My parents’ unusual lives in India and Africa

My parents Mangal and Madhav Thorat. Poona, Bombay Presidency. 1945

IMP Research Intern : Priyanka Balwant Kale, Pune

Image and Narrative points contributed by Prakash Thorat, Pune, India

In September of 1945, two months before they left for Nyasaland (now Malawi), East Africa, my parents Mangal, and Madhav Thorat got this photograph taken in a photo studio in Poona (now Pune) by a photographer named Patwardhan. As the photograph may reflect, my parents liked to dress up well. What it also holds is a story of their unusual pasts, and future together. 

In 1930, my mother Mangal was barely 5, and her little brother was 1 ½ years old, and were travelling with their parents (our grandparents) to Nashik. At that time men and women would travel in gender segregated train compartments. My grandfather, Shankar Ganesh Gadgil, was in a general compartment while my grandmother with children was in the women’s compartment. That particular day the women’s compartment lay vacant and my grandfather checked on his family midway – everything was fine. When the train reached Nashik, my grandfather, to his horror, discovered that his wife had been robbed and murdered. The two children were thankfully alive but screaming for help. My mother still remembers going to the Nashik police station – the police offering her food, while her father giving his statement interrupted by waves of tears and grief. This tragic incident indeed affected our family severely.

My grandfather Shankar was a manager of the theatre company called Rajapurkar Natak Mandali and travelled frequently – he couldn’t manage raising his children alone and living with relatives didn’t seem to be an option. With a heavy heart, my grandfather then had to separate his children and send them to different orphanages. The separation from the only two people she knew was deeply painful for my mother. With a Rs.1,000 insurance deposit, my mother was enrolled as an orphan child at Hingne Stree Shikshan Sanstha, a shelter home for destitute women that was established (and run) by Dhondo Keshav Karve in 1896. 

Dhondo Karve was a well known social reformer and a visionary advocate for women’s education in India. He also believed that progress included widow remarriage. When he himself married a widow, his caste community, the Brahmins, were up in arms, and ostracised him. He treated all the women in his shelter with affection and as his own daughter. My mother remembers playing with him and to her, he was also a mentor. 

My mother was academically bright, and scored high marks, studying with borrowed books from her seniors. She stood first in the vernacular panel in 1939 and in 1941 her name was written on the board to announce her first rank in the matriculation exam; she also completed a teacher’s diploma. Only during vacations, my mother would meet her father, but her brother who was in another orphanage, once in a blue moon. She says the first time she met him was after 10 years around 1940. But they did write letters to each other.  

My father Madhav’s story is equally interesting. The last name ‘Thorat’ has been enthroned upon our ancestors by Peshwas for good swordsmanship. My grandfather Balwant Thorat was an assistant station master of Poona Railway Station – but he couldn’t become a station master because British policy wouldn’t allow any Indians in senior positions.  Several of the British officers were also prone to corruption. My father tells me that when a train wagon full of goods was damaged, the British station master coaxed my grandfather to steal it for them, but my righteous grandfather resigned instead. With six siblings to care for, my father shouldered the responsibilities of the household.

In 1939, one of our extended relatives Mr. M.G.Dharap, who was a prominent businessman and owned a shipping company Dharap and Co. in Blantyre, Nyasaland (now Malawi) in East Africa, invited my father and other nephews to work for him. Nyasaland had a burgeoning Indian population of merchants and labour. My father accepted the job offer. My father travelled from Bombay, in a filthy and crowded ship to the East African coast in extremely hazardous conditions. He was a vegetarian, but remembered to follow my grandfather’s pragmatic advice to not follow caste, religion and food regulations if he had to survive in the big world. When he docked at port, he set upon a slow 1000 kms journey to Blantyre, finding shelter with unknown Indian families, Hindu and Muslim, along the way and reaching his destination after 1 1/2 months. 

My father began working in the Dharap and Co. accounts department and became one of the finest employees. He was also a good looking man, and developed an interest in dressing well and fashionably. He learnt the local dialects, British English as well as Greek due to a large diverse circle of wonderful friends. His English vocabulary and accent skills in particular, made him an important person amongst the Indians residing in colonial Nyasaland.

In 1945, my father accompanied his cousin, a Mr. Thatte, to Poona to get him married. Thatte had received a marriage proposal on behalf of my mother, from a Women’s organisation and requested that he come and meet the girl. When the meeting took place, my mother was directed by her mentor Karve to exercise her freedom to choose. Unfortunately for Mr. Thatte, my mother rejected him, but said she would not mind if her marriage was arranged with the gentlemen (my father) who accompanied Mr. Thatte. And that is how my parents’ marriage was fixed. My parents belonged to the same gotra (descendants with a common male ancestor) and were discouraged to marry by Hindu marriage customs. So they decided to get married in court on May 1, 1945, followed by an an official wedding ceremony a few days later. In November of 1945, a couple of months after this photograph was taken, my parents migrated to Blantyre.

In 1947 and 1948 my brothers were born and in 1958, I was born – while my parents were on work and spousal permits, we were born under the rule of the British Empire in Nyasaland and were granted British citizenships. In 1949, my father who had been earning GBP 5 per month on a work permit, asked the managers at Dharap for a raise; they refused and threatened to kick him out of Malawi. My father left the job and did odd jobs like working for a Greek Baker, and a year later he found a job as second chief accountant at the Mulanje Tea estate. He also began to pursue a correspondence education from London School of Economics.  

My father’s new workplace was in a jungle, 60 kms from the city. And the house that he was given had extremely low quality facilities – as an Indian, he was told not to expect more. But my father was not one to bow down and confronted his superior, a British man named Mr. Wilson. Curiously Wilson remained calm when he discovered where my father was from. Wilson had served in Poona for a couple of years, so he was aware of anti-colonial sentiments as well as the Maharashtrian Brahmin disposition. Nonetheless, he organised better facilities for us at home- where we watched Hyenas, Cheetahs and Lions linger around our veranda.

The schooling system in Malawi was not good, so my parents sent us to live with our extended families in Poona and attend school. My mother split her year between India and Malawi, I visited them during vacations on a special permit and my father visited once every few years. Frequently, my mother had to travel alone, and fluent only in Sanskrit and Marathi she somehow managed her way through a Portuguese-speaking East Africa. 

In 1964, Nyasaland that was a part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland became independent from Britain and was renamed Malawi and roused an air of uncertainty. I was with my parents in Malawi, when my father came home to announce that there was a car waiting for us and we had to leave town immediately. It seems that he had been urged by a white manager of Dharap and Co., his old company, to use his still valid signature to empty the company’s treasury so they could escape to Brazil. My father refused, but threats of harm and danger lurked in the atmosphere and after a few years in 1972, my parents moved back to India and we all lived together again. 

My mother is now 90 years old but still recounts her time in Karve’s ashram and Malawi with clarity and fondness- she indeed has many stories to tell. This photograph is for us a constant reminder of their unusual and extraordinary strength, as well as their adventures. 

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Yashoda

    Thank you for sharing this Fascinating story of Mr. and Mrs. Thorat. Woudl love to know more about Mrs. Thorat’s time spent with Dhondo Keshav Karve in Stree Shikshan Sanstha.

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