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The twin cultural ambassadors of India

My grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother, S. Harminder Singh ( second from left) with staff from the Consulat général de France (Embassy of France). Connaught Place, Delhi. 1949

Image and Narrative contributed by Nona Walia, New Delhi

This is photograph is of my grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother S Harminder Singh (standing second from left) with people from the Embassy of France in New Delhi in 1949.

The brothers Gurdial and Harminder were born on August 1, 1916 in Wazirabad (now in Pakistan). The family was from a small town in Punjab, Chamkaur Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru’s, sons were sacrificed. The twins’ architect father Bir Singh had helped build government and residential buildings in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and Chamkaur town.

Bir Singh, my great grandfather had two wives, and the first wife had a daughter. The societal pressure for property distribution (the patriarchal line) was immense by his brothers, so he married Balwant Kaur, who gave birth to the twins with the blessing and prediction of a local saint in Punjab, Randhir Singh. The twins it turned out were quite unlike each other. Gurdial Singh was a introvert, and liberal hearted with a tight circle of friends. Harminder Singh was an extrovert, dynamic, social, philosopher who loved meeting the whos who.

The twins were just eight years old when their 34 year old father Bir Singh passed away and they were brought up by their mother, Balwant Kaur. Their spirit made them known for their strength, as Harminder (known as Kirpal Singh then) would daringly go swimming in the Ropar canal (the beginning of Sirhind Canal) and loved playing the banjo. They studied at BASJS Khalsa Sr. Sec .School, Chamkaur Sahib, and then went to do their higher studies at Wazirabad.

Gurdial Singh then developed a serious interest in the French language and began learning the language in Pakistan, he then went to Pondicherry,  (former French colonial city in South India), for an year, in 1936, to refine his knowledge. It was in 1940, Gurdial Singh, who by now was an expert on the language, became a professor of French at S.D. College (Sanatana Dharma) in Lahore. Gurdial Singh married Harjit Kaur in Wazirabad and had two sons and a daughter; Harminder Singh married Kanwal Singh had two daughters and a son. Both marriages were arranged by Sant Randhir Singh, who had predicted their birth.

After partition in 1947, the brothers moved to Delhi, and rebuilt their lives from scratch. My grandfather Gurdial worked in Delhi’s Dyal Singh College and went on to become the Vice Principal. He wrote many Grammar books and poetry in French. The big milestone was when he translated the Japji Sahib, the Sikh morning prayer into French. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi unveiled his book. He also translated Bhai Vir Singh‘s poems and Guru Tegh Bahadur‘s hymns into French. Some of his original French poems were broadcast by AIR (All India Radio). One of his other big works written in French and English was the biography of Maharajah Duleep Singh (youngest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh) who spent the last days of his life in France.

It was in 1966, Prof. Gurdial Singh also participated in a special programme on French Television network in connection with the 300th celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh. He was the founder member of Alliance Francaise, Delhi and member of the Board of Studies in French at the Panjab University, Chandigarh and at the Punjabi University, Patiala.

My grandfather Gurdial came to be known as the literary genius and his friends who would sit with him to hear him tell stories and narrate poems for hours. There were times, I would see him in his study, writing for days. Eventually he translated, for the first time, the entire Guru Granth Sahib into French. There were shabads (hymns) he would write and sing in French. The songs I grew up listening were mostly in my grandfather’s voice in French recorded on a tape recorder by his daughter, Gurdeep Kaur.

His twin my granduncle, Harmandir Singh was in the Indian Foreign Service and served in Cairo, Nairobi, Kinshasa, and finally moved to High Commission of London in 1969. He was given the third Shiromani Award in 1979 for promoting peace and harmony in a multi cultural society. He was part of more than 20 organisations, globally, that worked towards Sikh charity and community work. He was the executive member of World Congress of Faiths and attended the annual conference at Canterbury in July 1976.

The brothers indeed became the cultural ambassadors of their culture around the globe and their literary genius resulted in a creative life well-lived. Gurdial Singh passed away in 1990 and Harminder Singh passed away in 2010. After Partition, they had built a life from scratch with resilience despite losing their home, in what became Pakistan. They found global fame with their literary genius and their never-say-die Sikh spirit opened up their lives that were full of curiosity and zest to understanding, discovering and sharing new and beautiful views of the world.


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179 – The accomplished matriarchs of a family

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

Image and Text contributed by Rekha Rao, Hyderabad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.


119 – Singing along with All India Radio

Mrs-Kelkar_low

My mother and I with Mrs. Kelkar & her daughter Shalini. Byculla, Bombay. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Joe Joseph Zachariah, Mumbai

This is a picture taken in the late 50s by my dad Mr. O S Joseph and each time I look at it, it evokes several fond memories of my childhood.

The four-storied building seen behind is Rustom Baug in Byculla, a Parsee colony in Bombay. Every year on first monsoon rains my dad would make me stand by the white pail. “having bath in the first rain cures you of all illnesses” he would say. In retrospect, I now see why that spot was good because all the water from the tiles converged at that spot.

I have no memory of this picture being photographed but I will also never forget the Kelkar family. Our next door neighbours. Here Mrs. Kelkar is with her daughter Shalini. I used to call her Aai (mother in Marathi) Aai was more conversant in Marathi than with Hindi and my Marathi wasn’t very good, but we used to get along well. She used to pamper me a lot.

I remember the Kelkars had a huge radio in their drawing room (living room) with high ceilings built by the British. But what fascinated me more was the extension speaker, which was in the kitchen. I used to sit on the small stool in the kitchen observing her as she went about happily doing her daily chores of cutting vegetables, cooking, heating the water for husband’s bath and all the while singing a very famous marathi song “Me dolkara, dolkara dolkara dariyacha raja, Vallhav re nakhwa ho vhallav re rama” along with the the radio on India’s only radio network at the time, All India Radio. I remember deciding then, that when I grow up and have my own house I will listen to the radio and have an extension speaker in every room.

The best time to be in the Kelkar’s house was during the “festival of lights” Diwali, or rather the month before Diwali because of the lovely aroma of the sweets being made in the kitchen. I had free access to all the sweet boxes and it was one of the reasons why my dad forbade me several time to go there during Diwali. Sharad, Aai’s eldest son was another influential figure during my childhood. The way he would construct the aakash kandil (paper lantern) was nothing short of perfection. He was very forthright & responsible and even though I could not understand much Marathi at the time, I could make out that he was someone who had some principles and was fair in all dealings.

Today, I don’t have an extension speaker but a radio sits in my bed-room and is almost always on for 24 hours. There is nothing better than listening to the good old songs.