There are times when I might be in pain, when I open the laptop and write. It makes me feel better. Today I realised that I inherited this trait from my mother.
She has a bad back and was resting it out at my grand mom's. She used this period of ‘rest’ to chat with her mom and then write about her mamar bari (grandparent’s house). The moment mom returned home, she bit her lips, ignored her aching back and knees and headed to Raju Prasad’s shop. Raju, is the young man in Calcutta who types out mom’s posts, at his cyber cafe and mails it to us. She then waits for me to post it and then reads it on her Reliance Tab once I do so. No, this is one family, which is not really bothered about the end of the telegraph in India. We move on.
The moment I got this post I read it and was lost in the tales of our family and that of a Bengali which was uprooted from its roots in Dhaka, started afresh in Jalpaiguri…the tales of a Bengali house in the years after independence in a small town of modern Bengal…its customs, its food, its child delivery rituals, the joys of welcoming visiting grandchildren during vacation, the pain of separation, the quiet joy of reminiscing…do pardon my tardy editing but I didn’t want to waste much time in putting this up…Kalyan
My “mamabari” in Jalpaiguri, North Bengal by Rekha Karmakar
I dedicate this post to my mother Smt. Anurupa Roy, in whose house I wrote this recently while recuperating from a bad back. All my tales are, however, from a faded memory and may not be hundred per cent factually correct…R K
What is Mamar Bari
The word “mamabari” (maternal uncle’s house) rings a sweet bell in every Bengali’s mind. It is a home where you are indulged and given a lot of love and affection. There are no restrictions or scoldings, whatsoever. Phrases like ‘mamabari abdar’ and ‘ahlad’ bear testimony to this thought.
I am talking of those good old days when ‘mamas’/maternal uncles and grandparents lived together in the same house. I often wonder why it is called ‘mama bari’ and not ‘dadur bari’ though the grandparents are the ‘star’ members of the family.
It is true that I had left my childhood days decades back but the memories of my ‘mamabari’ are still fresh in mind. Through the tales of my ‘mamabari’, I have made a humble attempt to portray the lives of those well-to-do Bengalis in East Pakistan who were uprooted from their soil and had to start afresh in a new land.
My maternal grandparents were originally from Dacca but after partition, they shifted to Jalpaiguri in North Bengal like many other immigrants from East Pakistan.
My maternal grandfather was a renowned allopathic doctor in Dacca District and had a roaring practice. As the story goes , he used to travel to far off villages to visit patients, riding on the back of his own horse, putting on a straw hat. The horse was a substitute for a car in those days. During monsoon, when vast stretches of land were inundated, my grandfather used to travel by his own boat to visits patients.
Mostly the jamindars and the rich people used to have allopathic treatment in those days. Homeopathic and ayurvedic treatments were meant for the common people. Later in my life, I met quite a few of these rich gentry who received treatment from my grandfather and felt very proud when they spoke highly of my grandfather’s treatment. But, as my mother says, he also treated quite a few poor patients, free of cost.
Incidentally, I was born in Dacca at my grandfather’s house as it was a custom, in those days, for a daughter to go to her parent’s house for a child’s delivery. But I do not remember my grandfather as he passed away when I was very young.
The family tree
My grandfather had a total of six children, my mom being the youngest one of the lot. Two of my aunts were married at a very early age.
My eldest maternal uncle, a very fair and six feet tall man joined the army as a doctor during the 2nd world war and rose to the level of lieutenant colonel.
My mom says that people at home used to be very tense during the world war as they did not always know about my uncle’s whereabouts. His letters would come sometimes but they were mostly checked and opened at the military base.
A tragedy befell on the family when he died at a very young age ( 45 years) due to coronary thrombosis leaving behind his wife and four minor children. We heard that India stopped its military operations on China for a day due to the demise of my maternal uncle during the Indo-Chinese War.
My second maternal uncle a very fair, tall and handsome man, was a B.Com graduate from Calcutta University. Though his degree was considered to be quite a high qualification, at that time , to get a plush job, he chose to do business instead in Jalpaiguri and acquired a lot of fame and name.
To me, my ‘mamabari’ is my second maternal house in Jalpaiguri where my maternal grandmother mostly stayed.
My youngest maternal uncle was a doctor who set up a huge x-ray clinic at Coochbehar, North Bengal.
My mom, a very fair and beautiful lady, was married at the age of sixteen to my father, who was in government service. I have always been eclipsed by her beauty and a great capacity to do everything perfectly, none of which I inherited.
My grandparents stayed back in East Pakistan even a few years after partition. But after my grandfather’s death, as the situation worsened, my second maternal uncle decided to leave Dacca with my grandmother, aunt and cousin. My other two maternal uncles were already in India
So one day, my second uncle left East Pakistan with the family, taking only the bare minimum, leaving behind the ancestral house, paddy fields, gardens, ponds and all other belongings. I shudder to think of their states of minds at that time.
A fresh start in Jalpaiguri
My maternal uncle went to Jalpaiguri, with the family, and bought a house which belonged to a Muslim gentleman
It was a modest house with three to four rooms, having a long covered veranda (open on sides) at the back of the house. On one side of the veranda, there was a store room to keep groceries.
This veranda at the back, called ‘daoa’ was an integral part of every house and quite often doubled up as a dining space and a living room.
The male members and the children had all their meals in the veranda. They used to sit on wooden planks called ‘piri’/’pidi’ while having their lunch and dinner. These wooden seats were of different shapes and sizes. A sort of hierarchy was maintained while allotting these seats. The men would sit on flat, broad ‘piris’ made with the wood of jackfruit trees whereas the children would sit on narrower but a bit higher ‘piris’. Women would have all their meals in the kitchen sitting on narrow but quite high ‘piris’.
The gusts would be given ’asans’/ cloth mats to sit down. These ‘asans’ were made of jute clothes on which the ladies of the household embroidered beautifully with strands of thread taken out of the ‘paar’ (border) of old saris.
Though ’katha stich’ of Bengal has gained quite a lot of popularity at present, I feel sad to find that this wonderful art of making ‘asans’, with ‘cross stitch’ on jute clothes, has been neglected.
After the veranda, there was a big open space called ‘uthan’/courtyard. On one side of the courtyard, there was a well and a small covered area for the ladies to take bath. On the other side, there were two latrines.
At the end of the open space, there was a kitchen where my grandmother and my maternal aunt cooked the most delicious food on ‘unans’/fire ovens, lit up with coal and cow dung cakes.
Rain or shine, my grandmother and my aunt carried the utensils and the food to the verandah to serve meals, crossing the huge open space.
If you ask me which room in the house I liked most, I would unhesitatingly say that it was the store room by the side of the verandah. Though the store room was always under lock and key, I would sneak in sometimes when my grandmother opened it to get something.
The store of treasures
This store room was the centre of my attraction as it contained the most tempting goodies that my grandma made. On the wooden shelves of the room, there were jars of mango pickles soaked in mustard oil, sweet and sour mango pickles made with jaggery and the most delicious syrupy green mango ‘morabba’ with a few long red chillies floating in the sugar syrup. There were also lemon pickles, tamarind pickles and pickles made with red berries/’kul’.
Another rack contained tins of ‘moyas’/ (round shapes goodies) made with ‘muri’ (puffed rice), ‘chira’ (rice flakes) and ‘khoi’ (white soft puffed rice). The ingredients were mixed with hot jiggery syrup and then made into ball shaped round ‘moyas’ by my grandma.
On another rack, there were jars of ‘nadus’ (small round shaped goodies) made with grated coconut as well as ground till (sesame seeds) .’Raskara’ was another variety of ‘nadu’ made with grated coconut, sugar and ‘ khoya’ (thickened milk). It was the most delicious variety and I would give anything to have one or two of those juicy ‘raskaras’
During summer, my grandma used to take out mango pulps from the ripe mangoes. She dried the pulp in the sun for days, laying it flat on oil-smeared plates. They were of different colours –some yellow, some brown and some black. These ‘aamsattas’/’aam papads’ were rolled into bundles after they were finally dried up.
During winter, she used to make ‘bori’ with ground urad daal, musur daal and matar daal mixed with a little water. They were formed in the shape of small balls and laid on a white cotton cloth. She put them out in the sun regularly. When ready, the ‘boris’ used to be fried in oil and added to curry. .
You might wonder why the store room was always locked. Were the children not given the goodies? Of course, they were given – usually during breakfast and evening snacks time. But the elders decided when to give away the goodies and how much.
The food store-room which doubled up as a delivery room
The simple , unpretentious store room, however, quite often doubled up as an ‘aatur ghar’ or delivery room as, in those days, children were mostly born at home delivered by a midwife. In fact, my younger brother and my maternal uncle’s children were born in this store room / delivery room. All the goodies and the groceries were shifted, at that time, most probably under the beds.
Usually the smallest room in the house was allocated for the delivery of the children. As my mother says, sometimes a make-shift room, with tinned walls and a roof was erected in the courtyard for this purpose. Then she coyly disclosed that I too as born in such a make-shift room in Dacca District, an info hitherto unknown to me.
Babies were usually born in the most unhygienic condition. The mother and the baby were secluded for a month in that unhealthy condition. As a result of which, many babies and even mothers died during delivery, giving an excuse to the men to remarry.
The earliest memory of my ‘mamabari’ goes back to the time when I was a little more than four years old. My mother had gone to Jalpaiguri at that time for the birth of my younger brother.
It is not that we went to my ‘mamabari’ very often. It was a very arduous journey of two/three days , by train and steamer, from Delhi where my father worked.
Usually we used to go there during our summer vacation when it was very hot and humid. Lying down at night under thick cotton mosquito-nets was really an ordeal. But all these things were compensated by the baskets full of ripe mangoes, huge jack fruits, my grandma’s goodies and the pamperings.
Once or twice , we also went to my ‘mamabari’ during Durga puja or winter.
During winter , my grandma used to come up with another galore of food range - the famous ‘pithe-puli’ of Bengal . After lunch, my grandma and my aunt used to start making them, preparations for which started a day before.
They made an amazing variety of ‘pithe-puli’. The feast started with ‘chitoi pithe / bhapa pithe’. It was idli type of ‘pithe’ made with brown rice, which had to be had with liquid date jiggery/’jhola patali gur’.
Next item would be ‘patishapta’ / pancake like thing with dried coconut, date jaggery and thickened milk inside and then rolled like role.
Then there would be ‘ puli’ made with boiled ground rice formed in the shape of a small ‘roti’. Inside they would put cooked coconut and jaggery and fold it, resembling a half circle. You could have it just like that or boil it in thick milk. ‘Pulis’ could also be made with ground roasted moong daal or sweet potatoes as well.
Rice pudding with date jiggery or sugar was another important part of this ‘pithe-puli’ festival.
They made all these varieties on the same day after grinding rice, grating coconut and thickening milk specially on ‘pous-sankranti’. ‘Pous Sankranti’ is the last day of the winter month ‘pous’ and is designated for having ‘pithe – puli’ though you can make them on other winter days as well .
I wondered from where they got this stamina. My mom could replicate all these items and we were lucky enough to have them when we were young. But in our generation, we could not carry it on. ‘Pithe-puli’, a great speciality of Bengal, is soon going out of fashion, giving place to cakes, pastries, jam rolls etc.
Our life in Delhi was in sharp contrast with that of our ‘mamabari’ in Jalpaiguri as Delhi could boast of metalled wide roads, sanitary toilets, 24 hour tap water and electricity. But we still loved to go there as we were made very welcome whenever we went there.
My grandma loved me dearly. I have always seen her in a white borderless sari with very few ornaments as widows, in those days, were not supposed to dress up or put on ornaments. Her whole life centered on the family.
Unfortunately, this loving and hardworking lady had to lie on bed in the last years of her life as she suffered from a stroke. Strange are the ways of God!
My maternal aunt was a very sweet and soft spoken lady, who took great care of us, which was very genuine and heartfelt.
My maternal uncle loved my mother very much as she was the youngest one. But he never expressed his emotions. After all, he was the ‘karta’/Head of the family, who was supposed to keep a distance with the other family members. When we went there, he would call me and ask me about my studies and general well being. I would stand before him, answering his questions, all the while keeping my eyes down being awed by his towering personality.
His affection for his sister, however, found an inlet in a different way. Every day he would came up with baskets full of mangoes, huge jackfruits and boxes of sweets. If it rained, he would bring silvery ‘ilish’ fish hanging from his hand.
During our stay, one day he would invariably take me and my siblings to the market and buy expensive clothes for us and a very good quality sari for my mother.
On the day of the departure, my mother and my grandma started crying since morning. My uncle would not go to work on that day. His eyes, too, would be red for crying secretly. My grandma would give my mom a whole ‘paan’ leaf and whole ‘suparis’ just before leaving. My uncle would follow our hand –pulled rickshaw till we reached the station.
My maternal uncle later built a very big house in another part of Jalpaiguri, where I had gone once or twice. But to me, my ‘mamabari’ is that house in Darjipara, where I used to go during my childhood.
Back to the present
Times have changed. Most of the elders are no more in this world. The cousins, with whom we played together, are in different parts of the world. Our busy lives do not enable us to interact with each other.
The only cousin, with whom I have any connection, is my second maternal uncle’s eldest son, who is a doctor and treats me for my hundred and one ailments. I come to know about my other cousins from him and his wife.
Years have rolled by, I, too, am on the verge of life but I still feel infused with a very warm feeling whenever I think of my ‘mamabari’ .