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


155 – Cavorting around trees in their village

My parents, Umedrai and Hansa. Village Parivarnagar. 1963

My parents, Umedrai and Hansa. Village Pravaranagar. Maharashtra. Circa 1963

Image and Text contributed by Bhavna Mehta, USA

This picture of my parents Umedrai & Hansa, was photographed around 1963 in the village of Pravaranagar (Maharashtra) where they lived for a few years. They were married only a few months. I’ve always wondered who took this picture, staged maybe after old Bollywood movie scenes of couples running around trees.

My father Umedrai was born as one of nine children to Harjivan Bhaichand Mehta and Kamala (originally Triveni) in the small town of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra India. My father’s family belonged to a tiny community of Gujarati merchants in Ahmednagar and my mother Hansa was born in Nakuru, Kenya to Nagardas and Vimla Bhuva.

Leaving Gujarat for Maharashtra as a young man, my paternal grandfather established ‘Harjivandas Bhaichand‘, a wholesale grocery store in Ahmednagar, that still provides for his great grand children more than a 100 years later. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, had decided to make his way to Kenya as a young man and owned a textile & sewing shop called ‘Bhuva Store‘ in Nakuru with his brothers. The family travelled to and fro to India (Gujarat) often.

My parents had an arranged marriage. At the time of the arrangement, my father was working as a merchant ship’s electrical engineer in Bombay with the Great Eastern Shipping Company. Right before the wedding, he quit his job which used to otherwise keep him away for a month at a time. My mother completed her Bachelor of Arts from Dharmendrasinhji College in Rajkot, Gujarat. A cousin introduced the families and they met only once before each side said ‘Yes’!

I was born in neighbouring Shrirampur in the district of Ahmednagar. At that time, my father was an engineer at Pravaranagar Sugar Factory. Far away from her own family, my mother ran our home, made friends with the neighbours, walked to the temple, cooked, cleaned and embroidered. When my mother left on some visit, my father would cook his rice and dal in a pressure cooker before he left for work in the morning. Many trials awaited the couple in this picture in the future which they have decided to keep private. But here they seem carefree and happy and willing to be a bit silly.

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.

138 – The Bicycle Soldiers of World War I

My grandfather S.L Stonely (standing right most) Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1916

My grandfather S.L Stonely (sitting right-most) Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1916

Image and Text contributed by Peter Curbishley, United Kingdom

This is an image of British soldiers, their wives and friends from 1/1st Kent Cyclists Battalion taken sometime between 1915 and 1919. They were at posted in Bangalore, Dalhousi, Deolali, Bombay, and then later at Lahore and Rawalpindi (now Pakistan). The sergeant sitting on the right is my grandfather A/S S.L Stonely. The image may have been photographed in Dalhousie before their posting to or from Rawalpindi. Dalhousie was a quaint hill station established in 1854 by the British Empire in India as a summer retreat for its troops and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, I do not know much about this image and I found it in a bunch of negatives sitting in an old box for years. Only recently I decided to get them digitised. It seems that several of these images were photographed by my grandfather, because the records show that Kent Cyclists Battalion had a Camera Club.

All I know is that my grandfather was a member of one of the Kent Cyclists Battalions which was formed before World War I. Upon being removed from regimental strength, in 1908, the Queen’s Own Regiment of cyclist soldiers was re-named as the Kent Cyclist Battalion, and at that time became the Army Troops attached to the Home Counties Division (Territorial Force).  The military use of cycles had begun in the 1880’s when a number of the old volunteer  battalions had set up Cyclist Sections, whose brief was to defend Great Britain in the advent of an invasion, being something akin to a part time rapid response unit. In 1915, the first units of the Army Cyclist Corps went to serve overseas, including India and were serving primarily in reconnaissance roles – as Dispatch Riders, engaged on traffic  directing duties and also assisting in locating stragglers and wounded personnel on various battlefields.

The Battalion served very well, albeit for a very short while. The bicycle had not long ago been invented and originally was thought to be a good way to get soldiers to move around, but the cyclists often found themselves attempting to negotiate unfriendly terrain, and on numerous occasions were forced to abandon their heavy army issue bicycles. On rough terrains such as India’s they would get stuck in the mud and not much of use.  With little future value, eventually, all Cyclists Battalions were disbanded in 1920. However, of all the various English, Scottish, and Welsh battalions that served during the Great War years, the 1st/1st Kent Cyclist Battalion was the sole battalion to be awarded battle honours. They were converted to infantry and used instead for foreign services in India.

128 – Christmas and New Year in Bokaro Steel City

Winter Season Celebrations. 1968. Bokaro Steel City (Now Jharkhand)

Winter Season Celebrations. 1968. Bokaro Steel City (Now Jharkhand)

Image and Text contributed by Madhavi Singh (nee Jain) , Mumbai

Christmas and New Year celebrations were being organised in Bokaro Steel City. At the time my father, an engineer, was stationed in Bokaro working for a Birla Concern – SIMCO designing the gates of the Tenughat Dam. As an entertainment and socialising hub, the Bokaro Club was the epicentre of our small town. For the 1968 celebrations, to include the children performances had been organised by and for us. We were to perform amongst family, friends, parents, colleagues and our own peers, a daunting thought, specially for my friends and I who were very young.

I was going to perform as a dancer. There were four dances that evening and I at the age of 3+ years was the only child who was chosen to dance in all four. I was daunted yes, but also very excited. There are two songs I danced to that I remember very distinctly. One was, “Pallo latke zara sa pallu latke” . In retrospect, it was one of the most famous songs in Northern India; originally a folk song it got hugely popular as a hindi Movie Naukar‘s soundtrack; people and children both would perform to at events – Be it a club like ours or a wedding, or a school event ; then there was also the famous Haryanvi folk song “ji ka janjaal mora bajra, udh udh jaye mora bajra” (folk song about Pearl Millet, staple grain diet of Northern India). Both songs as we now realise were taught to and performed by several children (now adults) across the country and had them dancing at most events. I was trained by my mother and I still remember a few steps.

The Club did not have a stage, thus there were chairs laid out in concentric circles, in the hall, and the performances were in the middle with people seated around. During one performance, my anklet came off and I remember stopping and asking my mother who was sitting conveniently in the front row, to hook it before I continued. That particular performance, there were just two of us little girls performing. I recall that being the anecdote, which has since been narrated many times over, in school, at home, as well at my mother’s kitty parties to much laughter.

93 – He designed motorbikes, served the British Army and worked in a circus with his wife.

My grandfather, Captain Glyndon Ralph O’Leary, fondly known as Mike. Location – probably Sibi, Balochistan Province (Now Pakistan). 1941


Image and Text contributed by Shaun Waller & Oonagh Waller, United Kingdom

These are the memories of my mother, Oonagh who was born in India to my grandparents, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary (Mike) and Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire. – Shaun

“My father, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary was fondly known as Mike. He was born in 1902 in Toronto, Canada to Winifred and Ralph O’Leary, who were of Irish descent.

At the age of Twelve, he left Canada and began his military career in the Boys service, Indian Subcontinent from 1914 – 1919 and continued in various regiments serving the British Empire on and off until 1946.

Mike was also a Practical Motor Engineer: his brothers and he owned and worked in a motorcycle workshop and showroom called the O’Leary Brothers in Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh. They also designed and built a motorcycle called the White Streak. However, it never made it to production. At one point, they bought an old motorcycle, a Brough Superior from T. E. Lawrence (The very original Lawrence of Arabia) and exhibited it in their showroom.

While in the army in Lahore, Mike manufactured scale models for Forest Research, Rural upliftment, P.W.D. and Irrigation departments and also tactical models for training of mechanised fighting vehicles. 12 such gold medal standard models manufactured by him were on display in the Forestry Department of Lahore Central Museum. I wonder if they are still there.

Mike married Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire in October 1928 in Lahore and subsequently had three children – Michael, Oonagh and Larry. Later the children went to boarding school in Mussoorie: Wynberg Girls High School and Allen Memorial Boys School.

In between postings, and to earn more money, Mike and Sheilagh also joined a circus, I don’t remember the name of the circus anymore, but it was in Lahore and managed by a Captain.Edwards. Mike trained would ride the Drome (‘Wall of Death’ or ‘Maut ka Kuan’) on his motorbike and also climbed a high ladder (in costume): he would douse himself with Petrol, set himself on fire and dive into a tank below full of water. Sheilagh, my mother, play her part too: she stood on stage with a cigarette between her lips while Captain Edwards, trained as an ace shooter in the military, would fire a pistol at the cigarette.

In Sibi, (a Balochistan province of now Pakistan) Mike and family represented the only military presence there, amid railway workers and their families. For leisure, Mike would hire ‘beaters’ and go on a wild boar shoot – the beaters would make as much noise as they could with sticks, tins etc. to flush out the boar then Mike would shoot down a couple. Back home the meat would be shared with neighbours.

On other occasions, the family went ‘fishing’, travelling on a trolley (a bench like structure on a platform with four wheels which fitted on the railway lines). Hired help would run along the lines, bare foot and push the trolley along and when the lake was reached, a halt was called. Mike would unsportingly throw a couple of sticks of dynamite into the water and the stunned fish would rise to the surface: all the men and boys would jump in the shallow end and retrieved the fish which, again, was shared with local families. His last posting was probably in Quetta (also a Balochistan province of now Pakistan).

Mike (Capt. Glyndon Ralph O’Leary) died in September 1945 during a Diabetic Coma. My mother Sheilagh and us children then moved to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh to stay with our maternal grandparents. A year later and a few months before Partition, in September 1946 we emigrated to England.”

On the ship, a whole trunk of personal belongings was apparently lost overboard and it included most of the family photos: very few images survive today. This is one of them.


68 – The day my father committed to marrying my mother

My father, Ranjan Sarkar, Västerås, Sweden, 1970

Image and text contributed by Jaydeep Sarkar, Mumbai

This picture was taken a year before my parent’s marriage. My father, Ranjan Sarkar, had moved to Sweden from Calcutta, in 1968, with his first job as an Engineer with ASEA.
The first child from his generation to work outside of India, my grandmother was particularly concerned about his single life and urged her elder children to find a match for my father. At that time, he was thirty, and only a thirty year old bachelor in the family could be a cause for such ‘epic concern’.
Pictures of prospective brides would be sent to my father by mail, for his consideration. Unsure about committing to marriage, he would resist taking a decision on any of the pictures.
Finally my eldest aunt (my father’s eldest brother’s wife) sent him a letter loaded with melodramatic words of emotional blackmail, urging him to get married, for his “own sake and that of the family”. With the letter, came another set of five pictures.
My father’s friend photographed him here on a Sunday with his Minolta camera, as he went through the letter and the five photographs that came with it. One of the pictures was that of my mother’s, Jayshri Sengupta. Probably the one he is looking at in this image, or not. But it was on this day, that my father decided he was ready to commit to marriage.
A year later, my parents got married. They met each other for the first time, on the day of their wedding, at the ‘mandap‘.
The day was also momentous for another reason. It was the day of the final confrontation between Indian and Pakistani troops, before Bangladesh was liberated on the 16th of December 1971, a day after their wedding. The people of Calcutta were urged to switch all their houselights off, for fear of aerial bombings. My parents got married in darkness, with light only from the fire of the ceremonial ‘havan‘.
Next day, when my mother stepped into my father’s house for the first time, the blackout was called off as India won the war. All the lights came on at that moment as if by divine design, in the house and the city. An occurence that seems right out of an Indian soap, but true! Everyone from my father’s family started cheering loudly much to my mother’s shock and horror!
Last year, on the 15th of December, my parents celebrated their 40th anniversary together.

51 – A Tiger hunter who changed himself to become a conservationist

My father, Captain Prabhakar Raj Bahuguna with a Taxidermically treated Tiger. Tehri Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh (Now Uttarakhand). 1953

Image and text contributed by Sangeeta Bahuguna, Mumbai

This image was photographed way in 1953 in-front of our residence in Tehri Garhwal. Here he stands posing with a tiger he had shot and was taxidermically treated to be mounted in our house.
My father, Captain Prabhakar Raj Bahuguna was enlisted in the Indian Army in the EME unit (Electrical & Mechanical engineering). His job was to repair weapons, vehicles and military equipment. He was born into a family of Raj Guru Pundits (Non Vegetarian Brahmins) from the Tehri district in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttranchal), which was ruled by a Nepali ruler, Lt.Col. HH Sir Maharaja NARENDRA SHAH Sahib Bahadur.

My father like many others from the district, was an avid hunter of tigers and other animals. Along with some staff, he would sometimes be accompanied by my mother and us three siblings. None of us were really interested in hunting and would sometimes wear inappropriate gear like white lace dresses, so that it would annoy and therefore dissuade him from taking us along. But it didn’t. My mother’s reluctance perhaps stemmed from following too many instructions and the discipline of not making any sounds like a cough or a sneeze, which was sure to send the game running.

My father in his lifetime shot 13 tigers in all. But in 1971, when hunting for Game in India was officially banned, ironically, many avid hunters with a conscience or because of governmental pressure, turned ecologists and preservationists. My father, like any other good hunter would keep track of numbers of animals available for game. But when he was told of the depleting numbers of the tiger, he was horrified and immediately went to meet the official working for the Indian Forest Services and who was heading the conservation campaign ‘Project Tiger‘, a Mr. A.J Singh. He then decided to change himself and voluntarily become a conservationist as well. My father since then also always felt guilty for the death of the 13 tigers, so much so that when he turned 60 and his eye sight started failing him and he would say that the “tigers have taken their revenge” and he believed every word of it.

1971 was also the same year when my father served in the Kargil war. But in retrospect, he always said that ‘War is not good, and its consequences are horrible and irrevocable’. One particular sighting he repeatedly brought up was of a Gorkha soldier he saw on a mountain top who had just chopped up an enemy soldier into several pieces and under shock was then trying to put the pieces together to fix the body again. I think it left a deep impact on him.

My memory of our father is of a very interesting one, on one hand he was this hard core, royal blue, disciplined man, but on his alter side, he was a gentle father who would braid our hair, passionately spend days fixing things around the house and most amazingly he was also an artist. At the time of the Kargil war, since all army personnel letters were censored, we recieved many letters from him half of which were predictably blacked out. So he devised a clever method of communicating with us. His engineering background had helped him in skills to draw beautifully. So, he would send letters to us, drawn as comic strips, telling us jokes, stories, tales and about stuff that was happening around him. All drawings had speech bubbles, labelled precisely, along with phonetic sound effects (the funniest ones were fart sounds) and it would rock our imagination.

After serving in the army, my father retired to Mussoorie, and converted part of his property into a hotel. When he passed away in 1996 aged 83, a few years later my mother took it over and I think she runs it even better than him.