In 1926, when Mahesh chacha was born, Kachehri Road, Lucknow, must have been a gracious place. George VI was on the throne and had had a successful, indeed glamorous tour of India some years previously. This tour and its climactic darbar, helped fashion in upper class Indians an identity for themselves as special, with oriental glory. The patriarch of Kachehri Road, Ram Prasad Verma was given the aristocratic title of “Rai Bahadur” by the British. His children always quoted that. A prominent lawyer, he worked for clients who occupied the topmost rungs of the social ladder. He lived in style and dressed like a gentleman.
His family flourished. There was one beautiful daughter, Sarojini, and two handsome sons, Ramesh and Naresh, before the equally handsome Mahesh, and two more sons, Durgesh and Suresh, and four daughters, Rishi, Nirmal, Santosh and Asha, to follow. All the girls were fair, the boys dusky (as girls and boys should be), with Kachehri Road noses that could not be missed, all tall and broad shouldered, with expressive faces, and a wit and an ironical style that set them apart. Only their mother, Binodini Devi, did not survive much after the last of them to enjoy this healthy, happy, burgeoning family of ten children.
I picture her as the essence of motherhood, giving out love, support, succour, food, literally the pallu of her sari for her children to wipe their hands on as they took their places at the dining table. I see her as a fount of energy and humour as she scolded and questioned, aided and improvised, living up to the name she was given by all, “Bhabhi (sister-in-law),” more even than ‘mother’ which no one called her. Whatever every child became was largely thanks to Bhabhi.
Maybe Kachehri Road was the mother. A house that embraced you as you enter, then put you on one knee or the other, took you into its lap, let you climb all over and tumble down, all the time maintaining a serenity and bountiful generosity. You want to fly kites? Climb right up to the “fifth floor” on the roof, the platform reaching up into the sky. You want to curl up and read on a window sill? There are four beautiful spots with coloured glass panes to choose from, all fronting the magical street called Kachehri Road. You want to find some hidden treasure? There is rumoured to be some hidden in the puja room off the side room (belonging to Asha) near Baba’s bedroom.
The children must have run around from room to room, hiding, playing, studying, growing up in this mother of a house, observed and attended by Bhabhi, Papa, and sundry maids and servants. These last are all faceless to me except for Dhani Ram with his knobbly knees under his white dhoti, his gentle eyes, his warm smile; Moti; and the later Ram Awadh.
After Bhabi died, the house changed, giving lie to the idea that it was the mother. Only she had been, and the house now looked only a reflection of the father. The woman’s touch went missing. Rooms has a ramshackle look, the tops of cupboards were never cleaned, window panes not scrubbed. Dhani Ram reigned more in the kitchen. The younger children, Asha, Suresh, must have felt half-orphaned and looked, sometimes in vain, towards their daddas and jijjis for parenting. But such had been the parenting that everyone did well in life. All came to be well employed and well married, “well settled” as we say, and started their own families.
Mahesh studied and studied. Like most good students, he played hard too. He could deliver a mean cricket bowl and badminton serve. He could apply English romantic poetry to the beauty of actual people around him. He could get transported by music and dance. All this seemed especially appropriate as he was joined in wedlock to the beauty Meera from Bihar, a singer and narrator of no mean standing.
Mahesh writes about the experience of being in the railways, an officer in the new India of the late 1940s, with everything British in the structure he became part of save the British themselves. It took many intellectual, creative, talented young people like him most of their lives to restore the balance between the ‘West’ that had formed them—twenty one years after all, in his case—and the ‘East’ that they knew they were part of, that was all around, that was enticing and promising and equally them.
I am twenty five years younger than him. I knew Mahesh chacha as a child of course. Sometime in 1958 we visited Calcutta and stayed in a flat high up with them, and I went playing in the park downstairs. Going back from Calcutta is memorable because it was my first ever time on a plane, and Calcutta and my chacha’s place were all equally metropolitan and impressive. The first time I really spent time with him, however, was when I was 23, back after years abroad. I went and lived with them on Landsdowne Road in Calcutta for a full month. My chacha and chachi after all. I landed up uninvited, made myself at home, and stayed on. None of my four cousins, Dimpu, Pappu, Bittu or Baby, was then married. The house was a gracious bungalow, reminiscent of Kachehri Road, as I am sure Mahesh chacha also thought. That the house was gracious meant that it had huge bay windows with shutters to look out of and stood upright three stories in old-fashioned Tagorean splendour. That the house was large meant not only that it had half a dozen bedrooms but that it needed constant dusting and tending. Meera chachi would go on a battle round morning and evening. Calling out to servants, she would get every corner of the house cleaned and scrubbed. She was a shy, bold, affectionate aunt, who left us suddenly and all too early, a victim to carelessness during trouble with diabetics.
What was extraordinary for me in this one month stay was not that I simply lived there with Mahesh chacha, Meera chachi and my cousins, happy to be a part of the family and being treated completely as one, but such was the one-ness that my father wrote to me when the month was over that he had heard (from his brother Mahesh) that there was some young man in Calcutta who I was apparently interested in. Such protectiveness. Such family-ness. I was surprised and proud to be the object of so much scrutiny.
It was not this young man but another young man who I had my eyes on, and once he and I got married, Mahesh chacha took us both under his wings. He was delighted that Sombabu was an academic and a musician. He organised sitar concerts for him, including in Birla Academy and at Rupali Talukdar’s house. He called us to his Club. He introduced us to people. He took us to Mamta Shankar’s house, of Uday Shankar fame. He knew everyone in the art and literature world, to say nothing of politics and commerce. He acted as our local guardian in Calcutta, finely in tune with our musical, literary needs.
There were lovely quiet moments too. He would sit in his book-lined study and gazed out. When you came, he would keep you for several hours, discoursing on ideas and authors. He may have been in the Railways, but that was simply an accident. His heart was in literature and philosophy. Like my father Naresh, Mahesh had been, but even more than him, he remained, a literary aesthete.
When my father-in-law died, Mahesh chacha came to my in-laws’ house in Srirampur. He sat in his dhoti kurta, solemn and ritualistic, eating his puri-sabzi. He and my father-in-law were one of a kind, solemn and ritualistic. I can see their respective upright figures gesturing regally, fingers poised over a pattal. Servers would hover around.
When Meera chachi died, he came to Banaras, the correct place to perform certain funerary rights. I have a picture of him with his head shaved, holding a little copper lota wrapped in red in his hands, his eyes closed, head raised to the sun in prayer.
He came again also, now to Sarnath to attend someone’s book launch, now to an educational centre run by an old-time friend. He stayed with us, ate with us, sat on rickshaws with us, and spread his affection around. In Calcutta, his patronage of his niece was so undisguised that as he went around at a high class reception with ambassadors and councillors introducing me, a gentleman stopped him short at one point to say, “Yes, Mahesh, yes. I have met your niece already.”
When he retired I observed that he turned, not away, but also, from anglophile leanings in literature to a gradually stricter Vedism. Not only did he like to listen to chanting in the morning now, his speech was also peppered by an ancient Hindu bearing. It was all quite astonishing and charming and I often cited it in academic circles as a sign of the new India, more modern but more ancient, all at the same time.
Finally, about four years ago he arranged a fancy lecture for me in Calcutta. I was the expert on Educational Management. His intensity for thinking, spreading the word, networking, doing, was indefatigable. What I remember of the occasion is the special Mahesh chacha intimate touch on a younger team member’s elbow to make him bend down to hear an instruction. I thought, “In this gentleness, he puts the monks to shame.” We were in Ramakrishna Mission.
Mahesh chacha is no more. 1926-2015. Even if I live for several years more, I am diminished today.
“…never send to know for whom the bell tolls—it tolls for thee” (John Donne, 1572-1631).