Saturday, July 15, 2017




The place called Dhakuria, where my grandparents (Harendranath and Surobala Chatterjee) and my parents (Birendra and Rani Chatterjee) lived, is in South Calcutta. Most of our relatives from the paternal side live there still today. My grandparents originally lived in a village called ‘Bechgaon’ in Dhaka , which was in India before the partition (1947) of India and East Pakistan, but became a part of Bangladesh when Bangladesh was separated again from Pakistan in 1971. My grandparents moved to India, more precisely to Dhakuria, with the whole extended family, leaving all their lands and properties behind in East Pakistan (at that time).

My grandfather Harendranath did not come to Calcutta at once. Long before his final departure from his birth land and long before the partition took place, he bought a huge piece of land in Dhakuria and started to move his big family there gradually. Probably for him, his final departure from Dhaka was in 1948, when he died.

According to his plan, an enormous three storied building with very special architecture was constructed on that land. It had many balconies and, besides the main terraced roof on the top, there were three more open terraces at different levels. There was a huge piece of land in front of the house where we played in the shades of huge trees like Mango, Black berry (Kalo Jam), Tamarind, Siris, Coconut, Bel, Kamranga, Folsa, Sobeda, Jamrul, I remember. In that open area, among the trees, there also stood three or four cottage like quarters where caretakers of our grandparents lived. One cottage, in the corner of the garden, belonged to ‘Thakuma’(grandma). Our grandfather gifted it to his wife thinking of a time in future, in his absence, when she might have to live there independently. But, Thakuma did not stay there ever; she gave rented out all the quarters. Later, after our grandfather passed away, it became the source of her steady income to contribute to the family. I never saw my grandfather. He died (might be in 1948) long before I was born. He owned a tea garden in North-East hilly region of West Bengal (Tripura) which was sold or given to Thakuma’s brother after my grandfather died, as far as I know. There were two old cars and one horse during his lifetime. Harendranath Chatterjee made a lot of contributions to the society; he created opportunities for education and jobs for women. He was the founder of many girls’ school in Calcutta.

I love to remember our big house with its very special architecture where quite a huge number of people spanning three generations lived happily. I am talking about the late fifties and early sixties. Our family consisted of my grandmother (the head of the family), my father and uncles (financial providers and common guardians), my mother and aunts (home administrators) and of course we, the cousins - friends and carefree playmates, happy and enthusiastic children. We are five brothers and sisters with a gap of two years in between siblings. I am the youngest. The order is like this: one sister followed by two brothers, then two sisters.

On long vacations, twice in a calendar year, my Pishis (aunts from paternal side) came to our house with their children from different parts of West Bengal and India.  Then our children’s team became appreciably voluminous and strong and we kept busy almost the entire day playing in our front yard and the attached piece of land, on the roof terraces, in Thakuma’s bed room. We performed drama, dance, chorus, reading and recitation using the roof terraces and wide verandahs in the house as our stages.

Our grandma, the only person of her generation living in the house in my childhood, was the in charge of the entire household. She was a woman of pleasant but commanding personality. She was the regular visitor to our reading sessions, drama and other activities. She called my sister Keya (two years older than me) and I as ‘twin sisters’ as we always kept together. When we, all the children of the house, played in the front yard; she sat on the landing of the front staircase and watched us, enjoying our games and always stayed till we finished playing and returned to our respective rooms. She went to the nearby lake for morning walks - sometimes we, the girls, accompanied her. Later, many times I went to the waterfront with my parents and friends. I still go for a walk around that lake when I am in Calcutta and those days come back to me like a dream. Of my many memories of that time, another one is ‘Thakuma’s Sinduk’ (grandmother's treasure chest). On some occasions, Thakuma would extract money from a chest to pay the cook (we called him ‘Thakur’) for grocery. The chest was built into the wall of her bed room. It had old fashioned, golden colored, decorative and heavy doors and handles. It appeared to us so mysterious; we were forever curious to peep inside it and whispered about the possibility of gem stones and invaluable jewelry hidden inside. But, to our disappointment, it turned out to be absolutely empty, when she passed away and the chest was kept open.

Another childhood memory makes me laugh! On the first floor of our house, there were three adjacent wash rooms at the extreme end of the open terrace. Just behind the washrooms, there was a big tree. At night, when the blowing wind shook the branches of the tree, I imagined ghosts sitting there, moving their arms and legs. Most of my cousins, even my youngest uncle, never went to the washroom alone!  At night, I ran to and fro through the terrace keeping my eyes half closed and never told anybody that I was also afraid of ghosts.

In the first floor of our house, there was a common big kitchen with huge earthen stoves of different heights. We didn’t have cooking gas at that time, so, coal was used. There was ‘Thakur’- the head cook with his assistant Rameswar and a maid who worked in the kitchen . My mother and four aunts, in turn, joined in cooking and serving our meals. We sat on the floor of grandma’s room, as big as a hall, on rectangular pieces of painted wood called ‘piri’ or nicely stitched rectangular pieces of cloths called ‘ason'. Later, when we grew older, there was renovation and modification in the old building to make space for kitchens and washrooms for each family. We got separate gas connections in every kitchen. The cook and his assistant retired and went back to their families in Orissa. The maid stayed on with grandmother. Our mothers started cooking in their kitchens and ‘Thakuma’ also cooked for herself.  It became fun for us to help them in cooking and thereby we learned many Bengali recipes for our everyday meal and snacks.

My mother      

My mother’s name is Rani- which means Queen. She was the second sister amongst seven siblings, all women.  She got married to my father (Birendra Chattopadhyay, the second son of my grandmother) when she was sixteen and passed the ‘School Final’ Exam. She was beautiful. Her eyes were dark and bright. She carried an empathetic smile. Yes, her eyes also smiled along with her whole face. She used to wear Shari, common for most of the Bengali women living in West Bengal. She looked pretty with Shari around her slim, proportionate body. What was really admired by all was her long dark black hair which when kept loose, hung beyond her waist and hip, almost touching her knees.  Most of the time, especially while working in the kitchen, she used to make a ‘khopa’ to manage her long hair. A ‘Khopa’ is when the hair is tied up into a bun, made in different fashions and styles, fixed behind the head with special clips while the common and quick practice to make a bun is simply snaking the hair around itself and securing it there with a knot that didn't tangle the hair, but held it in place nonetheless; quite a tricky technique.

In the afternoon the youngest two, Keya and I, used to play with our mother’s long open hair falling to the floor from the pillow when she took an afternoon nap after a late lunch and long day’s work of a big joint -family.  Our eldest sister and elder brothers were in schools during the afternoon; but we two were too young to go to school at that time.

If I travel all along down the memory lane , the first thing I can see is a baby girl riding a warm, soft,  well fragranced living vehicle moving busily upstairs and downstairs of a three storied building, in order to work and chat with my aunts and grandmother. So, my memory traveled back to the time when I was in my mother’s lap.  Being the youngest of the five siblings; I always kept very close to her, following her around the house, especially when Keya also started to go to school. In the afternoon, when she lay down on a mat to rest or read newspapers and magazines or for a short nap, I also slept by her. I became the witness of her peace and happiness when, lying on the mat, she told me stories and when she read books and poetry for herself. She read all the poems written by her husband, my father, Birendra Chattopadhyay, a poet. I was also the sole witness when she was sad, wept and wiped her face wet with tears with her  ‘anchal’ - the loose end of the shari hung over her left shoulder. I was young and only managed to sit very close to her and wept with her, sharing her sadness. I still have no idea what the source of her sorrow was, but can now guess the reasons to be the pain a woman, a wife and a mother bears in the running even a happy family. I wish to write more, on other occasions, about my mother and a complete book on my father Birendra Chattopadhyay, as I saw them.

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