As romance brews in the air of 19th century Britain with women dressed in pretty gowns and pearls waiting for tall, dark and handsome men to come their way, somewhere in India, a young girl is transported into fantasy land and distant times as she reads of these encounters and dreams of having her own. In reality, however, she wears sarees and sings Rabindrasangeet (songs in Bengal written by poet Rabindranath Tagore) and for her, any prospect of romance would only be after marriage with a partner arranged by her family. This was how our grandmother, Thamma as we called her, grew up and remained. Her family represented the quintessential genteel society of Bengal on the cusp of change: people filled with admiration for the turn of the century British culture, yet committed to Indian (essentially Bengali) sensibilities. So too did Thamma, in her youth and after marriage, fuse her modern Bengali sense of aesthetics with western conventions. Her family, her schooling and higher study in Santiniketan1 all contributed to her refined cultural grooming. While India was in the midst of political change in the 1940s and 50s, she moved effortlessly between the worlds of ballroom dancing and stylized Indian dance steps that she choreographed.
In the early hours of May 28, 2020, Thamma passed away peacefully. She was 90, and her departure drew an end to an enchanted life. Countless tributes since her passing have been heartwarming and have gone to show the number of people she had touched with her presence. Her younger son Amitesh describes her life as “charmed, eventful and adventurous.” He adds, “And true to her name (Hashi, meaning laughter), I’ve known few people who could laugh like her.”
Friend, Story-teller & Guide
For us (her two grandchildren), she was a friend — the kind of childhood friend who remained by our side as we navigated the difficulties of adolescence, fearful of the unknown. Our early memories of Thamma is of her telling us stories of her life while trying to feed us. Always fussy eaters, her stories would captivate us and distractedly, we’d eat. They ranged from her girlhood mischiefs to her travels with her family later in life. We listened with earnest interest and sometimes in awe – especially when she regaled us with tales of her wonderful school days at a time when we were not altogether pleased in ours. When we recall them now, her stories conjure up images of warm sunshine, happiness and laughter.
Dadu, our grandfather and Thamma had a great love story. After he died in 2009, Thamma lived alone in the house in Kalyani2 that they built together but it was never the same – a part of her was gone. She told us of their wedding that had been entirely arranged by their families. Having had to follow the dictates of Dadu’s mother, the two were not allowed to meet before the ceremony. Thamma was quite disappointed since her family was more progressive but had to satisfy herself with looking at a picture of Dadu with two of his friends, one of whom she found very handsome.
Dadu and Thamma saw one another for the first time in that magical moment under the arc light, surrounded by flowers, music, laughter and the heady smell of incense. It was the beginning of an extraordinary affair of love, adventure, and supreme happiness. Guests who had been present at their wedding recall that they looked regal together. Dadu’s niece, who was six at the time, said that the bride was dressed like a queen wearing an ornate crown. For the occasion, Thamma had especially designed a necklace after the one worn by Queen Elizabeth II. A picture that still stands on the mantelpiece of their home captured this resplendence. We imagined that in it they looked like Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.
Travels, Pranks and Other Stories
Thamma’s ‘joie de vivre,’ as one niece reminisces with warmth, was derived from the life she built around her sons, our fathers, and her handsome husband, whom she was devoted to and extremely proud of. One of the many incidents that always left us awestruck was how during the 1965 war, while Dadu was called away to the front, Thamma drove her sons from the cantonment in Ferozepur to a safety house in Moga. This was at a time when few Indian women could drive.3 Their travels together abroad were legendary; at an age when information was not available at their fingertips, Dadu happily drove the family around Europe in the 1960s to explore an unknown and totally alien world. Their escapades could fill volumes. When they returned to Lucknow after living in Moscow for four years, they appeared to the wider family as ‘foreigners’. Certainly, our fathers looked Russian and spoke the language as their own. Once, their wide-eyed grand-nephew, visiting from Allahabad, watched Thamma teach her older son Animesh, how to skewer fish in the electric rotisserie and felt he was on an international vacation.
Always a bit of a humorist, Thamma liked lightening the mood around her. She once played a prank on a nervous, newly wedded husband of a niece by offering him tea with salt instead of sugar. Keeping her face straight, yet playful, she watched him drink it with her laughing eyes that we all grew to love. The young man was too embarrassed to protest and too uncomfortable to drink after the first sip.
Thamma was a talented hobbyist. She sowed and embroidered, drew, danced, sang and made the perfectly formed soufflés. She loved Indian, especially Bengali music but it was western dancing she had her heart set on. She devoured 19th century romantic novels – books by Georgette Heyer being her special favourite. But when it came to marriage in the real word, she believed in the age-old concept of arranging the match. She loved weddings, so setting people up was a favourite pastime. We are not sure if she was ever very successful in arranging a match, but that didn’t stop her from trying. After we, her grandchildren were born, she set high hopes that her match-making skills could finally be put to good use. In fact, she tried to set both of us up with various prospects from an early age, most assuredly failing in the end though she meant well. Her most recent attempt was last year, when Deeptanshu, only 25, was visiting.
Always dignified, well-dressed and poised Thamma would dress for most meals, plan tea and dinner parties to perfection. She had a distinct distaste for women in trousers, including her teenage granddaughter whom she otherwise doted on. Yet she had a quirky side that made her wonderfully eccentric. She was a hoarder – she had not only kept all her specially ordered issues of ‘Women’s Weekly’ but had shipped them from Moscow to India when they moved back following Dadu’s posting. Those magazine issues – still perfectly preserved – were a major bone of contention between her and Dadu. But in the end, she had her way, and the magazines served as endless late afternoon entertainment especially for her granddaughter. She kept other useless things too – broken utensils carefully mended with super-glue were wrapped up in her store cabinet to be given away to her daughters-in-law or her granddaughter, costume jewellery that neither she nor anyone in her family would ever wear, pictures and postcards, broken trinkets that once meant a great deal to her.
She also loved fast food – we reckon that for her, KFC chicken would win over most of the faultlessly cooked meals she made at home. But she was slender and beautifully trim throughout her life. She once told me Anwita (whom she had named Roshni, meaning light), that as a girl she was so scared of getting fat that she would hardly ever sit down unless she absolutely had to.
A Delighted Grandma
After her grandchildren were born, there was no question of sitting down. The elated grandma spent hours making us beautiful clothes, knitting woollens, and writing short poems for us, that, we realize now, she hoped we would read when she was gone. She wrote several little verses on our childhood. Some of them revealed her sadness each time we left her. Both of us travelled far and wide with our parents, eventually to live in several different countries – her poems told us how much she wished we were closer, playing together. After Deeptanshu was born, she wrote:
Let me tell you some news,
Our home has been lit up by the arrival of Roshni’s brother,
We are so elated
That we are eating plates full of sweets
A powerful poem she wrote for Roshni consisted of just four lines. It seems especially poignant now:
You can’t see me here,
My darling Roshni,
Where I am now,
Is known to no one
Goodbye Dear Thamma
Thamma left this world with the same grace and dignity with which she led her life, bothering no one. She has left behind beautiful memories that she carefully wove for us with her stories, her trinkets and her poems. In these truly inexplicable times, we are sad that we were not able to say goodbye to her properly. Anwita’s last conversation with her was on May 6, her 90th birthday when she had called to wish her Thamma, but the conversation got abruptly cut off due to poor connection. Deeptanshu called from New Zealand on the 7th and she was delighted. Yet, we are happy that she left in peace, in her own home, and on her own terms – a privilege few have. Our memories of her will be etched as in the picture where she looks radiant like a yesteryear movie star, preparing for her first big celluloid break. However, we would like to think she lived out her romantic life in technicolour.