“I was named after the Nightingale of India, the great poet Sarojini Naidu,” said Paati.
“You see my parents were both members of the Congress and workers for the freedom of India. Of course, I was just a small child and it wasn’t until much later that I came to know the significance of my name. I was ten years old when Sarojini Naidu passed away and when I read about what she had achieved I felt so proud to be the bearer of her name”.
Bibin and Manju loved to hear the stories that their great grandmother told from her youth. Life when she was young must have been so much different from that which they experienced today and although they had heard most of Paati’s tales many times, they never tired of this repetition. Paati was old, but her memory was good and her attention to detail held the attention of her great grandchildren, much as had been the case for their parents and grandparents in earlier years. She had been born during a defining period of Indian history and it was not only her family that knew the importance of the momentous events that she recalled.
Today was Paati’s 78th Birthday and as is invariably the situation when children spend time with those from earlier generations, in the eyes of Bibin and Manju she appeared very old. Although they saw their great grandmother almost every day, today was special and the two children came bearing gifts to celebrate such an auspicious occasion. Paati had a sweet tooth and knowing this, Talsi had taken her children by bus to Chennai to purchase gifts from the Sri Krishna sweet shop in Anna Nagar. Whilst the colourful displays and delicious aromas of the shop could have justified a lengthy stay at this delectable store, their visit was in fact quite brief. Everyone in the Sudev family knew that what Paati loved best were the rich mysurpa and kesar peda, which was her favourite childhood treat and it was with a box of each of these delicacies that they had returned to Kalapurum yesterday afternoon.
Bibin and Manju had chosen colourful paper to wrap their gifts and it was with great pleasure, and perhaps a little anticipation that Paati would want to share the contents of the boxes, that they watched her peel the wrapping from these presents. The smile that lit up their grandmother’s face was enough to confirm her delight as contents of the boxes were revealed. Taking each child in turn Paati hugged them close to her breast, thanking them for the wisdom of the choice of sweets that they had made, whilst surreptitiously offering Talsi a knowing and grateful smile. And just as Bibin and Manju had hoped, within minutes along with Paati and their mother, they were savouring the sweet contents of the boxes.
Birthdays are generally happy occasions, but they can also be a time for reminiscence and sometimes for sad memories. It is often small details or occurrences that provoke such recollections, as was the case today as Paati enjoyed the company of her close knit family. It was amidst all of the family banter and laughter that Manju first noticed the silver brooch shaped like an elephant that caught the sunlight from the angle it was pinned on the breast of Paati’s sari. She was sure that she had seen it before, but equally confident that it was not an ornament worn by her grandmother often. Indeed, apart from her earrings and on special occasions a gold necklace, Paati seldom wore jewellery of any description.
“Paati,” began Manju, “that is such a beautiful brooch that you are wearing. Have you had it since you were young?”
Paati raised her right hand to her breast, stroking the brooch and looking down as if to remind herself of its detail. For a while she was quiet and Manju could see that her grandmother was thinking before making a response, but eventually she looked up at Manju, and then at Bibin and smiled.
“Yes indeed, I can tell you the exact date on which I was given this beautiful brooch,” she said with a sigh. “I wear it on special occasions because it brings me many happy memories, but I don’t wear it often because it can also make me sad.”
With this seemingly contradictory expression Paati unpinned the brooch from her sari and handed it carefully to Manju who examined it closely, turning it over in her hand. Bibin, whose interest in this obviously significant bijou had been aroused as much as his sister’s, reached out his hand and Manju gently passed it to him feeling that this might indeed be a precious jewel.
Watching the care with which the children handled the brooch, Paati offered words of reassurance. “You are not likely to harm it you know. It is not worth a lot of money; although it is silver in colour it is made of a much less valuable metal. None the less, it means a great deal to me and is one of my most treasured possessions. If you look carefully you will see a small hole where once the elephant had a shiny green glass eye. Sadly the eye must have fallen out several years ago. Otherwise the brooch is exactly as it was when it was given to me all those years ago.”
“Was it a birthday present?” asked Bibin. “Who gave it to you?”
“No,” replied Paati, “not a birthday present, but still something which at the time meant much to me, and continues to be one of my most precious treasures, even after so many years.”
Manju’s curiosity had been raised to such a pitch that she was desperate to know more about the elephant shaped object that Bibin had now returned to her care. “Will you tell us more about who gave it to you Paati, was it a gift from Tatta?”
“Oh, no,” Paati exclaimed. “I was given this before I ever met my dear husband.” Paati looked at the inquisitive faces of her great grandchildren and knew that they would not be satisfied until she had told them the whole story behind the elephant brooch. “I will tell you,” she said, “but you must remember that the story concerns things that happened a long time ago. Things that at the time I was too young to understand; in fact things that I still don’t fully understand today. I was only a child, younger even than you are now Manju. When I was given this precious gift I was just eight years old.”
Paati sighed and shook her head and Manju could see that she was delving into her memories and sensed that these might not all be as happy as she would wish on this important day of celebration. “It’s ok Paati,” she exclaimed. “If you don’t want to tell the story, it doesn’t matter.”
Paati smiled. “It is fine, the story needs to be told. It is part of our family history and I hope that one day, when you have children of your own who are old enough, you might also tell it to them.” Manju and Bibin remained silent, they sensed that it was important now to let Paati continue her story without interruption. Paati recognised the anticipation in their faces and determined that having raised their expectations she would carry on.
“I think you already know,” she began, “that when I was a very small child for a while I lived with my parents in Delhi. We had a home near Sadar Bazaar where my father sold Khadi cloth; I have told you that my parents were committed to the freedom movement, and this was a way in which they could make a contribution to that cause. It was a busy district very crowded with people from all over India, there was always something happening and I loved living there. I had many friends when I was young, but the best of all was Saadia who like me was not originally from Delhi, her parents having come to the city from a village in the Punjab. Saadia and I went everywhere together; we were the best of friends and were in and out of each other’s houses and getting into all kinds of mischief.” Paati laughed and shook her head, “such wonderful times, and so many happy memories.” She was quiet for a moment before continuing.
“Just like all children I suppose, Saadia and I had many dreams. We spent so much time talking about what we would do in the future, promising to always be friends. But sadly not all of the dreams that we have can come true, and not all of the plans that we make are bound to happen. This is something I learned in Delhi, and it was a hard lesson that I have never forgotten. You see it was Saadia who gave me the lovely elephant brooch that you are cradling in your hand. I remember the day very clearly. Indeed I think of the occasion often and see Saadia’s face as if it were just yesterday.” As she listened to her grandmother Manju noticed that her eyes had begun to water. She wondered if she should say something, perhaps to break the reverie that was clearly causing her great grandmother discomfort, but before she could decide what actions she might take Paati continued.
“For several weeks I knew there had been trouble. My father forbade me to go alone around the streets and as soon as darkness fell I was confined to the house. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I heard adults talking in hushed voices and I could see that some were preparing to make journeys. For more than a week I had not seen Saadia and knew that something must be wrong. I asked my mother but she told me not to worry, that she had seen Saadia’s mother and that the family were making preparations for a journey, probably to return to their village in the Punjab. I found this difficult to understand. Saadia had told me nothing of a planned visit to her village. How long I wondered, would she be gone? Surely as her best friend I would have known if this were going to happen. I could sense that something was causing people to be frightened, but nobody would tell me what it was. My parents kept reassuring me that all would be well and I had nothing to worry about. But when you are a small child and nothing in the world makes sense, it is not always easy to accept reassurance, even from those who are closest to you.”
“Then one day, I remember it well, it was a Monday morning, Saadia arrived at our door. I was overjoyed to see her and clasped her closely to my breast. I could sense that she too was pleased that we were back together, but then I looked at her face and saw tears tumbling down her cheeks. I couldn’t understand. Why I asked was she crying, was she not happy to see me? Now that she had returned wouldn’t everything be just as it was before? But I could tell. I knew just by looking at Saadia’s eyes that all was not going to be as it had been. She struggled to speak, but between sobs told me that the time had come for her family to leave Delhi, that they must travel back to their village in the Punjab and that her father told her to come quickly to say goodbye as we were never likely to see each other again.”
“Of course I thought this was a mistake. We were such close friends; we were bound to meet again. I tried to be assertive. When I am old enough, I told Saadia, I will come and find you and we will be together again. But Saadia simply shook her head and turned to leave, and as she did so she pushed a small cloth bound package into my hand. She reached up, stroked my hair then turned and was gone before I could say anything more. I started to run after her, but my mother who had been watching from the doorway stopped me. I was angry and confused, but my mother held me tight and told me that I must stay home and I must let Saadia go.”
Paati’s eyes were now filled with tears and Manju was anxious that she might have inadvertently been the cause of her distress. She reached out for Paati’s hand and said, “I’m sorry Paati, I didn’t want to make you to be sad on your birthday.”
Paati wiped away her tears and smiled at Manju. “You have not made me sad Manju, it is a story that needs to be told so that none of us can forget.”
“So Paati,” it was now Bibin who spoke. “Was it the elephant brooch wrapped in the cloth?”
“Yes, that’s right,” answered Paati. “It was my beautiful precious elephant brooch. I will never forget that day, it was Monday September 22nd 1947, the last time I saw Saadia, the day she gave me the elephant brooch with the green glass eye.”
“And you never saw her after that day?” asked Manju.
“No, not ever again. All I know is that she left Delhi on a train. At the time when she left I knew nothing of the terrible journeys that Muslims were forced to make to the new country of Pakistan, or about the terrible fate of Hindus coming south. Thousands arrived in Delhi over the next few weeks. Today we know too much of the dreadful things that happened.” Once again Paati fell silent and Manju found herself also lost for words.
“I like to think,” said Paati as she regained some composure. “That somewhere in what is now Pakistan, my dear friend Saadia, just like me enjoys birthday celebrations with her family, perhaps with great grandchildren just like you. I dream that she sits with them and tells them tales and remembers our happy days in Old Delhi, and that she smiles and knows that here in India I too recall those wonderful times together. And that you see is why my elephant brooch is the most precious piece of jewellery that I own, and why I will always wear it on my birthday to bring back memories, both happy and sad.”
Issue 83 (Jan-Feb 2019)