Guest post by Rekha Karmakar

This post, written by Rekha Karmakar who blogs at Tabulous Mom, is a tribute to Amiya Sen, my grandmother, whom the blogger knew as a neighbour in Delhi more than five decades ago.

Story of a woman born about a century ago

A rough sketch of the layout of a chummery in Lodhi Colony (New Delhi) in the 1950s, from my distant memory, where Amiya Sengupta’s and our family lived

This story is not about any female revolutionist, during the British period, who took up arms to fight for the country’s independence. It is about an ordinary humdrum housewife like our mothers and aunts who toiled in the kitchen and looked after their families.


I knew this lady since I was five years old though I lost track of her in course of time. One may wonder why I am writing about her after so many years.

To be very honest, my memories were rekindled by a story written by her worthy granddaughter Bhaswati Ghosh, who currently lives in Canada and is herself a writer. Her story about her grandmother Amiya Sengupta in ‘Memoir Excerpts: Excerpt from Till the River Runs Dry’ published in SETUMAG.IN brought back my memories about her.

Like many of my FB friends, I had not met Bhaswati, who, I suppose, is also an alumni of my school in Delhi. Once she wrote on FB about her maternal grandmother Amiya Sengupta, who would write stories in her copybook, some of which were also published.

‘Amiya Sengupta’ ? I pondered for a while as it rang a bell in my mind. I thought it might be the ‘mashima’ of our ‘chummery’ in Lodhi Colony in New Delhi. I messaged Bhaswati enquiring about her grandmother and was immediately confirmed by her that I was on the right track.

Why did it take me so much time to figure out who Amiya Sengupta was? Later it occurred to me it might have been because those days women were not usually known by their names. They were either ‘boro bou’/’mejo bou’/’choto bou’ (daughters-in-law as per hierarchy) or ‘so and so’s mother’ after their children were born. Amiya Sengupta was ‘mashima’/auntie to us and ‘Gita’s ma’ to others. Her eldest daughter Gita happens to be the mother of Bhaswati.

A few years after independence (in the 1950s), a group of young and daring Bengalis came to Delhi, with their families, to build a new India. My father, Amiya Sengupta’s husband Sudhir Chandra Sengupta and a few others were among them.

Away from home, these men were put up in ‘chummries’ along with their families. ‘Chummeries’ were two storeyed buildings used as a ‘mess’ for bachelor British soldiers during the British raj. Central govt employees of different states of India were temporarily put up in those buildings after independence.

There used to be a staircase in the middle of the building. On each side of it, there were five rooms in a row. These had a bed room and a small drawing room sort of space in front. Each batch of five rooms had three common bathrooms and three common toilets, which were kept quite clean.

Next to it, was the kitchen which was divided into five parts though none had a door. Food was cooked on ‘balti unans’ (coal fire ovens made in a bucket) or mud ‘unans’ built on the floor.

Quite often, I would sit next to my mom and listen to the ladies talking while they were cooking. It usually veered around recipes and always ended with talking about their ‘daish’/native land in East Pakistan as the memories were still very fresh. Amiya Sengupta, whom I shall, henceforth, refer to as ‘mashima’, always took the lead.

Amiya Sen

‘Mashima’ and ‘meshomosai’ stayed on the same floor, as we did, with their two children – a daughter and a son. They were a little older than my parents, who regarded them as their friend, philosopher and guide.

‘Meshomosai’ was very good in mathematics. Whenever I got stuck, I would go to him. Usually the first few sums of an exercise were solved in the class but the last few ones, which were difficult, would invariably be given as home task. Hence, I would have to go to him very often. ‘Meshomosai’ was very glad to help but on one condition. The condition was that I would have to pick up his grey hair for getting the sums solved. (His hair had become grey untimely). I, too, readily agreed. Now I realize I must have made him almost bald considering the number of times I went to him to get my sums solved. 🤩

In the meanwhile, ‘mashima’ did a diploma course in sewing. Not only that, she opened a sewing school at home where she gave tuition to the ladies of the neighbourhood. I always felt she was different from others as no one else, at that time, would ever have thought of adding to the family income by giving tuition in sewing though she was not in dire need of money.

My mom was one of her early batch of students and a favourite one too. My mom bought a Usha sewing machine, which was considered to be quite expensive at that time. But my mom made very good use of it by churning out innumerable frocks for us, shirts and shorts for my brother, blouses and petticoats for herself and pajamas for my father. After her children grew up, she stitched curtains, pillow covers etc.

A few days back, when I called my mom, she ruefully told me that she had sold the Usha machine to a man as she could not move her fingers properly to sew. Unable to control my curiosity, I asked her how much she had sold it for. She replied it was sold for Rs 200/-. She also told me that she had bought the sewing machine for Rs 125/-, by adding money from her saving. She proudly added that it was ‘Tailor’ model, the one which the tailors used for sewing. The other ordinary model was cheaper.

After a few years, we were all shifted to East Vinay Nagar (later named Laxmi Bai Nagar), where new quarters were erected for us. These were two storeyed buildings, having 2BHK flats, with a small balcony in front and a tiny kitchen garden at the back. Both our families were in the same block. The ‘chummeries’, we heard, were demolished later to make way for new buildings.

(After four decades of leaving Delhi, I went back to Laxmi Bai Nagar again but felt like Rip Van Winkle, without being able to recognize anything).

All the moms were very happy having a separate and self contained flat though it took some time to get adjusted to the new upcoming colony.

‘Mashima’, however, did not stop after getting a diploma in sewing. She appeared privately for Matriculation, Intermediate and B.A. examinations from Punjab University and lastly did M.A. in Bengali from Delhi University though her children were quite old at that time. She also started learning Hindi and appeared for Prabhakar (equivalent to Hindi Hons.). Hindi was promoted a lot at that time by the Central government to make it the national language of India. I do not remember if she took up a job at that time. But from her granddaughter Bhaswati’s writing, I came to know that later in life she had a government job.

Many decades have passed since then. I might have jumbled up many facts about her as I was myself a young school going girl at that time. I got a few inputs from her granddaughter too.

This story is not about facts but about the grit and spirit of ‘mashima’. Marrried at fifteen and coming from Barisal in East Pakistan, I realize now, she achieved a great feat. Very few women of her time would have ventured to appear for Board and University examinations from the scratch. Her family, too, must have given her a lot of support or it would not have been possible for her to do anything.

During summer, in Delhi, we used to sleep on the charpoys (portable beds made with strings), in the lawn, in front of our house. ‘Mashima’s family used to sleep just a few feet away from us. Quite often I noticed that she would read a book in the light of the lamp post that was just over her charpoy. Such was her tenacity.

‘Mashima’ had a passion for writing, which she did braving many odds. As per her granddaughter, ‘mashima’ has four books, many published articles and short stories to her credit. I wish her granddaughter Bhaswati edits and compiles them again.

One thing, I must say, is that she was very fortunate to have a granddaughter like Bhaswati, who delved into her writings and gave her due credit for it. I wish my granddaughter Kimaya also, at least, reads my post from my humble blog tabulousmom.blogpost. com when she grows up.

I pay my respect to ‘mashima’ through this post and wish her soul rests in peace.

Nirmala Boudi and the Bureaucracy: By Amiya Sen

First published in Humanities Underground
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Nirman Bhavan–the foundation for which had been laid by the late Lal Bahadur Shastri–is now an imposing structure. As the older Shastri Bhavan became too cramped for space, many such buildings –each associated with a ministry –added to Delhi’s splendour.

I had some work with the director of Nirman Bhavan. Though not a government employee, I have to to rub shoulders with senior government officers from time to time for the sake of my business.

The sight of Nirmala boudi at the reception on the first floor shocked me. With a vigorous gesticulation of her hands, she argued with the reception officer in chaste Hindi.

“Listen now. You can’t stop me from coming here, whether I make ten visits or twenty. This office is for the public after all. We’ll come whenever we need to.”

The reception officer tried to reason with her with a resigned look.

“I’m not stopping you from coming here, Madam. All I’m saying is if you call us before coming, it will save you unnecessary trouble.”

“Necessary or unnecessary, that’s for me to decide. Now, will you please issue me a pass?”

Even as she said those words, Nirmala boudi almost grabbed the huge register opened before the reception officer, Mr. Bhandari. Turning the register towards her, she entered details like name: Mrs. Nirmala Roy, purpose of visit: allotment of house etc.

Mr. Bhandari had no option but to prepare a gate pass and hand it to the woman standing in front of him.

I needed a gate pass, too, but my destination was different from Nirmala boudi’s. I had to meet the director of the state office, whereas Nirmala boudi wanted to meet the additional director.

I watched the scene quietly, standing right behind boudi. As she turned back with the gate pass, I blurted, “What brings you here –haven’t you got your quarter yet?”

Clutching a huge file close to her chest, Nirmala boudi said with a busy look reflecting off her glasses, “Come outside –I’ll tell you.”

I didn’t want to get late, but Nirmla boudi could be hard to ignore. At one time, we were both residents of the same village in Bangladesh’s Bakharganj district. Nirmala boudi was the eldest daughter-in-law of the Roy family, and I, the youngest son of Hemanta Gupta of the Gupta family. Our houses were adjacent to each other –a bamboo bridge over on a small canal served as a shortcut to go from our house to theirs. This is a unique feature of Bakharganj or Barisal district, filled as it is with canals and streams. Villages, all surrounded by water, appear like islands, complete in themselves.

At the time of her marriage, Nirmala boudi was fourteen and I, a ten-year-old, studying in class five in the village school. As per village customs, Atin da, Nirmala boudi’s husband, was my brother. Based on his grandmother’s wishes, Atin da was married off to Nirmala boudi as soon as he earned his graduation degree at twenty-two.

Being next-door neighbours, it didn’t take the two of us too long to get acquainted with each other. The Roy family had big gardens flanking both sides of their house. I would gather whatever fruits were in season –mangoes, Java plums, berries, guavas, elephant apples, custard apples, velvet apples, grapefruit, jujubes, cranberries –and run to the Roy household. They were a joint family and the house would always be full of people. Luckily, the family elders and servants lived on the ground floor. The upper floor was almost entirely reserved for the family’s young brigade –married or not.

With a whole stash of ripe and unripe fruits, I would stealthily climb up the staircase to the first floor and sneak into the southern room, allotted to Atin da after his marriage. The moment she saw me, Nirmala boudi’s eyes would gleam with delight through her veil.

As I was friends with the boys of the Roy family who were closer to my age, it was easy to get introduced to Nirmala boudi. She happened to be the youngest — the same age as us –bride in the entire neighbourhood. We always kept a share of whatever we collected for Nirmala boudi. All this had to be clandestine, though, given how conservative the Roys were. A daughter-in-law was almost like a prisoner in that house, denied any contact with outside air or light. Naturally, the young Nirmala boudi took to our group.

On summer afternoons, when the older folks enjoyed their siesta or were busy doing something else, we would drag Nirmala boudi to the terrace balcony and reveal our loot. Out came from our pockets treats like raw mangoes, berries, grapefruit, green chillies, a knife, salt and the like. Some of us would even bring freshly cut banana leaves to use as plates. Five or six of us sat circling Nirmala boudi. She would peel the fruits, make a delicious mix with the available ingredients and pile them on the leaf plates. Our feasting would ensue.

These sessions continued even as we grew older. The menu had changed by then, though. On sleepy afternoons, escaping the elders’ glances, we would have tea parties inside the closed doors of the Roys’ kitchen, located outside the boundaries of the house. Although some of the adults drank tea, the beverage was strictly prohibited for children. Nirmala boudi made us not only this forbidden drink; she made for us something that was even more strictly off-limits –omelettes made from hen’s eggs, which she served us on banana leaf plates. She wouldn’t have it herself, though.

DSC02311

Nirmala boudi had another talent –she was an accomplished card player. Some of the other boudis played cards, too, but their scope would be limited to the game of Twenty Nine. Nirmala boudi played Bridge with us. She came from a family where sports and arts and culture were highly valued.

It’s difficult to imagine that young bride of more than forty years ago by looking at this fifty-plus bespectacled, file-clutching, sari-draped woman.

A government servant, Atin da quickly descended to the lower middle class after losing all his land, property and wealth in East Pakistan. With his retirement, the family landed where it was expected to –in deep waters. But Nirmala boudi is a master in making the impossible possible. Back in the village, one hadn’t been able to read her that well. Once in Delhi, she zipped out of her old shell like a bullet. She sat beside her children and opened books and notebooks to study. From A, B, C, D, she went up to matriculation, then completed her B.A. Next, she rushed towards the job market. Atin da had retired by then. The feisty Nirmla boudi didn’t stop before finding herself a job at the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Her age posed a bit of an issue, but she got past that challenge by getting hold of Indira Gandhi or the president. With Atinda’s retirement, they had to vacate the government accommodation allotted to him and move to a rented accommodation. He had large payments to make –mostly to clear the debt he incurred for his daughter’s marriage a year ago.

Read the rest in Humanities Underground.

Aranyalipi — Notes from refugee quarters, by Amiya Sen

[This is an extract from “Aranyalipi,” Amiya Sen’s nonfiction book-length account of refugees from East Pakistan who had been rehabilitated in Dandakaranya, a region that includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dandakaranya Development Authority was created by the union government in 1958 to assist refugees from Pakistan. This excerpt appears in Muse India’s Literature of Refugees issue.]

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Dear Su,

…I had no idea about DaAmiya Senndakaranya. After crossing a hundred and forty-five miles of hilly terrain between Mana camp and Raipur we reached Kondagaon–high above the plains. Yet, even at that point, I didn’t realize we were at the forest’s gate. This was the entrance to the heart of the Dandakaranya project. I had imagined the real Dandak forest lay deeper inside. This was a dense settlement of thousands of people–little Bengal, just like little Andaman.

Jogani astounded me. This was the first planned village as part of the project, about six or seven miles from Kondagaon. In July 1959, the village of Jogani was established with 88 families and a total population of 392.

Although we are now urban dwellers on a mass basis, the image of a village is well etched in our hearts. It is rare to find an individual who hasn’t seen a village or lived in one for at least some time. But what a village this was! A few drab-looking tin houses sat in an area cleared off the forest floor. No other human settlement was visible through the gaps of the scattered shaal trees lining the nearby area.

A few broken houses dotted the landscape. Many of those rehabilitated here with government aid had already left the village. Jogani’s land is sterile; it doesn’t cultivate any edible crop. I was told that only two or three families had been lucky enough to receive arable land. The rest of the land was left unclaimed at the time of my visit. Those who left the village didn’t do so without giving a fight to the infertile soil. Along with their menfolk, women too had taken up crowbars to rid the soil of shaal saplings and weeds. For days on end, many of them ate grass seeds to curb hunger. At last, helpless and defeated, they drifted off this settlement.

There is soil-testing laboratory in Jagdalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Apparently, all peasant refugees are allotted land only after the soil is tested in that lab. But Jogani tells a different story–it doesn’t seem like the soil of this village was ever tested. This could be the first step of an experiment with agriculture-reliant refugees.

Those who have stayed back in the village depend on jobs or labour. Take Jaladhar Sarkar, for instance. He came to India in 1954, from Bishwambhapur village in Srihatta district. After living in a camp for four years, he has been rehabilitated in Jogani with twenty-one bighas of land. He and his two sons support a family of six or seven by working as peons and construction workers. The land they received lies fallow and unused.

In 1960, a loom had been opened in Jogani. It still exists but has lost its sheen. Work goes on at an irregular pace. Whenever the products made there accumulate, there is a pause in the work of daily wagers.

Currently, the only employment generator around Jogani is Borgaon Industrial Centre, about four or five miles from the village. Men and women from Jogani walk every day to work there. Among them, the daily wagers are the most disadvantaged. The work, low-paying as it is, doesn’t come with the guarantee of being available all through the year.

It was a Monday. The village, if one could call this desert-like place that, looked totally deserted. Besides shaaland mahua trees, there was no sign of green anywhere. Not even a pumpkin or bottle gourd patch that one saw in Mana’s camps. Mana has water, it has canals and ponds. Here, tube wells exist. Had paddy or any other crop grown on the land, the villagers would have pumped out water to cultivate some vegetables. But where is the time for that now! Every morning they must run to Borgaon in search of work. If only that could fill their bellies! But then, it’s possible that that the soil here is indeed barren.

I met a few people–none of them evinced any joy on having received land and a house for free. Actually, they got the money for their houses as a loan, which they needed to pay off once they were settled. But what settlement and what pay-off? With no place to go, they continue to stay here, in spite of all hardship. But they are not un-enterprising. They toil hard to make sure their children receive education. They would take up any work that comes their way. But the opportunities are so limited.

The very first step of the Dandakaranya settlement left me disappointed. In comparison, I was pleased to see Bijapur as part of my present trip. This was situated in Bastar too, but as a transit camp, not a village. As of March 15, 1965, 67 families stayed there.

There were only two tube wells in the entire camp. But a spot of green welcomed one to every hut. Bottle gourd and pumpkin vines climbed up the roofs of huts. Mounds of mahua flowers were spread out to dry in front of several houses. These would be boiled to make jaggery. This settlement was forest-dependant too. But the dense cluster of huts and the camp’s consistent population had imbued it with a lively atmosphere. The camp dwellers effused optimism. They dreamed of ascending to a better life — of farmland, house, agricultural loan, and the victory roll of produce brushing against plough.

Life is at work, everywhere. Saplings pierce cracked walls to sprout. Flowers bloom on mountain tops. I have even seen fish germinating in the city’s makeshift drains.

I enter a hut and find a young mother carrying her infant on her lap. It’s her first born. The young father, though excited, is also a bit distressed. Nights in Bastar are still quite chilly. The child doesn’t have any warm clothing. In many homes, I saw just kanthas and pillows for bedding. No one has quilts or blankets. Almost all these people arrived in India following the 1964 riots in Pakistan.

In an instant, that cabinet stuffed with blankets in Mana flashed before my eyes.

I ask the refugees, “Didn’t you get any blankets?”

“No, didimoni,” say the men and women in unison. “We only got woks, enamel plates, a bucket and a few such things. These were given to us in Sealdah station. We didn’t get anything after coming here.”

“You all came here through Mana, right?”

“Yes, didimoni.”

The path to enter Dandakaranya is through Mana—the headquarters of all transit camps and work centres of the project.

According to government statistics, refugees over the age of eight are provided sixteen rupees or clothing worth that amount. The record doesn’t mention how many times this happens; possibly only once. The record also notes the distribution of blankets.

“Woollen blankets may be supplied at the rate of one blanket per adult, subject to a maximum of three per family.” [Estimates Committee, (B.C. No. 412) 1964-65]

The blankets were meant for last year’s riot victims. These refugees belong to the same category. Why didn’t they get the blankets then?

The dole money the refugees receive isn’t enough to cover even two square meals a day, let alone allow for clothes. But leave aside government funds and statistics; the stash I saw in Mana came mostly from donations meant for refugees. If those blankets don’t come to these unfortunate people, have they been filled in almirahs just for the purpose of being displayed to VIPs?

In Mana, expecting mothers received yet another benefit. When a baby was born, the mother and her child got a set of new clothes. The women of Jogani aren’t as fortunate.

A gentleman accompanying me said, “Don’t believe everything they say. These people here are no less sly; they might have sold off the blankets.”

I know it is easier being the devil than the lord. But looking at their faces, it appeared improbable that so many male and female devils had landed here from East Bengal.

For argument’s sake, even if one accepted the gentleman’s proposition, the question remains as to why these people sold off the blankets. One can discount those who have left the camp. But those who have stayed back know very well how indispensable blankets are during winters here. They are also aware that it is impossible for them to find any alternative sources of combating the cold weather. If knowing this, they still sold off the blankets, it follows they must have done so out of extreme penury.

The British robbed India to add riches to its empire. And we have robbed our own poor of food and shelter–in the name of freedom.