Sahil and I were getting ready to go to school when the telegram came. We were living then in our captain brother’s charming bungalow near the Lone Tree Hill in the cantonment of Mhow. Those days were of thanksgiving of sorts because our brother had come back safe and sound from the great debacle of the year 1962, the Sino-Indian war. Two other captains in Mhow were never to come back. For them and others like them, star singer Lata Mangeshkar was to sing at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi the coming January the sorrowing song in remembrance of the martyrs. Such was the poignance of the song that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wept as she sang and the nation wept with him.
More tears came raining our way in December just when we were thanking the powers that be for the safe return of our brother from an unhappy destination in the north-east of the country and also rejoicing the fact that our Daddy Sahib, explanations later on why we addressed him so, had at last got a decent job in Delhi and we would soon be joining him there after our Sahil and my final exams. We had been shifted to Mhow only a few months ago as it was difficult to make ends meet in Chandigarh. Things were so bad that it was difficult even to pay our school fees. Sahil had moved here earlier and Biji, Anil and I had followed. But now our father was rich with a well-paid job after his own heart. He was the Assistant Editor of the reputed India Times. The past eight years had seen him journey sadly from a prince to a pauper, so he said. But Biji, as we called our mother, assured us that all would be well.
And then my eighth birthday was just around the corner. Biji had promised me a frilly pink dress and I had written to Daddy Sahib to send me two pairs of party shoes, one in pink and one in white. I had made a spelling mistake and spelt ‘writing’ with a double ‘t’. Biji scolded me and corrected it saying, “If it goes like this, he will scold me for not teaching you correct English. With him it is English-English all the way. Oh! I am so tired of it.”
Being a senior civil servant, the same standard of life had continued in Shimla even after all the losses suffered Partition. The Garden Town house in Lahore, which was looted and burnt down in the riots, fetched only a small claim for the land. The wedding of my Goddess of a Sister a year after the Partition had been a costly affair and a big loan had to be taken, but the greater heartbreak for our father was the unhappiness she had to suffer for all times. And he was proud and honest and even if someone brought a box of sweets it would be returned without thanks and with a rebuke. From information and publicity he moved onto become the chairman of the Punjab Public Service Commission, which is today a notorious place for making money, and then onto retirement and shifting to the city in the making by the Swiss born French Architect Le Corbusier.
The grandeur of life even at Shimla with a rambling Bemloe bungalow, several servants and a salary packet every month all came to an end. The pension was commuted and more loan taken to build that dream white house in Chandigarh. A brood of children with the newly born me and a legal practice which failed to take off in spite of the Bar et Law from Innes Court at Dublin for Daddy Sahib would say in all righteousness, “Prabhji I cannot take this case as it is all false!” The proud man from Taar village in Pakistan came upon difficult days and the results were hard times and fights between Biji and him. As little kids in Chandigarh Sahil and I would dive under the huge four-poster beds to fetch the spectacles, Daddy Sahib’s thick orange fountain pen with which he was penning a book on the history of India, which he felt would change the course to better things, and of course the dentures of our parents. These would be flung away in those awful brawls between the two and Sahil and I would rush and bring them back. Probably Sahil took the lead in the rescue operation and I followed him faithfully. This was our way of making things all right between our muddled, middle-aged parents.
Frustrated, he would recall his triumphs at Cambridge and say, “I just wish to go and die on British soil!” My mother would hit her head and say: “Look at this man! People long to die in their homeland. Remember how Bahadur Shah Zafar lamented about not getting two yards of space in the land he so loved. But this husband of mine wants to go all the way to Britain to die!!”
Our elder brother Anil, Biji’s first born came in with the opened telegram in his hands and stood silently by Biji who was braiding my hair. “What is the telegram about? When is Sukumar coming?” Biji asked, weaving a blue ribbon in my second braid and folding the braid and tying a bow on top of my ear. Two folded braids and two blue ribbons on my ears and I was ready for a day in Class II of the St. Mary’s Convent.
Anil made an effort to read the telegram but he choked once and then quickly, too quickly, read it out: “Daddy Sahib passes away. Arrangements made to escort Biji to Chandigarh. Children to stay back in Mhow. Sukumar.”
Biji looked up stunned, rolled her head, pressed her left breast with her hand and sighed. Both my brothers stood motionless as though they were turned into sculptures in the game of ‘Statue!’
I did not know the meaning of ‘passing away’ so I asked Biji, “What has happened? Has Daddy got his passport? Is he going away to England?”
“No,” Bjiji cried out, “He has passed away. He is no more. He has gone to heaven!”
Now, going to heaven was not such a bad thing. Every morning at the school assembly we would fold our hands and chant a prayer, ‘Our father thou art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come...’ Was some kingdom coming our way?
But Biji was weeping inconsolably and Sahil started blubbering too. Anil turned his face to the wall and wiped his tears silently. I looked at all of them and started crying out: “Daddy Sahib! Daddy Sahib!” The realisation dawned that I would not get my pink shoes or even the white ones.
It was decided that Sahil and I would not be sent to school. Panditji, our Big Brother’s cook, had tears in his eyes as he served us a breakfast of toast and fried eggs. Midday Captain Kapoor came to offer his condolences and told Biji that she would be leaving by the evening train with a junior commissioned for an escort. The tickets had already been done. She would be away for some three weeks as the final rituals and prayers would be held at the Chandigarh house. He gave a white envelope with cash in it to Anil. Biji was to take a part of it and the rest was for our expense at Mhow. He very gently assured Biji that he would be there to look after us in her absence.
After the captain left the big question came up, “Who would wash my bottom in Biji’s absence?”
I was ashamed that I was seven plus but had not yet learned to wash myself after the big job. Biji had spoiled me well and proper, so thought my six brothers although some said it and some didn’t. I was the kid sister of six brothers and my mother’s darling.
Brother Anil gallantly offered to do so those three long weeks. I would push myself to the front of the toilet seat and he would pour a mug of water down my backside and for the first time I learnt to use my left hand to clean myself and then scrub it hard with soap. Water jets and showers were to come to our bathrooms some twenty years later. I was ever grateful to my brother for doing this for me. He was to remain for long the favourite son and brother, for I was nothing more than my mother’s clone, until he decided to disengage from the ‘dysfunctional’ family that he was born into. But at that time he was a savior. It took Biji five weeks instead of three and by the time she returned I had learned to wash my bottom on my own.
Every other day Capt Kapoor and his wife, who was one of the princesses of Patiala, would visit us with their golden-haired three-year-old daughter Shandy. On Christmas they specially took me to the club for the children’s party. There was a feast of rainbow sandwiches, potato fingers and cake with orange squash to drown it all. I had no illusions about Santa Claus coming down with Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. I knew well that it was Preetpal Singh uncle who was playing Santa Claus and handing out gifts to the children from a big sack. Shandy got a big blonde walkie-talkie doll and there was modeling clay for me and books of cut-out paper dolls and their smart paper dresses. All of us got candy and Christmas crackers. This was my first Christmas party courtesy the Kapoors.
There was a letter from Biji written in Hindi. She always wrote letters in Hindi because she had done her advancedHindi language courses, Prabhakar and Rattan, with silver medals which we never saw because those were left behind in her Kashmiri walnut writing bureau in the Lahore house. But she was as devoted to Hindi as Daddy Sahib was to English. She had written that it would take her some time more as some work was required for the house transfer, loan payment and such other things. On the blue inland letter card she had drawn two flowers for me. And there was some good news. She wrote that Daddy had already bought shoes for me and she would bring them along. I was so touched that I hugged the legs of a neighbourhood aunt and wept loudly.
It dawned on me that my fatherless status brought attention and kindness. People who hardly noticed me earlier were now going out of their way to talk to me. Mrs. Emanuel, our fair and plump sari-clad teacher, who was often angry that I was not doing my homework carefully, announced to the whole class, “Naina and Akbar recently lost their fathers. All the children must take special care of them and be kind to them.” Akbar was a smart fair Parsi boy and I a dowdy dark girl but now we were in the same league. He would climb the big tamarind tree in the school compound and bring me some sour pods to suck.
Vidya, my bench-mate in the class, took me to her home after school to eat dosas that her mother had made for lunch. Vidya also gifted me a peacock feather and told me to keep it in my homework notebook for it would bring good luck and vidya (education). She also gave me a picture of Goddess Saraswati, and said, “She is our lady for education and not that white woman with her head covered whose pictures are all over the school. But don’t show this picture to anyone in school where they make fun of our gods.” I took the picture but with colonial ghosts hovering over our household and Christian schools, it was the picture of Mother Mary that excited me more. For several years I would dip a few petals in a saucer of water, put them before the picture and hand them out as “Our Lady’s blessings!” Several decades later I made amends to Vidya by putting the Saraswati print by Raja Rai Varma above my writing table.
Then there was Deborah, the daughter of a very good-looking Anglo-Indian Major and his charming wife. Deborah Quin was the third of the five beautiful sisters and roughly my age. Generous to the core, she had the most beautiful toys and trinkets that she let me play with. Deborah’s collection included a real miniature sewing machine, a musical powder box, a set of puppets and much else. She called me to help dress the Christmas tree in their house.
Their house was a sprawling old bungalow, much larger than the one we lived in. The Christmas tree had been placed in the centre of the living room and her mother gave us goodies the kind I had never tasted before. I like the fritters iced in pink the most. While dotting the tree with cotton snow we put rather thick wads that looked quite ugly. Deborah’s debonair father looked at them and said, “What have the two of you done? It looks like cotton put on bruises to be bandaged and not snowflakes on a tree. Both of you will get a good whack!” And he playfully gave a light slap on her bum. Before he could give me a slap, Deborah blurted out: “You can’t whack her because you told me to be kind to her as her father is no more.” An awkward moment of silence and then he smiled and smacked me too saying, “Of course! I can!” A whack had never felt so good and I glowed in this moment of inclusion. My own father had never whacked me. I remembered very little contact with him but I recalled that in summers when we slept on the first floor of the Chandigarh house, I must have been three or four, Sahil and I would head for Daddy Sahib’s cot for Sahil had told me that it was fun to bounce on his protruded belly with its bulging belly button. So we did and he allowed us to do so without getting angry even though he had been working on the history book that he was writing all day.
Otherwise, I was Biji’s baby and my brothers thought it quite scandalous that I had not been sent to school till I was five whereas the older boys had started school when they were barely three and completed it by thirteen. My brother Indranil, who was older than Sahil by some five years, would sit with me whenever he got time to make me learn names of fruits and flowers in English and then make me repeat the newly learned names three times. Soon I knew that a santra was an orange, a kela a banana, a gulab a rose and so on. It was my mother who took charge to admit me to the Lower KG class of Senior Model School in Sector 16 along with Prakash Chachi and her son Teetu who was just two months older to me. In class Teetu was the fair and smart one but for some strange reason, unknown even to me, I did well in the tests and won a set of building blocks as we were promoted to the Upper KG. But after a few months my fees were not deposited in the school and my name was cut out from the register and I was at home again for a couple of years in which Biji and I were mostly travelling. Sometimes we were in Rawalpindi in Pakistan to be with her sister who had stayed there and sometimes to Secunderabad with another dear cousin of hers or some other relatives in Delhi for Biji and Daddy were fighting most of the time and she chose this escape route.
When we returned after those long train travels, all the children in the neighbourhood went to school but me. I was at home all day and I started feeling awkward about it and would stay indoors and come out to the verandah or lawn only when it was time for the other children to be back. This way I thought neighbours would think I was back from school too. Then one day, Biji made me enact a little drama. She told me that when Daddy Sahib came home I was to fall at his feet and cry out: “Please admit me to a school, please dooo...” Being a dutiful daughter, I played the act and I think Daddy Sahib was sufficiently moved for it was decided at night that he would take me to Carmel Convent the next morning. I did not have a school-leaving certificate because that would have meant paying the dues at Senior Model so my mother instructed me that I should say that she had taught me at home. She also told me to speak in English. The Englishman’s language was a major issue in our household and remains so till today with Indranil, now seventy, and one of the two surviving brothers of mine, correcting pronunciation of family, friends, acquaintances and even shocked strangers and asking them to repeat the correct pronunciation ten times as against the three repetitions that he sought in his youth
Anyway, going back in time the next day when the kindly looking Irish nun who was the Mother Superior asked me how I learned to read and write when I had not gone to the school. I looked her straight in the eye and said in English, “My mother ‘teached’ me.” She smiled and said, “Oh! So your mother has taught you well.” But by then I was too scared to appreciate the Mother Superior’s compliment for I realised that I should have said ‘taught’ and not ‘teached’ and Daddy Sahib must be very angry. On assessing my progress, I was admitted to Class II. But I returned home in the rickshaw with Daddy Sahib with my head hung down at having got my English grammar mixed up and all at home would come to know of it. But to my surprise Daddy Sahib praised my performance to everyone, “She did very well in the written test and she spoke good English to the Mother Superior.” He hid the fact about my grammatical mistake and had taken my side. I felt that he was on my side and had kept my secret of my poor grammar from the rest of the family.
However, just a few months at school and the fees and other problems started surfacing. Our big brother then took the decision of moving Biji, Anil and me to Mhow. Sahil had already been living with him the past year. Only Indranil and Daddy Sahib were to remain in the big house at Chandigarh. It was Indranil’s last year at college and Anil had already completed his graduation and was to be fixed in a job. Captain Sukumar was steering the family wagon and he was Big Brother all the way. His was a strange mix of affection and anger. In times to come he was to become a Major and then a Colonel and more terrifying as the years went by. He became more insufferable with the series of heart attacks he suffered. He would bring us to cantonment after cantonment for some months or a year and then send us back in disgrace to the Chandigarh house. Chandigarh was the only constant factor in our nomadic existence. We always returned to it. Our dilemma was, and perhaps Sohni Bhabhi’s too, that we loved him and hated him in equal measures. But as time passed the measure of hatred grew more and finally we killed him with it. But that was to be many years later.
Those five weeks in Mhow without Biji after Daddy Sahib’s passing away I learnt, besides washing my bottom, the fine art of daydreaming. This was to become a habit with me all through school to the annoyance of my class teachers. Walking to school with Sahil, I would wrinkle my nose, half-shut my eyes for a few seconds and pray to God to bring Daddy Sahib alive again on earth and better still right there in Mhow. At times I would open my eyes and see him standing a short distance away but when we reached closer he turned out to be someone else. Then I would shut my eyes and pray that I should become as fair as the daughter of Captain Kapoor and Santa Claus should give me the walkie-talkie doll instead of modeling clay and paper cut-outs.
Another favourite dream was that now that Biji was a widow, she would marry someone like Deborah’s father who would play with me and smile and whack my bums if I made a grammatical error. This dream made me feel very guilty. I was a case of yours hopelessly guilty and went through much of my life apologizing even for the space I occupied on earth. My friend Mini was to pronounce later, “Guilt is the most stupid of emotions.” But I felt guilty even about considering guilt stupid. My long guilt trip ended somewhat when I lost my virginity. Actually I should have been grateful not grievous as that he had proved to be the liberating factor. Further strength came from the strange political-spiritual entry of the Poet of the City in my life.
But that winter in Mhow, I felt very guilty about replacing Daddy Sahib with someone smart and savvy like Deborah’s father. However, I justified to myself that Daddy Sahib had not really wanted me. He was looking out for the seventh son. So went the family lore that before my birth, Daddy Sahib appealed to Biji in all seriousness, “Prabhji, please don’t ruin my old age by giving me a daughter. You know well what happened to the older one and the suffering all of us are going through till now. I have already told people that I have seven sons.” Biji did not say anything but looking at a flaming pyre in the cremation ground visible from the Sector 23 transit government houses the family was then living in, she told herself, “Well, Mehta Sahib this time it will be a daughter. My very own daughter whose life will have all the opportunities that mine lacked. I will live again through her.”
When Biji, brother and bhabhi returned to Mhow there were no more tears. The mood was solemn yet composed. Our brother with a glass of whisky in hand talked of the debacle of the war and how his platoon had returned from Bomdila hungry, shoes torn and feet bleeding. At night Biji opened and pulled out the two pairs of shoes that Daddy Sahib had bought and kept for me. Pink had not been available so there were white pointy toed shoes with a bow on them and round-toed red shoes with a golden buckle and tiny patterned holes. A long way away in time, I was to learn that Biji and Indranil had bought these shoes from Sheng, the Chinese shoe-maker, in the city who sadly had been in police remand as a precautionary measure during the war and had just come out then to run his shop.
Anil was studying hard because Big Brother was sure that he would make it to the army when the short-service commission started post-war. Sahil was busy with his friends and I would sit listening to the long conversations of Biji and bhabhi. The latter would talk as she embroidered hyacinths in a glass bowl on casement stretched on a circular frame, from a pattern that had come out in the Women and Home magazine. It was then that Biji shared that Daddy Sahib had come visiting her in Mhow before his body was cremated: “The younger children had gone to school and Anil was out too. I took my bath and came to the drawing room and lay on the carpet listening to the radio and became a bit drowsy but I was not really asleep. It was then I saw him walk out of the bedroom. He was wearing a new tweed coat and he stood by the dining table facing me. I rubbed my eyes and got up. He smiled at me and in a split second as I got up he had vanished into thin air. I was stunned for a few moments but then pinching myself I laughed that I must be growing old for I was seeing visions like my mother-in-law who was forever telling us tales of who had visited her from Lord Krishna or her older daughter, who had been tormented by her husband and his family so much that she died young.”
Sohni Bhabhi put some fine stem stitches, tacked the needle on the casement to hear what else Biji had to say.
“Believe me Sohni the truth stood staring me in the face when I opened his trunk that had been set from Delhi.There was that new tweed coat. So it was him. Perhaps, he had come to say goodbye. It’s only you I am telling for the others will not believe me.”
“Bhuaji,” said bhabhi who was a distant niece of my mother and always addressed her thus, “I believe you because I have gone through such experiences myself. I was in the college hostel here in St. Mary’s when my grandfather died and I saw him at night sitting in a chair and gazing at me. The news of his death came only the next day.”
This psychic aunt-niece exchange came full circle some forty years later. She was the last one to sit with her when she was in trauma as I was at the office and it took me some time to reach. And then when my uncle, the youngest of Biji’s brother asked me to set ablaze the pyre, defying Hindu norms of only the sons having this right, on which Biji’s shriveled body lay and she was free at last six years after her paralytic stroke. As we sat by the flaming pyre, Sohni Bhabhi, half deaf and a shadow of her former self, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “This is just the spot where Daddy Sahib was cremated.” I liked to believe my psychic bhabhi at that time for there they were together on the same spot after long years of turbulence.
Daddy Sahib had taken up a paying guest accommodation with a Muslim family in Nizammuddin East. That evening he decided to return home for the evening before he had attended the wedding, met his son Sukumar back from the war and it had been late when he got back. So he had an early dinner with his gracious hosts and retired to his room for the last cigarette of the day. When the maid went to him with the morning cup of tea he was still sleeping although he was an early riser. She had breathed his last in his sleep.
It was a calm and peaceful end to a bold and stormy life with many challenges. The name of the village where he was born was Taar, situated in the Gujarat district of Pakistan’s Punjab. His was a family of Mohyal Brahmins. He was the firstborn of Bhagwanti and Mehta Tek Chand, who was the village patwari known for his integrity, honesty and a liberal view of life. His father had disowned him because they he had Muslim friends and in those times it was improper for a Brahmin boy to break bread with people of other faiths. The real reason for the disowning was that he had a Muslim girlfriend too. Shanti had been married very young but his wife had died even before she could come to her marital home. The second time he was a young man but the girl he was married to died within the first month of their marriage. The village priest read his horoscope and pronounced that his birth chart revealed that any girl married to him would not live beyond forty days. The news spread in the community and no one was willing to give him the hand of their daughter.
It was then that he got involved with a Muslim widow from a family of tillers and this liaison could not be hidden for long. Tongues were wagging in the community and when the gossip became very malicious, his elder bhabhi decided to take the situation in her hands. “Let no one from the community give him their daughter but I will bring a bride for him from Jammu. If no one else it will be my own younger sister,” she vowed.
The vow was kept although it was a different matter that her sister was twenty-two years younger than her brother-in-law. It happened thus in those days and more so when it was a matter of resolution. Whatever else Shanti was too honourable to violate his child bride so the romance with the Muslim widow did not quite end. The little Bhagwanti lived with her older sister playing and reading the letters of the Gurmukhi alphabet. She would return to her parental home for long periods. It was only some ten years after the marriage that the consummation happened. Bhagwanti was the fortunate one. She gave birth to three sons in succession and two daughters were to follow later. Shanti had entered the respectable fold of a householder and it was said that when Shanti’s oldest son came of age, the share of property would go to him. But that was never done for the older sister had become greedy.
Bhagwanti’s firstborn was reciting Sanskrit shlokas when he was but three years old. He topped the village school in every subject but since the school was only till class Eight, it was decided that he be sent to Bhagwanti’s brother in Jammu do his Matriculation. With flying colours from Jammu, the young Mehta got a scholarship to the Government College in Lahore from where he graduated. He had an inquisitive mind and way with languages. His expertise at English, the language of the colonial masters, was so appreciated that one his teachers recommended him as tutor to the extended family of Sir Khizar Hayat Khan. It was as though young Mehta had hit a jackpot. He was given a three-room house in the rural area of Shahpura off Lahore and a salary of Rs 350 a month, which was a princely sum in the early 20th Century. Not just that a buffalo was tied in the backyard for milk was essential food for the mind. A huge drum contained the yearly supply of wheat.
The family at Taar was overjoyed that their son had made it so big. His bride Ram Piari , who was married to him when he was sixteen and still in the college at Lahore, was now sent from her mother’s house in Mirpur to be with her husband. Mehta Tek Nath was at peace that how there was someone to help him in his ageing years. The son’s education was complete and he would help in educating his younger brothers. It was a fine year and a half at Shahpura and the funny story we heard of those times in the service of the Khans was that their family was to return from a summer vacation in Shimla and the accompanying tutor was asked to send a telegram to Shahpura that they should bring the horses to the Lahore Railway Station. The young Mehta carefully drafted the telegram that the horses should be sent to the Lahore Railway Station on such and such date and time.
One of the elder Jat Khans examined the telegram and said, “Why Mehta Sahib this is as long as a letter. Please be brief and just write that send the horses.” So that was what was done and when the Khans reached Lahore, what to talk of horses, there was no staff either to receive them. The culprit was found in the brevity of the message because the obedient staff had booked the horses in a rail wagon all the way to Kalka. The tutor, of course, had the last laugh and anyway his ambitions were greater than just teaching the unwieldy brood to read, write and speak English. He wanted to go to England to be one with the men whose language he had mastered.
Ram Piari was in the family way and was to go and live with her mother as her health was frail and she required care. It was ideal timing the determined young Mehta thought. He had saved some money, his doting father whom he convinced about how the family fortunes would change when he returned as an ICS officer, and some more was borrowed by a wealthy member of the community and preparations were silently made. He kept his plans well under wraps from his wife for he wanted no obstacles in the way and he repeated to himself the famous saying of British philosopher and essayist that marriage was impediment to great enterprise and children were hostages to fortune and the best accomplishments were made by single men. This single spirit he was retained even when he had some eight children, big and small.
After leaving Ram Piari in the care of her mother, a well-off matriarch, he put in his resignation to the Khans returning their buffalo, wheat drum and all and took a train to Bombay from where he booked his passage to England. And then the ill-famed letter from Aden came to Ram Piari telling her that he was sailing to England to study and make his fortune and how their life would take a turn for the better when he returned home to take up a high administrative post. This letter broke the young woman’s heart, we were later to refer to her as the older Biji, heart and she never quite regained her health even after her husband’s dream was partially realized. Her husband had left her in such a state without even whispering a word of the plan to her. And he was gone for six long years and it was in his absence that she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy whom she named Purshottam. Our Biji who took up cudgels against Daddy Sahib not only on her own account but that of his first wife too, would sway her head in disapproval and say, “What a man! How could he leave his wife in such a condition and sail away to England.”
It was in the Pembroke College at Cambridge that he was able to prove his academic prowess and a time he would always return to in his memory for comfort when life and times got hard. At Pembroke he invariably managed to get nearly to top and sometimes to the very top when it came to senior prize and honours examinations. His gift for languages helped him modulate his thoughts to a rare turn of the phrase not just in English but even in French, Latin, Sanskrit or Persian. This, however, evoked jealousy among his peers and more so the English boys who could not swallow the fact of a foreigner from a British colony should beat them in their own language.
The first setback came when Mehta was denied the competitive Foundation Scholarship in History. He met with a similar fate in the Indian Civil Service Examination. His father was supporting much of his education in England in spite of his meager resources and young Mehta was in a hurry to make it big for he had many promises to keep. So against the advice of his seniors and teachers he clung to his decision to combine the double honours degree with the ICS examination in the same academic year. He got a first division in the former but missed the civil service and he was to regret this for long.
However, with his quick mind and the knack of taking chances he graduated in law from Trinity College at Dublin and was a Bar et Law at the Inns Court there. The Irish experience for this full-blooded Punjabi boy and a militant Mohyal Brahmin at that time was most inspiring and lyrical. It led to a platonic romance that he would return to after things soured between him and Biji. It was to be remembered as the blow after the battle for he had never been able to tell his love to the alluring Angela. I am tempted to let my father say it in his own words found in one of his few autobiographical essays, written of course in the third person, which has somehow survived with me in a tattered state:
“He had seen her once but had never forgotten her. Walter, the elder brother of this young lady in question, had been a friend and a contemporary of his in college. He was of Irish extraction and being fellow sufferers under English thralldom they cottoned to each other more closely with the sense of a common cause. Otherwise too the Celts and the Indo-Aryans had affinities born of a kindred origin, though long lost in history. Walter had invited him to their house at an evening party where he had met his divine love, his dear, his life, his fate. It was indeed a case of love at first sight. Two eyes often meet but once they meet with a totally different effect; with the exchange of glances hearts get exchanged.
“Both Angela and he had evinced more than casual interest in each other at the party and if it had not set tongues wagging exactly, they had provoked some meaningful ogling among those present. It seemed that the two kindred spirits had met as both were equally well-matched in their intellectual gifts. She too was at the Girton. They had both tried to excel each other by discoursing on the latest trends in art, philosophy and literature. He was simply enthralled by the bewitching charm of her voice and speech and perfumed fragrance of her fresh and buoyant personality.
“The hosts were a musical people and hence a musical interlude was bound to intervene as a matter of course. Walter gave a recital of his favourite violin piece, Angels Guard Thee by Benjamin Gaudet. Angela’s turn came next. She sat at the piano and with its musical accompaniment she sang some enchanting Irish melodies and tunes including , The Hills of Donegal, though unseen they had ever called him but their cry had passed itself and died out in their own wilderness as far as he was concerned. And to show her solicitude for the winsome stranger she had turned next to Lawrence Hope’s Indian Love Lyrics and Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar was applauded in several encores.”
Donegal and Shalimar were distant dreams and the reality back in Taar village was grey. Mehta Tek Chand had not been keeping up too well and his second son Mehar Chand could not be educated beyond school, because all resources were pooled to keep the oldest abroad as well as marry his beautiful moon-faced older daughter into a wealthy landed family of Mohyal Brahmins. Mehar Chand had taken up a clerical post in a government department in Lahore and was helping the youngest brother Aman Chand complete his school education. In Dublin Puran Chand was called to the Bar but he realized that the legal profession even in the best of times was an uphill task and lady luck did not provide him with means to wait and make good in the profession.
He stayed on in London for some time after his education but how he fared in London is hazy in the family memory but he became a secretary to some wealthy Britisher called John Catlow. He proved to be an efficient secretary and Catlow was happy with him. It was there that he learned, picked up and internalized the lifestyle of the British. One is not sure that this secretarial post seemed to have happened after Cambridge. The lifestyle included a fondness for alcohol and the indulgence of Durby. The saga with Catlow ended sadly because some lapse in his duty because of excessive drinking led Catlow to say, “You Blackie you will never change!” This enraged our father who at once resigned and tore the cheque that was given to him for the money still owed to him.
The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ had not turned his way and then one sorrowful day he received an Indian mail that his father had left for his heavenly abode. The letter written by some wise older relative also said that the old man’s financial worries had shortened his stay on earth. Yet his firstborn and the hope of his parents, who had been maintained in comfort and substance in the Varsity, had been blissfully unaware of the changed circumstances of his family. The father had never let the son have an inkling of the misfortunes that had befallen him. The adventures abroad were cut short and fate had called upon Mehta not just to fend for himself but also earn money and support his widowed mother, two brothers and a sister. No longer could he take the bold chances with life although he felt that he had the capacity and necessary equipment to do so. He had to return home and assume the role of a bread-winner.
No one ever related what happened when the prodigal son returned to his village of Taar. But in Mirpur town, the Mohyal community had arranged a grand reception for the England-returned son-in-law. Never mind his miseries, his spirit soared at this warm reception and he was dressed to perfection with a felt hat and all. Once the garlanding and speeches were done in the inner courtyard, he turned upstairs to meet his forsaken and near-forgotten wife. As he was climbing the stairs, a lad some six or seven years young was following him tugging at his black trousers pin-striped in grey.
As the oft-repeated family story went, the irritated England-returned Mehta Sahib shook off the lad saying, “Hey boy, get away. Who are you?”
At this someone said, “Mehta Sahib, he is your son Purshottam.”
The erring father tried to make amends but the son could neither forget nor forgive his unkind dismissal. The father-son estrangement lasted a long time and expressed itself in strange ways.
Faced with responsibility, Mehta unhappily decided to appear for the provincial service although he considered himself the material for ICS. The results came soon after his second child Devi, the lucky one, was born in Mirpur. He was appointed the director of information and publicity with the Punjab Government at Lahore. It was a post of considerable importance and given his flair for writing, he fared rather well.
“My little girl Devi is a true Goddess. She has been lucky for me,” he would say showering on her the affection that had never come the way of his firstborn son. Devi, my beloved sister, was to remain lucky for ever so many but her own fate was to be ever luckless.
Two worthy anecdotes that came down the family account of the Brothers Mehta and how closely knit the three of them were in their escapades in Lahore. Once Daddy Sahib had settled down with his information and publicity task for the Punjab Government and a fine home with the older Biji and their firstborn, his two younger brothers moved in with them. Mehr Chand had his clerical post and the youngest Aman Chand was in college. The trouble started when a Pathan salesman who carried bales of handloom fabrics, selling them from house to house, charged Older Biji a couple of paisas a yard more than he did to a lady in the neighbourhood. On learning this, Daddy Sahib summoned his devoted toughie brother, Mehr who had a short sturdy body reared on milk and ghee. The two of them decided to teach the Pathan salesman a lesson for all times by giving him a sound thrashing. Opportunity came when the two saw the Pathan some distance away when they were strolling by the Ravi River one evening.
Now the problem was that the Pathan was a tall and huge man and our Uncle Mehr stocky but short. However, this did not deter the spirited Mehr who started racing towards the target at full speed and felled him down by hitting him in his belly with his head. Then he sat on his chest and started dealing him a blow after blow. Daddy Sahib briskly walked towards them and started pretending that he was stopping the one-sided fight. Holding on to his brother he kept telling him, “Now Mehr let it be. Let him go. Forgive him. But at the same time he dealt the erring Pathan a few blows too. Whenever Biji recounted this story, she would say: “Your father always kept himself in the background and made Mehr, his obedient aide, carry out the unsavoury tasks.”
Mehr was again in the forefront the second time too and this time the injury to the Mehtas was more grievous. It was not just a matter of few paisas but the career of the young Aman. Uncle Aman was to appear for a paper in his final examination for a bachelor’s degree in Lahore but the bus conductor refused him passage as his pass had expired. Pleas that he would miss his examination did not make the conductor relent. So he did miss his examination. When he came home and told this sad story to his older brothers, they raged with anger and plans were set afoot to settle scores with the stubborn conductor.
Next morning the three brothers stood at the bus stop. The roles were assigned. Uncle Aman was to identify the conductor and the bus, Daddy Sahib was to signal the driver to stop and Uncle Mehr was to do the rest. When the driver saw the three brothers standing in wait, he tried to make away but Uncle Mehr jumped and got into the driving cabin and held the steering wheel. Daddy Sahib pulled out the conductor and the two older brothers gave him a sound thrashing. At this Hafiz Jalandhari, who was later to write the national anthem for Pakistan, who was commuting by the same bus said to our father, “Mehta Sahib it does not become a responsible person like you to take law in your own hands.” At this came a resounding rejoinder “Come out you Mirasi and I will give you a feel of my hands too!”
This militant streak ran not just in Mehta but the entire tribe of Moyal Brahmins comprising seven castes that carried a chip on their shoulders because they had given up the traditional calling of priesthood and taken up martial and agricultural vocations. As the pre-Partition joke went whenever the monthly community meeting of Mohyals was held in Lahore, the bans-bazaar would be emptied of bamboo sticks for a brawl was bound to happen. One such brawl happened because a progressive secretary of the Mohyal Association suggested social reform of widow remarriage. Annoyed by this suggestion the orthodox president retorted, “Your mother is a widow and my father is a widower so let us make a beginning by marrying off the two!” What followed was nothing short of a pitched battle.
It was different with the Mohyal women for they were a subjugated lot and chose the weapons of wit and words. The knitting needles seemed to be flying in the hands of Biji as she sat with Bhabhi under the winter son of the little garden in the Mhow house. They were chatting even as Bhabhi was still onto the stem stitches of her hyacinths being embroidered to perfection on pale casement. They were talking about my sister and not too nicely at that.
“What scenes Devi was creating at Chandigarh! Grief is a personal matter and should be borne thus. She kept wailing ‘Daddy Sahib, Daddy Sahib!’ at the top of her voice,” said Biji.
“Not just that,” Bhabhi added, “she would tell me to join her in calling out to Daddy Sahib and asking him to come back!”
“How would he come back? She had seen him reduced to ashes with her own eyes,” Biji sighed.
I moved away to the other side of the lawn because I did not like them talking that way. I sat at the back of the rockery and started wondering why there had been no talk about my birthday party even though it was two weeks away. I was going to be eight. My seventh birthday party had been a non-starter even though I had a new green taffeta frock that Biji had brought from Delhi a few months earlier. But we were totally broke like most times. There was not much family at home either. My sister had moved to stay with her husband’s relatives in Delhi. Sahil and Anil were already in Mhow. Indranil was away on an NCC camp and Chiranjeev, older to him by three years, was at the Air Force College.
Biji had asked Purshottam Bhai Sahib, his wife and their daughter who lived in their own house in the next sector to come in the evening. Biji said she would fry Pakodhas but the fate of the cake was still uncertain. How could one have a birthday without a cake? So Biji sent me out with Daddy Sahib to get the cake. I recalled another day when we had gone out together. I must have been four and it was winter time. Very hesitatingly I had asked Biji, because I had learnt to adapt to the hard times, “Biji when Daddy Sahib gets his pension, please buy me an orange.”
Biji looked at me startled and then laughed, “You don’t have to wait till the pension comes. Your father will take you just now and buy you not one but two oranges.” So Daddy Sahib took be from the side exit of the house to the vendor’s cart across the main road and I returned with an orange in each hand. Now we were walking from our house in Sector 19 to Sector 27 where we ran a credit with the Beeba Bakery. I looked at the cakes displayed in the glass house and liked the one iced in white and pink. My father asked for a cake but the baker refused saying, “We will not give a cake on credit because last month’s bill has not been cleared.” We returned home empty handed, neither of us showing any emotion. But when I saw Biji mixing the batter for pakoras in the kitchen, I started sobbing, “Biji the Beeba baker will not give the cake on credit.”
Biji held my head to her bosom and whenever she did that everything became all right. “Do not worry, we will get a cake.”
“But will it be iced in pink and white?” I wanted to know.
I did not accompany my father on the second trip to the market. But he was obviously not refused a cake on credit by the National Bakery in our own sector. But it was a plain one as this bakery did not make iced cake. But Biji made a dash to the sweet shop by the roundabout at the crossing behind our house and returned with white and pink rasgullas, on credit of course, which she sliced finely and topped the cake with. Well, it looked almost as pretty as the one at Beeba’s. My eldest brother, bhabhi and niece came with a lovely gift, a Kashmiri papier mache bangle box with lacquered maple leaves, and it became a happy tea party with a smile replacing my afternoon sobs.
I came out of my hiding place behind the rockery and saw that Sohni Bhabhi had gone inside with her needle work and all. The sun had turned mellow but Biji was still sitting in the lawn clicking the knitting needles. I went and sat by her and broached the subject of my eighth birthday party that had long been planned with a frilly pink frock and even though there were no pink shoes I could wear my pointy-toed white ones that Daddy Sahib had bought as a parting gift. Those days they were known as ballet shoes and this was my first such pair. However, with the decline of language these were to be sold in the 21st century with the name ‘belly’ shoes!
Biji looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Naina, with your Daddy Sahib having gone to heaven so recently. It will not look good to have a party at home because people will think of us poorly but you will get your pink dress and you can distribute toffees in your class at school.”
“But what about my friends outside school,” I asked “What about Deborah?”
She pondered for a moment and then replied, “I will make packets of sweets and savouries and you can go to your neighbourhood friends’ homes and share with them. This time there will be no cake because your big brother will not like it.”
Biji swung into action the very next day. Sohni Bhabhi pulled out one of her trousseau saris that she had never worn. It was pink glass nylon with yellow butterflies embossed on it. Biji had a pink cotton dupatta that became the lining. She brought out the sewing machine and stitched layer upon layer of glass nylon beneath the high waist. A broad white satin ribbon ran across the waist and served as a belt to be tied at the back in a big bow. Some of the ribbon she turned and twisted into two roses that were put in the front. It was a gorgeous dress. The best I had ever had. Those days you could go to the school on your birthday wearing colours and Mrs. Emanuel appreciated the dress and I distributed two toffees each to all the girls and boys and four to the teacher. Back home I deliver the homemade barfi and mathari packets to my friends and Deborah has a present ready for me: A pink mock pearl necklace with ear bobs to match. My first pearls!
All this activity is done for some strange reason in secret from Big Brother. But he springs a surprise when he returns with cinema show tickets from the office. Sahil and I were to see Dil Tera Diwana Hai Sanam starring the boisterous Shammi Kapoor and the buxom Mala Sinha in one cinema hall and the rest of the family was to go to a teary cancer love triangle with Meena Kumari, Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kumar called Dil Ek Mandir Hai in another hall because Big B felt that the younger ones should have been spared disease and death on the reel life as they had just experienced it for real with the death of our father. The elders return with eyes swollen red from weeping.
It seemed then that life would go on at Mhow in that charming little house by the Lone Tree Hill but too much was happening too soon. Anil was selected in the short service commission as an officer and like Big Brother he opted for the Marathas and the training was to be at Belgaum. Sahil and I would tease him shouting; Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai. Soon after, Big B passed the Staff College Test and he was to go with Bhabhi to Wellington, Sahil was to continue to stay in Mhow in the home of Major Kapoor to appear for his Class IX exams. Biji and I were to join Indraneel at the house our father built in Chandigarh till the Staff College training was completed and Big B’s next posting announced.
And so we moved leaving behind Deborah, Vidya, Akbar, Mrs. Emaneul, St. Mary’s Convent, Lone Tree Hill and all. When I look back I associate Mhow, a cantonment in Madhya Pradesh, with the passing away of Daddy Sahib to heaven and this association was to accompany me all the way through different towns and different schools for all had one thing in common. The prayer at assembly time was always: Our Father thou art in Heaven. And this was the prayer I said at night when Biji demanded a silent prayer time before sleeping at night because I knew none other. But in Mhow Biji made me add a suffix to it: May Daddy Sahib’s soul rest in peace; let him be happy where he is. Parrot-like I kept offering this tribute to my father till I turned nineteen and stopped praying. But it occured to me very late, in fact some time after Biji passed away and I was well into my forties and I realised that our father must have been a sad man. Did Biji too feel the same way?
Nirupama Dutt is a Punjabi poet and journalist, and describes herself as ‘a translator of many seasons. She received the Punjabi Akademi, Delhi, award for her collection of Punjabi poems, Ik Nadi Sanwali Jahi. Her book of poems has also been published in Hindi with the title Buri Auraton ki Fehrist Se. She writes in English, Punjabi and occasionally in Hindi. Her recent works include the biography of Punjab’s Dalit icon, The Ballad of Bant Singh and her translation into English of Urdu poet Gulzar’s poetry anthology, Pluto. She has also translated the memoirs and poems of Punjab’s Dalit revolutionary writer, Lal Singh Dil. She lives and works in Chandigarh