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

Caste System

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.


154 – She was sent to London to learn production for films

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

Image & Text contributed by Rohit Kulkarni, Pune

This is a photograph of my grandmother, Jaya Phatak. It was taken at a film studio in London in 1972.

My grandmother was born in the Phatak family in Pune, Maharashtra in 1926. Her father Duttatre Phatak worked with the British Indian Railways, and was also the manager of a record label ‘Orion‘ that no longer exists. I am told he was instrumental in the first ever recording of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, a well-known Hindustani Classical Singer and appointed musician to two royal courts in Baroda, and Mysore. Duttatre died when my grandmother was very young and over time her life turned out to be very different for many of the women of her era. She was very interested in sports and also represented the State at the Kabaddi Nationals in 1964.

She was very young in 1942, when she became involved in India’s Independence movement in Pune. She was jailed along with other 6-7 of her mates and sent to Yerwada Jail for disrupting and distributing Anti-British leaflets at a British military gathering at Nowrosjee Wadia College grounds. At the jail, she discovered many more imprisoned freedom fighters across castes and classes. They were detained and went through a one-month trial, and offered either Bail or an arrest for a month in jail. The family didn’t have much money so there was no bail forthcoming. Despite an arrest for only a month, my grandmother says that they were still not released and instead were kept for another 11 months, because British law stated that it did not need to justify or give reasons to detain anyone. She notes that in prison, despite the fact that everyone was fighting for the same cause, a section of the higher caste would not share their meals with other castes. There was unsaid  segregation along caste lines and at that time, castle lines were not questioned very much.

My grandmother was married twice. After divorcing her first husband which was unheard of at the time, she met and married my grandfather Vishwanath Modak, a journalist, who ran a daily political /social commentary column in the Marathi newspaper Prabhat and they fell in love. My grandfather used to call my grandmother “the man amongst the women”. She was fiery, opinionated and an atheist. My mother is the only child they had and jokes that her birth was an experiment that was never to repeated again.

My grandmother Jaya found a good job at the Department of Education and was sent to England in 1972, to study and receive a Diploma in Production for Films – for education specifically. This picture is from that time when she was studying there. She also established a charitable trust called Kishor Mitra (“friend of the young”) where she produced short films on simple science – for instance how a Thermos or bread is made and helped publish Marathi books for making learning fun. Inspired by Sesame Street, the well known American Television series for children, she developed and produced puppet shows that were made into educational films. It was her first and last job until retirement. My grandmother Jaya continues to be a trustee of Kishor Mitra and lives in Pune with her granddaughter.

 


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.


115 – “Being a good and honest maid was the best I could do”

My Wedding Reception. Bandra, Bombay. February 14, 1982

My Wedding Reception. Bandra, Bombay. February 14, 1982

Image and Text Contributed by Sunita Vishnu Kapse, Mumbai

We lived in Shivaji Park, Bombay in a house that our families had lived in for eight generations. My father‘s name was Tulsiram Pawar and my mother’s was Chandra Bai. My grand-mother who lived until the age of 101, used to work in the municipality as a road sweeper. My father also worked for the municipality of Shivaji Park, cleaning garbage. But he was an alcoholic, most of the times drunk and incapable of working. He would beat up my mother and abuse her all the time, but she gulped all the pain and began working instead of him. She is the one who earned and brought us all up. Her salary at the time was only Rs. 200 a month, so it was tough on her. Most men in the chawl were in similar jobs and were all drunks & wife beaters, exactly like my father. All the girls in the chawl were scared to get married anticipating the same future.

My family belonged to the Mahar Caste, considered untouchables and of low caste in India. But we all got saved when my parents adopted the beliefs preached by Babasaheb, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. If it wasn’t for him, we would have been on the streets or dead, of hunger or indignity. My parents converted to Buddhism following Ambedkar’s encourgement and since then we have been restored our dignity.

We are four sisters and two brothers. I was born on November 13, 1963. In school I studied up to class 10 (sometimes as night classes). I used to love dancing, participated in school events and played everyone’s favourite sport at the time Kho Kho. Embroidery was another skill I learnt from the women in the Chawl. On Saturdays & Sundays we would finish the house-work faster so we could rush to watch Marathi movies in a quarter that had a B&W television.

In 1982, when I was 18 my parents got me married. The chosen husband was Vishnu Rama Kapse. He was 15 years older to me. When our parents asked us to marry, we just did, there was no argument or discussion over it. My mother said that they were a well to do family, and they eat a lot, and so I will be happy.  Later I heard, that my husband too didn’t want to really get married, but others advised him that he needed a partner who could also contribute to earnings. 
The wedding was all paid-for by my mother. I think she must have spent Rs. 5000 on it. As was tradition for the In-Laws to do, my actual name Satyabhama was changed to Smita by my husband, but my mother-in-law couldn’t pronounce it so she began calling me Sunita, and now everyone calls me Sunita.

This photograph is from my wedding reception in a small hall in Bandra, Bombay. With us is my husband’s regular employer (since he was a child), Mrs. Ula and her family. They really loved us. Now they live in USA.
I am wearing a Blue saree and my husband wore a Grey suit. In Buddhism, during the actual ceremony we wear white, not red as is the norm of most Indian weddings. With our dharma guru as witness, we exchange garlands, listened to a short sermon and that was it, we were married. There were around 200 guests for our wedding. The gifts we received were currency notes of Rs. 2 or 5 in small packets. I got married into a very large family, with mother, sister, brother and cousin in laws.

My husband was a simple decent looking man. He respected, and loved me passionately. He never hit me or embarrassed me in-front of anyone. He used to say “If I disrespect you in-front of someone else, they won’t respect you”. That is the reason my children respect me too, because that is what they saw. My husband really loved me, showered me with attention, but I am aware that he was also afraid that I might leave him, because I was a good looking and to top it, 15 years younger.  That is the reason he never wanted to live away from the large family because he felt it kept me in check. I always found it very amusing but in a way it imparted a lot of self-confidence. We were great partners & friends and would never do anything without consulting each other. My husband would keep me updated on current affairs of the world. When I couldn’t understand, he would explain everything patiently.

My husband’s family came from Ratangiri and his family owned a lot of agricultural land there. But once the Dam and new railway tracks began to be constructed, many new people came and grabbed most of our land and so many of us, also from near by villages, were left with almost nothing. We still have a legal case going on but I doubt anything will happen.

Like thousands of others, my husband at the time in the 1980s was working in the Textile Mill, breaking yarn. When the mill shut down (called the Great Bombay Textile Strike), he began working as a wall painter, or as daily labour (also for the family in the picture). The same year my eldest daughter Annapurana was born, but the earning was not enough for us, so I began working as a domestic maid. My first monthly salary was Rs. 75 with a Sitan Family here in Bandra, I have now worked for them for 32 years and I still work there.  Then we had a second child Abhijeet, a son and a third another daughter, Priyanka. My husband and I worked very hard and educated all three of my kids. They went to government municipality schools, and then they went to college. Fortunately for us they are now married into good families.

I never chose to be a maid, but I did it because if I didn’t work we couldn’t earn. And with my experience, being a good and honest maid was the best I could do. My husband would not give me all the money he earned, because some of it was kept for his brothers and their families whom he supported largely. So I too saved, keeping money aside and buying gold as an investment without him knowing, but the amusing part was he knew all along. I always worked around the Bandra, as it was close to home. The Parsi family next to our home sold their land and in its place a mosque was built. But we all casts and religions lived along as good neighbors cordially, perhaps because we were Buddhists and non-violent. In-fact in times of conflict in Bombay, the muslims neighbours always came around to check if we are okay.

My normal routine everyday for years was getting up at 6 am, pack my husband’s and kids lunch tiffin, go do all my work and return by 2 pm to fill water that would only come in taps twice a day. I learned a lot by working as a maid, like cooking different Indian Cuisines from my employers and then I would try it all at home. My family loved my cooking. Even when my daughter got married, I had every feast cooked at home. I have been lucky that all my employers respected and taught me a lot. Looking at our employers helped us aspire for a better lifestyle. But one thing that makes me sad is how people spend on things much more than they need to. Wasting food is probably the biggest problem I see in so many households, the wealthier the families the more food is wasted. But people and women are also more independent and that is admirable, though I still get worried if my daughter doesn’t come home on time.

In 2006, my husband developed a heart problem and he began to keep unwell often. So I got a couple of more jobs and continued working as a maid cooking, cleaning, sweeping, and washing to earn enough to pay for his medical bills. Many employers too helped with the medical bills. But in 2012 his health worsened and he passed away. I now continue to work as a maid, because if I didn’t work I would go crazy. Because of my children, I am not struggling for money, but it is good for me, it makes me independent, I work in places I like to work, I am respected and I get to step out. But I really miss my husband a lot. He was my friend, my protector, my partner of life. I really feel alone and cry when I think of him, but I thank Buddha and Sai baba because of whom I have great children, siblings and their families.