I got some old photos from home this time, taken many seasons ago, when one winter for the Christmas vacation, we went to Avadi to create some entertainment for Dadu. The “we” included my parents, my younger brother Pam, Madhukaka, a much younger cousin of my father and his elegant and charming wife, Chitrita Kaki. Dadu, who was then in the seventh year of his widowerhood, often fell to nervous anxiety and depression out of a feeling of boredom. One way he could overcome this was by meeting the members of his family, most of whom, in their prime years were away in the towns of their postings. In Avadi, lived Dadu’s nephew, my father’s older cousin, Montu, who Pam and I just called Jethu.
I never knew of Montu Jethu a.k.a Jethu, till he suddenly visited our home in Dover Lane while Ma, Pam and I were away visiting Bachi, who had just been posted to Bombay to “man” SBI’s research wing in the Head Office. When we returned, we heard from Dadu that Dhirenda’s son had visited home with his family. I recalled this name as belonging to one of Dadu’s brothers who died young leaving behind his adolescent children and wife, one that also died in a short while after her husband’s death. The young children were brought up by the oldest boy, Montu who left his studies and joined the “military” as a soldier. This very Montu “returned” home so many moons later and one of the persons he met up was my grandfather, known to him as Chhobu Kaka.
The house was agog with intense excitement, not so much with our return but with the accounts of Montu’s visit a week before that. Gita, our young maid was so excited that she had seen a soldier in flesh and blood who called Dadu as Kaka, wore a kara like the Sikhs and was very smart. His wife, the other household help Kanakdi gushed, was so smart, had such a sharp nose and wore a beautiful sari. It seems that she sang a devotional song for Dadu and her sweet voice was heard resonating in Gita and Kanakdi’s ears even then. Baba could not stop raving about the daughters, Shubhra and Shukla and while I had not yet seen them, I knew that they were to be my role models hence on. Jethu was just at that time posted into the Indian Army’s military research wing to design what we now see as the Vijayanta Tank. His home was to be at Avadi, a suburb of Chennai, fourteen kilometers away from Mount Road. It was to this home that we were now to repeatedly visit, sometimes as a transit to other places in Tamil Nadu, or to be dumped when the sambars and Chettinads got too much on Pam and my stomach as Baba and Ma tireless travelled through South India, or when we fell ill and needed to be diagnosed, or when we were just bored and needed a holiday.
Avadi’s home was idyllic; it was like a first class train compartment with rooms in a row and a covered corridor in front. The lattice of the corridor was tiled and painted brown while the house was painted in white. From the tiles hung flowered creepers, trees threw in huge shades; shrubs marked the borders of the premises. In the backyard, jackdaws cawed, squirrels ran as Jethi laid out her pickles to dry. The bathrooms were huge and so was the kitchen and spacious nooks and corners where Jethi stored her jellies and homemade wines !! The corridor was lined with books, the windows dressed in cute checked curtains and simple mats and durries with minimalistic wooden furniture made the home look more like a scholar’s than a soldier’s. The living room had an elaborate music system that Shubhradi would put up each morning and dance away to Santana’s music, while Shukladi would tune in to radio Ceylon to catch Hindi film numbers. The home oozed of peace, focus, concentration and of the family’s moral and intellectual confidence. No wonder then a visit to Avadi would fill me up with the right kind of vibrations that one needed to go on with.
Jethu and Jethi knew everything. Jethu knew all about machines; he could fix anything from hair dryers to jeeps. He had an amazing thirst for knowledge and read books on all subjects. He made elaborate notes on everything and anything, right from washing clothes to local history of Mylapore. If he had to accompany us on a trip to the Deep South Jethu made sure that he knew mythology, history, architecture and geography of the Pallavas, Cholas and Vijayanagar back and forth. He was also a very talented photographer and a good amateur sound recordist, recording Dadu’s songs, my reading of Jane Eyre, Pam’s giggles and much to Jethi’s changrin, her eternal arguments with Shubhradi and agitated exchanges with Rayappa or Nagamma, the domestic helpers on whose stolidity the home at Avadi stood firm and organized.
Jethi did everything; she cooked, made pickles, stitched, embroidered, made doodles, fixed toys and trinklets and sang. But she also knew how to wince a lathi and a dagger and knew some essential Krav Maga; being a soldier’s wife was never easy. Jethu labeled each one of her kitchen jars as sugar, salt, holud, dhone, randhuni and so on. Jethu fabricated special spoons and jammed them into the sugar pot, or the oil can so that at each pouring not more than one spoon could spill out. This needed intense research, but Jethu did all of that. He re-engineered his ambassador with dual control systems because Shubhradi and Shukladi were taking driving lessons. For most of the times, the car was painted ink blue and was called the Saptarshi, after the seven soldiers who were in his company and died fighting when he charged into Rawalpindi in the 1967 campaign against Pakistan.
I loved every inch of the home at Avadi. The convenient hooks where one could hang one’s clothes, the giant tub where Rayappa, the orderly soaked the linens, the stove on which water for tea would boil on through the day because the Dasguptas are heavy tea drinkers, Jethu’s corner for Jethi’s harmonium, and the pen for the chickens when Jethi experimented with poultry farming. There was a first aid chest kept conveniently in the pantry at the end of the house, from where Jethi rushed out with cotton and betadine when a squirrel sharply bit into Rayappa’s forefinger when he tried to catch the rodent at Pam’s request. There was also a bathroom beneath the staircase where Shukladi cut out and pasted Amitabh Bachchan’s photos, because in the halcyon era of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh was the underdog and had no right to be seen in the more public spaces such as the study desk or the library along the corridor.
Jethu was a typical Dasgupta male, who believed that marriage meant the end of life for a woman. He tried to plan careers for his girls sitting in his exile at Avadi. Shubhradi was to study medicine and had made up her mind; Shukladi was flummoxed over what she should pursue, modeling or painting, or prepare herself for marriage. Rajada was away at IIT and in Avadi, he was a mere photograph on Jethu’s desk. It was a home a la Jane Austen, girls and a father with Jethi being forever exasperated at Jethu’s leeway to his daughters. Jethi complained often of Jethu’s leniency between her domestic chores, her music practice and her tending of the huge hound, Jackie, the mildest mannered, friendly and affectionate dog that I have ever met. Jackie had once killed a Cobra, his trophy that Shubhradi put in a solution of formaldehyde obtained from the Madras Medical College laboratory.
Shubhradi and Shukladi were enamoured by Chitrita kaki, who according to them was the most beautiful and dainty creatures ever created. Madhukaka was a typical St Colamba and IIT Kanpur person, abrupt, smart, matter of fact and a workaholic. So Shubhradi and Shukladi thought that he was not romantic enough and insisted that Madhukaka develop some romance into his personality. All of us used to laugh and Jethu recorded our laughter. The days at Avadi went on like this; just like a slice of life from a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film. This photograph is one among such million moments. Rayappa took the picture; he omitted Jackie who was slouching at Dadu’s feet and in the subsequent photographs we can see him more clearly.