My Amma’s kaleidoscopic life

My grandparents, Om Prakash and Ramkali Gupta. Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Circa 1975

Image and Text contributed by : Yash R. Gupta, Bhopal, India

IMP Intern : Yash R. Gupta, Flame University, Pune

This image of my Grandparents, Om Prakash Gupta and his wife, my grandmother, Ramkali Gupta is one of the oldest photographs we possess. The original image was photographed and hand painted in a photo studio in Bhopal around 1975, right after the birth of their fourth son, Sanjay. While the original photo print was lost, a bigger duplicate still exists, framed and hung in a corner of our home. While my grandfather’s past exists in a few blurry anecdotes within the family, it is my grandmother who has really lived and witnessed a kaleidoscopic life.

My grandmother Ramkali’s parents, Baini Bai and Moti Lal migrated from Khandar, Rajasthan to Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh after a famine in the area. She was born in Bhopal in the early 1940s, in a family of four brothers and two sisters.

When my grandmother was five-months old her father went missing. As the story told to her goes – one day a sadhu (hermit) approached them for food but began to leer at her mother Baini Bai. Uncomfortable with the attention, Baini Bai (my great-grandmother) suggested the sadhu go to the local temple, where food would be served. Her rebuke angered the hermit who then lured her father away to an unknown location and he was never seen again. For some strange reason, and we can only blame it on memory or deflection, the sadhu luring several of her siblings and cousins became a trend in many of her stories.

After the disappearance of my great-grand father, his brother Jagat volunteered to be the father figure of the family and chose not to marry . Jagat Kaka, as she called him, made and pedaled homemade ice-creams. Both Baini Bai, and he would awaken at the crack of dawn, boil, thicken and flavour large pots of milk, and then pour the cream in small cigarette pack sized boxes. The boxes were then chilled in ice spattered with salt. Despite their efforts, food for the family remained scarce.

Ramkali, my grandmother, whom we fondly call Amma, and often speaks of the women’s role in the freedom struggle during the reign of the British Empire. Women would apply tilaks of blood on their forehead as preparation for Prabhat Pheris (a freedom fighters street procession, chanting slogans or Bhajans to evoke patriotism). Deployed police forces were abound, but since male policemen could not touch women, the women would act as shields, encircling the men to protect them from arrests. Any chink in the barrier, and the police would baton charge the men.

Amma, was the only one who attended school from her family, being one of mere 8.6% of girls in the subcontinent who attained education at that time. During the day she would attend Kadar Miya ka Mahal, a small school where she studied Hindi and English, and later in the day doing the house chores. Her siblings, it seems, never went to school, gaining whatever education they could from home-schooling. In 10th grade, her education came to a halt when the family moved further away from the school to another locality and also got her married.

Married at the young age of 14, Amma’s life changed. Her husband Om Prakash Gupta, was only 17 at the time; a man whose face she had never seen before. My grandfather was at first a petha (sweet ash gourd candy) maker from Agra, (UP), but he moved to Ujjain, and after marriage to Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh. Child marriage during this era was common, especially in Northern India, unconcerned even by the Sarda Act (Child Marriage Restraint Act) of 1929, which had legally amended an increase of the marriageable age to from 14 to 18 for girls.

Married into yet another house that suffered poverty, days of childish banter dissolved into domestic chores that began at dawn. soft lehengas were replaced with thick coarse sarees that chafed her skin, and long ghunghats (veil) following her stern and strict mother-in-law’s feet everywhere. Amma‘s relationship with her mother-in-law was a fearful one and was often subjected to emotional and physical violence at her hand. Her father-in-law however was a kind man, protecting her from the violence as much as he could. Amma, in a reversal of roles, even supported her mother-in-law‘s two pregnancies that bore her two more sons (brother-in laws to my grand mother). The fear of domestic violence permeated almost every woman of her time. She recalls that once her own mother, Baini Bai kneaded some ghee into the flour dough instead of water, and realizing her mistake ran and hid in the village. A search party eventually found her and while no actions against her were taken, the internal fear of punishment that women harboured (and still do) is revealing to me.

At 17, Amma gave birth to my eldest aunt Usha, and then had seven more children (five sons and two more daughters). My grandfather now ran a small paan shop (beetleleaf shop), and she supervised the beetle nut cutting employees at home. Resources were still scarce, but life was stable. My grandparents were obsessed with movies, and often visited Bharat Talkies (one of the first movie theatres in Bhopal), paying two to eight aanas (old indian currency) per show. This photograph was taken in a studio next to this theatre for four annas (currency nickname for 25 paisa). My grandparents witnessed a lot of strife in their lives through 1984’s Bhopal Gas tragedy, and the 1992s Bhopal riots, braving it all with the support of their family and neighbours.

At the age of 50, my grandfather passed away of a sudden stroke. Mourning her husband however was a luxury Amma could not afford. There was no money left and she took her husband’s place at the shop along with her sons, daring into a world reserved for men. Amma handled customers, supervised accounts and transactions, and completed orders. It was her sharp acumen that helped her sons continue, and expand the business.

Today my grandmother prides herself over her ten grandchildren, and grand relatives, many of whom are twins – a genetic family tradition. Of the five sons, three were blessed with sets of twins, including my brother and me. Amma derives the most joy however from witnessing the rising status of women today. She agrees with the stance against child marriage, and insists upon self-sufficiency in any marriage. She has seen her dreams turn into reality even if vicariously through lives of others, an achievement she says that belongs to the women of her time.


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