Image and Text contributed by Udit Mavinkurve, Mumbai
In this photograph Purushottam Venkatrao Kadle, (standing rightmost) fondly called Vasant is my grandfather. He was 17 years old at the time. The photograph was taken, in honour of his elder brother, Lieut. Laxman Kandle, (sitting, in uniform) who was leaving for his duty as a medical officer in the military. He had been posted in Bengal for famine relief. The Bengal famine of 1943 had struck the Bengal province of pre-partition British India during World War II following the Japanese occupation of Burma.
A mystery surrounds my grand-uncle Laxman. He never returned from Bengal, they tell me. A telegram arrived, with its customary terseness, which said he had died; cause and place of death, unknown. His body was never found. And a few days later, they got a letter from him, written when he had been alive. A pre-teen under the heady influence of a great English teacher, I fantasized about a novel I would write about him when I would grow up. That was back in 2005.
Last month in December 2013, during our annual cleaning, my mother found the said letter and the telegram that my grandfather Vasant, Laxman’s youngest brother had kept for all these years. And the dust covered letters awoke those pre-teen fancies of writing about my uncle yet again. (The letters are presented in the links below)
The first letter offers more than mere curiosity of any Indian seeking out people from his own community when in strange land. The Kadles, the Koppikars, the Manjeshwars and the Kulkarnys are families from the relatively small Konkani-speaking community of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, rooted mainly in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Laxman tells his father about the fellow Chitrapur Sarasawats he met in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal (now West Bengal). One notable thing was his concern for the women of his family – he asks after his ill mother, his dear sisters and even his young niece Jayashree, but doesn’t mention his brothers, or his nephews. Nevertheless, it was the second letter I found particularly moving.
In the second letter, he describes his memorable journey along the River Padma (now in Bangladesh), that was something he would never forget. He describes the painful plight of the victims of the 1943 Bengal famine. He seems genuinely moved. And yet, through it all, there pervades a sense of purpose ; His will to serve and to be of use. He wrote about the arrangements he had made regarding money for the family, words sounding almost ominously like words from a will & testament.
But the fact that the second letter reached the hands of his father after the telegram with news of Laxman’s death is what makes it almost like a Greek tragedy. I imagine my great-grandfather holding the letter, reading the words of his dead son whose body was never found describing his joys, worries and plans; and my 17 year old grandfather, Vasant, standing beside him, an awkward teenager. With a chronically ill mother and a shocked father, the death of an elder brother might not have seemed mysterious and romantic to him, as it does to me. And yet, it was he – of all the others – who kept these letters, safeguarded, for all these years. My grandfather couldn’t have been very different from me.
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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.
Letter & Text contributed by Denzil Smith, Bombay
This letter carries with it an amazing story that always has me grin ear to ear with joy.
My family are Anglo Indians and until a few years ago lived in a family bungalow in Ville Parle in Bombay. My father Benjamin John Smith was a Customs officer in Bombay and perhaps one of the few honest black sheep amongst the white embroiled in dishonest deeds. To get relief from tough days at the office, my father would find release with music. He was adept at both reading and writing music, played several instruments and when opportunity called he even travelled with the famed Paranjoti Choir all over the world.
At one such opportunity he travelled to Tours in France with the choir in 1966. The members of the choir were usually put up by local classical music aficionados at their homes in each city; and a certain Dr. Boulard and his family were to be my father’s kind hosts in Tours.
The day my father reached the Doctor’s mansion, eagerly awaiting him at the gate was the Doctor’s son, a 6 year old French boy, Jean, who had waited for my father in anticipation of seeing an Indian for three whole days. At first sight and to his shock the boy ran inside and wept copiously to his father, complaining “Where are his feathers!?” Clearly my brown father in a suit and tie was not the “Indian” he was expecting.
Despite the initial disappointment, my father and Jean became very fond of each other and when he returned to India, dad told me that Jean reminded him of me, that I would really get along with him, and Jean would write to me and I should reply. Jean and I soon embarked on establishing a pen-pal relationship writing letters to each other. I was curious about France and he about India and our lives. He would write me in French and I in English. Finding a french translator in Bombay at the time not an easy task but I had one at home, my father. Later Jean began writing in English which he was learning while studying to become a Doctor.
Over the years we wrote several letters to each other. In some letters I would find that Jean had packed in half used pencils and I always wondered why he would send me those as presents. As time passed, somewhere through those years our letters became infrequent and we lost touch.
Many years later in early 2011, I was travelling with a theatrical production all over Europe and also to Tours. I remembered Jean and pestered my manager to trace his whereabouts. All I knew about him was that he had become a Doctor and his parent’s address that was well etched in my memory.
Before our performance in Tours, my manager took me aside to say he had a surprise. Back stage was not Jean as you would expect but his mother, Mrs. Boulard who spoke with me in French via a translator. I could tell she was cautious about me and wasn’t about to start believing my stories about some letters and my friendship with Jean until I mentioned a family fact that very few people knew about. Astounded, she suddenly broke into English, albeit still a little cautious. She wouldn’t reveal her son’s whereabouts; instead she insisted that I leave my number with her, for her son to return the call.
With no news from Jean, and ready to leave to perform the play in Le Mans, a city 200 Kms away from Paris, I finally received a phone call and was completely overjoyed to hear a voice that said it was Jean. For two whole hours we chatted away excitedly, catching up on our lives and he was going to drive down to Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris where I was performing two days later, with his girlfriend to meet with me.
It was one the most emotional and joyful moments of my life, to meet a close friend from my childhood I had never met, in our conversations we also discussed our letters and I asked him the question I had wanted to for years. “Why the half used pencils?” His answer was that he was told that India was a very poor country and he sent me the pencils because he assumed I couldn’t afford them! We laughed a lot and recollected much of our childhood and news of our families. It was simply a great great day.
A few months ago, Jean sent me this letter that I had written to him when my father passed away. It immediately reminded me of the time that was indeed very vulnerable, and the person I knew whom I could express it with was Jean.
The personalised letter-head this letter and many others were written on, was an earned luxury. It was a marketing promotion of a very popular chewing gum brand called A1, whose exchange offer was – personalised stationary for filling up an album with their wrappers that had images of country flags, cars, ships and aircrafts. It was a huge rage at the time for children my age in Bombay.
It is incredible how life is dotted with amazing presents, be it with a great father, incredible music, theatre, half used pencils, personalised letter-heads, chewing gums, and most magnificently an unexpected reunion of a grand friendship with Dr. Jean Christophes Boulard; with whom I am in touch yet again, on email.