Image & narrative contributed by Nishant Radhakrishnan, Mumbai
This is a photograph taken in 1977 of my mother, K Jagadammal (right) with her peer and friend Jayshree Sawant (left) in Bombay. They were on a strike, outside a school compound, protesting the injustices served by the school they both taught in.
My mother, K Jagadammal was born in 1949 in Kalanjoor, Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. Her parents were farmers, and she was one of five sisters and a brother. Her father later ran his own grocery shop, exactly opposite Kalanjoor Government School, that all of his children attended. My mother and her siblings all grew up to have careers as school-teachers.
In 1972, following a matrilineal Dravidian tradition, the Marumakkattayam system (where women of the family are legitimate inheritors of property and therefore integral to families), my mother was betrothed to her cousin, her mother’s brother’s son, my eventual father, M. G. Radhakrishnan. My father had been living in Bombay (now Mumbai) since 1968 and worked in a clerical position at the Indian Cotton Mills Federation. After their marriage they moved to Bombay and on June 11, 1973, my mother armed with degrees in B. Sc (Science) and B. Ed (Education), joined the ranks of thousands of Malayalee migrants (mostly teachers and nurses), and became a Primary section teacher at Abhyudaya Education Society High School where she taught all subjects except Marathi.
From 1975, my parents lived in the teeming mill suburb of Kalachowky, among other migrants, in a one-room kitchen apartment. The 70s were also the years when the political party, Shiv Sena were mobilising their cadre against migrants, especially South Indians like my parents. But this was also the time that people away from their birth homes had begun to embrace and appreciate the other Indias. Yet like many others from Kerala, my parents had a high degree of political agency and found it hard to tolerate injustice. While it may sound like a cliché, it is second nature for us Malayalees to go on strike. The 1970s were a potent moment in India – the heady years of Emergency and after. In this photograph my mother (right) was 28 years old when the two teachers went on a strike demanding their reinstatement at the Abhyudaya Education Society High School, following three years of harassment and intimidation by a member of the school management.
In 1975, a new teacher, Kalyanikutty joined the school. She was related to a Mr. Nair, the school administrator, known to be an authoritarian figure. Allegedly, he would run the school like his personal fiefdom. On several occasions, he would command Kalyanikutty to return home over perceived slights or mistakes. The personal harassment was purely based on the close family relationship between them – found often in patriarchal Indian households. Unable to tolerate the injustice, and in solidarity with Kalyanikutty, all teachers, including my mother submitted a protest letter asking Mr. Nair to stop troubling Kalyanikutty. In retaliation, he called upon each teacher and asked them to withdraw their signatures. All the Secondary School section teachers refused to do so, but from the Primary section, with the exception of my mother, all teachers withdrew their signatures – and categorically refused to withdraw it. This began a long period of harassment for my mother – threats, show cause notices, random inspections on her classes, a trip to the police station. But my mother, with the support of my father, teachers, students and much of the management, maintained her stand. My parents’ position was clear – Mr Nair did not own the school or its employees – he was her co-worker, an employee, just like her – an equal in hierarchy.
So the stage was set – My mother, a teacher – K. Jagadammal versus Mr. Nair, the patriarch. Heavily pregnant with me, she was denied her rightful maternity leave and made to accept half-pay on leave, albeit was abruptly terminated from service. In 1976, shortly after my birth, pressured by committee members, she was reinstated, but demoted to a lower teaching position. Following Mr. Nair’s machinations, at the end of the academic year, she was terminated, again.
So in 1977, my mother was no longer an employee of the school, yet she simply refused to accept the unfair termination and continued to attend the school in protest. Every single day, she would go to the Headmaster’s office to sign-in on the attendance muster. When she was not allowed to sign it, she began submitting letters – every day – stating that “she had come to the school and not allowed to sign”. She would stay in the school all through the working hours. She tells me that inside the headmaster’s cabin, there were two chairs and she began to make herself comfortable on one of them. Weeks later, one chair was removed, so she would sit on the remaining available chair. Then that one chair, too, was removed. After this, the only chair available was the Headmaster’s own. It was also used by Mr. Nair, when he was present. My mother clearly had no choice – she says “ I simply plonked myself on the Headmaster’s chair.” The Headmaster or Mr. Nair would remain standing, while she would sit on “their” chair and would only get to sit on it when she had needed a rest-room break. These passive aggressive comedic moments notwithstanding – every single day, K Jagadammal ensured that her protest and attendance was marked.
Five months later, after submitting a forewarning as due process to the authorities, my mother and Jayshree Sawant (herself, a victim of nepotism) embarked on a civil disobedience movement of their own – a Satyagraha. When this photograph was taken, my mother ‘s brother, my uncle, would bring me – a toddler – to the school every day, through the twelve days protest, and point her out to me. Soon after, the protest by these two teachers blew up into a full-fledged students boycott, led by my father, teachers and others. The heat was really on.
During a meeting with the enquiry commission by the BMC, (Bombay Municipal Corporation), a letter alleging that my mother ‘was not teaching at all’, but instead ‘was taking rest-room breaks all the time’ was passed around, including onto students. The letter was a tipping point and she lost her temper – she removed her footwear and proceeded to chastise one of the administrators with it. To her (and the target’s) good fortune, she was dissuaded and the slipper did not reach its destination. The protest soon found political attention and was even discussed in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.
But the tides were turning – for this protest shed light upon several illegalities that the administration was indulging in – forgery of musters, salary embezzlement, autocratic, misogynistic behaviour by male officials. After the enquiry, both K. Jagadammal and Jayshree Sawant were reinstated and the 12-day Satyagraha was called off. Nonetheless, a price still had to be paid and neither of the two were paid salaries for that year. The good news was that the two officials including Mr. Nair, lost the managing committee elections and never found their way back.
My mother, K. Jagadammal eventually became a beloved (and much revered) teacher in the same school and Jayshree Sawant after two years, joined another school. Somehow, the two Satyagrahis lost touch since. My mother I feel paid yet another price for her beliefs. The events of 1974-77 did compromise her merited right to be promoted as Headmistress at the school, yet she served her commitment to teach, and after 35 years at Abhyudaya Education Society School she retired in 2007.
During my childhood, I witnessed K. Jagadammal wake up every day at 4.30 AM, cook meals for my father and me, go to work on the 6.10 AM train and return at 2 pm and my father eventually became a legendary Malayalam copywriter during the golden age of Indian regional languages advertising. This photograph is a reminder of an inspiring and just legacy my parents have given me and my own new family. The two ladies in this photograph – K. Jagadammal and Jayshree Sawant teach us the value of standing up for others, to seek justice and protest whenever needed. I have grown up watching them all, but most of all, I continue to find empowerment through my mother.
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. My grandmother was deeply loved and pampered, so much so that she did no house chores. As an adult and after her adopted parents passed, regional hereditary laws favoured my grandmother, because unlike much of the subcontinent at the time, daughters in our custom could inherit property and assets of their parents. Right after high school, my grandmother got married at the age of 16. I wonder about the generational irony though – she had enough sources to have gone abroad and continue her education, yet she chose a life of a wife and delivered her first child at a young age, my dad, at the age of 17. She was still a young girl herself, and there were stories of how she would be off to play with her friends while her mother took care of her grandchild, her daughter’s first born. In a following years my grandparents had four children, two sons and two daughters.
My grandfather came from a Rajput family in the same village. He was educated and the only one in the entire village to have graduated and work with government services. Interestingly unlike most women, my grandmother didn’t adapt to traditional roles of motherhood, and their four children were mostly taken care of by my grandfather while he was posted in Simla, because good education was only available in bigger towns. My grandmother, on the other hand, chose to live in the village and actively take care of her lands and farming businesses with frequent visits to Simla. The children grew up to be in the Armed Forces, Farming land and in Government services.
This photograph literally symbolizes my grandmother. I remember her dressing up like a bride whenever she got a chance and dance. My father inherited the same love for dressing well and would spend his entire pocket money on having the latest fashion copied for himself. Needless to say, their love and quest for dressing up well has been passed on to me.
Both my grandparents now stay on and off between Simla and the farm land. My grandmother is now 71, she is still immensely loved and adored by everyone in the village. She continues to actively looks after her lands and she still loves to dress up and dance like she is 16.
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Image and Text contributed by Hemant Suthar and family, Mumbai / Ahmedabad
This picture of my great grandfather Maganlal Mistry was taken in the 1920s and it is is one of the family’s most prized possessions – our connection to our roots. The photograph was taken to be sent to his brothers working in Ethiopia, Africa, and was hand colored with photo inks in 1937. It is interesting how the colouring is limited to his turban, we reckon it is because colouring of photographs was quite an expensive and sought after artistic skill at the time.
My ancestors belonged to a village called Samoda in the region of Sidhpur (now in Gujarat) and they were exceptionally skilled wood carvers, in-layers and carpenters. The early 20th century was a time when many men (and women) from the Indian Subcontinent went to Africa to find work and make their fortunes. At first, my great grandfather Maganlal’s two brothers followed suit. They travelled by boat to the shores of the African continent and they found work as carpenters in the north east region of Africa, the Ethiopian Empire called Abyssinia at the time. The money was good, and they invited my great grandfather to join them there. However, Maganlal chose to stay on at home and began working as a government contractor building schools. Soon his work extended to several villages nearby. Maganlal, my great grandfather was not educated but he had learnt to write his name for signing building contracts. In his later years, he was made a member of P.W.D. (Public Works Department) Sidhpur office, and worked on large building contracts.
What we know of this photograph is that Maganlal was in constant touch with his brothers and they sent him pictures they had taken in Africa. Inspired by those photographs, he went to a local photo studio and asked for his picture to be taken so he could send it to his brothers. What we see in his hand is a wooden ‘folding scale’ – an important tool of his trade that he insisted be captured in the photograph.
Then a young man, Maganlal got married to a beautiful woman named Heera ben. She was a skilled cook and would teach other women to cook. Together they had two sons and a daughter. As he rose in influence and wealth around the district, he was made a member of the Caste Naat, or Panchayat of the village (a five member local government system). Anyone who went abroad was declared an outcast and upon their return, they would have to appease the village by offering a feast to the Panchayat and extended family, ask for their forgiveness to be re-included in the cast. All community problems were solved by calling upon the Panchayat at night, on a suitable day to resolve disputes such as matrimonial and monetary conflicts, quarrels between brothers and decisions of re-including and out-casting of people returning from foreign lands. All the while they were entertained with breakfast, lunch, dinner and other comforts funded by the parties involved in the dispute.
Maganlal’s brothers in Ethiopia also did well. One of them, in fact, rose in the ranks to became a secretary to the King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and worked on the Ivory inlaying and carving of the royal throne for the king. It seems that at onset of the Second Italo Ethiopian War in 1935, Maganlal’s brothers however decided to return home for good to Sidhpur. We are told that they hid their earnings (gold coins) in their tools and mattresses. My great grandfather helped them resettle and get re included in village. Soon the brothers too found themselves a good repute and became influential heads of the community.
Maganlal was a visionary man and invested his earnings in gold, real estate, shares of textile mills and a life insurance. We are told that he was very curious person. He would seek and share all kinds of knowledge with his children and make toys for his grand children. His lifestyle however remained simple and was usually found worshiping in the morning and rest of the time he worked.
Image and text contributed by Samant Sahu, Mumbai
This picture was taken at the Meena Bazaar Photo studio in Kesinga (Orissa) and it has my grandparents Jagajiban and Kanak Sahu with their fourth son Shwetabahan.
My grandfather Jagajiban was from Bagad Kesinga, Kalahandi district in Orissa (now Odisha) and was the eldest in the Sahu family followed by four younger sisters and a brother. Even as a 10th standard high school dropout he somehow managed to get a job as a government teacher and taught mathematics and science to primary school students. He got married at the age of 20 to my grandmother, Kanak. As a young boy, Jagajiban was interested in serving society and was a renowned name in his village Bagad for his contributions towards the development of his fellow villagers.
In 1967, he happened to meet with an Ayurveda physician in the near-by forest. The physician was looking for a herb to prepare a medicine and after few minutes of interaction, Jagajiban discovered that he had written Rasayana Kalpadruma, an ayurvedic book that proposed the ultimate solution for youthfulness. Jagajiban returned home impressed and influenced by the science of Ayurveda. So much so that in 1968 he convinced his wife that he must leave with the physician to Berhempur to learn the art and science of Ayurveda practices. Over time he garnered an in-depth knowledge about Ayurveda and herbs that could cure some of the most dangerous and infectious diseases. In 1971, he returned to his village and began practicing in his village, offering ayurvedic treatments for free. He was famous for treating people with snake & scorpion bites and was believed to cure people just by chanting mantras.
One of the foremost contributions to the country by Jagajiban was when India was in the midst of the Sino-Indian war in 1962. The papers were abound with news that the government of India had spent much of its money on war and was in deep crisis. Jagajiban decided to do something about it and marched across Kalahandi district to create awareness among the villagers. He asked for their help to save the country resulting in contributions in gold and money from farmers and villagers. He also donated much of his own personal wealth. When the government chose to honour his contributions, he denied it – saying that it was only his duty.
The people of Bagad have now established a botanical garden named the Tengra Garden that is used for research in Ayurveda and is managed by Jagajiban’s son, my father. My grandfather Jagajiban Sahu passed away on February 4, 2016.
Image and Text contributed by Aparna Pandey, Mumbai
This is a photograph of my grandparents Champa Tai and Vasant Rao taken shortly after they got married. On the right is an invitation to my grandmother’s wedding in 1941. It has been carefully preserved by the family and was handed over to me by my mother recently. I treasure it, not because of the sentimental reasons, but because it tells a story of far greater significance.
This wedding invite is unique because it proudly announces the bride’s educational qualifications, right next to her name. You have to keep in mind, that women’s education at that time in ancient India was almost non-existent.
My grandmother had decided quite early on that she will be educated first and then get married. As a child, she lost both her parents very early and was brought up by her two elder brothers who completely understood and encouraged her dream.
However, there was a problem – There was no school for a young brahmin Maharashtrian girl to study in. The brothers got her to Poona (now Pune) where the well-known social reformer, Maharshi Karve had started a school for girls, as well as an ashram where young widows could live and learn. This concept was alien and completely norm shattering for the brahmins of Poona leading to the resistance to opening such a school to be set up in the main city. Maharshi Karve had no choice but to set up the school on the outskirts of Poona. He braved all odds and went ahead with his mission of educating women. There wasn’t even a road to get there, so the teachers and students made a path through the fields to reach the school.
My grandmother Champa, was amongst the very first ‘Kumarikas’ (young unmarried girls) to actually live in this ashram from the tender age of nine. The family was progressive and agreed that it was indeed important for a girl to be educated. At the end of it, she earned the princely degree of GA that stood for ‘Gruhita Aagamaa‘ a Sanskrit title which could loosely translate to a BA degree today.
Luckily my grandmother got married into an educated family. My grandfather, the groom Vasant Rao was an MSC in Zoology himself and went on to do his Phd. He later taught at Elphinstone College in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his father was a doctor who had educated himself in London. They were very happy to welcome this qualified girl into their family.
Several years and two kids later, while managing a large joint family in Bombay, my grandmother did her Masters and then a one year course, equivalent of a B.Ed. She taught English and Marathi to the ‘metric’ students in Dyaneshwar Vidyalaya in Wadala, Bombay, for 15 years. She was highly revered by her students.
In the 16th year of her career she gave it all up. My grandmother had to visit her son in the USA, that year and considering she would be gone for three months, her integrity could not allow the students suffer because of her absence. She decided to take on extra teaching classes and made sure that she completed the important portion for her students, and then she simply quit. The principal was shocked. If she took leave, then they would have to look for a temporary teacher to take the classes, and temporary teachers were not easily available and neither did they put in their best because they were after all, temporary.
The principal told her that the pay scales were rising that year and that should she stay in the job and benefit from it. The pension would be higher too. But my grandmother would have none of it. She did not want her students to suffer on account of her. He pleaded but to no avail. They did not want to lose their best teacher. But she did not want to be unfair to her students. It needs to be said that my grandparents came from a middle-class Maharashtrian family and money was important. It must have needed a lot of gumption to be able to make this decision.
For years, my grandmother’s students came to share their joys and successes with her. She did not suffer fools and did not hesitate to give people a piece of her mind if she felt that there was reason to. She had the most open mind where no topic was taboo. My grandmother Champa Tai, was a woman ahead of her time. I am proud to have known her. On this woman’s day in 2016, I salute her, for following her dreams and always standing up for what she believed in.
Image and Text contributed by Nargis Jahan, Karachi.
My husband Fehmeed was born and brought up in Lucknow, and spent his early years darning cloth at his father’s shop in Hazratganj. He would often tell me about his struggles in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he moved to in 1965, while in his mid-20s, to find better work. He also spoke about the gruesome violence he witnessed between Hindus and Muslims there, how it shook him, and prompted him to move to Karachi, where his paternal relatives lived at the time. After migrating to Karachi, he found work at a shop selling carpets and a few years after, when some mutual relatives arranged our match, we got married in 1974.
In this picture, Fehmeed and I were about eight months into our marriage, and still getting to know each other. He would take me out on dates a lot, and frequently to Karachi’s Clifton Beach. This is a photograph from the time when Fehmeed took me out for our first photo shoot together to a studio on Tariq Road, a famous shopping district in Karachi (now Pakistan). He wanted it photographed so he could send it back to his home in Lucknow, India, to relatives who had not been able to attend our wedding. “What kind of a picture is this?!” my father growled when he saw it and did not allow us to send this photograph. Eventually, we sent another one where I am mostly covered in a burqa.
Karachi was a completely different place then. Couples would be seen going out a lot more. There was a lot less violence. The street outside the photo studio where this was clicked was a popular tourist spot, and many foreigners would be seen sitting around at restaurants here. The pant-suit I am wearing, was stitched for me by a cousin who lived in Saudi Arabia. Such suits were in fashion in Saudi at the time, so he got about five or six of these for me. The goggles were a gift from another cousin in Lahore.
Image and Text contributed by Bhavna Mehta, USA
This picture of my parents Umedrai & Hansa, was photographed around 1963 in the village of Pravaranagar (Maharashtra) where they lived for a few years. They were married only a few months. I’ve always wondered who took this picture, staged maybe after old Bollywood movie scenes of couples running around trees.
My father Umedrai was born as one of nine children to Harjivan Bhaichand Mehta and Kamala (originally Triveni) in the small town of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra India. My father’s family belonged to a tiny community of Gujarati merchants in Ahmednagar and my mother Hansa was born in Nakuru, Kenya to Nagardas and Vimla Bhuva.
Leaving Gujarat for Maharashtra as a young man, my paternal grandfather established ‘Harjivandas Bhaichand‘, a wholesale grocery store in Ahmednagar, that still provides for his great grand children more than a 100 years later. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, had decided to make his way to Kenya as a young man and owned a textile & sewing shop called ‘Bhuva Store‘ in Nakuru with his brothers. The family travelled to and fro to India (Gujarat) often.
My parents had an arranged marriage. At the time of the arrangement, my father was working as a merchant ship’s electrical engineer in Bombay with the Great Eastern Shipping Company. Right before the wedding, he quit his job which used to otherwise keep him away for a month at a time. My mother completed her Bachelor of Arts from Dharmendrasinhji College in Rajkot, Gujarat. A cousin introduced the families and they met only once before each side said ‘Yes’!
I was born in neighbouring Shrirampur in the district of Ahmednagar. At that time, my father was an engineer at Pravaranagar Sugar Factory. Far away from her own family, my mother ran our home, made friends with the neighbours, walked to the temple, cooked, cleaned and embroidered. When my mother left on some visit, my father would cook his rice and dal in a pressure cooker before he left for work in the morning. Many trials awaited the couple in this picture in the future which they have decided to keep private. But here they seem carefree and happy and willing to be a bit silly.
Image and Text contributed by Pritpal Virdee, UK
This is a picture of my mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee photographed in Ludhiana, Punjab around the late 1960s.
She was born in Nurpur, near Lahore (now Pakistan) in 1929 and later moved to Kot Badal Khan, Jalandhar district (now India). It was one of the many journeys and migrations my mother would make in her lifetime; initially with her mother and father, Daya Singh, and then with my father Prem Singh Virdee after marriage, circa 1945.
She spent time at Nangal when Bhakra Dam was being constructed (my father was a mechanical engineer) then Phillaur, Ludhiana, Nakuru, Nairobi and finally Coventry, UK. Moving across three continents with her daughters in tow – a sewing machine too was always essential. This picture represents so much of the migration history that epitomises modern life, the Punjabi diaspora and our own personal family history.
Migration from the Doaba area of Punjab has been prolific and in our family, it started initially with my maternal grandfather. Doaba is now called the ‘NRI Hub of Punjab’ as a consequence of a significant percentage migration of the Doabias. By the 1960s, my father also ventured into East Africa, taking advantage of family and colonial linkages. He spent time working in Nakuru, Kenya and my mother spent time in Ludhiana; father would often bring “foreign” gifts for his daughters when he returned home. He would buy bicycles, radios and other modern consumables, including a camera for his girls. My mother told me he was quite progressive in his thinking and despite us being girls, he wanted us to have the latest gadgets.
Scanning the old family photograph album after my mother passed away in 2012, I came across this picture of my mother sitting in the verandah of our house in Ludhiana. She’s sitting there with an old sewing machine, a need and passion that would remain with her for the rest of her life. Having no formal education, she was nonetheless, astute and nimble with her fingers. Creating many wonderful pieces of art, many of which I have carefully treasured. From this handwheel sewing machine she advanced to the computerised Bernina, taking to it like pro, and I still have that Bernina.
The photo is also unusual because it’s not taken in a studio, the norm at the time. Most likely, it was my sister who took this photograph. In its messiness, it shows everyday life, yet it also captures the grace my mother had until the end of her life.
Image and Text contributed by Subhrajyoti Chakrabarti, Bangalore
This is a picture of my mother Papia Chakrabarti. She was born to an eye surgeon in a wealthy family of Calcutta (now Kolkata). The family was conservative and girls were not allowed to interact with men outside of their family or even dress up stylishly, as it was considered to be a taboo. At the age of 20, with an arranged match, she got married to an air force officer, my father, Wing Commander M.K Chakrabarti. By then she was a BA in Psychology from Vidyasagar College under the Calcutta University and could speak three languages, Bengali, Hindi and English.
My mother told us that when she first went to my father’s Air Force station posting in Deolali (Maharashtra), she got a cultural shock. All social interactions in the Defense Forces (across genders) encouraged dressing up with style and interactions were more free and joyful. It was the complete opposite of what she had experienced in her formative years. Nonetheless, she adapted to the changes and embraced the Defense Forces culture. She dressed up in style, and hosted perfect parties.
My mother was also a great singer of classical and contemporary Hindi music, and that too without any formal training. She was invited by several people to perform at their events and parties across all my father’s postings. In Chandigarh, she was awarded the title ‘Nightingale of the Station’ at the High Ground Air Force station, for three consecutive years (1983-1985). Despite all the recognition, she was adept at all her responsibilities. She looked after her mother-in-law and brought us all up well. My wife is also
My wife who is also a classical music lover, led to she and my mom sharing a wonderful bond via music, and they would often sing together. A couple of years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and by last July, the Cancer had spread to her lungs. She had the resilience to fight, but unfortunately we lost her. Even in her last days she taught us that one should fight till death and one should always have high thinking, but simple living.
Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore
This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.
On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.
While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.
The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.
Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.
Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province. Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.
During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.
As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.
Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.
Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years. The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.
Image and Text contributed by Soni Dave, Delhi
This picture was taken on December 26, 1939, the day my parents got married. I’m not sure of the location. It could be the Mainpuri District of Lucknow because I think my maternal grandfather was posted there at the time.
My father, Gurdial Singh Berar, an ace graduate of the College of Engineering Roorkee, stands here tough and tall with the talwaar (sword) in his hand, but he never even raised his voice in anger. And my mother Rajkumari may look meek and coy, whereas everyone knew her to be a very strong woman. I think they must have been in their early twenties. Together they made a perfect couple and it was one of the best marriages I have ever seen. I have been very lucky that I got to call them mummy and daddy, leading me to believe that it is not just some marriages that are made in heaven, but also parent and child relationships.
My father was a very attentive and loving father. He was well read, extremely self disciplined, a man of honor and respected punctuality of time. He was a self taught nutritionist and along with my mother, who would ensure it was cooked well, we always had nutritious food at the table. I remember he loved children and would take all the children of the family and me to the pool and teach us how to swim. Other kids at the pool would come to him too wanting to be taught. He was also a very hard working man, and I remember his last job before his health started failing was manufacturing furniture for the Asiad Games Village athlete homes.
My mother was one of the most efficient women I have ever known. In fact she was so efficient that she was nicknamed ‘intezaman‘ the organizer of the family. She excelled at embroidery, stitching, cooking, and was an excellent home-maker. I remember, she was also very quick tempered. My father used to joke with her that when angry she must count to ten before saying anything – to which she would say that counting until two was the most she could do.
They both loved me a lot. A lot.
My parents you see in this picture were not my biological parents. I was adopted by them as an infant, from my mother’s younger sister, my natural mother – whom I learnt to call auntie.
Auntie had come to her maternal home in Daryaganj, Delhi from their farm near Nainital (now in Uttarakhand)- where I was born on February 10, 1959. I had two older sisters. My biological father, Harpal Singh, whom I later called uncle, worked in the merchant navy and was sailing at the time.
My mother and father, twenty years into their marriage had had no children and so on the suggestion of my maternal grandmother, and a deep understanding between the two sisters, I exchanged hands. When auntie returned with my two older sisters, I stayed back with my new parents, my mother Rajkumari and my father Gurdial. I called them mummy & daddy.
I was loved like one can only imagine. But no one in the family ever mentioned my adoption. No one ever told me my own story and over the years I have had to piece it together all on my own.
I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, an old lady neighbour blurted it out. After some days I confided in my cousin (my real sister) who confirmed that it was indeed true. However, no grown up ever spoke to me about it and I had to try to make sense of it myself. It left me with deep insecurities and lack of confidence. Being the plainest of all the cousins in the family only worsened everything and chipped away further at my confidence.
I went to one of the best schools in Delhi – the Convent of Jesus and Mary, but I was never good at academics, and so when I turned 16 and didn’t make it through Senior Cambridge, I was required to take the exam again before the schools phased it out to be replaced by the new Plus 2 systems. One of the schools still with the Senior Cambridge system was was in Nainital and so my parents sent me there to prepare for and appear for my exams. My biological mother and I got to play mother and daughter for a whole year.
However, our biological relationship remained unaddressed, until one day, amidst tears we spoke of it. I remember thinking that I looked like her, I was like her in many ways. Our personalities were similar and I completely understood why she did what she did. I loved her with my heart and bore no grudges and I knew she loved me too. I was glad that we had talked but it didn’t necessarily resolve my insecurities.
Back at home in Delhi, we would visit my father’s (Gurdial) side of the family once a year, during my holidays. There too I was a stranger to my cousins who were very close to each other and met very often. But I never felt included and it led to more confusion and feelings of abandonment, which no matter how much my parents loved me, the sense of exclusions left me wanting.
As an adult, I found a great life partner, we had two beautiful children and have been very lucky to have wonderful life together. I also discovered that I may not be have been good at academics but I was good at the creative arts. In early 2014, with a desire to find some more resolve and belonging in my life, I decided to travel to the United States and meet old school mates as well as my fathers family. They were cousins who I would be meeting after almost 40 years. All older and grayer, but this time with no hesitations of acceptance, they opened their doors and hearts with nothing but warmth.
When I came back and was cleaning up some cupboards, this photograph appeared, sitting there in an old box of photographs. My mother and fathers wedding day – and I decided to engage with it and think about our lives – this time for longer. Then I picked up a paint brush and made a water-colour of this photograph (image), my first ever – tracing their presence and love again, because I know now that I belonged to them and they to me. They were the best match made for each other and me, in heaven.
Image and Text contributed by Nihaal Faizal, Bangalore
My Great-grandmother Haleema Hashim was born in Burma in 1928. Her family had moved to Rangoon in search of financial prosperity, however, by the time she was four they returned to Kerala, India. Her family belonged to the Kutchi Memon community of Gujarat, Kutchi Memons are Sunni Muslims who migrated from Sindh (in Pakistan) to Kutch in Gujarat, a state of India, after their conversion to Islam. Several of them then migrated to various parts of the world. Haleema’s ancestors had migrated to Kerala. It is not clear what businesses or professions they were involved in.
At the age of 17 she married Hashim Usman, whose family, like many others in Kochi, were Sea food exporters, after which he established a hotel. Haleema and Hashim, my great-grandparents went on to have eight children. One of whom is my maternal grandfather.
Haleema Hashim whom we fondly call Ummijaan, was extremely fond of reading Urdu literature, we again don’t know who her favourite authors were because the books were given away. Later, I also found a few letters she had exchanged with people from other countries, who were clearly her pen pals. She was also an avid gardener and would tend to her garden with great love in Fort Kochi.
After her marriage, she began developing an interest in images and taught herself the art of photography through books and magazines. She had in possession two cameras, an Agfa Isolette 3, which was her first camera and then she moved on to a Yashica. I am not sure where she may have bought them, though I am told that her brother would take the photographed negatives to a studio to have them developed for her.
Her subjects were usually the domestic environment and family members of her large joint family. She photographed her relatives, sisters, husband’s family, as well as brides-to-be women from the Kutchi Memon community. Many of Ummijaan’s photographs also featured her children, more so the youngest two, her identical twin daughters Kiran and Suman, born in the late 1960s whom she photographed extensively; one could say that it made for an original body of work. She never practiced professionally, nor do I think she was in an environment where photography was encouraged or paid any attention to, but perhaps it was the very reason she could practice and experiment with no intervention even if within the domestic environment. To my mind, she built a sort of practice like an artist engaging actively with a medium. She would position her children in varying poses, and create sets and arrangements in and around the house and her garden, using furniture and home-ware decorative pieces as props.
Ummijaan continued photographing for around 25 years of her life, which has now comprised into an enormous body of incredible work. Standing not very encouraged, Ummijaan gradually gave up photography. Later assuming that the images had no value and no one would be interested, she burnt her negatives down. When I began taking photographs in my 10th grade, someone in the family mentioned Ummijaan’s images. Later I found some of her picture albums, (hundreds of photographs) and I was floored by the quality of her works. She indeed had a very natural, unique and perceptive eye for creating beautiful images. Acknowledging great value in these photographs, I began borrowing the albums from her and digitising them. Her memory lucid, unlike now, she would insist I return them intact. Which I did. She also insisted that I give away the images to family members, which too I dissuaded her from.
My great grandmother, Ummijaan, the incredible photographer, is now 86 years old though she doesn’t keep too well and her memory is almost lost. She lives in an apartment in Kochi. I now study at the Srishti School of Design in Bengaluru, Karnataka and continue to digitise her works. Noting my great interest and respect for my great grandmother’s photographs, it is incredibly heartening and amazing to see my own family too now extremely interested and appreciative of her works.
Image and Text contributed by Kavita Krishna, USA.
My Amma’s (Mrs. Krishna) life has been what can easily be phrased as that of constant transformation, from a simple south Indian orthodox girl into a cosmopolitan fauji (military officer’s) wife. Her life saw so many moves and travels that it made her into an extremely adaptable and a flexible person. Everyone who knows her agrees that she is the epitome of, what was once a compliment, a secular Indian.
My mother was born in Bandar or Machilipatnam in the then Madras State in1946 (now in Andhra Pradesh) into an orthodox Telugu Brahmins household. Where orthodoxy meant continuing the family’s brahmin traditions but also possessing liberality of thought that helped her later in her fauji married life.
Adjustments began with her family moving to Vijayawada and then to Nallakunta, Hyderabad in 1955; right in the middle of the Telangana agitation of 1954-56. She was just a school kid at Narayanguda Girls High School but remembers being teased as ‘Gongura Gongura‘ by boys following in bicycles. Boys those days simply stalked you singing the latest songs but didn’t do anything, she tells me. (Gongura, a sour green leaf Sorrel, is the staple diet in an Andhra household and belongs to the same family as Marijuana)
For someone who dressed and spoke very conservatively in Hyderabad, Amma blossomed into a more cosmopolitan person enjoying the very popular shows on All India Radio like Vividh Bharati and Binaca Geetmala, she like millions of others also became into a huge fan of Ameen Sayani, AIR’s most famous talk show host ever. She would hog the radio and would not let even her younger sisters listen to it.
My maternal grandfather, taatayya, was a lawyer at the High Court and had indulged his own share of adjustments, to study law for instance, he had gone off to the very British Madras (Madras Presidency) and had cut off his ‘brahmin tuft (Sikha)’, a supposed unholy act, resulting in his mother ostracising him for a year or more. Amma says very proudly that she had seen taatayya refuse many a cases despite the stacks of bribe cash people would offer because he could not lie. “He was in the wrong profession, he wanted to study language….” she adds ruefully. Of course my grandfather spent all his free time translating Sanskrit works into Telugu, playing chess, discussing philosophy and politics, editing Telugu magazines…So when my mother and her friends would go to watch movies, her affluent and generous Telangana Reddy friends paid for rather unaffordable film tickets, she says “We didn’t really bother about such things among friends those days. I did not have much money but nobody seemed to care who paid or who didn’t” she adds wistfully. A few Hyderabadi Muslim friends taught her Urdu/Hindi and she rather enjoyed speaking it.
On religion, my mother remembers that Muslims and Hindus of their economic and similar conservative class rarely visited each others’ houses, but when they did it was for festivals and they did not enter her mother’s kitchen. It was never stated explicitly but was understood. Amma says even she and her sisters were not allowed to enter or touch anything when her mother was doing her cooking or prayers and if she did accidentally touch something, her poor mother would have to go off and take a cold water bath. Sitting separately during the menstruation was the norm, hanging one’s ‘outside’ clothes outside and not bringing those inside the house, offering naivedyam (prayer) to the altar before eating and so on but that never came in the way of friendships. People knew of each other’s customs and respected them.
Soon my mother, began indulging in her love of art and writing. Once she won the first prize for short story writing, a competition conducted by the Telugu magazine Jyoti. She received many congratulatory letters of appreciation. But since she could not afford to buy postcards to reply to all of them she chose two among the 40-odd replies and sent them a Thank you postcard in return. Co-incidentally or one may call it fate; one of the recipients was her future husband.
Amma was not the marrying kind. She wanted to write, work,earn her own living, and was fiery and a feminist before her realisation. But when the proposal came from my father directly to the family – that he was from the same caste, that he was an Air Force Officer plus handsome to boot, was enough to have my grandmother literally bulldoze my mother into marrying my father.
Their first ‘posting’ together was to Gorakhpur in 1967. Amma absolutely loves that place, she says that India was a wonderful place to be young in those days. In their 20s, she and my father set up their first household in Mohaddipur, it was a three storied building called the ATC and it housed five other air force families. There Amma befriended the North Indian Puri aunty and the East Indian Roy aunty.
When the men were away on temporary duty, these three women would take a rickshaw to Gol Ghar and indulge in whatever shopping their meagre salaries allowed them. These three friends, one from each geographical corner of the country, also decided to seal their friendship with this photograph for eternity, for a handsome sum of Rs.15.
Those days my father, a bomb disposal expert, earned Rs 475 in hand after all the tax cuts, the pilots earned a little more. My parents had a lot of financial responsibilities – my father being the eldest in his family, sent support to them, and this did not leave much for shopping. Amma recollects that plastic goods, beaded jewellery and steel vessels that came from Nepal were most sought after by these newly wed wives. The women would quickly finish their rounds and hurry back to Mohaddipur before their husbands returned from work or before it was too late in the evening because that area was also infested with dacoits and political goons.
In Gorakhpur, even the five rupees for the rickshaw was something she had to struggle to save. Drinking and Smoking were the favourite indulgences among officers and everyone splurged on hosting parties, there was never any money left by the 15th of the month, she adds laughingly. Bachelors would ‘drop-in’ for Home made food bored of eating mess food daily and suddenly post dinner or lunch, plans would be made to drive on their motorbikes to Kusinagar or Benaras or to Ayodhya. She found all this very odd initially, this intermingling, this easy casual banter among genders, the adventurous spirit, eating anything by the roadside but she grew to love everything about the life that Air Force had brought to her.
Amma says she had never eaten Chhola Bhatura or Pani Puri before 1967. She didn’t know what they were. All of it was discovered in Gorakhpur. “It wasn’t like it is now, when you can eat anything anywhere anytime” she remarks reproachfully. “For the terrible dosas of Gol Ghar we saved money the whole month, and they tasted so bad, but we were somehow satisfied”, and now she she makes the best Chhole Bhature I have ever eaten.
She also speaks on the prejudices she faced, being short and dark, not having studied in a convent, not being able to speak ‘good English’, not being from a big city (Hyderabad was not considered a big city then) she constantly felt ridiculed and put-down. Considering that she did not belong to a rich or powerful family or have money, she had to really work hard at being taken seriously by others, especially the women, who were quite unkind to her. She learnt to wear make-up and perfume. She grew her nails and painted them, bought nylon saris and matching artificial jewellery, all this was was so unlike she had been brought up. Cutting her long hair off was another bold step. Having a ‘bob-cut‘ was deemed to be more modern, and thus she succumbed to it in the early 80s.
In the year 1982 my father was posted to Sulur, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We ran into the Puris who were also posted there and Amma met Puri aunty serendipitously after fifteen years. They were so happy to be together for the next two years, giggling like school girls, gossiping away whenever they got a chance. It was as though they had never married or had had two kids each.
I am amazed whenever I think of my mother’s journey. When we visited her old haunts of Machilipatnam and Vijayawada in 2002, I saw in a flash how tough each transition for Amma might have been, in attitude, in ideology, in social mores, yet she took it in her stride and managed to raise me and my sister with a very gentle message: that there is beauty in everyone, wherever they come from, whoever they are.
Today, Puri aunty is settled in Chandigarh, Roy aunty in Kolkata. Amma known as Chivukula Annapurna or Mrs Krishna or Radha lives with my father (who also fought two wars and took voluntary retirement) in Secunderabad. I am her older daughter Kavita, I teach language, culture, yoga & vedanta. My younger sister is Pujita and she teaches and performs Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam. We have both chosen professions where there is not much money, but a lot of spirit & passion.
Image and Text Contributed by Sunita Vishnu Kapse, Mumbai
We lived in Shivaji Park, Bombay in a house that our families had lived in for eight generations. My father‘s name was Tulsiram Pawar and my mother’s was Chandra Bai. My grand-mother who lived until the age of 101, used to work in the municipality as a road sweeper. My father also worked for the municipality of Shivaji Park, cleaning garbage. But he was an alcoholic, most of the times drunk and incapable of working. He would beat up my mother and abuse her all the time, but she gulped all the pain and began working instead of him. She is the one who earned and brought us all up. Her salary at the time was only Rs. 200 a month, so it was tough on her. Most men in the chawl were in similar jobs and were all drunks & wife beaters, exactly like my father. All the girls in the chawl were scared to get married anticipating the same future.
My family belonged to the Mahar Caste, considered untouchables and of low caste in India. But we all got saved when my parents adopted the beliefs preached by Babasaheb, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. If it wasn’t for him, we would have been on the streets or dead, of hunger or indignity. My parents converted to Buddhism following Ambedkar’s encourgement and since then we have been restored our dignity.
We are four sisters and two brothers. I was born on November 13, 1963. In school I studied up to class 10 (sometimes as night classes). I used to love dancing, participated in school events and played everyone’s favourite sport at the time Kho Kho. Embroidery was another skill I learnt from the women in the Chawl. On Saturdays & Sundays we would finish the house-work faster so we could rush to watch Marathi movies in a quarter that had a B&W television.
In 1982, when I was 18 my parents got me married. The chosen husband was Vishnu Rama Kapse. He was 15 years older to me. When our parents asked us to marry, we just did, there was no argument or discussion over it. My mother said that they were a well to do family, and they eat a lot, and so I will be happy. Later I heard, that my husband too didn’t want to really get married, but others advised him that he needed a partner who could also contribute to earnings. The wedding was all paid-for by my mother. I think she must have spent Rs. 5000 on it. As was tradition for the In-Laws to do, my actual name Satyabhama was changed to Smita by my husband, but my mother-in-law couldn’t pronounce it so she began calling me Sunita, and now everyone calls me Sunita.
This photograph is from my wedding reception in a small hall in Bandra, Bombay. With us is my husband’s regular employer (since he was a child), Mrs. Ula and her family. They really loved us. Now they live in USA.
I am wearing a Blue saree and my husband wore a Grey suit. In Buddhism, during the actual ceremony we wear white, not red as is the norm of most Indian weddings. With our dharma guru as witness, we exchange garlands, listened to a short sermon and that was it, we were married. There were around 200 guests for our wedding. The gifts we received were currency notes of Rs. 2 or 5 in small packets. I got married into a very large family, with mother, sister, brother and cousin in laws.
My husband was a simple decent looking man. He respected, and loved me passionately. He never hit me or embarrassed me in-front of anyone. He used to say “If I disrespect you in-front of someone else, they won’t respect you”. That is the reason my children respect me too, because that is what they saw. My husband really loved me, showered me with attention, but I am aware that he was also afraid that I might leave him, because I was a good looking and to top it, 15 years younger. That is the reason he never wanted to live away from the large family because he felt it kept me in check. I always found it very amusing but in a way it imparted a lot of self-confidence. We were great partners & friends and would never do anything without consulting each other. My husband would keep me updated on current affairs of the world. When I couldn’t understand, he would explain everything patiently.
My husband’s family came from Ratangiri and his family owned a lot of agricultural land there. But once the Dam and new railway tracks began to be constructed, many new people came and grabbed most of our land and so many of us, also from near by villages, were left with almost nothing. We still have a legal case going on but I doubt anything will happen.
Like thousands of others, my husband at the time in the 1980s was working in the Textile Mill, breaking yarn. When the mill shut down (called the Great Bombay Textile Strike), he began working as a wall painter, or as daily labour (also for the family in the picture). The same year my eldest daughter Annapurana was born, but the earning was not enough for us, so I began working as a domestic maid. My first monthly salary was Rs. 75 with a Sitan Family here in Bandra, I have now worked for them for 32 years and I still work there. Then we had a second child Abhijeet, a son and a third another daughter, Priyanka. My husband and I worked very hard and educated all three of my kids. They went to government municipality schools, and then they went to college. Fortunately for us they are now married into good families.
I never chose to be a maid, but I did it because if I didn’t work we couldn’t earn. And with my experience, being a good and honest maid was the best I could do. My husband would not give me all the money he earned, because some of it was kept for his brothers and their families whom he supported largely. So I too saved, keeping money aside and buying gold as an investment without him knowing, but the amusing part was he knew all along. I always worked around the Bandra, as it was close to home. The Parsi family next to our home sold their land and in its place a mosque was built. But we all casts and religions lived along as good neighbors cordially, perhaps because we were Buddhists and non-violent. In-fact in times of conflict in Bombay, the muslims neighbours always came around to check if we are okay.
My normal routine everyday for years was getting up at 6 am, pack my husband’s and kids lunch tiffin, go do all my work and return by 2 pm to fill water that would only come in taps twice a day. I learned a lot by working as a maid, like cooking different Indian Cuisines from my employers and then I would try it all at home. My family loved my cooking. Even when my daughter got married, I had every feast cooked at home. I have been lucky that all my employers respected and taught me a lot. Looking at our employers helped us aspire for a better lifestyle. But one thing that makes me sad is how people spend on things much more than they need to. Wasting food is probably the biggest problem I see in so many households, the wealthier the families the more food is wasted. But people and women are also more independent and that is admirable, though I still get worried if my daughter doesn’t come home on time.
In 2006, my husband developed a heart problem and he began to keep unwell often. So I got a couple of more jobs and continued working as a maid cooking, cleaning, sweeping, and washing to earn enough to pay for his medical bills. Many employers too helped with the medical bills. But in 2012 his health worsened and he passed away. I now continue to work as a maid, because if I didn’t work I would go crazy. Because of my children, I am not struggling for money, but it is good for me, it makes me independent, I work in places I like to work, I am respected and I get to step out. But I really miss my husband a lot. He was my friend, my protector, my partner of life. I really feel alone and cry when I think of him, but I thank Buddha and Sai baba because of whom I have great children, siblings and their families.