashok.

Years later, my father took a huge loan with a heavy interest to pay his eldest daughter’s marriage dowry, which he was unable to pay. To supplement some family income, as soon as I finished Form 2 (half way into Secondary School), in 1947, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a Crane Driver with East African Railways & Harbours, Mombasa. Four years later at the age of 18, I married a 14-year-old beautiful young mixed blood lady Rampyari Kohli. Born in Kenya, she was the daughter of an African mother and a Kashmiri father.

After my father died in of a heart attack in 1951, I became the only support for the family. My wife and I had two boys and four girls. Then we adopted two more boys from my wife’s side of the family. All were born, bred and well educated in Kenya and overseas. Today most of them are living all over the world living in Australia, England, Germany and America. Some of them hold high positions as Bankers, Chartered Accountant, General Manager, University lecturers and directors.

My daughter and I are still live in Kenya, a country I call my home.


140 – “No one ever told me my own story.”

My Parents. Gurdial Singh and Rajkumari Berar.  p. Mainpuri, Lucknow, United Province. December 29, 1939.

My Parents. Gurdial Singh and Rajkumari Berar. p. Mainpuri, Lucknow, United Province. December 29, 1939.

Image and Text contributed by Soni Dave, Delhi

This picture was taken on December 26, 1939, the day my parents got married. I’m not sure of the location. It could be the Mainpuri District of Lucknow because I think my maternal grandfather was posted there at the time.

My father, Gurdial Singh Berar, an ace graduate of the College of Engineering Roorkee, stands here tough and tall with the talwaar (sword) in his hand, but he never even raised his voice in anger. And my mother Rajkumari may look meek and coy, whereas everyone knew her to be a very strong woman. I think they must have been in their early twenties. Together they made a perfect couple and it was one of the best marriages I have ever seen. I have been very lucky that I got to call them mummy and daddy, leading me to believe that it is not just some marriages that are made in heaven, but also parent and child relationships.

My father was a very attentive and loving father. He was well read, extremely self disciplined, a man of honor and respected punctuality of time. He was a self taught nutritionist and along with my mother, who would ensure it was cooked well, we always had nutritious food at the table. I remember he loved children and would take all the children of the family and me to the pool and teach us how to swim. Other kids at the pool would come to him too wanting to be taught. He was also a very hard working man, and I remember his last job before his health started failing was manufacturing furniture for the Asiad Games Village athlete homes.
My mother was one of the most efficient women I have ever known. In fact she was so efficient that she was nicknamed ‘intezaman‘ the organizer of the family. She excelled at embroidery, stitching, cooking, and was an excellent home-maker. I remember, she was also very quick tempered. My father used to joke with her that when angry she must count to ten before saying anything – to which she would say that counting until two was the most she could do.

They both loved me a lot. A lot.

My parents you see in this picture were not my biological parents. I was adopted by them as an infant, from my mother’s younger sister, my natural mother – whom I learnt to call auntie.
Auntie had come to her maternal home in Daryaganj, Delhi from their farm near Nainital (now in Uttarakhand)- where I was born on February 10, 1959. I had two older sisters. My biological father, Harpal Singh, whom I later called uncle, worked in the merchant navy and was sailing at the time.

My mother and father, twenty years into their marriage had had no children and so on the suggestion of my maternal grandmother, and a deep understanding between the two sisters, I exchanged hands. When auntie returned with my two older sisters, I stayed back with my new parents, my mother Rajkumari and my father Gurdial. I called them mummy & daddy.

I was loved like one can only imagine. But no one in the family ever mentioned my adoption. No one ever told me my own story and over the years I have had to piece it together all on my own.
I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, an old lady neighbour blurted it out. After some days I confided in my cousin (my real sister) who confirmed that it was indeed true. However, no grown up ever spoke to me about it and I had to try to make sense of it myself. It left me with deep insecurities and lack of confidence. Being the plainest of all the cousins in the family only worsened everything and chipped away further at my confidence.

I went to one of the best schools in Delhi – the Convent of Jesus and Mary, but I was never good at academics, and so when I turned 16 and didn’t make it through Senior Cambridge, I was required to take the exam again before the schools phased it out to be replaced by the new Plus 2 systems. One of the schools still with the Senior Cambridge system was was in Nainital and so my parents sent me there to prepare for and appear for my exams. My biological mother and I got to play mother and daughter for a whole year.

However, our biological relationship remained unaddressed, until one day, amidst tears we spoke of it. I remember thinking that I looked like her, I was like her in many ways. Our personalities were similar and I completely understood why she did what she did. I loved her with my heart and bore no grudges and I knew she loved me too. I was glad that we had talked but it didn’t necessarily resolve my insecurities.

Back at home in Delhi, we would visit my father’s (Gurdial) side of the family once a year, during my holidays. There too I was a stranger to my cousins who were very close to each other and met very often. But I never felt included and it led to more confusion and feelings of abandonment, which no matter how much my parents loved me, the sense of exclusions left me wanting.

As an adult, I found a great life partner, we had two beautiful children and have been very lucky to have wonderful life together. I also discovered that I may not be have been good at academics but I was good at the creative arts. In early 2014, with a desire to find some more resolve and belonging in my life, I decided to travel to the United States and meet old school mates as well as my fathers family. They were cousins who I would be meeting after almost 40 years. All older and grayer, but this time with no hesitations of acceptance, they opened their doors and hearts with nothing but warmth.

When I came back and was cleaning up some cupboards, this photograph appeared, sitting there in an old box of photographs. My mother and fathers wedding day – and I decided to engage with it and think about our lives – this time for longer. Then I picked up a paint brush and made a water-colour of this photograph (image), my first ever – tracing their presence and love again, because I know now that I belonged to them and they to me. They were the best match made for each other and me, in heaven.


112 – My foster father, my glorious friend, Rathindra Nath Tagore

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

My foster father Rathindra Nath Tagore, with his father Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta. (West Bengal) Circa 1935.

Image & Text contributed by Jayabrato Chatterjee, Kolkata

My earliest memories were borne back in Dehradun (now in Uttarakhand), where I spent my childhood with my mother, Meera Chatterjee, my maternal grandmother, Kamala Bisi and my Jethu, Rathi Jethu (Bengali term for father’s elder brother), Rathindra Nath Tagore. Jethu was Rabindra Nath Tagore’s second child & eldest son.

Those were the first eleven and most impressionable years of my childhood. I still remember the rattle of the Dehradun Express that would carry us back to our home in the valley, away from the bustle and noise of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Jethu had left his home in Calcutta to come and live in Dehradun with my family. It was Jethu, who had allotted me a garden patch in Mitali, our home at 189/A Rajpur Road, Dehradun and asked me to tend it with care. He even bought me gardening tools, a pair of sears and a watering can. And as I had held his finger tightly, he had led me through the nursery, pointing out names of flowers usually associated with an English garden – Phlox, Larkspurs, Hollyhocks, Ladies lace, Nasturtium, Sweet-peas, Crocuses, Azaleas and Narcissi.

Mitali our home was sheltered by the Himalayas, by the Shivalik ranges that were a riot of Mary Palmers, Crimson hibiscuses and sprawling lawns flanked by flower beds down five cobbled steps. I remember watching the shooting stars that raced across the sky at twilight. Mitali was Ochre in colour, with six large bedrooms, two kitchens, garages, servants’ quarters and a tin shed near the Mango and Lichi orchards where our cows Shyama and Julie – mooed and Koeli, the Tibetan terrier, barked her head off. Beyond the shed lay a wire-meshed chicken barn crowded with cackling Leghorns and a Black Minorca rooster who at the crack of dawn would awaken Ghanshyam, the mali (gardner) with a start. And pervading through the garden was, of course, Jethu’s voice, gently instructing the gardeners with a voice so civilised and kind that all were bound to pay attention to words spoken with equal measure to one and all.

Born on November 27, 1888, Jethu was sent by his father, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1906, to the University of Illinois to study Agriculture and where he was instrumental in starting the now famous Cosmopolitan Club. Jethu’s interests were varied and eclectic.

My strongest memories remain of him bent over a block of wood in the afternoons, by the light of a dull electric bulb, diligently inlaying it with intricate chips of ebony and ivory or shaping it into a beautiful jewellery box, a pen holder or a coffee table. He was usually assisted by a skilled and slightly cross-eyed Sikh carpenter named Bachan Singh – who would also let me chip away at a redundant wedge with a miniature saw and shape it into building blocks that I would later colour.

On my fifth birthday, Jethu presented me with a wonderful wooden steed he had made – a cross between a rocking horse and a miniature pony – complete with stirrups and a comfortable seat. He had placed him strategically on springs so that I could ride the foal to my heart’s content without falling off. For a while this charger became the love of my life and only if I was feeling generous would I share it with Bugga, the janitor’s son, who was my best friend. Bugga was snotty-nosed & mischief-laden who knew where the parrots would nest for the summer or where we could find caterpillars and tadpoles during the monsoons. He had also charmed members of Mitali by doing an impeccable act on Ravan, watched at the local Ramleela. I too would slip out at night, without my mother or Jethu finding out, with my ayah, Kanchi Ama, and walk at least two miles guided by the moon to the Ramleela grounds where the local servants metamorphosed into delectable actors. The Ramleela was certainly the high point of my Dusserah holidays when I came home from my boarding school and delighted in watching Langra Karesan, another servant, snivel through his performance as Sita in one of my mother’s old chiffon sarees.

I was hell-bent on becoming an actor too. So I’d sing my way through most of Balmiki Pratibha (an Opera penned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Jethu’s father) exclusively for Jethu’s pleasure. My reward was a set of wonderful wooden swords that he crafted for me and the next time we went to Calcutta, Bhola babu, who was the manager at Jorasanko, was instructed by Jethu to buy me a dacoit’s costume, complete with a pair of false mustachios, and take me to see the Great Russian Circus. On rain-filled evenings he would sit me on his lap, play his Esraj (Indian Harp) at Santiniketan, lovingly running the bow on the strings, and teach me to sing songs whose meanings I’m still discovering – Oi ashono toley; Roop shagorey doob diyechhi; Amaarey tumi oshesh korechho and Kholo kholo dwaar.

Winter holidays in Calcutta were never complete without a dinner with Ma and Jethu at Skyroom on Park Street and a special Sunday lunch at the Firpo’s on Chowringhee. My table manners – taught to me at Mitali – came in handy. It was Jethu who showed me the difference between a fish and a carving knife, between a salad and a quarter plate, a pastry and a regular fork; he showed me how to use the various items of the Mappin & Webb silver cutlery that had been arranged at table and insisted that I washed and wore clean clothes for dinner, ate my soup without slurping and consumed the rest of the meal with my mouth closed and a napkin spread over my lap. Lunch at home was typically Bengali, consisting of the usual rice, dal, shukto and a fish or meat curry. But dinner, sharp at 7.30 pm, was always European, served with flourish, item by item, by Jethu’s personal valet, Bahadur, at the formal dining room on Royal Doulton crockery. It was pleasure to see Jethu peel an apple at breakfast with great ceremony and elegance. Now when I look back, in fact every meal that I remember having with him was an art.

During my childhood it was very fashionable to host tea parties. Jethu had inducted Ma into sipping the most fragrant of Darjeeling teas – the delicately-scented Flowery Orange Pekoe. He was also a wonderful cook and often baked me a cake for my birthday. Some evenings, he would walk into the kitchen and stir up a mean Shepherd’s Pie and a fluffy mango soufflé. And when the orchards in Mitali had a surplus of Guavas, he would make the best Guava jelly that I have ever tasted.

A variety of celebrated invitees and house guests came to dinner – like Uncle Leonard (Leonard Elmhirst), Pankaj Mullick & Suchitra Mitra, legendary musicians, to scientist, Satyendra Nath Bose on his way to Mussoorie, Pandit Nehru (who often visited Dehra), Lady Ranu, Buri Mashi and Krishna Mesho (Nandita and Krishna Kripalani). I clearly remember the performance of a play, Pathan, by Prithviraj Kapoor and his troupe who had come to Dehra Dun. Jethu was invited to the show as Chief Guest and Ma and I had accompanied him. The next evening the players were invited to dinner at home. In the cast were Sati Mashi (whose daughter Ruma-di was then married to Kishore Kumar) and the very young and handsome Shammi and Shashi Kapoor who turned many feminine heads at the reception. But Prithviraj-ji, affectionately known as Papaji, insisted on sitting at Jethu’s feet throughout the evening, much to Jethu’s embarrassment. He just wouldn’t budge and kept saying, ‘How can I have the arrogance to sit next to Gurudev Rabindranath’s son?’ He dragged me by my hand and had me sit on his lap, ruffling my hair as he talked to other guests.

Jethu and Ma had formed a cultural organisation – Rabindra Samsad – and many plays and dance dramas by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore were performed by its members. Ma was a veteran actress, having played Rani Sudershana, (a name that Gurudev Tagore would address her by thereafter) in Rakta Karabi and Rani Lokeshwari in Natir Puja, all directed by Gurudev in Santiniketan. Ma was his favourite actress.

So watching Jethu too direct her in Bashikaran, Lokkhir Porikhha and Chirokumar Sabha was, for me, a treat. Ma as well, directed Natir Puja with my sister playing Ratnabali, Ritu Ranga & Bhanushingher Padavali and a children’s play, Tak-duma-dum, scripted by Jethu’s aunt, Jnanadanandini Debi, where I played the lead as the wily jackal! Rabindra Samsad  held regular musical soirees and showed Bengali films. My introduction to Satyajit Ray’s Debi (Devi) and Pather Panchali happened in the faraway Dehradun’s Prabhat cinema. Encouraged to participate in all the cultural events was for me, a huge education.

Jethu was also an ardent painter and spent long hours at his easel, working on beautiful water-coloured landscapes and delicate flower studies. Sometimes Ma painted along with him and also crafted many items via the complex art of Batik. My mother’s Batik parasols and slippers were greatly admired as were her exclusive batik stoles and sarees. I can still remember the smell of melting wax and feel my fingers stained again with several colours.

The relationship Ma shared with Jethu was not something that his father, Gurudev Tagore was aware of. Gurudev died in 1941 while their relationship must have begun somewhere around 1948. With accusing whispers Jethu was deserted both by his colleagues in Santiniketan and his family members. There was a 30-year age difference between Ma & Jethu but I would describe their relationship as being very respectful & tender. Having seen Ma and Jethu together and having grown up with them in Dehradun, I know what this relationship meant to them. Most of his life Jethu had felt lonely and misunderstood, but in Ma he had found a great companion.

One of Jethu’s other favourite hobbies was making perfumes that were later filled into the most delicate glass-blown bottles that I had ever seen. He’d gift Ma a different fragrance on her birthdays. Many a mornings would be spent combining the scents and concentrates of flowers like roses, juhi and mogra that came all the way from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He’d leave no stones unturned till he got the aroma right, pulling away at his cigarette – either Three Castles or John Peel or Abdulla Imperial. His perfume bottles became coveted possessions for all those who were lucky enough to receive them. Usually, after the Rabindra Samsad shows, there would be lively cast parties at Mitali and the actors and singers waited with baited breaths till Jethu gave them a bottle of scent as a parting present.

Around my Jethu, light-footed and non-intrusive, virtually like the fragrance of the golden champaka blossoms that he loved so dearly, an innate sense of aesthetics kept vigil. His impeccable sense of coutour, interior decor, landscaping and gardening lent to his persona.

The last ten years of his life and the first ten years of mine were, for both of us, absolutely golden. But when he died at the age of 73 in June of 1961, Mitali or even I could never be the same again without its kind and gentle prince, my beloved foster father. Yet, as I write today, I drift back to the enchantment that was my childhood spent in Jethu’s benign shadow. And in the splendoured story of my Ma and Jethu, I re-live the most civilized, glorious and compassionate friendship that I will ever care to remember.


27 – The first known girl rock band of India

My mother Anupa Nathaniel (right) with her closest friend Shalini Gupta, Delhi, Circa 1962

Image and Text contributed by Anisha Jacob Sachdev, New Delhi.

This picture with my mother Anupa Jacob (nee Nathaniel) and her closest friend Shalini was taken when they were in school at Convent of Jesus & Mary in Delhi. They would have been around 15 years old. My mother was a Rajasthani, from the small town of Nasirabad near Ajmer. Her father was orphaned when a plague hit the village, he and many others were then adopted by the British. Everyone adopted was converted to Christianity and given the last name ‘Nathaniel’. From Nathu Singh, my grandfather became Fazal Masih Nathaniel. He went on to become the Head of the English Language Department at Mayo College, Ajmer.

My mother married my father Philip Jacob, in 1968. He is a Syrian Christian  – whom she met while she was studying at school around the age of 15, he was studying at St. Columba’s School.

One of the most interesting parts of my mother’s life was that Shalini, some other friends and she, formed the first ever Delhi University‘s Girl Rock Band called “Mad Hatter” in their 1st year of college at Miranda House. My mother was the lead guitarist and singer. My father tells me that my mom also got to meet the Beatles through a personal acquaintance, when they performed, albeit privately at a family friend’s home in Delhi, in 1966.

My mother had four kids. She was also a piano teacher, and her youngest child and my youngest sister Arunima is autistic but an ace piano player and has performed Beethoven Music pieces with complete accuracy.

My mother suffered a cardiac arrest in 1982, and passed away in 1986. Shalini Gupta, my mother’s friend in the photograph (left) is now a psychologist in London.