My grandmother’s private past

My grandmother’s private past
My great great grandmother Ethel and grandmother Joan. Calcutta. (now Kolkata). Circa 1945

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother Joan Thompson (right) with her maternal grandmother Ethel Minnie McNair (left). It was taken in Calcutta (now Kolkata) around 1945. My grandmother Joan was born in Ranchi in 1930, illegitimately. Not much is known about the events surrounding her parentage though photographs in our family archives show her father Frank Thompson and mother Kathleen Chaplin, both in each other's company and with friends, as young people.Ethel, my great-great grandmother in the picture, was married to a British reverend Joseph Chaplin and had three daughters and a son including Kathleen and they lived in Calcutta. She was a matron at La Martinere and I remember my grandmother Joan saying that Ethel worked with midwifery too, since we also have photographs of her working with babies. Joan described Ethel as being born in Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu and as half-caste which could mean she was Anglo Indian (Eurasian), but could also mean that she was instead of mixed Indian ethnicity who had adopted Christianity. I have been told that Kathleen always wore gloves and make-up to conceal her heritage.

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My grandmother, the landowner

My grandmother, the landowner
My paternal grandmother, Damyanti Thakur. Nitther, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1978

My paternal grandmother, Damyanti Thakur. Nitther, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1978 Image and Narrative points contributed by Mehak Thakur, Mumbai This photograph is of my grandmother Damyanti dancing on the occasion of her youngest brother’s marriage on the porch of our ancestral house designed in traditional Himalayan Kath Kuni architecture in Nitther, a small village in Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh. My grandmother says she was dancing the Pahadi Nati, a folk Pahari Dance. The traditional dress of Kullu is Reesta, an attire that was inspired by the British gown, a combination of a long kameez (shirt) tucked inside a long heavily pleated skirt accompanied with a Sluka (Jacket). Alternately, it is also made in a tunic form with woolen fabric to be worn over in winters, which my grandmother wears in this picture. Ancestrally, my family were Zamindars (land owners) and like many land owners of the time cultivated Opium up until the early 20th century for the British until its prohibition and drop in trade. Opium consumption in the subcontinent was common and was (in some places still is) also fed in small quantities to babies, mixed in milk, and while they slept their mothers do the house chores and work in the farms. After Opium was dropped, landowners began cultivating other crops and ours grew Basmati Rice and formed Apples and Cherry Orchards. My grandmother Damyanti Goswami Pandit (later Thakur) was born in 1947. She was the second child to a family of two sisters and three brothers. However as unspoken tradition was within several families in the subcontinent, she was offered for adoption to relatives within the family who had no children of their own.…

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The twin cultural ambassadors of India

The twin cultural ambassadors of India
My grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother S Harminder Singh (standing second from left) with staff from the Consulat général de France (Embassy of France). Connaught Place, New Delhi. 1949

My grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother S Harminder Singh (standing second from left) with staff from the Consulat général de France (Embassy of France). Connaught Place, New Delhi. 1949 Image and Narrative contributed by Nona Walia, New Delhi This is photograph is of my grandfather S. Gurdial Singh (standing right) and his fraternal twin brother S Harminder Singh (standing second from left) with people from the Embassy of France in New Delhi in 1949. The brothers Gurdial and Harminder were born on August 1, 1916 in Wazirabad (now in Pakistan). The family was from a small town in Punjab, Chamkaur Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru’s, sons were sacrificed. The twins' architect father Bir Singh had helped build government and residential buildings in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and Chamkaur town. Bir Singh, my great grandfather had two wives, and the first wife had a daughter. The societal pressure for property distribution (the patriarchal line) was immense by his brothers, so he married Balwant Kaur, who gave birth to the twins with the blessing and prediction of a local saint in Punjab, Randhir Singh. The twins it turned out were quite unlike each other. Gurdial Singh was a introvert, and liberal hearted with a tight circle of friends. Harminder Singh was an extrovert, dynamic, social, philosopher who loved meeting the whos who. The twins were just eight years old when their 34 year old father Bir Singh passed away and they were brought up by their mother, Balwant Kaur. Their spirit made them known for their strength, as Harminder (known as Kirpal Singh then) would daringly go swimming in the Ropar canal…

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The Indian man in the concentration camp

The Indian man in the concentration camp
Cancellation of the look-out notice for A.C.N. Nambiar. 25 March 1938. UK

Cancellation of the look-out notice for A.C.N. Nambiar. 25 March 1938. UK Image courtesy Bombay Special Branch ArchivesNarrative points contributed by Vappala Balachandran, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, India Facilitated by Gautam Pemmaraju, Mumbai This narrative has been rewritten and reformatted for the purpose of this archive. During the early 1980s I was posted in a western European station as a diplomatic officer with an added responsibility of covert security intelligence. Under diplomatic cover I had the usual consular duties but my real work was gathering information in a clandestine manner. One day my boss, the chief at RAW (Research & Analysis Wing/ Indian Intelligence) NF Suntook briefed me about an unusual assignment that was requested directly by the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. I was to ensure the well-being of a former anti-colonial activist, journalist and a personal friend to Nehru, ACN Nambiar who was based in Zurich. He was 84 and I was 43. I didn’t really know much about Nambiar, and an assignment with no intelligence agenda provided relief from my regular stressful duties. I met with Nambiar in his modest flat in Spiegel Gasse, two buildings away from Vladimir Lenin’s old residence. He was quiet, humble and a bit of a recluse and I struck a strong friendship with Nambiar. He was a treasure trove of information on European history, governance, security and power play of nations from the 1920s to the 1980s, and mentioned that he knew Subhas Chandra Bose well. Years after he passed away in 1986, in 2001, I happened to read a book by Rudolf Hartog that mentioned a rarely known “Indian Legion”, a small Indian Army in Nazi Germany…

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The accomplished matriarchs of a family

The accomplished matriarchs of a family
My grandmother, Manorama Rao, Madras (now Chennai). 1939

My grandmother, Manorama Rao, Madras (now Chennai). 1939 Image and Narrative contributed by Rekha Rao, Hyderabad This is a photograph of my paternal grandmother Manorama Rao when she graduated and topped English Honours with the Grigg Memorial gold medal at the University level. My grandmother was born into a Saraswat Konkani Brahmin family in Madras (now Chennai) in 1917. She was the eldest of three daughters in a progressive family that encouraged education and goals. Her mother (my great grandmother) Kamala Devi Tombat was a progressive lady with immense willpower. My great grandfather, Kamala Devi’s  husband, Anand Rao Tombat had hired a British tutor to teach her English after their marriage and encouraged her to learn music. After her husband’s passing in 1944, Kamala went on to do a Visharad in Hindi (equivalent to a Bachelor's degree), became a Hindi Pandit (Brahmin Scholar) and then a Professor of Hindi and Sanskrit at Queen Mary's College, Madras, one of the first three colleges for women in the country. She wrote and composed devotional songs and even published a book with them, named Shri Gurugeet Bhajanmala priced at a mere Rs 1 in those days. She and her daughters regularly sang on All India Radio too. Not only does my grandmother Manorama bear an uncanny physical resemblance to her mother, but the musical, literary talent and zest for life have been passed on as well. After schooling at CSI Ewart School and Presidency Training School, Madras, in 1937, my grandmother Manorama joined Queen Mary's College where she topped the entire Madras Presidency in English and was awarded the Krupabai Satthianadhan Gold Medal for proficiency in the English language. She then joined…

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