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Arranged Marriage

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. 


164 – He donated his personal wealth to save a country in crisis

My grandparents Jagajiban & Kanaka Sahu with their youngest son, Shwetabahan. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1976

My grandparents Jagajiban & Kanaka Sahu with their youngest son, Shwetabahan. Kesinga, Orissa (now Odisha). 1976

Image and text contributed by Samant Sahu, Mumbai

This picture was taken at the Meena Bazaar Photo studio in Kesinga (Orissa) and it has my grandparents Jagajiban and Kanak Sahu with their fourth son Shwetabahan.

My grandfather Jagajiban was from Bagad Kesinga, Kalahandi district in Orissa (now Odisha) and was the eldest in the Sahu family followed by four younger sisters and a brother. Even as a 10th standard high school dropout he somehow managed to get a job as a government teacher and taught mathematics and science to primary school students. He got married at the age of 20 to my grandmother, Kanak. As a young boy, Jagajiban was interested in serving society and was a renowned name in his village Bagad for his contributions towards the development of his fellow villagers.

In 1967, he happened to meet with an Ayurveda physician in the near-by forest. The physician was looking for a herb to prepare a medicine and after few minutes of interaction, Jagajiban discovered that he had written Rasayana Kalpadruma, an ayurvedic book that proposed the ultimate solution for youthfulness. Jagajiban returned home impressed and influenced by the science of Ayurveda. So much so that in 1968 he convinced his wife that he must leave with the physician to Berhempur to learn the art and science of Ayurveda practices. Over time he garnered an in-depth knowledge about Ayurveda and herbs that could cure some of the most dangerous and infectious diseases. In 1971, he returned to his village and began practicing in his village, offering ayurvedic treatments for free. He was famous for treating people with snake & scorpion bites and was believed to cure people just by chanting mantras.

One of the foremost contributions to the country by Jagajiban was when India was in the midst of the Sino-Indian war  in 1962. The papers were abound with news that the government of India had spent much of its money on war and was in deep crisis. Jagajiban decided to do something about it and marched across Kalahandi district to create awareness among the villagers. He asked for their help to save the country resulting in contributions in gold and money from farmers and villagers. He also donated much of his own personal wealth. When the government chose to honour his contributions, he denied it – saying that it was only his duty.

The people of Bagad have now established a botanical garden named the Tengra Garden that is used for research in Ayurveda and is managed by Jagajiban’s son, my father. My grandfather Jagajiban Sahu passed away on February 4, 2016.


162 – The day all the states of India were reorganised

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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.


157 – A photograph to send back home to India

Fehmeed Siddiqui with wife Nargis Jahan. Karachi, Pakistan, 1975.

My husband, Fehmeed Siddiqui and I, Nargis Jahan. Karachi, Pakistan, 1975.

Image and Text contributed by Nargis Jahan, Karachi.

My husband Fehmeed was born and brought up in Lucknow, and spent his early years darning cloth at his father’s shop in Hazratganj. He would often tell me about his struggles in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he moved to in 1965, while in his mid-20s, to find better work. He also spoke about the gruesome violence he witnessed between Hindus and Muslims there, how it shook him, and prompted him to move to Karachi, where his paternal relatives lived at the time. After migrating to Karachi, he found work at a shop selling carpets and a few years after, when some mutual relatives arranged our match, we got married in 1974.

In this picture, Fehmeed and I were about eight months into our marriage, and still getting to know each other. He would take me out on dates a lot, and frequently to Karachi’s Clifton Beach.  This is a photograph from the time when Fehmeed took me out for our first photo shoot together to a studio on Tariq Road, a famous shopping district in Karachi (now Pakistan). He wanted it photographed so he could send it back to his home in Lucknow, India, to relatives who had not been able to attend our wedding.  “What kind of a picture is this?!” my father growled when he saw it and did not allow us to send this photograph. Eventually, we sent another one where I am mostly covered in a burqa.

Karachi was a completely different place then. Couples would be seen going out a lot more. There was a lot less violence. The street outside the photo studio where this was clicked was a popular tourist spot, and many foreigners would be seen sitting around at restaurants here. The pant-suit I am wearing, was stitched for me by a cousin who lived in Saudi Arabia. Such suits were in fashion in Saudi at the time, so he got about five or six of these for me. The goggles were a gift from another cousin in Lahore.


156 – The force behind my grandfather’s success

My grandparents, Bani and Radhika Karmakar . Bombay (now Mumbai). Maharashtra. 1972

My grandparents, Bani and Radhu Karmakar. Bombay. Maharashtra. December 1979

Image & Text contributed by Anuradha Karmakar, Mumbai

My Dida (grandmother in Bengali) Bani Karmakar (née Roy) was born on October 5, 1926 in Shologhor, Dacca District in erstwhile East Bengal. She had a rather impoverished childhood as the eldest child of a large family with three sisters, two brothers and a host of extended family members. She witnessed, at close quarters, the horrors of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, where three million people perished.

Dida did not have much of a formal education as she was married off in 1944, at the age of 17 to Radhika Jiban Karmakar, a soft-spoken 28-year-old man from Gramwari, Dacca (now Dhaka). Radhika Jiban left home at the age of 16, worked in the Calcutta Film Industry as a lab technician and also learnt photography from Jatin Das, a well-known photographer in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He then migrated with Das to Bombay in 1940, leaving behind a young wife in East Bengal with his family, where their first daughter, Sudevi was born in October 1947. The horrors of the communal massacres during 1946-1947 were witnessed by Bani, as also during one harsh monsoon, the swollen river Padma, changed course and devoured houses and paddy fields, the only source of sustenance for many. These two unfortunate events forced the mass exodus of many Bengalis seeking refuge and the Karmakars were among the millions who were forced to leave everything behind in 1948, many of whom migrated to West Bengal.

After a short stay in West Bengal, Bani found herself joining her cinematographer husband in the hustle and bustle of Bombay, which was to be their new home in 1949. They stayed in modest houses in Andheri and Sion where their four younger children; Radha, Krishna Gopal, Meera and Brojo Gopal, were born. From a small village to living in Bombay, without much support and a growing family with a host of relatives, was a tough task for the young mother, which she handled to the best of her abilities.

Radhika Jiban (whose name was shortened to Radhu, on Mr. Raj Kapoor’s insistence) worked as a cameraman and subsequently as cinematographer with RK Studios (now R.K. Films). His work involved erratic work schedules and travel within and outside India and hence primarily Bani was responsible for bringing up five children. They lived a frugal life together as much of her husband’s meager salary was spent on their children and extended family. Her home was the first stop for a horde of relatives and others who would arrive to make it big in Bombay. There were times when there was no food left for her at the end of the day due to unexpected guests and she would have one roti with sugar to keep her going. The matriarch complained to no one.

She found the time to educate herself in English and pick up skills in handicrafts. She never attended the flashy movie premieres, filmy parties or social gatherings while her husband rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of Indian and International Cinema. She preferred staying at home and taking care of her family. Together, the couple witnessed many important milestones in life- graduations, heartbreaks, first jobs, marriages, promotions and the births of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My grandfather, Radhu Karmakar came to be known as one of the ’10 best Cinematographers in the World’ and much of his professional achievements and laurels can be attributed to the sage and timely advice of his wife and my grandmother. He had won many awards during his lifetime which we proudly display in our family home, but what my grandmother was able to achieve was intangible; besides being a great cook, she managed a warm home, raised self-reliant and educated children, and was a role model for all those who came in contact with her. Radhu Karmakar  passed away on October 5, 1993 at the age of 77, in a car accident while returning from shooting the movie ‘Param Vir Chakra’. He was on his way back to Bombay (now Mumbai) to be with his wife on her birthday. Bani immersed herself in religion and spirituality, household work and doting on her grandchildren, to deal with the grief of her husband’s sudden demise.

My grandmother Bani Karmakar, passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 87, due to a prolonged illness. She had suffered a stroke, was battling Dementia and was just a shadow of her former energetic self. She loved being surrounded by us even when she could not recall our names. Sometimes she would revert to her childhood days in East Bengal, calling out names of friends and family who were long gone. Yet, that isn’t how I choose to remember my Dida. To me, she will always remain my strong-willed, stubborn, strict and very loving grandmother, a little rough around the edges, but a gem of a human being. During her last days, when asked what her last wishes were, Dida said that she would love to see me get married and then she could die in peace. She won’t witness my wedding ceremony, but the day I get married, I know she will be there to bless me, watching and smiling her cheeky smile.


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.


152 – The Nightingale of the Station

My mother, Papia Chakrabarti. Calcutta, West bengal. 1971

My mother, Papia Chakrabarti. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1971

Image and Text contributed by Subhrajyoti Chakrabarti, Bangalore

This is a picture of my mother Papia Chakrabarti. She was born to an eye surgeon in a wealthy family of Calcutta (now Kolkata). The family was conservative and girls were not allowed to interact with men outside of their family or even dress up stylishly, as it was considered to be a taboo. At the age of 20, with an arranged match, she got married to an air force officer, my father, Wing Commander M.K Chakrabarti. By then she was a BA in Psychology from Vidyasagar College under the Calcutta University and could speak three languages, Bengali, Hindi and English.

My mother told us that when she first went to my father’s Air Force station posting in Deolali (Maharashtra), she got a cultural shock. All social interactions in the Defense Forces (across genders) encouraged dressing up with style and interactions were more free and joyful. It was the complete opposite of what she had experienced in her formative years. Nonetheless, she adapted to the changes and embraced the Defense Forces culture. She dressed up in style, and hosted perfect parties.

My mother was also a great singer of classical and contemporary Hindi music, and that too without any formal training. She was invited by several people to perform at their events and parties across all my father’s postings. In Chandigarh, she was awarded the title ‘Nightingale of the Station’ at the High Ground Air Force station, for three consecutive years (1983-1985). Despite all the recognition, she was adept at all her responsibilities. She looked after her mother-in-law and brought us all up well. My wife is also

My wife who is also a classical music lover, led to she and my mom sharing a wonderful bond via music, and they would often sing together. A couple of years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and by last July, the Cancer had spread to her lungs. She had the resilience to fight, but unfortunately we lost her. Even in her last days she taught us that one should fight till death and one should always have high thinking, but simple living.


142 – The morning walks at Princeton University

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Albert Einstein and my father, Professor Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo. Princeton. New Jersey, USA. 1955

Image and Text contributed by Sudhir Gurtoo, Pune

My father Prof. Dukhharan Nath Gurtoo was born in 1917 and came from a Kashmiri Pandit Family. They lived in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. His father was an Economist and always encouraged everyone in the family to study more. After completing his own education my father began to teach at the University of Lucknow in the late 1930s. He then studied at the London School of Economics  (LSE) in 1945 had a chance to witness the World War while studying in Europe. A few years later, in 1952, he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to study at the The University of Princeton, New Jersey as a Research scholar.

His certificate from LSE, in my possession, has no Seal on it because it was issued at the time when World War II had broken out and some formalities were left for later. The footnote on the Certificate reads “If this certificate is returned to the University after the War it will be replaced by a Certificate under the Seal of the University”. I wonder if I do try now, will they honor it?

At LSE, my father, whom we called Dad, completed his Bachelor of Science (Economics) at the London School and was advised by his mentors to try for PhD at the very prestigious Princeton University in USA. He got through and began to pursue his Phd in International Trade. Princeton was a very exciting place at the time, and several great scholars and scientists of the time like Albert Einstein, lived as scholars and researchers on campus.

My Dad from a very young age, was very particular about healthy habits and was very fond of walking. He believed that an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day and the easiest way to ensure a healthy mind in an able body. Another person who believed that same was Albert Einstein. Einstein’s daily routine began with a leisurely walk from his house, at 115 Mercer Street, to his office at the institute and Dad would now-and-then bump into him early in the morning while walking the beautiful Princeton campus. He remembered that over short conversations they shared a robust sense of wit and humour.  This image was probably photographed by one of Dad’s colleagues who would also be on his walks. Dad used to say that this was perhaps one of the last photographs where Albert Einstein was seen smiling and healthy because he passed away in April of 1955, a few months after this photograph was taken.

My father had taken a tough call to go to USA for pursuing further Studies. He was married now and had to convince my mother Kiran on how keen he was to receive a Phd from The Princeton University and so my mother agreed to stay back with her in-laws in India. Dad would regularly write letters to her. Since communication at the time was mainly letters sent through US Mail, they would arrive only a few weeks later. My mother would reply back and await his next response. Besides the letter content, she says, she “would look forward to the beautiful stamps pasted on the cover”, and would lovingly collect all of them.

My father got the opportunity to interact and study under several well known scholars during his studies. In London his mentor was the well known economist Harold Laski and at Princeton it was Jacob Viner, one of the most inspiring economists of the time in USA. I still possess a letter written on 27 August 1952 by his Professor and mentor Jacob Viner. According to Dad he was considered to be a tough man and prospective students were terrified to be under him. In the letter, Prof. Viner had made an exception, as a special case, to let father join his courses a little later than scheduled, as the journey on the Ship meandering its way from India would take around 4-6 weeks to reach.

After completing his research and now a Phd Doctor, my father returned to India and joined the American embassy in New Delhi. But he didn’t take to work very well and decided to return to the noble profession of Teaching. He was offered a role in the formation of Birla Arts college (now BITS Pilani) and set up the Social Sciences and Studies wing.

Interestingly, while studying at XLRI, Jamshedpur in 1986, I chanced upon a book in the Library – India’s Balance of Payments, 1920-1960 and was pleasantly surprised to see the Authors name- “Professor D N Gurtoo”. I had no idea that my father had written a book that I learnt later, was considered an important reference for Economists, even today. The book, I found out still sells at a price of $17 at Amazon. I am not sure what happened to the Royalties of the book because I don’t think my father or I ever heard from its Publisher S. Chand on the matter.

 


141 – Portrait of a debutante

Monica-1925-Sepia_low

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

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.

On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.

While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.

The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.

Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.

Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province.

 Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.

During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.

As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.

Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.

Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years.  The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.


140 – “No one ever told me my own story.”

My Parents. Gurdial Singh and Rajkumari Berar.  p. Mainpuri, Lucknow, United Province. December 29, 1939.

My Parents. Gurdial Singh and Rajkumari Berar. p. Mainpuri, Lucknow, United Province. December 29, 1939.

Image and Text contributed by Soni Dave, Delhi

This picture was taken on December 26, 1939, the day my parents got married. I’m not sure of the location. It could be the Mainpuri District of Lucknow because I think my maternal grandfather was posted there at the time.

My father, Gurdial Singh Berar, an ace graduate of the College of Engineering Roorkee, stands here tough and tall with the talwaar (sword) in his hand, but he never even raised his voice in anger. And my mother Rajkumari may look meek and coy, whereas everyone knew her to be a very strong woman. I think they must have been in their early twenties. Together they made a perfect couple and it was one of the best marriages I have ever seen. I have been very lucky that I got to call them mummy and daddy, leading me to believe that it is not just some marriages that are made in heaven, but also parent and child relationships.

My father was a very attentive and loving father. He was well read, extremely self disciplined, a man of honor and respected punctuality of time. He was a self taught nutritionist and along with my mother, who would ensure it was cooked well, we always had nutritious food at the table. I remember he loved children and would take all the children of the family and me to the pool and teach us how to swim. Other kids at the pool would come to him too wanting to be taught. He was also a very hard working man, and I remember his last job before his health started failing was manufacturing furniture for the Asiad Games Village athlete homes.
My mother was one of the most efficient women I have ever known. In fact she was so efficient that she was nicknamed ‘intezaman‘ the organizer of the family. She excelled at embroidery, stitching, cooking, and was an excellent home-maker. I remember, she was also very quick tempered. My father used to joke with her that when angry she must count to ten before saying anything – to which she would say that counting until two was the most she could do.

They both loved me a lot. A lot.

My parents you see in this picture were not my biological parents. I was adopted by them as an infant, from my mother’s younger sister, my natural mother – whom I learnt to call auntie.
Auntie had come to her maternal home in Daryaganj, Delhi from their farm near Nainital (now in Uttarakhand)- where I was born on February 10, 1959. I had two older sisters. My biological father, Harpal Singh, whom I later called uncle, worked in the merchant navy and was sailing at the time.

My mother and father, twenty years into their marriage had had no children and so on the suggestion of my maternal grandmother, and a deep understanding between the two sisters, I exchanged hands. When auntie returned with my two older sisters, I stayed back with my new parents, my mother Rajkumari and my father Gurdial. I called them mummy & daddy.

I was loved like one can only imagine. But no one in the family ever mentioned my adoption. No one ever told me my own story and over the years I have had to piece it together all on my own.
I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, an old lady neighbour blurted it out. After some days I confided in my cousin (my real sister) who confirmed that it was indeed true. However, no grown up ever spoke to me about it and I had to try to make sense of it myself. It left me with deep insecurities and lack of confidence. Being the plainest of all the cousins in the family only worsened everything and chipped away further at my confidence.

I went to one of the best schools in Delhi – the Convent of Jesus and Mary, but I was never good at academics, and so when I turned 16 and didn’t make it through Senior Cambridge, I was required to take the exam again before the schools phased it out to be replaced by the new Plus 2 systems. One of the schools still with the Senior Cambridge system was was in Nainital and so my parents sent me there to prepare for and appear for my exams. My biological mother and I got to play mother and daughter for a whole year.

However, our biological relationship remained unaddressed, until one day, amidst tears we spoke of it. I remember thinking that I looked like her, I was like her in many ways. Our personalities were similar and I completely understood why she did what she did. I loved her with my heart and bore no grudges and I knew she loved me too. I was glad that we had talked but it didn’t necessarily resolve my insecurities.

Back at home in Delhi, we would visit my father’s (Gurdial) side of the family once a year, during my holidays. There too I was a stranger to my cousins who were very close to each other and met very often. But I never felt included and it led to more confusion and feelings of abandonment, which no matter how much my parents loved me, the sense of exclusions left me wanting.

As an adult, I found a great life partner, we had two beautiful children and have been very lucky to have wonderful life together. I also discovered that I may not be have been good at academics but I was good at the creative arts. In early 2014, with a desire to find some more resolve and belonging in my life, I decided to travel to the United States and meet old school mates as well as my fathers family. They were cousins who I would be meeting after almost 40 years. All older and grayer, but this time with no hesitations of acceptance, they opened their doors and hearts with nothing but warmth.

When I came back and was cleaning up some cupboards, this photograph appeared, sitting there in an old box of photographs. My mother and fathers wedding day – and I decided to engage with it and think about our lives – this time for longer. Then I picked up a paint brush and made a water-colour of this photograph (image), my first ever – tracing their presence and love again, because I know now that I belonged to them and they to me. They were the best match made for each other and me, in heaven.


130 – My Great-Grandmother, the incredible photographer.

My great-grandparents Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

My great-grandparents, Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

Image and Text contributed by Nihaal Faizal, Bangalore

My Great-grandmother Haleema Hashim was born in Burma in 1928. Her family had moved to Rangoon in search of financial prosperity, however, by the time she was four they returned to Kerala, India. Her family belonged to the Kutchi Memon community of Gujarat, Kutchi Memons are Sunni Muslims who migrated from Sindh (in Pakistan) to Kutch in Gujarat, a state of India, after their conversion to Islam. Several of them then migrated to various parts of the world. Haleema’s ancestors had migrated to Kerala. It is not clear what businesses or professions they were involved in.

At the age of 17 she married Hashim Usman, whose family, like many others in Kochi, were Sea food exporters, after which he established a hotel. Haleema and Hashim, my great-grandparents went on to have eight children. One of whom is my maternal grandfather.

Haleema Hashim whom we fondly call Ummijaan, was extremely fond of reading Urdu literature, we again don’t know who her favourite authors were because the books were given away. Later, I also found a few letters she had exchanged with people from other countries, who were clearly her pen pals. She was also an avid gardener and would tend to her garden with great love in Fort Kochi.

After her marriage, she began developing an interest in images and taught herself the art of photography through books and magazines. She had in possession two cameras, an Agfa Isolette 3, which was her first camera and then she moved on to a Yashica. I am not sure where she may have bought them, though I am told that her brother would take the photographed negatives to a studio to have them developed for her.

Her subjects were usually the domestic environment and family members of her large joint family. She photographed her relatives, sisters, husband’s family, as well as brides-to-be women from the Kutchi Memon community. Many of Ummijaan’s photographs also featured her children, more so the youngest two, her identical twin daughters Kiran and Suman, born in the late 1960s whom she photographed extensively; one could say that it made for an original body of work. She never practiced professionally, nor do I think she was in an environment where photography was encouraged or paid any attention to, but perhaps it was the very reason she could practice and experiment with no intervention even if within the domestic environment. To my mind, she built a sort of practice like an artist engaging actively with a medium. She would position her children in varying poses, and create sets and arrangements in and around the house and her garden, using furniture and home-ware decorative pieces as props.

Ummijaan continued photographing for around 25 years of her life, which has now comprised into an enormous body of incredible work. Standing not very encouraged, Ummijaan gradually gave up photography. Later assuming that the images had no value and no one would be interested, she burnt her negatives down. When I began taking photographs in my 10th grade, someone in the family mentioned Ummijaan’s images. Later I found some of her picture albums, (hundreds of photographs) and I was floored by the quality of her works. She indeed had a very natural, unique and perceptive eye for creating beautiful images. Acknowledging great value in these photographs, I began borrowing the albums from her and digitising them. Her memory lucid, unlike now, she would insist I return them intact. Which I did. She also insisted that I give away the images to family members, which too I dissuaded her from.

My great grandmother, Ummijaan, the incredible photographer, is now 86 years old though she doesn’t keep too well and her memory is almost lost. She lives in an apartment in Kochi. I now study at the Srishti School of Design in Bengaluru, Karnataka and continue to digitise her works. Noting my great interest and respect for my great grandmother’s photographs, it is incredibly heartening and amazing to see my own family too now extremely interested and appreciative of her works.


124 – The Airforce Wives of Gorakhpur

Mrs. Radha Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1965.

Mrs. Krishna (my mother) with her friends, Mrs Puri and Mrs Roy. Gorakhpur. Uttar Pradesh. Circa 1968.

Image and Text contributed by Kavita Krishna, USA.

My Amma’s (Mrs. Krishna) life has been what can easily be phrased as that of constant transformation, from a simple south Indian orthodox girl into a cosmopolitan fauji (military officer’s) wife. Her life saw so many moves and travels that it made her into an extremely adaptable and a flexible person. Everyone who knows her agrees that she is the epitome of, what was once a compliment, a secular Indian.

My mother was born in Bandar or Machilipatnam in the then Madras State in1946 (now in Andhra Pradesh) into an orthodox Telugu Brahmins household. Where orthodoxy meant continuing the family’s brahmin traditions but also possessing liberality of thought that helped her later in her fauji married life.

Adjustments began with her family moving to Vijayawada and then to Nallakunta, Hyderabad in 1955; right in the middle of the Telangana agitation of 1954-56. She was just a school kid at Narayanguda Girls High School but remembers being teased as ‘Gongura Gongura‘ by boys following in bicycles. Boys those days simply stalked you singing the latest songs but didn’t do anything, she tells me. (Gongura, a sour green leaf Sorrel, is the staple diet in an Andhra household and belongs to the same family as Marijuana)

For someone who dressed and spoke very conservatively in Hyderabad, Amma blossomed into a more cosmopolitan person enjoying the very popular shows on All India Radio like Vividh Bharati and Binaca Geetmala, she like millions of others also became into a huge fan of Ameen Sayani, AIR’s most famous talk show host ever. She would hog the radio and would not let even her younger sisters listen to it.

My maternal grandfather, taatayya, was a lawyer at the High Court and had indulged his own share of adjustments, to study law for instance, he had gone off to the very British Madras (Madras Presidency) and had cut off his ‘brahmin tuft (Sikha)’, a supposed unholy act, resulting in his mother ostracising him for a year or more. Amma says very proudly that she had seen taatayya refuse many a cases despite the stacks of bribe cash people would offer because he could not lie.  “He was in the wrong profession, he wanted to study language….” she adds ruefully. Of course my grandfather spent all his free time translating Sanskrit works into Telugu, playing chess, discussing philosophy and politics, editing Telugu magazines…So when my mother and her friends would go to watch movies, her affluent and generous Telangana Reddy friends paid for rather unaffordable film tickets, she says “We didn’t really bother about such things among friends those days. I did not have much money but nobody seemed to care who paid or who didn’t” she adds wistfully. A few Hyderabadi Muslim friends taught her Urdu/Hindi and she rather enjoyed speaking it.

On religion, my mother remembers that Muslims and Hindus of their economic and similar conservative class rarely visited each others’ houses, but when they did it was for festivals and they did not enter her mother’s kitchen. It was never stated explicitly but was understood. Amma says even she and her sisters were not allowed to enter or touch anything when her mother was doing her cooking or prayers and if she did accidentally touch something, her poor mother would have to go off and take a cold water bath. Sitting separately during the menstruation was the norm, hanging one’s ‘outside’ clothes outside and not bringing those inside the house, offering naivedyam (prayer) to the altar before eating and so on but that never came in the way of friendships. People knew of each other’s customs and respected them.

Soon my mother, began indulging in her love of art and writing. Once she won the first prize for short story writing, a competition conducted by the Telugu magazine Jyoti. She received many congratulatory letters of appreciation. But since she could not afford to buy postcards to reply to all of them she chose two among the 40-odd replies and sent them a Thank you postcard in return. Co-incidentally or one may call it fate; one of the recipients was her future husband.

Amma was not the marrying kind. She wanted to write, work,earn her own living, and was fiery and a feminist before her realisation. But when the proposal came from my father directly to the family – that he was from the same caste, that he was an Air Force Officer plus handsome to boot, was enough to have my grandmother literally bulldoze my mother into marrying my father.

Their first ‘posting’ together was to Gorakhpur in 1967. Amma absolutely loves that place, she says that India was a wonderful place to be young in those days. In their 20s, she and my father set up their first household in Mohaddipur, it was a three storied building called the ATC and it housed five other air force families. There Amma befriended the North Indian Puri aunty and the East Indian Roy aunty.

When the men were away on temporary duty, these three women would take a rickshaw to Gol Ghar and indulge in whatever shopping their meagre salaries allowed them. These three friends, one from each geographical corner of the country, also decided to seal their friendship with this photograph for eternity, for a handsome sum of Rs.15.

Those days my father, a bomb disposal expert, earned Rs 475 in hand after all the tax cuts, the pilots earned a little more. My parents had a lot of financial responsibilities – my father being the eldest in his family, sent support to them, and this did not leave much for shopping. Amma recollects that plastic goods, beaded jewellery and steel vessels that came from Nepal were most sought after by these newly wed wives. The women would quickly finish their rounds and hurry back to Mohaddipur before their husbands returned from work or before it was too late in the evening because that area was also infested with dacoits and political goons.

In Gorakhpur, even the five rupees for the rickshaw was something she had to struggle to save. Drinking and Smoking were the favourite indulgences among officers and everyone splurged on hosting parties, there was never any money left by the 15th of the month, she adds laughingly. Bachelors would ‘drop-in’ for Home made food bored of eating mess food daily and suddenly post dinner or lunch, plans would be made to drive on their motorbikes to Kusinagar or Benaras or to Ayodhya. She found all this very odd initially, this intermingling, this easy casual banter among genders, the adventurous spirit, eating anything by the roadside but she grew to love everything about the life that Air Force had brought to her.

Amma says she had never eaten Chhola Bhatura or Pani Puri before 1967. She didn’t know what they were. All of it was discovered in Gorakhpur. “It wasn’t like it is now, when you can eat anything anywhere anytime” she remarks reproachfully. “For the terrible dosas of Gol Ghar we saved money the whole month, and they tasted so bad, but we were somehow satisfied”, and now she she makes the best Chhole Bhature I have ever eaten.

She also speaks on the prejudices she faced, being short and dark, not having studied in a convent, not being able to speak ‘good English’, not being from a big city (Hyderabad was not considered a big city then) she constantly felt ridiculed and put-down. Considering that she did not belong to a rich or powerful family or have money, she had to really work hard at being taken seriously by others, especially the women, who were quite unkind to her. She learnt to wear make-up and perfume. She grew her nails and painted them, bought nylon saris and matching artificial jewellery, all this was was so unlike she had been brought up. Cutting her long hair off was another bold step. Having a ‘bob-cut‘ was deemed to be more modern, and thus she succumbed to it in the early 80s.

In the year 1982 my father was posted to Sulur, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We ran into the Puris who were also posted there and Amma met Puri aunty serendipitously after fifteen years. They were so happy to be together for the next two years, giggling like school girls, gossiping away whenever they got a chance. It was as though they had never married or had had two kids each.

I am amazed whenever I think of my mother’s journey. When we visited her old haunts of Machilipatnam and Vijayawada in 2002, I saw in a flash how tough each transition for Amma might have been, in attitude, in ideology, in social mores, yet she took it in her stride and managed to raise me and my sister with a very gentle message: that there is beauty in everyone, wherever they come from, whoever they are.

Today, Puri aunty is settled in Chandigarh, Roy aunty in Kolkata. Amma known as Chivukula Annapurna or Mrs Krishna or Radha lives with my father (who also fought two wars and took voluntary retirement) in Secunderabad. I am her older daughter Kavita, I teach language, culture, yoga & vedanta. My younger sister is Pujita and she teaches and performs Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam. We have both chosen professions where there is not much money, but a lot of spirit & passion.


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

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

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

Image and Text Contributed by Sunita Vishnu Kapse, Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.

 


103 – “The only thing that impressed her was a good education”

My grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari, Circa 1933

My grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari, Patiala, Punjab. Circa 1933

Image & Text  contributed by Sawant Singh, Mumbai

This is an image of my grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari photographed in Patiala, Punjab around 1933.

She would have been 20 or 21 years old at the time. It was photographed by R.R. Verma, a Photo artist from Cawnpore (Kanpur). Formally, she was addressed as ‘Rajkumari Bibiji Danesh Kumari Sahiba’. This is the only photograph I have of her in my possession, even though my memory of her is vastly different from it.

I remember her as a simply clad, dignified, exceptionally proud woman, who would spend her time gardening, shopping for groceries in the market, or chatting away with the gardener & her domestic staff or entertaining friends from out of town in Dehradun, (now in Uttarakhand); many of whom were people who belonged to royalty or influential circles. Her home “Sawant Villa”, named after my great grand father, was an open house with people constantly streaming in and out.

My grandmother was fondly called ‘Brownie’ by her family and friends. She was the wife of the late Maharaja Kumar Aman Singh of Bijawar (now in Madhya Pradesh) and the daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (Punjab) who was known as ‘the proud owner of the world famous “Patiala Necklace‘ manufactured by Cartier.

Brownie or as I called her, ‘Dadu‘, was brought up in the lap of great luxury but she understood and adapted to the simple life very well. A beautiful, strong, non-judgmental woman, she wouldn’t suffer fools and was known to never mince her words. The only thing that impressed her was a good education and believed that it was the only way one could change their lives for the better. She thus ensured that all her children and grandchildren would appreciate the value of literacy and education.

Dadu was a very social woman and loved going into the city to meet her friends. Everyone knew her in Dehradun. I remember her dragging me to meet her dear friend, Mrs. Vijaylaxmi Pandit and they would spend hours chatting away while she would keep tucking my hair away from my forehead and eyes. She was as comfortable in a Rolls Royce as she was in a local bus in Dehradun. The latter was how she travelled to visit me when I was studying at the Doon School. She insisted on teaching us how to walk barefoot on Bajri (pebbled) pathways and chew on a Datun (Neem twig commonly used to clean teeth), in retrospect I think it was to prepare us for the real world.

I also remember, a few of her interesting obsessions were collecting imported soaps and canvas shopping bags. Anyone who ever travelled abroad had to bring back bars of soaps, canvas bags and chocolates. I remember one soap in particular in her bathroom was shaped like a fish. It seems that her quirky fascination with soaps may have passed on to me.

After an accidental fall in the early 90s, her health began to fail and she passed away in her sleep, peacefully in 2005.

This photograph of my grandmother is framed and hung in my dining room. While I never saw her dressed like this, the dignity and pride I see in it, is alive and inspiring.

 


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

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

Image and Text contributed by Zinnia Naqvi, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


79 – A 100 years ago, she stepped into a world where no widow had dared tread

My great grand parents (right most) with the Chennagiri Family. Tumkur, Mysore State (now in Karnataka). Circa 1901

Image and Text contributed by Laxmi Murthy, Bangalore

This picture is thought to have been taken in Tumkur, State of Mysore, immediately after the marriage of my great grand parents Chennagiri Amba Bai, 12 years old (standing top right) with Sreenivasa Rao, then 18 (middle row, sitting right most), with Amba Bai’s paternal family, the Chennagiris. I must thank my aunt Prabhamani Rao for all the help in identifying the people of my ancestral family found in this image.

Born in 1889 into an orthodox Brahmin family in the erstwhile Mysore State (now in Karnataka), she was widowed at the age of 24 with three children. Sreenivasa Rao, Ambi’s husband was in the Police. He was also a wrestler and a champion swimmer. He died suddenly in 1913, caught in a whirlpool while swimming in Kempambudi Lake (now a sewerage collection tank) in Bangalore.

Amba Bai whom we fondly called Ambi, triumphed over her tragic destiny by empowering herself with education. She defied conservative society to educate herself through college, become economically independent, and went on to become the principal of Vani Vilas Girls School in Bangalore. Nothing short of a saga of grit and determination, Ambi’s story serves as an inspiration to women who face oppression till today. In her determination to break away from the shackles of social customs, which heaped on a widow the most inhuman treatment, she had the support of her enlightened father, C Krishna Rao, fondly called Rayaru, and his colleagues. With their encouragement she managed to step into a world where no widow had dared to tread.

Ambi’s father Rayaru (middle row, third from left) was the head of the Chennagiri family and a Director of Public Instruction. He was much respected and loved for his vision, intelligence and belief in women’s education. He fathered 14 children, the one on his lap being the 11th, C Padmanabha Rao.

Ambi died in 1971 at the grand old age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of love, courage and strong values, which are cherished to this day by three generations of women after her. The story of Amba Bai, Ambi, has been reconstructed by her granddaughter Vimala Murthy, my mother, with inputs from surviving members of her family.

Chronicling the extraordinary grit and courage of this woman of nearly 100 years ago, the book is not just a tribute from two generations of progeny but also a very valuable record of a vanished socio-cultural-familial scenarios. The book, self published in 2007, in addition to being an account of life in Karnataka in the early 20th century, also contains rare photographs more than a century old, reproductions of Amba Bai’s diaries, letters, accounts books and notations – a unique addition to any archive on women. For copies of the book you can write to me here.


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.


46 – A teenaged couple’s fight for freedom

My Grandmother Chameli Devi Jain and Grandfather Phool Chand Jain, Delhi. Circa 1923

Image and text contributed by Sreenivasan Jain, Journalist, New Delhi

Some text is paraphrased from the Book – Civil Disobedience : Two Freedom Struggles, One Life, memoirs of my father LC Jain, noted economist and Gandhian.

This image was photographed in Delhi, shortly after my paternal grandparents Chameli and Phool Chand, got married. She was 14 and he was 16. It was unusual for couples in our family to be photographed, especially holding hands, which turned out to be an indication of the unconventional direction their lives would take. They were Gandhians and freedom fighters.

The only visible reminder of her brush with the radical politics of the freedom movement was the milky cornea in her right eye, the result of an infection picked up in Lahore Jail where she had spent 4 months in 1932. Otherwise, she was Ammaji: gentle, almost luminous in her white saris, regular with her samaik (Jain prayer), someone who would take great pleasure, on our Sunday visits, to feed us dal chawal (rice and lentils) mixed with her own hands.

My grandmother grew up in a village called Bahadarpur in Alwar, about four hours south of Delhi, in a deeply conservative Jain family. The family was locally influential; they were traders in cotton turbans, woven by local Muslim weavers and sold in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. They also were moneylenders. As with much of rural Rajasthan, the women were in purdah. Within two years of their marriage, their first child, my father, was born.

Ammaji moved with my grandfather into the family home in the teeming bylanes of Dariba in Chandni Chowk. But he had developed a growing interest in Gandhi and the nationalist movement and soon broke away from the family business to join the Delhi Congress. In 1929, soon after the call for Poorn Swaraj at the Lahore session, he was arrested for the first time.

My grandfather’s stint in jail exposed him to even more radical politics. Along with his Congress membership, he also became part of the revolutionary Hindustan Socialist Republican Association which counted Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad amongst its members. (Azad, in an interview, acknowledged that he received his first revolver from my grandfather). He also became a reporter for the nationalist newspaper at the time, Vir Arjun, whose editor he had met in jail.

In 1932, Gandhi called for a major nationwide satyagraha against foreign goods. It was also the year a bomb was thrown at Lord Lothian, an act in which my grandfather played a role. When he told my grandmother that he was going to jail, she said this time she would go to prison first, by taking part in the swadeshi satyagraha. The household was stunned. Ammaji’s life had revolved around ritual, the kitchen and ghoonghat. Her decision led to the following heated exchange; witnessed by my father, age 7:

Babaji: “You don’t know anything about jail.”

Ammaji: “Nor did you when you were first arrested.”

Babaji: “Who will look after the children ?”

Ammaji: “You will.”

Sensing that things were getting out of hand, my great grandmother, Badi Ammaji locked both of them into a room. But my grandfather apparently fashioned an escape from the window using knotted dhotis and Ammaji, head uncovered, marched with other women pouring out of their homes towards the main bazaar. The crowd had swelled into hundreds. There were cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’. As they began to move around picketing shops selling foreign goods, they were arrested, taken to Delhi Jail, and charged with four and half months of rigorous imprisonment.

Her arrest, not surprisingly, outraged the family in Alwar. Umrao Singhji, Ammaji’s father, came to Delhi and had a big argument with my great grandfather, accusing the in-laws of  ‘ruining our princess’. But Ammaji found an ally in her in-laws, who refused to pay her bail out of respect for her satyagraha. Umrao Singhji then tried to talk his daughter out of it when she was being transferred to Lahore Jail.  ‘Chameli, apologise, ask for pardon.’  But Ammaji asked him not to worry. ‘Bolo Bharat Mata ki Jai’, she said, as she was being led away in a rickshaw along with the other prisoners.  ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, responded her father.

She returned from Lahore four months later, a minor heroine. But there was also loss. Lakshmi, her daughter, five years old, fell from the balcony of the house and died when she was in Lahore jail. And there was the milky cornea – the loss of an eye. But her world had somewhat widened. She wore her ghoonghat a few inches higher. She gave her Rajasthani ghaghra choli away, and wore only hand-spun.

She spun on the charkha. She would attend meetings with other women on matters of community reform, like widow remarriage and also became more involved in the activities of the local sthanak, the Jain community’s prayer and meditation hall. She had, as it turns out, quietly fashioned her own blend of Jain renunciation and Gandhian abstinence.

In the years that followed, my grandfather retained his engagement with the freedom struggle. He would often go to sit in the family’s property agency in Model Town, but his real passion, which consumed most of his last 30 years was compiling a massive index of freedom fighters, a staggering 11 volume chronicle of the stories of countless ordinary men and women, who took part in protests, bomb conspiracies, went to jail, lived and died. For my grandmother, it was a gradual return to a more conventional domesticity.

But, that single action that morning in 1932 had opened up a world: a young woman from a deeply conservative family, who became the first Jain woman in her neighbourhood to go to jail, who was named on the day of her arrest in the Hindustan Times with all the other satyagrahis and who would return home to other freedoms, even if minor, like a ghoonghat that could be worn a few inches back.

And for that, she would one day have an award named after her. The Chameli Devi Jain Award.