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.

Homes and the World

My personal essay, Homes and the World, first published in Literary Shanghai.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

From womb to the world, I bring emergencies in my wake.

  1. LAJPAT NAGAR

Ten days after I’m born, democracy in my country gets turned on its head; constitutional rights are left meaningless for all practical purposes. The Indian government has just declared a state of Emergency. While I have no memory from that time, people who do still recoil in remembered fear when talking of those “Dark days.” Of disappearances and forced sterilizations, of tortures, interrogations and blank newspaper pages – a way to refuse toeing the government line.

My mother has to fight her own emergency, meanwhile. Her marriage has just fallen apart and she’s back in her parents’ home in Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi. When I come bundled up from Holy Family, the Christian missionary hospital where I am delivered to Kasturba Niketan – the refugee rehabilitation colony where my grandmother works, my mother is in desperate need of a job.

Before that first house grows on me, the Emergency has been lifted and my mother finds employment. Her old employer – the library at Delhi University – takes her back, making an exception on its policy regarding rehiring former employees. Her pre-marriage work record helps as much as her post-marriage personal crisis.

Read the rest in Literary Shanghai

Rain (short fiction)

First published in The Hindu Business Line

I

Dusk hung over the city as Suhani blinked into a droplet of rain. The outpour had finally slowed but not enough to save a day’s labour and wages.

The group of migrant labourers from Himachal had been trudging through Delhi’s criss-crossed thoroughfares for four days now. Even as they negotiated the city traffic and an ever-floating mass of people, a temporary street market drew Suhani with a pull that stainless steel plates and woks, plastic pails, colourful tiffin boxes, broomsticks, and china cups with saucers can exert on a 12-year-old girl. As she squatted to examine the collection, Lakhi, an older woman from the group, hastened her.

Chal, get up, Suhani. What good are these for us? We won’t buy anyway,” Lakhi said and stepped ahead to join her group amidst the milling bazaar crowd.

“Coming, Chachi…”

Suhani let go of a sigh and a set of green glass bangles she yearned to see around her wrists. When she got back on her feet, Lakhi wasn’t beside her. “Chachi,” she called out, jostling through the crowd, hoping to reunite with her group. Instead, a thousand strangers milled around her. Tears rolled down her eyes. She was lost.

Suhani dreaded rain.

Wading through the crowds, Suhani couldn’t help a nightmare from clasping her mind. She saw her father’s face as he hammered stones to build a tunnel through a mountain near Kullu for a hydro power project.

A dream had cradled Suhani before the tragedy struck. As floodwaters swept away their tent, her spell broke. People around her screamed, scrambling for their belongings. Neither Baba nor his soothing voice was around. Even as Lakhi dragged herself out of the tent, Suhani peered backwards, hoping to see her father through the gushing water. But he had already turned into one of the 78 casualties the flood devoured.

Suhani slapped her arm to fight the brittle rain slashing her skin. She thought of Baba. How he’d take her to his work site, yet not let her carry a brick. At daybreak, when he opened his food basket, she would force him to eat more than he could hope to digest. “Suhani is your amma, Raghu,” her father’s friends would say. The little girl would break into a chortle.

A sob escaped her throat.

II

At a corner of Safdar Hashmi Marg, Saleem’s tea stall, a shack with a torn tarpaulin sheet for its roof, barely withstood the rain. Saleem couldn’t care less. He ran the stall to douse the stomach’s fire, which somehow burned even when the heart had been razed clean of feelings. Wary of his perpetual frown and aversion to exchanging pleasantries, regular customers seldom made any casual conversation.

But today his face wore a smile. The incessant rains teleported him to his village and to memories of his son and wife. He remembered how Ali loved to get soaked and pick up the green mangoes that fell on puddles under the trees. No matter how sharply his mother scolded him, Ali had the unspoken nod of his father for this wet indulgence. Saleem would join the boy in his rain dance and fruit collection, much to the disdain of his wife, Fatima. All the same, he understood her fear. Ali had come to them after nine years of their marriage, and they had seen a few village children catching a cold that turned into violent, fatal pneumonia.

In the end, it wasn’t to pneumonia he lost his son. Or wife. The rain, in fact, played no role in that. He still didn’t know if Ali was alive, or like his mother.

The afternoon he found Fatima’s body — her kurta shredded to bits as if by a pack of starving hyenas, her bare breasts oozing blood yet to dry, the string of her salwar undone — left for display — in the tiny courtyard of their house was also the afternoon Ali had gone missing. Saleem had no time to grieve his wife or look for his son. He couldn’t even claim Fatima’s body for burial — the police took it away for investigations. She wasn’t alone — 11 women from the community had been ravaged. A few had survived, most didn’t. For the men, the discovery of the scarred bodies of their wives implied a terrifying warning of what was to come.

They fled to a neighbouring village, to community members who sheltered them for a couple of weeks. Saleem and one of his neighbours eventually managed to board a bus and find their way — escape — to Delhi.

Today, nearly a year later, the rain eased Saleem’s pain, if only by a smidgen. Images of chasing little Ali through the fields, in the rain, came flashing to him; for a few moments, he found a speck of life back. Deep down, he wished for the rain to continue. Maybe it could wash off the wounds from Fatima’s naked breasts that now festered on his?

III

Drenched to the bones and shivering, Suhani plopped herself on a bench at the corner of the street.

A sudden sneeze coming off the bench startled Saleem. He felt guilty to be reminiscing.

Ae, ladki, what are you doing here?” he asked the girl who’d just claimed a corner of his stall bench.

She looked up, her eyes pooling with water and fear.

“You have no tongue or what? What are you doing here?”

A customer offered to pay for a glass of hot milk for the girl.

Saleem agreed reluctantly and gave her a glassful with a couple of biscuits that had gone soggy.

It was already late; Saleem closed shop for the day while Suhani still sipped her milk. “Just keep the glass in that bucket and get going, okay?” he said to her and added, knocking his forehead, “Allah jaane where they come from.” His grouse with the almighty wasn’t new.

IV

The kiss of a wet leaf on her forehead woke up Suhani the next morning as she sprang from the bench that had been her bed for the night.

Engrossed in washing tea-stained glasses while humming Palla Sipayia, a song Baba often sang at work, she was caught unawares by a gruff voice. It was Saleem’s.

Ae, you’re still here! What are you up to with those glasses?”

“I am just cleaning them.”

“So you want money now, haan? Get lost! I won’t pay you a single rupee.”

“I don’t want money. I was cleaning the glass in which I drank, so I thought…” Suhani was on the verge of breaking down.

“Tell me, where do you live? I’ll take you to your home.”

The girl was more puzzled than shocked to see Saleem’s tone softening. Through a torrent of tears, she mumbled her story to him.

“Hmm, so you have no place to go? And you found no one but me in this whole world. Allah! Okay, leave those glasses now; you don’t have to wash them.”

“Not a problem. I am good at this.” Suhani resumed her humming and washing.

When she was done, Saleem offered her a glass of tea and a fresh bun.

“Come, sit on that bench and eat this.”

V

Suhani had been estranged from her village group for less than a week, and Saleem was already at a loss for ideas for her. He brought her to the stall daily on a rickshaw and she quietly helped him run it, washing glasses, preparing the elaichi and laung for spicing the tea. She’d noticed the masala version sold more than plain tea.

One morning, on their way to work, Suhani saw a construction site and asked Saleem if she could work there. Who knew if Lakhi and the rest of her village people were there? Saleem snapped at her. “Are you in your senses or what? Don’t ever talk of that again!” He had seen how construction thhekedars and their sidekicks treated the young girls who worked on the sites. The thought of Suhani, an orphan, working there made him shudder. Instantly, he felt bitter for his concern for her. He was only inviting trouble.

He gave himself three days to find an orphanage for her.

VI

A week passed. The air was hotter and the crowd of customers thinner. More people preferred lassi and Coke to tea in the searing heat. Saleem utilised his free time shortlisting orphanages. The moment his glance went to Suhani, he averted it, as if blanking her from his vision would somehow invalidate the truth of her existence.

It was early evening when a dust storm banged against his stall. The tattered tarpaulin revolted through the gust. Saleem worried if it would last this heavenly outburst. He wasn’t up to renovating his shack — he had other things to deal with. Within minutes, the storm lashed into a downpour. Just as he got ready to leave, he saw Suhani weeping.

Ae, Suhani, are you feeling sick?”

“No, Chacha.”

“Then why do you cry, Beta?”

Suhani’s tears halted midstream. At the slightest show of affection from the otherwise stern Saleem, she leapt forward, hugged him and broke into fresh tears.

“Why does it rain, Chacha? Why? It only takes people away. Why did it take Baba away from me?”

Saleem patted her on the back, uncomfortable to hold a crying child in his arms. Ali had cried on his shoulders while reporting a school master’s taunt only a few days before Saleem stopped seeing that sweet face ever again.

He was relieved when Suhani let go of him. Gently poking her forehead, he said, “It’s not the rain that took your Baba, Suhani. It’s all your kismat. Come now, help me wash these glasses, or we may end up spending the entire night cursing our kismat.”

Suhani burst out laughing, and suddenly the rain didn’t feel so bad. In an instant, she was jumping, two glasses in her tiny hands, feet floating on a puddle, hands waving in the rain.

“Ae, Suhani, what are you up to, you crazy girl?” Saleem asked.

“Why, washing the glasses, Chacha. Look!” she said. Her laughter carried the echo of fresh raindrops pattering down the street.

Despite his best efforts, Saleem couldn’t help thinking about his days in the village with little Ali.

“What’s it with this girl?”

VII

The clear blue sky the next morning gave Saleem hope. Since the mercury had dipped quite a bit, people were expected to return to the stall.

“Suhani, can you manage the stall today?” he asked the child.

“Why, Chacha?”

“I have some work and won’t be back before noon.”

With that he went out, a sly smile betraying his face as he took out a piece of paper from his pocket. He saw Suhani’s face paling but didn’t bother.

When he returned in the afternoon, Saleem found an animated Suhani taking care of business, asking the customers if the sugar was enough, or if they wanted more cardamom in their tea.

As Saleem came closer to the stall, a man asked him, “What’s that you are carrying, Saleem?”

“Well, Sahab, I thought I would repair this stall a bit. You can see how it is right now.”

“Ah, that’s a good idea. Your roof might fall off any moment, and then we are all doomed,” he said, braving a light guffaw, which was immediately echoed by other customers. A rare opportunity for mirth in the tea stall’s drab history couldn’t be let off.

Saleem and a younger customer began changing the tarpaulin sheet. Soon the stall sparkled in fresh blue. Saleem opened another package wrapped in old newspaper. A signboard came out of it. As he and the young man fixed it, the rest of the customers moved to take a closer look. Most of them were too startled to react.

When they were done, Saleem asked Suhani, “So, how do you like this?”

“What is written on the board, Chacha?” Suhani asked, craning her neck to look up.

She got a tap on her shoulder. It was the young man who had helped Saleem with the facelift.

“Come here, little girl. That board says, ‘SALEEM-SUHANI TEA STALL’.”

Suhani let out a silly chortle and squealed, “See, Chacha, he’s making a fool of me.”

“He doesn’t have to.”

The rain had let up when Saleem took Suhani’s hand and walked back home. The muggy air drenched him in sweat. He didn’t complain. Clearing his throat he asked her,

“Do you have a problem calling me Abba?”

Suhani paused, taken aback by this sudden suggestion.

“Abb…”

“Yes, ab se. I want you to start practising right away.”

Suhani lowered her head to a slight nod, enough to hide a smile and a tear.

After the Party

First published in The Ham Free Press

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The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”

As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.

The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.

Immigrant’s Postcard: A Prescription for Healing

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

It’s my first visit to the doctor’s office in my new city. The pain in my right leg is nagging to the point of being obstinate. Right at the entrance, next to the reception window, a sign says “If you are rude to my staff, I won’t see you today.” That’s not a very friendly doctor, I whisper to my husband, who is accompanying me to lend moral support. After the initial wait time (about 15 minutes), my name is called, and the clinic assistant checks my blood pressure, a routine exercise. Then begins the wait for the doctor. A good 20 minutes go by, until she knocks the room before entering it.

Image

After the initial pleasantries, the doctor asks me if I speak Hindi. I nod yes.

I tell her that my pain worsens upon standing on any hard surface for a while. She asks if I have to stand in the kitchen a lot.

“Yes,” I say.

“There’s a particular type of mat that has a cushioning effect. Place that in your kitchen,” she tells me, even suggesting the store from where to get it.

After writing a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication, the doctor returns to the thread she had left off with her reference to Hindi.

“Where in India are you from?” She asks.

“Delhi,” I say, hastening to add that my husband is a Sikh, from Punjab.

“We are from Lahore and speak only Punjabi at home.” She says, making it a point to let me know that the Punjabi she speaks is “very similar to what Sikhs speak.” That’s because she belongs to the jatt caste, one of the many who were converted to Islam, she informs.

She ends the (very friendly) conversation by recommending the cushioning mats again. “I too have this pain and always use the mats whenever I have a daawat at home and have to stand in the kitchen for long.”

It is technically India’s Independence Day. Two women from opposite sides of a land split into two in a cleaving that saw insane bloodshed share slices of history and culture over a medical visit.

And, they share insights on lessening pain.

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