Growing Up in

Assam
A Personal Story by
Amrit Baruah
also by the author: Assam, India: Valley of Tea and Temples
http://www.scribd.com/doc/3664871/Assam-India-Valley-of-Tea-and-Temples
Copyright © 2011 by Amrit Baruah
baruah@starpower.net
Amrit Baruah was born and raised in the eastern part of
Assam Valley, in the heart of the tea-growing region. He
left at the age of sixteen to attend Presidency College in
Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he stayed on after gradua-
tion for employment with jute industry laborers during
the last few days of the British Raj in India.
In 1952 Amrit left for Boston, to study at Boston Univer-
sity and Harvard. He has been in the U.S. since then, one
of the earliest immigrants from India. He has worked in
the fields of mental health and community organization
(in pre-civil-rights-era South Philadelphia), and has
taught at universities.
The British Factor
Pilgrimages, Trips, Cruise
Leaving Gauhati
Raj Butter and a Hindu Kitchen
1
6
13
19
Contents
:
The British Factor
The year was 1937. The scene seldom varied. We wait-
ed for it, we knew that it would happen during History
class, after lunch. We were happy that the History teacher
read on from his notes and did not look directly at us. Barin
and I sat on the same bench and we would get ready for our
afternoon treat.
First the twelve Gurkhas who were standing, sitting, or
leaning against a tree, jumped up, and got into one straight
line holding their rifles. Soon the twelve became one khaki
straight line, not a crease, not a wrinkle; from where we
were looking at them through the window, it was like one
object, not twelve individual lives. We knew that they had
spotted Mr. Pawsey in the distance.
And soon he appeared—walking slowly, Mr. Pawsey, the
British Raj of that district. The rifles came to attention
position all at the same moment. The precision and disci-
pline of the Gurkhas was such that no fly dared sit on any
of their noses. It would simply be ignored; that nose simply
would not shake. The fly would have to wait until Mr.
Pawsey had passed and the rifles came to “stand at ease”
position and the long khaki line broke up into twelve dif-
ferent lives.
That corner was where the Gurkhas were stationed.
They guarded the Treasury, which was where the official
money was, real money, real rupees. There was no bank in
town; people had just started hearing about “cheques.”
Their personal money was saved in the Post Office; and the
“Passbook” that totaled their savings always was kept under
lock and key.
Mr. Pawsey worked in his home-bungalow office in the
mornings, walking to his court office in the afternoons. His
bungalow on the top of the hill on the bank of the
Brahmaputra River started the Raj strip that came down for
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a mile with the houses of the Britishers—the civil surgeon,
the judge, the superintendent of police, the commissioner.
In between was the Circuit House, the lodge for touring offi-
cials. These included the state Governor, all the Britishers,
and a few highly placed Indians.
This strip by the river remained cloistered. Beyond this
narrow strip remained the rest of the Indian-native town
where the exuberant Indian life went on, with its festivals,
religious ceremonies, lives and deaths as these had gone on
before the British Raj arrived. This is where on every annu-
al day of the Holi festival, Indians sprayed colored water on
one another, where India songs came out of people on the
streets while the other town, the narrow strip with its after-
noon teas and proper behavior, stayed holding on to power.
But it was a remote control power. There was no occu-
pying army checking Indians at check points, no knocking
at doors in the middle of the night—except on those occa-
sions when a terrorist was supposed to be hiding, which
gradually became an exception rather than a norm as
Gandhi became the icon in the Indian political landscape
and made the freedom movement an open one.
By the time I was growing up, the British presence was a
mellow, civilized one. It was represented by Oxford-
Cambridge educated Englishmen who were rarely seen
except in their own British areas. They had come a long way
from the bullying, conniving, criminal types that kept on
acquiring land as the East Indian Company, before Great
Britain took over from it during the reign of Queen
Victoria. It was like the Arizona symphony evening of today
that has no trace of the Wild West shootings and killings of
a hundred years ago.
Days may go by before a local person sees a sahib
(Britisher), unless he had some business in or near the court-
house or had to pass through the British neighborhood.
Lots of people lived, worked, socialized in many other parts
of town. This situation heightened the reality that the
British left India alone. They came to rule, not to discover
India.
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Except for a very few administrators who were also schol-
ars and delved into Indian history and anthropology, the
majority of them also thought that there was nothing
worthwhile to discover. They just functioned to preserve
the Raj.
In an intriguing manner, this also suited the Indian. The
sahib ensured law and order. He brought British justice.
The high and mighty Indian cannot break the law; if the
humble peasant had a better legal case, he would win. The
sahib never took bribes and did not tolerate any Indian tak-
ing one. For the educated Indian, the sahib was the road on
which Shakespeare and Wordsworth came and became a
part of their intellectual world.
Thus, this arrangement suited both. If the Brahmin
priest continued to practice social and religious cruelty
towards the untouchable Indian, the sahib did not get
involved because the Brahmin priest had not violated any
law. The country functioned within the limits of the Indian
penal code; and treatment of the untouchable by the
Brahmin did not fall within that code. Now if the Brahmin
priest beats the untouchable and bloodies him, then it
comes within a certain subsection of the Indian penal Code;
but if he refuses to let the untouchable enter the temple, as
has been the case for centuries, that is beyond the limits of
that code.
It was perhaps not insensitivity towards such practices,
but rather the shrewd realization of the British that if they
did not build such abstract boundaries, as they had created
physical boundaries, they would be swept into the vast,
confusing (to them) inscrutable amoeba-like resilient
Indian universe and they would never be able to come out
of it. There were exceptions when even a religious practice
was so abhorrent that they stepped in. That was the case
with the practice of sati, whereby a Hindu widow was
encouraged (a euphemism for forced) to jump into the hus-
band’s funeral pyre. It was William Bentinck, an 18th-cen-
tury viceroy, who scored high on the Indian’s list of British
Viceroys, as a benign one, who had declared sati illegal.
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It was not a hate-love dynamic on the part of the locals
towards the British. That calls for strong emotions. It was
more like resent-respect. “These people are ruling us”
resentment is easy to understand. The respect part of the
dynamic was more complicated. It showed up in daily state-
ments. Someone talked about an Indian drinking so much
that he fell down on the street. Someone in the group would
say, “A sahib would never drink like that.” The sahib has one
or two drinks, which he would sip while talking. “A sahib
will never let weeds grow in the front yard, he will have
flowers.” The Indian boss comes half an hour late to work,
none dares to mention it to him, but they whisper amongst
themselves. “A sahib will never be late, not even five min-
utes, that is why the sun never sets in the British empire.”
“A sahib will never throw a piece of paper anywhere.”
But then there were amusing exceptions. While the
British looked down on the Indians—considering them not
outwardly clean in their surroundings—the Indian thought
it was strange that the sahib took his bath in his own dirty
water in the tub. This habit further confirmed for the reli-
gious Indian that the sahib was a mecha (a religiously
impure person)—an opinion widely held.
Thus the two worlds moved in parallel ways, most never
meeting, never colliding. To the British all Indians looked
alike and to Indians the same was true about the British. I
remember how surprised I was when I first heard that King
George V, the king then whom we saw only in black and
white photos, was really white and red like the Deputy
Commissioner. The Indian’s world was symbolized by eat-
ing with hands and the other with kata-chamos (fork-knife).
This visual division was very marked during the British Raj
along with another: an Indian almost never wore pants or
suits after he came home from a workplace where he may
have been expected to wear these. He could not wait to get
into his native garb as soon as he got home from work. He
would even be embarrassed if any visitor came and saw him
in sahib’s clothes.
The Indian enjoyed wearing his own clothes and having
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tea in his brass bowl at the same time as the sahib was sit-
ting in his verandah, being served by the bearer tea that
came in a tea pot along with the sugar and milk bowl—all
three in a tray covered by a white starched piece of cloth.
Most Indians during the days of the British Raj criticized
the British for cocooning themselves in their famous
Britishers clubs in India where memberships were not open
to Indians. At first this appears to be racist. I am sure there
were some such elements in it.
On the other hand, in the lives that they had in India far
away from England, in that dust and heat, it seemed nat-
ural that they would like to have one place where—usually
on Saturday evenings—they could meet and talk about
their common interests. Would it have been the same if
there were Indians around? Could they talk about the rugby
scores in that home team, or share in the gossip about the
municipal election in Leeds or the crime story in
Manchester? And would an Indian have felt comfortable in
that kind of conversation? The result would be that both
the Englishman and the Indian would leave dissatisfied
after an evening of polite “walking in eggshells conversa-
tion.”
There was an ambivalence amongst educated Indians.
While they resented the thinking that led to such exclu-
siveness on the part of the English, they had no great desire
to be enmeshed with the English socially. They were very
aware that they belonged to two different universes. It may
have been Kipling who stated that East and West would
never meet; but the Indian had already thought that up. At
one level, the religious-spiritual Indian felt superior to the
sahib, however unfair it may have been.
Where did I fit into this British-India situation? I
believed in Lord Krishna, I liked Assamese stories, the
epics, and I was also a “closet Brit.” My school friends stud-
ied Shelley and Keats because they had to. I enjoyed read-
ing the English poets, the novelists. I procured English
magazines which were not easily available in town, and I
went further: I dressed like an English schoolboy, complete
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with shorts, knee-length socks, and occasionally neckties. I
wished to go to a school in England; I sent for their cata-
logues and studied every paragraph of those prospectuses.
Pilgrimages, Trips, Cruise
My mother kept strong the stream of religious life and
devotion in the family. On those evenings when father and
the children were shouting with joy because a certain pic-
ture finally came out of a chocolate packet to fill up an
empty block in an album, she was probably standing up in
the prayer room with a container of dhuna, chanting and
rotating it so that the dhuna smell and smoke surrounded
the picture of a god or goddess in the prayer room. Dhuna
was a special incense that, when lighted, gave out a pleas-
ant smell and smoke, and which was always associated with
the evening devotions.
It was because of our mother that the priest of Ugratara
temple, which was about half a mile from our home, would
make those visits bringing us the flowers that were offered
to the goddess to whom the Ugratara temple was dedicat-
ed. These were not just ordinary flowers. After they were
offered to the goddess, they turned into nirmali. You accept
these with both hands and let them touch your head for
blessings. When our fever crossed the 102 temperature, fol-
lowing or preceding the doctor, the priest would arrive, hav-
ing been contacted by mother. He would place his hand on
our burning foreheads and chant a special chant. This was
repeated by mother every day. We had as much faith in this
ritual as we had in the Mixture.
Once a year or so, we made our pilgrimage to the temple
of Kamakhya. This is a unique temple in India, dedicated
to the goddess Durga and in a tradition of female divinity.
We arrived early in the morning, parked our car at the base
and walked up. When we were halfway up the hill, we were
met by our religious caretakers. These people were called
pandas, a vocation that ran from generation to generation
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in families. They had their regular religious client families.
On that day our pandas took charge of us, not only looking
after our meals and resting places for the day but also guid-
ing us to special temples and advising us about the proper
rituals. We also went to the Nabagraha temple which was
on the side of town away from the Katnakhya temple.
Nabagraha temple is the temple to the nine planets.
Every autumn, our entire world stopped for a week of
Durga Pujah—the worship ceremony of the goddess
Durga. This week-long ceremony would be comparable to
one in which Christmas, July 4th, and Easter were rolled
into one within a religious framework. While religion was
at its core, there were many enjoyable secular and commu-
nity events that filled the ten days of Durga Pujah.
Relatives and friends exchanged gifts. Even those of
modest means exchanged new clothing, a symbol of new
beginnings. Special plays or music programs were present-
ed; people returned home from faraway places during the
Pujah vacation; schools and offices closed; and people felt
refreshed after the oppressive summer. The sorrows and
strains of life were set aside.
A few weeks prior to the Pujah days, one would start to
see preparations for it. Three or four families in town who
were responsible for constructing the goddess image in clay
would get busy. People could watch the entire process
develop over a few weeks, carried out in their front yards.
First, the bamboo frame, then the slow clay work; finally the
coloring with various types of paints for the various parts of
the image. By then, an idol about twenty feet high and ten
feet wide had appeared.
Then came the day when the idol would be transported
to the site where the Pujah was held. On the first day, wor-
shipping and chanting were held to welcome the image.
There was a ceremony for welcoming divine life to the clay
image. From that time on, people regarded that clay image
as the goddess, a vibrant and powerful life symbol for the
next ten days.
Each of those ten days had a name and a function.
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Dasami, the tenth day, was usually a somber if not a sad day;
not only was the annual Pujah over, but the goddess image
would be taken out to the river and, after hours of music
and celebration, submerged in the water. This was the cer-
emony of bhasan, or the immersion.
Almost immediately after the immersion, people began
exchanging greetings. Bengalis took it further. The men
would drop whatever they were carrying and exchange
hugs—but only with other men. This was done in a special
way; first they embraced on one side of the body, then the
other, concluding with folded hands and a slight bow to
each other.
My father made Dasami enjoyable. A few days prior to
it, he ordered special salty snacks and sweets from the best
vendor in town. On Dasami day, the entire family drove to
the river ghat, the main spot on the river bank where peo-
ple gathered. He reserved a boat for the whole family. The
refreshments came in enamel pots. Thermos flasks con-
taining the tea, water, and cold drinks came in a wicker bas-
ket with compartments for the different drinks. Then we
would board the boat and get towed about by its owner.
There would follow some hours of cruising around in our
boat, along with a hundred other boats, all swirling around
the big boats that carried different idols of goddess Durga.
There were about a dozen different sites in town where the
goddess was worshipped. Different neighborhoods had
their own Pujahs.
Devotional music and singing came from those boats
that carried the goddesses. After some hours, first one and
then another Pujah boat would ceremoniously slide their
idols down over the side and into the river.
About a month after Dasami came the festival of lights,
Diwali, when the whole world burst out in lights. Every
Hindu home had lights or lamps making their home bright;
even the modest homes had one or two chakis, small earth-
enware bowls in which wicks dipped in mustard oil were
lighted. This oil was a basic and cheap commodity. Like
salt, even poor Indians could afford it.
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My father’s habit of enjoying festival was also shown on
this occasion. Our house and the front gardens turned out
to be one of a half-dozen highly lit-up houses in the town,
with Chinese lanterns (we called them fanuches) brighten-
ing some of the trees, and strings of colorful light bulbs
crisscrossing the front veranda. When evening arrived, we
started with sparklers, running around the garden with
them. From time to time, we would let go a firecracker that
would take the form of a tall, many-colored tree for a few
minutes. One of the last of these was called a Dhani, and
made a series of exploding sounds. Towards the end of the
evening, after our family festivities were wrapped up, we
got in the car and drove to the Fancy Bazaar.
This was the part of town where the Marwari merchants
had their businesses and residences. My father was highly
respected in their circles. We would visit a few of the promi-
nent Marwari home-offices because this festival of lights
was an important occasion for them. It was a special item
on their religious calendar.
One such place was a big store with marble columns in
front. In one corner of the veranda, on every Diwali night,
there would be a turbaned and uniformed man with a gun
as part of the decoration. As soon as our car had stopped
and my father had stepped out, this man would shoot a
salute into the air. A gun, especially a fired gun, was a rari-
ty in those days. Very few in town had guns and these were
exclusively for duck hunting, which we did not see. The
policeman did not carry guns; the Gurkha sentries guard-
ing the treasury had guns but we never saw those fired.
Twice during our Gauhati days we went east to my
mother’s town Jorhat for the weddings of our maternal
uncles. An uncle, other than the bridegroom, would arrive
to escort us back to Jorhat. This was also a chance to be dri-
ven in the hackney carriage to the train station because the
family car went with our father on his official travels.
Our trip was the topic of conversation among our
friends. Our mother packed and on the day of our leaving
went to the prayer room especially to pray for the occasion.
ciowixc ui ix assax
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It was a night train, so in the evening we got into the hack-
ney carriage and the horses galloped to the train station.
There was always a smell of coal around the train station
and I liked that smell; it meant long distances and strange
places. The berths were long, usually two lower and two
upper in one compartment, with the soft touch and smell
of good leather. The uncle who came to escort us travelled
in a similar compartment, perhaps in one that had two
berths. We spread our journey provisions inside the com-
partment.
The train went through forests and stopped in places
that made up a string of stations. There were three train
junctions along the way, stations from which smaller train
lines would branch out.
The trains did not simply carry people. They created
worlds and these were distinct townships where generations
of railway families made their homes and went to schools.
These were company towns where the train was the com-
pany. Unlike a company that might be seen towering over
the town, the train passed only half a dozen times a day
through this station, but that was enough. It entered into
the life-styles of the people.
When the railway employee’s daughter was asked when
she was going to school, instead of answering “at ten
o’clock,” she would say “right after the nine down express
leaves.” These railway towns in Assam were miniature
Bengali worlds, insulated from the Assamese valley world
outside of the self-contained towns. Inside these towns,
women appeared as brides of railway employees who may
have traveled to some town in Bengal to get her. The rail-
way hierarchies were also the social hierarchies; the station
master’s wife had more social status than the wife of a junior
employee. However, the usual social graces of Bengali fam-
ilies were noticeable here, too.
I stayed up as long as I could. True to her understanding
nature, our mother did not stop us if we wanted to stay up
looking out of the windows, especially when the train
stopped at a station. There are three images from the night
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trains which have stayed with me all these years: a station-
master who holds the lantern and directs the train to slow
down; a signalman who comes and shakes a rod making a
jingling sound to direct the train to leave; and a man with
a shawl wrapped around his head, sitting in front of a pile
of fried garbanzo beans. Our father did not approve of our
eating such snacks, which he considered junk food. Our
mother, however, enjoyed these along with us. Our father
occasionally teased us for eating “coolie food.” Eating such
fried peanuts was one of the extra pleasures of the train trip.
Another of the pleasures on these trips was the Kellner
cuisine. While we snacked in our compartment, whether
with snacks bought from the station stalls or with food we
brought with us, the main meal next day was supplied by
Kellners—one of those delightful touches of the British.
Kellner was a company that had a contract with the Indian
Railways to run their refreshment rooms. We associated
certain recipes and flavors with the Kellner cuisine.
Some hours before the meal, the stationmaster came to
take the meal orders from the upper-class passengers. He
would then send a telegram to the station where the train
would stop at meal time. Two turbaned cooks dressed in
white would be standing on the platform with covered trays
as the train pulled into the station.
In 1936, we took a cruise up and down the Brahmaputra
River. My father did it in his own grand style, reserving
three first-class cabins—an entire side of the second floor of
the boat. The cruise took four days each way. Each morn-
ing after breakfast, we sat on the deck and looked at the
banks. The steamer stopped at small riverside spots, villages
where the inhabitants brought whatever they wanted to
sell. Father gave us a geography lesson in a leisurely way,
there being no reason for hurry. I learned a lot about the
Brahmaputra. Until then, I had known the river only as our
dear hometown river. On its banks, the washermen washed
the clothes, spread these under the sun to dry; the fisher-
man with his bare body and the dhoti wrapped around him
dragged the big fish that he had just caught.
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But now, I learned another side of this hometown river.
Father said that the Brahmaputra was probably the least
known amongst the seven largest rivers of the world. It is a
river of 1300 miles that changes its name, although not its
water, as it enters different countries. It is Tsangpo in Tibet
where it originates. Then it flows east, suddenly changes its
mind and takes a sharp curve, enters India, and becomes
the Brahmaputra that we call our own. After leaving our
valley, it enters Bangladesh (part of India in those days) and
takes the name Padma and finally empties itself in the Bay
of Bengal.
I found the account of the river absorbing. We never said
“she” when referring to the Brahmaputra as we did for its
famous sister, the Ganges. The Brahmaputra is described as
a male river, the gender of the river being rooted in some
mythological source from which many rivers and moun-
tains have derived their names. Literally, its name means
“the son of Brahma,” one of the Hindu Trinity.
In the Assam Valley part of the river, many sand islands
have formed. One of these is Majuli, the largest and per-
haps the oldest riverine island in the world. Majuli is well
known as the “Vatican of Assam,” and religious establish-
ments, called satras, are situated on this island.
In Assam the river borders eight counties before entering
Bangladesh and gives a name to the valley comprising these
eight counties—the Brahmaputra Valley (or Assam Valley).
The river kept on flowing quietly. But at times he got
tired of being taken for granted; those were the times when
he wanted to be noticed, respected and even feared.
That was when the river filled up. He took over the
banks, the green grass which was on the banks appearing
inside the river, and people talked nervously about floods.
After a few days, the Brahmaputra went back to his regular
size, quietly flowing, content to be taken for granted after
he had asserted his dominance.
It was a river of joy—coming to the fullest glory on the
tenth day of the Durga Pujah, when a hundred boats, some
with the idols of the goddess Durga, circled and moved for
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hours with music, singing, a cloud of dhuna and incense
filling the air before these idols were immersed in the water.
But it was also a river of sorrow. There were occasional
drownings and boat accidents mainly caused by the feared
powerful undercurrent of the Brahmaputra. There were
suicides at intervals. One such involved a friend of my
eldest brother, who was present on the occasion. This
young man, a bright, introspective student and the only
child of a widow, was in a group taking an evening walk at
the place that then was a remote, quiet edge of town.
Suddenly, he broke away from the group, ran, and jumped
in the river. He could not be saved. That day the under-
currents of a river that starts way up in the lost areas of the
Himalayas, the abode of the gods, were very strong.
Sometimes the gods became angry, sending powerful
undercurrents that swept away promises, potentialities and
a widow’s pride and joy.
Leaving Gauhati
It was the summer of 1937. 1 remember spending the
afternoons in bed with my summer readings. Mother told
me that father had been promoted to be the Additional
Judge. That meant that we would be leaving Gauhati soon
and returning to Jorhat in the eastern part of the Valley. We
were in Jorhat five years earlier when my father was a mag-
istrate there—before being promoted as an Assistant Judge
and sent to Gauhati. The Chief Judge, an Englishman, was
stationed in Gauhati, with an Assistant Judge working with
him. The eastern part of the Valley was under the direct
jurisdiction of the Additional Judge who reported to the
Chief Judge. Together, they were under the control of the
High Court in Calcutta. The executive had no authority
over them.
On hearing the news my first reaction was not jubilation.
For one thing I was too young to know that my father had
moved beyond the Raj glass ceiling with this appointment.
ciowixc ui ix assax

If I had known that, my first reaction would still have been
what it was. Leaving my friends, the house, the neighbor-
hood and the evenings in Curzon Hall library—these were
the thoughts that gripped me.
We were leaving my father’s world. My father was born
in North Guwahati, on the northern bank of the
Brahmaputra River. When we arrived in town, North
Guwahati had become a place from which younger people
had left, leaving only the deeply rooted older people from
some of the more prominent families.
My grandmother lived in a section of North Guwahati
called Raja Duar, where my father's well-known family
belonged. North Guwahati was the location of a certain
family tree called Majindar Baruas. Family trees were like
mini-dynasties, with people from one family group or
another spread out all over the Assam Valley.
My father moved my grandmother, who had gone blind,
to our home; and the rear apartment became her residence.
Grandmother had been a widow for some years by then.
Father arranged for his fourth younger brother to come and
stay with her as nurse and companion. This uncle, whom
we called Uncle Pokhura, kept his bed in the same room
with grandmother and was very attentive to her needs.
Uncle Pokhura was a householder monk, as distinct from
the sadhu, the classic monk who renounced all earthly con-
nections and way of life and lived only for prayer and God.
That type of monk is the one for which India has become
well known—the monk who goes away to the mountains
or the forest, lives on berries and sleeps under a tree or in a
cave, not for a week of “camping” but for years as a way of
life.
The householder monk, on the other hand, is one who is
part of an extended family. He is celibate and wears saffron
while participating in the family activities. He may be a
vegetarian, whereas the rest of the family may not be. Or he
may not eat meat while sharing fish and eggs with the rest
of the family who do not feel any restrictions regarding the
eating of meat. Often, this monk and family member pro-
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vided a benign presence available for comfort and guidance
when necessary.
My Uncle Pokhura had his own ashram in North
Guwahati, but closed it up in response to my father's
request for assistance. He soon became my personal guide,
and I came to have two sources for learning the Indian epics
from stories told serial-style—my grandmother and my
uncle.
My father’s family had a classic monk, an uncle who was
next in age to my father; whose name evoked great respect
in town; and who had become a legend. His name was
Triguna. In the late 1910s he was working as a school
teacher and was reputed to be sociable and handsome. He
was also connected to some local political leaders when
Mahatma Gandhi had just arrived in India after his pio-
neering non-violence activities in South Africa. One morn-
ing, Triguna was missing and the family gradually became
concerned. Within a few days a letter arrived without any
return address. It said that he had decided to renounce the
world and become a monk and that he was traveling wher-
ever his spirit guided him. Some time later, another letter
arrived saying he had joined a group of monks and was trav-
eling toward the Himalayas for an ascetic life of meditation
and realization.
The Himalayas had a tremendous mystery and spiritual
aura when I was growing up. They were not just a moun-
tain range, the home of the snow. Rather, they were the
locale of the gods and the abode of the ultimate spiritual
seekers who left everything behind in the lower country
and literally became lost in their caves and ridges. Epics
refer to the Himalayas; scriptures talk about this range. It
was also the ultimate unreachable spot!
Gradually, Uncle Triguna became a fond memory. Only
occasionally would I hear about him as I was growing up.
Someone would look at a picture of some monk and say,
“He looks so much like Triguna.”
My father’s world had a civil and correct relationship
with my mother. Except for two uncles, they did not really
ciowixc ui ix assax
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accept her as one of their own. My father’s side was very
proud of its tradition of learning, spiritual dimension and
official power. My mother’s background was wealth—tea
plantation money, although old money. Her father, who
owned four tea plantations, having started them on his own
initiative, was an attorney and a member of the national
senate; but there was an image of tea planters as wealthy
wastrels living off inherited wealth. My uncles and a few
others also thought that my mother did not fit in. And in
truth she did not.
Her manners, speech, and ways were more leisurely and
refined than their goal-driven, hurried ways. And so there
was gossiping and criticism behind the scenes. My father
was either too busy in the elevated atmosphere where he
functioned to notice these petty goings on or else did not
want to get involved. The result was that my unsuspecting
mother often fell on the joint family thorns and silently
bled. I had sensed it early in my life as children do; and later
the instances and observations kept on confirming my ear-
lier intuition.
She was also different from my father at a deep level. She
was the essential, but not the dominant, one in our family
world. My father filled the dominant role—a judge, some-
times even at home, with a loud voice, and a stare that
stopped people. Meticulous, occasionally angry, my father
brought forth obedience, and at times, fear. Mother pulled
us inside, to depths. Her life was at a deeper level: quiet and
restoring. My father, with his rightly earned prestige as an
upright and brilliant judge of power and dominance, swept
us away; our mother stopped us. He heard. She listened.
And now after five years in my father’s world she was
returning east, to her birthplace, the town where my father
would be stationed. Jorhat also known as the planter town.
As the time came nearer for our leaving, I became aware
of how attached I had become to our house. Psychologists
tell us about the importance of the first five years of our lives
as the foundation for all that comes later. My recollections
of the first five years and the first house of my life in Jorhat
ciowixc ui ix assax
:;
were lost in the mists of the past.
But the Gauhati house is the first one which is vivid,
where there was no such mist. Its rooms held a story—the
place where I did my homework, the bed where I curled up
with my books, the covered corridor to the rear apartment
where my grandmother lived and where I would go after
school for the next segment of the serial of the epic
Mahabharata. I did not realize then that after we left in a
few days, I would never live in that house again. That after
three years in Jorhat, I would go away to college in distant
Calcutta. That in fact, I would never live in my Valley again
as the train to college would keep taking me away and away
and away. That house by the sheer weight of its history has
made rich what otherwise is a banal statement: “You can
take him out of that house, but you cannot take that house
out of him.”
What made the parting easier for me was that we were
not uprooted immediately. My father went alone to get
things started in Jorhat and then arranged to send for us or
to take leave and bring us with him. That started the task
of preparation for us. The main burden fell on my mother.
Some of her friends and the priest of the temple became fre-
quent visitors. Constant trips were made to the markets for
boxes, ropes, and items that were necessary for long trips.
The news was heard by my friends and there was sadness.
From time to time, I felt an intense sadness. I was going to
a place where I had no friends. Five years earlier when we
had come to Gauhati from Jorhat I had my family and I had
all. In the meantime, I had known that the family is not all.
It may be the root and in some cases even the trunk but the
leaves, the fruits come from somewhere else.
I was not only leaving behind my friends but also places
where together we had built up a history, a connection—
the field where we had chased butterflies; another field
where I had first flown my kites, initially with frustration
because they would not fly; the papaya tree from which we
had torn the transparent branches to put fireflies inside so
that they would become lighted tubes long before I had seen
ciowixc ui ix assax

or heard of such a tube light; the trees on which we had
carved our names. All of these places I was leaving behind.
Those were my first close friendships. Whatever comfort
and closeness I had felt at home were inherited. But my
friends were acquired. The car that would take us away
from this town also called an end to any further contacts
with them. One of them died of tuberculosis while still in
his teens; another also passed on while still young; and the
third has disappeared or gotten lost as people have a way of
doing. I still see their faces as they stood outside our veran-
dah on that morning of departure—in the way that we see
faces when we remember people from a hundred years ago.
I remember them as I saw them through the rear car win-
dow standing in a line looking sad with moist eyes.
Those friends may have physically disappeared from my
life but they have remained in a vital way. They gave me the
first template of friendship on which have appeared so
many friendships over the decades and in two cultures and
countries. They also gave me my first major experience of
sharing, bonding, parting, and moving on. They were at
the head of a procession of such experiences that were wait-
ing for me.
Three of them had appeared early that morning. Mostly
they were quiet. There was none of that boisterous running
around. They moved with me from room to room as I
picked up things for packing, occasionally bringing some-
thing for me thinking that I had forgotten it. They did not
know what to say. We had not yet learned the polite con-
versation adults use to cover up feelings. So the conversa-
tion was mostly questions from them about where we were
going to stop for lunch, what time we would arrive at
Jorhat.
After all the preparations were complete—the bags hav-
ing been loaded into a bus and the children having had
their personal items carefully placed—we all went across
the cemented passageway to the rear cottage to take leave
of our grandmother. Henceforth, Uncle Pokhura became
not only her nurse, but also the caretaker of the entire
ciowixc ui ix assax
:,
house.
We finally left about noontime. The car left some people
behind as it drove slowly out of the carport and out of the
gate, leaving behind the neighborhood shop from which we
bought pencils and note paper, and drove on past the ele-
mentary school and the sports field, the judge’s court,
Curzon Hall library, the bazaar and on to Shillong Road,
which we always had associated with going away from
Gauhati.
We drove towards the small town where one road led up
the hills to Shillong and the other towards Jorhat—faraway
Jorhat which we were going to reach some time that night.
Raj Butter and a Hindu Kitchen
At the end of a long day after we had covered most of
Assam Valley, we reached the outskirts of Jorhat. As we
moved into the town, I sensed that it was slower than the
town that I had known and left behind. The houses were
more set apart from one another; there were fewer people
on the street than in Gauhati, where, during the evenings,
office people went out for walks after their pre-dinner
snacks, coming home before dinner which was usually
around eight o’clock.
We were still on the trunk road which brought us from
Gauhati and which passed through town (it was the route
95 of the Assam Valley). Then we turned off at the center
of town and turned right. And it seemed that we had
entered an enclave. On a mile-long road I saw only three bun-
galows, with spacious grounds in front. Father explained
that this was the British area, quieter even by this town’s
standard. If there were few people on the trunk road, there
was no one walking on this road.
The car began to slow down and turned into the third
bungalow. It stopped; but the chauffeur did not get out as
he always did when there was a gate in front. Almost imme-
diately, a young man dressed in khaki appeared from the
ciowixc ui ix assax
:c
shadows and opened the gate. As we entered, he bowed low
and salaamed. The car went in, turned around in a circle
and stopped in front of the front steps. The young man who
had opened the gate now appeared here again and came
around the passenger side of the car, opening the front door
for my father; the chauffeur opened the rear door for moth-
er and the two children—one of us having ridden in front
seat with father. I felt that there was something different in
Jorhat, but I was not yet sure what.
We walked in. A middle-aged man of average height
dressed in a starched white outer coat and long pants of
thick white cloth stood by the side of the foyer, which was
more square than long. He had a white small turban mono-
grammed with I.P.B. in silver letters. Those were my father’s
initials. My father looked towards us and said, pointing at
him: “This is Surendra, our butler.” The man had already
bowed towards him and my mother. My father introduced
the children by names. The man smiled at my brother and
me and said simply: “Master Pona, Master Putul.” No one
had addressed us as “master” before; the only time we had
used that word in Gauhati was when we referred to our
teachers.
During the six months since my father’s promotion to
the British circle, when he had left us at Gauhati and was
setting up our new life, he had not given us the details of
this new life. Now it opened up within an hour. He might
have casually mentioned it to our mother; but being in the
atmosphere brought home to me that life was going to be
different. But I did not know how different until the next
morning.
I had gotten up late, and immediately sensed the stillness
all around. I was used to sounds, people talking, conversa-
tion in the Gauhati house by the two neighbors, a few feet
away on both sides separated by walls. Here the only sound
was that of the lawnmower on the front lawn.
After breakfast, my brother, sister and I went exploring
the huge grounds, with its bushes, birds, butterflies. Then
it hit me: I did not see any children near or far. Later I
ciowixc ui ix assax
::
learned that Britishers traditionally sent their children away
to school in England. Instantly I realized that I was not
going to have any friends in this part of town. I was already
grieving the separation from my friends in Gauhati. Now
that became acute.
It would be somewhat later, after I entered the local high
school, that I would make one or two close friendships. But
usually I would go to visit them. My father had bought me
a Hercules bike. I enjoyed biking in any case. But there was
another reason. My two friends did not have bikes and did
not feel comfortable visiting me in my place, which meant
walking one mile in the British, and on the street at right
angle to ours which had three similarly huge bungalows on
it.
Gardens were trimmed regularly by the person on the
staff who was given this assignment. The back area was
cleaned up and, at one end, a vegetable garden was started.
This would become mostly my mother’s interest. The
herbal and healing greens that were particular to Assam—
manimuni, lofa, paleng—all grew and spread. Our back-
yard tomatoes gave us the special tenga anja, a red curry,
mixed with potatoes and spread with a black pepper pow-
der called jira.
There were three entrances to the front garden; and each
entrance had a bamboo semi-circular roof with creepers
spread over it. As the three of us, and our mother, were
walking in the garden that first morning, a short, thin per-
son arrived, walking slowly. He went straight to my father’s
home-office room. After a while, I heard my father talking
almost non-stop. There was no sound from the other per-
son. I asked my mother about it and she explained that my
father was dictating his judgments in a case and that the
person I saw was a “stenographer” who came every morn-
ing before my father took his bath and left for the court at
about ten. There were only two such people in town; the
other “steno” worked for the British Deputy Commissioner.
We spent most of the day discovering the place. There
was so much to look at: the hedges in front with a couple
ciowixc ui ix assax
::
of bird’s nests hidden inside; the huge mango tree in one
corner where we wrote our names on the bark. Moving on
to the rear of the bungalow we came to as spacious an area
as in the front. We found hiding places in the back where
we planned to play hide-and-seek.
There was another small building where the butler, the
chauffeur and the servants had their rooms. It was custom-
ary for domestic staff members not to bring their families to
where they worked, although my parents would have
agreed to such arrangements. The norm was for these staff
members to send their money to their families in the village
and visit them once a year, when they would take with them
all kinds of gifts that were not available there.
Surendra, the butler, was an older man with grey hair
and a quiet smile on his face. He came to my father with
references including one from a well-known former British
official, the Valley Commissioner, Mr. Bentinck. Apart
from holding an exalted position, Mr. Bentinck had the
distinction of being the grandson of Viceroy William
Bentinck, who was famous in the history books of British
India as a benign viceroy in the nineteenth century. It was
during the regime of this viceroy that quite a few break-
through social reforms were enacted.
Surendra brought to our table delicacies and ways of
cooking that we had associated with the Raj, dishes that got
their start in the kitchens of the British in India. Chicken
and fish curries, not done in the traditional Indian manner,
but with different sauces and spices.
Here at Jorhat, we had two kitchens—one European-
style with ovens at which one could cook standing up, with
facilities to spread out one’s food. That was the exclusive
domain of the butler and the young man whom he was
training. The other was the Indian-style kitchen with three
rooms. This kitchen was a thatched cottage built by my
father just before we moved in. It had the Indian-style stove
where firewood was used for fire; and the middle room was
for people to sit down and eat. This was where my mother
used to sometimes cook a special dish and at other times
ciowixc ui ix assax
:,
supervise the work done by the cook.
My mother did not eat with us for a number of reasons.
She liked to eat later than the hour of our dinner. My father
ate punctually at 8:15. My mother also retained the Indian
woman’s abstention from chicken; and chicken was served
at father’s table.
My mother liked to have a special dish with tomatoes
that was very Assamese and much gentler than the heavy
western-flavored dishes on my father’s table. A typical din-
ner menu at my father’s table was as follows: We started
with soup with bread crumbs, like croutons; followed by
cutlets or fish fry; then the main dish of mutton or chicken
curry; and a dessert of fruit salad with a Nestle cream, or
steamed pudding with custard. Very soon, we children
learned which spoon went with which course and which
fork went with which dish.
Father did not talk much during the meal; and we also
did not feel free to interact among ourselves loudly when
seated around the table with him. There was a correctness
demanded by our father that sometimes caused discomfort;
so the main attraction at dinner was food and we did not
mind because it was so good. We ate in a partial silence at
our father’s table with the butler waiting, using the right
fork and spoon. And we ate with mother, sitting on mats on
the floor, using our hands and talking and laughing. That,
later on in life, I would learn is called having the “best of
both worlds.”
Usually the Indian men’s lower garment, the dhoti, that
entered these British premises was worn by the domestics or
the clerks bringing official papers to the sahib (the
Britisher). There was rarely an occasion for a dhoti-wearing
professional or upper-class Indian to enter these premises.
If such a person had any need to see the sahib, it was cer-
tainly official and he could see the sahib in the latter’s office.
There was a happy blending of the British and the Indian
in our family, and my mother made it possible by creating
a “native world” inside the “British island” of an Indian
town.
ciowixc ui ix assax

There were religious festivals and astrologers with Indian
sweets and dishes. Her Indian female friends arrived regu-
larly chewing betel nuts as the traditional Assamese women
did. The man who brought fresh yogurt in jars hanging
from the rod which was on his shoulder would visit our
bungalow feeling proud that he was delivering yogurt in the
British community and no one was stopping him. During
the festival of Holi, relatives and friends would drop in to
play with the colored water according to tradition, as would
happen in any other part of town.
I began to feel that this life was different. There was
always an orderly in a khaki uniform standing near the front
verandah, waiting for instructions for any chores from my
father. The mailman would not simply drop off letters
(which might include a few from my Guwahati friends for
which I was eagerly waiting). Instead of giving the mail to
me, he would get down from his bike and walk straight
towards my father’s office. On reaching the door to the
office, he would slowly enter, bow down before my father
and hand over the packet of letters. I then had to wait for
my father to go over the mail and give me any letter that I
might have.
At about ten in the morning, four policemen dressed in
khaki shorts and shirts and police caps would march the
prisoner of the day from the Jorhat jail, about eight miles
away, to my father’s court. They passed in front of our bun-
galow and, if my father happened to be outside, they would
all shout, “Eyes left!” and salute.
In Jorhat things were different; the officials were only
three or four, but within a fifty-mile radius there were about
a hundred Britishers scattered in tea plantations with jobs
such as managers or assistant managers. The bungalows
and lives of the official town British were genteel, but those
of the planters were lordly. They lived like manor people.
Memsahib, that was the name of the Englishwoman—
sometimes abbreviated as mem. It was much later that I fig-
ured out that the source of the word must have been
madam. I grew up thinking that indeed there was a word
ciowixc ui ix assax
:,
all in its own right called mem.
Her husband had to have conversations with Indians—
usually formal because the Indian’s life was somehow linked
with the role of her husband. He had to walk sometimes—
in summers wearing his khaki solar hat, in winter, the felt
hat.
The memsahib did not have to talk with any Indian
except her household staff. She had no role outside her bun-
galow. She remained suspended in socially invisible air con-
necting only with other memsahibs and their husbands on
Saturday nights at the Cinnamora club.
She was also not visible at the market; her household staff
did her shopping. She did not visit any tailor; all her fami-
ly’s clothes came from the catalogues of Whiteway Laidlaw
and Army and Navy Stores in Calcutta. I learned about cat-
alogue shopping when I was ten; occasionally my parents
would order from the same catalogues but for special items,
like that scarf or blanket of Scottish wool. We did not
depend exclusively on the catalogues as the mem did.
She had plenty of time to memorize every page of those
catalogues, unless she had some hobbies. Earlier, I had
learned the word “petticoat.” I wondered if the mem
remained in her petticoat all day because she never came
out. These were serious questions for an adolescent mind.
Those planters, however, did more than dance around at
the club. Besides the familiar Raj in eastern Assam, there
was another type of Raj, known in some circles as the
Planters’ Raj. They had their own British representatives in
the State Assembly, through some kind of arrangement like
a quota.
The Cinnamora Club, like all British clubs in the Raj,
was a symbol of the exclusiveness and superiority of British
ways over Indian ways. The impression was that, besides
drinking and dancing, conversations went on to keep the
British presence solid in the country.
It was therefore very uncharacteristic of the club and its
patrons to give a reception for Nehru when he visited Jorhat
in 1938. It was not clear to me whether there was a period
ciowixc ui ix assax
:o
of political thaw that made this seem natural, or whether,
as a Harrow educated person, Nehru was considered to be
special.
There was a public reception the next morning in town.
I remember a large group of British planters who arrived
together and sat silently, standing up and removing their
hats as Nehru walked in. Again, it seemed to be a decision
taken in one of the secret club meetings because British hats
were never removed for Indians.
The British-India dynamic—distant and civil—functioned
through a series of Indian intermediaries. These layers were
always official and male. The British looked at India as an
occupant of a car that daily drives through a part of the city
on the way to and from work looks at that city. It was a look
without interaction; occasionally there might be a nod but
always through that car window. The British had perfected
a remote, silent ruling style that was unique to them.
Someone once remarked that the British were the only
European colonial power whose members, as an unwritten
royal law, never intermarried with the natives.
In the case of my father, it expressed itself in the periph-
ery of the official and social, though predominantly official.
There was the “Good morning,” “Good afternoon” in the
court corridors which other Indians did not receive. There
was the British whisper amongst themselves “that is the
Judge” when someone saw my father in one of the rows of
imported provisions in Doss Company, the planters store
where it was my father’s hobby to patiently stand before a
bottle of HP sauce or baked beans before buying it and read
the label and every sentence on it—a pleasure of his that I
never understood.
There was the mutual greeting when they stood in the
front row with my father, who was the only Indian in that
row at the annual ceremony of Armistice Day in memory
of World War I, which we called the Great War. We also
learned that on the eleventh month, eleventh day, at eleven
minutes of the eleventh hour, the world stopped for a
minute.
ciowixc ui ix assax
:;
And it also nearly stopped when the young, single super-
intendent of police—a neighbor named E.T.D. Lambert—
arrived. He was the first Englishman to make a social call.
Lambert had published in the Oxford University Press. I
had not heard in those days of George Orwell. Later, I
thought of the coincidence because only ten years earlier,
Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, had also been a superin-
tendent of police in neighboring Burma.
Like any usually smooth road that suddenly brings up a
bump, the usually well-controlled road of the British-India
connection produced bumps. In my father’s case, one such
bump once appeared unexpectedly and it was a major one,
producing a big jolt.
Father used to go on long tours about four times a year
to two towns which were in his jurisdiction. Dibrugarh, a
major tea plantation town in the east, was one of them. He
had left in the morning for three weeks. The car had left in
the usual order—the chauffeur on the right front, my father
seated to his left on the passenger seat, the butler in the rear
seat. The luggage was in the trunk; the wicker basket with
six compartments for different cold drinks and water was
next to the butler, along with a leather picnic basket.
It was about eight at night. We were getting ready for
dinner when a car entered through the front gate. A couple
of us went out to see who had arrived. At first we could not
believe our eyes. It was our car with father getting out. We
had not expected him for three weeks. He looked serious.
He asked, “Where is your mother?” Mother appeared and
he said: “I need to talk with you.” They both went upstairs.
We were dumbfounded. Later the story came out.
Father stayed in the Circuit House of the town where he
went on tour. The Circuit House, one in each capital of a
district, was the most exalted travelers lodge in British
India. That is where the British state governor and the top
British officials stayed when on official tours. Very few
Indians—only those in top ranks—were entitled to stay in
a Circuit House. One had to send in for a reservation.
Father was going to stay in the Dibrugarh Circuit House.
ciowixc ui ix assax

My father had a favorite room in the Circuit House. It
was the best room and overlooked the river from upstairs.
He had made a reservation for that room ahead of time. As
soon as he got out of the car, he went upstairs in his cus-
tomary way, swinging his stick. He found that the room
had already been occupied; someone had moved in a suit-
case and gone out, locking the door.
My father sent for the chowkidar—the man who looked
after the Circuit House. The chowkidar said that Walker
Sahib (Mr. Walker, the Commissioner, the big boss who
was in charge of seven counties) had arrived; and, although
a slip of paper reserving the room for my father had been
attached to the door of the room, Mr. Walker had torn it
up. He occupied the room and asked the chowkidar to allot
some other room in the building to my father.
The chowkidar was considered to be of lower rank and,
of course, would not have dared to contradict Mr. Walker.
Even Indian officials would not have dared to question Mr.
Walker. He was known all over as the prime example of the
bulldog—imperial Briton—who thought very little of
Indians. He had a special grudge to settle with my father
because of a clash years before; and he thought this was his
chance. The fact that, in the line of hierarchy, my father as
a judge did not come under his control, also frustrated him.
Under the British system, the judiciary was highly respect-
ed and was outside of the executive control. The ultimate
authority rested with the High Court as far as disciplinary
action against judges was concerned.
My father was a meticulous person. He asked the
chowkidar to bring the reservation book to make sure that
Mr. Walker’s reservation for a room did not reach them ear-
lier than his. He made sure that it was not the case; then he
waited for Mr. Walker. Hours went by and Walker did not
arrive.
My father then made a decision. He decided to make this
a cause celebre. He went downstairs to his car and asked to
be chauffeured back to our home about 90 miles away. He
could easily have taken any of the many empty rooms in the
ciowixc ui ix assax
:,
Circuit House, but he wanted only that one room, the best
in the house. By that time, the issue was no longer that of a
room; it was an issue of national inferiority or equality. The
incident shook the government for a few days; and at the
instruction of the government—saner Englishmen at the
capital—Mr. Walker apologized.
The second incident concerned the coolie girl murder
case. Coolie girls were employed in tea gardens to pluck tea
leaves, and were renowned for exquisite features, superb
physical beauty and dazzling smiles in ebony black faces.
They were originally from the state of Bihar, but had made
the tea plantations their homes.
The tragic incident happened at a tea plantation in
which a young Englishman, the assistant manager, had
whipped a young coolie girl to death. She was his secret
mistress and he suspected her of infidelity. The tragedy was
greater because her infidelity was forced upon her by anoth-
er Englishman, who intimidated her when the girl’s lover
was away on leave in England.
The case came up in my father’s court and the British
community demanded a British judge. Never before had a
Britisher been tried in a court presided over by an Indian
judge. The only one who differed with his fellow country-
men was my father’s British superior. He was an eminent
judge who believed in due process; however, even he had
to make a concession by agreeing to a British jury. The jury
tied my father’s hands by their verdict, and the defendant
got only three years. Even that was considered unusual in
those days.
Those were exceptional cases. My father liked the good
side of the British and not only talked about it but blended
it with the best in his Indian tradition.
First and foremost was the British system of justice and
integrity in official dealings, which he praised. This justice
system had at times worked in favor of a humble and desti-
tute Indian who might otherwise have been victimized by
a tyrannical Indian landlord or master. Another admired
trait was the lack of official corruption, a standard which
ciowixc ui ix assax
,c
the British had enforced in India.
One of his favorite traits was punctuality, almost an
obsession with my father. My father would talk about his
exasperation when an Indian family invited guests for eight
and no dinner was served even by ten. He contrasted it with
the British serving at eight if they said eight. At one Indian
celebration, when no dinner was served by eleven, my hun-
gry father finally asked, “Are these hosts or ghosts?” But
then, people expected such from him. They thought of him
as an unIndian Indian in many respects. He was also known
as “strange”: he ate soup which, to many Indians, was cook-
ing water; he talked about a strange thing called “vitamins”;
and he made his own tea from a tea tray instead of being
waited upon by a servant with a cup of prepared tea.
Three milestone events took place during our stay in the
official judge’s house. My elder sister got married; my
youngest brother Aroop was born; and I graduated from
high school and soon left for college in far away Calcutta.
The first event was a grand celebration; the town had not
previously seen such a splendid wedding. In accordance
with the traditional norms, the wedding was spread over a
five-day period with all the rituals. No expense was spared.
The guest list seemed endless; the house was festooned with
lights; a band was engaged; the menu was superb; and
about three thousand guests were entertained. And my par-
ents arranged for my sister to receive lavish wedding gifts.
There was a subtext to this grand event. My sister was
born to my mother’s elder sister, who died soon after birth,
leaving behind her and an older brother, who was about
three years old. My father married my mother after remain-
ing single for some years.
As such, my mother was a stepmother to the two eldest
siblings; and for all her life, in some quarters of my pater-
nal family she was judged unfairly—as though people
expected her to behave like the proverbial nasty stepmoth-
er. This became my mother’s cross. Actually she lavished
care and concern equally amongst all seven of the children.
That included her two stepchildren. And we seven children
ciowixc ui ix assax
,:
never felt any tension between us.
I had a younger sister: my mother’s only daughter, whose
wedding was much less lavish than the wedding of my elder
sister, although the former was my mother’s only daughter.
My mother also took the initiative in arranging the wed-
ding of my eldest brother, for whom she was a stepmother.
That marriage was very happy.
And yet all her life my mother remained under the crit-
ical eyes of a few of my paternal relatives.
The worst criticism was from someone who should have
been a most understanding person. This was uncle Tri-
guna—a man who had devoted all his life to religion and
asceticism.
Uncle Triguna was a prime example of those people one
finds all over the world who are steeped in religious rituals
but who are devoid of any spiritual enlightenment, depth
or insight. He even had a suffix of Saraswati, denoting a
high religious attainment. When he surfaced after nearly
thirty years of religious self-exile in a distant part of India—
during which he kept no contact with the family and didn’t
bother to get the facts—he right away started accusing my
mother of neglecting the two eldest siblings: her stepchildren.
It never occurred to him that my mother nursed them,
brought them up and saw to it that they were married. This
happened over a thirty-year period, during which he had
disappeared into a religious life: meditating on his navel,
leaving worldly responsibilities to someone else, and doing
his rituals because this world was not seemingly considered
important by him. This is not Vedanta; this is a narrow
view of spiritual life.
In July 1940, I left the sheltered life of Jorhat for college
in distant Calcutta, never really to go home to the Valley
again. When I left Jorhat on that July day, the Second World
War was raging in Europe. Hitler seemed unstoppable,
Paris had fallen, London was pounded every night during
the Blitz. Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minis-
ter and was using the English language to fight the war.
ciowixc ui ix assax

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