This photograph of my father Nomal Mech, at 19 years old, (bottom right) with his colleagues was taken in 1980 in the Assam Studio in Shillong, Meghalaya when they were enrolled in a three-month training program to become telephone switchboard operators. It was probably the first time he was getting his photograph taken. The shoes he wears here were his first pair, bought third-hand from a neighbour to protect him from the cold and wet Shillong weather. When I inquired about his uber fashionable clothes in this image, he said that everyone was wearing clothes inspired by Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, the cinema style icons of the time, even though he himself was not acquainted enough with Indian films. He simply wore what everybody else was wearing.
According to family knowledge, My great grand-parents, Balwant and Laxmibai’s relationship was considerably strained. Four years after their marriage, he married again, for the second time, to a lady named Kamalabai, because he thought that Laxmibai was not beautiful enough and that the marriage was arranged against his wishes. Consequently, Laxmibai’s life was riddled with difficulties and illness, compounded with eight pregnancies of which only three children survived. While Kamalabai would accompany Balwant in his travels to Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai), and Delhi, and she attended to her husband throughout his life, Laxmibai had to stay home, and look after their kids. Ironically, the conspicuous absence of Balwant’s second wife, Kamalabai in family group photographs could be for the fact that she was unable to bear children. Both women suffered discrimination in different forms. Having said that, Kamalabai looked after her step-children as her own, even after he passed away.
Unfortunately within six months, the fever took Jogendranath’s life, leaving his young 12 ½ year old wife a widow. Given her age, it was decided that Pushpomoyee would return to her parent’s home in Calcutta, where she might be happier. Binodini and Devendranath would enquire about Pushpomoyee often, and within an year they began to hear of unpleasant rumours surrounding the treatment of their daughter in law, at her own maternal home. So when a serendipitous opportunity for some state related work in Calcutta arrived, Binodini and Devendranath at once left, and stayed at the Hathwa house on 28, Shakespeare Sarani (now Theatre Road). Binodini then dropped in, unannounced, at the Bose household on Gray Street and witnessed what she had feared.
This photograph of my grandfather was taken around 1925 at a photo studio called Portraits Par Papers located at 23, Rue Boissy-d’ Anglas in Paris, France. I am not exactly sure what he was doing in Paris at the time, but it is possible that he went there on a vacation with some of his friends because we know that he also travelled to Austria and Hungary. We also know that he had by then discovered the delights of a camera and photography.
This fading, tattered photograph carries in it the story of my Gujarati lineage’s courage and survival instincts - and how they came to call a south Indian city, Madras (now Chennai) their home - an antithesis to their familiar north Indian environment. This photograph taken by a professional photographer in 1952, is indeed the oldest family photograph we possess. While it is a rich a source of family memory, time has been harsh to it.