Image and Narrative contributed by Udit Mavinkurve, Mumbai
In this photograph Purushottam Venkatrao Kadle, (standing rightmost) fondly called Vasant is my grandfather. He was 17 years old at the time. The photograph was taken, in honour of his elder brother, Lieut. Laxman Kandle, (sitting, in uniform) who was leaving for his duty as a medical officer in the military. He had been posted in Bengal for famine relief. The Bengal famine of 1943 had struck the Bengal province of pre-partition British India during World War II following the Japanese occupation of Burma.
A mystery surrounds my grand-uncle Laxman. He never returned from Bengal, they tell me. A telegram arrived, with its customary terseness, which said he had died; cause and place of death, unknown. His body was never found. And a few days later, they got a letter from him, written when he had been alive. A pre-teen under the heady influence of a great English teacher, I fantasized about a novel I would write about him when I would grow up. That was back in 2005.
Last month in December 2013, during our annual cleaning, my mother found the said letter and the telegram that my grandfather Vasant, Laxman’s youngest brother had kept for all these years. And the dust covered letters awoke those pre-teen fancies of writing about my uncle yet again. (The letters are presented in the links below)
The first letter offers more than mere curiosity of any Indian seeking out people from his own community when in strange land. The Kadles, the Koppikars, the Manjeshwars and the Kulkarnys are families from the relatively small Konkani-speaking community of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, rooted mainly in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Laxman tells his father about the fellow Chitrapur Sarasawats he met in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal (now West Bengal). One notable thing was his concern for the women of his family – he asks after his ill mother, his dear sisters and even his young niece Jayashree, but doesn’t mention his brothers, or his nephews. Nevertheless, it was the second letter I found particularly moving.
In the second letter, he describes his memorable journey along the River Padma (now in Bangladesh), that was something he would never forget. He describes the painful plight of the victims of the 1943 Bengal famine. He seems genuinely moved. And yet, through it all, there pervades a sense of purpose ; His will to serve and to be of use. He wrote about the arrangements he had made regarding money for the family, words sounding almost ominously like words from a will & testament.
But the fact that the second letter reached the hands of his father after the telegram with news of Laxman’s death is what makes it almost like a Greek tragedy. I imagine my great-grandfather holding the letter, reading the words of his dead son whose body was never found describing his joys, worries and plans; and my 17 year old grandfather, Vasant, standing beside him, an awkward teenager. With a chronically ill mother and a shocked father, the death of an elder brother might not have seemed mysterious and romantic to him, as it does to me. And yet, it was he – of all the others – who kept these letters, safeguarded, for all these years. My grandfather couldn’t have been very different from me.
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