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Linguistics

179 – The accomplished matriarchs of a family

My grandmother, Manorama Rao, Madras (now Chennai). 1939

Image and Text contributed by Rekha Rao, Hyderabad

This is a photograph of my paternal grandmother Manorama Rao when she graduated and topped English Honours with the Grigg Memorial gold medal at the University level. My grandmother was born into a Saraswat Konkani Brahmin family in Madras (now Chennai) in 1917. She was the eldest of three daughters in a progressive family that encouraged education and goals. Her mother (my great grandmother) Kamala Devi Tombat was a progressive lady with immense willpower.

My great grandfather, Kamala Devi’s  husband, Anand Rao Tombat had hired a British tutor to teach her English after their marriage and encouraged her to learn music. After her husband’s passing in 1944, Kamala went on to do a Visharad in Hindi (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree), became a Hindi Pandit (Brahmin Scholar) and then a Professor of Hindi and Sanskrit at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, one of the first three colleges for women in the country. She wrote and composed devotional songs and even published a book with them, named Shri Gurugeet Bhajanmala priced at a mere Rs 1 in those days. She and her daughters regularly sang on All India Radio too.

Not only does my grandmother Manorama bear an uncanny physical resemblance to her mother, but the musical, literary talent and zest for life have been passed on as well. After schooling at CSI Ewart School and Presidency Training School, Madras, in 1937, my grandmother Manorama joined Queen Mary’s College where she topped the entire Madras Presidency in English and was awarded the Krupabai Satthianadhan Gold Medal for proficiency in the English language. She then joined the BA Honours (English Language) and Literature course at Presidency College, Madras while her sister Sushila opted for Botany. Both commuted each day by tram between home, and college, that had a beautiful and sprawling campus overlooking Marina Beach, and my grandmother tells me that she was very fond of looking out at the expansive waters of the Bay of Bengal from her classroom window. She also recounts that there were less than 10 students in English Honours, and that they had papers right from Old English (Beowulf) to Middle English (Chaucer), the Romantics to Shakespeare. She also narrates that many of her professors were educated at Oxford and Cambridge.

In 1939, VK Narasimhan from The Indian Express (later Editor-in-Chief) was looking for superior English language and writing skills. My grandmother fit the bill perfectly. Eager to put her education to use and supplement the home income, my grandmother joined the newspaper. She gathered news items, wrote literary reviews and edited articles. That same year, she was introduced to a young England-returned barrister by name Udiavar Narayana Rao. Perhaps he was drawn to her for her good looks, her outgoing and sociable nature and above all, her intellectual capabilities and following a few months of courtship, the two married on 23 May, 1940. The wedding took place as per Hindu rites at Munagala House which eventually gave way to Hotel Ashoka in 1974.

My grandfather, Udiavar Narayana Rao was born in 1910 into a well educated and accomplished Goud Saraswat Konkani Brahmin family. During his years at college, he was also a member of the University Training Corps, a precursor to the modern-day NCC (National Cadet Corps). Subsequently, he became a Bar-at-Law from London’s Middle Temple, and returned to India in 1936, where he joined as an advocate at the High Court of Madras. To this day, my grandmother talks of my grandfather with awe and deep respect for his character and achievements. He was a man of few words, and respected for his upright character in both personal and professional circles.

My grandfather died prematurely at age 54 in 1965, while still in service of the Karnataka Government. After my parents married in 1970, and my father got his first job in Hyderabad, the family moved to Hyderabad. In 1969, when my grandmother was around 52 years old, she traveled overseas for the first time to the US to see her daughter Geetha. But before landing on the shores of America, the adventurous middle-aged soul broke journey in Europe, where, for about 10 days, she visited places like Rome, Paris and London, taking in all the sights, sounds and scenes of life there. Coming from a country that is still dealing with the issue of educating the girl child, my grandmother was definitely way ahead of her time.

This month on October 8, 2017, my grandmother, Manorama became a centenarian, celebrating her 100th birthday amidst family, friends and her many admirers. She is still one of the most organized persons I know and has meticulously maintained family pictures and documents. She labels them at the back and keeps them safely in her cupboard. She also saw the potential in me to be a writer and encouraged me to be one. Today, we’re four generations living under one roof, and are happy and proud to have her as the matriarch of the family.

 


177 – My father, the first antiquarian of Calcutta

My father Nirmal Chandra Kumar.  Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India. Circa 1950

Image and text contributed by Professor. Aloke Kumar, University of Calcutta/ IIM/ ISRO

My father, Nirmal Chandra Kumar, born in Calcutta, Bengal in 1917, and was the eldest of seven children. After graduating from school at Mitra Institute, he went on to study at Bangabasi College. My grandfather was a trader and the family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar Crossing and a home at 52, Mohan Bagan Lane. My father grew up to be an avid reader, hungry for knowledge and to make a living, he worked several odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words he said he failed miserably at.

In the early 1940s, after my father got his own place in Calcutta, he met an illiterate Muslim bookseller by the name of Yakub and began helping him read and organize his books. Yakub encouraged my father to trade in books; a venture that was not going to particularly help in making a living, yet in 1945, my inspired father opened a book-shop in his house, called Kumars and began collecting rare books and documents. He combined his pursuit with a broader interest to serve the society around him. In 1950, my grandparents also arranged for my father to be married to my mother Karuna, a school teacher from Adra, (Bengal and Bihar border) and my father continued working on his collection.

Kumars, my father’s book-shop, if it could be called so, spread over several rooms in his residence, around divans and reading chairs, and looked more like a personal library in a living room. In the 1940s, rare book collections were in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book-shop Cambray was already fading, Thacker & Spink, another well known bookshop was alive, but there were hardly any rare books. With a growing collection of rarities at my father’s book shop, it soon became was a hub for book lovers and a meeting point for people from all walks of life, ranging from iconoclastic artists to conservative writers.

With books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mountaineering, religion and Indology as its strengths, Kumars soon became the place to go. At the shop, my father could be found wearing a white collared half sleeved shirt, and a Lungi, (stitched or unstitched cloth worn around the waist) or a Dhoti and Kurta with pump shoes. We can’t even imagine somebody wearing an attire like that and smoking a pipe or a Davidus Cigar sitting in a library surrounded by books now.

My father had several agents buying books for him at auctions and establishments abroad such as Foyles, Bernard Quaritch and Sotheby’s. One of his many enthusiastic collections included the then unheralded works of British Painters, uncle and nephew, Thomas Daniell and William Daniell. He bought an elephantine Folio of 144 Views of their works from Sotheby’s, and had it sent to Calcutta. On the way it got damaged that resulted in a bitter battle with the shipping company, MacKinnon McKenzie records of which can be found in Calcutta High Court. Much of the folio is now entrusted in care of the museum The Victoria Memorial.

When Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker, began his research on the Indian Rebellion of 1857 for his film Shatranj ki Khilari (The Chess Player), he depended on my father for information on the subject. Kumar not only provided him with all the relevant books, but also went out of his way to bid for a rare scrap book on the 1857 Mutiny, at a London Auction that contained paper clippings and notes on the event, and later he also provided him with many antique props for his sets. Ray it seems did not forget this gesture and paid my father his biggest personal tribute. He based one of his characters in his well known Feluda series on Kumar – the character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle), a man with vast encyclopedic knowledge on several subjects.

Kumars became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries such as – Radha Prasad Gupta, the Anglophile & PR Head of Tata Steel, writer Mulk Raj AnandNirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer, Santi.P.Chowdhury, documentary film maker, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census, Subho Tagore, the founder of Cubism in India, Jean Riboud, the French billionaire industrialist and writer Peter Fleming. Ella Maillart, the traveller and photographer wrote, ‘to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage. You spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories….all seamlessly interwoven.’

If rare works and books of painter William Hogarth, writers Colonel SleemanGeorge V HigginsJames Hamilton, the unknown Bishop Heber, Scottish writer O’Malley, African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it was in no small part due to my father, Kumar’s efforts. My father also convinced several people including Satyajit Ray to bid for rare works and if Lahari, the then Superintendent of Calcutta Zoo has been able to leave behind the rare collection of Himalayan Birds, books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is again because of my father. Kumar introduced several artist works to Calcutta; mainly the Flemish artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, whose works constitutes the first ‘ethnographic survey’ of India or more precisely of Bengal.

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, Kumars was a resource for international researchers, but my father was not able to cope as much of its collection had now begun to fade away. His health had deteriorated and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement (Revolutionary Communist Party). With a pipe smoking habit, conversations in mono-syllables and interrogative questions, he began to resemble the eccentric film director Alfred Hitchcock. Soon he became a recluse and his once dazzling library dimmed.

For 30 years, he had presided over a vast rarest of rare collections in his own bookshop, Kumars, a pre-eminent institution. He was the first in the subcontinent to publish a catalogue of books in his collection. He even formalized the literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, an innovation at the time. By the end of the 1975, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books began to be torn for their prints and sold separately. My father did not want to be a part of this and lost out.

Nirmal Chandra Kumar died in 1976 of a cerebral stroke, aged 60 and this year, in 2017, is his centenary. He was a genuine antiquarian and possibly the greatest influence on a generation of artists, filmmaker, writers, musicians, activists, teachers and travellers – perhaps more than any art critic or editor of his time. With his death, the literary world lost an extremely generous and unselfish man who gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he had influenced so profoundly.


175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


174 – Founder of the first Waldorf kindergarten in Karnataka

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

Image and Narrative contributed by Jyotsna Mandana, Bengaluru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


171 – The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Gopal Sharman & I, Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Image courtesy Akshara Theatre Archive. Text by Jalabala Vaidya, New Delhi

I was born in London (UK) in 1936. My English-Italian mother, Marjorie Frank-Keyes was a concert singer and my father Suresh Vaidya was a successful young writer. He was also on the editorial board of Time Magazine in London. My father was arrested by the British authorities when he refused to join the British Army to fight in World War II. He declared he would gladly fight as a free man, but not as a colonial subject. He was imprisoned in Canterbury and fought and won a case in the British Court. His case was defended by well known lawyers like Sir Fenner Brockway and Lord Reginald Sorensen. In a landmark judgment, the court ruled that the British Army could not compel a person to fight because he was a colonial subject.

Of course I was one my feisty parents’ two daughters. I completed my schooling in London then in Bombay (now Mumbai). Later I graduated from Miranda House, standing third in Delhi University. I was also actively involved in theatre and was awarded the best actress for performing sections from Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Later, I began working with Link Magazine in Delhi as a journalist that also had a daily paper called The Patriot. Gopal Sharman was suggested to us as an independent writer who could write very well on the arts. Up until then I had been writing them.

In the 1950s, at the office, I was in charge of putting the month’s issue to bed and I had been told that Gopal would come by with the copy on the Arts columns. He came to the office early and sat several glass cubicles away, typing away, but by late morning the copy was still not done and I began to lose patience. I went bossily through the cubicles and asked him about the text. He looked up and said “Don’t go through the roof, this isn’t a spoof, I am writing it and here it is.” and that’s it, we fell in love. 
I have no idea how, why and what it was, but that’s how we met and were together since. We began to live together in a garage in Bengali Market. Later, we got married.

Gopal at the time was also writing two popular columns under a pseudonym – Nachiketas for the Indian Express and the Sunday Standard. One was about artists and the other was about the Upanishads, Vedanta, mythology, questions on philosophy, life and death. Unknown to us the time, the second President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a fan of Nachiketas’s (Gopal’s) columns.

In early January of 1966, Dr. Radhakrishnan underwent a cataract operation. Unable to read and restless, he asked a close friend Prof. K Swaminathan who had edited the Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and was a former editor of Indian Express, to find out who was this ‘Nachiketas’ person writing these fascinating pieces, and to invite him to the Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Residence) for a narrative session. Prof. Swaminathan found Gopal and was surprised to find out that it was a young man who went about on a bicycle, with a shock of unruly hair, and wore a polo neck shirt & trousers. He asked Gopal if he would come and read his works to the President. Gopal happily agreed.

When he returned home, Gopal told me about the President’s request and insisted that since I was much better at it, I should perform Gopal’s Full Circle for the President. Full Circle was a dramatic recitation of stories and poems with philosophical concepts narrated with voices of regular people. I would perform and recite the stories & poems, while Gopal, a classically trained singer, would sing songs ranging from Meera Bai’s bhajans (songs with spiritual themes) to songs written by the poet, philosopher and politician Muhammad Iqbal. After some reluctance, I agreed and we both decided to go. I always needed glasses to read, but since I didn’t want to read off a paper, I learnt all of it by heart.

When the day came, a big Rolls Royce came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan to pick us up, along with the formal invitation. To our shock it mentioned my name, but left Gopal’s out! We informed the officials about the confusion, but they did not accommodate the mistake and no change could be made. Nonetheless, now there was no turning back. Gopal came along with me up till the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reception, wished me very well and went off to another meeting. I still remember watching him walk down the slope of that road.

When I was escorted upstairs, the door was opened by the President, with a bandaged eye. He exclaimed “Ah Welcome! But where is the poet?!” I explained what had happened, he insisted a car bring Gopal back, but with 20-30 people in the room including foreign dignitaries already seated, it seemed a bit awkward so we let the matter rest. I began to narrate the pieces, and I remember now and then the very impressed President would interrupt to explain the contexts to his guests and what was being said.

When I ended the performance, Dr.Radhakrishnan was extremely happy. He had loved every bit of it. He insisted that this work should be performed for a proper audience and that he will have ICCR (Indian Council for Culture Relations) arrange a performance at Azad Bhawan. And so it was arranged. When we went and met the director of ICCR, Inam Rahman, I think he was a bit put out at the order of accommodating young unknown people. Perhaps to be a bit difficult, he said the only date available was January 13, only a few days after, and will we take that? Gopal and I looked at each other and immediately said yes.

The ICCR invited many well-known people & important dignitaries from the Embassies, and they all loved Full Circle. After the performance we received invitations from the Embassies of Yugoslavia (now seven independent states) and Italy to perform in their countries. But there was a hitch, ICCR refused to pay for the tickets, and we had to find the tickets on our own. We wrote to Air India and asked if they’d like to sponsor us. They wrote back and said they could, for one person and one way only, but that too on the condition that we distribute their advertisements in Europe.
Something had to be done, so I decided to go to Bombay and request the TATAs if they could help. There was a special secretary to J.R.D Tata, I forget his name now but he agreed to arrange another ticket. This was the year of tourism so there was no problem getting a visa to foreign countries. Neither was there a problem with one-way tickets at the time. We managed to get two one-way tickets but only till Rome, Italy.

In Italy, we performed at the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO). Through that performance we got invited to perform at the famous theatre, Teatro Goldoni and so we did. Then we went to Yugloslavia and performed in three cities and they were all wonderful performances. I remember as guests, we were even offered tickets, twice, to the well-known Opera La Boheme but unfortunately on both occasions we had such a time of partying and drinking the night before that we never made it to the opera.

Back in Rome, we did another round of performances, each with a theatre-full of audiences. In the audience we also noticed a lot of red cardinal gowns. Soon, we were invited by the Assistant Father General of Jesuits, an Indian at the time, to perform at their headquarters near the Vatican. We were hosted at a lovely convent and the nuns were so extraordinarily impressed with us because we were vegetarian. They thought it was such an austerity and it was so spiritual, and made lovely vegetarian things for us. Later, the Indian Assistant Father general also organized for us an audience with the Pope Paul IV and so we also got to meet the Pope.

One night, I heard that Joan Baez was going to perform at a theatre, and I was a particularly big fan of hers. It was disappointing to realise that I couldn’t because we too were performing the same night. Next morning when we went to see the papers, I was on the front page and Joan Baez was somewhere in small print. It was amazing and unbelievable. Nonetheless, we did get to met her later, but missed seeing her perform. And that’s how we began our theatre career.

In the next few months we were invited by ITV (Italian TV) to record our performance. After the recording they said that they were cash strapped and couldn’t pay too much. We were used to that, because in India no one really paid or paid well at all – In Delhi we got Rs.250. But the Italian TV pay turned out to be a lot more than we had ever imagined. Excited about our big pay, we spotted a second-hand car sales place across the TV station and Gopal and I immediately bought ourselves a Black Volkswagen Beetle, with a Number 1 plate. We excitedly discussed how we could drive back home to India, because in those days you could’ve driven back home to India.

In 1968, we drove to Munich, and the Southern German Radio & TV : Bayerischer Rundfunk, also recorded our performance. After the recording they enquired how much the Italians had paid us and simply upped our pay by a lot more. We were so happy and amused. I remember in Frankfurt, I also went and got myself my first pair of contact lenses.
We met and made so many amazing friends along the way, some famous and some not. While we performed and drove all over Europe, our beloved second hand car would often break down. I remember a lot of our friends like actress Vanessa Redgrave and even the Qatari ambassador to India were among the many people pushing that car.

In London we performed at various places, including the Mercury theatre, where T.S Elliot had performed his plays. Everywhere we went we received rave reviews. London is where we finally settled down for a while and continued to perform. Gopal began writing on the arts for The Times and The Sunday Times in London and wrote a book on Indian music, Filigree in Sound that was published in London. At the time the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had an event called the World Theatre season. It was the most prestigious theatre festival and they approached us to bring a play to the event. Gopal said – “Yes, we’d like to, but the play I’d like to bring I haven’t written it yet.” He wanted to write a Ramayana relevant to our times, a modern, dramatic and humane interpretation of the Sanskrit epic. RSC happily agreed and signed a contract with us. When our event with RSC was announced, a TATA representative from London came forward to financially back the venture because we were getting India a good name. They awarded Gopal with a Homi Bhabha fellowship, the third person in the country to get it.

At the end of our two-year adventure, in 1970, we returned to India and began preparations on the Ramayana. We also needed to find a space to rehearse the play. We began with the process of auditioning actors and actresses in Bombay for our new play. I remember Amjad Khan came, and others from FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) and soon we had a good crew. While in Bombay, I heard that Morarji Desai, deputy to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also in-charge of allotting government housing to artists in Delhi, so I approached him about a place and he called me to his office at 7.30 in the morning. Gopal had written a preface on our Ramayana, and I showed it to him. Morarji Desai said he would read it and that I should return the next morning at exactly the same time. I thought he was a nasty man for calling me at 7.30 am in the morning. Nonetheless, I went and he had read it, had made some notes and said it was wonderful. I was shown six locations, and asked me to choose whichever house I’d like. I chose this one in Lutyen’s Delhi. Gopal hollowed out the bunglow, redesigned the space, and included a 50-seat indoor theatre. He did a lot of the work all by himself.

Soon after rehearsals began, the cast went on strike over some grouses. Now when I look back it was probably an attempt by some envious people whose incitements sabotaged our crew. It was dreadful and we were upset, but we went to the bank, paid them their dues and said our byes. On a trip to Simla to pick up my daughter from her boarding school, Gopal who had clearly been doing a lot of thinking, asked me to perform all the 22 roles in the Ramayana he had written, by myself. He was inspired by the narrations of Kathas (the traditional Indian storytelling format) at his home in Lucknow, UP. I was not so sure, but Gopal rewrote the script into the form of a Katha and it began to look very good – and we began working on it. But there was more disappointing news. When RSE heard that our Ramayana was going to be a one-woman show, their interest in the project turned cold. They had envisioned an epic story with a large crew. That was a big blow. Nonetheless, we didn’t stop the work and I performed it for the first time in 1970, for a small audience above the porch of Ashok Hotel and later at other venues, including our own theatre.

One day, a team from USA Educational Institute sent 15-20 people to see the Ramayana. It was their last night in India but they were quite impressed with the show and asked us to meet them for breakfast before they flew out. They said it was the first time they had seen something that displayed a contemporary spirit of India, moreover it was in English and hence understandable. They invited us to USA and to perform through their colleges. We went to America, and in the course of travelling, we were also asked to perform at the 1000-seater National theatre School of Canada in Ottawa. Along the way we met with a big New York based lawyer and an angel investor, Robert A. Hendrickson who was known to fund the arts, and was interested in our work. He came along with us to Canada to see how we did with a big audience. Of course, we did splendidly well, and soon he contacted us to do a season on Broadway and that’s how we got to New York Broadway. It was most fantastic. So far, we are the first and only Indian production to have performed on that platform.

In 1981, TN Kaul, the Indian ambassador to USA, suggested that we perform the Ramayana at the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts), Bombay, but NCPA’s response to sponsoring the show was at best luke-warm. Kaul then invited actors Sunil & Nargis Dutt to watch us at Akshara. After the show, the Dutts insisted on paying for the play to be staged at NCPA. We agreed and played for 10 days straight to a full house. I remember after one of our shows, JRD Tata invited us for tea and said that he hadn’t watched the play, but it wasn’t because he did not want to. He had sent his driver to buy tickets but even the cheapest tickets were being sold in ‘black’ outside.

Our Ramayana has since been staged more than 2,000 times over 45 years at the most prestigious of institutions around the world and everywhere we went the theatres were filled with audiences. We did a lot of more work after that. A play called Karma, which was funny and moderm. I produced, performed in and narrated most of Gopal’s acclaimed television films like India Alive, The Kashmir Story, The Sufi Way, Gitanjali and Gandhi’s Gita, a play about Mahatma Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita into Gujarati and how he and his wife Kasturba went through the final revision in the Himalayan foothills.

Gopal passed away in June of 2016, and his last appearance on stage was on April 13, 2016, when he played the part of the British Presiding Magistrate in the play about my father in the English Prison: Suresh Vaidya vs The British Government.
I miss him a lot. But we both believed in our work, the wisdom of life, love and theatrical arts and that should never stop. These days I am writing a play on Gopal and my life. A life that we have so loved, enjoyed and shared. We built a wonderful world together.

But this story is about Akshara Theatre, Gopal Sharman, me, our family, friends and well-wishers. We have been theatre performers for so many years and we have been extremely fortunate. Built in phases over a decade by Gopal himself and his team, the Akshara theatre, a non-profit arts institution, is spread over an acre of land and has grown to a 96-seat indoor theatre, and a 300-seat amphitheatre at the back of the property.

Our life is about our work, and anyone who is a part of our family or the theater has to willy-nilly perform, including our dogs and cats.


170 – Mixed marriages of the Indian Subcontinent and Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


167 – The man who compiled the first English to Hindi & Marathi dictionaries

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

Image & Text contributed by Myra Khanna / Rachana Yadav, Gurgaon

This is the probably the only photograph we have of my maternal great grandfather Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari or as we refer to him Nana Sahib. Born in 1891, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari was the eldest of four brothers. He was brought up in Bhanpura, a district in the Central Provinces of the subcontinent (now Madhya Pradesh, India). I never did get a chance to meet him, but stories my mother and grandmother tell me about him make me feel that would have been an honour to know him.

While there is some documentation that mentions our ancestor Rao Raghunath Singh Bhandari as the acting King of Jodhpur from 1713-1724, I am not sure how it all turned out because in our family’s current memory we had humble beginnings from a village called Jaitaran (Jodhpur District). The family then migrated to their maternal land Bhanpura where Nana Sahib was born. After his birth and as tradition was, his umbilical cord was cut and buried in the soil of our family home’s courtyard and a tree was planted. The house still stands in Bhanpura today, and in it’s courtyard so does a grand tree.

In 1904, at the age of 12, Nana Sahib was married off to 13-year-old, Roop Kavar, my great grandmother. Nana Sahib was not interested in the family business and ran away to Jodhpur to complete his education. He excelled at Marathi, Hindi and English languages and self-published his first works by translating Ralph Waldo Trine’s In tune with the Infinite in Hindi. He then went on to serve as editor to several newspapers & publications in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Patna, Ajmer and Indore. Through the course of his youth, he befriended and worked with several influential writers, poets, politicians, activists and royal families from all over the subcontinent. Deeply inspired and curious about world revolutions, cultures, literature & affairs he became a well-reputed writer and author. Two of his early books Bharat aur Angrez (India & the British) and Sansar ki krantiyan (World Revolutions) won him huge accolades and appreciation around the country.

Nanasahib was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a fierce congressman. My mother remembers him always wearing khadi (hand-spun cloth). In the early 1910s as an assistant editor at Sadharm Pracharak, a weekly newspaper in Delhi, his articles featured Gandhi’s civil rights movement in South Africa and his words spread far and wide. Funds to support Gandhi’s cause flowed in and the newspaper was instrumental in raising Rs. 60,000 to be sent to Gandhi. In 1920, he helped establish the Congress party in Indore, Nagpur and Jaipur. Most evenings at home would come alive with debates, discussions and heated arguments between the greatest of minds of that time.

In the 1920s, he was invited to set up and co-edit an independent Hindi Marathi Weekly Malhari Martand by the Royal family of Holkars in Indore. While serving as an editor he wrote two books on the History of Indian States commissioned by Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar III that won him appreciation and monetary awards from several Royal Families around the country.

One of Nana Sahib’s several great accomplishments was that he was the first to have translated and compiled two 10 volume dictionaries – English to Hindi and English to Marathi; The dictionaries went on to be used as the blueprint for other regional language dictionaries that are used until today, and was used as a reference by authors such as Rabindra Nath Tagore. The dictionaries are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Indian Literature. After the dictionaries he embarked on researching, writing and compiling the first Hindi books on around 30 academic subjects, with contributed material from international and national scholars. These books too won huge publicity and accolades around the subcontinent and were even used as reference by UNESCO in their reports.

Indore state is where Nana sahib earned countrywide respect, but also lost his fortune. My mother tells me that Nana Sahib was an extremely honest and liberal man and his views on religion, marriage, education and relationships were very modern for his time. But his honesty and high standards also made him gullible, resulting in huge losses of wealth. Amongst the many stories I’ve heard, the one I’d wish to ask him about is the time he seems to have contradicted his own belief system.

In 1925, the Bawla Murder Case (aka The Malabar Hill murder case) created a massive stir in the country. A love triangle comprising the Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar III of Indore, his most beloved courtesan Mumtaz Begum and a wealthy businessman Abdul Kadir Bawla, ended up in a royal conspiracy to kidnap the courtesan and murder the businessman by men from the Holkar house. Everyone knew that the king had given the orders and it was a great opportunity for the British to take control of Indore state. With pressures of possible dethronement, the King sought the help of Nana Sahib whose word was held in high regard politically & publicly. Knowing well that the king was indeed guilty, Nana Sahib nonetheless mediated the king’s appeal to political parties and the public. Eventually, his word paid off and the only consequence was a voluntary abdication of the throne to the King’s son Yashwant Rao Holkar II.

One would wonder why a man, so self-righteous and honest would help a man who conspired to kill. My mother and I conjecture that perhaps Nana Sahib was obligated to the Holkar family for its patronage, and returned the favour by protecting the King. As a reward, the Holkars opened up their treasury to Nana Sahib. Overnight, my great grandfather became wealthier than he had ever imagined. Ironically, he got carried away with wrong advice and bad investments, and again overnight he was back to his humble beginnings; only now with additional debts.

While Nana Sahib was still extremely popular and respected, losing money and the debt caused him some embarrassment and he decided to leave Indore and move to Ajmer with his family – his wife and five children – two sons and three daughters. Their home was open to anyone who wanted to learn and study and he would spend a lot of time educating children from the neighborhood. His youngest daughter, Mannu Bhandari (my maternal grandmother) went on to become one of the greatest Hindi authors of our times and his other daughter Sushila Bhandari established  India’s first preschool “Bal Nilaya” in the country, in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

My Nana Sahib, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari died of throat cancer at the age of 72 and spare a few copies scattered within the family, and in some libraries around the world, all of his literary works are either lost or were donated and bought by several publications. I am told he had a huge trunk in which he kept all of his works-in-progress and insisted on carrying it with him everywhere, including in his last days to the hospital. It seems that his last works-in-progress was translating the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica into Hindi.


162 – The day all the states of India were reorganised

AP-Formation-1956_Low

State Reorganisation Act. Legislative Assembly. Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. November 1, 1956

Image and text contributed by Subhadra Murthy, Hyderabad / Telangana

This photograph is from my family album and was taken on November 1, 1956, on Andhra Formation Day, at the Legislative Assembly in Hyderabad. The then Nizam – Mir Osman Ali Khan, speaker Kashinath Rao Vaidya, the first elected Chief Minister Burgula Ramakrishna Rao, and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy (the to-be 6th President of India) are seen in this image.

On this day, all states of India were re-organised by language including the state of Hyderabad. The nine Telugu and Urdu speaking parts of Hyderabad State were merged with the Telugu-speaking Andhra to create Andhra Pradesh, with Hyderabad as its capital. The rest of the state merged with two of its neighbours to form the modern states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

My father M.K Shastri sits in the inner semi-circle in the white shirt on the right. He was fluent in Urdu, and became the Editor of Debates and the warden of M.L.A Quarters. Until this day of the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the independent state of Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam and his family since the 18th century.

I remember it was a very exciting day in Hyderabad and everyone was dressed up well. My father wore a beautiful sherwani. I insisted that I be taken along to the assembly on this important day in Indian History. There were two galleries for people to watch the moment take place. The Speakers gallery and the Visitors gallery, and my father got us a pass to the Speakers gallery. Most people of Hyderabad state were happy that that this moment in history had taken place.

Everything had began to change when India became independent in 1947, Hyderabad was amongst the many princely states given the choice of either joining India or Pakistan. The Nizam wanted to do neither and insisted on remaining independent. Negotiations between the Nizam and the Indian government for integration of Hyderabad into the India Union were unsuccessful. He finally relented to a “standstill agreement” with India on November 29, 1947 to maintain status quo and not accede to Pakistan instead. But Hyderabad state began to experience communal unrest caused by the Razakar’s movement. The Razakar was a private militia organized by the Nizam’s aid, Qasim Razvi to support the rule of the Nizam and resist the integration of Hyderabad State into the Dominion of India. That is until Operation Polo, when the Nizam finally agreed to join the India. In January of 1950, M. K. Vellodi, a senior civil servant was made the Chief Minister of the state and the Nizam was given the position of Governor.

In 1956, I remember I was in class 10 and life was simple, though now and then there was a lot of communal friction. There used to be no traffic, we used to travel from one place to another in rickshaws for mere four annas. I also had a lot of friends, including the Chief minister’s daughter. In days of trouble we were not allowed to go anywhere but to go to school and return right back home.

The capital Hyderabad has changed a lot since. The good consequences of being a part of a state from India was that there was a lot more equality than earlier. All kinds of classes and kinds of people were interacting and working with each other. I too found a lot of great and simple friends in elite classes of Hyderabad. My family however, was quite orthodox, and while I really wanted to become a doctor, I couldn’t and instead got married. Subsequently there was change in our family’s ideas and all my sisters and brothers were highly educated. Having said that, people say that women find independence without marriage but for me, it was the reverse. I think I found my independence after marriage. I decided to become a teacher and over the years flourished at my work and in positions. I am now 78 years old, fiercely independent and am the Advisor to the Red Cross in Hyderabad. Since 2014, we are now shared capital of a newer state of Telangana.


159 – Announcing the bride’s educational qualifications

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(Left) My grandparents’ photograph taken shortly after their marriage. (Right) The Wedding invitation card. Poona, Maharashtra. 1941

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.


153 – Across three continents with a sewing machine in tow

My mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee. Ludhiana, Punjab Circa 1967

My mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee. Ludhiana, Punjab Circa 1967

Image and Text contributed by Pritpal Virdee, UK

This is a picture of my mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee photographed in Ludhiana, Punjab around the late 1960s.
She was born in Nurpur, near Lahore (now Pakistan) in 1929 and later moved to Kot Badal Khan, Jalandhar district (now India). It was one of the many journeys and migrations my mother would make in her lifetime; initially with her mother and father, Daya Singh, and then with my father Prem Singh Virdee after marriage, circa 1945.

She spent time at Nangal when Bhakra Dam was being constructed (my father was a mechanical engineer) then Phillaur, Ludhiana, Nakuru, Nairobi and finally Coventry, UK. Moving across three continents with her daughters in tow – a sewing machine too was always essential. This picture represents so much of the migration history that epitomises modern life, the Punjabi diaspora and our own personal family history.

Migration from the Doaba area of Punjab has been prolific and in our family, it started initially with my maternal grandfather. Doaba is now called the ‘NRI Hub of Punjab’ as a consequence of a significant percentage migration of the Doabias. By the 1960s, my father also ventured into East Africa, taking advantage of family and colonial linkages. He spent time working in Nakuru, Kenya and my mother spent time in Ludhiana; father would often bring “foreign” gifts for his daughters when he returned home. He would buy bicycles, radios and other modern consumables, including a camera for his girls. My mother told me he was quite progressive in his thinking and despite us being girls, he wanted us to have the latest gadgets.

Scanning the old family photograph album after my mother passed away in 2012, I came across this picture of my mother sitting in the verandah of our house in Ludhiana. She’s sitting there with an old sewing machine, a need and passion that would remain with her for the rest of her life. Having no formal education, she was nonetheless, astute and nimble with her fingers. Creating many wonderful pieces of art, many of which I have carefully treasured. From this handwheel sewing machine she advanced to the computerised Bernina, taking to it like pro, and I still have that Bernina.

The photo is also unusual because it’s not taken in a studio, the norm at the time. Most likely, it was my sister who took this photograph. In its messiness, it shows everyday life, yet it also captures the grace my mother had until the end of her life.


150 – Wilhelmina and her cookbook from India

My ancestors Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860

My great, great, great grandparents, Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860


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”.


148 – Picnic at Juhu Beach

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Rumi Taraporevala/ Sooni Taraporevala

This photograph of our family was taken by my youngest kaka (uncle) Shapoor at Juhu Beach. We had all gone out to Juhu beach for a picnic, outside the Palm Grove hotel (now Ramada Plaza Palm Grove). It was a regular haunt for picnics and we used to look forward to our day out for weeks. The beach was totally un-spoilt and had only a few small shacks around. Now I wouldn’t go even if someone paid me for it.

I remember, we would take the train from Grant Road to Santa Cruz and then take a bus to Juhu beach. At that time the Bombay trains were not called Western or Central railways. The Western line was called BB & CI – Bombay Baroda and Central India Railways and the Central line was called GIP – Great Indian Peninsula Railway. I don’t remember what we would do though, I think mainly chatter, run around, eat and some of us swam. Picnic lunches were fun, sometimes they were large tiffins full of Pork Vindaloo. It was very tasty.

In the middle wearing a white dress is Freny, now my beautiful wife, and on her left is me. Freny and I are also first cousins, our fathers were real brothers. Like some other communities in India, in Parsis too, marriage between cousins is allowed. Though we weren’t an arranged match, we just fell in love with each other. She was beautiful. I think even at this picnic I was eyeing her. Our parents must have noticed and declared that we must be made into a match. There was no ‘dating’ at the time, so the way I would get to meet her was – when she would be attending the girl guides meeting, I would go and fetch her back. We would walk through Azad Maidan and at Churchgate take the train to Grant road. At the time she used to live at Sleater Road. A lot of boys were after her, she was a beautiful girl you know, but I got her.

At that time there was not much entertainment for us in Bombay. In school, we were big on Hollywood movies. It was our only past time. On Thursdays and Sundays, we’d be standing in the queue at the Metro Cinema (now Metro Big Cinema) and buy tickets for Four Annas (one Anna was 1/16 of a Rupee).

In this picture, I would have been 11 years old and Freny was six months older to me. I studied at St. Xavier’s School and then St. Xavier’s college. My daddy was a foreign currency exchange broker, and would earn around Rs. 3000 a month, which was a lot of money and would take care of the entire family. After I left college, I joined the same business in 1951. At that time we didn’t question the expectations of our parents and teachers. My father was a tough disciplinarian but that was the general case with our parents anyway. My mom however, was full of mischief, and was a very jovial and fun person.

Daddy used to pay me Rs.100 and when Freny and I got married my salary was Rs. 400. It was a lot of money for us. We used to go to the movies, for the office dances, and then there was Ideal restaurant where Freny and I would eat Chicken salad for 12 Annas.

In the picture there were also my cousins from Canton, Hong Kong – Veera, Perin and Baji. My uncle and aunt were visiting India to show their children what India was like. But then Japan declared occupation in Hong Kong and they couldn’t go back. So they stayed here in Bombay for four years, until they could return. Veera was a beautiful girl. She was dark with one of the most beautiful faces one had seen. She was a great athlete, swimmer and diver -and all the boys used to run after her. My mom and she used to get along like a house on fire. They loved each other, and were in touch all the time. The ladies of my mum’s generation would correspond with each other in Gujarati and the men would write each other in English. Maybe it was because many of the orthodox families didn’t educate the girls for too long. When Freny’s elder sister was studying at Sophia’s college, one of the Parsi girls converted to Christianity. Right then my grandmother wrote to my uncle/father-in-law saying “immediately remove her from school”. Her fears were that maybe they will brainwash her into becoming a Christian.

On the top right are Jehangir Tarapore and his wife Khorshed. Jehangir was a very well known studio photographer in the Gujarati and Parsi community. His images are simply beautiful, very radical for the time. The superb quality of his prints still baffles me. Many of his photographs are now stored by a museum in London, with my daughter Sooni as the guardian.

Sorab Kaka is on the top left. He was a professor of French and he used to teach French at the Elphinstone college. Shapoor, my youngest uncle who took this picture, was very fond of photography. As children we started off with cameras such as the Brownie and Agfa. It had only six exposures. Then they increased it to eight and we were ultra excited about that. I remember we had an old gramophone too, and had to change the needle after each record revolution. Then they started making bronze needles, each lasted three records, then came the gold needle which lasted eight records. We had to change it else it would spoil the record. Can you imagine that?

This area where we live, the Gowalia tank was so beautiful at the time, it was an absolutely quiet locality. The trams used to end at the maidan (playground), and the only sound at night was the bell announcing the tram changing tracks. In 1942, the Quit India Movement Speech was issued by Gandhi right here at the maidan. I remember, I was at my boy scouts meeting and there was a rally going on. Then my father fetched me, because there was a lot of rioting and shooting going on and many people were killed.

After Indo/Pak partition Bombay changed. I remember that in December of 1942, Japan dropped a few bombs on Calcutta, and so all the Gujarati traders fearing that Bombay will be next, fled back to their native places. Several apartments were available with “To be let” signs. Or as my Gujarati colleague used to pronounce it- “Toblet”. By the late 1940s, a lot of people immigrated into Bombay from Karachi and different places – the prices started rising, houses became difficult to get, and what really changed for the worse that suddenly the builders had the bright idea of ‘ownership apartments’. Till then all Bombay flats were only on rent and we didn’t have any ownership. Of course, a lot of the Parsis were pro-brits. You will find many of them still keep pictures of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth and call them “Aapnee Rani” (Our queen). When Sooni did her photo book on the Parsis, I ensured that we get the book to the Queen in England. At first it got rejected, because of the letter bombs going around, then a British colleague helped me re-send the book to her.

I have had a wonderful life with a very warm close knit family of cousins & friends and now grandchildren. Together we have had a lot of fun. There was always some outdoor activity or the other – trekking to Nepal or scooter tours to the south of India- the sites of our subcontinent are amazing. But Bombay, I tell you, was the most beautiful and interesting city.


147 – A decade after partition, they returned to claim their hidden treasure

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My grandparents, uncles and aunts on the day of my parent’s marriage. Jullandhar (now Jalandhar), Punjab. 1958

Image and Text contributed by Amita Bajaj, Mumbai

My grandfather Dr. Gurbaksh Singh Nayar, or as we called him ‘Papaji’ was a well known practising doctor. His brothers and he owned a lot of real estate property in the North Eastern Punjab Province Sialkot‘s “Nayar Bazar” (now Pakistan). The market comprised of 34 shops with residences above. Nayar Bazar was a major section of the famous Trunk Bazar of Sialkot. Till the late 1980s, a board bearing this name of the Bazar was still on display. My grandfather and grandmother, Purandei Nayar whom we called ‘bhabiji’, had three sons. The youngest of whom was my father.

In June of 1947, murmurs of communal troubles were in the air. My father was then a third year MBBS student of Balakram Medical College which was established by Sir Gangaram in Lahore. (It was re-established as Fatima Jinnah Medical College after it was abandoned during partition).
Hearing of riots around the area, the eldest of the two older brothers, who was also studying medicine in Amritsar, tried to convince my grandmother to sell her savings, which were in form of silver bricks and the basement of their haveli (mansion) was stacked with them. Partition was imminent, yet my devout Sikh grandmother rebuked her sons, saying that should they sell the silver: “Loki kahangey ke nayaraan da divalaya nikal paya“! (“People will say that we are bankrupt!”).

I was born in the 1960s, and had heard horror stories about Partition from my paternal grandmother, ‘bhabiji’. On August 14, 1947, the family was eating their brunch and actually saw the Sialkot police running away from the rioters and that is when the family then knew it was time to leave. After collecting their valuables, my grandfather first hid with his wife and three sons in the house of a dear friend Ghulam Qadir who owned a departmental store, then later in the Sialkot Jail where the Superintendent Arjun Dass was a patient of his. (Arjun Dass, later as the jail superintendent of Ambala Central Jail supervised the hanging of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassinator).

A few days later, they had crossed over to Amritsar with two trunks – one filled with gold jewellery and the other with silver utensils. The trunks were carried by a two servants, Nanak, a young boy, and Munshi Ram. Whilst crossing the River Ravi, Nanak apparently slipped almost got crushed by the sea of people fleeing Pakistan and the trunk with silver utensils fell in the river.

My grandparents’ entire life savings, their palatial mansion and the silver bricks were all lost forever, except for the trunk with gold jewellery that reached India. The three daughters-in-law in the picture would often wear the rescued ‘Sialkoti’ jewellery. My mother too, the bride in the picture, is wearing a kundan set from the trunk, gifted to her for her ‘doli’ (welcome gift to the bride) by my grandmother.

By 1950, the family had settled down in Jullunder (now Jalandhar) where my grandfather was given the haveli (mansion) of a Muslim sessions judge who had left for Pakistan in 1947. The mansion at Patel Chowk, G.T Road in Jullunder City, was offered as “claim property” (in lieu of property left behind in Sialkot that was valued in crores). My grandfather, Papaji became the leading medical practitioner of Jullunder and was well known all over Punjab.

The haveli in Jullunder was evaluated at Rs 1.35 lakhs in 1947. It had six bedrooms. The zenana (women’s section) was demarcated by a central Loggia garden and with a fountain in the middle. It housed several kitchens, pantry, store-rooms (with indoor-plumbing), a large hall, dining room and three floors of terraces each with a suite of rooms and kitchen, presumably for each of his three sons. My parents marriage was held in this palatial mansion in 1958. My father at the time was an army doctor attached to the 4-5 Gurkha Rifles and posted in Poonch , Jammu & Kashmir.

Shortly after my parent’s marriage, one day when my grandmother and my mother were returning home in the afternoon from shopping, they saw a huge crowd outside their mansion with scores of policemen, jeeps, police trucks and cars with dark-green purdahs (curtains) on windows. Fearing the worst, they rushed in only to be apprised by my very stoic grandfather that the original owners of the haveli, two women from Pakistan with all requisite permissions and accompanied with police from both Nations, had come to claim some moveable assets they had left behind.

My grandmother was furious and confronted the ladies from Pakistan, yelling at them, that the house had nothing except bare walls and an unkempt central garden when they acquired it as evacuee property. The ladies then firmly asked for permission to be allowed to go into the store-room adjoining the kitchen. My grandmother still shaking with anger and disbelief led the way, followed by the two ladies and policemen. Coming near a walled up alcove, the ladies gave it a few hard knocks with their hands using all their strength, and the makeshift wall gave way to reveal an 18” high glass shade of a shamadaan (candelabra), which was crammed to the brim with gold & stone-studded jewellery and gold & silver coins.

All present in the hall just froze in awe and shock. The Pakistani ladies took possession of the treasure that they had come to claim, nearly a decade after the bloodiest Partition of two Nations in the history of mankind, where over one million people lost their lives.

I am told, Nanak used to see a rat going into the walled up alcove through a small hole, where the treasure was hidden, for months and had even requested my grandmother’s permission to bring down the make-shift wall so that he could access a presumed “khazana” (treasure) for her, and she could maybe reward him for it? My grandmother feared that bringing down that wall may cause more damage to this magnificent evacuee property or may be it was something unpleasant that was “best left unseen”.

My grandfather later became the Honorary Physician to Giani Zail Singh when he became President of India, a position he held until his death in 1986. My father received several awards in the Navy to which he was assigned by the Army Medical Corp (AMC). He was the 3rd and 6th head of the Physiology department of Armed Forces Medical College in Pune. He took charge from a Wing. Commander. Rao, father of Congress politician Renuka Chowdhury. My father, an octogenarian, now lives a very retired life in Delhi and my mother passed away in August last year.

I often wonder if there were others who migrated from and to India & Pakistan had similar experiences to share?

 


144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.

Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.

But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.

My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste.  She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.

Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –

  • Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
  • Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
  • Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
  • Lt.  Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
  • Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
  • Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi

Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.

Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.

As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.


139 – Impressions of a Memsahib

My great-grandmother May Stokes. Vallum, Madras, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1895

My great-grandmother, May Stokes. Vallam, Tanjore District, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1895

Image and Text contributed by Teresa Stokes, Ireland

My great grandmother, May Forence Stokes (nee Fuller) was born in Sneem, Ireland in 1862. Her father James Franklin Fuller was an actor, novelist and a renowned architect of the time. In 1889, she married her cousin Gabriel Stokes, whom she fondly called ‘Jack’. She was his second wife; his first wife had died of puerperal fever, five days after the birth of their son, Hugh. May’s notes are not dated, but I estimate it to have been written in 1895-96. Gabriel was the Collector of Tanjore (now Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu), and they lived at the Collector’s bungalow in Vallam with their three small sons, Adrian, Terence and Herbert, and their pug-dogs Punch and Judy. She never lived to undergo what she writes of with dread in the last paragraph –which was to take the children back to Europe and return to India without them – as she died of an abscess of the liver on January 15 ,1897. Gabriel was left with four motherless boys, who were sent back to Ireland and were raised by relatives. He continued to work in India and became a member of the Executive Council of the Government of Madras, and even served as acting Governor for a few months in 1906. Eventually he received a Knighthood.

The following edited excerpts are from May’s long notes that she wrote for the family titled “Impressions of a Memsahib“. Her notes tell us a lot about the British mindset of the time; in particular where she implies that Indians are by nature too idle to govern themselves, is incredibly outdated, patronising and racist today. But they are also outdated mindsets of a wife of a British civil servant, which is how most Europeans were in those days, regarding other races and cultures, considering them inferior and unenlightened.  But she loved her life in India, and unlike other European ladies who never ventured very far, she travelled  to the jungle camps with her husband, sleeping in tents, rather than stay back home with the other ladies. It must be noted that in those days the term “Anglo-Indian” also referred to the English in India, not just of mixed race as it does now.

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“I was reading about Eastern embroidery in an English paper, at an Indian camp, and I found myself wondering if the English women imagined what India would be like before they came here like I did, before I married Jack. Before moving here, I thought of it as a shining land of flowers, of white mosques glittering in the sun. I imagined the thronged bazaar full of picturesque merchandise, with stately Hindoos and mystical Parsees bargaining for a piece of engraved steel or the right carpet for the jewelled sandals of Jehan’s queen. I felt the air alive with an ancient charm of bulbuls. I felt the soft magic of air, filled with the sweet sad melody of Omar Khayyam. I imagined the East was all enchanted, compared to the alertness of our Western civilisation.

I brought with me to India an already formed liking, and a genuine interest in the region and its people. Since then I have lost some of my illusions, but it is not that bad after all. I have seen the “thronged bazaar”, the narrow, filthy quarters and roads of every native town, the scene of excited chatterings, for instance, a tousle-headed coolie woman, the veriest Witch of Endor who ever sold grain cakes. She tied the coins into a corner of the gruesome rag which draped her old brown shrivelled body, like the most grotesque of medieval gargoyles carved rudely out of rough wood.
I have seen a stately Hindoo bargaining with the tin-man for an old padlock with noisy gesticulations. Most alarming, until Jack laughed and assured me both were conducting the business quite amicably; and indeed when I looked at the tin-man sitting cross-legged in the middle of his wares, I had to acknowledge that he did not look very much perturbed.  Then he curled himself up among his wares and went to sleep again, his native laziness stronger even than his love of annas.
Imagery I have found in plenty but it is not imagery of the poet –the breezes which blow through the trees come, alas, laden with the foul odours of an unsanitary, crowded, disease-laden native village than spiced with the breath of flowers. Still there is much to interest. Women draw water at the well with earthen water-pots. The patient ox with his mild brown eyes still treads out the corn. The grave, bearded Mohammedan still kneels at evening in the field or by the roadside with his face toward the setting sun to worship Allah who is great. The Eyoh patiently tills the earth and lives on the fruits thereof – he is contented with little and grateful for less. He is a perfect master in the art of cultivation. He is a simple grain-eating creature, born on the land and living on it, but he is not without intelligence.

At home, Periamal and Rukmini (maids) grin and chatter on their way, none the less happy because life presents no problems to their untutored minds. Sometimes Ramaswamy may beat them if his food is not cooked on time, or if the annas do not seem to go far enough in “curry stuffs”, but they are on the whole no worse off than their more enlightened sisters. Women bring their own contributions to the household exchequer, and are generally treated with the respect due to any moneymaking animal. They do not think themselves much injured by the blows, which they share in common with the patient and invaluable bullock.

One knows very little in England about either native or Anglo-Indian life. To begin with Jack, he is a Collector. When I heard this in England I felt a little strange. I could only think of a seedy person in a rusty coat with a sheaf of papers in one hand and a black bag in the other. But I soon found out that a collector is really a sort of small Lord Lieutenant in his own district only with very much more to do than the other two Lord Lieutenants I have known. Nothing in his district – which is usually as large as an Irish province – is outside his business. He is the Aunt Sally for all belligerents. To the Eyoh he is “his god to protect him” – to the staff he is the giver of appointments, and promotions, which means rupees. To the average European he represents a fair income too easily earned, while to the government he is a working machine to weave its different systems and varying details into one whole, as harmonious and as cheap as possible.

Part of the year he is bound to spend in camp, so that the British may mean something more than just a name to the jungle subjects of the Queen Empress. Some men think that a “Missis” is out of place in camp but we have often gone together – Jack and I and the dogs, and taken the rough with the smooth like good comrades. And a little roughing it does a Missis no harm. When she has been in Headquarters for some time she begins to grumble over the dullness of up-country life on a station, where the few Europeans meet at tennis and the club, dine with each other now and then, and pass and re-pass each other on their evening drives; but where life is limited in every sense of that expressive word. There is something pathetic in the efforts whereby the Anglo-Indian up-country Memsahib contrives to delude herself with the idea that she is keeping up with the usages of society and not drifting hopelessly behind the times. The most distinct and prominent feature of up-country Anglo-Indian life is monotony and an entire absence of humour. Perhaps it is the climate. Anglo-Indians, who are as a body tied and bound to officialdom, have no time to waste on new ideas. Their work is enough, and more than enough, for their energies.

It is a safe general rule that everything in India is the absolute opposite to English ideas. If two men shout at each other with wild excitement and gesticulations, there is no need to conclude that they are fighting. It is only their way of managing a friendly chat. If a native chirrups to his bullock he wishes him to stop; the tailor sews from left to right; the carpenter puts in his screws the reverse way; and so on all through the social gamut. As one drives past spreading avenues of banyans and tamarind trees, one passes many curious and unaccustomed sights to Western eyes. Rude Hindoo wayside shrines, where groups of bizarre red and white pottery horses and grotesque images keep guard over their swami, and strange, roughly carved temples. One of the largest and most interesting idols and one of its kind we passed by in our wanderings was the Monkey God, of which Jack took a photograph. This shrine is roofless, as the Monkey Lord is supposed to be perpetually growing. “You ought to give him an umbrella at least, poor chap,” said Jack irreverently to the smiling and indifferent “thasildar” who was our cicerone on the occasion.

Scarcely any of these better-class Hindoos here know the meaning of any of the symbols surrounding their temples, though they invent answers which suit the unofficial enquirer just as well; but I have never met any of them who could explain the origin of a sort of cross between a lamp-post and a flagstaff to be found in front of many temples in this district. My apology is due to the antiquaries for this irreverent description of the symbol. They take very little interest in their religion and any vitality which Hindooism possesses among the non-Brahmins is nowadays left to the women. Along the roadside are many wayside graves, of pilgrims who were buried where they died, with here and a European soldier’s grave; and whitewashed Mohammedan tombs illumined, if not long forgotten, by a little lamp whose dim neglected flicker only gives a greater loneliness to the scene. Indian jungle life is busy, and the cultivators work hard, though no people can enjoy leisure with a more luxurious abandonment to the bliss of being, without doing. All Plantations of castor-oil trees with long stems of silvery-purple bloom in the distance; tall nut palms outline themselves against the still, cloudless sky, and spreading plantains make dark rich shade. And everywhere there is a sense of illimitable space.

But the Indian jungle with all its beauty and all its colours lacks that intangible peace which touches the heart in the soft cool grey English country. No one really knows India, but those who have never been in the jungle,  know least. It is in such backwaters that you most plainly hear “the East a-calling” with the voice of bygone mysterious centuries of a civilisation as conservative as the ages hold. One cannot but wonder how many generations it will take the Babu to forget the inherited traditions and instincts of those dim centuries; to eliminate the fatalism and indolence of his race; to cease to be afraid of any approach to personal responsibility, and be fit to take on his shoulders a European-made self government.

During my Indian years I have been in many camps, but of late Jack has always gone alone – and more conventional places, things and people have amused me. But there is little new to write of Viceroys and governments, dinner-gowns and ball-frocks. Environment is the only essential difference between social Anglo-India and social Europe, environment and its consequent limitations.  Of governments, rupees, politics, progress and suchlike even the most loyal and conservative of memsahibs had better not write, lest perchance she speak lightly of dignitaries; lest she should speak of the vanished hopes and crippled lives of men who have given to duty the best of their mental, moral and physical being, to become at last the puppets of a mistaken policy as distasteful to native minds as it is to European feelings; a policy which thrusts on an apathetic and unwilling people a local self-government for which they are not ready, and augurs to them an unlimited right of appeal which makes capacity only another factor in the sum of the Civilian’s dissatisfaction, and any personal influence or individuality he may possess superfluous or embarrassing. Still he spares himself nothing the less because he has lost all hope and pleasure in his work, or because success is no longer the achievement. But a truce to politics. This ramble has grown apace.

Jack and I will go upstairs and see the children in their little beds, under the swinging punkhas; then we will go and sit outside in the moonlight, and talk of anything – everything – rather than the nearing day when, after one or two more hot weathers, we will take them across the dark water [to Europe]; to return alone to the large empty familiar house, and the new consciousness that for us, as for most of us out here, in India, this shining land has lost its glory and become a land of regrets. Meanwhile the night is beautiful, we are still together, and the children sleep. Let us talk long and think as little as we can; too much thought is bad. Time enough to bid sorrow good morrow when one meets it, and the memsahib has no wish to forecast the future.”

 


132 – A Subhas Chandra Bose loyalist who refused the Indian freedom fighter’s pension

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His identity and oath card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His oath and loyalty card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

Images & Text contributed by Ranjit Devraj, New Delhi

My father, P. Devarajan was very young, maybe around 16 or 17 years old went he went to meet his uncle in Singapore from Kerala. Singapore was, at the time, a major British military base in South-East Asia and was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”.

During British Reign, many Indians and especially from the south of India, had migrated to Singapore, and surrounding countries. If they were illiterate they worked in Rubber plantations and if literate they could do clerical jobs, or even find higher positions as doctors and engineers.

At the time he was planning to return to his state Kerala, the Japanese army attacked the british Base in Singapore in 1941 (Battle of Singapore) and he with all borders shut down, was stuck. However, in retrospect he made good use of his time. I am not sure how he decided to enrol himself into the INA, the Indian National Army, that was run under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, but he most likely met and was heavily influenced by freedom fighters and the strong belief in fighting for the Independence of India, a movement that catching fire in Singapore. While in the INA (as allies to the Japanese army), my father then fought alongside with the Japanese to defeat the British. The British lost the Battle of Singapore and surrendered to Japan. Though, ironically, when the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control because of the increasing grants of Self Controlled governance.

One could say that Imperial Japan was the first country that formally initiated a huge battle against the ‘white man’s’ supremacy, an event that encouraged and inspired millions of Indians and citizens from African countries trying to do the same. Japan was also one of nine countries that had forged a great relationship with Subhas Chandra Bose and supported the Azad Hind Sangh, the Indian provisional Government for a Free India.

My father was strongly inspired and encouraged by Bose’s philosophies and beliefs. He was also well acquainted with Captain Lakshmi Sehgal who as one of first strong female personalities in INA, played a very influential role in fighting for independence. The INA after all was at the forefront of women’s empowerment and equality.

The oath card (bottom) that you see was a card issued by the Azad Hind Sangh and as a first-of-a kind experiment offered Indian Citizenships to South Asian Indians living in other countries in exchange of this sign-up of loyalty, because to Bose, India’s people were more important than just re-claiming territory. Hundreds of thousands signed on and it was to become an important part of several efforts made by Bose to help him achieve legitimacy than just formal recognition of the Azad Hind Sangh. Ironically, the same cards were then used against INA in the Red fort trial as evidence of war and treason waged by Azad Hind.

[Translation of Oath card]

I, the member of the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League), do hereby solemnly promise, in the name of god and take this holy oath that I will be absolutely loyal and faithful to the provisional government of Azad Hind, and shall always be prepared of any sacrifice for the cause of freedom of our motherland, under the leadership of Subas Chandra Bose.

Though eligible, my father, earlier a British Singaporean citizen, refused to accept a UK citizenship, a job at the War office in London offered by the British, and then later even an Indian freedom fighter’s pension or benefits, stating diplomatically, that it was honour enough to have been able to strike a blow for Independence. For all his life, my father remained a staunch admirer of Bose. He was later conferred an Indian Citizenship, and died an Indian Citizen in 2009.

 


131 – The mysterious death of my grand uncle, Laxman

My great-grandfather Venkatrao Kadle; his sons – Ramdas, Laxman, Shyam, Vasant, Anant, and daughters – Indu, Vimala, Manjula, Sushila. Poona (now Pune). Maharashtra. 1943

My great-grandfather Venkatrao Kadle with his sons – (L to R) Ramdas, Laxman, Shyam, Vasant, Anant, and daughters (L to R) – Indu, Vimala, Manjula, Sushila. Poona (now Pune). Maharashtra. 1943

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.

[For more information on this narrative, scroll down to comments]


117 – The man who nabbed two conspirators of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination

My Grandfather, 1975. Bombay, Maharashtra.

My Grandfather, Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur. 1975. Bombay, Maharashtra.

Image & Text contributed by Amrita G. Haldipur

His name was Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur. He was my grandfather and we fondly called him ‘Daddy’. In this photograph he was being awarded the President’s Police & Fire Service Medal, highest achievement award for a police officer in that year.

Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur or Daddy was the only person I have ever been scared of. And that fear came from the immense respect I had for him and for the school of discipline he belonged to. I was all of 10 years old when Daddy passed away in 1992. But he left behind a few things which were to influence me for the rest of my life. Deep-rooted values and beliefs, a memory of his charming personality and the aura he impressed everyone one with, be it family or friends, his tongue-in-cheek humour in the most difficult times, and his last words to me.

My grandfather, Bhalchandra Ambadas Haldipur joined the Bombay City Police in 1939 as Sub-inspector , Thoroughly “clean” and incorruptible, he was known for his tireless and thorough investigations, and fearless drive against crime during his hectic career spanning 36 years in the Police Force. Whether working in the Crime Branch or Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), he remained a courageous, fearless crime-fighter who led his men from the front.

My grandmother has always had interesting tales to tell us about the way he worked and one of my favourite anecdotes is the the story of him Capturing two conspirators of Mahatma Gandhi’s assasinationNarayan Apte and Vishnu Karkare in 1948. What set him apart in his investigation procedures was a set of sketches he drew during his chase and trial of the killers.

Sifting through the album with yellowing sheets of these sketches, my grandmother said –

Daddy was part of the special cell to trace Gandhiji’s assassins. A team set out to scour the country for the absconders soon after January 30, 1948. And he was asked to track Apte and Karkare, two co-conspirators of Nathuram Godse in the assassination. He was posted in the Red Fort, Delhi during the entire trial period. For his records, he drew portrait sketches of whomsoever he met – be it the then DSP of Delhi , a sub-inspector at Gwalior, a tailor from Pune or an IAF official. During the chase, for weeks he did not come home, and we never knew where he was. You are lucky to live in the age of mobile phones. I wish I had some such help to avoid sleepless nights wondering where and how he was. He survived on eating raw eggs and followed leads on the two assassins from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to Ahmednagar (their hometown), in Maharashtra. During daylight he would go hunting and chasing leads on both with guns and at nights, he sketched with pencil, portraits of those he had met or interrogated. The day Apte and Karkare checked into Pyrkes Apollo Hotel near Regal Cinema in South Bombay under assumed names, Daddy finally nabbed them after waiting there for them for seven hours.

Daddy became a key official in the Justice Kapur Commission set up by the Govt. Of India to investigate the various events that led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. During the completion of 150 years of Mumbai Police Commissionerate, he was declared as one of the most important Police Officers from the Bombay Police division to have significantly contributed to the country in the immediate post-independence era. But he never discussed his work at home or spoke about his achievements and never let anyone promote him either. All he said was, “I am working for the public and not for publicity.”

Daddy was also so much more than a great police officer. He was a body builder and a Pole Vault Gold medalist at the National Olympics in 1940. A multi-linguist, he had passed three examinations in Urdu while in service. He also initiated the Annual Ganesh Chathurthi festival at Santacruz Police Station in Bombay. After he retired in 1975 as the Deputy Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) he was one of the founder members of the Senior Citizens’ Club of Bombay. He was a music and instrument buff, a loving husband, father and grandfather.

If I had a time machine, I would have had only one wish – more time with Daddy but I’m also glad that I have no such privilege because he would have only been disheartened to live and watch the country today, rotting with corruption and indiscipline.
I have been wanting to share my grandfather’s story for a long time now. He always makes my heart swell with pride and brings the widest smile. He is the hero, my Idol.

 


114 – The Last Great Silk Route trader of India

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

Image and Text contributed by Muzammil Hussain Munshi, Kargil, Ladakh

This photograph is of my great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat, in his proud head gear Pagdi (locally the Thott) with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman, sitting at the Sarai on a usual business day. It was taken by a Mr. Daniel Berger from Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1945, who was probably a Moravian Missionary travelling across Ladakh and Tibet. This photograph along with few others was telegraphed to my great grandfather in Kargil, Ladakh the following year.

Munshi Aziz Bhat was my paternal as well as maternal great grandfather. My mother (daughter of his son, Munshi Abdul Rehman, seated left) and father (son of his other son Munshi Habibullah, seated right) are first cousins. In older times, marriages between cousins was normal like many other cultures of the world. Marriages were fixed when the betrothed were still children and they hardly had any say in the decision.

My great grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat was last of the Great Silk route traders of India. Born in Leh in 1866, he was the son of Khoja Rasool Bhat. The last name Bhat came from his ethnicity of  Kashmiri Brahmins from Kishtwar, Kashmir. Due to influences of Islamic revolutionaries during the Mughal period, several Kashmiri Brahmins converted to Islam but the last name was retained. Khoja Rasool Bhat was a record keeper with the Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu & Kashmir State government. After he died suffering a sudden illness in 1868, Aziz Bhat’s mother brought up him with the pension she received from the Maharaja’s Government. He was a bright student and managed to pass the class V examination from Skardoo Primary School which was the only primary school in Baltistan (now in Pakistan).

Soon after his mother passed away, Aziz now alone, married four women (two Buddhists and two Muslims and had 15 children between three of them. His first wife Khatija Begum came from Gungani in Baltistan (now Pakistan) and had two sons, (in photograph) Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman. The second wife was originally a Buddhist from Zanskar called Kunzes Bee, but she later changed her name to Karima Banoo. His third wife was from Kargil and the fourth, a Buddhist lady came from a village Mulbek about 50 kms from Kargil. With a large family of 40 members, my grandmother tells me that the food cooked everyday was literally like a community feast.

The Silk Route(s) a forgotten road of history, is almost mythological in it’s essence. Eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, it in fact traded every possible item for daily as well as luxury use. Goods were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items in return, as was the trade system of Barter. The overland and sea Silk Routes frequented during reign of Greek Emperor Alexander, and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become a multi-directional, transcontinental thoroughfare for traffic on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot. And Kargil, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route.

An important stop on the “Treaty Road” from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’ as it was equidistant from Kashmir, Baltistan (in Pakistan), Zanskar and Leh. Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Its etymology has evolved from the word Garkill. Where “gar” means from all places and “khil” to stop. And true to its name, all historical accounts of British and European travellers reveal Kargil to be just that. Situated along the river Suru (a tributary of the Indus, which flows into Pakistan) it boasted of a fort build by the Ladakhi King in the 19th century. The old caravan bazaar ran along the river and a few mud houses by the slopes nestled in a green oasis of the Suru valley. The town had a population mix of (Shia) muslim and buddhists, both of whom were very indifferent to the prejudices of creed. Although the local language was Purgi, it is said that atleast two people in each village were also fluent in new Persian and Urdu, and the knowledge of English was very rare.

Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence as a pioneer Silk Route Trader during 1880-1950 when all trading activity in Kargil, both retail and large scale was run and controlled by Punjabis & Hoshiarpuri Lalas. He began his career as a ‘Patwari'(village accountant) for the revenue department, but quit his job in 1915 to try his luck in business. He began as rival to his competitors but soon merged with them to established himself as a large scale trader in the region. He partnered with a Punjabi Sikh merchant Sardar Kanth Singh and started a retail-whole sale shop with a capital of 6000 silver coins (equal to Rs. 6 Lakhs today) and by the end of the year they had made an annual profit of Rs. 9000. In 1920 he established his own large scale trading business with the help of his two older sons and a cousin. The enterprise was named “Munshi Aziz Bhat & Sons”.

Imported from Europe, the shop sold soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. The carpets were imported from Central Asia. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today. The items were bartered between the traders from all over the world but later with the influence of East India Company and Christian Moravian missionaries, goods began to be traded in money and silver coins. The shops was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that “one could even find Birds’ Milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai”. It is notable that stocking such a range of goods in Kargil, almost 100 years ago, with no paved roads or motor vehicles, was a great feat.

The usual trade route began from Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan in Central Asia, Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley in Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs. From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal via trains from where on these goods were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries.

Munshi Aziz Bhat who by now was also appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat (region of reign), also built the first ever Inn in Kargil for central Asian traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai, built as a three story square building in 1920 still stands by the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazaar. It was the main hub of activities, a depot for goods meant for all directions including Tibet, India and Baltistan routes. It also housed Bhat’s seven shops. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for boarding and lodging.

Munshi Aziz had become one of the  most influential people in the whole of Ladakh & Baltistan wazarat.  As a petition writer for the Maharaja he had managed to network with Princes, Kings and high ranking officials from all around the world, including the Moravian missionaries and East India company officials who frequented the town for business and strategic concerns. He was considered a man with integrity because he knew English, was literate and fair in his dealings. He was publicly appointed as the village decision maker, and people from all villages would come to him to settle disputes. For a very busy man he was was a very caring and a loving person. Everyday, he would return from the Sarai, bearing gifts for all of his children and a loaf of meat for his pet dog, a Tibetan Mastiff.  Once, during a famine in the region, he sheltered and fed 60 villagers in his house for almost 50 days.

The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year. All the major trade routes were shut down between India and Pakistan which had now become two separate countries. Hence, all the traders along the route were forced to shut down business activities. The Munshi Aziz Sarai also suffered a similar fate.

My great grandfather passed away of old age in 1948 just one year after the Independence of India and closure of the great silk route. My Grandfather, Munshi Habibullah then joined the state politics. Following him my father, Munshi Abdul Aziz (named after my great grandfather) got into government service in the Revenue department as a Tehsildar and my mother was a government school teacher. My family left the Silk Route trade post independence and most of the family members either joined politics or government service.

The Sarai remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of a museum. On the classic persuasion of a researcher, Jaqueline who immediately recognized the value of the contents, we eventually decided to safe-keep the memorabilia and intensified efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. If it was not for not that intervention, the artifacts would have been forever lost to antiques shops. The Museum is curated from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, from family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties.

The Aziz Bhat Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-West India and the discovery of incredible mercantile items has been an unprecedented find in recorded history. Today, the  museum in our house, This family-operated, public museum the Kargil Museum lives with a vision to preserve ‘The Last Great Silk Route Trader’, Munshi Aziz Bhat’s legacy. It offers anyone who visits a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian business culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


113 – The school that never differentiated between rich and poor

Batch of 59'. Loyolla Hall, St. Xavier's High School, Ahmedabad. State of Bombay (now Gujarat). January 24, 1959

Batch of 59′. Loyolla Hall, St. Xavier’s High School, Ahmedabad. Bombay State. January 24, 1959

Image and Text contributed by Suresh Mandan, California, USA

This is the picture of us in Class 12, who met for the Day of Orientation, at our Loyolla Hall School in Ahmedabad, Bombay State (now in Gujarat). I stand on the top, third from the left. Among the most popular of the teachers was our Sports teacher Brother Bou, (sitting first from the right). A very fierce teacher, the Ahmedabad Football Association now even runs a Tournament in his name called the Br. Bou Trophy.

I was not sure whether I will ever look at this picture again and that too after almost 54 years. But since I have I cannot help but remember all that thoughts that it triggers. It was photographed on January 24,1959, the day of our graduation from School life to the oncoming college life. Our School held an Orientation Class to help us to assess the new world which we would facing in the Life. The control of the school authorities would be gone, the regimentation of the Principal and the Teachers would be gone, a watch on our behaviour would be gone and we would be in an environment where there would be no restrictions to attend the class, to study or to play. We were to make our own decisions regarding what colleges we chose, the faculty we selected as well as the new relationships we formed with friends and girl friends. This was the theme of our Orientation.

Ahmedabad at the time was not a part of Gujarat, as the Gujarat state formed only in 1960. It was a District of Bombay State. Loyola Hall school was one of the two elite English medium Schools of those days; its mother branch St.Xavier’s High SchoolMirzapur Road, Ahmedabad was established in 1935. It was run by the Society of Jesus and therefore we had some European Fathers as well as local teachers.

The school’s location was almost in the wilderness when it was partly shifted from its location on Mirzapur Road to its new location in Memnagar in Ahmedabad. The school building was the only building in an area of about two kms., with no paved roads and no connection to any public transport system. At the time there were no auto rickshaws or mini buses. To go to school there was either the school bus, some public transport, a bicycle or your own two legs.

We were from a lower middle class family, due to partition of India, which had brought very rough times on to so many people and bent us into an unconfident state of dependency. I lost my father when I was just four years old and my education was looked after my elder brother and my widowed mother whose only motto fortunately was “Self Reliance”. My elder brother could not study beyond matriculation because of our rough times and took a job in Ahmedabad so that our family could survive. It was far sightedness of my mother and my grandfather who got us, my younger brother and I into this prestigious school, which was the alma mater of the richest people of Ahmedabad, a prosperous city with about 80 booming textile mills.

I was in class 11 when we shifted to this school. I depended on my trusted bicycle or the city bus to get to school which was about 12 kms from my home. When I travelled by city bus, it was a horrendous journey. I had to change two buses on extremely warm summer days, and then walk three kms from the nearest bus stop to the school, through rough uneven fields and roads.
By the time I reached school I would be so hungry but with meagre pocket money I had to depend on my tiffin from home. Sometimes my rich friends took me to the School Canteen for a quick bite. I was part of the school Cricket team and hence had made some good friends. My experiences with the school were so, that I never felt devalued with or by wealthy school mates, as we see nowadays. The school never differentiated or tolerated discrimination between rich and poor.

I  graduated from college and went on to become a police officer at the Intelligence Bureau in Ahmedabad, now in Gujarat. When I remember those days, while writing this from California, my gratitude and the credit for this post, goes to my uneducated but a visionary mother. And to my grandfather who came only once to my school, to my elder brother who could never come on Parents day or Annual Day because of his job and to my great teachers and friends. About 80% of friends in this picture have done well in life and almost 90% are alive today. This photograph has brought back such great memories, all over again.

Suresh Mandan is a financial Patron of the project.


111 – One of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the Royal College of Art, London

My great great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1920

My great grandfather, Vasu Deva Sharma. Berlin, Germany. Circa 1925

Image & Text contributed by Nyay Bhushan, New Delhi

This is the only image of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, in our family archives. It shows him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, he poses in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady. Vasu Deva Sharma was one of the rare Indians of his time who studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in the 1920s.

Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, (now in Pakistan). In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination (Punjab Education Department) and in 1911 he joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor. The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on December 3, 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma (my grandfather) and a daughter Ved Kumari in 1914. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away and as joint families would, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the two children.

In 1920, at the age of 39, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore after receiving a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. He sailed from Bombay to London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line, and arrived in London on September 25, 1920. (Source : The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; www.ancestry.com)

Upon his arrival in London he stayed in a furnished apartment at 12, Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, SW. His first term studies at RCA began with a basic course in Architecture and Lettering. His first term student file (which I sourced from the RCA archives in 1995), remarks: “Inexperienced in European design and draughtsmanship. Indefatigable in his studies. Has made rapid progress. Shows great promise.”
His second term began with Painting and it included studying Art teaching methods for provincial Art schools in Britain, The study also had him travelling to other parts of the country, away from London.

My father Kul Bhushan, (an active researcher on Vasu Deva Sharma’s legacy) recounts an interesting anecdote by a family relative that reveals information on his final RCA presentation. Apparently Vasu Deva Sharma wanted to paint an iconic scene from Indian history – Maharana Pratap‘s battle against the Mughuls and to obtain authentic proportions of Maharana Pratap’s horse and the Mughul Emperor’s elephant, he visited the London Zoo and obtained special permission to measure a horse and an elephant!

In 1923, his final year at RCA, he moved to another accommodation, the Sikh Boarding House at 79, Sinclair Road, W.14, alongwith some fellow students. As for his progress in his final year studies, the remarks in his student file state: “Plodding, ambitious of improvement, industrious, this Indian student has taken full advantage of the methods and initiative a European School of Art can offer.”
He graduated with an A.R.C.A. – Associateship in ‘Decorative Painting’, Royal College of Art. The graduation ceremony was held on July 20, 1923 and diplomas were presented by Sir Montague Barlow, Minister of Labour. Vasu Deva sent his graduation cap and gown to his then widowed sister-in-law Kaushalya, as his ‘earnings’.

In 2012, I managed to source the graduation photo of his class from RCA which included names of now renowned British art icons like sculptors Sir Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and even more interestingly, his fellow graduates included two other Indians – Uday Shankar Choudhry and the famous painter-engraver Mukul Dey from Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Following graduation, Vasu Deva embarked on an extensive tour of Europe to study original works of art in museums. Not much is known apart from the fact that the travels spanned Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy and Greece. While his family’s support funded his travels, it is very possible that he also worked as a commissioned artist to earn an extra income. But to imagine a traveling Indian artist in Europe at such an important time in the continent’s history makes my great grandfather’s story a fascinating adventure.

This picture (circa 1925) was taken by a German photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin, Germany. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can conjecture that Berg was appointed to the German Royal Court.

In 1927, Vasu Dev returned to Lahore. By sea cargo, he sent around 30 suitcases and boxes full of art books, art reproductions, art materials, studio cameras, complete studio equipment and hundreds of other art objects, garments and personal effects. Interestingly, the photography equipment he brought was for his son (my grand-father, Ved Prakash Sharma) who later opened a photo studio in Lahore called Omega Photo Art Studio.

Vasu Deva Sharma joined Chief’s College in Lahore as an arts professor while practising as a professional artist for commissioned portraits. According to some family sources, he was also commissioned by Indian royal families, such as the Royals of Chamba, in North India.

In 1929, he began constructing a bungalow at 30A Empress Road, Bibian Pak Daman, near Shimla Hill, Lahore. For furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief’s College – a Prince of Chamba – gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber around. 
In addition to making furniture, Vasu Deva made seven easels to teach art to his students at home and he gifted away some. A cupboard made from this wood still stands in a family relative’s home in New Delhi. It is important to note the very significant connection between the then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal paintings. He traveled extensively to British India to research Indian art and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts. According to my father’s recollections, Rothenstein traveled again to India in 1944. He visited my great-grand father at his mansion (that also housed his studio and artworks), in Lahore to see how his former RCA student was doing. As a six year old boy, my father recalls that this was a major event for which Vasu Deva also summoned his son Ved Prakash, my grandfather, to come from Pakpattan to Lahore and welcome Rothenstein.

A year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule, Vasu Deva Sharma who suffered from Diabetes, slipped into a coma with paralysis and passed away on February 6, 1946, at the age of 65.

Soon after his death, his son Ved Prakash was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and he and his family moved to Gujarat just before the nation wide violent partition riots of August 1947. The few belongings that the family members in Lahore could save were Vasu Deva’s original RCA diploma and this photograph from Berlin. It is understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted and they were unable to salvage the artworks and invaluable artefacts which were left behind in the mansion.

My father Kul Bhushan visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But he noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, mentioning Vasu Deva Sharma’s name in English with his RCA degree mentioned below. Today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past and no trace of the name plate either.

As a filmmaker and a photographer, one of my main projects these days is to search for any surviving artworks by Vasu Deva Sharma which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India. I would be very interested, if anyone may have any information on that. For more information that I have found on him you can visit here.


109 – The cockerel-fighter from Punjab who became one of Africa’s greatest cameramen

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pictured on the deck of British Navy ship. Kenya. 1967

Image and Text contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya

The following text is a summarised and edited version of excerpts from an unpublished Autobiography of the contributor.

Looking back over the 80 years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.

I come from the proud martial family of the Sikhs. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although my passport says 25 October 1931, Baburpur, Punjab. At the time, births were not registered, and parents habitually exaggerated the ages of their children in order to get them into school early and so have their own hands free during the day. Baburpur, formerly called Retla (the place of sand), was renamed after Mughal Emperor Babur who had reportedly camped near our village for a few weeks.

My father, Tek Singh-

My father, Tek Singh, was the first person in our village to get an education. He was an adventurous man, and in 1918 at the age of 17, he responded with enthusiasm to the recruiting posters for workers on the Uganda Railway in British East Africa. Believing that there was safety in numbers, he was joined by friends and former classmates from nearby villages and the determined young men collectively took up the challenge of seeking a better life abroad.

This grandiose project of Uganda Railways would change the lives of the tens of thousands of Indians who left home for a new life in an unknown land, most of them never to return. The so-called Lunatic Line laid between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa into the interior of then-British East Africa to Lake Victoria and subsequently extended into what is now Uganda, opened up the East African hinterland to the outside world. The founding of towns, and their later development into cities, would go on to transform the economies of the region.

When Tek Singh announced his decision to go to East Africa, it upset my grandparents immensely. Their only son was going to ‘darkest Africa’, the prevalent view of Africa at the time (still the perception of many people today). The money for my father’s first train ticket to Bombay, and for the dhow that would carry him from there to Mombasa, was borrowed from a moneylender in the village at a steep interest rate.

For the young Tek Singh leaving the village was more than just an adventure. A great deal rested on how he would fare in distant East Africa. Back at home in India, his family would be depending on him for remittances. He also had young wife to think of. His marriage had taken place six years earlier, when Tek was just 11, and his betrothed, Kartar Kaur, was nine years old.

The railway journey from Babarpur to Bombay took two days and one night. And then it took another two days to find the Uganda Railway’s recruiting agent. His shopping list for the journey – then the cheapest way of crossing the Indian Ocean – included a charcoal stove, two bags of charcoal, all the rations needed for the journey, a sleeping mat, blankets, washing powder, bath soap, tea leaves, and fresh water.

Tek Singh – or Bau Ji, as he was fondly called at home – arrived in Mombasa with almost no money in his pockets. He found refuge at a nearby Sikh temple (Gurudwara), where he slept on the veranda braving the ravenous mosquitoes, exactly like how the thousands freshly arrived on the coast spent their first few nights. After a week, Bau Ji was provided a bachelor accommodation by the Uganda Railways. Later, he and two other young Sikhs shared a small railway house that had the luxury of a tiny garden. The trio of bachelors remained life-long friends.

Bau Ji had promptly written home, informing his parents of his safe arrival. The mail though travelled first by sea, and then by rail and horse-drawn carriage and by foot, and took as long as 12 weeks to arrive. By then, his parents had feared the worst. His wife, Kartar Kaur, for her part, was obliged to don widow’s attire (the customary white dress), and was forbidden to use cosmetics. She complied for form’s sake but Kartar refused to believe that her husband was not alive. Amid the uncertainty of my father’s absence, my grandfather Natha Singh lived long enough to hear that his son had indeed reached East Africa safely, but the suspense evidently proved too much for his health. When Bau Ji’s letter finally arrived, the family was overjoyed and distributed sweets to everybody, but my grandfather died shortly after that.

Bau Ji found himself working for a soon-to-be expanded colonial rail (and shipping) network, one that would come to be known, first as Kenya & Uganda Railways and Harbours, and then eventually (in 1948) as the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Almost 30 years would elapse before he felt he was ready to bring the rest of his family over to Kenya. Through the 30 years, Bau Ji had to be content with getting to see his family during periods of extended overseas leave. He was entitled, once in every five years, a ‘six month home leave’ in India. All but one of the rest of us seven siblings were conceived during successive home-leave visits from our father. My youngest brother Balbir was born in Kenya. Bau Ji was able to save money for the education of all six of his sons, including me. Later, Bau Ji sent money to build a primary school in our home village.

Although the India Bau Ji had left behind was riven by class divisions, the world to which he now belonged bore even sharper lines of demarcation. The less educated Sikhs, those who were good with their hands, became mechanics, masons and carpenters. Only well-educated Sikhs could expect to land responsible office jobs. Most of the Railway accountants and clerks were Goans, who also ran the catering department. The people from Goa, who had lived under Portuguese rule for more than 500 years, did not mix much with other Indians. They classified themselves as Portuguese. And they already had their own sports club, known as the Railway Goan Institute. There were very few Gujarati-speaking Indians working on the Railway. Some Sikhs left the Railways to venture into business, but it was rare.

Bau Ji, for his part, had very little time for any kind of life beyond the Railway. He would walk the 10 kms to work from his Railway quarters. He and his two friends Kishen Mangat and Basant Bindra were encouraged by the British Administration to form a Sikh hockey team so a hockey field and a modest clubhouse were duly built. It went on to become the Railway Asian Institute Sports Club. After work, he would walk back home, have his tea, then change into his running-shorts and pick up his Indian-made hockey stick to hone his hockey playing skills.

Our lives in Baburpur –

I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radios existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, would I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.

Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them that my main hobby in the village was cock-fighting. I was the proud owner of a champion white cockerel named Raja, or ‘king’. Raja was fed on almonds and garlic, which made him a formidable fighter. We couldn’t afford the luxury of eating almonds. But for Raja, I would settle for nothing less. Before Raja went into battle, I would fit needle-sharp steel caps over his fighting-spurs – the talons on the inner side of a cock’s leg. In their natural state, a cock’s spurs are sharp enough. But kitted out in steel spikes, Raja could strike deep into an opponent’s belly, killing that poor bird almost instantly. Talking about this makes me wonder how I could have been so cruel. Back then, however, as a 12-year-old, I got a great kick out of all this. Raja slept next to my bed, I was so proud of him. My other passion was kite-flying. Together, brother Joginder and I won the championship for both of our last two years in the village.

Leaving India –

Things began to change for us in April 1947 the announcement of our impending departure had come in a letter from Bau Ji, received in September 1946. Leaving for Africa just weeks before India got its independence did at least spare us the carnage of Partition. When we left, India was still a peaceful place. Yet, within just a few months of our departure, some two million Indians were to lose their lives.

The first time I stepped on to a train was in 1947, at the age of 16, when we were leaving India. It was in the same year that I first travelled by bus. This was a time when, for the first time ever, Indian national election campaigns were canvassing the villages. The year 1947 was thus a significant one in my life. Until then, I had passed my entire childhood without ever having seen either a car or a motorcycle. I saw a flush toilet for the first time only after we travelled to a nearby town to be immunised against smallpox and to receive our yellow-fever vaccinations.

First, we travelled by ox-cart to Malaudh, the small town nearest to Babarpur where I had been going to school. With Partition looming, electioneering was under way in earnest, new buses were being used to mobilise political support among rural populations. From Malaudh, we took a bus to Ludhiana. This was only the second bus I had ever travelled in..From there, we boarded the train for Bombay.

In Bombay, we found a cheap hotel, where – in order to cut costs – the whole family shared one large room, with the males in one corner and the women in another. In the floor of the room there were holes through which, peeping down, we could see parts of the room beneath. Like all Indian travellers in those days, we carried all our own bedding in a sturdy canvas roll, complete with thick leather straps, a leather handle and a special pillow compartment. The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed, sometimes for at least three minutes, not daring to cross if there were a car approaching, even from afar. Bombay was simply awe-inspiring.

In India, there were – even then – bribe agents or ‘facilitators’ everywhere to smooth your passage through the formalities of customs and immigration and to find suitable accommodation for you. At the Bombay seaport, a bribe had to be paid for every service that was rendered. We even had to bribe someone in order to establish who else needed to be bribed. Our bribe agent then made sure that we bribed all the right officials.

The ship, named the Khandala, was dirty and worn. Originally a coal carrier, it had been converted to service as a passenger liner. The journey took 14 days. We docked briefly at two ports along the way, Porbunder in Gujarat and Mahe in the Seychelles. Then one day we saw the lighthouse of Mombasa. A tugboat came out to meet us and escorted our ship through a narrow bay into the port. The Africa I arrived in was green and lush. Palm trees swayed in the breeze against a clear blue sky. What a marked contrast this was to the flat and dusty Punjab we had left behind.

As we approached the shore, I knew I had come to a wondrous land. There were large engineering cranes at work in the harbour. The first human beings who caught my eye on the shore – two white men wearing shorts and a white woman in a loose skirt – were doing something curious. They were swinging sticks up and down. Later I found out it was golf. There were Africans, Arabs, Swahilis and even a few Indians and Europeans. We were astonished by how cheerful and laid-back everybody seemed to be. Most of the people we had seen on the streets of Bombay, by contrast, had looked tense and miserable, as they rushed about from place to place.

After Babarpur, our modest Railway house in Nairobi had the look of a palace. Gurdev, my elder brother soon found a job as a Railway fireman. For two years, he fed coal into the burners of the steam-engines and he would come home with soot all over his face and on his overalls. After a two-year apprenticeship, he became a locomotive driver.

In India, we had been punished for everything in school – for poor grades, for failing to complete our homework, for showing up a few minutes late, even for laughing aloud in class. For a village boy used to squatting on a coarse jute mat on a hard, uneven cement floor, this was a luxurious learning environment. Most of the teachers in Nairobi were surprisingly lenient, moreover, they did not punish for failure, or for lagging behind, but only for behaving badly in class.

Outside of school, life was filled with excitement. We drank sticky soda pop and we begged for turns to ride the bicycles of our friends. I played billiards, snooker and skittles at the Railway Club. At school, we played hockey and table-tennis. Indeed, we became such dab hands at table-tennis that my brother Manjeet and I went on, in 1954 and again in 1955, to contest the final of the Kenya National Table Tennis Championship. I won the first encounter, but Manjeet took the second.

Bau Ji was himself an avid sportsman. His love of hockey in particular was to infect my younger brother, Joginder (Jindi), who went on to be selected as part of the national hockey team that represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Joginder was sent to the prestigious St Thomas’s Teaching Hospital in London, where he eventually qualified as a doctor. Having then just represented Kenya at the Olympics, Joginder had easily found a place at the teaching hospital. Inderjeet went back to India, to a boarding college in Ludhiana, as Bau Ji could not afford to send him to a school in England. Later, upon returning to Kenya, Inderjeet became a popular radio and TV personality with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and was for a while a heartthrob among the teenage set in Nairobi. Manjeet initially took up a job in Nairobi as a clerk in the Kenya Ministry of Works, before going into business. While at school, he received a shield from Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. He was also awarded the Lord Mountbatten Boy Scouts’ Belt. All five of my brothers passed their ‘O’ level examinations. I was the sole exception, failing the exam.

A career in images –

One day Bau Ji gave me a basic, second-hand Box Brownie camera. Bought at a stock-clearance sale, it had cost him 25 shillings – the equivalent, then, of about US$ 3.50. This was the ‘poor man’s Rolleiflex’, with a fixed speed and fixed aperture. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.
In the 1950s, in a prestigious international photographic magazine, I came across a photo essay by the Indian photographer, I.S Johar. His were pictures taken with a Box Brownie of landscapes featuring dramatic skies. Of course, all Johar’s images were in black-and-white, as colour film had yet to appear. His images, though, were a revelation to me. Taking my cue from Johar, I started using a yellow filter for all my outdoor pictures, and an orange one at times, for special effects.

My first photographs were of the Indian hockey team’s first to visit Kenya, early in 1948. In the team was the maestro Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Other great players I remember from that team were K S Babu, Manna Singh, the barefooted Peerumal and the South Indian Raju, as well as the two Anglo-Indians, R S Gentle and Claudius. For players with such an awesome reputation, all were astonishingly unassuming and gracious. None so much as batted an eyelid on being ambushed by me before a match with requests for their portraits. “Dhyan Chand,” I’d say, “Just stand there a minute, would you?” And the great man would duly oblige.

I could not afford to take my film off to a photographic studio for processing, so I learned to process film myself, in a small, makeshift dark room that I improvised in the windowless storeroom at our Railways house. I purchased developer powder and other chemicals from a studio in town. From that studio, I also borrowed a thin handbook, published I think by Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, entitled Photography Made Easy for Learners, which had detailed instructions on how to set up a home-processing lab.

I did not have an enlarger, so the photographs I produced were tiny, measuring just 2.25 by 3.25 inches. With no electric drum-dryer either, I would dry the wet pictures by slapping them on to the window panes in the kitchen, after washing down the glass with Lifebuoy soap. “Mohindri, that’s expensive soap,’ my mother or my sister would chide me. There was some friction, in that kitchen, between the cooks in the family and me, over my encroaching photographic activities. “A kitchen,” I was roundly informed, “is for cooking in – not for making pictures.”

My new-found joy at having discovered the wonders of photography did little to calm the guilt feelings that by now were haunting me. Here I was, a grown man of 20 without a job, still sponging off his parents at home. Having flunked my ‘O’ Level exams, I was beginning to feel anxious I might never find a meaningful job.

So one morning I plucked up enough courage to respond to one of the newspaper advertisements. The vacancy in question was for ‘a junior accounts clerk in an established pharmacy practice’. To my surprise, I received a notification that I was to come in for an interview. At the appointed time, I was shown into the office of the proprietor, an elderly Jewish woman called Edith Haller. I had heard of Ms. Haller, as she also owned one of the photographic studios in the town. Indeed, in those days most retail chemists operated a photographic service as well –where customers could hand in their exposed film and later collect the developed prints.

My formal interview with Ms Haller was mercifully brief. In short, my candidacy for the post of accounts clerk at the pharmacy was rejected almost at once. “What we need is a qualified bookkeeper,” Ms Haller explained. I was not unduly surprised but this time my frustration got the better of me and I nearly broke down in tears. In the doorway, as I was leaving Ms Haller’s office, I spun around suddenly. “Halle Studio,” I blurted out. “What about Halle Studio? Isn’t there something I can do there?” I told her about the little dark room I had established at home. I offered to bring in and to show her some of my photographs. I pleaded with Ms. Haller to be given a chance. She must have been utterly taken aback by my torrent of broken English, by my gangly appearance, by my ill-fitting, lop-sided turban. This was the first time I had ever addressed a white person at any length.

Ms Haller’s eyes lit up while I was talking. There and then, once I had said my piece, she told me she would put me on one month’s probation, starting immediately. From the moment I reported for duty, I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn. That job meant everything to me. My trainer Peter Howlett, although he did not say so, left me in no doubt that my brown skin might present a bit of a problem. Ms. Haller nevertheless confirmed me in my post at the end of the month-long probation period, for which I was paid 150 shillings (the equivalent, then, of about US$ 21). She also raised my monthly salary to 250 shillings (roughly US$ 35). I was mightily relieved and grateful; for now, at last, I had a proper job.

At the time, Kenya’s only daily newspaper, the East African Standard, did not have any staff photographers of its own. Instead, the paper relied on photographers hired from Halle Studio for its pictures of all events. Peter Howlett, the man who had been given the responsibility of training me – was Halle’s principal photographer and handled most of the commissions.
One line of work that kept Halle Studio very busy was photographing babies at their parents’ homes. Peter specialised in taking informal portraits of the babies using a single flash and it was my job to hold the flash unit. The unit was a very large, heavy box, separate from but wired up to the camera. I had to lug this box around, directing the flash at different angles so as to avoid casting an ugly shadow while Peter clicked away. Peter and I made a very successful team. We got many requests from proud young parents, while also going from door to door around some of the more affluent Nairobi suburbs, promoting our ‘Home Photography’. The response we received was generally enthusiastic, and before long we had an extensive customer base – and an impressive album of sample baby pictures.

We were also hired to take pictures of horse races, dog shows and other social events. As a colonial newspaper, the East African Standard – which commissioned most of these photographs – catered exclusively to the tastes of Kenya’s ruling British elite. One day, while Peter was away on holiday, the newspaper’s social editor, Lesley Clay, rang the Studio, requesting the services of a photographer. I took the call and offered to stand in for Peter. Ms Clay readily agreed to take a chance on me. “In a worst-case scenario,” she added, encouragingly, “we can probably do without a picture.” It turned out that Lesley wanted me to cover a horse show.

Ms. Clay was delighted with my photographs. Even I, when I processed and developed the pictures, was pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. This time the picture taken by Rolleiflex camera, and a 8×10 inch size was a magical thrill. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Standard newspaper. Two dynamic white women – Ms. Haller and Ms. Clay – were thus responsible for both of the early breakthroughs in my career as a professional photographer.
With Lesley  I attended countless society functions at which she would introduce her paper’s turbaned Sikh photographer to individual party guests. All were white, of course, and many would simply turn away on being introduced to me, shunning my presence.

The newspaper work kept me busy for years, until eventually the Standard employed a staff photographer, John Parry from England. In those days, the paper paid us peanuts for our photographs. The going rate was just five ten shillings (the equivalent at the time of about $ 1.20 60 US cents) per column-inch.

When the British declared a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952, the Mau Mau struggle became the big news story. We took photographs of the brutal ‘screening’ of Africans in the streets; of detainees in the Manyani Camp; of British troops and supplies arriving at the Eastleigh Airport. I was not mature enough then to take in fully what was going on around me, even though this period was one of the most politically charged in the country’s history. The awakening of my political consciousness would come later, when I took photographs of the Hola Camp Massacre in 1959. It was when the real horrors of this conflict start to hit me.

Halle Studio –

In 1954, Ms. Halle fell ill, and her brother Arthur Haller, who was then the Government Maize Controller, persuaded me to buy the business from her. He even went so far as to find me a partner, in the person of Oded Katzler, a wholesaler of cardboard packaging. Katzler raised all the capital – amounting to the then formidable sum of 20,000 shillings. At first, Oded remained a sleeping partner in the business, but after 10 months I was able to buy him out. Upon acquiring Halle Studio, I immediately relocated the company to a rented first-floor office suite in central Nairobi. This was in Nairobi House, the historic building then located on the corner of Delamere Avenue and Government Road (now Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue). The work was exciting, and although it did not pay well I was happy enough at the time, as I had developed a taste for photo journalism and news reporting. As time went by, my professional photographic assignments started taking me further afield. Increasingly, I was called upon to cover safaris and expeditions in remote parts of the country.

Ambi – 

One evening in May 1958, my father – after coming home from work as usual – told me that he had some “wonderful news” for me. “Mohinder,” he said, “you are getting married.” Just like that.

Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’ Level. Bau Ji, for his part, was pleased to learn that Ambi had played tennis at school – at a time when Sikh girls were, for the first time, being allowed to play sports – was a strong point in her favour.

After our marriage, Ambi was not only conversant with all the studio’s day-to-day functions; she was also taking most of the passport, driver’s licence and ID photographs herself. This left me free to take on newspaper assignments at a moment’s notice. The result was that business at the studio picked up dramatically.

In those pre-Independence days, our bread-and-butter income came from a deal we had with the British Army to take ID photographs of its soldiers serving in Kenya, many of them then trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising.  On at least six days every month, whole lorry-loads of British soldiers would be dropped off to have their pictures taken. Sometimes, the queue would extend down the stairs on to the ground floor of Nairobi House and out into the street. Ambi would sometimes take pictures of more than 300 British soldiers in a single day.

Ambi loved working at the studio. She loved the busy days especially, when streams of people would walk in to have their pictures taken or to collect their prints. She made friends with other tenants in the building, whom she spoilt with her home-made samosas, earning her the nickname ‘Samosa Lady’. The work set Ambi apart from former school friends of hers, some of whom were now also newly married and living in Nairobi, but who – as housewives, most of them – had only limited interaction with the wider Nairobi public. Ambi never criticised her married former school friends openly, but she did, in private, after meeting up with them at weekends, “I am far too busy,” she used to say, “for all this idle chatter” finding the closed world of their incessant society gossip exasperating.

With Ambi at the studio, I could devote myself almost exclusively to news photography, initially for the East African Standard, and then – increasingly – for UPI and other international press agencies as well. Come 1959, I was spending less and less of my time in the studio, as assignments would call on me to leave Nairobi to cover events elsewhere in Kenya and throughout East Africa. When, in 1960, I began covering events across the whole of Africa, I would be away for lengthy periods, leaving Ambi to ‘hold the fort’ at Halle Studio. Having acquired a passion for photo-journalism, I had become ambitious. So, in 1959, I wrote to Planet News Photos (subsequently taken over by United Press International, UPI) asking if this international agency might consider taking my pictures. The reply I received was surprisingly short and to the point: ‘Yes, Please’ – just the two words; no further explanation required; no demands; no doubts even over whether I could deliver photographs of the desired standard. This stunning breakthrough would prove the making of my company Africapix Media Limited.

Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society. 

His films of Ethiopian famine finally moved the world into action resulting in one of the biggest famine relief operations in history. Relief planes from dozens of countries descended on little dirt air strips of Ethiopian countryside round the clock as if they were Heathrow or JFK airports. The very first pictures of the terrible Ethiopian famine was the combined effort of Mohinder Dhillon and Michael Buerk of BBC TV to gain entry into tightly controlled military ruled Ethiopia in 1984 opening the door for rest of the media and rest of the world.  


107 – She emerged from a rural home and became a lady endowed with knowledge & charm

My Parents, K. M. Devaki Amma & Lt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon. Bombay. 1941

My Parents, K. M. Devaki Amma & Lt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon. Bombay. Maharashtra. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Radha Nair, Pune

This photograph of my parents K. M. Devaki AmmaLt. 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.

 


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

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

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

Letter & Text contributed by Denzil Smith, Bombay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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