I sometimes think of visiting my grandparents’ house in Calcutta. Their erstwhile house. As I write by my window in this little apartment in Sant Nagar, Dilli, it’s being pulled down; there’s going to be a posh block of condominiums where it was. My mother and aunts are happy with this arrangement; the hundred year old rambling property, the garden, the orchard — who’d keep it up? who’d keep an eye on the people to mow the grass, collect the fruit, oversee the ritual biannual paint job?
My Dadu and Mamma live in a small flat now, not far away from the old yellow two-storey building, running end to end on a small street. They have their marble-topped dining table at one corner of their living room, a new navy sofa-bed for overnight guests, and aluminum framed glass windows that Mamma wipes with a dust rag twice each day. The old house had three different kinds of windows. Surrounding this is a story I’ve heard many times from Dadu; his brother, my Gaga; or from Chhordi, their younger sister. Their father, Jnan Ghosh, was responsible for this.
Jnan Ghosh had been a public servant in British India, and as family lore goes, had risen high enough in the ranks to have gone to work every day in full English dress. The family had then consisted of Jnan, who’d married Shailabala, who anon bore him five children, three girls and two boys. The youngest of these would be my Dadu, Ramendranath. They lived in government quarters in Delhi before a transfer order brought them to Calcutta. This was in 1932. My grandfather was not walking yet.
Jnan had risen to prominence in his profession through a combination of a keen intellect, which his children, particularly his daughters inherited; and rigorous labor, that his sons had; but he had also had the gift of foresight. Before his stay with a large progeny could become unwelcome at his wife’s natal home in Chetla, he had bought the house and overgrown land next door and moved in.
This house was built in two high floors, and Jnan hired men to clear out the bushy forested plot around to extend it horizontally. On the ground floor, there was a large sitting-room, a dining hall, a kitchen well-ventilated and efficient for its day, a storeroom, and three bedrooms. You took the stairs, your hand resting on a stone banister above curving floral grilles, to the upper storey, where there were four more bedrooms, and a simpler staircase to the roof. When the second, smaller house was finally constructed, Jnan had it appended to the main house through a high arching door. This meant the conjoint houses had two sets of stairs, and differently colored floors. The larger main house floor was a dark, orangey-red. The annex flooring was the color of freshly mixed cement. There were more bedrooms than people then. Jnan was not discouraged; the shoal emptiness did not discourage him. By 1936, Shailabala had two more sons.
This is where the windows come in. The main house bottom storey windows were sharp rectangles with wooden frames, and closely knit cast-iron grilles. These were set about half an adult’s height above the floor. From the street, one wouldn’t suspect these windows came with deep seats. I’ve heard stories of how Shailabala would mash up baby food in a brass bowl and feed it to a baby that had learnt to sit, that she’d put on the window sill, so the distractions from the road would take care of the ritual of messy feeding over quickly.
Upstairs, there was more flair. There were wooden shutters running six feet high, ending where a short skirting began. There was a vertical contraption for opening and closing the shutters, like jharokhas. There was a window seat, shallower, here too, and once these shutters were closed, there were stained glass doors to shut behind them. If you left the shutters open on a rainy evening but shut the glass doors and watched from a little way away, you’d see pellets of water hitting each red, green, blue and amber panel, like phoolkari work on a sheet of acquiescent, silken material.
My mother has sent me pictures, real photographs, of the construction site. She’s an architect, and although she’s not designing the new set of buildings that are coming up, she often stops at the site to take pictures or watch it all take shape, if she drives by. Professional interest, she says in a wobbly voice.
There are giant ‘Men at Work‘ signs all around, with the duct tape and other construction site paraphernalia. Concrete mixers, shovels, spades, lengths of cable, rope, ladders and beams of iron, hillocks of sand and stone chips. I dislike the pictures immediately and stash them away where I won’t find them easily again. Which in itself is a conundrum; my living space isn’t conducive to hiding envelopes of pictures, letters, and relics from wrecks of kinships. I got my furniture on the cheap from the Amar Colony furniture market, a coffee table and a chaise-lounge, apart from the mattress I sleep on, and lots of floor cushions. My clothes have stayed in my suitcase; my curtains are fashioned out of old dupattas; my pendant lamp was a luxury. This is the best I can afford in Dilli, but it doesn’t afford much by way of having secrets from myself.
The old house and the annex came with a gamut of hiding places. When we were young, my cousins and I, we’d start furtive games of hide-and-seek on hot summer afternoons in the main house, and stray into the sweep of the annex, rush up and down the two stairways, tuck ourselves up in this alcove or that niche, run into the jamun orchard behind the house, and raise a melee loud enough to wake our grandparents, who all liked a solid two-hour afternoon nap every day of the week. One thing though, could always give you away if you were hiding, and that was if you chose a spot near the gate. There was no great tree there, no real bushy undergrowth, and no cover as such, except some panels of asbestos that had leant against the low wall where the gate was hinged, since no one knew when. This one could crouch behind, but be detected if the seeker was reasonably tall.
The gate to a property of that size was surprisingly unimpressive. Perhaps Jnan Ghosh had forgotten to pay attention to that one detail, and his sons had chosen to invest their gumption in extending their liquid assets rather than in preserving their motile existing one. The old house, in my memory, had a low green painted wrought iron gate with a cat flap. Jagai, the servant who’d been with the family since Mamma had been married, may or may not lock up, every night. Passing by, if a light were switched on, you could see straight into the passage, the grandfather clock, the dim landscape in oil, the doors to the sitting and dining rooms.
The other house had a separate entrance too, next to the second set of stairs, and this was through a short lane. I have never seen it in use. Mamma and my mother’s aunts, at some point, by shared consent, arranged to have this door locked always from the inside, and had cabinets built under the second set of stairs, to have a sort of storeroom for kitchen things only. This part of the house, as I have seen it, was overwhelmingly dominated by Mamma, Chhordi, and my mother’s aunts, just as Dadu and his brothers spent so much of their retirement in the main house, but the stories these women have told me about Shailabala speak of her preference for the upper floor, and the main part of the house.
Shailabala had no particular reputation as a housekeeper, but she comes across, from the narratives of her older children, as an excellent manager. No great cook, except for her ilish maachh and muri ghanta specialties; no expert at making summertime pickles, or winter sweetmeats every January holiday. With Jnan’s sanction, she built up, over the span of a year, a small staff of dedicated servants. The names of Sarala, Pushpa, and Nandu still come up, rarely now, in the conversations of my grandfather’s siblings. These women and Nandu had their quarters in the smaller house, cramped, low-ceilinged rooms yes, but they were well-fed, Dadu says proudly, every kind of fish, every vegetable dish the family consumed at the table. And paid a full month’s salary as a bonus twice a year, when the Bengali New Year came, and at Durga Puja. That, and lengths of good cotton cloth for new garments. If Dadu’s memory has served him well, Jnan had applied business policies at home, and the results were striking. Shailabala’s staff worked for her family until decades after her own demise in 1945.
Shailabala herself was gifted at the womanly arts of her time. Chhordi, munching on a paan after her afternoon siesta, has related to me countless times how neatly her mother could embroider, how much her finished embroidery would look like a printed paisley or a flower from a distance, in its frame. Half the tables in the house were covered by crocheted covers made at Shaila’s own hands. The house itself was furnished almost minimalistically for the time, at her discretion. She knew the best way flowers would look in this jar or that vase. She could style women’s hair into impossible beehives and bouffant dos, knit for all her children, do adroit batik work, make baby and women’s clothes, and paint in watercolors. For everything else, she had Sarala to command, and if there were twenty guests to feed, they would be, and leave satiated, without her having to step into the kitchen except to question the progress of work.
Jnan, in spite of his government position, had maintained a few predictable indigenous practices at home. A loose purdah, for one. Shailabala rarely ventured out of the house except to see relatives, when she was accompanied by her husband and children; and her own brothers lived with their families practically next door. Jnan arranged for his three daughters to be educated at home by a Brahmo lady called Ms. Karunamoyee Dasgupta, and yet their education did not differ in any part from their brothers’. The boys, who were scattered in age, started at a local Bengali school. Whether Jnan Ghosh had plans to move them elsewhere, we can only guess, because he died suddenly of small pox in 1937.
Shailabala grieved him for nine years and died of heartbreak, they said. I have a different theory, but when I have voiced it, I have quickly been stilled. Jnan and Shailabala had a stable, “normal” marriage of their time: he was a responsible, wealthy, often attentive husband; she a managerial, self-effacing wife who bore him enough children. To my mind, love cannot nimbly enter such an arrangement. What Shailabala had in her heart must have been something different, something she was reservedly nursing for nine years.
On a wet September evening in 1937, Jnan Ghosh came home from his Dalhousie Square office and did not stop for a ritual snack of cut-up fruit and a glass of cooled sherbet in the sitting room. This was brought to him, everyday and without fail, by Shailabala, who herself arranged it on a carved brass tray we have still kept, though there are few occasions for its use. On this day, Jnan staggered upstairs and lay down on the cot in one of the smaller north-facing bedrooms, one that his youngest son would occupy in later years. He complained of no appetite, and a tremendous body ache. When Shailabala touched his forehead, she found he was burning with fever. Immediately, she sent for the family doctor, and for her widowed sister Neehar, who lived with her brothers’ joint family. Neehar was a more expert nurse than she, should the fever turn, Mother Sheetala forbid, into something serious. She dosed Jnan with Arnica and sent the children to the smaller house; Nandu would keep them busy with ghost stories. She sent Pushpa out to get telebhajas for them; such measures were permissible in a crisis.
By the time Dr. Sen arrived, Jnan’s fever had risen. Dr. Sen spoke to Neehar in a low confidential tone. Plenty of water. Cold compress. Yes, watch out for red blisters. Flat at first. Then full of pus and a watery substance. For the ache, Arnica will do. For the fever, I’ll send over a powder. Bitter? Yes. Bland, easy to digest food. Headaches, yes. Keep the shades drawn. The children must stay away. Again, plenty of water. Shailabala sat at her husband’s feet and stroked them slowly. Darkness fell thickly outside. The laborers had concluded another day’s work at building the Durga Puja pandal on the other side of the street. Shailabala’s hair was falling loose from her neat bun.
The fever did not subside, and in three or four days, the red blisters began to show. The pus flowed and scabby coats covered them in another two days. Jnan was unconscious by then. Shailabala neglected her children, although her youngest was a few months old, her bathing, her shrine for Vishnu and Lakshmi at the top of the main house. Neehar nursed the patient with insistent dedication. The children roamed about the orchard, the half-done pandal, their own rooms, in perpetual confusion and awe. Dr. Sen called once every day, sometimes twice. On the ninth day, Jnan Ghosh lost vision in his right eye. On the eleventh, he passed away. It was the 29th day of September, 1937. The Durga idol for the local festivity was brought, to honor the family’s bereavement, a day later than planned.
Shailabala was never to touch fish or meat again, or orange lentils, onion, or garlic. She was to wear widow’s white, although times were changing, and one of the few photographs we have of our great-grandmother taken after her widowhood shows her unsmiling, in a white saree with a slim border, the end drawn over her head.
The house had filled up with relatives with the prognostics of Jnan’s smallpox. There must have been some hospitality to provide; some childcare, some management of the kitchen and household to attend to. But there is one detail that sticks in my mind that might just make everything surrounding Jnan’s death, and Shailabala’s behavior around the time, fall into place. Pox, in Bengal, has been described since time immemorial as “Maa er daya”, a gift from mother, Mother Sheetala, a demi-goddess of incurable diseases. The red blisters on Jnan’s body were then politely referred to as her gifts. Shaila’s mother, alive when her two daughter’s had embraced widowhood, had decreed that Shailabala go to the nearest Sheetala temple and pray for her husband’s recovery. Shaila had promised to go, but hadn’t gone. She had confessed, years later, to Neehar, in a tempest of tears, when Neehar herself was dying of stomach cancer.
Shailabala had not died of her sorrow; it was guilt that took her.
But the Nazir estate stands, a deliberate, artful, indolent aberration of dark brick and touches of pink granite. The last of the Nazirs has long been dead, and the proprietorship passed on to a not-local, faceless person. It is let out now as a wedding ceremony venue, and the women in our neighborhood will always put their heads together and have a hushed discussion of how much it must have cost to rent that, and where people get so much money to spend these days, even for wedding festivity.
Jnan Ghosh’s capital, on his death, turned out to be insubstantial- what he had he had poured into the development of his homestead, into trips to Calcutta with extravagant gifts for his relatives as must have befitted his position, and into purchasing the heavy, rococo-fashioned gold jewelry of the time for Shailabala. This last he must have considered a liquid asset, and in the years after his death, bangles and necklaces and a pair of shoulder-length dangling earbobs went out of the family and into the pawnshop, never to return again.
Shailabala accepted the scanty widow pension she was entitled to and retained ownership of the houses. She took in tenants in the smaller annex and crowded her offspring about her for comfort. Her daughters, who had inherited her thin lips and high cheekbones, her dark clouds of hair, were never married, for who would look alliances up for orphaned, educated, dusky girls? They became schoolteachers, and until their retirements spent their lives teaching secondary school in small towns in Bengal.
My Dadu, and his brothers, predictably became “government servants”. Their aspirations, or imaginations, didn’t stretch farther. Somendranath, who was Dadu’s senior by a few years, performed the single histrionic act in their generation by divorcing a wife due to “irreconcilable differences”, couched otherwise, I’m certain, in court, and by never speaking her name again, except on his deathbed, to dictate his will. He died on Christmas Day, 2000.
The house was laid into by the first shovel cut about a decade later. It was tangerine and brittle blue-sky weather in Calcutta. The contractor’s foreman told my mother that the bricks had nearly all turned to a red dust.