Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Last Days in Pandara Road

The open space opposite Sujan Singh Park and Khan Market was a heavily wooded area in the early 50’s. The howling of jackals could be heard at night. There were rumours of someone having spotted a leopard, someone else seeing a tiger, or a wolf having lifted an infant. One could not say how much truth there was in these rumours, but we had seen snakes at night crossing the roads.

So it was no wonder when one or two American ladies asked me questions like, ‘Do tigers and leopards roam about in the streets of Delhi? Do snakes crawl all over the place? Do you have thunder and lightning in your country also?’ I had met these ladies at one of Bala’s friends’ places when we both visited Bala in the U.S. for the first time, in 1975.

New Delhi’s lifestyle started changing gradually. There were more people on the move with more buses, cars and cycles. Prices also started going up. Instead of eight seers of milk per rupee, we got only four seers. A seer was a slightly smaller measure than a kilo. Vegetables costing an anna a seer also went up to four annas, sometimes even double that.At the same time, vegetable vendors started coming to one’s doorstep, which helped the housewife to a large extent. The ‘pani-wallah’, a regular feature carrying water in his goatskin bags from place to place started disappearing.

Indian products like soaps, talcum powder etc started appearing in shops. Binaca Toothpaste, which came in a bright yellow and green tube, was the first with sales promotion. Each tube contained a golden trinket to be attached to a bracelet which one got as a gift when ten empty Binaca Toothpaste Packets were sent to the company. I collected the bracelet and many trinkets for my daughters. Binaca Toothpaste just vanished from the scene some ten years ago. I remember the washing soaps ‘Dip’ and ‘Det’ were brought out by Godrej and they were very good. Godrej started the promotion of their products with gift offers in the early sixties. The detergent ‘Det’ in a 2 kilo pack came in a beautiful white plastic bucket with lid. They turned out to be very good for storing provisions. I collected quite a few of them.

In the winter of 1953-54, ice-skating rinks appeared in the open ground opposite Sujan Singh Park for the first time. Huge crowds collected, especially at the weekends, to watch stunning performances by very good skaters. It was a crowd-puller, for that was the first live ice-skating performance for the Delhi crowd. It was a new, wonderful and fascinating experience for one and all, including our family.

Another attraction was the wrestling bouts that lasted for nearly two months. All the participants were from Europe. Maybe there were two or three Indians too. I am not very sure. I still remember the names of a few European wrestlers. ‘The Flying Dutchman’ literally made a flying attack on his opponent to make him fall on the ground and unable to get up within the count of ten. Another was the ‘Red Scorpion’ dressed completely in red, who felled his opponent with a back kick which gave him the name ‘Scorpion’.

Then there was this ‘Masked Angel’ who never showed his face in the ring saying that he would only be unmasked by the wrestler who defeated him, which never happened. I can tell you that this wrestler was no angel once he got inside the ring.
Babuji and I did not miss even a single one of these bouts. We did not have to worry about the children for Annaji-Ammaji were there with us. Going to the movies had come to an end with school-going children. Raji’s and Bala’s school bus came to our gate by 6.15 in the morning, winter or summer. That meant early nights for the children and for us too.

According to the Hindu calendar, one cycle of life means sixty years. Any person who lives up to sixty is considered very lucky, having lived a full life with children and grandchildren. Once a person completes sixty years, he re-enters the cycle a second time. That is why when a person completes sixty years of age, it is celebrated as an achievement.
Annaji completed sixty years of age in November 1954. Personally, Annaji did not want any celebration. But we both along, with Chitthi and Chippachi were very keen to make an occasion of that day. So we had a ‘homam’ in the morning and treated our friends to a sumptuous lunch. Babuji’s youngest brother, who was working in Bombay, also joined us. We all felt very happy and fulfilled.

In December of the same year there were two plane crashes, both BOAC, and both flying from Rangoon to London. Those days there were no non-stop flights. Hop-stop- hop from city to city was the procedure. The first crash occurred when the flight from Rangooon was landing in Calcutta. It was a total loss. One lady missed the flight at Rangoon. The radio, the press and the man in the street congratulated her on her lucky escape. Well, this lady reached Calcutta by the next flight from Rangoon. She was on her way to London, and the next stop was Delhi. This plane too crashed at Palam Airport while landing and there were no survivors! Now the very same radio, the press and the common man all pointed their fingers at her saying that she should have died at the Calcutta crash and because she escaped death then, this crash had to follow. Just imagine!!

Among our group only ‘Nada Shoes’ Mama had a car. He was a very generous person. Though he was living in Karol Bagh, he used to visit us often in South Delhi and take us for long drives. A visit to the River Yamuna in September with us was a must for him.It was wonderful seeing River Yamuna overflowing both the banks.

As he was working with Burma Shell Oil Company, he was free to go anywhere inside Palam Airport. He took us to the crash site at Palam to see the remains of the plane there.Whenever I read about a plane crash, this picture comes to my mind. This friend’s name is Ranganathan and it was Raji who started calling him Nada Shoes Mama. He used to tease her about her canvas shoes, which had laces, as ‘Nada Shoes’. Raji was just two years old at the time.

In the last week of December, Babuji had to make an emergency trip to Bombay. His youngest brother, Kunjappa, was admitted in a hospital, with a serious attack of typhoid. This news was conveyed to us by telegram by my younger brother who was also working in Bombay and staying in the same hotel as Kunjappa. Telegrams were the only and the quickest way of communication in those days and they usually carried only bad news. We were shocked to know about Kunjappa’s illness. The same evening, Babuji took a flight to Bombay – his first flight. Naturally, we were all worried, troubled and very frightened, praying for Kunjappa’s recovery and Babuji’s safe landing in Bombay, for it was too close to the two crashes.

Babuji, as he later on told me, had conditioned himself mentally to carry his brother – twelve years younger than himself -- in his arms to… if something unthinkable happened. But God was great. All that happened was that Babuji had to walk a distance of three or four miles to Kemps’ Corner and back to the hospital in the middle of the night to get the life-saving drug from a medical shop there. Those days, roads were deserted after 10 p.m., with no buses or taxis. Auto rickshaws had not yet entered the picture.

Well, to make the story short, Babuji stayed in Bombay for more than six weeks till Kunjappa was well enough to travel by train to Delhi. He stayed with us for a month or two to get back his original health. In Delhi, he suffered a relapse and the doctor gave me the responsibility of taking care of his diet. Kunjappa just hated his insipid diet, and hence, I was at the receiving end of all his tantrums, anger and bad temper. But did I care? No. I just wanted him to get well and back at work.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Delhi:1950 Onwards

While the British were ruling our country there were only two buildings to contain Government offices: the North Block and the South Block which were on either side of The Viceregal Lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhavan).Till 1942 Simla was the summer capital of the British Raj. The offices and the officers were shifted to the cool place of Simla every summer. This practice was given up once the war stretched to the East thanks to the Japanese.

Once the Congress came into power and started governing the country many new ministries were formed. This meant more buildings and more manpower to work in these new ministries. This created housing problems also. People started sharing flats. There was the problem of resettling the refugees as well. And on top of all this came the shocking event of Mahatma Gandhi’s murder.

The one-and-odd year old government did not lose heart or courage. New residential areas were planned and built. The first ones were the small flats in Kotla and Sarojini Nagar first named in those days as Seva Nagar and Vinay Nagar and later changed to their present names. That was the time when New Delhi started to expand and it still goes on with the process of expansion. Part of the Pandara Road flats were built at that time and again we were one of the first occupants of those flats in 1952.

If my memory can be trusted, Sujan Singh Park and Khan Market were already well-known landmarks at that time. Khan Market was upmarket when compared to Lodhi Road Market. It was in this Khan Market that I was first introduced to the English Magazines Woman and Home, Woman and Woman’s Weekly. From then onwards these magazines became a part of my life till about 2001 when they became too costly for me to afford, nearly Rs. 100 each .When I started collecting these magazines in 1952, the prices of all the magazines were within Rs.One and eight annas. Apart from good serials and short stories these magazines also carried many household hints and recipes for baking and cooking. The main attraction for me was the knitting patterns.
Babuji got these magazines regularly for me. When we moved over to the South in 1955 for a period of eight years we found that we could get these magazines only at the Higginbotham’s counter at the Railway Stations. So every week wherever we were we did not miss a visit to the Railway Station to buy them. Thus my knitting also started and gradually this became a passion also. My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as friends benefited from this passion of mine.

The magazines also helped me to improve my knowledge of English and understand other people’s life styles too. Babuji was an avid reader of magazines and good writings of well-known authors. He had a good collection of P.G.Wodehouse works and it was he who introduced me to such writers.

Here I have to tell you of an incident that Babuji experienced before we got married. He was in the Home Ministry and as an Assistant his job was to draft official letters and to provide information in condensed form from all official files to his immediate boss, an Englishman. One day this boss sent for Babuji. Babuji, while narrating this incident to me at a later date told me that he lost his composure and started shivering in his shoes before he entered the boss’s room, for this was the first time he was facing the boss.Seeing Babuji in such a nervous fright the boss told him, ‘Young man, relax! I am no Bengal Tiger to eat you! I merely wanted to congratulate you on your good knowledge of the English Language and your style of writing. Keep it up!’

The 1950s saw a lot of events taking place for the first time. The first General Election was held in 1952. So were the first Republic Day Parade and celebrations related to that, the first Air Force Day, and Air Mail Services were introduced. The first ever election in Independent India was in 1952. Every one was excited and happy to see his or her name on the Voters List and was waiting impatiently for the Election Day to dawn. It was like a festival day with one and all moving towards the voting booths with pride and happiness written all over their faces. Looking back it seems so funny. For there was only one single party, the Congress. The fight was among its own members. There was no Opposition party. Still, there were people who were interested to pick and choose whom they considered the best of the lot to represent them in the Parliament. Maybe this was the only election in which the whole country as one used the right to vote.

Gradually this enthusiasm gave way to indifference. Many rich people and high society members started thinking it below their dignity to stand in the line with others who did not belong to their class and wait for their turn to cast their vote. I am not exaggerating when I say some women-- then and now-- could not stand the indigo ink on their nails!! Then came indifference; a kind of apathy among many people. It did not matter to them and did not make any difference to these people whether it was Rama Rajyam as promised by the Congress where milk and honey flowed or whether it was Ravana Rajyam where there was goondaism and everything ugly and evil happened!

If only all the intelligent and educated citizens of India who can think with a level head and distinguish between good and bad and who have the ability, the wisdom and the right mental attitude came forward to use this franchise, India would have been a better country now.
A lot of changes took place in our family life also. We moved to Pandara Road flats in 1952 when Viji was a six month old baby. There were only about thirty to forty flats in those days. Compared to Lodhi Colony flats, these flats were bigger, with a drawing-cum -dining room, two large bedrooms with attached bathrooms, a spacious kitchen and a front and back verandah. Babuji’s brother who was staying with us till now had got married and moved out. Babuji’s parents left Trichur for good and joined us in Delhi to spend the rest of their lives with us.
Life in Pandara Road Flats was very different compared to the Lodhi Colony. Lodhi Colony was like a community kind of life with everybody walking in and out of everybody else’s flat.It was there that I learnt cycling and had my first salwar kameez suit made. Some forty years later I switched to salwar kameez to make my life easier, when I was in Singapore with Raja and in U.S. with Bala.

In Lodhi Colony in winter months the ladies of every block gathered on the lawns with their small children once the men folk left for office to enjoy the sun along with Gol Guppa, moongfali and oranges supplied by regular vendors. And in summer by dusk all the charpoys were out on the lawns and the people dined, gossiped and played Pithhoo till midnight before they fell asleep.
Here in Pandara Road flats rank distinction was very much evident. Mostly everybody kept to themselves, like the Americans who occupied about six flats. Our downstairs neighbour was an Englishman who was a Press Reporter. He was a friendly type, not overly friendly, but just on a hello hello basis whenever we met.

Six years later when we were in Pondicherry, we came to know that this same reporter Mr. Atkinson was murdered. It was a shock for me to know that he was gay. That was a very hush-hush word which was not openly spoken in those days.It seems he had picked up two boys from Khan Market and brought them to his place. Those boys murdered him for a sum of Rs.25 which they found in his purse. What a shame. Rs.25 was a big amount in those days.

Another foreign reporter, an English lady, was occupying the flat below that of my neighbour Mrs. Sharma. This reporter was a very unfriendly and a querulous type, always picking up a fight with Mrs. Sharma over petty things like children playing or the sound the stone grinder made while making batter for idli and dosa which was a must in all South Indian homes. As Mrs. Sharma was not very good with the English language, many a time I had to fight her battle of words with the English lady.Anyway this lady moved out of our locality very soon.

I made friends with one Mrs. Uppal, a very refined lady who was a grandmother. We found so many things in common to talk about. Even now after so many years when I think of her I get a warm feeling. It was a short but pleasant friendship.

The first Air Force Day was celebrated on April 1st, 1954. It was held at Tilpath Range, a distance of about ten kilometers from New Delhi. Rehearsals were going on for more than a month. One mid-morning there was a big booming sound which was frightening and which rattled all the window panes. I heard Mr. Atkinson shouting for me by name and telling me to rush downstairs with the children thinking it was an earthquake. It was my turn to tell him that it was only the rehearsal for the Air Force Day. In those days earthquakes were common in New Delhi immediately after the monsoon, and there used to be minor tremors by the end of winter. I was really touched by Mr. Atkinson’s concern for our safety and thanked him profusely.

There were more changes to come in our life which we were not aware of at that time.