Editor's note: Leena Brown, Suchandra Banerjee's daughter, submitted this story.
I was born in May 1939 to Usha and Tapogopal Mukherjee in a red brick house called The Burdwan House in Ranchi. Half of this house was my father's office and the other half our residence. I had an older sister, Shreela (nicknamed Bubu, and called Didi) five years older than me. On my father's promotion to the office of Additional Post-master General, we moved to Patna when I was a couple of weeks old.
Burdwan House, Ranchi. Late 1930s
My earliest recollections are of our home at 40 Hardinge Road, a ranch-type house in Patna. It had undulating land in front of the house where our pet bunnies hopped around like balls of white wool and multiplied very fast! We had quite a menagerie: a couple of parrots, two cats and an Airedale terrier called Jimmy who was my favourite. Although at some point, he killed all the kittens, which upset me.
Ours was an open house with friends and family either living with us or visiting. A monthly exodus of boarders came from the local St. Xavier's school, as my parents were local guardians to a bunch of boys. Many of them rose to eminence later in life. Surojit Sen with his distinctive voice was one of them.
I recall our staff of four male helpers whose names all started with Ram, and a couple of maids. Ramdas the mali (gardener) had magical green fingers. He won a lottery and became a rice mill owner. Ramrekha the cook served the family for fifty years!
Our living room had a huge tiger skin displayed with a massive stuffed tiger head with its mouth wide open and a red frilled cloth edging the skin. I did not like it. It must have been given away as I did not see it once we moved houses.
Before she started formal schooling, Bubu used to be tutored at home by a Mrs. Dagiers. I loved to listen to her lessons, as I loved the sound of spoken English and tried to mimic the sounds I heard in the study room as I sat outside.
In summers, the Government moved to Ranchi, and Didi and I would be taken to the Government House for our evening walks. There was a pond there in which we could watch the goldfish swimming. Sometimes after the rains, additional little puddles would form and tadpoles would swim about in them. Didi would get a supple branch from a kolke (Botanical name Thevetia peruviana as it is native to Peru, South America. It's common name is Yellow Oleander, and in Bengal it is called Kolke for it's funnel shape flower) tree, tie a string to one end with a bent paper pin on the other end, and try to fish. She carried some dough in an empty cigarette tin as bait.
Nankuda, son of a relative, who was staying with us at some point took Didi and me out on a bicycle ride one day. With Didi sitting on the carrier at the back, and I on the front rod, we went to the airport and saw a plane taxing to a stop. When the door opened there was a very impressive gentleman in Khaki fatigues saluting. This was the Indian National Army, INA's leader Subhash Chandra Bose in the 1940s!
My mother was expecting her third child when I was about three years old. She had a home delivery with a mid-wife assisting. Dr. Hemendu Sen, my father's friend, was the doctor in attendance. 16th of April 1943 remains etched in my mind as Hemendu kaka (uncle Hemendu) announced the birth of my younger sister! I hurried to see her. She was a pink wailing baby with an umbilical cord round her neck causing some anxiety. Precocious as I was, I wanted to know what that meant. Kaka (younger paternal uncle) said that she had a sacred thread strangling her around her neck! I was satisfied.
We often visited the home of Dr. Hemendu Sen, whose sister Monorama lived with him. She was an alumnus of Vishwa Bharati University in Santiniketan. Very often, we found her immersed in batik working on the lotus design of Nandalal Bose. We also went often to the home of Justice S.K. Das. He was my father's school friend, and they would play tennis together. I also recall visiting Reverend Biswas, who had several dogs. One black long-haired dog would pounce on me as I entered his home, and we would roll on the grass as he licked my face!
The Sens had a handicapped child who used to spend her day lying on a cane easy chair. This was my first encounter with a differently abled person, and I wondered when she would get well.
When my father was promoted, we moved to 1, Tailor Road. It was a large double-storeyed house with large grounds. The horticulture department would come and help cultivate pulses, etc. on the grounds. Some hens and a black duck joined the menagerie. Sadly, Jimmy, my dog got lost one day. He was taken off the leash during his evening walk and never returned. We were told by the guards in front of the Inspector-General of Police's (IGP) house that he was picked up by the Tommies (British soldiers).
Our house got robbed one night at that time. All the boxes that were robbed were emptied and left in the eucalyptus corner almost adjacent to the IGP's house!
When I became four years old, it was time for me to go to school. My friend Minu Raman and I joined the Mount Carmel Convent. It was a brand new school started in one part of Mrs. Sen's home. We held the ribbon on the opening day. I do not know who did the honours and cut the ribbon as everyone clapped.
Later came the school's annual day in which we performed the musical Marriage of the Painted Dolls. Minu was the bride in a long flowing white dress, and I was the groom in a tuxedo! The curtains went up and we went on stage as the seniors started singing. Minu got nervous and started to cry. I promptly took out my handkerchief and started drying her tears, much to the amusement of the audience. There was a photo session with the chief guests who were the Governor and his wife.
Diana Sen was another friend of mine. Her mother was British, and she had some fancy toys. One of these was a six-foot tall doll house with functional fittings. She had given me a miniature Singer sowing machine which I treasured for years.
In the evenings, we would all play hide and seek mostly at Minu's place, where her Shankar mama (maternal uncle) and Muthu mashi (maternal aunt) lived with them. We would change into each other's clothes to conceal our identities, or hold the aerial roots of the banyan tree in the backyard to swing like Tarzan.
Things started changing in 1947. Even as children we could feel the tension in the air. Sounds of Allah O Akbar in the distance reached our ears as we saw as the evening sky lit up with fire. It was disturbing to see my father leave our home in the evenings with armed guards. Maybe he went to check the functioning of the communication lines.
Another distinct memory of that time was of my aunt nawmashi, (maternal aunt) who lived in Waah Cantonment in Taxila. She and her family had to leave their home with the impending Partition of the subcontinent. They moved out in batches. My aunt came out first with her youngest daughter and son and a year-old Sikh girl. They travelled via Patna to Kolkata, so we went to meet them at the station.
My Taxila uncle was a doctor, and he delivered a neighbour Mrs. Sethi's fourth daughter. The mother died in childbirth. Mr. Sethi did not know what to do with the baby when everyone was fleeing their homes. So my uncle and aunt generously offered to adopt the baby even though they were fleeing too and their early childrearing days were long over as their youngest child Rosydi (elder sister Rosy) was already fourteen years old.
After twelve long years, Mr. Sethi, who was an engineer in Bhilai, Bihar, and my uncle, who was the Chief Medical Officer of the Cement factory in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, were reunited leading to father and daughter's being reunited as well. Mr. Sethi was very happy to see how well his daughter had been looked after. The child remained with my aunt and uncle and her biological father visited them often. These were unusual times.
In 1948, my father moved to Kolkata for a year on a special deputation. We moved to a new place and new beginnings.
© Suchandra Banerjee 2016
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