“The history of our grandparents is remembered not with rose petals but in the laughter and tears of their children and their children’s children. It is into us that the lives of grandparents have gone. It is in us that their history becomes a future.”
– Charles and Ann Morse
(Based on interviews with family members from Feb 2014 to Feb 2015. In Dec 2014, my grandfather passed away. This is probably the only surviving record.)
A long time ago my grandfather, I call him Dada, it means grandfather in Hindi and is a sign of respect and affection, asked to have a biography written about him. My grandmother, I call her Dadi which means grandmother in Hindi, thought it was a bad idea. She didn’t want anyone to judge them or know about the family in such detail. But it’s quite an amazing story and one which should be stored for future generations. Skeletons and all.
My Dada grew up in a in a small town in a village in rural India, a place called Madhubani to a poor family and few opportunities in life. The house he grew up in was small, cramped and was less a house and more an extended verandah. Inside was a small well which they would draw water from everyday. There were no water taps. There was no electricity.
The house belonged to his father BabuLal Raut with his wife Jeeten Devi. It had 2 bedrooms. He had 2 siblings, an older brother, a younger sister, a mother and father. All living in the same house. Nobody attended high school. The highest qualification was a primary school certificate. Education wasn’t a focus in the household.
His mother ran a small chilli business. She would pluck chilli’s from back yards and sell it at the local market while my great grandfather had a business making cement and selling it to the local building company. There wasn’t much time spent with their children, as most was spent providing for them. A poor but honest living. They ran the business until their deaths in 1945 and 1949, while Dada was in medical school.
What was once their small thriving business, which provided the necessities for their family living – died with them. After their death, Dada’s older brother couldn’t continue the business and it collapsed. He had a habit of drinking and didn’t work very hard so couldn’t provide for his family any longer. The family slid into poverty.
Western perceptions of poverty are very different to what Asians experience. A poor person in western society can still typically have a house, food and television. Homelessness is actually widely correlated with home ownership. But Asian poverty is starvation and entire families crammed to one room. It’s because there is less corruption in the West and more oversight, so the government steps in frequently to take care of citizens. Asian countries are different, the governments don’t usually care.
Dada’s brother spent his teenage years drinking and refusing to attend school. He’d miss classes to go out with friends and have fun. Looking up to his brother, he joined in and started smoking when he was 11 years old and into girls by 12. But he never drank. He was always afraid of alcohol. In interviews he would say his father and brother became different people after they drank and he never wanted that for himself.
His father and older brother would come home, have a few drinks, smoke and get drunk on cheap liquor. Because of this Dada developed a life long aversion to alcohol. He refused to touch it. Later in life, guests at fancy parties would even be insulted, offering their fine wines only to be turned down. He saw it first hand waste the opportunities of the people closest to him.
The turning point came when he was 13 years old. He asked his brother where he wanted to be in life and the answer was to still be in Madhubani drinking and having fun. Discouraged, from then he became serious about school and education and began to study hard. The inspiration for this realisation was his school teacher.
From a young age he wanted to become a doctor but his family would ridicule him for it. His dad would say that they could never afford it and he shouldn’t dream so high. But his teacher would say with enough hard work, you can do anything. And so he avoided his family and would walk a kilometre with his books to the nearest street light and spend hours sitting on the side of the road finishing his school work. Then walk back.
It was in his teenage years when he came to the realisation that it was his own family that were the problem. They were trapped in a cycle of poverty and alcoholism they couldn’t escape from and he’d have the same fate if he stayed with them. Most days after school, instead of going home he’d sit with his school teacher and talk about learning, nourishing his ambitions. There were a few students who would stay each day including a young girl he spent lots of time with.
His teacher was the first person to tell him he needed to leave to a big city. And that his opportunities would be limited in this small town in Madhubani. He wanted more from his life and for the future. When he was a teenager, around the age of 15 he ran away from home with nowhere to go and with no money or prospects, though he still kept in contact with his parents.
He lived by himself for nearly a year before he found a place to live and work where he stayed until he graduated from Madhubani high school in 1942. Finishing school was difficult. Once safe and stable, he worked hard and re-enrolled himself in high school. Completing high school took years longer than it should have. In interviews with family members, the fact he even finished school is debated. Most of the family believe he worked hard and finished school. There is definitely a diploma to prove he graduated. But where he was and what he was doing when he graduated school no one knows for sure.
Adding to the mystery, in private conversations he admits he never graduated but instead paid a school academic to create school transcripts. No one knows the true story or what really happened. He never spoke about it. Most of the details of his childhood and early life only came out much later, when he was old. Dada was such a proud man, he avoided and never spoke of his upbringing or of any difficulties he faced in life.
He needed the transcripts to be accepted into university. He wanted a degree but could barely afford to live, let alone the tuition. But he was a well spoken and handsome man who carried himself with dignity and confidence. People who met the young adult version of my grandfather were impressed despite the few means. I think mostly they never realised the kind of background he came from.
He eventually met a wealthy businessmen who agreed to sponsor and pay for a university education. He intended to get my grandfather to owe him and after graduation to marry his daughter. This wasn’t my grandmother, but another woman. They both agreed and he was promised to her and began his tertiary studies in Science at a university in Dharbangha College, with a specialty in Mathematics and Biology. But there were two problems.
What the businessman didn’t know is that he didn’t want to marry her but wanted to go to university and didn’t have the money or another way of getting there. The other problem was he was too old. Admission to degree programs in those days was based on ability and age. If you were too old, they wouldn’t let you in. He needed to be younger.
And so Dada paid a court registry to alter his official records, changing his birth date to make himself younger. This one change is a story of debate now over how old he is. Official records say my Dada was born in 1922 and was 92 years old at the time he died. But this is based on what we now know are fake records. In interviews he says he needed to make himself 3 years younger. Which would make his birth year 1919 and age 95 years old. No one really knows the truth.
After finishing the science degree, he started working as a biology researcher in a local hospital. He saved money and after graduating informed the wealthy businessmen that he was not going to marry his daughter. Then repaid him in full for the tuition of the degree using the income he received from working at the hospital. The businessman was furious but also thought it very honorable and was pleased he’d helped a young man achieve his dreams. They never spoke again.
Dada studied hard and wanted to become a doctor. He got the necessary marks to go to Medical School but was rejected for a silly reason. They accepted only 100 places. And would give those places to wealthy students who donated to the school. Even though he had the same marks, the university would only accept students who would bribe them. It was corruption but they called it capitation fees.
One of his friends who came from a rich family didn’t have the grades to be accepted. So his family approached the university and paid their way into a medical position. It always amazes me thinking about this. That universities reject doctors because of silly limitations like how many seats they have. It’s an invitation for corruption. India is an unfair and corrupt place. Universities routinely accept bribes to let children from rich families into degrees they would never be accepted without their wealth.
Realising the way to overcome a lack of opportunities and intelligence was with dedication, hard work and creativity. He struck a deal with the university to work for them cheaply or for free during his degree if they would offer him a place in the medical school. He’d already achieved the necessary grades. They agreed and in 1945 he was accepted into a Medical degree at the University of Patna Medical College. He was going to become a doctor.
To pay for the tuition, his father agreed to provide Dada with his inheritance years earlier and so mortgaged the small piece of land they owned to pay for his medical school completely. Dada agreed to pay every cent off it back after he started earning. He would end up paying back his family many times over, sending money back to his village every month for decades after he started earning.
While studying he lived with friends, moving from house to house. He borrowed money from banks, friends and family to pay for his living the first year of medical college. He kept a record of every transaction. And after starting work, paid back every single one. After the first year of medical school, he did well enough to win a scholarship and lived in a hostel on campus for the remainder of the degree.
He was never a smart man but incredibly hard working. If he couldn’t do something, he’d simply outwork everyone until it was done. Because of this his lecturers always gave him extra tasks and let him work in the laboratories. He was the only first year medical student assisting professors with their research. As a way of grieving for his parents, he would throw himself at his work and spent so much time in laboratories, that he failed his second year of medical school altogether.
He eventually struggled through the degree, graduating near the bottom of his class, but passing his medical qualification. In 1951, he graduated with an MBBS from Patna University and became a doctor. He’d fulfilled a lifelong dream. But the toll of earning to pay for the degree and to live and study had left him penniless.
At the end of second year of medical school, his father died suddenly. He went to attend the funeral. It was the first time he’d been back to his home in Madhubani, a long time after leaving. From then he started visiting his mother every few months, as often as he could, until his fourth year of medical school when his mother died tragically also.
His parents never got to see him graduate.
He didn’t like visiting Madhubani after his parents had passed away. It was too sad for him. Partially because it reminded him of his parents and partially because he didn’t like seeing the condition that his brother and their children were living and being raised in.
They were still living in the small 2 bedroom house. It still didn’t have electricity or running water. The parents cement and chilli business didn’t exist anymore. His brother was still drinking and had just started a family. They had a very small business selling masalas and spices but very little money leftover. And so he started sending them some.
At the time Dada earnt a 1,000 rupees per month salary. Every month he started sending money back to his family. To improve their circumstances and give the next generation a better future. They used the money to pay for the education of their children and to open a small shop selling kitchen utensils and spices which is now attached to the house. It is still running today and the shop provides a decent income and allows the family an honest living. Dada’s brother had 4 sons and 2 daughters and they are nearly all still living in Madhubani.
About 1/5th of his earnings were sent back to his brothers side every month from the time his parents died. Another 1/5th of his earnings were sent back to his sisters side. His sister was already married by the time Dada’s parents passed away and she had moved in with her new family. But she too had slid into poverty and he started sending her side of the family money each month also.
Dada’s sister was very beautiful. My Dadi would say, it was incredible that someone so beautiful lived in Madubhanni. She was striking and with her beauty, she married into a very rich family that were in the agrictultural business and managed farms. But she became a widow at a young age when her husband passed away suddenly and her brothers in law took all of his wealth leaving her with very little. Whatever she ended up with, she used to buy a small house on the outskirts of Madhubani. Dada’s sister had 2 children, a son and a daughter and they are still living there today.
From the time Dada started working, nearly half of his income would be sent back each month to his hometown to help his siblings and their families. After his parents passed away, the next time Dada visited his village in Madhubani was years after he became a practising doctor and after he was married to my grandmother.
(The oldest recorded family member on my grandmothers side is Motilal Shah. He was a Hindu based in Punjab in Lahore in what would become Pakistan. After some civil unrest he moved to greater India and set up an ancestral home in Danapoor. His eldest son was Gulabchand Lal. We don’t know anything more about those ancestors. His son was The Great Rai Bahadhur Jug Dutt. From him, we know the rest of the story. )
By contrast my grandmother grew up in a very large, very rich family. Dadi was born in 1932, the eldest grand daughter of the Indian equivalent of a knight, The Great Rai Bahadhur Jug Dutt. A Rai Bahadhur loosely translates to “The Most Honorable” and in India is a title and the highest honour that can be awarded to an Indian citizen by the government.
It literally confers the mantle of being revered and renowned. He was a lawyer by profession and one of the highest ranking Indians in the British government, a commissioner, and was instrumental in the creation of new laws that aided in India achieving it’s independence and the sale and bartering of entire states in India.
Compared to the western world a Rai Bahadhur is like a British Knighthood. There are few honors that surpass it. Once during a revolution against the British, while in command of a battalion of the British military, he was ordered to approve the execution of thousands of Indian protesters. He refused and let them all go free and championed new laws that prevented the abuse of power. He also negotiated and bought and sold entire states at the behest of India.
He was one of the first Indians that would try both high ranking Indians like politicians as well as British officials, that no one dared oppose, for crimes in open Indian courts. He also managed to exonerate Indian protestors using legal loopholes. One such loophole was there was a law that allowed the British to shoot Indian protestors on sight, but the definition of a protest was a demonstration of a group of more than 5 people.
He explained to the protestors that if they remained in groups smaller than 5, with some distance between them, they would not legally be classified a protest and therefore could not be shot. If they would be shot, it would then be the British who would be tried in court and committing the crime. The British government could therefore not legally stop the protests or arrest or shoot any of the protestors because, well, it wasn’t legally a protest.
This one loophole allowed huge demonstrations to take place without any backlash and angered the British government. This same loophole was used by the peaceful demonstrations of Mahatma Ghandhi and his followers years later and was the beginnings of what would become a revolution and gain India its independence. Nearing the end of the British rule, in 1939 he retired from the government and bought a coal mine and started a legal practice where he stayed until he died in 1962. The coal mine was eventually nationalised by the Indian Government after independence.
His son was my great grandfather, Vishnu Dev Narayan, father of my Dadi and head of the family as I know it. He was known in the family as NanaBaba which loosely translates to grandfather on the mothers side with a sign of respect. He was one of 16 brothers and sisters, the eldest son of Rai Bahadhur Jug Dutt’s first of two wives. We don’t really know much about his siblings.
He was one of the best income tax lawyers in the state of Bihar. A state in India has a population greater than most countries. He’s what you’d imagine someone growing up in his day to be – conservative, introverted, short tempered, gruff, abrasive, to the point. He was always busy – waking up early in the morning, lock himself away in his office working and then go to sleep at night still working. Most of his children didn’t understand what exactly he did.
He always carried a walking stick and had hair like a white lion’s mane. He developed knee problems late in life and spent all day lying in bed or in his office. You would always find him in one room surrounded by legal papers and a typewriter. I remember holding his hands once as a kid and they were huge, almost as big as my face.
He was tall at 5 feet 11 inches and had a commanding presence. In his career as an income tax lawyer, he never lost a case. Opponents were always too intimidated and terrified of him. Partly because of who he was but also who he represented. All the politicians, gangsters, movie stars, industrialists – the society’s rich, powerful and elite were all his clients. They would come over to the house for tea and sometimes you’d enter the living room only to see someone famous or influential. You wouldn’t want to be on his bad side because of the level of respect and influence he commanded.
But he was also a dedicated family man, caring deeply about his family and how they were treated. Once there was a funeral Havan, it’s a religious event where a group of people sit around a fire and pray after someone has passed away. The priest wouldn’t let his daughters sit due to religious customs. So he refused to attend completely and the family left. He felt if his daughters couldn’t join, religious customs frequently ostracise women, then he wouldn’t participate either. This was very progressive for the time period but he was also very conservative.
Once when Dadi was young, he caught her reading in the middle of the night and gave her a punishment. The punishment was not for staying up late but for reading. In his mind, girls shouldn’t be allowed to read novels for fun and in those days, that was what society accepted. It was his wife, Kailash Basini Devi, my great grandmother, that believed girls should be treated fairly and given an education and opportunities. She convinced him otherwise and made sure all their daughters graduated school and completed university.
NanaBaba was a very wealthy man but careless with money. He came from a large family himself, with 16 brothers and sisters, and was constantly sending money to various parts of it – so much that he’d never have any left over. This is even though he ran one of the most successful legal practices in the state. His wife could never convince him to save money, so she did it for him. Without him even knowing.
She would hide small amounts of money from him constantly for the better part of 2 decades. Taking amounts of money, hiding it from him and keeping it in the bank. He never noticed. She had a dream to build a big house that would keep generations of her family. It took 2 decades before she’d finally saved enough to start construction.
All the money was spent paying for the construction of Kailash Bavhan, a huge building at the end of Dang Bangla road in Patna. It is a mansion designed to house generations of a family together. To pool the collective wealth of a family and catapult it generations into the future. It is 3 stories tall and contains 41 rooms.
But the stress of hiding so much money and such a big secret from her husband with a fiery temper caused her immense stress. She had a heart attack in 1970 and passed away a month before her 56th birthday. It was the first major death on my grandmothers side of the family. Everyone loved her and it sent waves of sadness through the family. The house was named after her and is why it is called Kailash Bhavan today. NanaBaba never remarried. He stayed a widower for 30 years until his death in 2001.
I never met my great grandmother. She died very young. But from what I’ve been told of her, she was a great woman. She was every bit as loving as NanaBaba was fierce. She cared deeply about family and was universally loved and adored by everyone. Every year on the 1st of January she would organise a big family picnic which cousins and family from all around the world would fly in to attend. All 24 of my Dad’s cousins and their parents would try their best to fly into Patna for the picnic every year.
Her death is considered to be the greatest tragedy in the family and my grandmother still cries when she thinks about. It’s because she was there. The day she arrived home from Patna was after 3 years just before the 1st January in time for the upcoming days picnic. But her mother was in the next room experiencing chest pains. A doctor came and thought it was just gas and gave her the wrong medicine. Instead of giving her heart medicine. He gave her antacid.
Within a few hours, the chest pain became so severe she started crying. The pain turned into a heart attack and she died that night with Dadi sitting beside her. She passed away from a heart attack while in Dadi’s arms, tragically on the 1st of January. The very same day as her yearly picnic. All of the family arrived the next day expecting her big family picnic. Instead they arrived to the news of her passing. It took Dadi many years to recover from that night. She remembers it as the saddest night of her entire life.
The Amazing Eight
My great grandparents had 8 children together, 3 sons and 5 daughters. One of those daughters was my Dadi. The eldest child. Today she is the oldest living member of that side of the family and a woman everyone respects and turns to for wisdom. She’s the kindest, gentlest woman who is always concerned for the welfare of others. I’ve never seen my Dadi ever lose her temper or yell.
Because she was the eldest, while Dadi lived in Patna as a young woman, she had to help look after all her brothers and sisters as her mothers health began to deteriorate. Her youngest sibling Rani was the same age as her eldest daughter Nandini. She would fail university courses because she was so busy helping to raise her brothers and sisters, her own children and trying to study for her degree.
Ever since she was young Dadi loved to study and solve math problems. Her dream was to become a lecturer and eventually she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees in Philosophy and Maths from Patna University. By profession she is a mathematician and school teacher. It is the luck of history that she loved to study.
Before marrying my Dada, my Dadi was previously engaged to another man. The wedding was arranged by NanaBaba to the son of a wealthy client of his. The boy was from a rich family but they broke off the engagement because they were afraid she would become more educated than their son. It was lucky they did, if Dadi hadn’t liked studying, I might never have been born.
My great grandmother was right about creating a place in Patna for the family to grow up in. The house Kailash Bhavan is the place all of the cousins of the next generation grew up. The children of my Dadi’s brothers and sisters, 24 in total, would spend every summer holidays there, playing and bonding with each other. It is why a generation of 24 cousins, including my dad, can be so close to each other. They all talk as if they’re old friends. The reason is because they grew up together. They would come every year to spend their school holidays in Patna and attend the yearly picnic.
Decades later, during NanaBaba’s final days, my Dadi’s brothers Sudheer Dada and Ranveer Dada inherited Kailash Bhavan. Both couldn’t live together peacefully and so a big wall was built down the centre of the house partitioning it in two, with each side owned by one of the brothers. The third brother, Randhir moved to the United States and started a family there. The sisters didn’t receive much from the inheritances. They were married and joined other families.
In Indian culture and the law at the time, inheritances nearly always go to the male children. It is a form of carrying on the family name, as daughters typically get married and join other families, changing their surnames. There is a logic to it. It’s not based on the idea of wealth of the individual but that of the family.
The son creates and continues the family name after marriage but the daughter joins another already existing family. The sons create a brand new family without any already existing wealth, while the daughters marry into another family. And so the daughters inherits from the husbands side of the family. While the son inherits from the parents.
It’s a form of generational investment. Because there isn’t much of a welfare system in India, families developed a culture of investing in their children to then take care of the parents in old age. Wealth would all go to the sons because it becomes their responsibility to look after the parents once they became older. It is how the concept of the extended family developed.
Daughters would typically not live with their elderly parents. While the son would and is his responsibility to. So the parents would leave the bulk of their assets, such as their house, to the son to allow them the financial ability to be able to take care of their parents. If families also left their wealth to their daughters who would join another family, the son often would not be able to afford to take care of the parents in old age. Many Indian parents see it as if it would be like giving away their assets to another family.
The ideas are deeply ingrained in the Indian ideologies of dharm which means duty. It is the sons duty to their parents to take care of them. And when they have children, to fill the grandparents old age with youth. To ensure their future happiness and caretaking, the parents invest in and leave their assets to the sons. The parents are in a sense financing their own caretaking through inheritance. This wealth then snowballs to the next generation when the son does the same thing with their children. After a few generations, the wealth is concentrating and becomes very significant.
It can seem sexist, particularly in modern times or when seen by western countries, but there is at least some logic to it and it is one system that works. Studies have actually shown that this is a positive influence on the grandparents. Extended families increase the longevity of all those living in the household. And without a system such as this, children often cannot afford to be the caretakers of their parents.
On the surface it is better than a lot of the western systems of everyone simply earning enough to take care of themselves without any concept of duty or responsibility. You see western kids putting their parents in old age homes and grandchildren often being distant to their grandparents. But it comes with it’s own sets of problems. In Indian culture, when you get married, you’re not marrying an individual but marrying their whole family.
It was my great grandmother who was the most supportive of my Dadi and Dada getting married.
One day a woman walks into a clinic with a rare lung disease. She’d visited a half dozen doctors who had given all sorts of medications without any results. The woman was the sister of NanaBaba and she believed she was about to die from an illness few people knew how to cure. This was in the 50s when many diseases were still not well understood. On rotation was a senior doctor who would treat her and save her life. That man was my grandfather. The disease she had was Tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis at the time was not understood properly. It is famously difficult to diagnose. Often people who have it display only a cough that doesn’t heal while the disease destroys their lungs. In those days, it was fatal. There were few doctors who knew how to diagnose it correctly and even fewer who knew how to treat it. My grandfather was one of these few doctors.
After finishing medical college, in 1951 he spent a year at Lucknow University where he received a Diploma in Hygiene and Diploma of Lung Disease. After Lucknow in 1952 he moved to Madanapalle Sanatorium where he spent a year researching and became a specialist in lung diseases. One disease in particular – Tuberculosis. Every 2 years Dada would go back to university and further his specialisation as a lung and chest specialist.
When asked why he would keep studying well into his career, he said he never felt as smart as other doctors so the way to win in his field was to become a specialist in something so niche and unique that he would be invaluable. He tried to get so many qualifications that he’d outqualify everyone. If you ever tried writing my Dada’s qualifications across an A4 sheet of paper, it would take you both sides with the number of letters that come after his name.
His whole career was spent listening to one end of a stethoscope. The stethoscope is famous in the family and now belongs to my sister. Like the importance of a paintbrush to a famous artist, it was the tool my Dada used to save lives. He’d close his eyes and listen to people’s breathing, looking for something wrong with their lungs. At the height of his career, he was highly sought after whenever patients had something wrong with their chest that wasn’t able to be cured.
After her recovery, the family and NanaBaba were so thankful to the doctor, that to express their gratitude, asked him to marry their daughter, my Dadi. An arranged marriage. But after asking about his family, NanaBaba declined to allow his daughter to marry him. He wanted his daughters to marry into rich famililies. My Dada didn’t come from a rich family.
It was his wife who convinced him otherwise. She believed my Dada would make an excellent husband. That he was a kind and honourable man who held himself with dignity. She was very impressed with the young doctor and insisted he meet her daughter. They met and agreed to the wedding.
They married the following year in 1950 with a big ceremony in Patna. Dada’s parents never got to see him get married.
Dada kept most details of his side of the family a secret. They only emerged later in life. No-one knew much about them until very late. Even my Dadi, when they married, didn’t know much about his side of the family. She visited only twice immediately after marriage for a few days. The next time she visited her in laws was years into their marriage, just before she was expecting her second child, Sarita in 1958.
This trip is one of the first few times Dada visited Madhubani since his parents passed away. Expecting to be greeted with pride, instead the rest of his family and relatives thought he was a disgrace and swarmed him with complaints. They thought he was such a big famous doctor and yet he had left his own family in this small village instead of taking them with him.
But after seeing how they were spending the money he sent them, he was furious. He found his brother was spending some of it on alcohol and cigarettes. He discovered his nephews drinking. He was angry and argued with his brother all day. The money wasn’t being spent on their children’s education.
Dada was hurt that even though he would send money home to try and help them. They were misusing it and complained that he wasn’t helping more. They didn’t understand that he didn’t have much money leftover after his studies and responsibilities. To them being a doctor meant he was rich. And that they were still living in poverty meant he was abandoning them.
Whenever he talks about the family he has left, he expresses a kind of utter disappointed but also very sympathetic to them. Dada tells me he shouldn’t have felt like that but he did. He always kept his immediate family separate from his extended family. I’ve never met anyone from Madhubani. I’ve never visited. His own children didn’t visit until 2003 when they were adults. This was the last time he ever visited Madhubani to show his grown up children where he came from.
The next generation are doing much better. They are still in the same situation, living in the same village, in the same house, one generation forward. But they are now working and studying. My grandparents still send money on special occassions such as weddings or for important projects or constructing extra rooms for the house, in the hope they’d use it to achieve better things in life.
Some of the money was used to open a small shop which is still running and thriving today. After my Dadi found out about the state of Dada’s side of the family, she insisted they do more. They went back and started construction on more bedrooms. Over the years they built 6 more bedrooms onto the old house, extending the house onto the vacant land behind the house.
A Career Path
A 10 year age difference exists between Dadi and Dada. Dadi was still studying at university at the time they were married. Dada insisted she finish her degree first before they move in and create a home together. So Dadi lived with her parents for 9 years after their marriage while Dada was off working and studying. Dadi’s family paid for his extra qualifications after marriage.
Creating a house was more difficult than they imagined. After marriage, Dada became a sought after medical doctor and needed to move around a lot. The family moved with him, changing cities every few years. He worked hard and my Dadi stayed at home becoming a housewife to raise the children. They had 3 children: 2 daughters and a son; Nandini, Sarita and Samir, my dad.
After medical college his major jobs for the next decade were enlistment as a Medical Officer with the District Board Service and Indian Railways Services. All had heavy ties with the military and in practice I always thought of Dada as a sort of army doctor. A lot of his patients were military personnel or government officials or workers.
It also required him to undergo basic military training where he learned to fight, shoot and was taught survival skills. He was posted all over India and served for 13 years from 1954 to 1967. For much of his career he also practiced medicine privately. During the day he would go to work at the hospital and then at night would conduct private medical consultations through home visits.
Those 13 years were a blur:
In 1954 he was stationed in a practice in the Araa District of Bihar.
In 1955 he was stationed in the Tirodi Mines.
In 1956 he was stationed at a gun carriage factory in Jabalpur.
In 1957 he was stationed at a hospital in Hubli.
While practicing at the hospital, a man walked in with a 3 year old daughter. She was sick and he couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Dada offered to treat his daughter for free. The man was so thankful he started crying. It gave Dada an idea. Ever since he started treating poorer patients without charging. For his private patients there was an unofficial rule: If you couldn’t afford to see him, it didn’t matter.
He was a highly qualified specialist, regularly seeing patients for free. Seeing the happiness it brought people made him want to start an entirely free private practice. He eventually opened his own pro bono medical clinic in 1991. But after starting it, he found it angered local doctors. People who owned their own for profit practices didn’t like having a free competitor and they tried to sabotage him. The practice didn’t last and closed that same year.
But he continued the habit whenever he’d see private patients after hours. It didn’t matter to him. Dada was ambitious but not greedy. He wanted to make enough money to be secure and provide for his family, but not much more than that. Anything more, he would rather spend helping people or doing things he loved.
In 1958 he was posted to the Railway Hospital in Delhi where he spent 4 years and served as a Senior Medical Officer at the hospital. When he first arrived they didn’t receive any living quarters so he, his eldest daughter Nandini and my Dadi lived for a year in a hotel – The Maharaja Hotel. Later that year his second daughter was born, Sarita. 3 years later his son Samir was born.
In 1962 he was transferred to Allahabad where they spent 2 years.
In 1964 he was transferred to Firozpur where they spent 3 years.
As the war between India and Pakistan escalated there was a shortage of doctors so more experienced doctors were needed closer to the front lines. By now my Dada was one of these experienced doctors and they were posted to a town right on the border. It was a 3 hour drive to Kashmir where a lot of the fighting took place. The family came as well.
They lived in a house by the railway station. Days spent living there were loud and boring. It was like listening to cannon shelling constantly while watching legions of soldiers move through the city by day. Occasionally a siren went off indicating a bombing run was commencing and they would all go down to the bunker to spend the night in an underground shelter. Planes regularly flew over at nights with searchlights looking at the trains. If the train was filled with civilians, they left it alone. If the train was filled with soldiers, the bombing would start.
The first time the bomb siren went off. My dad, when he was young, went outside to watch the planes fly over and everyone panicked because they couldn’t find him, in the middle of a bombing. Once they found him, they ran towards the nearest forest thinking the house would be the most likely target to be bombed. It was before they learned the bomb shelter was a small bunker in their basement.
Planes would pass unharmed most of the time but it became an almost daily occurrence. Nearly once a week they’d have to spend a night sleeping in the bunker. My dad was 4 years old and his older sister Sarita, 7, would be so scared she’d go white and stop eating. They lived there for 3 years. My Dada was always calm though. Once in the bunker he told Dadi if the bomb falls on them, to let him know. Then he fell asleep.
Realising how stressful the living environment was, everyday he looked in the newspaper searching for better jobs. Whenever he’d find a better one, he’d try to pack up everything and move at the drop of a hat, even taking a discharge from the service. But they refused to let him leave. Doctors were needed near the front lines, especially those with his specialty. Once the local governor even came to their house and begged him not to leave, offering bonuses, promotions and ownership of assets if he stayed. Reluctantly he agreed. They left later that year for an entirely different reason.
As a doctor, he worked in the hospital. Another doctor was running a racket from under the nose of the hospital. He would overcharge patients for treatments and do it in my grandfathers name. He didn’t even realise until one day a patient came in, was cured and then refused to leave. He took the patient into the next room and asked why. What he found out disgusted him so much that they packed up the family and moved to a new country the next year.
A more senior doctor in the ward was profiteering off sick patients. He would charge patients for preferential treatment and to secure special beds and medicines for them. Often these would cost much more than the treatment itself and he’d pocket the difference. It was corruption within the hospital from someone he called a friend and respected colleague.
Before leaving, he went to his father in law for advice. Nanababa said that “in life, if someone else is your boss then they own you. It doesn’t matter what is right and what you feel to be the best decision, you do what they tell you.” Angrily he wanted to quit his job and leave India. But the government refused to accept his resignation.
They were in the middle of a Tuberculosis crisis and there were few doctors who knew enough about the disease to adequately treat patients. They sent Dada a letter saying that no one had ever brought a request of this nature to them. Their leading Tuberculosis specialist wanted to quit during the middle of a Tuberculosis outbreak. It was like a pilot wanting to quit in mid-flight. And so he agreed to stay at the hospital one more year treating patients. Then he’d leave.
One day he saw an ad for specialist doctors to receive a contract and posting in Nigeria. Nigeria had recently gotten independence from being under British rule and there was a civil war going on. The Indian government was sending support in the form of troops and medical aid but they were struggling to get doctors to move to a country explicitly at civil war with itself. The salary was 20X what he was currently earning. He applied and was offered the position.
They moved to Nigeria in 1967 and lived there for 4 years in a big house with staff given to them by the government. Dadi received a job as the acting headmaster of a local high school and Dada worked as a senior doctor in a government hospital. They were earning lots of money; were happy and prosperous. Everything in life was great.
The backdrop of their happy suburban lifestyle was the unrest that was the Nigerian Civil War. For the most part it didn’t affect them at all, their lives were separate. But the Indian High Commission issued regular warnings to all Indians living in Nigeria to always have their bags and valuables packed and be ready to evacuate the country at all times. In case they were ever put in danger and the war escalated. Just before the height of the war was when they decided to leave.
One day Dada opened the local newspaper and saw a front page article reading “Bloodbath in Nigeria” with pictures of streets filled with dead bodies. Dada immediately decided it was time to leave. They lived in a secure compound with security but the fear was that if ever a situation escalated, the security would disappear, which happened often.
My grandmother didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to leave their big house, thriving jobs and all of their friends and was adamant about staying. After a big argument, he went and burned some of her expensive clothes and letters that she received and used to keep in a drawer, so she would have few valuables to keep her there. It was also to show how serious he was about leaving and their situation.
He said one of the hardest things they ever did was leaving the house that day, with everything they owned packed in suitcases. Without looking back, they left. They withdrew all their money, paid and dismissed all the staff, said goodbye to their neighbours, collected all their valuables, left the house and moved into a 5 star hotel.
From the windows they could hear sirens announcing the streets were unsafe. Dada chartered a plane to leave the next day, heading to England. The plane they left in, when it arrived was full of soldiers arriving to prevent further violence. In retrospect it was a good decision as tens of thousands of people were killed in the ensuing fighting. All of their neighbours that didn’t leave, they never heard from or saw again.
They were piecing their lives back together and weren’t sure where to go. So they decided to travel and spent all their remaining money holidaying to Italy, Mauritius, Egypt and the Himalayas. From Nigeria, after holidaying, they moved briefly to England in 1969 where Dada went back to university to complete a Diploma of Tropical Medicine and fell in love with Western Culture.
Dadi moved back to India with the children. Nandini, the eldest daughter was sent to boarding school in Belfast, Ireland. Sarita, their middle daughter was sent to boarding school in the Manipal, Himalayas. And later Samir, my dad was sent to a boarding school Rostrevor College in Adelaide, South Australia.
Most of their assets had been lost and they had to start life over from scratch again at 50 years old. The only thing they owned was a piece of land in Patna, India. Dada had saved up a small fortune and invested it all in a large block of land in Patna. It was his dream after retirement to build a big house there. But after buying it, he trusted the title and deeds to one of his brother in laws, a lawyer, who lived in India.
His brother in law, it’s suspected, when he bought the land was misled by the owner and the deed was fake. Dada didn’t discover this until years later when he went to visit and found a group of thugs surrounding it. They’d built up a huge boundary wall, preventing anyone entry. The land had been repossessed. At the time, they bought it for 14 lakhs but today it is said the land is worth 3 crores. They’ve been in litigation trying to get it back for the last 15 years. No-one knows if we ever will.
A New Leaf
In 1971 they moved to Zambia which had just achieved independence from the British government and had a shortage of doctors. Dada, who was always ambitious and constantly moved to where the best prospects were, was made the Medical Director of a hospital and earned even more than he did in Nigeria. Dadi got a job as a primary school teacher. They stayed for 3 years.
They left just before a new policy was introduced known as Zambianisation where all of the senior positions were mandated to be occupied by Zambians. It was the first steps of a similar happening in Rhodesia which became Zimbabwe. It is based on a surface prejudice and the societal equivalent of an overcorrection.
To fix race inequality, they would force their local population into higher roles and professions they may not be trained for. You would have people forced into becoming doctors just because they were Zambian and the government wanted Zambian doctors. They’d then get rid of the people previously in those roles. It was the first warning whispers of what escalated into a full cleansing of any non-Rhodesians from Zimbabwe during a revolution where they refused to let other citizens live or occupy their country.
Zambia seemed to be heading in the same direction. They employed doctors only for as long as they needed them and used the doctors to teach local Zambians, then they would be thrown out. Not feeling secure and sensing something amiss, Dada decided it was time to uproute the family and leave again.
In the same hospital he worked, was a female Doctor from Australia. They became friends and would take lunch breaks together. The doctor was in Zambia on the mandate of the Australian government international aid program and constantly talked about how wonderful a place Australia was and how much she missed home.
Hearing about Australia, he decided to emigrate there and asked if she would write a recommendation with the government agency she worked for. She agreed saying that almost anywhere in the world a person with his qualifications went, he’d be in high demand. Months later an invitation arrived from the Australian Department of Health with a job offer and a visa application for him and his family.
On 1st January 1974 the family moved to Canberra and lived in a government house while working in a local hospital. They were then moved temporarily to Sydney where they were put up in a hotel for a month and ended up settling in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, a small town in the middle of Australia with a population of 25,000 people. They stayed for 2 years with Dada working in remote rural hospitals and constantly travelling to parts of Australia to see patients. Dadi became a Maths teacher at a local high school. My dad was enrolled in a local school.
In Alice Springs they were accepted by the indigenous population who loved being treated by my grandfather. They loved that he was the same skin colour and also a doctor. At the time Australia was still a somewhat racist country with widespread prejudices and intolerance. A lot of dark skinned people didn’t like visiting doctors because it was an invitation to be criticised. My Dada never did that. People loved visiting him. He was open-minded, kind, educated, successful, dark skinned and proud – he was looked upto by many in Alice Springs. They loved Australia.
In 1974 while at the hospital Dada saw a military personnel asking for volunteers. A cyclone had just struck the city of Darwin in the Northern Territory, a town in the northern most point of Australia, destroying it completely. The town wasn’t prepared and Cyclone Tracy destroyed the entire city. It was actually the second time the city had been destroyed, the first time by Japanese Bombers during World War 2. But because this was a natural disaster, there is a civic pride in helping.
Cyclone Tracy is one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit Australia. Tracy killed 71 people, caused A$837 million in damage (1974 dollars), or approximately A$4.45 billion (2014 dollars). It destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings, including 80 percent of houses and left more than 41,000 out of the 47,000 inhabitants of the city homeless and required the evacuation of over 30,000 people. Most of Darwin’s population was evacuated to Adelaide, Whyalla, Alice Springs and Sydney, and many never returned to the city. Tracy hit on Christmas Day.
Darwin was in complete ruin. The hospital was overrun and the government were recruiting doctors, nurses, tradesman and volunteers to move to Darwin temporarily and help rebuild and care for the sick and wounded. The government was sending aid from all over the country. Alice Springs is one of the closes towns to Darwin. They’re in the same state. He accepted and was flown to Darwin with a group of doctors. They were provided shelter and living quarters. The city started being rebuilt.
The rebuilding of Darwin took 4 years. Before then, the town became an ocean of temporary housing – tents, caravans, hotels, even an ocean liner. Reconstruction of permanent housing had not begun until September 1975, Dada used to fly in and out from Alice Springs to Darwin as doctors were needed. But even with the reconstruction effort, as much as 60% of the inhabitants of Darwin never returned.
In 1976, the government was trying to get medical professionals to move to Darwin permanently. He was offered a permanent position at the Royal Darwin Hospital and an attractive position, salary and free accommodation in a 3 bedroom house with a big garden in a housing commission for his family. It was one of the only houses that survived the cyclone, in the middle of the city on Smith Street. He liked it and stayed. Dadi started work as a teacher and clerical worker while spending all her time raising children and volunteering for the Salvation Army.
They eventually bought the housing commission house and it became the family home. Today it is the only house left on a road full of high rise apartment buildings. The land is extremely valuable. Imagine a major city with every house having been developed into apartment blocks except for one lonely house. It was the plan of my Dada to develop it but as he got older and weary, he never got around to it.
He worked at the Royal Darwin Hospital from 1976 until his retirement in 1987 from public service. He continued private practice and as a consultant until the year 2000, the same year as his 50th wedding anniversary. When he came to Australia he had no assets and no money but retired a wealthy man. with a few investment properties.
Interviewing a doctor who worked with him, he speaks proudly of how they were part of a team of doctors that helped develop a novel therapy for treating tuberculosis in patients. Particularly children. This was during a time when tuberculosis was a fatal disease, killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
After 15 years of practicing medicine in Australia, after starting life over again for the 3rd time; treating tens of thousands of patients and saving thousands of lives, on his 80th birthday was honoured by the queen for his services to Medicine. He was one of the most knowledgeable people in the world in his niche and one of Australia’s foremost experts on Tuberculosis.
The Grandkids / Smith Street
The education system in Australia is much better than India and so at a young age all my cousins were sent to Darwin by their parents to live with Dadi and Dada to complete their high schooling. It was a way of giving us all a better education with better opportunities. It worked and today everyone is educated and thriving.
The Smith Street home is where they raised all their children and grandchildren. A large but also very close family. Nearly all the major events in the family, good or bad, took place in that house. Most of my cousins at some point lived there and grew up in that house in Darwin.
It is a small elevated 3 bedroom house in the centre of a large garden. The garden surrounds the house like a mote. Mowing the lawn was almost a right of passage for the male cousins. In the garden are a number of trees, 2 very large, very old mango trees, each larger than the house itself and a number of smaller lemon and chilli trees.
The eldest daughter Nandini married in 1971 and moved to Ranchi where she was a housewife until she built and started a 5 star hotel. She had 4 children, 3 daughters; Nidhi, Upasana and Medha and the youngest son Aditya, though everyone calls him Gaurav. All but one came to Australia in their teens. Most have children of their own now. Great grandchildren to Dadi and Dada.
The second daughter Sarita married in 1980 and moved to Calcutta where she became a home maker and housewife. She had 2 children, a girl and a boy, Gareema and Rohan. Both moved to Australia when they were very young, Gareema when she was 2 years old and Rohan in his early teens.
In Indian culture your cousins are treated with the same level of closeness as your own siblings. As such sisters typically receive the title of Didi which means sister while brothers are called Bhaya which means brother. It is an honorific and sign of respect.
Nidhi Didi, the eldest of all the cousins is a housewife and runs a leather business. Upasana Didi is a brand manager for the Virgin Group. Medha Didi received an MBA and was a marketing consultant before becoming a screenwriter. Gareema Didi became a dentist and completed a PHD in Oral Cancer. Rohan Bhaya became a software engineer and went to work for Accenture before starting his own company. Gaurav Bhaya studied hotel management and will inherit and run a 5 star hotel. Eesha, my sister, is studying law. 7 out of 8 of the grandchildrens’ beginnings started in Darwin.
The Smith Street home was the showdown location of many of the family arguments. Huge fights regarding peoples egos and politics and wealth. But it was also a place of immense love. It laid the foundations in Australia for a place nearly all of the grandchildren call home and are bonded with.
Almost everyone learned to drive a car in that driveway, the same white silver and dark blue Toyota Camry. Accidentally crashing into the entrance gate almost became a ritual, a rite of passage. Along with mowing the lawn for the male cousins. And sitting at the top of the outside green staircase late at night, under the stars and talking to Dadi about their problems. She would just listen. The house became a part of who we are.
Cards are what would pass the time. Everyone sitting around the dining table eating biscuits, drinking tea and playing card games like Bridge, Rummy or Paplu. They were always friendly games and cousins would have fun trying to cheat in incredulous ways. Who could outdo each other with the most outrageous form of cheating. Pretending to be busy while looking at someone else’s hand or trading cards under the table. As Dada got older he’d use his Alzheimers to his advantage, frequently pretending to forget and drawing extra cards. It was extremely obvious because he’d have a big smile.
Growing up, in a sense it felt like we all had an extra set of parents in our grandparents and were all raised with strong family bonds. It doesn’t matter what happens or what they do to you, there is always a duty to your family. You can’t ever leave or abandon them. Family comes first. But also to be kind and generous.
Many experienced culture shock by the simple but strict lifestyle they lead. They were always simple at heart, didn’t say very much and followed routines and were frugal. Both grandparents were immensely frugal and would calculate costs down to cents, rigorously saving everything they could. Shopping with them was always fun because we’d try to buy what we needed in the cheapest way possible.
I remember once Dadi bought a can of tomato soup and then switched brands because one was 3 cents cheaper. Another time my cousin Rohan Bhaya and I wanted to borrow a movie from the local video shop for their Cheaper Tuesdays. We needed $1 dollar to pay for it and asked Dada. He refused, saying we should go outside and play in the garden instead. Then he took us downstairs and we watered the garden together.
It’s not that they wouldn’t spend money. They were just selective about what they spent on. Every year they would make a trip to India. Their children went to the best schools. Anything that involved education or family is what they would prioritise. To them, nothing else really mattered and they didn’t care what anyone else thought.
Dadi was a kind and gentle person. She never lost her temper and was always loving and concerned for others and kept the home peaceful. Everyone confided in her. The reason the whole family have such a great relationship is because she would hold it together. She listened to and nurtured everyone, having a part in raising them into who they are today.
Growing up Dadi and I would sit downstairs in the garden and play knots and crosses and work through a math book called Chakravati filled with difficult arithmetic problems. I’d come home from school each day and we’d spend 2 hours downstairs working. She used to say if we ever finished the book we’d be masters of arithmetic and problem solving and be able to think and solve all the worlds problems.
Some of the fondest memories are of us racing to solve a problem and a thrill of joy when we were right. When I was maybe 3 years old, I used to be stubborn about food and refuse to eat. She’d sit with me on the outside staircase and play a game that I’d only eat after every red car passed. Everything was like that. It was a type of game or puzzle.
But Dadi was almost too caring, to the point she was overwhelmed easily by emotion. She’d turn on the news and see floods and start to feel miserable because she couldn’t do anything to help. She was always trying to help other people and would give you a lecture if you were ever not being nice and respectful to other people. She was patient and the ultimate mother figure. I’ve never heard her yell in my entire life. She would always try understanding with you.
She was also a very spiritual and religious woman. On every major occasion like birthdays and marriages and anniversaries, Rakhi and Diwali, Dadi would organise a Puja and Havan. It’s a religious occasion where the family sits around a fire and pray. They would happen without fail. The fire is meant to represent life.
Every birthday and Diwali she’d insist on buying us new clothes and we’d all get dressed up and sit around a Havan. On birthdays, a particular prayer: Om Bhur Bhuva Swaha needs to be repeated once for each year of age the person is which would go on forever when they crossed their 70s and 80s.
Dadi was always reading about and espousing wisdoms about the universe and super souls and after life. About auras and spiritual energy and planetary movements often as basis for decision making. She prays and meditates everyday. This belief even spread to the next generation in a lot of my cousins who to this day consult a fortune seer, the Baba, before making any big life decisions.
A lot of the belief in religion started from a tragedy when Dadi was much younger. When their second daughter Sarita was a child, only 2 years old, she fell from a second story building while playing and hit her head. She died briefly, before Dadi rushed her to the hospital where she was revived and the doctors declared it a miracle. She shouldn’t have survived the fall and they believed it was some form of divine intervention. Some god had answered their prayer. Almost ever since the entire family has been deeply spiritual and religious.
Sarita was the middle child. She was born in 1958 and loved to dance; ballroom, ballet and bharat nathium. She was an intellectual at heart and lived primarily in her head, contemplating the spiritual universe around her. Reading Enid Blyton novels and getting lost in fantasy worlds was her favourite thing to do growing up. Curiously, 30 years later her daughter Gareema Didi, also had the same favourite author.
She’s 5 years younger than her elder sister Nandini but 3 years older than her younger brother Samir. Growing up for her was difficult because family moved so frequently, changing continents so often that she was constantly adjusting to different friends, different schools, different houses and different worlds. Choti Bua had African friends, Australian friends, English friends, Indian friends. Once, she was receiving a prize in the school for being the best English student but she wasn’t able to collect it as the family had already moved.
As she got older she graduated from Enid Blyton and started reading Mills and Boons but Dada would get annoyed at her for reading them. Dada would put the kettle on and then would start making tea and get frustrated calling out her name with no response because she was so engrossed in her books. Eventually she ran out of books and then started reading Dadi’s books, primarily on religion and understanding the universe. In year 12 in Alice Springs library she borrowed a book on reincarnation which changed the way she thought about life and started her on the path towards spiritualism.
She went to high school primarily in Zambia and Alice Springs before finishing in 1975. After finishing school there was talk about her getting married but Dadi insisted this time that she instead go to university. She studied English Literature at Flinders University with Honours from 1976 – 1979, living on college and got married shortly after graduating in 1980 at 21 years old. She married the son of a Kolkatta steel factory proprietor, Dina Fufaji. Fufaji means the husband of your aunt in Hindi and it was once a famous iron and steel factory in India, a forge that made the steel for the railroads.
After marriage they both moved to Darwin in 1981 but Dina Fufaji hated Australia and missed Kolkatta and India. While in Australia she worked for ANZ bank as a teller. After her first year, she was promoted to a ledger officer. Then she got another promotion to a manager ledger officer. She was loved at the bank and started making a career for herself there.
But she had to make a choice, her husband didn’t want to live in Australia. Fufaji was a mechanical engineer running an iron and steel factory in India. He was the boss of the factory with hundreds of labourers. But in Australia, he wasn’t used to taking orders and wanted to move back home. Darwin was a small town wheareas he liked the noise and hustle and bustle of a big city and found the slow relaxed pace of Australia difficult to adjust to. Their way of living. Their way of eating. Their way of speaking.
She had to make a choice whether to pursue a career in Australia or follow her husband and move back to Kolkatta and become a family woman. The choice was career or family. She chose family. They moved back to Kolkatta in 1982 into a flat owned by Dina Fufaji’s family in Salkia, Howra. There, she had 2 children, Gareema Didi born in 1983 and Rohan Bhaya born in 1986. They lived in the ancestral flat for 2 decades before eventually moving into a large apartment at Silver Springs, in a fancy gated community in Kolkatta.
Living in Kolkatta was difficult for her. There was serious culture shock living with a big extended conservative family in a family ancestral home, which is what Dina Fufaji came from. There was also a big shock moving from Australia to living in India requiring her to be much more conservative. When she first saw the family, the women were required to cover their heads and she realised she’d need to change as she thought it was what her new family expected from her.
For years she tried this, wearing saris and covering her hair until one day she decided to change and start wearing salvar suits and letting her hair down. When she stopped wearing Sari’s she spoke to her mother in law who said, “we never expected you to be as conservative as we were. We knew you were from Australia. We were getting an Indian western girl.”
There were elements to the life in India that she struggled with. She wanted to work and have a career but her new family wanted her to be a housewife. They are also quite religious but she was the first daughter in law in the house who didn’t pray to god and conduct poojas, a fire ceremony to pray. At the time, she didn’t believe in doing Pooja’s but after she discovered the reasons for doing them, that all the rituals have significance and meaning. She changed her mind.
To her, the reason for doing Pooja’s isn’t to please god, it’s to provide discipline in your life. That it isn’t about the praying, but the discipline and the act of practicing a religion is about self actualisation. To be the best person you can be. She adopted the religious practices so seriously and became so spiritual that her family became worried that she’d become a Sanyasi, someone who is detached from possessions and the world. But in fact she wanted to become a Yogi, which is someone who lives in the world yet is focused on finding inner peace and enlightenment.
In Kolkatta, she came across a book when Rohan was born. They were wandering around a bookstore and she saw a book on the shelf which she felt drawn too. The book was An Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhand Yoganand. She went home and started reading and kept reading all night. It changed her life.
From that night she became extremely spiritual and her life’s aim became to have self realisation and find enlightenment. She started meditating and visiting ashrams and became a strong follower of the Yogi. She realised that everyone has different fates and different roles in life and each person controls their own destinies. That mentality brought her a lot of satisfaction and understanding.
She decided she didn’t want to be part of the rat race. She wanted to be detached from the world and be focused on taking care of her loved ones and following your own path. “You don’t have to earn money to live life. There are many ways of living.” She believes that each person owns their own destiny and they own their own fate. During problems, Choti Bua would turn to Dada and he’d always say, “suno sabki, karo apni”. In English, it translates to listen to everyone, but only do what you think is right. Dada and Choti Bua would frequently discuss spiritualism and even vowed someday to visit one temple in Madhubanni, the Kalidas temple together.
Life in Kolkatta with Dina Fufaji was peaceful. Every morning he’d leave for the steel factory and she’d take care of the house until he came home and they’d spend time together. Every Sunday during their marriage was date day. They’d go out for lunch, go see a movie, then go out for dinner and come home. For 20 years that was their routine until she felt her life change all over again when Dadi and Dada moved to India. And then again when Rohan Bhaya moved back to India.
In 2013 her daughter Gareema Didi got married and that same year her son Rohan Bhaya moved back home to Kolkatta after having lived in Melbourne for the previous 10 years. He had fallen ill living on his own in Australia and the family decided it would be best if he moved back home to India. In Australia, Rohan Bhaya always talked about moving home to help his father with his steel factory and it was the most opportune time to do that. He had just had a near death experience and the quality of care was a lot higher with his family. Plus he missed being home.
When Dadi and Dada moved in too, her life became much busier. They moved to India around the time they required full time 24 hour nurses to live with them. Choti Bua and Dina Fufaji stopped going out as much because they were insecure about leaving Dadi and Dada alone. If anything happened, she wasn’t confident that they’d be able to take care of themselves. In Kolkatta, everything was unfamiliar having created a life in Smith St in Darwin. But one thing was the same, every day like they had done for years at Smith St, they’d play cards at 3pm.
In his later years Dada and Choti Bua would have a debate about the amount of sugar he’d be allowed to take because of his diabetes. But he also had a sweet tooth. Whenever she’d come to the dining table, Dada would look at her and smile and say “agaye agaye, food minister agaye.” Because Dada was so spiritual, they’d have spiritual conversations about life. The older he’d get the quieter Dada became. When asked why he’d speak so little, he’d reply that “what was the need to talk?”
Dadi and Dada were two very different people. Dadi was always in touch with people’s feelings and emotions, whereas Dada wasn’t. She was talkative and understanding but Dada was curt and dry. When he spoke was quiet, reserved, abrupt and wouldn’t speak much.
On the surface he was abrasive but deep down was tender and loving but few made it that far in an effort to really get to know him. Many of the cousins found it difficult to connect with Dada since he was a very intense man and many thought him distant and uncaring. Despite the outward appearance, he cared very much, just never showed it. In that sense, he was stoic.
He was relentless. He never got sick, never missed work, never complained about anything and was highly disciplined. Dada always held to routines and was ritualistic. Everything seemed like it was part of a routine. Everything was done at a fixed time and always in the same exact order, every day for years. A lot of the routine was due to his diabetes which became a huge influence on his later life.
Every morning he’d wake up at 5 am, do his Pranayama breathing exercises, pray and then start his walking exercises. Then he’d take his stethoscope and get ready for work in his white long sleeve striped shirt, grey woolen suit, blue checkered tie and silver wrist watch. At 3pm every day he’d take a cup of plain black coffee and exactly 3 biscuits. In old age this would be followed by a game of Bridge at 4pm. Every day at 5pm Dadi would cut apples and oranges into slices and give it to him and they’d sit and eat fruit together. It was really sweet.
If it was a Saturday he’d wake up at 4am and go fishing at the wharf. Indian families in Darwin still remember and talk fondly about his fish curries and patties and how good they were. He would always invite guests for dinners and lunches, with people dropping in constantly. Every Friday night before bed he’d ask if anyone in the house wanted to join him. Someone always did and he’d sit there for hours with his fishing rod and watch the sunrise. He’d then go to the Parap markets to buy vegetables and greasy chicken satays for us grandchildren. That night, he’d invariably make machli (fish curry) or saag (spinach) with whatever he’d caught.
Images of him are walking around with a stern look and a walking stick, in the garden or at the wharf fishing. He would always perform out of habit and didn’t want to change anything about his life or his habits to suit other people. This stubbornness was the source of a rebellious spirit within their children and grandchildren. A need to do things their own way and choose their own path.
He would say that you can overcome any obstacles by simply outworking anyone else. In that sense, he was a force to be reckoned with. If he needed to do something, he just would. He was stubborn and unrelenting. After his mind was set on something and he decided on what to do, he wouldn’t stop until he did it or achieved what he wanted.
Once in Nigeria, Dada was getting ready for work in the morning. While putting on his shoe, was bitten by a Scorpion hiding in it. But he had work and didn’t want to be late. There were patients waiting for him. He went through the entire day without getting any help, just dealing with the pain. After arriving home, at dinner Dadi saw his foot was swollen and forced him to go to hospital. When asked what happened, he simply said, his feet hurt.
He was a deeply devout and spiritual man. One of the few people that have a copy of the entire Hindu Vedas and has read it entirely. His favourite television shows were Ramayan and Mahabharath. Every day began and ended with a prayer. Hari Om. It was from religion he always tried to teach the values of honesty and integrity, but also of overcoming injustice and hurdles.
Mostly, he was quiet. A simple man of few words. Didn’t say a lot but his words carried a lot of meaning. When he was with people, he wouldn’t say much. Both compliments and insults were equally rare. You would never hear anything positive or negative from him, a quiet and intense person. Smiling, was rare. Everything he said was completely deadpan and unassuming.
When in the house he always wore a white singlet and cotton pants with his hair at crazy angles like Einstein. You could easily mistake him for a beggar or crazy person if you saw him on the street. But for work or parties, he would always wear a full sleeve white or blue shirt and his famous grey woolen suit and tie. Dadi on the other hand always looked smart. She was always dressed in traditional Indian clothing with red powder on her forehead; Sindhur which signifies she’s married and some kind of jewellery, usually a Mangalsutra which is a necklace given to a bride by her husband, and earrings.
Arguments between Dada and Dadi would be Dadi lecturing him while he just stared at her with an ironic scowl. He’d furrow his brow and affectionately glare for a moment before carrying on with whatever they were doing like it was the end of the argument. If you ever saw it, you couldn’t help but burst out laughing with how silly it seemed.
Famously one Diwali, the Indian festival of light, it’s like the Indian Christmas, he missed it to see a patient that needed urgent diagnosis and treatment. When he came back, he didn’t say anything, just that he’d been at work and now he was back. We only found out years later that he’d saved someone’s life when they sent a card.
All through my childhood I was afraid of Dada. He just seemed to have a presence and a quiet intensity about him. It wasn’t until I grew up that we became really close. As I’d get older I’d sit with him more and he’d tell me stories about his life. We’d sit for hours in his room at Orchard Rd, holding hands, massaging his legs and talking. As he started to get very old, I would tell him stories.
Most of the grandkids have fond memories of being coerced by Dada to massage his legs in order to be able to watch tv in his room or listen to his stories. It was a ritual that the grandchildren would massage his feet and listen while laying on their waterbed. The story would only go for as long we were massaging and sometimes went for hours.
The most famous are the story of the Minister and the King. It was in Hindi but goes something like:
“There once was a Raja, which in English means King. He had an advisor, his Minister. Before making decisions he would ask the Minister for advice. But the King had a bad temper and would exercise it frequently whereas the Minister was always calm and believed that things happened for a reason.
Once the King was cooking and accidentally cut of one of fingers. In pain he asked the Minister why this had happened and what he should do to which the Minister replied, “nothing, everything happens for a reason. I’m sure there was a reason you cut off your finger.” Angered, the Raja ordered the Minister to cut off his own finger for his insolence to feel the pain he had just went through. Shocked, the Minister complied.
Later that week, they went hunting and were captured by a tribe. The tribe was going to use them as live tributes to their god and sacrifice them. Upon seeing the missing finger, determined the King and his Minister to be unfit tributes as they were not whole or pure and set them free. Upon returning to their home, the King burst into tears and apologised profusely to the Minister, begging for his forgiveness.
The Minister just smiled and forgave the King on the spot. “Everything happens for a reason. You see if you hadn’t ordered me to cut of my finger, I would surely have been sacrificed,” said the Minister to the King. And from that day he was promoted to the highest position in the land and became the Kings closest advisor and best friend. The moral being that everything happens for the best even if we may not understand it at the time.”
Nandini was the eldest daughter of Dadi and Dada and by all accounts she was brilliant. She was born in Patna on the 16th Feb 1953 and grew up learning from the Chakravati maths book and that made her a genius. But she wasn’t able to make the most of her potential. Because Dada travelled so much for work, she changed schools frequently. From the ages of 5 to 18, she attended 13 schools before getting marrie at 18. In 13 years whe went to 13 schools. She was always the new girl.
She started school in Delhi at Queens Mary school. Then Allahabhab Girls High School. The went to Patna Mount Kamu Boarding School. There she was the best in her school and they double jumped her, meaning she skipped 2 grades of high school. She then went to St Joseph’s Convent where she was a day scholar followed by Firozpur Girls High School. In Nigeria she went to 3 schools: Kaduna, Jos and Kano Girls School. It was in Kano the nuns in the school suggested they send such a brilliant student to Ireland to make the most of her education.
Her favourite school was St Louis Convent in Ireland where she spent 3 years from 15 to 18, 1968 to 1971. It was her favourite because she lived in a boarding school. She was the only vegetarian and only foreigner there so whe was pampered by the nuns and was such a great student that the staff and board loved her. They would give her sweets and cakes. Ireland was a magical time and one of the best periods of her life. That was the place she got all her confidence, independance and learned how to survive and be on her own.
In Ireland, she underwent eloquence training. They would teach her how to walk like a lady and talk like a lady. On one of the days they taught her how to wear stilettos and walk up and down stairs. They taught her how to be a lady, how to speak, how to use a knife and fork, how to dress, how to wear her hair, how to walk, the right posture and disposition for a lady.
Badi Bua was always Dada’s favourite. They had a special connection. Whilst in boarding school, every Monday she would write a letter to him telling him all about her time there. Who she met, her first beer, what she was wearing to special parties, what she would get up to, her studies, her life, the things she cared about. All this, she would write to her father. She was a very obedient child. She always listened to her father. She thought her father was the best. He always knows the best.
In Allahabad, every day before going to the hospital. He would give Badi Bua a few sentences in Hindi and ask her to translate it in English. And every day he would give her the Baghavad Gita, a hindo prayer book, to learn a verse every day. They would never buy her dolls or toys. Instead would buy her story books and math texts. Groing up, her favourite books were Chanda Mama, Parag, Chunnu Munnu and Chapak. Indian fairytales. From one of them, came her nickname “Put Put.”
She was also an excellent student. She used to top her classes in English, Maths, Chemistry. Once it was announced to the whole school that Nandini Raut topped English. She, the foreigner from India to whom English was a second language had beaten all the English speakers. It was one of the most proud moments in her life. After school, she wanted to study and become a doctor.
Unfortunately, life had other plans.
One day in April of 1971, her final year of school, she suddenly got a telegram from Patna that her grandfather was in a car accident and that her grandmother had passed away. The telegram said: “Nani. Passed Away. Nana. Serious. Come Soon.” She left all her luggage in the UK in Ireland, packed her overnight bag and left for Patna. She couldn’t study much, she was so upset.
She stayed in Patna, in mourning. Then at the behest of her aunts, after Patna she went to Ranchi to visit a hillstation for a holiday. But it was just an excuse. When she arrived, things weren’t as they seemed. The point of the trip, was to set her up for marriage. She wasn’t really consulted about it.
Badi Bua had never worn a Sari before. But when she opened her suitcase in Ranchi, there was a sari in the suitcase but she didn’t know how to wear it. She saw a calendar on the wall with a picture of a model wearing one and so she wrapped the sari like that. The reason she needed the Sari was because the family of a boy was coming to see her and she needed to look beautiful.
6 people came in the morning. A boy and his elders. They then came again in the afternoon. The boy and her barely spoke. In the evening they offered his hand in marriage. Badi Bua’s aunts accepted it on the spot and declared the engagement the very next day. They felt that the offer was from such a rich family, that it was an honour to have one of our daughters be married into this family. They were the famous Gupta family of Ranchi. One of the wealthiest families in the state. A family who collectively own half of the CBD.
But Dadi was uncomfortable with this. She hadn’t wanted her daughter to get married at such a young age or so quickly to a boy she barely knew. She phoned her father NanaBaba asking for advice. And was overruled by the elders in the family. The wedding went ahead. From meeting the boy to being engaged was less than 24 hours. She met him in the morning. They were engaged by night. She was 18 years old. She didn’t get to go to university and complete her education. She was engaged before her final school exam results were even released. Within a few months, the wedding was decided.
They were married on the 2nd November 1971. A few months later still, her first daughter was born on the 28th August 1972. Almost exactly 9 months from the date of the marriage. And 6 months from engagement to marriage. And 24 hours from meeting to engagement. After marriage, she moved to a village in Lohardaga with her new family.
It all happened so fast. After all of that education and potential and eloquence training, she got married and went to live in a village.
They lived in a huge house in a village in Lohardaga about 100km outside the city of Ranchi where they lived after marriage for 7 years. Even though there was immense amounts of wealth, the standard of living was poor. There was nothing to do, no cinema, no friends. Her father in law realised he had made a mistake. He’d brought a brilliant girl with a British accent from a city in Ireland to a small village in the middle of Ranchi. There were frequent power failures. Electricity only lasted for 4 or 5 hours a day. The water came from a well.
All the food was so terrible and unappatazing that she would throw it up. She doesn’t remember having a good meal in nearly 6 years. Once she asked for cheese. And they didn’t know what cheese was. They’d never seen cheese before. Such was the standard of food in the village of Ranchi. Another day she wanted to eat bread. To get bread, they had to travel 100km to the city just to get bread.
After marriage she was angry at her parents. Realising the life they had chosen for her and expecting her to be happy. She stopped writing letters to her father in 1971 as a sign of protest. In Ranchi, people made fun of her because she had a British accent so she stopped speaking English altogether.
But on the whole she enjoyed her life in Lohardaga. It was a challenge. She was so used to the city that this life was so alien to her she was constantly adjusting. And they were constantly adjusting to her. These people who had grown up in immense wealth in a conservative village were becoming used to having a modern city girl in the house.
Her father in law would say that he loved his daughter in law almost as much as his own daughters. She is so special, that he adored her. Every day he would come and ask her to read the English newspaper to him. He knew she was bored and unhappy there so to make up to her and keep her busy and happy would buy her lots of books. One day she ordered 53 books. When the parcel arrived from Delhi, he burst out laughing. She spent all her time reading. There wasn’t much else to do.
It was a very conservative society. Once she went out to play badminton with her in laws. She played outside for a few hours and at her mother in law came and was furious at her. She thought it was inappropriate for the daughter of the house to be seen outside playing that she was scolded. In the society of that village, it was inappropriate for a girl to be seen outside having fun with other people.
After 7 years of living there, it was enough. The tipping point came when Badi Bua realised her eldest daughter Nidhi wasn’t learning anything living in a village. She wanted her 3 daughters to be receive a good education like she had done. She fought with everyone and insisted the family move to the nearby city of Ranchi for the sake of her childrens education.
But the family were unhappy with her because of this. They didn’t want her to leave. To try and placate her, instead of just giving in and letting them leave. They went and built her an entire school. Just for her 3 daughters. To give them the level of education that she wanted. But that’s not what she wanted. She wanted them to go to a good school. Not to have their own school. Eventually, they gave in and the family moved to Ranchi.
Around the time of her 3rd daughter Upasana. The extended family wanted her to have a son. Worried what they might do if she had a 3rd daughter, which she did, she decided to have her in Australia and moved there in 1978 with Medha, after Nidhi was in boarding school. In Australia they all lived in the Smith St house. Upasana Didi was born in Australia in 1979 at the Royal Darwin Hospital to an adoring family and grandparents.
After Australia, she settled back in Ranchi in the ancestral home of her in laws. The great Luxmynilliam house. A 4 story house with huge penthouses that house each of the individual brothers and sons of the Gupta family and their wives and children. Each brother has their own penthouse. It’s like it’s own mini community. They still live their today.
All the children except Upasana Didi were born in Ranchi. Nidhi Didi in 1972. Medha Didi in 1974. Gaurav Bhaya in 1983. Badi Bua had 4 children before she was even 30. All her kids are now in their 30s and 40s with children of their own and she herself is a grandparent. While in India, the kids all grew up in Ranchi and were sent to boarding school at Bishop West Scott School and then to Wellams Boarding School in UttarPradesh.
All the children except Nidhi Didi, moved to Australia in their teens and spent the end of their high school and universities in Australia living in Sydney or Darwin in the Smith St house. Badi Bua would visit often. Memories are of us all playing Checkers and Chinese Checkers and sitting around the large round glass table of the Smith St house drinking tea and playing cards. I don’t remember Badi Bua ever losing a single game. She was brilliant at board games and anything requiring strategy.
Today Badi Bua wakes up every morning at 5am and does her breathing exercises, just like her father did. Then she gets ready and goes to work as the managing director of a 5 star hotel in the middle of Ranchi, Jharkhand with her youngest son Gaurav. Together with her husband, they built the hotel from scratch, enduring the heartaches and setbacks of making a flash, 5 star, 8 story building from nothing as a female business leader in the conservative Indian town of Ranchi.
They have made it one of the most successful 5 star hotels in the entire state. In 2011, they won an award from the Carlson Group for being one of the most promising hotels of the group in any country in the entire world.
Diamonds, Regrets and Cigarettes
Dada was a chain smoker. It was ironic that he smoked whilst also being a lung specialist. Many doctors would comment on the oxymoron of it. He’d smoked since he was 11 years old when he started with his elder brother and was a chain smoker by 16, consuming a pack a week. It was almost humorous, he would treat a patient for lung cancer whilst puffing on a cigarettes
He had amazing self control. When their second child was born, Sarita he decided one day to quit smoking. Just like that he made a decision to quit and stuck to it ever since, without relapsing once. Such was the extent, it’s almost a force to be reckoned with how much self control he wielded. There are also no outbursts. He never got upset or lost his temper.
Dada was always calm and had unwavering principles that he stuck to above all else. Such as remaining quiet, never raising your voice, never overlooking injustice, never letting yourself succumb to unfairness and being a strongly willed person. If the world was unfair to you then you would work hard and make it fair. To him, people who lost their temper and couldn’t control themselves were weak minded.
For most of Dada’s adulthood he was broke. On 2 separate occasions in his life, he built up a fortune and then lost everything. The first losing their land in Patna and the second losing their home during the Nigerian civil war. Even at the time when he came to Australia in his 50s, he barely had any savings. All he had was his education and qualifications. It is why in the family there is such a huge emphasis on education. Education is valued above everything because it was his weapon of upward mobility and how he went about creating a better life.
It wasn’t until late in life, in the years he worked in Australia, was he really able to save and build wealth. Whereas Dadi grew up in a rich family and was used to wealth. He wasn’t. One day Dada came home with a diamond ring. Dadi turned around and said she didn’t like jewellery and he shouldn’t have bought it for her. He ignored her, saying that when he was younger and had no money, she never asked for gifts or jewellery.
She never asked for anything and he always appreciated it. She never complained about not having enough money or not living lavishly or receiving expensive presents. When they got married she didn’t even receive any jewellery from Dada’s side of the family, a long standing tradition in India. Daughters would take huge insult if they didn’t receive anything from the husbands side of the family. Dadi on the other hand never cared. He couldn’t even afford to buy her a ring. So now that he could afford to, he started showering her with gifts and holidays.
It was a rare gesture for Dada who was frugal his entire life. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t spend money. He just wouldn’t unnecessarily. When my dad was young he loved playing tennis, but used an old second hand wooden racquet. He wanted a new racquet and Dada bought him the most expensive one he could find. But often refused requests for cheap things he believed were unnecessary.
As they got older many of their mistakes and regrets began to surface. For Dadi a big moment came when she decided to stop dying her hair black. She had always feared old age but it was the day she finally accepted life and it ending someday and started to speak more openly about her mistakes and regrets.
Dada on the other hand never talked about his. Only about the things he never did but wanted to do. In my grandmothers attic is a winter fur coat bought for her anniversary. He had planned to take Dadi to ride the Trans Siberian railway but never got around to it. He also talked about never properly mending relations with his side of the family and not seeing his own parents in their final years. And never developing the block of land that was Smith Street.
For Dadi her biggest regret was marrying the daughters young without knowing much about the husbands. Both had arranged marriages and were married before their 20s to people they didn’t know. Neither had the chance to travel or have a career and life of their own. Before they knew it, both were married and became housewives.
Nandini, their eldest daughter, hadn’t wanted to get married so soon. She was 18 at the time and she’d wanted an education but she also loved her father and would listen to everything he said. She looked up to him and they would spend hours together in the kitchen talking. When she was asked if she wanted to get married, she simply said, “What does Papa want? If Papa wants me to get married, then I’ll get married.”
Weeks before the marriage was finalised, Dadi and Dada had a big fight. My Dadi hadn’t wanted her to get married so soon. He thought Dadi would try to stop the wedding from taking place and she threatened to run away. So Dada hid her passport and talked her into allowing the marriage to happen.
My grandfather came from a slum so when he was presented marriage proposals from rich educated families for his daughters, he agreed. He and NanaBaba saw this as the way to ensure a comfortable life for them which he’d never experienced. That by marrying into a rich family, his kids would be set up forever. They would never have to struggle or make sacrifices as he did.
Dada regretted not being closer to some of their grandchildren and not trying to build wealth faster. He had a strained relationship with some of his more unorthodox grandkids that didn’t like his conservative way of thinking. Whenever his grandaughters would wear short skirts, he’d freak out. Dada also regrets not saying that he loved people more or showing affection to the people he loved. And Dadi still thinks about her friends in Nigeria and Delhi.
The other major regret was not building Smith St faster. My Dad was an architect and so Dada relied on him to design and construct the building. He left it entirely in his hand. But Dad was working hard in his job and didn’t have the time. As such the block was left undeveloped for the better part of 2 decades. Dada would say if he’d just hired an architect, then it would have been built much sooner, but because his son had been an architect and didn’t have time because he was pursuing his own dreams, he spent years waiting and it never got built.
The regrets however were minor compared to how thankful and happy they were in life. Both embraced spirituality and inner peace and didn’t let any troubles stay on their mind for too long. One of the best decisions they ever made was coming to Australia. For the most part life in Australia was happy. They worked hard, saved and created a big loving family. They lived on Smith Street for 30 years until they grew too old to take care of themselves.
In 2008, they moved in with my parents.
My parents met in college and fell in love. Meeting my mum was the reason my dad took 7 years to graduate a 4 year degree – he was distracted, to say the least. They were best friends and got married in 1986 with a big wedding in India. Their wedding was one of the biggest most memorable weddings in the family.
They booked an entire train cart to take all the family that attended the wedding in Bombay to another city, Patna, to the Kailash Bhavan house for the reception. It’s still talked about as one of the best weddings. Of nearly 72 marriages in the family, there’s was a love marriage. Most of the rest were arranged.
After marriage, they moved to Darwin to start a family and built their own home, a huge house. In 1992, they had their first son, Sohum. Me. And a daughter in 1996, Eesha. My Dad, Samir, is an architect and started working at a local rural architecture firm. He worked at the same firm his entire life and is now the CEO of it. My mother, Megha, joined the bureau of statistics and later the government as an economist where she did a PHD in economics.
Dad is the quintessential family man. After finishing university he had the option of a flash corporate job in Sydney designing skyscrapers, or to move back to Darwin where his parents were and take up a job at a small firm designing houses for poor people in rural areas. He chose the latter, and it’s this one decision that kept the family so close together. It’s the reason my sister and I grew up so close to our grandparents and why the family is so tight knit.
Dad, being an architect, it was his dream to live in a house he designed. After marriage, they lived with Dadi and Dada and later in one of their investment properties, a small 2 bedroom flat on Armidale St in Stuart Park. They lived rent-free for over a decade and it’s how my parents were able to save enough to create the foundation that allowed them to build their own home at a young age.
One day my dad had a client. Near his house was a large block of land for sale. After seeing it, he went back to his office and found a copy of the schematic from the government. The first thing he did was draw a tennis court. It fit and a dream was born. He started to design a house. The Orchard Road House.
Dad had always loved tennis. He played competitively all through high school and university. It was a dream that his kids would play also and that sports and competition would be a part of their lives. With this, we could play any time at home. It was my dads pushing that started me playing tennis. Before I stopped playing, I was nationally ranked in the top 1000 players in the country.
With the help of Dadi and Dada, they purchased the land and began construction on what would become their home. They moved in on 21st December 2000, on their wedding anniversary. At first it was too big and we had trouble adjusting to having so much space. When we first moved in, there was no furniture or television, so we all lived on the floor. We would sit around eating dinner on the ground.
It was wonderful and we lived like that for years. Eventually, when we could afford it, the house was furnished with designer chairs and expensive televisions. Dad would talk for hours about how the chairs were designed by a famous architect Le Corbusier and how they were examples of beauty in furniture.
Dad is a hippie at heart, always talking about design and the beauty of structure and how things interact with each other, art and science. He’s one of the greatest people I know. I admire him a lot even though I don’t show it. His shoulders are the broadest, biggest shoulders because they bear the full weight of all the responsibility of the family on and he never gets any credit for it. Like in architecture, the support beams are often the least acknowledged part of a building but without it, the whole thing would fall down.
Mum is the opposite. She had a more difficult upbringing with her parents making her work. She worked from the age of 14 and would come home only to have her Dad take away all of her earnings. They provided educational opportunities for her brother but not for her, leaving her household not a very happy one.
That upbringing left a scar because she experienced first hand the negativity of a family that didn’t support her. It’s left her emotionally penurious and with a bad temper. But she’s also fiercely loyal, the first person to defend those she cares about and the most fanatically loving person there is. In fact, she loves her family a bit too much where she would defend you to people over the smallest things and solve many of her problems by getting into arguments.
My Mum didn’t have the best relationship with her in laws. She always means well and is happy, spiritual and the loveliest person when she’s calm. But her temper and impatience get the better of her. I remember once there was a big argument in Stuart Park with my mum screaming and shouting at my Dada, who would quietly just listen.
The reason they didn’t have the best relationship is because there’s a huge cultural chasm that is hard to grasp. Dadi and Dada came from conservative India with a set of preconceived conservative values but living in Australia, were attempting to adopt the values of a liberal Western country.
When my mum and dad moved into my grandparents house shortly after marriage, Dadi went and let the cleaning lady go. She believed it was the role of the daughter-in-law to maintain the house. My mum never forgot this and resented it. She didn’t want to just be a daughter in law, she wanted to be a breadwinner. It was the ideologies of two generations clashing.
But that isn’t always a bad thing. My grandparents accepted my mother into their family with loving open arms and treated her like their own daughter. During my parents wedding, my Dadi put aside all her old gold and diamond jewellery to give to her. The wife of her only son. And gave them their first, second and helped with their third house to live and create a family in.
But mum resented a lot of the acceptance. I think it’s because in them she saw everything that her parents had never really given her. Mostly support. And they were accepting and understanding and free with it, never asking for anything in return. When she wanted to start a small business called Bollywood and Spice, the people who gave her a loan to start was Dadi and Dada.
One day while making his daily 3pm cup of coffee, Dada put a cup of water in the microwave for 4 hours. It was caught before any serious damage happened. A few months later he fell and couldn’t lift himself up again. A few months later he had a diabetic insulin attack. A few months later he had a stroke and needed to be rushed to hospital. A year later on the morning of my cousin Gareema Didi’s wedding, Dada was found naked on the bathroom floor, having a seizure. The frequency was increasing. No one knew what to do.
He developed Diabetes and Arthritis early. I’d watch him take multiple tablets a day and then struggle to go to the pharmacy to buy new ones. It was the seed of Medicine, the company I founded. As they got older Dada was diagnosed with Alzheimers and Dementia. Dadi was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease.
As the conditions worsened, he needed full time caring. Dadi and Dada moved in with their daughter Sarita in Calcutta where they stayed for 2 years before moving to Ranchi to live with their eldest daughter Nandini. India is cheaper and there was a full time nurse with them. They could go back and forth, spending 6 months in Australia, 6 months in India.
Despite becoming sicker, he is one of the most relaxed elderly people. He sometimes forgets who I am and who he is and the people closest to him. I once had a conversation with him and mid conversation he forgot who I was. I explained I was his grandson and we both started laughing. He then asked if he had any other grandchildren. Another time he thought he was 6 years old, even though he was clearly in his 90s and when I explained it to him, he said being 90 was too boring.
Most of the family struggled to cope with him in old age. It has less to do with him, as Dementia is involuntary, but more the aggregate member of the family is impatient and has a short temper. It’s taught me a lot about how destructive a bad temper can be and how I never want to be surrounded by people with one. If you surround yourself with happy people, you can’t help but become happier yourself. But the same works in reverse. When a lot of bad tempered people are together it creates a melting pot of aggression and unhappiness.
Dada and I used to sit and talk about death often. About his life and regrets. I wanted to know what it was like for a person who knew they were going to die, what they felt in the final years of their life. He would say he was scared but also looking forward to his next life. We would talk about these things casually. We were friends.
One day we were both laying on the bed in the downstairs room of the Orchard Rd house after Dadi and Dada had moved in with us. I was holding his hand and looking at how fragile his veins seemed compared to mine. They were older and rough while mine were delicate. The colour had faded from his hands. And he just out of the blue said, “I don’t want to die” as if he knew what I was thinking. Like we were both thinking the same thing.
Every day while he was in Calcutta, he’d battle with the nurses taking care of him over how much sugar he could take. It was always endearing and inspiring to watch. That even at this old age, he’s full of life and just as stubborn and does things his own way. All he seemed to eat in old age were bananas and toast. He’d argue to avoid anything else. He’s a force to be reckoned with and when he sets his mind on something, it’s all he does.
He checked his watch regularly. At 6am he’d go for a shower. He held onto his habits as a way to stay focused on being alive. He would say, if I don’t have a shower, I’ll die. It makes sense in a strange kind of way. He was so used to his habits, that nearing the end of his life, if he didn’t stick to his pattern even once, he thought he’d pass away.
The same way when doing pushups, even though your arms hurt, you keep count and push yourself. You set yourself small hurdles, 30, 40, 50 and if you can just reach the next hurdle, you can keep going. It keeps you going and if you give up, that’s it. So that little bit extra each day keeps you alive.
Every time he felt like he was going to die, he’d go and have a shower. Sometimes this would mean showering at 3am in the morning and and he’d be yelled at to go back to sleep. It was disturbing people. I don’t think they ever really understood.
Living in Ranchi with my aunt. One morning he woke up with trouble breathing. After trying an inhaler and calling a doctor, they decided to take him to hospital. They checked into ICU and he was put on a ventilator. He couldn’t breathe. His lungs and organs had started failing. My family got a call at 2am in the morning. My dad was on a plane 3 hours later heading to India. Dada passed away an hour into the flight.
I called and talked to Dadi while she was in the hospital. She was in complete shock, crying uncontrollably. You could hear the desperation in her voice, just trying to bring him back. Realising she was now alone. That there was no-one to play Bridge with everyday at 4pm. Her husband of 60 years who was fast asleep next to her earlier that morning, was now having funeral preparations made for him by afternoon.
He was either 92 or 95 when he passed away. No one knows for certain. It always amazed me how someone could be 95. Because to me, that meant he was born during World War 1, grew up during the Great Depression, was alive during World War 2 and saw first hand everything that we study in school.
All of these things seem like worlds away from what I know today. But to him, that was the reality he lived in. It was the world he grew up in. It’s such an amazing concept to me that someone who was such a powerful influence in our lives doesn’t exist anymore. Like there is physically nothing left of the person except ash. We scattered his ashes in two places. Along his favourite fishing spot at the wharf, a place he’d come every week for 30 years and watch the sunrise. The other in a highly religious bay of water in India.
On their 60th anniversary we commissioned a painting for them. This novella, our memories and those paintings are the only surviving record of one of the best couples and greatest men and women I ever knew. Dr Sitaram and Sarojini Raut.