I wonder whether one is naturally drawn to memoirs, biographies and autobiographies as one goes older. Certainly, among the reader friends of my generation this is a noticeable trend. At a time when the world is changing more rapidly than it has in the last two generations, this genre often records a time that few remember or understand clearly. Soon, it will recede just as surely as our black and white world has been replaced with the distracting charms of the digital records. I often wonder what primary sources future scholars will be able to mine when they sit down to write in the absence of hand-written notes, diaries and letters.
Monica Chanda’s memoir, edited by her daughter Malavika Karlekar, is a slim book crafted from diary entries made by the author which record only a slice of her lifetime—her childhood spent in sprawling, but isolated, colonial bungalows in the undivided State of Bengal. She records a little over a decade (1913-27) and the world revealed is (like most childhood memories) idyllic, with fond accounts of horse rides across the countryside, leisurely excursions on barges through the mighty mangroves of the Sunderbans and sultry afternoons spent listening to the calls of birds or watching monitor lizards in the garden. It sounds like a lonely (although happy) childhood with no sister while her brothers, either much older or away in boarding school or too small to provide companionship. Occasionally, there is a cousin who comes on a visit or a family wedding.
What fascinated me is Monica’s self-imposed restraint both in recording emotions and events. An alert reader can sense that this must have been a strongly patriarchal household where the father took all the decisions regarding the upbringing, education and future of his family. Monica’s future husband is chosen for her (as was the custom in those days) and as his only daughter, she held a special place in his heart. However, Monica never seems to have felt the need to question why her desire to attend regular school or take the advance lessons in piano that she yearned for were never seriously considered by either of her parents. My attention was particularly drawn to the portrait of Monica’s mother, an oddly remote presence in a memoir of a childhood. The younger two children (Monica and her brother Willie) were taken care of by ayahs and loyal servants and their horse riding overseen by a syce. The mother comes across as a delicate lady either resting and not to be disturbed or supervising the household staff. There is but one occasion when she shows any emotion and that is when a treasured Venetian glass is shattered into pieces as a servant is carrying the tray it was displayed on. I missed accounts of any mother-daughter exchanges and considering that Monica was the only daughter in the family, there seems to be no discernible close bond between the two.
In 1922, her eldest brother was married to the daughter of another well-connected family. To celebrate this wedding—the first in Monica’s family—a garden house was hired on the outskirts of Calcutta to accommodate all the guests and friends. Indian weddings are always memorable occasions and the noise and confusion, the tantrums and gifts, the food and rituals, to say nothing of pranks and hissy fits, have been the same whether they were celebrated a hundred years ago or now. However, although a separate chapter is marked out in the memoir for this special occasion, there is a strange detachment from all this in Monica’s recounting of it.
‘An Indian wedding in by-gone days, celebrated in keeping with one’s position in society, could be a most exhausting affair, both physically and ruinous financially….’
The wedding was conducted according to the Brahmo Samaj rituals so remarkably free of the noise and confusion of an orthodox Hindu wedding; nevertheless one misses the sense of excitement and local colour that Indian weddings are so good at effortlessly creating. It ends with the family’s return to their own home and the relief in her voice as she resumes her familiar life is unmistakable but puzzling: ‘…I continued playing the piano in a relaxed frame of mind, or I stood on one of the balconies facing the Ganges, watching the eternally flowing water of the great river and boats going by with their bright coloured sails. It was a good life, quiet and peaceful.’
Somewhere towards the end of the book is an enchanted account of an Upcountry Tour to Delhi and Agra, and the finale, a European Tour. The wonder of actually visiting the places that she had only heard of, the glamour and sense of awe at what she saw (a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace) remains the conclusion, bringing this small peek into a childhood a hundred years ago to a fitting finale.
More than the record of life in colonial bungalows in an ICS officer’s family, this is a book that records the deep influence that a Victorian-Edwardian way of life had upon upper class Bengalis, the bhadralok. Mind you, it wasn’t just the bhadralok who aped the manners and lifestyle of the gora sahibs: this was true of most ICS officers and their cultivated detachment from the life of the common residents in the mofussil towns they administered. To be fair, it was a distance deliberately created by the colonial British rulers who marked out enclaves named ‘Civil Lines’ to distinguish their homes from the Old or Walled City settlements. Interestingly, the anachronistic lifestyle of these twice-born brown sahibs continues to be still followed by our administrators, who have neither the integrity nor the minds that went with such lives. In a sense, the contempt many people in India have for the occupants of Lutyens’s Delhi or the Civil Lines walas stems from a class that can no longer accept the entitled lives and callous arrogance of rulers whose only touch with poverty are the servants living in their quarters.
On the other hand, one feels almost sorry for the families that grew up in these fabled enclaves for they will never fully understand why the idyllic world they once knew as the only one is morphing into a violent and assertive rights-demanding populace. The ‘good life’ Monica describes and is comforted by, where one could spend hours gazing at the eternal waters of the Ganges or playing tennis in the local club, followed by dinner parties where khansamas and bearers served ‘English’ food has vanished, never to return. The vocabulary of good manners has been forgotten and biddable daughters groomed to marry the boys that their fathers chose for them are no longer happy to sew a fine seam.
I was reminded of another biography of the poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan (of Jhansi ki Rani fame), where we encounter another girlhood, in another part of India but roughly contemporaneous—that of her daughter Sudha Rai, herself an author. Titled Mila Tej se Tej, it is a deeply moving account of a daughter (the firstborn in her family) coping with the role of surrogate mother to a brood of younger siblings as her parents, fierce nationalists, were repeatedly jailed for sedition. Where was the time to stand and stare for such girls? Others have written of similar lives and presented a quaint quilt that contains bright and dull patches of history for those who seek to discover the effect of contemporary history on individual lives and families. Household accounts, correspondence between siblings, love letters and travelogues—all these are waiting to be written up and analysed. Publishers should seriously consider this genre as one to be nourished.
After a long career in teaching and publishing, Ira Pande is now a freelance writer and translator.