From the past, three photographs with love: Guest author Basanti Chakravorty Das

Last week, the whole family happily kept my son company as he watched “Gandhi” for a college project. The movie was even more engrossing after a hiatus of several years. I began thinking about my grandparents who lived through those tumultuous times of change. “Lives of great men all remind us,” as the poet said, “we can make our lives sublime….”

In my albums, I have a faded photograph of my grandfather, Dr. Salil Nath Bhattacharya, in full colonial “pukka sahib” gear, clutching a “solar topi”. A doctor during the British occupation of India, he served in the British army for a while and then was posted as the Superintendent of Central Jail, Midnapore. He enjoyed smoking imported cheroots and had a personal valet whose sole job, apparently, was to help him get dressed for work and get yelled at when he pulled his garters too tight.

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My grandfather in pukka sahib gear, complete with solar topi.

My grandmother, Karunamoyee Bhattacharya, often spoke to me with pleasurable nostalgia of those times when she lived in a large bungalow, had a retinue of uniformed servants, attended dinner parties and also hosted them, as hired cooks would take over her kitchen and prepare fancy dishes with exotic names. She spoke of movie outings in a chauffeured car, with a special “box” reserved for them at the local theater. I have a sepia-toned picture of my grandmother as a young and married lady of leisure playing patience, dressed in the fashion of her times, a parrot perched on her knee.

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My grandmother playing patience, a pet parrot on her knee.

Yet, when Gandhi began his Swadeshi movement, my grandparents, along with many others around the country, gave up their old ways and took to wearing homespun. They led high-minded and spartan lives and never looked back. My grandfather, who used to sketch and enjoy gardening in his spare time, took to translating the Geeta into Bengali as a hobby. I do not recall seeing my grandfather in anything other than cotton dhotis, and my grandmother always wore inexpensive white cotton saris. On hindsight, I recall there were signs here and there of their old ways…my grandfather’s old cheroot box and imported sketchbooks and pencils, my grandmother’s fancy peacock feather dusters and a tea set complete with pretty beaded covers and lace doilies. I recall her ceremonious breakfast routine, her little finger extended. I consider myself fortunate that my grandmother lived with us until she passed away. I had always been their favorite grandchild.

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“You are our darling girl — Your Grandmother.”

When I turned over the picture of my grandmother to scan it, I rediscovered a long-forgotten, handwritten message on the back in my grandmother’s handwriting, addressed to me. Roughly translated, it simply reads: “You are our darling girl — Your Grandmother.” I was so moved…it felt like a benediction! As I thought about her, it seemed that she too was reaching out to me with love across time and space.

Basanti Chakravorty Das posted this on her Facebook page. I thank her very much for allowing me to share this here.

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