Image and Narrative contributed by Jemishi Mehta, Chennai (TN), India
IMP Research Intern : Yash R. Gupta, Flame University, Pune
This fading, tattered photograph carries in it the story of my Gujarati lineage’s courage and survival instincts – and how they came to call a south Indian city, Madras (now Chennai) their home – an antithesis to their familiar north Indian environment. This photograph taken by a professional photographer in 1952, is indeed the oldest family photograph we possess. While it is a rich source of family memory, time has been harsh to it.
My great grandfather Govind Ji Rewa Shankar Mehta was born in Jamnagar, a small Gujarati coastal township (now a bustling naval city & port) that shares its border with Karachi (now in Pakistan). In 1915, when World War I was in full swing, my great grandfather in lieu of a better future, and partially due to the sulfurous atmosphere Jamnagar was experiencing (war and local communal tensions) decided to leave their family home and move to a completely unfamiliar culture and city, the cosmopolitan Madras. I am told that he may have been among the first five Gujaratis to have consciously chosen to move to the south in the modern history of the subcontinent. He was married by then, but at first he moved alone to scout for work opportunities, rent a home, and recognise the vast linguistic and cultural differences the family may face. In Madras, he began working at a local traditional medicine shop that manufactured Bal Gutthis (herbal stomach remedy for children). The process required him to learn crushing herbs in the right consistency in a mortar and pestle.
In 1917, two years after he moved, he was able to call over his wife, Prabha, and their newly born first child – a son, Arun, my grandfather Dinesh’s elder brother. In the next few years, they had three more children, another son Kanta, daughter Jyotsana, and then the youngest, Dinesh, my grandfather. They all were brought up in Madras and became the first generation in the family to be educated, academically and culturally there.
In 1942, after completing her 11th grade (the last school grade at the time), their daughter Jyotsana, and son Arun decided to move to Karachi. She wished to pursue a higher education in a degree college, and Karachi was known for its higher education. Arun established a small business in Karachi to help with their own and the family’s expenses while living in a rented home. But soon after, the dark clouds of yet another war, the World War II eclipsed their lives and livelihood.
Madras, a rich trade port of the British Empire lived in constant threat of being bombed by Japan. Armed forces from allied countries such as USA became a part of the military (naval and air forces) diaspora in India, and Madras was no exception. During the last stages of WWII, Japan began bombing Singapore, and when USA retaliated, India became the geographical center of the conflict. On April 5, in 1943, 75 Japanese planes bombed Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) straying too close to home territory. The bombing forced thousands of people in Ceylon to flee to Madras seeking refuge that was already buckling under pressure with evacuees from Burma. On April 6, two Japanese planes dive bombed and open fired in Kakinada (formerly Coconada) and Vishakhapatnam, (now Vizag, both in Andhra Pradesh) north of Madras, and on April 7, in early hours of the morning, Madras woke up to an air-raid alert. There was no bombing, but panic set among the streets and as many as 50,000 citizens were evacuated or fled each day over the course of next few months. My family too, fled to Jamnagar, leaving everything behind. The shops were closed, prisoners were moved to other locations, wild animals in zoos were shot dead by their keepers to prevent any more havoc. Jyotsana and Arun also returned to Jamnagar to stay with their family. The economic damage was huge, and just when the dust began to settle, on October 11, 1943, yet another Japanese plane bombed Madras. When asked about the war, unfortunately my grandfather does not remember much, because regular war updates, or the daily news that we are used to today was not a common occurrence. So much so, that even the residents of Madras were unaware of the bombing for three days. Within a week, another half a million citizens fled Madras. The war for that generation has thus remained a supernatural mystery, a faceless threat.
Two years later, after the threats subsided, the family returned to Madras and established a small business importing edible goods like biscuits and chocolates. In 1952, this photograph was taken on one of the few occasions when the family was together and their daughter Jyotsana was visiting after her marriage. Soon after this photograph, Kanta, their second son, suddenly passed away at age 30. I find it so unusual that the part of the photograph, lost to time is where my grand-uncle Kanta’s image was. A metaphor for the very much present absence and mysteriousness he occupies in our family’s memory.
The business had again begun to see hardships, and the family decided to switch to the trade of grains. My own grandfather Dinesh began seeking an income in other cities, like Kolkata, and then Singapore where his business degree was put to good use and he established a successful venture. But after his brother’s death he returned home to Madras, back to the very same imports and grain shop. Nonetheless, the shop proved special to us, because it brought three generations of the family – my great grandfather, grandfather and my father working together.
Govind Ji Rewa Shankar Mehta, my great grandfather was at the pinnacle of north Indians who would choose to settle in Southern India, and after him many more families migrated to Madras to find jobs, establish businesses and seek a bright future. As a rather large Gujarati family, we have rarely been together in the photograph. But last year, in 2019, we all came together again, 68 years after this photograph was taken. This picture is perhaps a symbol of our family’s adventurous courage, yearnings, loss and a community that exists in a fading snippet.
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