On one such general visit to Imphal (Princely state Manipur’s capital), during the 1930s, he was informed that the queen of Manipur was quite sick, and the King - Maharaja Churachand’s staff were looking for a healer. My grandfather was roped in, only to find himself cornered with a conundrum : if his queen healed, the Maharaja would reward my grandfather; if she did not, he would be beheaded.
In Poona, his linguistic proficiency got him the job of a Marathi typist at the newspaper office of Dnyan Prakash (a formerly popular newspaper) and he learnt to type in Marathi and English fluently. It was rare for government jobs to be advertised in newspapers; social contacts were the only means to receive information about employment opportunities but while typing out some material, my father chanced upon an advertisement for the recruitment of a police sub-inspector that promised a better earning. My father, blessed with a good physique, imposing personality and height, sent in his application and it was accepted.
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.
This image of my Grandparents, Om Prakash Gupta and his wife, my grandmother, Ramkali Gupta is one of the oldest photographs we possess. The original image was photographed and hand painted in a photo studio in Bhopal around 1975, right after the birth of their fourth son, Sanjay. While the original photo print was lost, a bigger duplicate still exists, framed and hung in a corner of our home. While my grandfather’s past exists in a few blurry anecdotes within the family, it is my grandmother who has really lived and witnessed a kaleidoscopic life.