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Archive for the ‘Family history’ Category

Eight months after the initial idea was floated by Shikha didi to have a family reunion, it finally took place in Pune on 26th – 30th December.  And what a reunion it was!  Most of the family at the reunion were the Choudhuris (including spouses and kids) while we are Chaudhuris (from Ma’s side of the family), meaning that Shikha et al. are third cousins to didi and I.  For many, third cousins aren’t even considered family.  Well that’s a missed opportunity because in many ways, the Choudhuris are the closest relatives I have outside my immediate family.

It helps to go back a little to understand how the Choudhuris and Chaudhuris are connected in the first place:

  • My Dadu (see Searching for a Bengali Entrepreneur) and Baro dadu (Sajol mama’s baba) were first cousins and grew up together because my great-grandfather took care of Baro dadu, paid for his education etc. after his father died
  • Ma is second cousins with Baro dadu’s children – Sajol mama, Kajol mama and Shukla mashi
  • Didi and I are third cousins to Shaibya, Dibya, Shikha (daughters of Sajol mama and Abhi mami), Rupa and Rahul (daughter and son of Kajol mama and Suman mami), and Sandeep and Bishwadeep (sons of Shukhla mashi)

    Baba, Ma and didi with the Bombay Choudhuris (except for Sajol mama) in Lucknow

Dipu mashi visitng us and Sajol mama, Abha mami and Shikha didi

But really that doesn’t explain much.  It’s just an abbreviated, bulleted version of a family tree.  Our close connection with the Choudhuri’s started when Ma was studying at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, and Kajol mama and Suman mami became her second family in an unfamiliar city.  And then, Sajol mama and Abha mami lived in Bombay at the same time my parents did. Abha mami and Ma were pregnant at the same time with Shikha didi and didi respectively.  Then I came along six years later.  Shaibya didi used to babysit me and the others used me as a) a cute toy to play with and b) a target for their teasing.  I have no complaints about this.  As the youngest spoilt brat in that clan, my fate was pretty much sealed when I was born.

Didi and Shikha didi

Shaibya didi teaching me (in the red) and friends a game at my birthday party

In addition to regular family holidays to India when we were younger, my generation is independently continuing to build, grow and evolve the connections.  Facebook has definitely helped because lets be honest, writing emails and letters on a regular basis is a pain.  But a little face time helps too.  I reconnected with Dibya didi and Shikha didi in the US while I was there for my MBA, I got to know Sandeep dada when I visited Dubai with baba when he worked in Abu Dhabi and more recently on my work trips, and became good friends with Teesta while she lived in London for a couple of years.  And judging by the family reunion, I feel pretty confident that the next generation will carry this on.

And so what of the reunion itself?  It was extraordinary to be around these 20+ people over the four days.  Sadly Rahul dada, Bishwadeep dada and Adrit were unable to make it but even still, the sheer number of family members just all hanging out was novel.  It is easy for me to forget the power and comfort of having a large family around.  Moving away 25 years ago to places where there wasn’t much or any family meant that my parents, didi and I became the Formidable Four: us against the world.

Unlike the many Hollywood movies around the same theme, our family reunion had no dramatic revelations of closeted skeletons, no return of the prodigal son, no accidents (apart from a minor vomiting incident from day drinking.  Identities will be protected here but everyone knows who it was 🙂 ), and no melodramatic goodbyes.  We had a fantastic time full of laughs, gossip, and A LOT of food.

The clan having lunch at the vinyard

More catching up over food

But to convey a Walton-like image of our reunion would also be inaccurate.  There also were moments of exasperation, minor tensions and tantrums, logistical challenges, a need for solitude away from the noisy horde and several instances of loud shouting in order to be heard by the hard-of-hearing older bunch which frankly only made us look silly and unhinged and them calm and tranquil.  But that’s what families are. We are rubber bands which stretch due to geographic distance, dysfunction, and squabbles but always spring back into shape and hold together what we value.  In the spectrum of rubber bands, our family is in the middle; in between the brand new ones which take a bit of breaking in to activate the elastic and the older/looser ones which are rubber bands in name only given their elastic capabilities are non-existent and hold nothing together.

Top 3 highlights
– The funny and affectionate toasts given by Kajol mama, Sajol mama, Eugene and Baba during our lunch at a vinyard
– The inter-generational dancing at the reunion finale
– Being serenaded by Rahul’s  (Shikha didi’s hubby) operatic arias
– Taking photos of all the three generations

The elder statespeople

My generation

The upstarts (aka nieces and nephews)

The spouses

Funniest moments
– Tarik effortlessly holding court with four young girls at the vinyard.  See picture below.
– Shaibya didi’s effusive oratory on her love of all things pork
– Feeling like we were going on a school trip in the rickety Tempo bus.  We had it all: the panicked headcounting, the fight for the back seats, getting lost, and the passing of the snacks between the front and back of the bus.  The only thing missing was music. Despite valiant attempts of the driver to have loud Indian filmy music bounce around the bus and in our ears, Rahul vetoed it all which is just as well as otherwise prime gossip time would have been lost.

Tarik the ladies' man

Most over-used comments
– “Family is best consumed in small doses”
– “We won’t have to do this again for at least another [insert number here depending on level of reunion fatigue] years”
– “Where are we?”/ “Where are we going?”/ “What time do we need to be there?”/”What’s the plan for today?” x 5 times per day

Sign me up for the next one please.

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October 14th, 1971.  The year in which two people fresh from an arranged marriage moved to Japan, a strange and beautiful foreign land where they spent a year getting to know this fascinating country as well as each other.

October 14th, 2011.  Forty years later they returned, along with their grown up daughters to knock at the door of old memories as well create new ones.

1971

A young couple

Suvesh was going to embark on a post-doctorate fellowship to do research at the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology with Prof. Furuta. We arrived in Tokyo in the late evening at the end of autumn 1971 after a long flight from Kolkata. Fortunately we had two refuelling stops, first in Bangkok and then Hong Kong. The last stretch was longer and except for a pair of companion wing-lights blinking at the tips we were piercing through the darkness until Tokyo’s neon skyline came into view.   One of Prof. Furuta’s student, Ken Tomyama came to receive us at Haneda Airport and brought us to the hotel.  Looking through a window on the 10th floor Tokyo looked like a dazzling fairy land.  The next day, Ken and Professor Furuta took us to the tiny one room flat which became our home for a year.  Our initial reaction was shock.  Just one room!!!  It was a very steep learning curve but surprisingly it did not take long to feel completely at home in our little nest.

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Maa has made 31 paayeshs for me, one on each birthday.  And so yesterday was my 31st.  On the morning of every birthday, she patiently stirs the milk mixture forever (actually it’s probably around 45 mins but this is a very long time to stir continuously, although on a positive note it’s probably really great for toning the arms) to make the sweet and silky paayesh.  Obviously, as fitting for any special occasion, the paayesh does not touch my lips until a small portion of it has been offered to god ( in the form of Ganesh in the photo) and until I shower and say a little prayer myself.  I’m not religious at all but this little ritual provides comfort and balances out the other more hedonistic aspects of birthday festivities.  That minute in front of the offering is a quiet moment in which I can reflect on the past year, give thanks to all the good things in my life, and look forward to next year.  It puts everything in perspective.

Maa’s paayesh has that perfect consistency of being a little less thick than condensed milk.  I find it is so uninspiring and spirit-deflating when the paayesh limply spills over the spoon because it is so thin and watery.  Also importantly, Maa’s paayesh has NO RAISINS.  Nothing against raisins as such but we just don’t like them in the paayesh.  Instead she adds flaked almonds which gives it a lovely and different texture.

Ingredients

  • 2 pints full cream milk
  • 2 tbs rice (in UK, Maa uses Basmati but if back in India, she would have used gobindo bhog rice, which is a short-grained, glutinous rice that cooks quickly and has a creamy quality, perfect for paayesh)
  •  2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs palm jaggery
  • Handful of flaked almonds

Method

  1. Put the milk in a saucepan and bring to boil.  Stir continuously
  2. Once brought to the boil, add in the rice (wash it first).  Reduce heat a little and stir until the rice is cooked.  This should take about 20 minutes
  3. When the rice is cooked, include the sugar, jaggery and flaked almonds.  Stir until the water from the sugar and jaggery have evaporated and the milk has thickened to the consistency preferred.
  4. Grate a little nutmeg on top (optional)

Can be served warm or cold

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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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