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Pearls

141 – Portrait of a debutante

Monica-1925-Sepia_low

My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

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.


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.


136 – The Motiwalas of Bombay

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab Bombay. Circa 1946

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab. Bombay. Circa 1946

Image and Text contributed by Fawzan Husain, Mumbai

This picture was taken at my grandfather’s home, on the occasion of my aunt Zainab’s pre wedding ceremony. She was about to be married to a fireworks merchant. Zehra, was my mother Rubab and Zenab’s half sister.

My maternal grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala, a Pearl Merchant, belonged to the Bohra Shia Community in Saurashtra (now Gujarat State). At the time, during the early 20th century, Saurasthra’s coast line had been a rich hub for pearl hunting, and trade was in the community’s blood. The word Bohra itself comes from the Gujarati word vehru (“trade”). As most merchants and families began to adopt and attach last names after the products they traded in, my grandfather’s name Motiwala too, literally translates as “Pearl Man”.
As a teenager, he decided to go to Bombay with Rs. 5 in hand, and landed up at the shop that dealt with pearls, for a job. Soon he grew in stature and bought the same establishment that he worked for. He turned the business around, made it hugely profitable and became one of the top businessmen of the community.

My grandfather was a liberal man and was inclined towards reformism. After the death of his first wife at a rather young age, and a young son to care for, he decided to marry Fatema, a young widow and mother to a daughter Zehra, from her own previous marriage. The Bohra community was hugely upset and wondered aloud as to ‘why this very rich and eligible man needed to marry a widow with a child, when there were so many other eligible proposals from the community.’

My grandfather Abdul Husain and Fatema, my grandmother, had three children together. With three daughters and two sons, it became a family of seven. Zehra and Zainab for some reason never got educated, while my mother and her brother studied up to 10th grade college. All the sisters got along very well. Two of whom were so close, that later while my father could afford a bigger house in Bombay, my mother insisted instead that we live next to my aunt Zenab’s house in a chawl (inexpensive community housing) near Bombay Central.

My grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala was the first man in our community to own an American Kaiser car. He was so well respected that he was given the title of “Patel”. A surname that was used primarily by Hindus whose ancestors were traditionally landlords and owners, I suppose it had come to mean “Respected man”. People would shout from the streets as his car passed by- “Patel Saheb’s car has come!

While Abdul Husain was one of the best businessmen around, he was keenly aware of his own hardworking background. He had great respect for the dignity of labour and had no sense of class discrimination. He, for instance did not go easy on his own son Kamruddin, and ensured that he worked very hard to earn his keep. Another instance was, when a proposal for Zehra came from a man in the community who had walked away from his own family business. With problems at home, he had decided to begin life on his own terms and became a taxi driver. My grandfather agreed to the proposal, perhaps because he knew his to be son-in-law to be a dignified & hardworking man. He helped him out with good advise and offered him loans to build a fleet of taxis in Bombay. The advise was taken but the money wasn’t, proving my grandfather right.

My mother Rubab or as she was fondly called Ruby, was the youngest and the most adored. So much so, that she like many of the youngest members in families enjoyed several liberties. Being exceptionally intrigued with photography, she would dress up in different attires & accessories and get herself photographed regularly by a photographer called Ahmed Zardi in the near-by photo studio called Dayzars.

My father Ahmed, a photographer, and my mother Ruby, the photographed, fell in love over pictures, and my grandfather accepted the relationship with great ease. My father became a regular visitor at my mother’s home and would take our family pictures ever so often, even before they got married. It was the first love marriage in our family.

Dayzars was a Photography studio in Bombay Central and was named after its two partners – Dayabhai from Rajasthan and my father Ahmed Zardi.  They worked together for 32 years. As far as I know, it was uncommon for a Hindu and a Muslim to have such a great and long partnership. But when Dayabhai’s eyes began to fail him, he decided to leave Bombay and return home. My father and Dayabhai’s son tried to work together but a generational gap of ideas led him to relieve himself of the business and Studio Dayzars was sold. I was an only child and would frequent my father’s studio. I learnt how to handle cameras, developed film and made prints. The magic of the dark room was an incredible experience. However, I was absolutely not interested in studio photography and so I studied journalism and became an editorial photographer.


85 – After the formation of India, they travelled to several countries looking for a better life

My paternal grandparents, Shehr Bano & Syed Ali Naqvi. Province of Bihar. 1947

Image and Text contributed by Zinnia Naqvi, Canada

This is an image of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather, or Dada as we called him, Syed Ali Naqvi was born in Khujwa, a village located in the Siwan District, Province of Bihar, India, on May 13, 1916. He was the sixth child of his parents. His father passed away when he was about eight years old and his upbringing and education became the responsibility of his mother and his eldest brother.

Dada was educated at the well known TK Ghose School, in Patna. The school has since seen alumni like the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, and the first chief minister of Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. Later, Dada attended at the Patna College.
In 1942 he married Shehr Bano Naqvi, my grandmother. She was born in Khujwa too, on January 25, 1925. She was the last of seven children of her parents. Her father was a prominent police officer of the Siwan District. Dadi never attended school but was educated by private tutors at home.

After their marriage, Dada started working for the Government of Bihar. At the time of partition in 1947, he was working in the town of Midnapur, West Bengal. On August 14, 1947, when Pakistan was born, he and his family had to migrate to Dhaka (now Bangladesh) which was declared East Pakistan at the time.

In Dhaka, Dada started his own transportation business. They lived in the Lakhi Bazar neighbourhood of Dhaka and bought a big house abandoned by a Hindu family who had left for India. On May 9, 1949, my father, Afsar Naqvi was born. He was the third child of what would be eight children.

This image of my grandparents was photographed in 1947, after they were newly married. Dada is dressed in a modern suit and bow-tie, along with a Jinnah Cap, named after the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Dadi is wearing a traditional chiffon sari and the symbol of elegance, a pearl necklace.

The generation of my grandparents were forced to travel to all parts of the Indian subcontinent due to war, economic instability, religious conflict, insecurities, fear of life, and other obstacles preventing them from providing the best and safe living conditions for their many children. Similarly, my own parents migrated from London, to Karachi, to Toronto in order to provide the best possible safest opportunities for my sisters and I to be strong, educated, and successful. In the process, both were forced to leave behind many loved ones and memories of the places they once called home.

Today, this photograph hangs in the living room of our family home in Toronto. Inspired by the similarities between my parents and grandparents life, I have been working on a series called Past & Present. This photographic series contains images that are an example of how generations of family history can often repeat themselves. You can view the images here.


23 – Felt hats, Chiffons and Pearls

My parents Maya and Lachu Shivdasani (center) with friends, at the Turf Club, Mahalaxmi Race Course, Bombay, Maharashtra.1941

Image and Text Contributed by Usha Bhandarkar

Men and women were always very smartly turned out for the races…”you never repeated a sari!” Men wore full suits and felt hats; women wore Chiffons and Pearls. My mother Maya is appalled at the current dress code at the Races which she finds positively sloppy.