Image and Narrative points contributed by Vishal Singhal, India
This is the oldest family photograph that we possess and so the exact details of this picture are unknown. It was taken sometime around 1925 at a photo studio in either Meerut or Kanpur (formerly Cawnpore) in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar). It has my great grandfather Nanak Chand Gupta sitting on the chair and my grandfather Dr. Jyoti Swaroop Gupta at his feet. They are dressed well for the occasion of taking a photograph. My great grandfather is wearing a head gear that denoted his high-status in society.
My great-grandfather Nanak Chand was born approximately in 1880 in our hometown Meerut, in the North-Western region of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Nanak Chand was an incredible horse rider, and a professional Polo Jumping player – he qualified for district level games. And so while he scored low marks in his exams for a Diploma in Agriculture, he qualified for a government job with a Sports quota and began work as a Kanungo (revenue clerk officer) in the colonial administration of the British empire. Nanak Chand married my great grandmother Bhagwan Devi in his 20s, but unlike Bhagwan Devi, who believed in complete devotion to the almighty, Nanak Chand was not very religious himself.
The duty of a Kanungo was to collect and organise information on varying aspects of revenue administration and have its records available to the court whenever required. With an impressive work record he was appointed as a Naib-Tehsildar – a key officer in the revenue collection department and quickly gained a reputable status within his community.
A few years before this photograph seems to have been taken, my great grandfather was due another promotion – to a Sub-Divisional Magistrate, but he was denied the opportunity on grounds of belonging to the Bania community, (generally a moneylenders or merchants community) the community to which the nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai belonged. Lala Lajpat Rai’s protests against the colonial British government had spread like wildfire in the early 20th century across Northern India, and led to a rise in anti-colonial sentiments within the community. Fearing disobedience, many Banias in the colonial administration were rejected for promotions. My great grandfather Nanak then retired to Kanpur with his family.
The second person in the photo, my grandfather Jyoti Swaroop Gupta, was born in 1900. He grew up to be an an extremely fearless, yet impatient person who didn’t care about social conventions and hence people wouldn’t dare bother him lest he lose his temper. If anyone harassed our family or our women, he would not hesitate to succumb to violence and beat them up. I remember that his voice was extremely powerful till the very end of his life.
Like his father, my grandfather too was an accomplished horse rider. I don’t know exactly how he got interested in the Veterinary Sciences but he was interested in the medical field. He enrolled at Thomas School (now Sarojini Naidu Medical college) in Agra. But prone to a short-temper, he also beat up the principal of the college which led to his suspension. Till today no one knows what the reason for the altercation was. His father Nanak Chand however was resourceful, and had his son enrolled at a Veterinary Sciences college in Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal. After receiving his degree he then completed his post-graduation from Bareilly, a few hours away from his family. As a doctor, he was appointed as District Livestock Officer (DLO), and was in charge of the cattle and livestock in Fatehpur and Kanpur district.
An interesting family legend is that once he was travelling with his family in a horse cart to the River Ganges for a holy dip, the cart was followed by bullock carts carrying their luggage. On route through a thick forest, a known area for dacoity and robbery, the family had to break their journey to rest a while, only to gasp at the arrival of dacoits robbing the luggage. My grandfather took out his pistol and the unarmed dacoits fled leaving his luggage untouched. Many years later, he got into an accident when a three-wheeled car he was travelling in toppled over, infecting his arm severely. The infection caused gangrene and unfortunately, his lower-arm had to be amputated.
My grandmother Sarla devi, was a devotee of Lord Krishna and was hard-working. I remember that she would drink water only from a well, because she was vegetarian and suspected tap water to be adulterated with leather contraptions. When my family moved to Calcutta, my grandmother’s insistence on drinking water from wells created a hurdle as most drinking water was available only in freshwater ponds. I would have to travel far off on a bicycle and haul some water back from a my friend’s home, and tell her that I brought it from a well, because drinking water was essential, and it was clean water. Her son, my father, completed his Masters in English from Lucknow University and he was a teacher in Kanpur and other places, later he became an accountant at the Ministry of Defence.
My family history may not be a unique story but my grandfather definitely was a dashing person and like all families, we were and are a unique family. This photo is precious to me because it is the only memory we have of our forefathers that makes us so.
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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