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A tale of two grandmothers

A tale of two grandmothers

An extract from André Béteille--s Sunlight on the Garden: A Story of Childhood & Youth, where the author talks about an idyllic childhood in the French enclave of Chandannagar


December 23 , 2014
14 Min Read

Like most children, I had two grandmothers, but none of the children I knew had two who were as unlike as mine in background, association and temperament. My two grandmothers were both widows in straitened circumstances, and they both lived in the same small town where I grew up. But their social worlds were far apart, and I have no recollection that they ever met. Their differences were in any case very large; what made it impossible for them to meet was of course the marriage of my parents which had overturned the worlds of both….

My paternal grandmother lived in an old, colonial-style house on the strand facing the river. She had come down in the world, or so she believed, and made my father, her only child, believe. She was still beautiful when I knew her as a child. Her parents had come out from France as indigo planters, and they settled in Chandannagar where she was born. I doubt that they made much money, and she married an official with the designation of trésorier… who had come out from France in the colonial service. Shortly after my father was born and just a few years after her marriage, her husband died, a victim of cholera…

Thus, while still in her twenties, my grandmother, known to everyone in our town as Madame Béteille or simply Madame, became a widow with a small son and hardly any means of support. The local French community came to her aid and established a small school with the grand title of École de jeunes filles, and placed it in her charge. There she taught and lived, for the school had only three or four classrooms, the rest of the building being used as her apartment…

My grandmother’s house had a small clock tower adjacent to it, which was one of the landmarks of the town. The clock tower had an inscription recording the name of the person who had made the benefaction; he was my grandmother’s paternal uncle or her grandfather... The name, Domain de St Pourcain, was a source of some strife between my parents. My father believed…that his mother’s ancestors were squires of some sort... My mother hotly repudiated this, for she had found out…that the Domains were common people who had merely come from St Pourcain, and assumed aristocratic pretensions in the colonies…

My grandmother’s house on the strand was a somewhat mysterious place for us in our childhood. We passed it almost every day, in the evenings, and sometimes also in the early mornings, during our rambles along the strand and down the bank to the edge of the river, but we did not have free access to it. I wonder now what would have happened if we just wandered in and presented ourselves as her grandchildren. My mother’s fierce pride stood in the way for she did not want us to go where she thought we would not be welcome. There was an additional impediment… Till I was nine, I hardly spoke any language other than Bengali, and I worried about what I would do if she addressed me in French or English. Perhaps my peculiar childhood has made me unusually sensitive to the processes of social exclusion, and keeping my distance has become a part of my nature with somewhat mixed consequences for my career as a sociologist…

… [My grandmother’s] house had few conveniences, but it maintained a distinctively European, or rather, colonial atmosphere. We could see from the outside the crotons and the pansies, and the green bench on the front porch on which she sat in the evenings, but little else besides. She ordered her meals in the European way, and they were prepared by her cook, Paul, an Indian Christian who was naturally a legend with us children. Although she spoke English well and Bengali moderately, she never, ever, allowed my father to address her in any language other than French. My father spoke all three languages well, and, according to my wife, who knew him in his last days, his Bengali was more chaste than my mother’s; but I believe that he liked the English language best of all…

The legend of Paul’s cooking was highly coloured, as it turned out when we had occasion to sample it after my grandmother’s death. His repertoire was limited and the ingredients made available to him by his exacting mistress were also limited. She certainly gave him no hand in the preparation of the Christmas and New Year cakes that were the delights of our childhood. What she ate every day must have been a simplified version of the kind of Western meal then generally served in railway waiting rooms on the E.I.R. line by Kellner’s: soup, main course and dessert, each in a few simple variations…

I have only one clear recollection of visiting my grandmother in her house — a visit that must have been pre-arranged by my father — on the eve of my departure for boarding school in Patna at the age of nine. She had a majestic bearing, but on that occasion she was kind and considerate, speaking gently and waiting attentively for my answers. I have no recollection of the subject of our conversation, but she gave me a silver rupee which I was glad to have and to keep to myself, thinking it prudent not to mention the matter to my mother…

My grandmother died shortly after I joined boarding school, and her house and the school were taken over by my sister, fourteen years older than myself and now a married woman. Then of course we had the run of the house, which I remember exploring with a great sense of adventure…

The house… was a rambling affair, full of dusty corners containing odd things in a state of disrepair… There were five Louis XV chairs, some Limoges china, a few cups and saucers, two or three tea and coffee pots, silk stockings, perfume jars — mostly empty — and so on... Many years later, after my marriage, I brought back a Limoges milk jug to Delhi, but have never had the temerity to use it.

In one of the dark and dusty rooms, I discovered at the age of eleven or twelve the books that were to become my first literary treasures: old editions of nineteenth-century English poets and novelists: Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Scott, and others. The pages of the once handsome edition of the Waverley novels had become so brittle with age that they broke unless turned with great care. There was also an eighteenth-century edition of the poems of Thomas Gray with the following neat inscription on the flyleaf: ‘This book is 113 years old (1784-1897)’…

My mother’s mother was a very different person, although she too had suffered great misfortune in early life… She lived with us in our home, and it was she, rather than my mother, who brought me up until I went away to boarding school.

My maternal grandmother, Dida to all the children, was named Shibani. She was born in a comfortable, though not affluent, Kulin brahmin family of the Rarhiyasreni (that is, brahmins mainly from the southern parts of Bengal, with surnames such as Mukherji, Banerji, Chatterji, Ganguly and Ghoshal), in a village in Hughli district.

Oddly enough my brother [Nielou] thought of himself as a brahmin. This may have been because he was very close to my grandmother, and unquestionably her favourite. He took the liberty not only of occasionally calling her by name, but, most irreverent of all, of sometimes referring to her deceased husband as ‘Madhu Mukujjay’. He also played the most extravagant pranks on my maternal uncle. Once he escaped serious injury when Nielou placed a bel fruit just next to his back as he lay sleeping on a cot, and quietly lay down on the floor next to his cot. As my uncle turned in his sleep, the inevitable happened, and he was hurt by the bel. He picked it up, and flung it with all his might at my brother, but missed his aim. My grandmother was furious and showed the door to her son. He cursed everyone, tore his sacred thread, and marched out of our house. My mother of course soundly thrashed my brother…

My grandmother lost her husband while she was still relatively young and with small children. Then followed a sequence of events with which readers of Bengali novels are familiar. The lot of a Kulin brahmin widow with no formal education and slender material resources was a hard one in those times. The family property, such as it was, was appropriated by her stepson who was grown up and more resourceful than her. She could not or did not wish to return to her natal home, and so was left to fend for herself.

The widow moved with her children to Chandannagar which was not very far away…  Somehow she had managed to bring together the tattered fragments of her life, for she rarely spoke bitterly of anyone from her past…

By the time my mother made her most unconventional marriage, my grandmother had ceased to worry much about the sanctions of her community which, after all, had given her precious little aid or comfort in her distress. But she continued to regulate her personal life largely according to her ancestral customs. She wore the dress and ate the food appropriate to a brahmin widow… Her one unfailing daily observance was the morning bath in the river which we called Ganga but which was in fact only a branch of it. She would walk every morning, barefooted and in her single garment, and return home from the river in her wet sari. Many years later, long after she had passed away, I went to live in an agraharam to make a field study of a Tanjore village. There I would see every morning from my house the brahmin widows of the agraharam on their way to and from their bath in the Kaveri which flowed by the village. Memories I had pushed back into some remote corner of my mind suddenly came alive, and my brahmin informants who knew little of my social origin would be astonished by my detailed knowledge of the practices of brahmin widows which they generously, but mistakenly, attributed to my immense learning.

For the first nine years, my maternal grandmother was in many ways the centre of my life. She cared for us, fed us and put us to sleep. She cooked well, preparing wholesome meals from simple ingredients, and took pleasure in feeding us well. But as children we hankered after other things, those delights of the lower-middle-class Bengalis called ‘mutton chops’ and ‘mutton cutlets’; and above all tinned food: potted meat, Crosse and Blackwell Oxford sausages, herrings in tomato sauce, corned beef and tinned peaches. We did not care much for vegetables, although they were the best part of my grandmother’s cuisine. The glories of Bengali vegetarian cooking were largely the creation of upper-caste, especially Brahmin, widows who themselves were debarred from eating meat and fish.

Our daily fare at home was simple Bengali food prepared in my grandmother’s kitchen. I disliked almost all the traditional Bengali vegetables: pumpkins, brinjals, gourds of different kinds, radishes, plantains, yams and spinach in all its varieties. Tomatoes were rarely used in cooking by my grandmother, and she called them bilitibegun, being a reference to their foreign origin and novelty. She did not use sugar, but only gur to add the touch of sweetness which is characteristic of the cuisine of West Bengal…  Although we were never well-to-do, we did occasionally have Western food. I cannot now recall where the ham and the paté came from, but there certainly was a second

I must not be ungrateful, even in my memory, to my grandmother’s cooking. There were a few delights, and I specially remember two, each associated with a particular season... The first was the hilsa, which we call ilish and which came in the rainy season. At the height of the season, the fish would be caught with nets near the bank of the river which was the same as the one to which my grandmother went for her daily bath. I don’t think that she herself ever went to buy the fish, but sent someone in the evening to fetch it as the catch was being landed. We could hardly wait for our evening meal then. Personally, I liked best the juicy slices of the fish as well as its roe fried in mustard oil; a close second was the fish cooked with crushed mustard and poppy seeds and laced with raw mustard oil and whole green chillies. The other delight came in the winter. This was the khir made with cow’s milk — never buffalo milk — with sugar from the date palm, known as natun gur, and available only in the winter. The best part consisted of the scrapings from the pan in which the milk had been thickened..., over which Nielou and I fought endlessly...

As children, we stood in awe of our paternal grandmother, but our maternal grandmother we took for granted. Truth to tell, we paid little attention to her during the day, but the night belonged to her. At night we invariably ate in her kitchen, on the floor and out of bell-metal utensils. Before I went to school I slept with my grandmother, as did my brother, on a large plank bed under a mosquito curtain which invariably had a hole or two. It was her duty, on which I insisted, to kill or drive away all the mosquitoes.

The pleasure of going to bed lay in the stories she had to tell us in order to induce sleep… There were hair-raising tales of robbers and monsters and ghosts, fabulous romances of princes, merchants and beautiful women; and stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. She loved the Ramayana best of all, and kept us enthralled with her accounts of the destruction of the golden city of Lanka by the army of monkeys. In fact, Lankakanda was a byword with her. When we first learned the pleasures of pillow fighting and carried things to excess, she would call out from the kitchen, “There is Lankakanda going on in the bedroom.” When we were being disobedient and putting things in disarray, she would tell us to put everything right. “Otherwise, your mother will come, and there will be Lankakanda.”

Personally, I liked best the stories about ghosts and dacoits whereas my brother’s favourites were those that related to Lankakanda. She had her own stock of ghost stories which she repeated over and over again without causing any boredom. My favourite was the one about the traveller who was returning home at the dead of night through a wilderness. He was very relieved to find a companion carrying a hurricane lantern and with a fund of stories. After some time, the conversation turned to ghosts, and the companion explained that ghosts often impersonated ordinary persons, except that one could always tell who they were from their feet which were turned the wrong way round. The traveller’s eyes moved inevitably to the feet of his companion who gave him a mocking smile and instantly vanished into the night, lantern and all…

Despite her own lapse into adversity, my grandmother maintained a strong sense of respectability and even of family pride… She was not free from the pride of caste and would not wish to be free from it, although she knew very well that not all brahmins were respectable. She was absolutely secure in her conviction that her own grandchildren were respectable and well-born, a conviction obviously not shared by everyone in our town then. My father cared very much for good manners, and was often embarrassed by his strong-willed and impetuous wife. He would then turn to us, and say in English, “Say what you will, your grandmother was a lady,” never failing to add, “to the manner born’; he would then be thinking not only of his own mother but also of my other grandmother.


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