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.
Image & Text contributed by Soheb Ahmed Baba, New Delhi
The man in the photograph above is my grandfather Faizullah Baba. Standing left is my grand father’s eldest son, my uncle, Abdullah, age 7, and on the right is Abdullah’s cousin Majid.
During the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his advisers fled Tibet with the help of the CIA and were given asylum by the Indian Government. While the world press published stories of strain in Indo-China relationships, very few threw light on the families that followed the Dalai Lama and fled from Tibet to India in the subsequent months. My grandfather and his family were few of the many that also fled to India to seek a better and peaceful life after the uprising. Our family, however, weren’t Buddhists but Muslim minorities living in Tibet and were often referred to as “Ka- chee” which literally means Kashmiri or Kashmir. One of the reasons that my grandfather also decided to flee was because he sensed Islam being suppressed by the Chinese Government and felt India to be more secular and comforting.
Historically, our ancestors were from Kashmir. On one hand, they were traders who would travel between Kashmir and Lhasa to exchange goods, and on the other, they preached the teachings of Islam. Many community traders married local Tibetan women forming a fusion of cultures and resulting in the gradual growth of the Tibetan-Muslim community in Tibet.
It was important for our ancestors that the young were educated in the lessons & practices it boasted and there were a few madrasas in Lhasa but these institutes were limited to religious education. My grandfather instead wanted his kids to gain more knowledge and decided early on (before the uprising) to send the young boys all the way to Delhi, in India, to study in a school founded within Jamia Millia Islamia.
What fascinates me about this picture and the story, are the journeys young Abdullah and his cousin Majid, made each time they crossed over to the Indian border to study and to return during vacations. From Lhasa, they would hitch a ride with the traders, trekking through the rough terrains until the border, and then use public transport into India. Sometimes they would make a pit stop at Darjeeling, West Bengal and carry on till Delhi to attend school. They would embark on this journey back and forth each time they visited home in Lhasa.
Occasionally, my grandfather, Faizullah, would make the same journey to go and pick them up from Delhi. This photograph was taken during one of those journeys. The well ironed collared shirts and half trousers with a book in hand were perhaps important props to display at the time because quality education in Tibet was rare and only a few attained an English education.
The separations and the hard journeys must have taken a toll on both Abdullah & his parents but my dad says it was these characteristics of my grandfather that he greatly admired – His inner strength, his will power to let go of problems and his faith in the almighty. Maybe this is why my father, his siblings & cousins were encouraged to travel to far out places and pursue their dreams.
By 1962, the Indian government granted the Kachee community permission to settle in India and many of my relatives began a new life in Delhi, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, Gangtok, Kashmir and Srinagar. My grandparents themselves earned a living by selling garments at one point. Abdullah, my uncle in the picture, took up teaching as a full-time profession in Kargil, Ladakh for most of his adult life. He passed away in Srinagar, Kashmir, at the age of 62.
Today, 57 years later after this photograph was taken, I, a grandson of this community is writing this testimony in Delhi, the capital of India. My sister, our cousins and I are the third generation born and brought up in this country and a city that we now proudly call home.
Image and text contributed by Samant Sahu, Mumbai
This picture was taken at the Meena Bazaar Photo studio in Kesinga (Orissa) and it has my grandparents Jagajiban and Kanak Sahu with their fourth son Shwetabahan.
My grandfather Jagajiban was from Bagad Kesinga, Kalahandi district in Orissa (now Odisha) and was the eldest in the Sahu family followed by four younger sisters and a brother. Even as a 10th standard high school dropout he somehow managed to get a job as a government teacher and taught mathematics and science to primary school students. He got married at the age of 20 to my grandmother, Kanak. As a young boy, Jagajiban was interested in serving society and was a renowned name in his village Bagad for his contributions towards the development of his fellow villagers.
In 1967, he happened to meet with an Ayurveda physician in the near-by forest. The physician was looking for a herb to prepare a medicine and after few minutes of interaction, Jagajiban discovered that he had written Rasayana Kalpadruma, an ayurvedic book that proposed the ultimate solution for youthfulness. Jagajiban returned home impressed and influenced by the science of Ayurveda. So much so that in 1968 he convinced his wife that he must leave with the physician to Berhempur to learn the art and science of Ayurveda practices. Over time he garnered an in-depth knowledge about Ayurveda and herbs that could cure some of the most dangerous and infectious diseases. In 1971, he returned to his village and began practicing in his village, offering ayurvedic treatments for free. He was famous for treating people with snake & scorpion bites and was believed to cure people just by chanting mantras.
One of the foremost contributions to the country by Jagajiban was when India was in the midst of the Sino-Indian war in 1962. The papers were abound with news that the government of India had spent much of its money on war and was in deep crisis. Jagajiban decided to do something about it and marched across Kalahandi district to create awareness among the villagers. He asked for their help to save the country resulting in contributions in gold and money from farmers and villagers. He also donated much of his own personal wealth. When the government chose to honour his contributions, he denied it – saying that it was only his duty.
The people of Bagad have now established a botanical garden named the Tengra Garden that is used for research in Ayurveda and is managed by Jagajiban’s son, my father. My grandfather Jagajiban Sahu passed away on February 4, 2016.
Image and Text contributed by Aparna Pandey, Mumbai
This is a photograph of my grandparents Champa Tai and Vasant Rao taken shortly after they got married. On the right is an invitation to my grandmother’s wedding in 1941. It has been carefully preserved by the family and was handed over to me by my mother recently. I treasure it, not because of the sentimental reasons, but because it tells a story of far greater significance.
This wedding invite is unique because it proudly announces the bride’s educational qualifications, right next to her name. You have to keep in mind, that women’s education at that time in ancient India was almost non-existent.
My grandmother had decided quite early on that she will be educated first and then get married. As a child, she lost both her parents very early and was brought up by her two elder brothers who completely understood and encouraged her dream.
However, there was a problem – There was no school for a young brahmin Maharashtrian girl to study in. The brothers got her to Poona (now Pune) where the well-known social reformer, Maharshi Karve had started a school for girls, as well as an ashram where young widows could live and learn. This concept was alien and completely norm shattering for the brahmins of Poona leading to the resistance to opening such a school to be set up in the main city. Maharshi Karve had no choice but to set up the school on the outskirts of Poona. He braved all odds and went ahead with his mission of educating women. There wasn’t even a road to get there, so the teachers and students made a path through the fields to reach the school.
My grandmother Champa, was amongst the very first ‘Kumarikas’ (young unmarried girls) to actually live in this ashram from the tender age of nine. The family was progressive and agreed that it was indeed important for a girl to be educated. At the end of it, she earned the princely degree of GA that stood for ‘Gruhita Aagamaa‘ a Sanskrit title which could loosely translate to a BA degree today.
Luckily my grandmother got married into an educated family. My grandfather, the groom Vasant Rao was an MSC in Zoology himself and went on to do his Phd. He later taught at Elphinstone College in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his father was a doctor who had educated himself in London. They were very happy to welcome this qualified girl into their family.
Several years and two kids later, while managing a large joint family in Bombay, my grandmother did her Masters and then a one year course, equivalent of a B.Ed. She taught English and Marathi to the ‘metric’ students in Dyaneshwar Vidyalaya in Wadala, Bombay, for 15 years. She was highly revered by her students.
In the 16th year of her career she gave it all up. My grandmother had to visit her son in the USA, that year and considering she would be gone for three months, her integrity could not allow the students suffer because of her absence. She decided to take on extra teaching classes and made sure that she completed the important portion for her students, and then she simply quit. The principal was shocked. If she took leave, then they would have to look for a temporary teacher to take the classes, and temporary teachers were not easily available and neither did they put in their best because they were after all, temporary.
The principal told her that the pay scales were rising that year and that should she stay in the job and benefit from it. The pension would be higher too. But my grandmother would have none of it. She did not want her students to suffer on account of her. He pleaded but to no avail. They did not want to lose their best teacher. But she did not want to be unfair to her students. It needs to be said that my grandparents came from a middle-class Maharashtrian family and money was important. It must have needed a lot of gumption to be able to make this decision.
For years, my grandmother’s students came to share their joys and successes with her. She did not suffer fools and did not hesitate to give people a piece of her mind if she felt that there was reason to. She had the most open mind where no topic was taboo. My grandmother Champa Tai, was a woman ahead of her time. I am proud to have known her. On this woman’s day in 2016, I salute her, for following her dreams and always standing up for what she believed in.
Image and Text contributed by Nargis Jahan, Karachi.
My husband Fehmeed was born and brought up in Lucknow, and spent his early years darning cloth at his father’s shop in Hazratganj. He would often tell me about his struggles in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he moved to in 1965, while in his mid-20s, to find better work. He also spoke about the gruesome violence he witnessed between Hindus and Muslims there, how it shook him, and prompted him to move to Karachi, where his paternal relatives lived at the time. After migrating to Karachi, he found work at a shop selling carpets and a few years after, when some mutual relatives arranged our match, we got married in 1974.
In this picture, Fehmeed and I were about eight months into our marriage, and still getting to know each other. He would take me out on dates a lot, and frequently to Karachi’s Clifton Beach. This is a photograph from the time when Fehmeed took me out for our first photo shoot together to a studio on Tariq Road, a famous shopping district in Karachi (now Pakistan). He wanted it photographed so he could send it back to his home in Lucknow, India, to relatives who had not been able to attend our wedding. “What kind of a picture is this?!” my father growled when he saw it and did not allow us to send this photograph. Eventually, we sent another one where I am mostly covered in a burqa.
Karachi was a completely different place then. Couples would be seen going out a lot more. There was a lot less violence. The street outside the photo studio where this was clicked was a popular tourist spot, and many foreigners would be seen sitting around at restaurants here. The pant-suit I am wearing, was stitched for me by a cousin who lived in Saudi Arabia. Such suits were in fashion in Saudi at the time, so he got about five or six of these for me. The goggles were a gift from another cousin in Lahore.
Image and Text contributed by Subhrajyoti Chakrabarti, Bangalore
This is a picture of my mother Papia Chakrabarti. She was born to an eye surgeon in a wealthy family of Calcutta (now Kolkata). The family was conservative and girls were not allowed to interact with men outside of their family or even dress up stylishly, as it was considered to be a taboo. At the age of 20, with an arranged match, she got married to an air force officer, my father, Wing Commander M.K Chakrabarti. By then she was a BA in Psychology from Vidyasagar College under the Calcutta University and could speak three languages, Bengali, Hindi and English.
My mother told us that when she first went to my father’s Air Force station posting in Deolali (Maharashtra), she got a cultural shock. All social interactions in the Defense Forces (across genders) encouraged dressing up with style and interactions were more free and joyful. It was the complete opposite of what she had experienced in her formative years. Nonetheless, she adapted to the changes and embraced the Defense Forces culture. She dressed up in style, and hosted perfect parties.
My mother was also a great singer of classical and contemporary Hindi music, and that too without any formal training. She was invited by several people to perform at their events and parties across all my father’s postings. In Chandigarh, she was awarded the title ‘Nightingale of the Station’ at the High Ground Air Force station, for three consecutive years (1983-1985). Despite all the recognition, she was adept at all her responsibilities. She looked after her mother-in-law and brought us all up well. My wife is also
My wife who is also a classical music lover, led to she and my mom sharing a wonderful bond via music, and they would often sing together. A couple of years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and by last July, the Cancer had spread to her lungs. She had the resilience to fight, but unfortunately we lost her. Even in her last days she taught us that one should fight till death and one should always have high thinking, but simple living.
Image and Text contributed by Jenny Mallin, Berkshire, England.
“Rai, jeera, huldi..” she would whisper under her breath whilst counting the ingredients on her fingers. Cooking came naturally to my mother, but occasionally she would open the pantry door and out would come a huge ledger book (image link), whereupon she would leaf through the pages until she found the recipe she was looking for. With no title on the cover to distinguish it from the other cookbooks, the only distinctive thing I can recall is that each page was so delicate and fragile that it would snap like a popaddam (indian crisp made of gram flour) and therefore it was out of bounds for us children – this book was just too precious to lose.
When I did manage to get my hands on the book officially, this most unglamorous book with its ochre, faded pages bespattered with sauces and flavours revealed several recipes handwritten in copperplate script by my great, great, great grandmother Wilhelmina dating back to 1850. Turning the pages one could see the handwriting style change over time, and evidence of how over five generations, each one of my grandmothers passed the book on to their next generation, offering us a chance to have a glimpse into a fascinating time in history, “the days of the Raj”, when the Indian subcontinent was under British rule.
My family’s connection to India began six generations earlier in 1775, in Yorkshire, England. My great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Hardy, was born into a weaving family in Mirfield, a small but important industrial town with a population of 2000 people. The area was called the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire.
In 1794, Britain declared war on France and a 19-year-old Benjamin Hardy enrolled as Private No. 77 with the newly formed 1st Battalion of the 84th Foot regiment of the British Army. One year later, Benjamin married Frances Sheard in Mirfield and he and his regiment dutifully sailed to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).
Sailing to the Indian coastline in 1798, Benjamin and his regiment would stay on in India for the next 25 years with postings in Madras, Bombay, Goa, Kathiawar, and Kutch. There were also detachments sent to the Island of Perim in the Red Sea, Aden and Mauritius where they participated in the capture of the island from the French.
Benjamin’s last posting was to be in Bangalore. His regiment had been stationed there for four years and it seems that he also decided to bring his wife Frances over from England, for in 1816 she bore him a son Joseph (my great, great, great grandfather in the image above). Three years later, Benjamin’s regiment was disbanded and asked to return home to England, but instead Benjamin chose to stay in India and was discharged from the British Army due to ill health. He was only 44 years old and suffering chronic rheumatism.
Benjamin, his wife Frances and young son Joseph, settled down to live the rest of their lives out in India. However, Benjamin passed away four years later, on December 23, 1823 and Frances and her son Joseph continued to live in Bangalore. Joseph became a schoolmaster by profession in Mysore, in 1833, when an English School was opened for the first time in Mysore. At the age of 28, Joseph married Wilhelmina Sausman, in St. Mark’s Church in Bangalore.
Wilhelmina was only sixteen when she got married. She was born in Vellore, Madras on September 12, 1829 and records suggest that she was Anglo-Portuguese because her mother’s name was Louisa Dias, a common Portuguese name used in the Portuguese colonies of Goa and the west coast of India.
This photograph of my great, great, great, grandparents, schoolmaster Joseph and his wife Wilhelmina was taken in the early 1860s (in their mid 30s/early 40s) by studio photographers Orr & Barton, who were based in South Parade, Bangalore. It is the oldest photograph in our family collection.
During their marriage, Wilhelmina gave birth to eight children, but as often was the case those days, only three survived. The others were lost as babies and infants to the widespread pandemic of cholera that had killed around 15 million people by the 1860s. Their three surviving daughters were named Ophelia, Florence and Topsy. Ophelia, their eldest child was born in 1855 and is my great, great grandmother.
Wilhelmina’s notes and my own research suggests that for any memsahib settling in India was an overwhelming, even exciting experience but also thwarted with difficulties. Aside from the unrelenting heat, the major problem was in the hiring of servants, and in finding a cook who would be willing to touch the different meats that wouldn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. A Muslim servant for instance, would not touch pork, nor serve wine, or remove dirty plates from the table or wash them. Hiring a Hindu was also not easy, as they would not handle beef, fish, poultry, eggs or alcohol and the very strict practitioners would also refrain from onions and garlic.
It’s quite possible that Wilhelmina, like hundreds of other European wives and brides followed Mrs. Isabella Beeton ‘s bestselling victorian guide, the Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as another publication that gave detailed instructions to European women on effective household management in India. She must have felt it good sense to write all her recipes in one book which could then be given to the cook to follow and perhaps even improve upon. Her Christmas cake recipe shown here, is also annotated by my grandmothers and cooks after.
Generations after, this ‘more than 150 year old’ recipe book now lies with me, and I ponder over it ever so often with great personal as well as academic interest.
The contributor of this image and narrative is researching Anglo-Indian recipe names & cooking terms, and would appreciate any leads on the subject. She is also due to publish a book on Wilhelmina “A Grandmother’s Legacy – a memoir of five generations who lived through the days of the Raj”.
Image and Text contributed by Shavinder Kaur, Mumbai.
I was a 20 year old NCC Cadet (National Cadet Corps) of the Punjab Contingent and this picture in the ceremonial NCC Blazer was given to all the cadets who had been photographed for their participation in the Republic Day Parade and camp.
I remember that cold January 26 – Republic Day of 1967 clearly. It was very cold, and we were all up at 4.30 am to get into our crisp khakis and shiny marching boots. Everyone glowed with pride and excitement, and were set for a 10 kms march from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate via Rajpath. It was after all the Republic Day Parade and we were the chosen ones, representing our respective contingents. I was at that time a Senior Under Officer and led the Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Chandigarh Contingent. It was a very coveted position to be at. Among the thousands of countrymen and women who had flocked to see the celebrations, my mother too had traveled all the way from Jullundur, Punjab to watch me march.
The NCC in those days was a very coveted organisation. Thousands of young people aspired to join the NCC, while in school and college. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 & Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 had brought about a renewed sense of national pride among the young. NCC also offered opportunities to engage in adventure activities, cultural and sporting events as well as traveling and seeing new places.
The preparations for the Republic Day Parade began more than a month in advance – Three weeks at our regional headquarters in Chandigarh and three weeks at New Delhi. The camp at New Delhi was truly a melting pot of cultures from across the country. For the very first time I met and made friends with cadets from Assam, Maharashtra and Southern states. I also learnt an Assamese song from my friend Nirmaali from Sibsagar. Most of the girls were from small towns and this was their first trip to the capital.
The training at the camp was tough – we had to pitch our own tents, prepare for the cultural event as well as practice the march past throughout the cold days. Hot water to bathe was available only once in two days. But the sense of camaraderie and national pride was unparalleled. One of the highlights of the Republic Day camp was interacting with the Defence Minister Sardar Swarn Singh. And then there was High Tea with the President Dr. Sarvappali Radhakrishnan at the Rashtrapati Bhavan lawns which was truly a memorable experience.
I confess I harboured hopes of joining the Armed forces but women were not to be allowed in general & flying categories entry for another 25 years, until 1992. My love for the uniform though continued when I married Group Captain Raghbir Singh (now retired), a Flying Officer in the IAF (Indian Air Force) at that time. The family tradition continued with my son joining the NCC Air wing and subsequently becoming an officer in the Air Force as well.
I am now 68 years old and live in Powaii, Mumbai with my husband. During my 40 years of professional life as a teacher and Principal, I have encouraged my students to follow the tenets I learnt 50 years ago as a young cadet. Unity & Discipline, the motto of the NCC is all the more relevant today and I do hope more young men and women would commit themselves to the service of our wonderful country.
Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore
This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.
On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.
While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.
The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.
Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.
Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province. Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.
During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.
As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.
Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.
Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years. The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.
Image and Text contributed by Udit Mavinkurve, Mumbai
In this photograph Purushottam Venkatrao Kadle, (standing rightmost) fondly called Vasant is my grandfather. He was 17 years old at the time. The photograph was taken, in honour of his elder brother, Lieut. Laxman Kandle, (sitting, in uniform) who was leaving for his duty as a medical officer in the military. He had been posted in Bengal for famine relief. The Bengal famine of 1943 had struck the Bengal province of pre-partition British India during World War II following the Japanese occupation of Burma.
A mystery surrounds my grand-uncle Laxman. He never returned from Bengal, they tell me. A telegram arrived, with its customary terseness, which said he had died; cause and place of death, unknown. His body was never found. And a few days later, they got a letter from him, written when he had been alive. A pre-teen under the heady influence of a great English teacher, I fantasized about a novel I would write about him when I would grow up. That was back in 2005.
Last month in December 2013, during our annual cleaning, my mother found the said letter and the telegram that my grandfather Vasant, Laxman’s youngest brother had kept for all these years. And the dust covered letters awoke those pre-teen fancies of writing about my uncle yet again. (The letters are presented in the links below)
The first letter offers more than mere curiosity of any Indian seeking out people from his own community when in strange land. The Kadles, the Koppikars, the Manjeshwars and the Kulkarnys are families from the relatively small Konkani-speaking community of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, rooted mainly in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Laxman tells his father about the fellow Chitrapur Sarasawats he met in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal (now West Bengal). One notable thing was his concern for the women of his family – he asks after his ill mother, his dear sisters and even his young niece Jayashree, but doesn’t mention his brothers, or his nephews. Nevertheless, it was the second letter I found particularly moving.
In the second letter, he describes his memorable journey along the River Padma (now in Bangladesh), that was something he would never forget. He describes the painful plight of the victims of the 1943 Bengal famine. He seems genuinely moved. And yet, through it all, there pervades a sense of purpose ; His will to serve and to be of use. He wrote about the arrangements he had made regarding money for the family, words sounding almost ominously like words from a will & testament.
But the fact that the second letter reached the hands of his father after the telegram with news of Laxman’s death is what makes it almost like a Greek tragedy. I imagine my great-grandfather holding the letter, reading the words of his dead son whose body was never found describing his joys, worries and plans; and my 17 year old grandfather, Vasant, standing beside him, an awkward teenager. With a chronically ill mother and a shocked father, the death of an elder brother might not have seemed mysterious and romantic to him, as it does to me. And yet, it was he – of all the others – who kept these letters, safeguarded, for all these years. My grandfather couldn’t have been very different from me.
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Image & Text contributed by Sarah J. Kazi, London
This photograph of my grandfather with his college mates was taken in 1933/1934 at the King Edward Medical College in Lahore (now Pakistan). He was around 25 years old at the time and he and the others in this picture were the only non-white students of their batch.
My grandfather, Dr. Preetam Pal Singh was born in 1908 at Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District (now in Pakistan) and served as a doctor in the British Army. He was posted at Manora Island Cantonment, near Karachi when partition of India took place in 1947.
My great grandmother, grandfather, his wife, and two aunts boarded the train to Firozpur (Indian Punjab) and later reached Faridkot, where he and the family stayed for three nights at the railway platform before the Maharaja of Faridkot employed my grandfather as his personal physician. My grandfather was allotted an official house, and my father was born in 1950. This huge house in red (called the Laal Kothi) still exists and was recently visited by my father.
Later in 1957 my grandfather specialized in Radiology from the King George Medical College in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh). In the 1960s, the whole family moved and settled down in Patiala, Punjab and I have fond memories of visiting the city to meet my grandparents. My grandfather passed away in 2003, at the ripe old age of 94.
Image & Text contributed by Radha Nair, Pune
This photograph of my parents K. M. Devaki Amma & Lt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon was taken at a Photo Studio in Bombay in 1941, soon after they were married. My father was based in the city serving the Naval Force.
My mother, K. M. Devaki Amma belonged to Feroke, a part of Kozhikode in Kerala. Her initials K. M. stood for Kalpalli Mundangad and her family originally belonged to the Anakara Vadkath lineage. The large joint family of more than 25-30 people lived in a house called Puthiyaveedu which still exists in Feroke, however the members are now settled in far flung places and my grand aunts and uncles are no more.
My mother had to give up school very early in life. She came from a large family of 14 brothers and sisters and belonged to an era where a girl’s formal education wasn’t a priority. While they grew up under the tutelage of grand uncles and aunts, they learned to cook, clean, and learnt to make do with and share whatever little they had with their siblings without ever complaining. Congee (Rice Gruel) was what they mostly had for lunch and dinner, supplemented with a little coconut chutney, and may be a side dish of some green banana, but only if they were bestowed with a ripe bunch of plantains available from the kitchen garden.
My mother and her sisters’ daily life entailed preparing food for all members of their very large family. By the light of a wick lamp, sweating by the blaze of crackling coconut fronds they would wash dishes with ash from the kitchen hearth and rinse them with water drawn from the well. My mother in personality was very self-reliant and was happy with whatever little she had.
Arranged by my paternal grandmother, when Amma married my father, a man with an aristocratic lineage and a Naval officer, my father’s cousins would scoff at her and condescendingly regard her as a ‘village girl’. They had been educated in Queen Mary’s Women’s college, Madras (now Chennai) whereas my mother had studied only up to Class IV in a local village school in Karrinkallai.
Undeterred, my father, who knew his wife was a bright and intelligent woman took her under his wing and brought out the best in her. He taught her English and bought her abridged versions of books written by Charles Dickens, Walter Scott and many other great authors. He read out passages to her and patiently explained to her what they each meant.
Thus Devaki, my mother, slowly emerged from her rural background, and became a lady endowed with great poise and charm. Not only did she steal my father’s heart, but even of those who befriended her. She became a much sought after friend by wives of both British and Indian naval officers. She taught them to cook Malayali dishes and stitch & embroider; skills, which were executed by her exquisitely. She wrote and spoke English with such assurance that she could put a present day Post Graduate in English to shame. But despite all these changes, she remained loyal to her roots, proud of her humble origins, and very attached to her siblings.
Sometimes, deep into the night I would catch whispers of my parents’ conversation as they sat and planned the monthly budget, and spoke about their dreams of providing us with the best of every thing. It was my mother who insisted that my sister and I be given the best education they could afford. She firmly refused a State Board SSC education, and insisted on us being admitted into schools which followed a Senior Cambridge syllabus. She was efficient and fiercely independent. By comparison I was a pale shadow. In fact, many times I used to feel very unsure of my self in her presence, intimidated by her indomitable spirit and the complete control she had over any situation.
When my father was suffering Cancer, she stood by him; nourishing him with love and healthy food, while my sister and I watched our father’s condition worsen by the day, helpless and often giving in to tears. My mother always remained calm, but only when he breathed his last in 1977 did she break down completely. He was her life force, and she was his guiding light. Theirs was an extraordinary relationship, always supportive of each other at all times and completely committed to each other till the end.
After I graduated, it was her dream that I put my education to good use. However, a few years after marriage when I was forced to give up my teaching post, she never forgave me till she breathed her last. To make up for it, I began to write and put together a collection of short stories, but the book never got published.
What pained me most was that I was not able to place a copy of my book in my mother’s hands and make my peace with her before she passed away in 2008.
Image & Text contributed by Sawant Singh, Mumbai
This is an image of my grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari photographed in Patiala, Punjab around 1933.
She would have been 20 or 21 years old at the time. It was photographed by R.R. Verma, a Photo artist from Cawnpore (Kanpur). Formally, she was addressed as ‘Rajkumari Bibiji Danesh Kumari Sahiba’. This is the only photograph I have of her in my possession, even though my memory of her is vastly different from it.
I remember her as a simply clad, dignified, exceptionally proud woman, who would spend her time gardening, shopping for groceries in the market, or chatting away with the gardener & her domestic staff or entertaining friends from out of town in Dehradun, (now in Uttarakhand); many of whom were people who belonged to royalty or influential circles. Her home “Sawant Villa”, named after my great grand father, was an open house with people constantly streaming in and out.
My grandmother was fondly called ‘Brownie’ by her family and friends. She was the wife of the late Maharaja Kumar Aman Singh of Bijawar (now in Madhya Pradesh) and the daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (Punjab) who was known as ‘the proud owner of the world famous “Patiala Necklace‘ manufactured by Cartier.
Brownie or as I called her, ‘Dadu‘, was brought up in the lap of great luxury but she understood and adapted to the simple life very well. A beautiful, strong, non-judgmental woman, she wouldn’t suffer fools and was known to never mince her words. The only thing that impressed her was a good education and believed that it was the only way one could change their lives for the better. She thus ensured that all her children and grandchildren would appreciate the value of literacy and education.
Dadu was a very social woman and loved going into the city to meet her friends. Everyone knew her in Dehradun. I remember her dragging me to meet her dear friend, Mrs. Vijaylaxmi Pandit and they would spend hours chatting away while she would keep tucking my hair away from my forehead and eyes. She was as comfortable in a Rolls Royce as she was in a local bus in Dehradun. The latter was how she travelled to visit me when I was studying at the Doon School. She insisted on teaching us how to walk barefoot on Bajri (pebbled) pathways and chew on a Datun (Neem twig commonly used to clean teeth), in retrospect I think it was to prepare us for the real world.
I also remember, a few of her interesting obsessions were collecting imported soaps and canvas shopping bags. Anyone who ever travelled abroad had to bring back bars of soaps, canvas bags and chocolates. I remember one soap in particular in her bathroom was shaped like a fish. It seems that her quirky fascination with soaps may have passed on to me.
After an accidental fall in the early 90s, her health began to fail and she passed away in her sleep, peacefully in 2005.
This photograph of my grandmother is framed and hung in my dining room. While I never saw her dressed like this, the dignity and pride I see in it, is alive and inspiring.
Image and Text contributed by Manmeet Sahni, Maryland, USA
This picture of my mother Parveen Kaur was taken at a photo studio in Patiala, Punjab after she successfully attained a first division in M.P.ed (Masters in Physical Education) at the Government college of Physical Education in Patiala.
Parveen Kaur (Arora) was born in the small hill town of Mussoorie, India in 1952. The ‘Arora’ family originally belonged to Rawalpindi, (now Pakistan), and moved to Mussourie during the Indo-Pak partition.
My grandfather S. Chet Singh was a cloth merchant and he, as was with many others, had to abandon his business and assets when they moved to India. My grandfather tried to re-establish his business in Mussoorie but it was difficult. He then decided to move to Delhi for better prospects. The family settled in the western parts of the city. He bought a small piece of land and set up a Deli shop. The business couldn’t pick up the way it had in Rawalpindi, but they did manage to do reasonably well.
When the family moved to Delhi, Parveen Kaur was just 11. She was the youngest in a family of five sisters and two brothers. At the time, the family norm was that women should get married as soon as they turns 18 or younger if an appropriate groom was found. So all my aunts (mother’s sisters) got married early and none of them completed their graduation.
My mother, being the youngest managed to claim her right to education. An avid sportswoman at the age of 13, she went on to represent her school for Nationals in Basketball. At the Nationals she became an all-rounder best player at the Janaki Devi Mahavidyala(JDM College) at the University of Delhi. She was the only daughter of the family who went to a hostel. It was very difficult to convince my grandfather, but he finally gave in to her daughter’s want of pursuing a career of her choice. She then pursued her masters in physical education in Patiala, after which, she returned to Delhi looking for work.
In 2010, she was appointed the host manager of her college grounds which was officially selected as one of the practice venues at the Common Wealth Games. At the time she was also battling cancer, but was very excited and performed her role of a host manager with great enthusiasm.
My mother, Parveen Kaur served the college as Directorate in Physical Education until December, 2010. All through her tenure, the sports teams’ did very well and the college was reckoned in the top five colleges’ for sports at the university rankings.
She passed away, on February 4, 2011 and is fondly remembered by all the faculty, friends and family as one of the most zealous, interesting women and sports personalities of her time. The college has now instituted two yearly awards for ‘Outstanding Sports Person’ in her name.
Image and Text contributed by K.S Raghavan, Chennai
The family migrated to a near by village called Tirubuvanam on the banks of River Veera Cholan looking for greener pastures. The village was very famous for its Chola period architectural splendor.
My great grandfather served a very well known temple, Sri Kothanda Ramaswamy, as a cook, which was maintained by the local business community. He and his wife Vanjulavalli had three sons and two daughters. They were Srinivasaraghavan, Veeraraghavan, Ramaswamy, Kanakavalli and Pankajavalli. All these names inspired by Lord Rama indicated his devotion to the God.
The eldest son, my grand father Srinivasaraghavan (1891-1952) was intelligent and seemed to have a flair for business. During that period the entire village community was engaged in silk cloth weaving, for the district was famous for its silk sarees. So he joined a local business outfit that manufactured and sold silk sarees as an accounts clerk, even though Brahmin families were not known to enter the business arena.
My grandfather a very pious person and his devotion to Lord Rama earned him a lot of goodwill among the village folk. His towering personality with a prominent vaishnavite insignia on his forehead along with his ever- affable smile, added a saintly aurora to him, and he was compassionate to all and they looked up to him for wise counsel.
As days passed he grew in stature. His sharp business acumen prompted him to start a business of silk cloth weaving and marketing in partnership with another weaver who was also the village chieftan, Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer. Their business quickly grew leaps and bounds, and they became master weavers running more than one hundred looms. The duo became very good friends. However, later even when Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer decided he wanted to invest in a micro finance venture and my grandfather and he parted ways, they remained close friends.
My grandfather then started his own business of silk cloth weaving and marketing along with his two brothers. The business flourished and they opened two branches, one in Chettinad and the other in Valayapatti. All the brothers and sisters had gotten married and were well settled. But as the brothers’ families grew in size, the needed to chalk out their own path to progress. The brothers split the business into three units and continued their businesses.
My grandfather Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s business establishment was popularly known as “Peria Iyengar Kadai” He came to known as a very successful businessman of his time. He explored new business avenues by supplying cloth for the parachutes used in the armed forces. He also created a brand for “Kooraipudavai” or the Nine yard saree that is used to this day during the marriage ceremonies of Hindu Brahmin families. His products and good reputation had already reached far off places through the country. The shop cum house, was a busy picture from the morning till night. Activities like bleaching & dyeing of silk yarn, unwinding of gold threads would go on in the hindquarter of the house. He used to sit on the mat made of reed, while weavers, workmen, customers and visitors would stream in and out and transact their business.
He was so industrious, that he introduced many new methodologies in dyeing silk. He would travel into the dense forests of Orissa to buy Areca nut that was used as a dyeing pigment. Once he even risked his life to tread the dreaded forests of Berhampur. He had to spend nearly six months in those inhospitable terrains to procure his raw materials, so much so that people back home almost gave up hope of seeing him alive.
Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s devotion to Lord Rama remained strong. He organized ‘Srimad Ramayana’ discourses and arranged for renowned scholars like Villiambur Swamy, Gaddam Sri Vardachariyar swamy to translate the verses and expound them to local folks.
He was also a connoisseur of Karnatic music and would sing songs in praise of Lord Rama. Adults and children would both be captivated. During his last days, his failing health restrained him from much of movement, but even then he did not swerve from Ramayana recitation. His last day, we hear he was in a very happy mood and that day’s discourse had gone off with much fan fare. But around midnight he complained of discomfort and suddenly passed away. The whole village bid him adieu with tears in their eyes and singing “Ragupathi Raghava Rajaram” till his mortal remains were consigned to holy flames.
Even to this day the people fondly remember him and recall their happy days with him.