As promised in Part 1 of Takdah series, I bring you the woman of the house.
When my friends returned from their villages and grandmothers’ homes, they came back with “things” and a whole lot of moral lessons. Some gained cooking tips. Some brought pickles and homemade delicacies. Some flaunted new clothes. Some showed off their newly acquired embroidery skills. Few others learned puja rituals. And many would narrate tales of how their grandmothers hugged them and cried a bucket on the last day of their visit.
I always came back empty handed, barring a few times when I received lessons on Revolt of 1857 from my grandmother.
On the surface, it is easy to label my grandmother as strict, hard, and somewhat inconsiderate and standoffish. People often misunderstood and couldn’t comprehend her because she was such a different person. Like them, even I could not understand my granny especially when I was a little girl. But now that I am grown up and perhaps a bit wiser, I understand her and appreciate her qualities much better.
Once upon a time, there lived a bold, fierce, hardworking, and an extremely independent lady. This is her story. This is the story of my grandmother who we fondly called her Phupuji.
My grandmother was an interesting lady; she was unlike anybody I have ever known. Being the only child of her parents, she was pampered and spoilt or this is what I always assumed about her. Even though she belonged to the 1920s era, she had a solid education and work history. Holding a Bachelor of Arts degree, she served as a high school teacher in Darjeeling for almost 30 years. She started as a History, Geography, and Nepali teacher, but later retired as the Vice-Principal of her school. Phupuji shifted back to Takdah, probably in the 80s, when her children were adults and all married. She continued working till 90s, and commuted from Takdah to Darjeeling, which was a good four hours round-trip.
Without a doubt, Phupuji was pretty progressive and truly unconventional for her times. When her daughter fell in love with a British, she allowed her to marry Uncle Ray and happily send her off to England. One of the most unconventional aspects of her was, she was sort of an atheist. My father tells me, “In her earlier years, she was not at all interested in religious activities.” It was much later that she started showing interest in pujas and religious rituals. It was perhaps due to the influence of her good friend and colleague, Shanta aunty, who a highly spiritual person.
My grandmother was a fine weaver; she loved and excelled in knitting. Whether it was sweaters, caps, socks, baby clothes, or shawl, she weaved it all and continued her passion till her passing days. One of the most vivid images I have is that of Phupuji sitting on a bed surrounded by colorful wool balls and yarn needles, and a pile of “pattern” books. Phupuji was so adept in her craft; she could easily pick a pattern, decipher the abbreviations, and incorporate it in her knitting projects.
My granny was also a movie buff, and my father says she used to read a lot of novels written by Gulshan Nanda in her early days. Incidentally, many of the super hit Hindi movies of 60s and 70s were based on his novels. During those days, a lot of Bollywood movies used to be shot in Darjeeling, when Darjeeling was still the undisputed Queen of the Hills. I assume she visited a lot of these film shoots because I have seen photos of her with Joy Mukherjee, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Asha Parekh, and many other stars. One fun (and cool) fact is she knitted a sweater for Joy Mukherjee, which he graciously accepted and even wore it in one of his movies!
My grandmother was a bit fanciful and indulgent, and liked to dress up. She wasn’t a big fan of “loud” colors; she preferred subtle and western shades. So her wardrobe had lots of black, white, gray, beige, bottle greens, and mostly muted colors. Phupuji always dressed to impress; she wore pure silk saris and heel shoes, a scarf around her neck, and a sweater or fur coat on top. Her coat always had a brooch pin. She loved gold and gemstones and used to wear them everyday. With diamonds in her ears and multiple gold chains, rings, and bracelets, we often teased how she looked like Bappi Lahiri. Except that Mr. Lahiri liked chunky and ornamental jewelry, whereas my grandmother loved delicate pieces.
If she wore silks and furs to work, she was just the opposite at home. Infact she was like the unfortunate Cinderella who had to do a lot of chores. With her silk sari tightly draped around her waist (like a lungi) and plastic chappals on her feet, she was ever ready to do her “other” jobs. Whether it was cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, gardening, chopping woods, grocery shopping, going to bank and post office, paying electricity and other bills, Phupuji took care of her business without her husband’s or anybody’s help.
Phupuji was a workaholic, in the sense that she “kept moving” and working until her death at age 87. Infact, she lived alone in Takdah house except for last few years when she was not keeping well. She did not have a maid or a helper to take care of her and the chores. Even in those biting cold winters, Phupuji kept her hands and feet busy; she cooked and cleaned and kept doing what she always did. She never stopped.
In life we have moments that help us create memories. I still remember some of those exciting moments with my grandmother. I remember those history lessons. I remember the two of us gardening, going for strolls, and walking up to Tinchulay to meet Bhuwan dada’s family. I also recall a funny drinking incident that happened when I visited her during my summer vacation. I was in high school then. After a long day of gardening on a blazing afternoon, we decided to have a refreshing drink. The “drink” was a cocktail made of passion fruit juice and vodka. Soon after gulping down two glasses each, our cheeks turned all red and eyes started closing down. We decided to take a quick nap, but when we finally woke up, sun had already set and our house was all dark. Phupuji and I slept like a log for almost six hours!
I also vividly remember how we used to take the bus and go to Darjeeling – either to her school or the bank to collect her pension money. After we were done with our work, we would often stop at restaurants in and around Chowrasthra for steaming momos. After that, we would buy cookies and “puff” biscuits from a popular bakery shop near the bus stand. We would normally take the last bus, around 4 pm, so that we had enough time in Darjeeling to do our things. Inside the bus, cramped with people and their shopping bags stuffed with vegetables, fruits, meats, clothes, and breads, Phupuji would greet familiar faces. The hill roads are often narrow and uneven, with unusually sharp curves, so we would reach Takdah jumping and bumping till our heads touched the roof. Oh! what a jolly good ride it used to be!
From afar, Phupuji had a seemingly ideal life, but from close, it was not a smooth ride. With the responsibilities of her three children, her parents who lived with them, a full-fledged career, and a house to run, she had a pretty demanding life. To top it all, she had a husband who was completely consumed with his own hobbies and lived a rather unconventional life. Maybe she was not born tough. Maybe life made her tough.
Like Phupa, I learned many a lessons from Phupuji as well. Not that she ever gave us moral lessons or told us how to live our lives, but just by observing her and now by remembering her and the kind of person she was, I did learn a lot about life from her. Phupuji taught me how important it is to be self-reliant and independent, especially as a woman. Or, how important it is to keep moving and continue working even in those alarming silver years. Last but not the least, she taught me that a woman does not need a man to buy her diamonds.
On the third part, I will give you a tour of the house where my grandparents lived and also introduce you to Takdah where an eerie fog envelops the place all year long.
A glimpse of Takdah…
Takdah photo gallery sources: Featured, On cloud nine, Alone in Takdah, White Takdah, Takdah: the road less travelled, Sunny after rainy, On the way to Tinchuley, Tea gardens of Takdah, Bungalow no. 12, Mountain calling, Take me home, country roads, Chiya bari ma…