logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

Letter Writing

180 – A family’s most prized and proud possession

My great grandfather, Maganlal Mistry, Sidhpur District, Bombay Presidency (now Gujarat). Circa 1920

Image and Text contributed by Hemant Suthar and family, Mumbai / Ahmedabad

This picture of my great grandfather Maganlal Mistry was taken in the 1920s and it is is one of the family’s most prized possessions – our connection to our roots. The photograph was taken to be sent to his brothers working in Ethiopia, Africa, and was hand colored with photo inks in 1937. It is interesting how the colouring is limited to his turban, we reckon it is because colouring of photographs was quite an expensive and sought after artistic skill at the time.

My ancestors belonged to a village called Samoda in the region of Sidhpur (now in Gujarat) and they were exceptionally skilled wood carvers, in-layers and carpenters. The early 20th century was a time when many men (and women) from the Indian Subcontinent went to Africa to find work and make their fortunes. At first, my great grandfather Maganlal’s two brothers followed suit. They travelled by boat to the shores of the African continent and they found work as carpenters in the north east region of Africa, the Ethiopian Empire called Abyssinia at the time. The money was good, and they invited my great grandfather to join them there. However, Maganlal chose to stay on at home and began working as a government contractor building schools. Soon his work extended to several villages nearby. Maganlal, my great grandfather was not educated but he had learnt to write his name for signing building contracts. In his later years, he was made a member of P.W.D. (Public Works Department) Sidhpur office, and worked on large building contracts.

What we know of this photograph is that Maganlal was in constant touch with his brothers and they sent him pictures they had taken in Africa. Inspired by those photographs, he went to a local photo studio and asked for his picture to be taken so he could send it to his brothers. What we see in his hand is a wooden ‘folding scale’ – an important tool of his trade that he insisted be captured in the photograph.

Then a young man, Maganlal got married to a beautiful woman named Heera ben. She was a skilled cook and would teach other women to cook. Together they had two sons and a daughter. As he rose in influence and wealth around the district, he was made a member of the Caste Naat, or Panchayat of the village (a five member local government system). Anyone who went abroad was declared an outcast and upon their return, they would have to appease the village by offering a feast to the Panchayat and extended family, ask for their forgiveness to be re-included in the cast. All community problems were solved by calling upon the Panchayat at night, on a suitable day to resolve disputes such as matrimonial and monetary conflicts, quarrels between brothers and decisions of re-including and out-casting of people returning from foreign lands. All the while they were entertained with breakfast, lunch, dinner and other comforts funded by the parties involved in the dispute.

Maganlal’s brothers in Ethiopia also did well. One of them, in fact, rose in the ranks to became a secretary to the King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and worked on the Ivory inlaying and carving of the royal throne for the king. It seems that at onset of the Second Italo Ethiopian War in 1935, Maganlal’s brothers however decided to return home for good to Sidhpur. We are told that they hid their earnings (gold coins) in their tools and mattresses. My great grandfather helped them resettle and get re included in village. Soon the brothers too found themselves a good repute and became influential heads of the community.

Maganlal was a visionary man and invested his earnings in gold, real estate, shares of textile mills and a life insurance. We are told that he was very curious person. He would seek and share all kinds of knowledge with his children and make toys for his grand children. His lifestyle however remained simple and was usually found worshiping in the morning and rest of the time he worked.


142 – The morning walks at Princeton University

Photo-Einstein-Dad_low

Albert Einstein and my father, Professor Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo. Princeton. New Jersey, USA. 1955

Image and Text contributed by Sudhir Gurtoo, Pune

My father Prof. Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo was born in 1917 and came from a Kashmiri Pandit Family. They lived in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. His father was an Economist and always encouraged everyone in the family to study more. After completing his own education my father began to teach at the University of Lucknow in the late 1930s. He then studied at the London School of Economics  (LSE) in 1945 had a chance to witness the World War while studying in Europe. A few years later, in 1952, he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to study at the The University of Princeton, New Jersey as a Research scholar.

His certificate from LSE, in my possession, has no Seal on it because it was issued at the time when World War II had broken out and some formalities were left for later. The footnote on the Certificate reads “If this certificate is returned to the University after the War it will be replaced by a Certificate under the Seal of the University”. I wonder if I do try now, will they honor it?

At LSE, my father, whom we called Dad, completed his Bachelor of Science (Economics) at the London School and was advised by his mentors to try for PhD at the very prestigious Princeton University in USA. He got through and began to pursue his Phd in International Trade. Princeton was a very exciting place at the time, and several great scholars and scientists of the time like Albert Einstein, lived as scholars and researchers on campus.

My Dad from a very young age, was very particular about healthy habits and was very fond of walking. He believed that an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day and the easiest way to ensure a healthy mind in an able body. Another person who believed that same was Albert Einstein. Einstein’s daily routine began with a leisurely walk from his house, at 115 Mercer Street, to his office at the institute and Dad would now-and-then bump into him early in the morning while walking the beautiful Princeton campus. He remembered that over short conversations they shared a robust sense of wit and humour.  This image was probably photographed by one of Dad’s colleagues who would also be on his walks. Dad used to say that this was perhaps one of the last photographs where Albert Einstein was seen smiling and healthy because he passed away in April of 1955, a few months after this photograph was taken.

My father had taken a tough call to go to USA for pursuing further Studies. He was married now and had to convince my mother Kiran on how keen he was to receive a Phd from The Princeton University and so my mother agreed to stay back with her in-laws in India. Dad would regularly write letters to her. Since communication at the time was mainly letters sent through US Mail, they would arrive only a few weeks later. My mother would reply back and await his next response. Besides the letter content, she says, she “would look forward to the beautiful stamps pasted on the cover”, and would lovingly collect all of them.

My father got the opportunity to interact and study under several well known scholars during his studies. In London his mentor was the well known economist Harold Laski and at Princeton it was Jacob Viner, one of the most inspiring economists of the time in USA. I still possess a letter written on 27 August 1952 by his Professor and mentor Jacob Viner. According to Dad he was considered to be a tough man and prospective students were terrified to be under him. In the letter, Prof. Viner had made an exception, as a special case, to let father join his courses a little later than scheduled, as the journey on the Ship meandering its way from India would take around 4-6 weeks to reach.

After completing his research and now a Phd Doctor, my father returned to India and joined the American embassy in New Delhi. But he didn’t take to work very well and decided to return to the noble profession of Teaching. He was offered a role in the formation of Birla Arts college (now BITS Pilani) and set up the Social Sciences and Studies wing.

Interestingly, while studying at XLRI, Jamshedpur in 1986, I chanced upon a book in the Library – India’s Balance of Payments, 1920-1960 and was pleasantly surprised to see the Authors name- “Professor D N Gurtoo”. I had no idea that my father had written a book that I learnt later, was considered an important reference for Economists, even today. The book, I found out still sells at a price of $17 at Amazon. I am not sure what happened to the Royalties of the book because I don’t think my father or I ever heard from its Publisher S. Chand on the matter.

 


133 – “My grandparents were staunch political rivals”

My grandparents' wedding. Gaya, Bihar. 1956

My grandparents at their wedding. Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh 1956

Image and Text contributed by Richa Srivastava, Mumbai

My grandmother, Sushila Sahay whom we called Nani, was born in Jila (District) Hoshangabad in 1926 in the Central Provision, now known as the state of Madhya Pradesh. A daughter of a Forest officer, she was brought up in Dehradun in Uttar Pradesh. When she was 13 years old, Nani heard that Mahatama Gandhi was visiting Mussoorie and she travelled to hear him speak. Heavily influenced by Gandhi’s words, she met with him and declared her wish to be involved his Ashram, the Sabarmati Ashram. However, Gandhi recommended that she finish her education first. She heard him out, but to feel associated with the movement, she began to wear only Khadi clothes, worked to uplift the Harijan groups, who were considered Untouchable in the conservative caste system of India. And when she finished her Bachelor’s degree, she did joined the Ashram. However, by then Gandhi has been assassinated.

My grandfather, Dayanand Sahay, whom we called Nana, was born in 1928, in a village called Bhadvar in Bihar to a conservative family. By the time he grew up he had already lost many siblings to the fight for freedom. He became a Sarvodaya Activist, that propagated Gandhi’s political philosophies. Later, he joined the Shakho Deora ashram in Gaya district, a branch of the Gandhi ashram established by Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly referred to as JP or Lok Nayak (people’s leader).

In the 1950s, my grandmother would travel to the ashram in Gaya with a few other women and that is where my grandparents met. At the Gandhi Ashram however, every member was considered a brother or a sister and in the beginning she also tied a Rakhi (symbol of brotherly love & protection) to my grandfather, considering him an elder brother. So for my maternal grandparents to gradually fall in love may have surprised or shocked many. Anyway, in 1956, they got married. They both only wore Khadi and as a token of dowry (as was the custom) he took only Rs. One. My grandfather’s father, I am told, was very unhappy with his son’s inter-caste marriage and declared to disown him. Nana was even coerced into attending a village panchayat meeting meant to dissuade him from marrying Nani, but he wouldn’t listen. Eventually the family came around and blessed the wedding.

Over time, JP and my grandparents  became close friends and associates. They became actively involved with politics. They worked with and supported JP when he led the opposition against the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in the 1970’s, calling for her resignation, and a program of social transformation, which he termed Sampoorna kraanti (Total Revolution). Instead, Indira Gandhi proclaimed a National Emergency in 1975 and subsequently, JP, several leaders and his party members including my grandparents, were all thrown into jail.

When Janata Party was voted into power, and became the first non-Congress party to form a government at the Centre, Nani who had by now become its member, became the Home Minister of Bihar for one year from 1977 to May 1978. She resigned the same day as her first grandchild, my brother, was born, and so she also missed his birth.

What I consider the most interesting part of my grandparent’s lives is that they also became political rivals, with my grandmother joining the Janata Dal Party as an MLA and my grandfather who had very early on joined the Congress. In fact, in 1989, when VP Singh became Prime Minister, was also the year that Nani stood for elections representing Janata Dal Party while my Nana supported the opposition, Congress (that eventually won). It is amazing that their relationship stood the test of political and professional rivalry, and we sometimes wonder how they even managed to work around that. Having said that, my grandmother was an idealist and my grandfather a pragmatic man, they both encouraged and respected each other and there never seemed to be any ego problems.

My grandfather or Nana went on to serve three terms as member of the parliament. He emerged as a Kingmaker for several established Politicians who would go to him for money, encouragement or advice. Nana was the first person to make pre-stressed concrete sleepers, now used by the railways for reasons of safety, speed enhancement. Inclined with a socialist attitude, he also decided to share his sleepers formulae with other businessmen. He rose in position to become a member of the Rajya Sabha, however he passed away in a car accident in Gaya in 2002.  Nani, even at a very old age, continued to serve people in her own several ways,  and was deeply concerned about the country’s emotional and intellectual health. I remember, she would dictate to us letters of grievances to the president and the prime-minister. To my family and I, my grandparents were a truly a great team and a couple to reckon with.


105 – “A friend from my childhood I had never met”

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

Letter & Text contributed by Denzil Smith, Bombay

This letter carries with it an amazing story that always has me grin ear to ear with joy.

My family are Anglo Indians and until a few years ago lived in a family bungalow in Ville Parle in Bombay. My father Benjamin John Smith was a Customs officer in Bombay and perhaps one of the few honest black sheep amongst the white embroiled in dishonest deeds. To get relief from tough days at the office, my father would find release with music. He was adept at both reading and writing music, played several instruments and when opportunity called he even travelled with the famed Paranjoti Choir all over the world.

At one such opportunity he travelled to Tours in France with the choir in 1966. The members of the choir were usually put up by local classical music aficionados at their homes in each city; and a certain Dr. Boulard and his family were to be my father’s kind hosts in Tours.
The day my father reached the Doctor’s mansion, eagerly awaiting him at the gate was the Doctor’s son, a 6 year old French boy, Jean, who had waited for my father in anticipation of seeing an Indian for three whole days. 
At first sight and to his shock the boy ran inside and wept copiously to his father, complaining “Where are his feathers!?” Clearly my brown father in a suit and tie was not the “Indian” he was expecting.

Despite the initial disappointment, my father and Jean became very fond of each other and when he returned to India, dad told me that Jean reminded him of me, that I would really get along with him, and Jean would write to me and I should reply. Jean and I soon embarked on establishing a pen-pal relationship writing letters to each other. I was curious about France and he about India and our lives. He would write me in French and I in English. Finding a french translator in Bombay at the time not an easy task but I had one at home, my father. Later Jean began writing in English which he was learning while studying to become a Doctor.

Over the years we wrote several letters to each other. In some letters I would find that Jean had packed in half used pencils and I always wondered why he would send me those as presents. As time passed, somewhere through those years our letters became infrequent and we lost touch.

Many years later in early 2011, I was travelling with a theatrical production all over Europe and also to Tours. I remembered Jean and pestered my manager to trace his whereabouts. All I knew about him was that he had become a Doctor and his parent’s address that was well etched in my memory.

Before our performance in Tours, my manager took me aside to say he had a surprise. Back stage was not Jean as you would expect but his mother, Mrs. Boulard who spoke with me in French via a translator. I could tell she was cautious about me and wasn’t about to start believing my stories about some letters and my friendship with Jean until I mentioned a family fact that very few people knew about. Astounded, she suddenly broke into English, albeit still a little cautious. She wouldn’t reveal her son’s whereabouts; instead she insisted that I leave my number with her, for her son to return the call.

With no news from Jean, and ready to leave to perform the play in Le Mans, a city 200 Kms away from Paris, I finally received a phone call and was completely overjoyed to hear a voice that said it was Jean. For two whole hours we chatted away excitedly, catching up on our lives and he was going to drive down to Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris where I was performing two days later, with his girlfriend to meet with me.

It was one the most emotional and joyful moments of my life, to meet a close friend from my childhood I had never met, in our conversations we also discussed our letters and I asked him the question I had wanted to for years. “Why the half used pencils?” His answer was that he was told that India was a very poor country and he sent me the pencils because he assumed I couldn’t afford them! We laughed a lot and recollected much of our childhood and news of our families. It was simply a great great day.

A few months ago, Jean sent me this letter that I had written to him when my father passed away. It immediately reminded me of the time that was indeed very vulnerable, and the person I knew whom I could express it with was Jean.
The personalised letter-head this letter and many others were written on, was an earned luxury. It was a marketing promotion of a very popular chewing gum brand called A1, whose exchange offer was – personalised stationary for filling up an album with their wrappers that had images of country flags, cars, ships and aircrafts. It was a huge rage at the time for children my age in Bombay.

It is incredible how life is dotted with amazing presents, be it with a great father, incredible music, theatre, half used pencils, personalised letter-heads, chewing gums, and most magnificently an unexpected reunion of a grand friendship with Dr. Jean Christophes Boulard; with whom I am in touch yet again, on email.


76 – “I lied to the Prime Minister of the country.”

A reply letter from the Sixth Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi to me. New Delhi. December 1, 1985

Letter and Text contributed by Swati Bhattacharya, Gurgaon

Blame it on my only child-ness if you must, but I love famous people loving me. I like provoking intimacy. But only from the jet-setting beau monde. I crave intimacy from people who have no business to get intimate with me. After coming back from school (Delhi Public School R.K.Puram), and doing the stuff I had to do, I’d sit down and think of writing to someone.

The first person I had written to was Hiroko Nagasaki, a Japanese 13 year old swimmer who had swept the Asian Games in 1983. She and I became pen-pals for the next two years. She’d send me paper stickers, perfumed erasers and then one day in school somebody stole my Hiroko box.

Traumatic as it was, I quickly recovered because by then I had received a flowery handmade-paper letter all the way from 22, Zaman Park, Lahore, PakistanImran Khan, the famous cricketer, had written to me. The letter became my raison d’etre for a while. The fact that love does find a way, the fact that the letter had 18 red flowers printed at the back, and the fact that it had been signed as ‘Imran‘ and not ‘Imran Khan‘, to me it was a sign of a cosmic connection. We were meant to be and all that…Anyway, I lost this letter in a crowded Mudrika bus, while doing my nth show and tell.

The letter I am sharing with you is one that still lives with me. Born out of jealousy, it got written in the November of 1985, when newspapers were full of Rajiv Gandhi writing to a Sri Lankan kid. The TV cameras had gone loooking for her and captured her big 100 watt grin much to my annoyance!

I wrote a letter then and there. I lied and said it was my 3rd letter to him. I vented…and wrote that “just because I am too young to vote, my letter had not been replied to”. Next I know is this letter arrived, in a huge envelope with the PMO seal. Even though this is a letter from the Prime Minister to a girl in 10th Grade, I found everything in here. Every emotion. Every truth. Later when I made a ‘Thank You’ card for him, Sonia Gandhi, his wife, sent me a note back on that. In one month I had received 3 letters from the Gandhis.

The uncanny thing is, when I joined HTA (Hindustan Thompson Advertising, now JWT Advertising) as a copy-writer in 1992, my first assignment on PEPSI, was to write to Michael Jackson and ask him to come to India. My client delivered the letter to him personally. I was told, Michael had read it and kept it safely with him.