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99 – Uncannily bonded to a famous grandfather I never knew

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

(Left to Right) My grandfather Salil Chowdhury with my aunt Tulika, his sister Lily with my eldest aunt Aloka, and my grandmother Jyoti Chowdhury with my mother, Lipika. Bombay, Maharashta. Circa 1959

Image and Text contributed by Aurina Chatterji, Bombay/Toronto

Even though he died when I was 12, I never really knew my grandfather, the famous music Director Salil Chowdhury.

Bapi Dadu, as we called him, was an infrequent visitor at 16, Hillcrest, Perry Cross Road, Bandra. It was my grandmother, his wife’s house, the site of almost daily family congregations. I never wondered why he didn’t live in this house. Maybe it was because Bapi still occupied 16, Hill Crest like a benevolent ghost. The walls were plastered with his photographs, posters, awards. His songs drifted lazily from my grandmother’s trusty companion, the radio transistor, the sound often muffled by pillows.

I remember watching Bapi on Doordarshan, on one occasion talking to Asha Bhosle, on another – in the valorous yet invariably mangled Hindi of Bengalis – talking about Kishore Kumar. I remember numerous videos of him conducting a choir. I remember the twinkle in his eye, his proudly bald head and the way his hair always curled at his nape, begging for a hair cut.

One day, in our Bapi-bedecked hall, my older cousin told me in conspiratorial tones that Bapi had another wife and he had other children and that is why he lived in Calcutta and that is why we rarely saw him. I don’t remember being particularly affected. I do remember the puzzle pieces rapidly fitting into their places, but the complete picture, to me, was just a piece of delicious gossip. Like the happily stupid child I was, I didn’t think of our mothers’ devastation, nor the stigma of my grandmother being a single mother in 1960s India. I continued to feel a sly pride when people introduced me as Salil Chowdhury’s grand-daughter and I continued to look forward to Bapi’s rare but always joyful visits.

As I grew up, my personal memories of Bapi grew so blurry as to feel like some elaborate dream. The less I remembered, the more curious I became. This is what I learned: He was an avowed communist, a big fan of the USSR. He once accompanied Charlie Chaplin on the piano and he thought very highly of the Beatles.

I discovered his early, pre-Indian Cinema work – raw, angry, shamelessly political songs that were anti-colonialism, anti-zamindari, anti-war. As a teenager being gently tugged to the left by her nascent political beliefs, these songs were a revelation. I didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics – I speak Bengali like Bapi spoke Hindi, with less valour and more mangled – but what I did understand, I related to it viscerally.

Bapi’s idealistic ideas for a newly independent India, his poetic cries for justice were framed in complicated, meandering melodies, supported by beautifully feisty harmonies. I found myself in the fairly unique position of becoming musically obsessed with my own grandfather, a state that was both cool and awkward, almost narcissistic.

But for all his generosity when it came to the outside world, like so many other luminaries before and after him, Bapi was less than exemplary in his personal life. He had abandoned a devoted wife, a wife he had fallen for while he tutored her in Philosophy, a wife he had secretly married much to the chagrin of her Brahmin father, a wife who selflessly clothed and fed and mothered many of the Film & Cinema aspirants who followed Bapi from small-town Bengal. He abandoned his three little ones, the musically named Aloka, Tulika, Lipika, who, to my shock and eternal admiration, harbour no resentment against their deeply loving but absent father.
He knew all of this. He probably didn’t know that he also unwittingly abandoned his grandchildren. He showered us generously with love and ghost stories, but he always disappeared, leaving behind only the fragrance of his tobacco pipe.

To me, he was barely a grandfather. He was simply the reason the Bangladeshi florists by our home never charged us, the reason strangers would fawn over my grandmother, the reason some of my teachers were partial to me. 

And yet, 18 years after his death, I find myself uncannily bonded to a man I never knew. I am fascinated by colonial history. I obsessively read about Russia. I sing in a choir.

I wish I could ask my grandfather the questions that pop into my mind with the certainty of sunrise when I think of him: What was it like to hide in toilet holes to escape the British? Did you really think Stalin was a good man? How about Brezhnev? Can you teach me how to create harmonies? What are your thoughts on Putin? What do you think of the CPI(M) now? Is this how you pictured independent India?

Our similarities, of course, are perfectly explainable but I prefer to believe that they are magical. I prefer to believe that the universe contrived to ensure, albeit posthumously, that I would feel the tenderness of being grandfathered. When I look at this picture – my young, beautiful grandparents with their young, beautiful daughters – I feel a forceful, almost unbearable love. And sometimes if I close my eyes, I can still smell the sweet, brown tobacco that unfailingly lingered on Bapi Dadu.