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Archive for the ‘Family history’ Category

As I mention in the previous entry, I have only seen a few pictures of Ma and Baba’s wedding, one of which is a photo of Baba wearing a topor, a conical hat made out of paper and shola (a sponge-wood plant). Apparently, the topor was created because Shiva wanted a crown for his wedding but it looks ridiculous and hardly very crown-like.  Indian Hindu weddings can be really sombre (and long!) so I love that the poor groom has to endure such a comedy hat.  I wonder how Baba felt about wearing the topor?

Traditionally, an Indian boy from a middle-class family would be expected to go through an unbroken period of  15-17 years of study; in school, college and a career-linked professional degree or a PhD. I chose to do a combination of both.  Then follows a period of consolidation for the future and moving up the career ladder.  In this period, familiarity and friendships with girls were considered fraught with danger signals and possible distractions from life-goals.

‘Love-match’ as V.S. Naipaul described it so succinctly in his masterpiece ‘A House for Mr Biswas‘ was a rarity. The expected turn of events would to be get married around the fifth year of working, arranged by the family.  I followed the course.  

My wedding preparations were a little more perfunctory than your Ma’s.   My friends and colleagues assumed the roles of advisers. I printed invitation letters for them in English, got myself a custom-made suit, suitable for a Suitable Boy. Working in Hyderabad at the time, I got myself a heavily embroidered silk kurta too. Loaded with these, I took the train home to Silchar.

During those last days of carefree bachelorhood, I witnessed modest preparations at home, streams of relations coming from distant places, canopies for the band-party being put up, guests coming for a little chat, some mishti (Bengali sweets) and tea with my parents while throwing encouraging words at me.  I preferred to spend most of the time with my friends, outside. But my freedom of movement was blocked one day before the date of the marriage. I was strictly home-bound. The hours were filled with a series of rituals of blessings, Sanskrit invocations and tastings of home-made sweets of coconut and milk forced on me by all and sundry, my elders, directly or remotely. Before, I used to look at these home-made delicacies with eager desire but now I really couldn’t look at them.  I was stuffed.  But, I couldn’t say ‘No’. That would be rude.
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Ma and Baba’s wedding.

An intimate retelling of my parents’ Indian wedding nearly 40 years ago in their own words.  The rituals, the food, the clothes and the thoughts running through their minds on the day.

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I went to my friend’s English countryside wedding last week.  It was beautiful, simple, romantic and fun.  But it made me think of how different Western and Indian weddings are.  One is like a roast chicken meal, minimal ingredients, not that many steps but oh so satisfying to eat.  The other is akin to a biryani, a sumptuous dish with an army of ingredients and spices, multiple steps in its cooking, waves and waves of exquisite taste but liable to leave you with indigestion.

It also made me think of my parent’s wedding.  I have some scant stories and seen a few pictures but it would be so wonderful to take the time to capture the event through the eyes of Ma and Baba.  What rituals did they have? What were they thinking? How did they feel?  In their own words.  So here’s Ma’s perspective on the occasion and then Baba’s thoughts will follow in the next entry.

Ours was a very traditional arranged marriage with each other’s consent.   Arranged marriages usually conjure a picture of a practical, well planned affair, devoid of any romanctic aspect.  In my experience, far from it.  One constantly think of the distant person.  The element of surprise and anticipation  of falling in love is incredibly romantic.

Before the actual wedding came the the aashisbaad (blessings) where the groom’s side comes to bless the bride usually with  jewellery, sari and gifts including sweets and a whole fish, usually a Rohu.  Bengal being a river-rich state with abundance of varieties of fish this item has become an auspicious symbol  for weddings.  Blessings are usually done with durba ( a variety of three blade fine grass) which symbolizes long life and unhusked rice which means wealth.  After that the usual feasting.  The ceremony really drove home the point that I was really getting married and would be leaving my home which was a part of me for an unknown place. The uppermost feeling was sadness but probably a little excitement as well.

The next part was getting ready for the wedding.   As soon as the word spread, the jewelers, the cooks, the sweets makers, decorators and others flocked to the house.  Jewellery design was chosen ordered, other necessary arrangements were made, e.g making the furniture etc. which was part of the trousseau.  Maa beautifully embroidered and crocheted the bed linens, cheval sets (for dressing table) runners for sideboards, tray-cloths and teacosy covers.  It was absolutely amazing how much she did in such a short time.  Invitation lists were made.  Mejomamu designed a very simple but elegant invitation letter.  After a week or so Badomamu with badimami and Chinoodidi and chhotomamu arrived.  My three brothers helped maa and baba organise everything.  I bought my wedding sari in Kolkata with Suman mami’s help.  It was an elaborate red Benarasi with intricate gold work.
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Dima had the softest skin.  I used to love kissing her cushiony and marshmallow cheeks.  I don’t have many memories of her since she passed away when I was only nine.   But there are three or four really vivid images that I flick through like the slides in the vintage Viewmaster I played with when I was a little.  Her skin is one of them.  Another one is of her sitting with her paan paraphernalia on her lap and cutting up supori (betel nuts) with her special betel nut cutter like in the picture above.  I used to watch in rapt attention as she used this surgical-like instrument to chop up tiny squares of the nut with focus and precision.  I also remember watching her do puja in the thakur ghar after her daily bath and take note of the offerings she made to Krishna, Ganesh and Lakshminarayan.  I must have followed her around a lot.  But she was more than a Bengali widow who kept the household keys tied to a corner of her white cotton sari thrown over her shoulder.  The sound of the  jangling keys is akin to the modern personalised mobile ringtones.  You knew when it was she who was approaching.

Preetilata Chaudhuri was 17 when she married Dadu in an arranged marriage.  As well as becoming a wife at this young age, she had to adjust to living with his large family and being the eldest sister-in-law, a position in the household which brought with it lots of responsibilities, expectations and obligations.  Quite a daunting prospect as such a life  when viewed through today’s lens seems as not your own.  Part of her married life was quite solitary because Dadu used to be at the tea gardens for long stretches of time during which Dima eagerly waited for his letters.   It would be wonderful if some of them still existed.

Beyond the confines of the roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law etc, Dima had artistic flair and a keen aesthetic eye.  She had no training so everything that she did just poured out of her naturally and through instinct.  During any auspicious event like pujas and weddings, Dima used to create ornately designed alpanaas ( the form of Rangoli practiced in Bengal but unlike Rangoli, Alpanaa is always done in white) on the floor of various rooms of the house with the help of a small piece of cloth drenched in a blend of water and grounded rice paste.  She used to start in one corner of the room and then painstakingly cover the whole floor.  All by freehand.  Her creative flair could be found in other mediums too.  My stomach is eternally grateful for Ma learning and absorbing Dima’s mastery and love of cooking.  She  made all of Ma’s clothes when she was a little girl and some of my sister’s and mine too.  When I was a baby, she embroidered my bed linen and knitted blankets to keep me snug.  If she was alive today, I would have encouraged her to make and sell her beautiful children’s clothes and linen on Etsy!

Ma definitely got her love of books and ideas from Dadu but Dima’s imprint is there on her talent for cooking and love of the arts, especially music.  It’s been doubly-rewarding to learn more about Dadu and Dima because as well as having the pleasure of getting to know who they were, I now understand Ma a little better too.

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The words ‘Bengali’ and ‘entrepreneur’ are unusual bedfellows.  They don’t mesh well.  Bengalis are better known for being intellectual snobs righting the wrongs of the world from their armchairs.  My father and uncle are such specimen.  They like nothing more to debate until the small hours of the morning, get lost in a piece of Indian classical music, and watch the cricket.
Dadu and DimaAnyhow, I digress wildly.  This entry is about my maternal grandfather,  Dwipendra Chandra Chaudhuri aka dadu (the next post will be on my grandmother).   I know he was a tea garden owner and manager in Assam but that’s about it.  I knew very little about his journey to this point and so finding out more through asking Maa questions that I never got round to asking before has been so worthwhile.

I never knew that after completing his MSc in Chemistry from Presidency College, Kolkata, he refused to go to England to take his Indian Civil Service exams..  He did not want to work for the British government.  More than that, he didn’t want to take orders from someone else.  While my great-grandfather was bittely disappointed, he admired dadu’s determination and spirit and so when dadu set out to do his own thing, he earned his father’s respect.

Like many entrepreneurs, Dadu’s path to success had very humble beginnings.  He started by selling vegetables from a market stall.  Amazing!  From there, he won some wartime building contracts and eventually opened a transport service between Sylhet and Shilong.  However, here the story takes a sad turn.  After the 1947 Sylhet referendum which led to Sylhet going to East Pakistan, dadu lost it all, every last thing.   At this juncture, many would have given up but dadu had true grit.  He started again.  All over again.  This time, after shifting his family to Shilong, he took out a bank loan to buy tea gardens.  And so a new chapter in his life started.  I never met dadu as he died before I was born but I am so proud to be his granddaughter.  His spirit, the strength of his own convictions, and his entrepreneurial spririt are immensely inspirational.   I’m not sure if I have this said spirit and this is partly due to not seeing it around me.   However, I do know that an entrepreneurial spirit can take many shapes.   The important thing is to have a go at creating something that is your own and that you can be proud of.  Dadu taught me that.

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