Vidyarthy Chatterjee

In my personal calendar of gains and losses, September is a craven, cowardly month. It robbed me, born the same month, of my two closest relatives. I don’t expect everybody to be interested in this humble story of comings and goings, but, who knows, someone out there might read a useful metaphor here.

Come late August/early September each year, and my mind becomes more crowded with memories than usual. Nineteen years ago in the hot, sultry days of September my dear parents passed away within five days of each other. Father took to bed quite suddenly on Independence Day, 2001; his stout heart, which had fought and overcome numerous battles, ultimately bowed before destiny some three weeks later. Mother, a heart patient who had borne many losses with fortitude including the loss of her first-born, refused to take food or medicines after her husband’s abrupt departure. Within days she, too, went her way. My parents had been together for all of sixty years, through heat and dust, smiles and sadness. Doubtless they had their occasional misunderstandings, their little tiffs, but these were nothing compared to the solidarity of spirit that had kept them going for so long. Their children were the brick and mortar that held together their love for each other down the years.

In the early days there was never enough money in the house, but I remember my childhood in the ’forties and the ’fifties as a happy one. My two elder brothers, my little sister and I got what we asked for; and often many good things came our way even without our asking. It was only after we had grown up that we could guess what hardships our poor parents must have silently endured so that we could have all that boys and girls enjoyed in better-off families.

Despite their scarcity of means, our parents sent us brothers to, arguably, the best school in town, Loyola, run by American Jesuit priests, and my sister to Sacred Heart Convent, conducted by Carmelite nuns. In later years, each of us was given the very best opportunities to do well academically – Goutam went to BHU where he studied electrical engineering, Bhaskar did architecture in Bombay University, I got into Presidency College to study history, and my sister Reeta to Lady Brabourne College,  where she, too, studied history. All first-rate institutions with proud histories, excellent faculty, and peers as good as we, if not better.

How father managed to do so much with so little resources at his disposal is a mystery I shall never be able to solve. Perhaps, there is no mystery here when one considers the amount of honest hard labour he put in so that his children may not suffer the pains and humiliations of deprived childhood and youth that had been his own fate. Rare is the parent who does not dream of a comfortable present and a distinguished future for his or her children, but I wonder how many fathers would struggle so hard as my father did to make his dreams come true.

The overriding thought in my father’s head was how to add to the meagre salary he got as a junior chemist in Tisco’s chemical laboratory. When we were children, the steel company was not a particularly generous paymaster. Here, it is necessary to recall that it was only after the better-paying public-sector steel plants came into existence in Durgapur, Bhilai and Rourkela that Tisco was shamed into taking better economic care of its employees. Today’s well-paid Tisco workers could spare a thought for the struggles that their fathers and grandfathers once faced with dignity and a straight face.

I don’t know whether the Calcutta company called India Alkalies Limited still exists. I would be happy if I were told that it continues to be in business because of, among other things, my father’s long association with it as a commission agent. India Alkalies used to make phenyle carrying the brand name ‘Soldin’ for both household and industrial use. The liquid detergent used to come in big and small cans which my father would reach mainly to Gujarati-owned shops on Bistupur Main Road (one of Jamshedpur’s important business areas), like D.M.Meghani, City Stores, and the like. After keeping his commission on goods sold, father would send what was due to the company by money-order along with fresh orders. This was one of the ways in which he supplemented his income which went into paying our steep school fees for one thing.

Father was not afraid of soiling his hands if it would earn him an extra honourable rupee. In this he was quite unBengalee-like. The middle-class educated Bengalee has always been averse to hard manual work, a fact that has worked immensely to the advantage of Marwaris, Gujaratis, Sindhis and Punjabis in Bengal. A clerical nine-to-five job suits admirably many, if not all, Bengalee babus. Father used to say that Punjabis and other northern peoples should be admired for the pride and dignity they attached to labour and this is something that Bengalees and other peoples of eastern India could learn from them.

It was this philosophy towards work that drove father to cycle miles to the Tatanagar station once or twice every month under the blazing sun or pouring rain, collect the cans of ‘Soldin’ which used to come in heavy wooden crates and bring them all the way in the carrier of his bicycle to our humble Kadma home, one of a long row of workers’ quarters. Here the crates would be opened, and the tins cleaned and made ready to be deposited on the counters of the Gujarati-owned shops in Bistupur. The shopowners were courteous in their dealings and prompt in their payments for they knew why “Mr. Chatterjee is working so hard”.

Talking of fathers and sons, I can clearly see in my mind’s eye another family – the Bhatias – where, too, the head of the family left no stone unturned to give his sons the kind of decent education that Loyola made available, albeit for a hefty price. I can recall the name of only the eldest of the seven Bhatia brothers, at least four of whom used to come to school on a scooter driven by their father. Mohinder Singh Bhatia was a year senior to me, one was a year junior, and the others were much younger. The brothers would be clinging to their father as he put-putted to the school entrance in his rickety machine.

The father knew a few words of English, but clearly had grand plans for his sons; and they did not fail him. Mohinder helped his father enlarge the family shop at Punjabi Refugee Market in Sakchi. Of the other brothers, one rose to a high position in a nationalized bank; two younger sons started a splendid shop at Kamani Centre in Bistupur. The third brother fared the best – he qualified for the Indian Administrative Service.

But, come to think of it, there is no such thing as an entirely happy story, just as there is no story that is uniformly sad. One of the younger Bhatias who were doing so well with their Kamani Centre shop died in an accident on the Jamshedpur-Ranchi highway. When I read about the tragedy in the local papers, my mind went back to my eldest brother Goutam’s untimely end and how it scarred his aged parents and the rest of the family. My mind also travelled back to those days of the 1960s when a middle-aged man drove his bright-eyed boys in a battered scooter to school each morning as if it were an act of faith. Truly, what won’t some parents do for the sake of their children! If there is one thing that unites the younger Chatterjees and the younger Bhatias (several of them in their sixties and seventies at the moment of writing), it is the common good fortune they had of flowering in the benign shade cast by such loving parental trees.

( Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)


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