Memories of a granduncle.
We called him Dadabhai. It is really a term of endearment for a grandfather. It didn’t really matter. He was family; the only brother of my grandmother. I was ten years old and everything looked bigger than it actually was. To me, Dadabhai was larger than life.
There are two images of him that I remember. The first one is from black and white photographs from his youth. And the second one from real life, white haired and ageing though there was always a hint of a smile at least from the left side of his lips. He was born in British India when WWI had just ended. His parents were wealthy and sent him off to study in Britain. Those days, Indians went to Britain to study law or medicine, or perhaps to Oxford or Cambridge for a Tripos. Dadabhai however, was an exception. He went off to study engineering. Though there might have been some, nobody that our family knew of had gone there to study engineering. So he was the exception. And, by all accounts he was exceptional.
The black and white photographs of his youth showed him off as a stylish Italian looking playboy with longish hair, a thin moustache above thin lips with a cigarette hanging loosely from the left side of his lips. He had an aquiline nose on a handsome face, tousled black hair and eyes that seemed to penetrate your soul. I am sure women must have found him irresistible. There was one large enlarged frame of his graduation ceremony. He was in a dark suit standing in the middle of a large group, the only Indian among the purely male English group. I could imagine him sitting at a bar after the ceremony with his English friends drinking a glass of good single malt. My mother would tell me stories that built a mystique around him, like the time when he was returning to India from England by ship. He had written a letter to his friends that he was bringing back for them caskets of the best European wines. When he disembarked at the Bombay harbour, he only had his suitcases. “It was a very long journey,” he said. “I drank up all the wine along the way.” And, that was how the graduate engineer returned from England into the loving arms of his fawning parents, awe struck cousins and the army of servants peeking out in wonder from behind the curtains.
Now, let me present you with the second image. I was probably ten years old and I remember an older and different Dadabhai from my frequent visits to their place with my parents. Aptly called Gangoli Manor, it was a very large English looking house with hallways and verandahs and old teakwood furniture surrounded by Chinese vases, renaissance sculpture and large oil paintings. There were paintings of his forefathers in clothes worn by Maharajas complete with turban and sword. I am sure that no one in the family had ever held or wielded a sword, but there they were in full regalia. During colonial rule, the British had created, under the permanent settlement act, a class of landed gentry known as Zamindars. They administered vast stretches of land and collected taxes for their British masters. In return they became very rich. And Dadabhai, who had an engineering education a hundred years ago, never ever got to practice engineering. As they all said, he didn’t need to.
Their family owned mango and guava orchards near the town of Ranchi in the State of Bihar and we were invited to visit during our summer holidays. Dadabhai was gracefully ageing. He still had hair which had turned silver. He still had sharp features and the aquiline nose was still striking. The daredevil Italian look had gone. Today, I wonder if the old stories were at all true. He still had some fun left in him. He got me a sling and taught me how to make the sling shot and get mangoes down from the tree. Sometimes he would look tired and sit for long hours in his arm chair staring at the distant hills. He seemed lonely and lost and all the money in the world was neither a cure nor the source of solace. Then he would suddenly get up and pace up and down the terrace in spurts of mindful walking. Sometimes I would follow him. I, all of two and a half feet tall was following a man closer to six. This invariably meant that my face was somewhere near his rear. That is when I learned of one of his peculiarities. He would burp and fart at the same time. In fact it was always together and the sound that emanated was not something any bird, animal or man could replicate. To a little kid, this was an amazing feat and till today I know of no one else who could match it.
Every family has its own history and as time goes on faces and memories from the past pop up and then disappear again. Today, I cannot imagine someone who qualifies in engineering not putting it to good use. Times have changed and the world has changed with it. Much water has flown down the Ganges since those since those wonder years when everything was larger than life. But, those sepia tinted memories will remain in the free floating wrinkles and folds of time.