This is the third volume in a series of books about the author and his family. Daddyji, dealt with the paternal side of his ancestry while Mamaji deals with the maternal side. His own life has been portrayed in Face to Face.
The author lost his eyesight in 1938, at the age of three as a result of an attack of meningitis. Mamaji, as he called his mother, was deeply shocked and developed asthma soon after. Seventeen years later, while he was out driving in California, an accompanying girl student suddenly took over the controls to avert an accident:
Panting from the exertion of gaining the driver’s seat, she fumbled in her handbag for a cigarette and then fumbled with the cigarette light on the dashboard. She pressed the cigarette lighter repeatedly, trying to get it to work. There seemed something desperate in her efforts. It was only at that moment that I remembered. For the first time—and then very fleetingly and without understanding exactly why—the faint clicks of the lighter switch coming through the sounds of my mother’s asthma.
It was only years after this drive that I was stirred to find out everything about my mother—her history and my history, and how they came to their cross-roads. It was many years later yet before I could bring myself to set it down.
The book covers almost a hundred years, from the time of his maternal great grandfather, Bulaki Ram, to his own childhood illness which deprived him of his vision. Bulaki Ram lost his father at the age of twelve and three years later, his aunt ‘presented him with a twelve-year-old bride named Mukandi and with a new turban, to signalize his responsibilities as head of the household’.
Mukandi and Bulaki were fervent devotees of Durga Mata and sought every opportunity to invoke her blessings. In one of the narrow streets of Lahore, lived a moody young woman reputed oracle of Durga Mata. Once in a while when possessed by the spirit of Durga she would appear in the neighbourhood with an announcer and be instantly surrounded by people seeking the favours of the goddess.
For a long time Bulaki failed to attract her attention but eventually succeeded. The oracle told him that he was accursed because he had neglected to pay homage to the goddess. She went on to inform him that in an underground room in his house lay a small altar to Durga Mata, encrusted with dust and cobwebs. He was to recover it, clean it, place upon it a mud lamp which was to be kept burning night and day for six months, during which he was to pray at the alter daily and his wife was to keep all of the goodess’ fasts. These instructions were carried out dutifully but at the end of six months, Mukandi showed no sign of being with a child.
His faith in Durga Mata still intact, Bulaki decided that a new beginning far away from Lahore was called for. So he took his wife to Peshawar. By the time they reached Peshawar, Mukandi felt sure she was with child. The infant was destined to a long life and numerous children. He was, named Durga Das. A daughter born two years later and named Durga Devi was the only other child who lived to be old.
In Peshawar, Bulaki rented a small room and took care to keep the door and the single window always closed against the sun as he believed-along with many others – that sunlight spread consumption, which in those days was a killer disease. He set. up business as an itinerant cloth vendor and made a good living. He couldn’t get over the abundance of Peshawar. ‘Why’, he would say, ‘I can buy two sparrows for one ann a here. In Lahore, I couldn’t get even one sparrow for one anna … I’ll feed them to Durga Das with my own hands, and he’ll grow up to be healthy and strong, like a Pathan’. Girls did not count for much in those days, so that Durga Devi, ‘was left to grow up as she would’. On Durga Das rested all hopes for the perpetuation of the family name: Bulaki Ram was anxious, that he should grow up to be something better than a ‘bundle-man’ and realized that the only way to ensure this was a good Anglo-Indian education. He sent the boy to a Mission school, which he described as another Durga temple.
After a few years, Bulaki returned to Lahore. In due course, Mukandi found herself with a child once more and Bulaki convinced that Lahore was not a lucky place for his children to be born in, at once decided to return to Peshawar. But on the way, Mukandi was taken ill suddenly and died, urging Bulaki with her last breath never to re-marry and to ‘be mother and father to Durga Das’. Bulaki honoured this wish to the letter.
Durga Das re-joined his old school and in 1887, on passing the Anglo-Vernacular Middle School Examination, to Bulaki’s pride was awarded a certificate. Bulaki grew nostalgic for his home-town and a feeling that his wife’s death was the last misfortune that he had been destined to suffer took him back to Lahore and there he spent the last thirty-five years of his life.
Durga Das, or Babuji as he was known to his descendants, joined the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School in Lahore. Like his father he married at the age of fifteen to a girl of twelve, once again selected by Bulaki’s aunt. Two or three years later, he passed his matriculation examination, having acquired, through patient industry, a very fair knowledge of English, Persian Mathematics, Geography and History. He then joined D.A.V. College where he lived a simple life and came under the influence of the Arya Samaj. For his B.A., he went to F.C. College and thereafter spent three years at the Punjab Law School to acquire a law degree. In 1899, he became a pleader in the Punjab High Court, thus launching himself on a career that was to bring him much distinction, including a Senate Fellowship of Punjab University, a directorship of the Punjab National Bank, the title of Rai Bahadur and a position of leadership in the Arya Samaj.
In 1902, when Babuji was thirty, his wife, Devaki, died of consumption, the scourge of Indian cities. She left behind three children between the age of two and seven, a fact that was urged by the family match-maker in favour of an early second marriage for him. Babuji himself was not thinking of re-marrying but his wishes did not count. The match-maker sought out a match and presented an engagement gift to Bulaki on behalf of her parents without consulting anybody else.
The marriage proved to be an extraordinarily long-lived one; Babuji died as recently as 1973 and Lal Devi only a year earlier. Babuji was doing well in his profession and was soon able to persuade his father to rent a comparatively large house in a less crowded location outside the walled city. A little later Lal Devi—known to her children and grandchildren as Mataji—gave birth to her second child, Shanti, the Mamaji after whom the book is named.
Mamaji received a rather cursory education but it included private tuition in spoken English as Babuji evidently realized that ability to converse in English was essential if she was to marry a well-educated Hindu gentleman. This was exactly the sort of person she married when she was about seventeen and regarded as almost too old for marriage: ‘ … the water has risen up to her neck’, as the women of the house were beginning to say. The bridegroom was Dr. Amolak Ram Mehta, educated in England and America and very modern by the standards of those days; so modern, in fact, that he chided Babuji—himself a dedicated Arya Samajist with scant respect for discussing with him the terms of the dowry.
Mamaji, by contrast, was steeped in tradition, despite her father’s Arya Samaj convictions. But the two adjusted themselves to each other’s ways without much difficulty. While Dr Mehta (Daddyji) kept up his tennis and cricket and bridge, Mamaji continued to devote herself to household chores and prayer to Durga. They exchanged very loving letters whenever she visited her parents, and his she preserved carefully, displaying them with much pride on their golden wedding anniversary.
In 1938, Mamaji and Daddyji underwent the most serious crisis of their lives when they discovered that their bright young son, Ved, had lost his eyesight after an attack of meningitis. Western medical treatment did not avail, nor did the medications of Babuji’s favourite hakim whom Daddyji deeply distrusted. As her grandfather Bulaki had done nearly sixty years ago, Mamaji turned to Durga Mata for divine intervention. And as before, the oracle displayed unbelievable perspicacity: she described accurately the walk Mamaji and Ved had taken just before he fell ill as well as the location of the shisham tree in whose evil shadow Ved had passed ‘Sister, go find the tree of the shadow, and light four mud lamps at its foot and keep them burning until the next full moon’. Unfortunately the prescription did not succeed.
A good deal of the information contained in the book has been culled from a diary maintained by Babuji from 1897 onwards.
Babuji had begun by listing, in English, year by year, the major events of his life, but the order was more apparent than real, since some of the papers were blank and, besides, he had written in the diary from both ends. The front pages were mainly straight-forward records of births, marriages and deaths—with a curiously impersonal, fatalistic or in vocational comment or two appended—and the back pages were given over to random entries of accounts .. .interspersed with home remedies, home truths and maxims in Urdu and in Punjabi.
The diary came into the possession of the author in 1971 bearing an inscription from Babuji to the effect that he had great pleasure and pride in handing it over to his ‘distinguished grand child’.
Mamaji is not only the documentation in fine, prose of the personalized history of a family but a record of the transformation of Punjabi culture under the impact of British rule.
From Bulaki to Mamaji is a far cry: a cramped house in a narrow city street giving way to a spacious western-style bungalow; the prejudice against sunlight disappears; the need for educating girls has been grudgingly accepted; and there is a general liberalization of attitudes, thanks to a large measure to the Arya Samaj movement. But women continue to be the chief repositories of tradition and Durga Mata is not forgotten in the welter of Western ideas.
One meets with many interesting characters in the book: Mrs Sehgal, delicately beautiful and highly Anglicized; Sir Shadi Lal, the first Indian Chief Justice, of the Punjab High Court; the Aga Khan; Fatumal, an unscrupulous contractor; his very much younger wife Rasil, who was born a poor Nepali’s daughter but became an outstanding tennis player; Mahatma Hans Raj, the veteran Arya Samaj leader; and a host of others, both within the orbit of Mamaji’s family and outside it.
The book is a labour of love, to which the author has brought to bear a high degree of objectivity. Its contents as well as the charm and elegance of the narration makes it a fascinating reading. It will appeal both to the general reader and the scholar interested in life of the British days in undivided Punjab.
V.N. Chibber is an author and freelance journalist.