Moving Forward to a Red Sky - My Friend Bulu Roy Chowdhury
G. Asha ( 1975 batch)
On February 19, 2016, Bulu Roy Chowdhury, a National Council Member of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), member of National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), All India Youth Federation (AIYF), All India Students’ Federation (AISF) and champion of the oppressed, former Lady Irwin School (LIS) student (1951), passed on in the town of Tiruvananthapuram, which she had made her home for many years.
The ‘Hindu’ in its obituary mentioned that, “Ms. Chowdhury played an active role in all activities of the AITUC till her last day, with special focus on the functioning of the organization in Kerala. Having worked in the parliamentary party office of the undivided Communist Party in Delhi, she had met Mr. Chandrappan when he reached Delhi as a parliamentarian in 1964. The two got married in 1975 and worked together for the party till Mr. Chandrappan’s demise in March 2012.”
Most people in Kerala only knew Bulu Roy Chowdhury as Comrade Chandrappan’s wife. Once I got to know her, I realized that this was a very superficial assessment of Bulu and the contributions she made to the progressive movements in India. I met Bulu Di a few years after I moved to Tiruvananthapuram Kerala from the US. True to the custom in the US, I always addressed Bulu without the Di and she did not mind at all. In this town far away from our alma mater- we were just three LIS alumnae. Bulu, Elizabeth (1979) and myself. This created a special bond.
Bulu was my mother’s friend before she became mine. There were a group of women who would meet regularly in some restaurant to have lunch or dinner together. This was an attempt to ‘take up public space’ normally usurped by men. I know it lasted for a few years.
Bulu was a perfect blend of revolutionary ideals, compassion, humanism and a very Bengali sensibility to the arts and culture. She knew how to balance the various demands placed on her very well. She regularly visited her in-laws in Vayalar. She would sit in dharnas and go to faraway places most of the time travelling by train or bus, for meetings and morchas. When in town she always made sure she attended the lone Bengali Durga Puja hosted by the small Bengali community in Tiruvananthapuram. Little wonder then that her funeral was well attended not just by family (who arrived from places like the UK) but also ordinary workers, intellectuals from the Bengali community and many women from the various women’s groups she supported and nurtured.
Some years ago I had pestered Bulu to jot down her memories of LIS. She had passed out in 1951 and was in school during the tumultuous Partition years.
Bulu spent one weekend on it and sent me thirteen handwritten pages. I sat with her again with several questions and clarifications. She readily obliged. She also invited me to a gathering of her batch mates in CR Park, Delhi. They were very close knit. If I remember correctly, the ones I met were all Bengali. One had come from the US and they were all going to have a reunion in the US. Despite her anti- capitalist views, this was something Bulu was really looking forward to. Sadly, it was cancelled for some reason. One of the members also became very sick and could not write me the memoir I had requested. At this reunion, I heard of the annual pilgrimage to Simla from Delhi by trains which were free, the first principal of LIS Miss Duara, a fair and pretty Assamese woman who only wore ‘mekhala chador’ spun from the finest ‘muga’ silk, Miss Sengupta’s Brahmo views and how she was against the PTA starting Saraswati Puja in the school. The PTA won and it is a tradition we associate with the school now. Partition took away many classmates to the other side of the border. While Delhi burnt, the school was an oasis of calm.
Bulu spent her early childhood in Ulpur village, Faridpur (now Gopalganj) district, Bangladesh. The family moved to Delhi, where they had extended family, in 1943-44. She was admitted to the fifth standard in LIS by her older brother, who knew the English teacher Miss Suprava. They lived in cramped Government quarters, whereas all her classmates whose fathers were senior officials of the Central Government lived in big bungalows. Many of her classmates came from pro-British families. She really missed rural Ulpur, where they had lots of land and a big three-storied house. Also, the memories of Durga Puja celebrations in their house where Muslim women from surrounding villages would arrive with many delicious food items and participate in the festivities.
She soon made friends with all her new classmates. They were thirty four in all, cutting across various religions and communities – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Bengalis, Punjabis, South Indians and Delhiwallahs. They were together from class 5 to 11. Very few failed. During the Partition, Sayeda, Farah and Abida moved to Pakistan. However they still prayed for their LIS classmates during Eid Namaaz and visited them when they came to Delhi to see their relatives.
The nine Bengali girls in Bulu’s class studied Bengali instead of Hindi. (Compulsory Hindi was introduced only in 1951 after Bulu left school). They called themselves the “Nine Gems”. They had a wonderful Bengali teacher, Ms Biswas, who introduced them to the pleasures of reading. After that, books became Bulu’s best friends. She cultivated a habit of reading late into the night. The main emphasis in Bengali class was Tagore’s writings and that of his contemporaries. However, during library sessions, Bulu got introduced to the work of Krupskaya, wife of Lenin and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth among others. On one occasion, Ms. Biswas asked them to give their opinion on Sesh Prashna, written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, and Gora, written by Rabrindanath Tagore. Bulu answered that she thought Sesh Prashna was the better novel as the woman protagonist could fight for her rights as a woman, even after becoming a widow. It is only much later that she realized that Gora as a character and novel was outstanding. In class 9, her class brought an almirah to school, collected books and started a mini library in their class!
Bulu’s reminiscences brought alive for me the school of the nineteen forties and early fifties! Miss Duara retired and Miss Sengupta took overin 1946. I was surprised that so many teachers who taught us almost a quarter of a century later were teaching in the school during Bulu’s days. These included Miss Mansukhani and Miss Saxena in Maths, Miss Pal who taught English in senior school and Ms Dhanmasih who was the English teacher in junior school.
“She used to walk from one end of the room to the other with a rhythm, making waves with her hands, to explain to us what the waves in the sea looked like. She sang and taught us Christmas carols.”
Miss Dasgupta, the History teacher was solely responsible for introducing Bulu to the Buddha and his religion, Chanakya and Atharva Veda. This sparked her interest in history and she read a lot of Indian and foreign scholars on the subject after leaving school. Their Chemistry teacher, Ms. Mitra was the first woman to get a postgraduate degree in Chemistry in Bengal. “She was our dear friend and classmate Sunanda’s mother, so we called her Mashima. Sunanda got a Ph.D in Chemistry and taught in a college in Delhi. The Science block came up after Independence with a very well equipped science lab.” On Mondays there was a health club where the nurse and teacher would inspect their hands, nails, and see if the girls had neat plaits with no lice in their hair. Most importantly, the books and notebooks had to be neatly covered and arranged. I remember these sessions of showing our hands and nails when I joined the school in the second standard in the sixties. Ms. Nayyar would knock on your knuckles with a ruler if it did not meet her standards. There also used to be gardening classes where the girls were introduced to various flowers and trees and the natural and chemical fertilizers used to nourish them. On the sports front, Miss Gordon used to play the piano and Miss Guha would teach them free hand exercises with music. The annual PT show was held in the National Stadium. Cricket was a craze among the girls. They used to try to play in the Main School grounds. But it was discontinued due to lack of coaching. However, Bulu who was a great admirer of Dattu Phadkar, went to watch a cricket match at Feroz Shah Kotla as his guest. She gave him a biography of Don Bradman as a gift. She watched many of the greats in action – Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar and Vijay Merchant among others.
There were dance classes taught by Ms Nandita Kripalini (also called Buridi), Acharya Kripalini’s brother’s wife and also Rabindranath Tagore’s niece. Though she was a strict teacher, she exposed the girls to a range of cultural performances. Bulu saw Bharatanatyam performed by Indrani Rehman and Vyjayanthimala on some of these outings. She believes that she could later appreciate Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali because of this exposure. Rabindra Sangeet in the school was taught by teachers from Shantiniketan.
Bulu attended her first Asian conference as a volunteer in Purana Kila in 1947 as a Blue Bird volunteer. I think this began to be called Bulbuls by the time I joined school. As a girl guide, they were trained to help people, taught basic nursing and had to take the Red Cross exam which Bulu cleared in her very first attempt.
Saraswati Puja was not celebrated in the school during Basant Panchami. Instead they would visit other schools. Finally they approached Miss Sengupta, who only agreed after much persuasion. Bulu’s father sent the truck to bring the idol to the school and take the idol to the Yamuna for immersion. The girls did everything from decorations, preparing and serving the prasad to arranging cultural programs. Here they enacted many dance dramas from Tagore as well as folk dances from all over India. Miss Sengupta, ever the skeptic, gave very clear instructions that the fruits served as prasad should not be cut and cause illness due to poor hygiene.
1951 was the first year that the Higher Secondary system was introduced in schools. It was one of Bulu’s batch mates who stood first in the Board exams. LIS was soon recognized as one of the best schools in Delhi.
Bulu had only very fond memories of the school – from the impressive building, Tulsi’s shop, to her wonderful friends. But mostly she remembered with gratitude the teachers, “who had taught us to be educated, good and moulded our characters.”
Bulu’s life traversed many countries, many states, many epochs. Yet, she always loved Delhi where she grew up, where she climbed up to the fifth storey of the Qutub Minar, holding her mother’s hand and later went for moonlit picnics. It was in Delhi that she went to Azad’s house on the day of Independence. Later in the evening they went to Parliament House in a tonga. Nehru was speaking. “He said the sky is red – we can all move forward. And the sky was red.”
Bulu’s own life, lived with simplicity, warmth and integrity, rose from these times.
I regret that I did not encourage her to write more about her college days and entry into political life. She studied up to her Masters in Literature. Though she always insisted that she was a poor student, she wrote prolifically. There is a book on Madame Cama as well as a small book of poems in Bengali penned by her. She regularly contributed articles and reports to the Communist Party newspapers and journals. At one point she was part of a theatre group in Delhi for about ten years.
I would like to think that Bulu’s humanism, her sensitivity to the injustice around her and her fights on behalf of the oppressed were moulded by the times she grew up in and the people and books she surrounded herself with. In this, LIS had a big role to play. (Author’s note - I wrote this tribute using the notes that Bulu wrote for me as well as my own. In case there is anyone who knows more about Bulu or LIS especially during the Independence, Partition years, please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also ring me at 91-471-2436880)
A Call from the Principal: The Dagshahi Story
(D.D. Mulherkar, former teacher)
Come September! Offices of school principals in Delhi, even today, literally turn into call centres. Worried and anxious parents put all sorts of questions to the principal. Majority of the parents complain that the prescribed curriculum for the first semester is not yet fully taught. Generally, principals give a stereo type answer, “Don’t worry, my teachers are experts and highly experienced. They will cover the left out topics, giving sufficient time for revision also. There is absolutely no need to worry, I assure you.”
But Miss Sengupta was above others - a unique person. Her reply to such complaints used to be, “A few topics in some subjects are intentionally left untaught to find out how many children (she used to address students as children -- in fact ‘chillun’) react to, and in what manner, seeing a topic not taught in the class. At the same time precaution is taken to give internal choice to such questions. Please don’t panic and don’t make your daughter nervous.”
Needless to mention, a staff meeting was invariably called after such situations, asking all the teachers to complete the prescribed course in time, in future.
Anyway, I was quite surprised when I got the message, “Badi Miss Sahib (as the peons used to address her) nay aapko turant bulaya hai”. Since I had completed my prescribed course, I was mystified about the urgency of the summons. When I reached her office, Mrs. Nag and Ms. Aggarwal (Geography) were already there.
All of us were jubilant when we were told that a big bungalow, surrounded by about three acres of cultivable land, had been gifted to the L I S. The Principal infiormed us that the property was marked as 26, Charing Cross, Dagshai; a small village nested in a beautiful panoramic valley about 50 km from Shimla on the Shimla – Kalka road. Mr. Babulal Sood was the caretaker of this property which was in the name of Late Ms Sushiela Ram. In her will, she desired that her property should be used for better education of girls. Could there be a better choice than Lady Irwin School to fulfil her desire? Dagshai is the oldest cantonment town. Our curiosity reached its peak.
Miss Sengupta informed us that it was planned that we should conduct summer study camps at that site. After some discussion it was decided that four groups, each consisting of about 20 – 25 students of class XI ( X – passed) should be taken for two weeks for intensive coaching in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mechanical Drawing to improve their performance in the Higher Secondary Board Examination. Four such groups would be taken one after the other in the two months of summer vacation. The idea was indeed very exciting. All three of us told Miss Sengupta we were ready to jump into the fray. Accordingly, plans were drafted in a couple of weeks.
The take-over visit: Dagshai Darshan
On some day (date I don’t remember!) in the 3rd week of December 1963, I, Mrs. Nag, Miss Bharati Dutt ( now Dr. Bharati Sarkar – at present part of the Management Committee ), Uday Singh – the school carpenter and Puran Singh – the Physics laboratory assistant, a team of five, reached Dagshai. Mr. Babulal Sood received us at the main Charing Cross, opposite his small all-purpose departmental store, and guided us to 26, Charing Cross.
The bungalow was astonishingly huge! Its verandah was 60 feet long and 8 feet wide (Uday Singh’s assessment) with bamboo grills on all sides. Interestingly, for the first time, I learnt from Uday Singh that carpenters use the length of a normal cot as a practical unit for measuring dimensions of a room. Mr. Sood opened the door of the big main hall with the keys he had. The unbearable pungent and foul smell of rat’s excreta had filled the hall indicating that rodents were ruling the vacant building for quite some time.
We came out in the verandah. Mr.Sinuram with his wife Karmie also welcomed us there, with tea and biscuits, provided by Mr. Sood. Sinuram was the watchman. There cannot be greater mockery of the word watchman than calling Sinuram, a hunchback, a watchman. His back was bent at right angles to his legs. Turning his head at 120 degrees upward he saw us and we too glanced at his face. Characters like this one are often seen in the Sherlock Holmes’ and Agatha Christie’s stories. Within a short time we realised that Sinuram knew each and every detail of the property.
Karmie, with the help of her brother, cultivated the fields, growing maize, rice and some vegetables. Selling milk of the buffalo and cow she owned was the source of income of her family. Barter system was in practice in Dagshai at that time. Part of the agricultural products and milk was exchanged for monthly rations. Mr. Sood informed that Sinuram and his wife were very poor and very honest. “They are loved and respected by the local villagers,” said he.
The first two days of our stay were spent getting the house cleaned. There was a small Chemistry laboratory and a lot of beautiful English furniture in the house. One cupboard was full of high class quality English crockery and cutlery. There were old classics of English literature and text books of Physics and Chemistry. Gurudev Rabindranth Tagore’s Geetanjali was also there.
Karmie prepared morning tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea with snacks and dinner for us. She was a good cook and the way she and Sinuram laid the table was proof of their good training under Miss Sushiela Ram. In the afternoon, we used to roam down the hills and meet the local villagers. We were strangers from Delhi. Initially the villagers were apprehensive about us, but in a day or two they were friendly. They assured to help us if any help was need. They said, “Aap bhale log ho, kanyaonko padhate ho.”
In the house, three of us – I, Mrs Nag and Bharati listed requirements essential for the proposed first four study camps of May - June 1964. First and the most important need was to get a water tap near the kitchen. The water supply line was about 150 feet down the hill, away from the main building. Earlier water was brought up by a kawari (we see the kawariwalaas in the month of Shraavan in north India). With 25 students, teachers and other helpers, this water-supply arrangement was totally impractical. So the need was to lay pipes for water supply to the house. The next requirement was latrines. The local sweeper promised he would solve the problem. A 8 foot long, 2.5 feet wide and about 4 feet deep trench covered with thick one foot wide and four feet long wooden planks with gaps in each plank made a set of five makeshift loos. The walls were made with thick jute cloth wrapped round bamboos, fixed around the perimeter of the trench. Details are given since the students really enjoyed the uncivilised device, a term coined by the students only.
Hot water was made available by heating it in a big vessel for bath on a chullah! The storeroom was the bathroom.
What about the beds? Thirty, typical village cots made of bamboo legs and sides with coir string (rassi) wound around the frame were ordered. The local carpenter gleefully accepted the big order. He boasted, “Madamji, even mischievous students (shaitaan bachhey) will not be able to break cots made by me; I guarantee that.”
Cooking gas was the next item on the purchase agenda. Karmie had suggested, “Why get gas, I will make one big tandoor from mud and stone and also supply wood as fuel.” She went one step further claiming that food cooked on tandoor tasted far better than ‘your gas stoves of Delhi’. Frankly speaking, this is quite true, but we rejected her suggestion outright.
Those days getting a gas connection was not a big problem. Miss Kamala Grover (English teacher) requested the then M D Kossan Gas (Now HP) to sanction a gas connection to LIS. Such was the reputation of Lady Irwin that Mr. Praveen Gokuldas, the M D promptly sanctioned it, with supply of four gas cylinders every two weeks. He pointed out that carrying gas cylinders from Delhi would need an authority letter from the principal giving details of the school’s study camp at Dagshai. We were also told that each cylinder must be properly packed in a gunny bag. Two gas stoves -one with a big flame (canteen stove as it is called) and one normal stove as used in households were purchased. Many sundry items like big utensils etc were listed. Loan from contingency fund was sanctioned for initial purchases.
So far so good, but the biggest hurdle was how to raise funds to repay the loan. Lady Irwin was a government aided school and not a rich or an affluent public school. There was no provision for all the required items. Moreover, Miss Sengupta’s motto, “Provide best education to girls with minimum fee” was to be kept in mind. Even though a gas cylinder used to cost just ₹ 38/- , yet the total estimated cost of all the essential items was to the tune of ₹ 5,000 to ₹ 6,000/-.
On returning to Delhi, Dagshai was lingering in my mind. One day while teaching a class, I stressed the need of mastering exact definitions of Laws of Physics for clarity of concepts. After the class was over, an idea struck me. I felt if I compile exact definitions of Laws and connotations of Physics, a small book could be printed. Similarly some really challenging M C Qs can also be compiled and printed. Without any hesitation I straight way rushed to Miss Sengupta and suggested that money obtained by selling these two books to all science students of class IX, X and XI (no compulsion), could raise sufficient fund to repay the loan amount. I saw her emotionally moved for the first time. She uttered, “You have personified Lady Irwin School. I know your financial condition. Instead of thinking how to increase your bank balance you are enriching the school’s wealth. My blessing will make you one day a legendary Physics teacher.”
Within a month (i) Fundamentals of Physics – a collection of definitions of laws of Physics and (ii) Evaluation Tests in Physics were published. The printing cost was borne from the development fee under teaching aid category. Each book was priced at ₹ 3/- per copy. Roughly ₹ 5500/- were generated. The contingency loan was repaid. In the first week of May 1964, myself, Mrs Nag, Miss C. Aggarwal, Uday Singh and Puran Singh reached Dagshahi by school bus, carrying GI pipes (on top of the bus), gas cylinders, tins of biscuits and 10 kg pachranga pickle, jams, many sundry items. In a week’s time 26, Charing Cross was blooming with life.
The Coke joke!
Sudents adjusted themselves in different rooms. Once settled, the girls decided to purchase Coca Cola. They rushed to Mr Sood’s shop and demanded ‘coke’. Poor fellow told them that he does not sell coke but a shop in the downtown market sells it. He promised that he will inform the students when the lot arrives. Two days later a message was received that coke is available. Gasping, the enthusiastic coke crazy group walked one km down the hill. The shop whose address was given was a coal depot. They were on the verge of fainting when they learnt that Mr. Sood had understood coke to mean coal for burning. Inexpressibly dejected they returned. If I remember right, it was Ratnabali Mukherjee who said, “I felt as if I was thrown in an angethi”. Now coke is available in a couple of shops of Dagshai. The village has progressed.
From 1964 to 1970, I regularly taught Physics in the study camps. I can write a voluminous book on memories of Dagshai. Lady Irwin has now lost the property there. We who enjoyed the privilege of staying in the house at will cherish the sweet memories. Hundreds of students who participated in Dagshai camps must be telling stories of Dagshai, round the world, to their children and grand children.
Am I right, Meenakshi, Sanghmitra, Indu Arora, Kirti Jain, Shakti Rishi, Shobha Madan and many more LISSA members?
Good bye Dagshai!
* * * * * *
Dagshai and Dreams
My first tryst with the Himalayas was via this shy hill station nestled among the high hillocks. But that happened more than half a century ago. I was therefore naturally worried when I was asked to write about my Dagshai stay. I thought that it would be an impossible task to resurrect my memories as we were in our teens at that point of time, collecting superficial impressions of the place, the events and the characters. And all of these have been lying in some distant corner of my memories, faded, fragmented and discoloured, buried under the dusts of the passing year. Strangely though, as I started looking deep, so many memories came flooding – bringing back waves of emotions, aspirations and impressions and lots and lots of images in sepia tint.
I was one of the lucky ones who visited Dagshai thrice – twice as a student and one time for teaching biology to junior students. Like all families staying away from their place of domicile, it was customary for us that every long vacation our whole family would visit Kolkata and Kolkata only. When I was selected for a trip to Dagshai, I was excited as this was going to be my first tour with classmates and teachers. Of course, I did not know what to expect out of the trip. Probably it would be studies followed by more studies and at the end of the trip we would return to Delhi laden with heavy loads of 'gnyan'.
Soon after arriving at Dagshai, we realised that we were in for a unique experience.
We were told that at Dagshai, our place of stay would be the residential bungalow donated to the school by Dr Sushiela Ram – an eminent scientist.We travelled from Delhi to Kalka by train, followed by an uphill drive on a four wheeler. The first glimpse of the place did not impress much. From where the four wheeler dropped us, we had to walk down a slope to reach the bungalow. It was sprawling wooden house with a number of rooms surrounded by a balcony, which gave out an eerie vibe as if hopes and dreams and despair of so many bygone years were woven together in those rooms.
The bungalow was perched on the side of a hillock. Standing on the balcony, we could see down below a serpentine lane, a thin ribbon weaving its way through the greenery. Privi arrangements were a bit primitive, shocking at first but we got used to it. Apart from the fact that the living arrangements were quite good, food was also plenty and tasty. We were definitely well looked after.
My guess is that idea of utilising the cottage for holding summer camps for students was the brainchild of Mrs Nag, our Vice Principal who always liked to think out of the box. It was much later that we realised how much planning and efforts were required to conduct these camps at such a remote place. Her able assistant in implementing the idea was Mr Mulherkar, our Physics teacher.
Mr Mulherkar would often encourage the brave ones amongst us to trek down the side of the hillocks to the foot of the hillock. Alas I was not one of the gutsy girls.
The wide balcony served as our classroom after breakfast and again after lunch. Rest of the day was ours. We soon made an exciting discovery -one of the rooms contained a chemistry laboratory, with rows of bottles of reagents arranged in cupboards and test tubes and sundry other laboratory items lying on tables. The room was crying to be utilised. Our reverence for Dr Ram increased manifold.
But the fact that intrigued me most was her collection of books – rows and rows of leather bound books with yellowing pages, giving out an irrestible musty smell. Many of these were literature books. Coming from a typically bong background; I had been exposed to Tagore's works from early childhood. I was pleasantly surprised to find many English translations of Tagore's works in her collection. There were The Songs Offerings, The Gardener, The Post Office and others. During free time I would go through them, trying to match them to the original work in Bengali version. Sometimes I would read it first at Dagshai and then locate the original later after returning home.
As far as I can recollect our classes were primarily on Physics and English and may be a little of Maths. Classes were always enjoyable and fun. The third time when I went to Dagshai not as a student but as a teacher (though I was a student in class eleven of that year), I took biology classes for the junior girls. Our Physics teacher Mr Mulherkar was a brilliant but somewhat eccentric teacher who made quite a few of us fall for Physics. Every year he would concentrate on a few chosen students and achieve brilliant results for the school. Though not adequately qualified, he was treasured by the School authorities. Mrs Nag always stressed on trying to write English in a novel way, on not treading the banal and commonplace path. This has remained a lifelong lesson for me.
In the afternoon, we would all go out for long walks, with Mr Mulherkar leading the way. We would carry broken branches of small trees and use those as our support as Mr Mulherkar would not allow us to walk along the pathways but would make us scamper up the hills for reaching the destination. On our way, we would try to identify different families of ferns and orchids and keep on chirping ceaselessly. We would also eat raspberries and small violet berries available in plenty by the roadside and then proudly display our purple tongues to each other. Mr Mulhrekar on his part would keep on singing as he trudged along, oblivious of the world around him, all the while making gestures with his hands and fingers.
Once we climbed down to an old cemetery of British and Irish soldiers who died in 1857. Most of these soldiers had died very young and sad epitaphs dedicated to the departed ones had become indistinct . We all felt sad for these unfortunates lying forgotten and hidden among the green creepers, so far away from home. The visit is still vivid in my memory.
Every year Mrs Nag would invite some important person of the local community for an interface with the students. Dagshai, being a cantonment town, had a military hospital headed at that time by one Colonel Sen. He and his wife were invited one evening. We entertained them with songs and couplets followed by a sumptuous dinner.
Another time, the District Magistrate of Dagshai Miss Movay honoured us by accepting our invitation. She was a sweet lady in her late twenties, with short stature, short hair and a sunny disposition. We were all impressed by her personality. She invited us to visit her bungalow and we went to her bungalow. It was a beautiful bungalow, with bed of flowers all around. We were all enjoying her company and the beautiful surroundings when all of a sudden there was a commotion outside. A major fire had broken out in the market below and she had to rush out immediately to control the situation.
Outcome of this limited interaction with the sweet little lady was that from aspiring to be a biologist, I almost got inclined towards administrative service. Not ironically, none of the aspirations of that period have turned into reality !
Our co-students in the summer camp were from different sections and mostly known to me only by face. But proximity during these camps bonded us together more closely. It was a pleasant surprise for us when we learnt about the latent talents of our camp-mates. I particularly remember Gunisha Singh, a bright science student who would regularly climb up on the hillock alone, sit under a tree and, occasionally gazing into the nothingness around her, start writing poems on her notebook, divinely oblivious to her surroundings.
Over a period of three years, I attended three summer camps, each lasting for a fortnight. I am sixty six today. What is three fortnights in a span of sixty six years? But as I dive deep, I realise that Dagshai has become an indispensable part of my life. The experience gained there may not have helped me to score better but it did encourage me to dream on and to hold fast to those dreams.
26, Charing Cross
From 1964 till around 1974, students of the Lady Irwin School went in batches of about fifteen each every year during the summer vacations for a ‘retreat’ to Dagshai, a small cantonment on the way to Shimla. In these summer camps of two weeks, the girls lived in an old sprawling house, called the Ivy Cottage. The property, termed as Bungalow Number 26, Charing Cross, was at the end of Dagshai Cantonment. The house itself was huge and it had extensive grounds around it – with trees and shrubs forming almost a jungle in some parts.
The girls who went for the summer camp used to be accompanied by three or four teachers, who used to take classes in the cool climate of Dagshai. Among the regular teacher escorts were Mr. Mulherkar, Mrs. B. Nag, Ms. Shyamala Sivadasa, Ms. Asha Nayar (nee Bhatia), Mr. Mathur, Ms. Nirmal, Mr. Luthra and Mrs. Juneja. All of them taught subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Mechanical Drawing, while Mrs Nag taught English. These teachers also kept the girls engaged in various activities including nature walks, cooking and campfire skits and songs. These activities, totally different from the school curriculum, helped develop the personalities of the participants and gave to many of us that edge which has helped us immensely later in life. The participants in these camps are today successful in their chosen vocations. They have gone on to become doctors, engineers, teachers, lecturers, professors and scientists. Above all, they are all successful human beings. And they remember the days spent in Dagshai with fondness.
I too attended the camp in Dagshai in 1965. It was a fortnight long picnic, which included walks to the church, the cemetery, a jail and efforts at gardening and cooking. Many of us were surprised that we had to use dry trench latrines! But the Dagshai camp was an unforgettable experience, and I and my friends often reminisced about those days in subsequent years.
It was due to this nostalgia that I suggested to my classmates that we should celebrate the 50-years of our passing out of school by getting together at Dagshai. Even though the response could have been better, those of us who met at Dagshai in May 2016 had a very enjoyable time.
But who was our benefactor, who so generously allowed us the use of the huge house in Dagshai?
Over many years after leaving school, I had kept hearing bits and pieces about the house in Dagshai. I learnt that the house belonged to one Miss Sushiela Ram and that she was a scientist. Mr. Mulherkar was a source of much information and also gave names of people in Dagshai who would know more.
So this year when we visited Dagshai, I decided to learn more about Miss Ram. I met some people who had known her and many more who had heard about her. I also talked to some persons who had access to, or were aware of the contents of the will of Miss Ram.
I found many aspects of Miss Sushiela Ram’s life and times absolutely fascinating.
Miss Ram was employed for a considerable period in the Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi, in some capacity in which she carried out research in the treatment of cancer. Her mother probably suffered from cancer and this made her passionate about her research.
Miss Ram appears to have been deeply influenced by some event in her early life, because she remained a spinster and had strong views on issues affecting women. In particular she empathised with elderly unmarried women, who she felt have no social security. She also tried to help the poor. Old residents of Dagshai recall that Miss Ram was to be often seen after dark, roaming around with a lantern, as she distributed medicines to the poor. It was said that the well-to-do did not approve of such activities!
The main legacy that Miss Ram left behind was the Ivy Cottage at No. 26, Charing Cross. This was not only her home but her laboratory and her retreat away from the world with her books and scientific papers. Possibly as a result of her experiences, Miss Ram laid down exacting conditions in her will relating to her estate. Among the stipulations was that no male person above the age of ten years should ever live in her house for more than a few days.
She seems to have been an intensely caring individual. In her will she not only remembered each of her friends but also her servants and chowkidars, going to the extent of suggesting how each one of them should be provided for after she passed away. She took pains to mention all relatives in her will. But she had an overwhelming concern for her mother’s health.
Though apparently a confirmed spinster, Miss Ram mentioned the remote possibility of her getting married and having children. But she seemed quite sanguine about the future of her children (if any) by observing that they might not require any major support from her estate because, she believed, in the times to come the government would provide good primary education and scholarships for higher education!
By all accounts, Miss Ram was a person of refined taste. Mr. Babu Lal, an old resident of Dagshai (who claimed he was ninety four years of age!), recalled that whenever Miss Ram visited his shop, she would insist that he lower the volume of his radio. She would not even start speaking unless this was first done! The Ivy Cottage of Miss Ram housed a Bechstein piano, another upright, a veena, a violin, a gramophone and files and books on music. It also had her prized possession, a painting, ‘The Coming of Spring’, by Ukil (Possibly the celebrated painter, Shantanu Ukil.) As per the will of Miss Ram, the bungalow also contained many pieces of fine furniture. She was keen that even after her death, the beauty of the house and its paintings, china and furniture should be open for viewing by the general public, at least on certain days in the year.
Besides having some literary work to her credit, Miss Ram was a keen scientist and had a large personal collection of laboratory equipment for her research, as also a huge number of books and papers on scientific subjects. In fact she envisaged the establishment of an institute for imparting specialised training to consulting and analytical chemists, as also clinical biochemists, and wanted all of her estate and other resources to be used for this purpose. In her will she laid out detailed plans for this institution, which she wanted to be named after her mother.
Her dedication to science was visible in her will in which she desired that after her death her body should be given for anatomical research, with particular regard to rickets, short sight and astigmatism, allergic nasal troubles and tumours in the uterus and intestines - ailments from which she presumably herself suffered.
Miss Ram, however, died under tragic circumstances. An old resident of Dagshai recalled that there was a traumatic event in her life. She was molested, some said raped, by someone and then she was hospitalised for a short while. After this she committed suicide, leaving behind two sealed envelopes.
In one, addressed to the police, she alleged that one Mohan Lal had molested her and was the cause of her death. As the old resident recalled, the accused Mohan Lal was arrested but was later released from jail. He did not remember clearly whether Mohan Lal was convicted or not.
In the other envelope, Ms. Ram left instructions that no post-mortem should be conducted and that her mortal remains should be cremated at Dagshai.
During my visit to Dagshai, my main interest was to ascertain how we, the students of Lady Irwin School, became beneficiaries and could enjoy living in the Ivy Cottage – our private summer resort! I found that Miss Ram had stipulated in her will that the estate at No. 26, Charing Cross was not to be rented out or sold but was to be placed at the disposal of some unmarried woman to enjoy as a home and laboratory for as long as she wished. She appointed a group of local trustees to look after the estate between periods when it was unoccupied.
After Miss Ram passed away, her sister and brother searched for a suitable beneficiary and selected Miss Kamala Sengupta, our Principal, to take charge of 26, Charing Cross. Miss Sengupta’s decision to use the property as a place for teaching of science to girls of Lady Irwin School was indeed in keeping with the spirit of Miss Ram’s last will and testament. It was during Mrs. Nag’s tenure as Principal that the property was surrendered. It was said to have been thereafter run by a society which treated eye ailments. They too surrendered the property and then Dr. (Mrs) Florence, Miss Ram’s sister, is said to have arrived at a settlement with the current occupants of the estate, a semi-religious organisation.
During our visit to Dagshai this year, we visited the Ivy Cottage. We were somewhat disappointed to find that the old bungalow existed no more. Instead, there is a new pink coloured concrete building there, bearing the name of Sushiela Ram. Built with much concrete and little aesthetic sense, it is larger than the earlier structure. It totally lacks the charm and personality of the quaint bungalow.
I sauntered down a narrow path on the side of the new building. This lane went downhill, where there used to be a lower garden of the old bungalow. The garden today is indeed charming with a well manicured lawn and I again became a young girl of fifty years ago. Then I looked up and the spell was broken. I saw the pink concrete of the new building, which suddenly seemed monstrous. And I wondered whether the soul of Miss Ram is at peace.