My childhood memories of Diamond Harbour – Rekha Karmakar

Where my mother writes about her growing up years and her holidays at her grandparent’s house. A post through which one got to know about our family’s history …. KK

Of late I have been noticing that my memory quite often plays truant to me. While I seem to forget what happened a few days back or my forthcoming appointments, memories from half a century back appear shamelessly and gleefully on the radar of my memory screen. The psychologist says as we grow older, we remember our distant past more distinctly than we do our recent past. A sure sign that I am growing older (as if there is any doubt!)

In one of those fits of memory-revival, I decided to write about the fond memories of my childhood trips to Diamond Harbour, where my paternal grandparents lived.

Diamond Harbour, a district town of West Bengal with its sublimely beautiful landscape, is located on the bank of river Hooghly, 51km south of Kolkata. The most striking feature of this sleepy town is that it is positioned at the point where the river Hooghly turns south towards the Bay of Bengal, after being joined by the river Rupnarayan on its way.

You may be wondering why my paternal grandparents lived in Diamond Harbour while I had written in my earlier posts that my parents belonged to East Pakistan. In fact, my father was also born in Diamond Harbour. In order to know the reason, I must go back to the later part of the nineteenth century and trace the history of our family.

My grandfather’s father Sree Shrish Chandra Roy, a very successful businessman, transported logs of wood from Sundarban and sold them all over undivided Bengal. As it necessitated him to stay near Sundarban, he bought a piece of land measuring at least fifteen cottahs at Diamond Harbour and built a two storied house with a porch and a few one storied flats for his staff. He stayed both at Dacca and at Diamond Harbour, depending on the requirement of his business, with his family in tow which included my grandparents.My father was born in Diamond Harbour because my grandparents were staying there at that time.

My grandfather, the only child of his father, was a very strong-built, tall and handsome person. He passed the Entrance Examination, spoke English fluently and played football with ‘gora sahibs’/’fair skinned’ British people. But he could not carry on the business of his father and felt that it was too demeaning for him to take up any job as it meant being subordinated. So he stayed at home, happy to be a rich man’s son, like many other pampered sons of his generation. Though pampered, my grandfather was not, however, a spoilt one. He was a teetotaller and simply doted on my grandmother, to whom he got married at a very early age.

Years rolled by. My grandparents had a total of nine children, which was quite common at that time. My father, the second son, was born in 1920. My grandfather’s father passed away in due course of time leaving my grandfather to fend for himself. Legend goes that my grandfather’s father gifted my grandmother, a little girl of eight years, gold ornaments equal to her weight at the time of her marriage but all those ornaments were later sold one by one as the financial condition of the family worsened. Three of the sons, including my father, got married before partition and left for their respective work places but they kept helping my grandparents financially as per their means.

My grandfather left Dacca with his family, immediately after partition, leaving behind the huge property that was bequeathed to him. He headed straight to Diamond Harbour and settled there without going back to Dacca even once.

This much of the history of the family was necessary to write this post and also to enable the readers to have a peek into the lives of the Bengalis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I do not remember since when I started going to Diamond Harbour from Delhi, where my father worked. Timelines have been blurred due to distance in time though the memories have been reinforced because of repeated visits to the place.

The earliest that I can think of was going by train, driven by a steam engine which billowed so much smoke that we were all covered with coal dust. After reaching Howrah station, we used to go to Diamond Harbour either by a local train or a bus.

While going home from Diamond Harbour station, with our trunks and beddings, we used to pass through the main road, strewn by tiny white fragrant bakul flowers, which fell from the trees that flanked both sides of the road. After that we crossed a canal by going over the ‘lal pol’/red bridge, a landmark of the town. Then from far we could see my grandfather waiting for us near the gate of the house.

It was a lovely country house, with a red coloured two storied building in the middle, having statues of two lions in front of the porch. We used to live on the first floor of the house whereas the ground floor and the two other flats were given on rent. There was also a small pond on one side of the plot.

The money received from the rent as well as the money sent by my father and the uncles eased the financial situation to some extent. The best part of the house was that much of the requirement of the family was fulfilled by the produce of the land.

The pumpkin and the ‘lou’/’lounki’ creepers, that crept over the roof of the ground floor flats, not only yielded vegetables but also leaves and branches for the curry.

There were also many banana trees at the back of the house from which we used to get ‘mocha’/banana flowers, green bananas and lastly ‘thor’/ the stem of the tree. It did not need any tending and innumerable other banana plants grew out of the original plant.

In the front of the house there were ‘maan kachu’/ big ‘orbi’ plants in a row, which also grew on their own. When required, my grandfather used to uproot a plant and cut off the ‘maan kachu’ which used to grow under the earth. There were also ‘pui’ saag creepers, chilli plants, mango, coconut, date and many other trees.

There were many flower trees as well on which blossomed ‘jaba’/hibiscus, white ‘kaath malati’, ‘sefali’, ‘gandhraj’ and different types of lilies. These flowers were mainly used for worshipping god.

The pond, itself, was another source of sustenance. The most attractive feature of the pond was a date tree which grew on the ground near the pond and then half-reclined over it. The ‘desi’ dates are very much different from the Arabian dates. They are orange in colour and much less sweeter than the Arabian dates.

On special occasions, my grandfather used to get a fisher man to catch the fish with a net. You could also angle fish with a hook and bait. My aunts ( my father’s sister) used to float their ‘gamchas’/ very thin towels to catch small prawns, tiny fish and crabs while bathing . Cleaning of utensils and washing of clothes were also done in the pond. For ‘memsahibs from Delhi’ like me, water used to be delivered to the bathroom. But I would also often immerse myself standing on the second and third stair of the pond with my aunts. Drinking water was brought by the water-carrier from a tube well near the house.

We usually used to go to Diamond Harbour during our summer vacation. After the summer heat, rains poured. The land in front of our house used to be inundated due to the high embankment of the canal that flowed just in front of our house. The canal was probably dug to channelize the excess water of the river during the rainy season. It was difficult to differentiate between the land and the pond at that time. My grandfather used to be very apprehensive that all the fishes of the pond would flow away with the rain water.

The ducks swam in the pond making ‘quack, quack’ sound and occasionally dipped their orange coloured beaks in water to catch fish and insects. Sometimes snakes would wriggle away in the water as Diamond Harbour is very notorious for its snakes. My uncles and aunts would say that they were mostly non-poisonous ‘dhora’ snakes but I used to be scared stiff.

Once or twice we went to Diamond Harbour during winter. Winter had its own charm too. My grandfather would often get a man to pierce the upper part of the trunk of the date tree, by the pond, with a sharp stick and tie an earthen pot, around the trunk, just below the pipe-like sharp stick. Throughout the night, juice from the date tree would trickle down in the earthen pot. In the morning, the pot would be removed and the juice would be drunk. It is the most delicious juice that I ever had in my life. It can be to some extent, compared with the water of the green coconut.

Diamond Harbour is very famous for its ‘taal patali’ (jaggery made out of the juice of the ‘taal’/palm fruits). Local confectioners used to thicken palm juice by boiling it so that jiggery could be made. The whole area got permeated with the most delicious smell of the ‘taal patali’. Even now I can feel the aroma of the jiggery wafting to me cutting across the time barrier.

My father’s three sisters were born, in a row, after six brothers. My eldest aunt and the second aunt were respectively five years and three years older than me whereas the youngest one was ten months younger than me. My second aunt, a Tomboy, was my role model. Two of my younger aunts and myself formed a group and would often go out on adventures leaving out my eldest aunt, who was a ‘holier than thou’ and whining type of girl.

In the afternoon, when my mom used to take a nap, three of us would tiptoe out of the house in search of a ‘bilati amra’ tree where we had information that the fruits had ripened. ‘Amra’ is a very sour fruit but they taste quite sweet when ripened. ‘Bilati amra’ is the larger variety of the ordinary ones. My two aunts climbed the tree like squirrels while I stood down for the fruits. Similarly, we also used to go in search of ripe mangoes, guavas and dates.

Sometimes we would go to a nearby paddy field by the side of the canal. People from Calcutta used to come there for picnic. Young modern girls in saris, their hair made into two plaits, used to roam about in couples. We looked at them in wonderment.

After a few years, ‘Fakir Chand Diamond Harbour College’ came up in that same place. Later in my life, I visited that college once as a delegate to attend a conference. Strange are the ways of God!

During our each stay in Diamond Harbour, my grandfather used to take us at least once or twice to the bank of the river Hooghly. Usually we used to go there in the evening when the falling rays made the waves glisten like thousand specks of diamond probably lending the name ‘Diamond’ to the harbour.

We loved to watch the old lighthouse and the old fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Rumour goes that the local people took away the doors, windows and bricks of the fort to make their own houses though I cannot, however, ascertain the veracity of the rumour.

Many years later, ‘Sagarika Tourist Lodge’, a government of West Bengal undertaking was built for the tourists near the river. I hear the lodge is still doing very well.

As my uncles and aunts started growing up, the need for money was felt even more. My remaining two uncles, who were still in Diamond Harbour, simply revolted against their father and urged him to take up a job. My grandfather finally gave in to them and accepted a job as a Headmaster in a local boys’ school.

This old gentleman,in his fifties, started his carrier by going to school regularly wearing white dhoti, kurta and black ‘paam’ shoes (shoes without strings worn specially with dhoti) and quite seemed to like his job.

In one of my trips to Diamond Harbour, I expressed so much curiosity about my grandfather’s school that he decided to take me to his school. Next day, putting on my best frock, I left for his school at the stipulated time, holding the hand of my very handsome grandfather.

When we reached the school, the students were very surprised to see me with my grandfather and started saying excitedly to each other in local dialect, ‘B’ master moshai-er nadni ayeche re! Meaning ‘Headmaster’s grand daughter has come!’.

Some of the boys ran home and brought huge sized ‘muri’/puffed rice and ‘taal patali’/palm jiggery for me in ‘dhamas’ (round shaped straw baskets). A few climbed the coconut trees and brought down green coconuts. There was no class that day! The boys kept on talking while my grandfather, like all other indulgent grandfathers, kept on showering praises on me. During lunch break, my grandfather took his usual afternoon nap as it was customary for the village teachers to do. That day the school was closed early as the children were in no mood to study.

I was very much overwhelmed by the attention of the students and the teachers towards me. I was also so very much proud of my grandfather because of the respect he received from everyone. I think, on that day itself. Destiny had scripted in my fate to be a ‘would –be’ teacher.

As years passed by, our tenure of stay in Diamond Harbour started becoming shorter due to academic pressure. On one such visit, I found out that my second aunt was deeply in love with the Block Development Officer (B.D.O) Of Diamond Harbour, who was a tenant in one of our ground floor flats. My grandfather probably sensed something wrong and asked the gentleman to leave his house. The B.D.O quietly left our house and rented a flat in a building which was just next to our house.

During our stay in Diamond Harbour, quite often in the evenings, myself and my second aunt used to go to the roof of our house. The B.D.O gentleman, whom my aunt endearingly called ‘P-da’ (‘P’ was the first letter of his name), also used to come up to the roof of the adjacent building and chat with my aunt from a distance of about six feet. Even at the age of thirteen or fourteen, in that pre-electronic age, I was too naïve to understand what actually was going on. But the fact remained that I admired my aunt blindly for whatever she did.

My mother probably guessed the whole thing. So one day she called me and gave me two tight slaps and also pinched my ears very hard, in private, for accompanying my aunt to the roof. She, however, did not dare to stay anything to my aunt as she was my mother’s ‘hallowed nanad’/sister-in-law.

After a while, we went back to Delhi. In the meanwhile, my aunt and her ‘p-da’ decided to marry and declared it to both the families. When my grandparents came to know about it, they were stunned. My grandfather summoned all his six sons to Diamond Harbour. The brothers arrived and scolded my aunt, in unison, not hesitating even to thrash her. But the couple did not yield to any threats and remained firm in their resolve. Finally, probably, good sense prevailed on the brothers and they decided to marry my aunt to her ‘p-da’ as they had to marry her some day. Moreover, the B.D.O gentleman also belonged to a well-to-do and educated family.

It was, however, decided to wait for a few more months so that my second aunt would become a ‘major’ and, in the meanwhile, a suitable bridegroom could also be found for my eldest aunt.

After a few months, the brothers pulled in money and married the two sisters.

My second aunt, as the story goes, had a very happy marriage and gelled very well with her in-laws because of her vivacious nature. The end was quite tragic, though, as my aunt passed away while giving birth to her third baby. My uncle remarried but has since maintained a very cordial relation with us.

The sole purpose of narrating this love story is to tell the young generation of today how different things were more than half-a-century ago. It was most rebellious for any young girl or boy, at that time, to have an affair and then take a decision to marry.

After my two aunts’ marriage, the only people who remained in Diamond Harbour were my grandparents and my youngest aunt.

My grandfather passed away after a year or so. It was not possible for my grandmother and my aunt to stay at Diamond Harbour on their own. So it was decided to sell off the property. Some of my uncles went to Diamond Harbour and sold the property at a throw away price as they did not have the time to stay there longer and negotiate the price. My grandmother and my aunt shifted to Kolkata to stay with my uncles and we too stopped going to Diamond Harbour. I was only fourteen or fifteen years old at that time.

Coming up next: Returning to Fakir Chand College for a seminar. No longer a child


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Anonymous said…
One of her best posts till date, if not the best one! Loved reading it.

Kalyan Karmakar said…
this is probably my fav too
It is a treat reading these nostalgic posts, about Kolkata, about Diamond Harbor, and about how life used to be in the times of the previous generation. Rekha, your efforts in documenting the times of your generation in this format is invaluable, since we are rapidly losing even the familiarity with these things. Kids can no longer imagine that life, since even books and media have changed. Do keep at it, and will be looking out for the next installment.
Anjali Koli said…
Precious, it's like listening to the tales from my own aunt! Love for Your Mamma.