Then there was a second meeting that led to mummy’s loss of the will to live.
This was with my cousins, mummy’s nephews and nieces, on the subject of decisions about property held jointly under that majestically named edifice, the “Hindu Undivided Family.” You ‘start’ an HUF. You start it with the hope that inspires all namers, that by naming a unit by this name you will magically create an entity that will remain ‘undivided’ and a ‘family.’ The ‘Hindu’ is irrelevant, unless you count the image of a tulsi plant blooming in the courtyard of the HUF property.
In this case the HUF had been started by Rai Bahadur Babu Ram Prasad Verma. He and his five sons were members of it. He passed away in 1973. At the time of his death a list of some ten houses could be shown as part of the HUF. Today there are two, Kachehri Road and Kasturba Road. Of his five sons only one remains, the youngest, Suresh, and he was not present at the meeting. Of his daughters-in-law four had remained till just the other day, then there were three. One was in her nineties and indisposed. One was Suresh’s wife and like him, absent. The only one there was mummy. The only one from that generation of ten, of whom four were alive. In case one wonders, there were five daughters as well, apart form the five sons. But they do not have a share in the ancestral property. In those days daughters were given a fond but final gift at the time of their marriage and no legacy was expected.
Of cousins, there were the siblings Sunil and myself, and my two daughters, Irfana and Nandini; the brothers Dimpu and Bittu, Dimpu’s wife Neeru and Bittu’s son Angad; Madhu and her husband Sushil. Of the five brothers, three ‘units’ were represented, two had no one to represent them. We pretended that there was consensus and we somehow spoke for all.
The meeting was hardly controversial. We exchanged old stories as families do. We asked about each other’s health, work, children and grandchildren. We voiced love and caring for everyone of us, present or away. We collectively mourned Raman chachi and Anil dada’s deaths, both within the last week.
Yet this meeting must have been an amazing strain on mummy. Because she is always so full of strength it is difficult to ever know how she feels. But, if I could translate a subtext in the whole idea of the meeting at all, it was, “You, Suniti chachi, are occupying a house that belongs to the HUF without giving anyone else a share in it. We demand a share.”
Sunil and I set to work to deconstruct this text. I had done this in several emails and two meetings already, having taken on the mantle of the spokesman of our ‘unit.’ I repeated myself.
According to the documents in a fat file kept in my parents’ bungalow, called most often “Kasturba Road” by everyone (when not getting rancorous and calling it emphatically “my grandfather’s property”), the house was built around 1930 and rented out to the military. Perhaps such things were good investments. Almost fifty years later, the documents attest, my father, Naresh Kumar, petitioned the military to have the house de-hired from their use for his personal use. He, a Police Officer, indeed an Inspector-General of the Police, the highest rank in the service, was posted in Lucknow and needed a house to live in. He was then staying temporarily in two rooms at Kachehri Road, the ancestral property, and after that in a government bungalow.
Many letters follow. Daddy writes to various officers to help him with his request. They all reply, “Dear Verma,” etc., promising him help in his legitimate venture. The HUF supports him, my oldest uncle Ramesh, its karta, that is—another wonderful name—active head or agent. The letter writing goes on for almost two years. Naresh occasionally exhibits impatience and wonders why there is no progress on his case. He asks for more help from more people. They all continue to promise him help. No doubt the case is inching forward.
As all archives do, this one subtly produces a set. The times are gradually illuminated, letter by letter, as by lighting on a stage. The letter dated June evokes loo, the one dated January the cold fog. Dictation is being taken by the stenographer in his bush-shirt who then retreats to his office and hammers rapidly at his machine. Officers strut around, often in uniform. They meet on social occasions, followed up by letters that greet and congratulate, and then in the second paragraph, make the request for help. The requesting officer goes home, drinks his tea, smokes, does not talk in detail to his wife but enough to get over the day’s fatigue. Then he takes a walk, and as he walks up and down the back verandah, he recites poetry to himself. His poetic imagination often peeps through in his letter-writing.
The wife appears as an absence from the archives. Why was he asking for the house anyway? Only for his family, his wife and children. And when it does come through, she is the future of the archives. She single-handedly makes it habitable, then enviable. Thirty years later when the family expects a share in it, it is largely because it is not a prosaic cantonment property any more, but a jewel setting itself off in a green nest, all produced by the wife.
At that time, 1978-80, assorted people from the family must have lived in Lucknow. Tauji, the Ramesh uncle above, did, with his family. Daddy did. Mahesh and Durgesh chachas lived in Calcutta and Delhi respectively. Suresh chacha was in Calcutta too, though soon to return to Lucknow. Yes, daddy’s five brothers had the unmatched rhyming names of Ramesh, Naresh, Mahesh, Durgesh and Suresh, all called babus. Their wives had the pretty names of Lila, Suniti, Mira, Raman and Geeta. The photographs of the five couples at a Rakshabandhan lunch could shame the couples of the self-important Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.
What daddy was doing could not have been done in any other way. He was de-hiring the house, that is getting it back from the renters, with the plea that it was needed by the family, that is himself. No abstract argument would have worked, such as, “The house is ours so give it back.” Only a concrete plea would work, such as his, demonstrating that there was he, a government official, there was no home for him, and then there was this house that could have been his home but was occupied by the same government (that he worked for).
His petition was accepted. He was given the key and the delivery of the house in May 1980. It was always cited by him and everyone else everywhere as HUF property. But no one in the family apart from him needed it. No one was there and the question did not arise. The cantonment board paid a few hundred rupees each month in rent and daddy continued to pay that, dividing it carefully between the four brothers who should each get their share. There is a letter to Raman chachi after her husband’s death asking her where he should send the rent cheque.
The letters are many, even if some are lost. They are in carbon copies, that is to say, very flimsy paper, when originating from him. They are on government stamped, linen paper when originating from the Auditor-General or other addressee or colleague of his. They are all typed manually and signed in a cursive that did not go beyond his generation. There are some drafts and superseded letters. After several forays into this archive, I began to know it and to understand the pattern in it, as with any archive. I love archives and I could see a sentiment originating for this one.That it was my father’s story made it all the more interesting.
The rest of the family, such as my cousins gathered at the 3rd January meeting, knew only vaguely about this history. Their allusions to it ranged from “Everyone deserves to have a share in this joint property but only one person is enjoying it,” and “We need to sell it and divide the profits, and here is a buyer I know,” to “We all love each other and there should be no problem in making a family settlement.”
So, Sunil and I, both historians coincidentally, hacked away at various unstated accusations and propositions to reconstruct how there would actually be no property had it not been de-hired by daddy, how the military had agreed to de-hire it on condition of it being returned after the particular use for which it was de-hired, and how “one person” was “enjoying” it simply because she was the spouse of the now deceased occupant of the house to whom it had been de-hired. No one else had ever expressed any wish to live in it.
But now that the HUF would like to sell it, some of this history had to be addressed. An important legal step had to be taken, hopefully less long-winded than daddy’s original one in 1978-80. The military had to be persuaded, or whatever should be the right verb here, to give it permanently back to the Verma family, for whatever the family wished to do with it.
The arguments and discussions wound around in circles and eddies. Mummy sat, mostly silent. She did not reply to every veiled accusation. She did not correct mis-statements. She could see that Sunil and I were active. But she must have felt—what?
I think that she felt, “Let me just pack up and depart.” Like Mrs Moore in A Passage to India she must have thought that the universe was too big and too grand for such trivialities as were being discussed in that drawing room. It probably occurred to her that God or the Supreme was manifest everywhere and that humans like us were truly blind if we thought that the distinctions we were muddling through actually mattered. She must have felt a gradual distancing from these petty concerns, a sense of “what will be will be,” a resignation to let actions face their own consequences. She must have experienced a little fatigue: “What does it matter?” Mrs Moore thought, “What a fuss about marriage! What does it matter—love in a cave, love in a church…” Mummy might have thought, “What a fuss about a house! What does it matter—live here, live elsewhere, in this body, in another….”