The closing scene of E.Nesbit’s Railway Children always chokes me. “Oh my Daddy, my Daddy!” cries Roberta as her father- who has been in prison (falsely accused of spying for the Germans)- steps down to the station platform.
I used to experience something close to that intense joy whenever my favourite uncle or aunt appeared on the other side of the wire mesh door: hot, weary, dusty from a long journey that had started maybe two days back in a far off mountain or other remote outpost.
There was my Auntie Savitri, or Diji as we all called her, my mother’s older sister. She was taller than my mother, with a beautiful oval face, fine features, grey-blue eyes and long dark brown hair. We had a family joke about Alexander the Great who had marched as far south during his conquest of Northern India as Mirpur, where my family originated. Diji’s younger siblings adored her and she visited our family once or twice a year. She arrived with a “bistar-bund”, a form of sleeping bag which was essential travelling gear on train journeys. It was made up of a thin mattress, a sheet, Dhariwal woollen blankets and a pillow stuffed with carded cotton, the bundle rolled up inside khaki coloured canvas and secured with straps and with the owner’s name stencilled on it. Incidentally, all mattresses and pillows in our house were emptied of stuffing every year and the cotton was carded on a tall harp-like contraption carried by the carder, who sat in the garden plucking his humming cord, sending tiny bits of white fluff floating into the air.
From her securely strapped leather suitcase Diji produced a Dalda tin packed with with walnut fudge. She made it with thick buffalo milk and walnuts from her Kashmir garden. There may have been a jar of pickles or jam as well as a bag of almonds and sultanas, or kishmish, from Afghanistan. When she stayed with us, sometimes for a whole month, she would visit all the Delhi relatives, one by one, but the fudge was for us alone.
In the evening we gathered round her and asked for our favourite stories. She simply exuded love and was both comforting and entertaining. She knew all the family anecdotes and who was married to who. Even though she was kindness itself, she could be acerbic. “Those girls,” referring to two of her nieces, “will not lift a finger to help my sister, but they must have the latest sandals and the latest fashions.” And she would reminisce about our maternal grandparents whom we had hardly known. “Your grandfather, Bauji” she told us, “had a favourite armchair in which he sat to smoke his hookah in the evening after returning home from Court.” Diwan Sant Ram practised as a barrister specialising in criminal law. He had trained at the Inner Temple around the same time as Gandhiji and had been presented to Queen Victoria, as a novelty- the first state subject from Jammu and Kashmir who wore his national costume in front of the Empress of India. “He loved his toast and boiled eggs for breakfast and he always gave the first piece to your grandmother, Bebeji.”
In my introduction to Rich or Poor, my book of traditional stories from India, I wrote this about Diji:
She had a talent of drawing us (children) into a charmed circle. ” Come closer” she would say as we sat by an open fire in the evenings (Delhi has cold winters too and we were lucky enough to have the perfect setting for listening to stories: a fireplace).
“The one about the parrot.”
“No an Akbar and Birbal story”
“can you tell us a really scary one?” Or we would ask for stories about the god Krishna when he was a little boy, or one of the many tales of heroism and sacrifice from the Ramayana or Mahabharata. My aunt always took her time to decide. She would crack a few nuts, thoughtfully rub the kernels free of shell, clap her hands and shake out her shawl to free them from debris, clear her throat and begin: “A very long time ago…”
When she was 16, my uncle Jagmohan, who was at Emanuel College Cambridge, somehow wangled a place for her at Newnham, but there was no question of her going there. She was married at 18 and had three wonderful sons, who all went into the Armed Forces (the youngest became Admiral Arun Prakash, Naval Chief).
The eldest, Major General Rajendra Prakash, was only a little younger than my beloved Uncle Kuli, Krishan Mohan Ram, who joined the Indian Air Force and got appointed ADC to the last British Air Marshal, Ivelaw Chapman.
He was extremely handsome with bags of charm and drove a low-slung green Austin-8 sports car. He would suddenly arrive from some mission and delightedly pinch our cheeks and hug us to him. One day he saw a young woman waiting for a bus and offered her a lift. She refused the first two times but did give in eventually and when he became engaged to the beautiful Miss Sneh Grover I was consumed with jealousy. I remember he read us The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, which features Bill Cunningham who flies seaplanes. I think Kuli Uncle told us he had met him once!
He had a soldier’s brisk stride and an equally brisk way of speaking and our house would buzz with activity and excitement whenever he came to stay. Once they were married, the former Miss Sneh Grover (who became our beloved Sneh Auntie) would ensure his uniform (starched khaki in summer, blue worsted in winter) were meticulously laundered or pressed, his black shoes shined and his cap ready to hand before he left for work.
I stayed with them at their various Air Force postings when I was still quite young. The cantonment had a hectic social scene, with dinner dances and theatrical productions and I was roped in to act in a play, I think Charley’s Aunt. Sneh Auntie, still a fairly new bride, loved knitting and concocting dishes for her “Kishi”. There was always a slab of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut and a pile of Woman and Home and Woman’s Weekly on the coffee table. I remember being fascinated by a column by The Man Who Sees, a column of folksy masculine wisdom written by a man with a picture byline- quizzical eyebrows, pipe and fair-isle pullover.
We knew my uncle and aunts really loved us, because they always played with us, told us stories and gave us the warmest hugs. I miss them terribly now that they are gone.