January 1st next is going to be my mother’s 114th birth anniversary. She was lucky to have been born on the first day of 1904 and that too in a very well to do family which in those days was described as “Bhadralok”. Her father was from amongst the landed gentry and was deeply influenced by the social changes that were sweeping through Bengal a little more than a century after commencement of the British rule. Educated in the Western ways fostered by the British in 19th Century Bengal, he became a Brahmo, member of a liberal sect of Hindus that came into being after the Bengal Renaissance. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarka Nath Tagore were the main progenitors of the movement of Brahmo Samaj that received official approval in 1860, in the process severing the links it had with Hinduism.
My mother’s father was a typical “Bhadralok” if any there was one, as he belonged to the new class of “gentle folk” that arose during 19th Century Bengal. Anybody who could show considerable amount of wealth and standing in society and was inclined towards Western or European values would be a “bhadralok”. Because of his wealth and standing in society he was appointed Deputy Metropolitan Magistrate in Kolkata around the turn of the 20th Century. In those days it was money and influence that carried the day; merit was to be reckoned with only in the Indian Civil Services examinations held in England.
He was quite well known to some social and political activists who have iconic status today. For example, he was close to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a social reformer of note, who eventually did the estate planning for my grandfather. He was also known to Surendranath Banerji, an ICS of 1871 vintage and later founder of nationalist political organizations. His nephew was married to my mother’s elder sister whose daughter used to live in an old rambling severely fragmented house of the Bannerji estate in the Bow Bazar area, entry to which is now from a narrow lane named after father of Surendranath Banerji. I used to meet her regularly in the mid-nineties when I was posted at kolkata.
Mother’s father was also known to Tagore whose Santiniketan got his children as pupils when it was established in 1901. Mother seemed to have seen Tagore in Jorasanko, Tagore’s house in Kolkata, where his plays used to be enacted. She used to tell us about how Tagore would dance as he sang along during the performances of his dance-dramas. I later visited the place and was shown the courtyard that would be converted into a hall with a stage for performers.
Affluent as the family was my mother and her older sister never had to do any household chores. In fact the family used to live in a house in Brindaban Mallik Lane, near College Street on the upper floor, ground floor was where the kitchen was and was also meant for running her father’s offices. While her eldest brother used to run nine buses in Kolkata under the trade name of Orange William and another older brother was sent to Leeds to do mining engineering, she herself was sent to Bethune College, reputed to be the first women’s college in Asia. It continues to be one of the finest women’s colleges even today according to the Accreditation Council of India. She did the licentiate in teaching and, perhaps, that is why all of us were prepared at home rather well before admissions in schools. My two elder brothers were found fit enough to be admitted in Class VI; I was myself sent away a trifle early and was admitted in Class III. Quite obviously, her teaching methods were a little more advanced than what we saw later as we progressed in our Gwalior government schools. Curiously, schooling at home that was prevalent in the early years of 20th Century is now making a come-back in the West.
From a well cushioned life she came up against hardships that persisted till almost the very end. We do not know for sure how my parents got together to get married. It was an unlikely marriage as each was from a different stream of Bengali Brahminical society inter-marriage between members of which was taboo. Perhaps that is why their marriage was kept under wraps. My father belonged to a “zamindar” (land-holder) family of East Bengal (that is now Bangladesh), but he had renounced his rights to the property and had come away to West Bengal for studies, eventually doing Masters in English Literature from Presidency College of Calcutta. He chose a life of penury and became a teacher in colleges, initially in Lahore, then in Ujjain and Gwalior and after retirement in Morena. Salaries being depressed it was difficult to sustain a family.
So, while my father would take tuitions to make some extra money my mother slogged it out at home. Having never done anything at home before her marriage she was overwhelmed by all that was needed to be done. The problem was compounded as she was torn away from her moorings in Calcutta and brought to Ujjain, a small town in Central India about a thousand miles away which fell in the territory of the then princely state of Gwalior. The very ways of the people were different as was their language. She tried to speak it but carried that inimitable Bengali-ised Hindi right till the end. She did not know to roll out chapattis but eventually mastered the art of rolling out very thin chapattis. Having never been anywhere near the kitchen before marriage, she learnt, presumably from my father, to cook Bengali meals that were akin to spicy and hot East Bengal cuisine. My uncle, who was kind of a connoisseur of East Bengal cuisine used to love the food dished out by her.
Apart from cooking she would do practically all the household chores despite availability of a maid. Never satisfied with the kind of work turned out by them she would sweep the entire house of six rooms in two stories and the verandas around it. Both Ujjain and Gwalior were, and perhaps still are, very dusty places where dust would fly into homes with the slightest of breeze. All the time she was racing against time to have every chore properly done. Finicky as she was about details, she would make extra efforts to keep things prim and proper. It was a middleclass household and yet with her efforts it was maintained in an admirable manner within the limited financial resources.
Five of us children were sources of enough of worries for her. My father was blissfully unconcerned about the future with no savings to fall back on. She was, however, all the time worried about us and our performances at schools and the college. She would prod us, persuade us or even scold us virtually every day and her disciplinarian trait would come into play very often. She was keen on a good life for us after we finished education and that worry would eat her from inside. She never wanted her children to suffer the hardships she happened to have seen in her life. In the process, she developed high blood pressure very early in life and would fly off the handle on slightest of provocations. We all had to contend with her temper very often which was of formidable proportions.
No wonder some of my friends used to call her “Hitler” because of her strict control over us. We had to have her permission to go out to them and very often the permission would be refused. And yet, she would be only too fond of our friends. Whether it was my eldest brother’s friends or my own she would carry on conversations with them in her Bengali-ised Hindi. The neighbourhood boys who used to be former students of my father would come and chat with her for hours in the evenings.
All this was because of her innate hospitality. She was fond of all of father’s students as also of our friends. My eldest brother’s friends would come in the evenings to just gossip and have tea and refreshments. Likewise, the small number of Bengali boys of the town would come and have cold drinks in summer or tea in winters. Even the Prabhat Pheries organized during the Bengali New Year or Tagore’s birth and death anniversaries would, generally, culminate after rendition of Bengali patriotic songs at our place where tea and refreshments would be served.
She was hospitable to a fault. One of my friends, after flunking the BA Pass course in Delhi, would go for tuitions in the mornings. On his way he would drop in at breakfast time and have whatever we would be having. Occasionally, Ma would make parathas for him. Another friend would come and tell her before going for a cricket match that he would have lunch with us. She would blow up and shout at him but eventually he was welcome at lunchtime. An ice-cream making contraption was acquired for ice-cream binges in summers where the neighbourhood regulars would be welcome. Again, when all her children had gone away on postings and only I was around she would frequently force one of my friends, a regular visitor, to stay overnight. It seems, his mother got suspicious and one evening came over to check out the Ma he would mention as excuse for staying away from home at night.
Our old associates even now recount how hospitable she was despite my father’s modest salary. To my mind it was all because of her breeding, the way she grew up at Kolkata. Despite having no solid or liquid assets, mother never really cringed away from these social niceties. She was forthright and outspoken but when it came to hosting friends of father or of her children or even her own she used to be very generous.
She ran her household single-handedly and was always complemented by everyone as a very competent housewife. Apart from running a very efficient household she would stitch all our clothes. I remember during the Great War cloth was rationed and whatever little was procured she would stitch clothes out of them for us, improving her performance with time. Her Pfaff sewing machine is still with me, occasionally used by my wife, otherwise kept as an heirloom. Thankfully, there was no pervasive system of school uniforms when we were children as all our shirts and shorts were stitched by her. She was very good at embroidery as well. Those days tables were seldom without any table-cover on them; my mother would busy herself embroidering on tablecloths in her spare time. I think I still have some pieces embroidered by her.
On recounting her selfless strenuous efforts I cannot but deprecate myself for not taking care of her the way she deserved. It is so ironic that we seem to realize the worth of our near and dear ones only when they are no longer around us. I feel no end of remorse in not having done all that that should have been done for her comforts and wellbeing - she having slogged so hard to put us where we are today. Even now our friends say very truly that we were successfully launched on our careers only because of her unrelenting and untiring efforts.
It has been more than 36 years since she left us and yet scarce is the day when I do not remember her. That certainly is neither here nor there. Now the only thing I can do is to wish eternal peace for her new abode wherever that might be