To tell you the truth, I wanted to write the story of my father but it eventually took the shape of my grandfather’s story. Whether you believe it or not, whosoever I write about from the last three generations of my family, in the end, it will become the story of my grandfather. That is because these three generations are a mere shadow of the persona of my grandfather.

 

As I told you, Dadaji as my grandfather was called, has remained a legendary figure in the family. His rags to riches story was a result of sheer hard work and determination. Venturing out of his modest village in North Bihar, he reached an affluent place in Santhal Pargana—known as District Dhanbad after independence. Suffering the pangs of hunger for several days; doing odd jobs as a newspaper vendor; running errands at the house of a distant relative; facing various constraints; and going through hurt and pain of all kinds, he somehow managed to complete his education. Then, his fate took a turn. After getting a degree in management, he became a top official in a coal mine owned by the British. 

 

It is said that Dadaji built the hamlet where my father lived his whole life and I have spent half of mine. The sprawling bungalow, in which we lived was spread over two acres and had as many as thirty rooms. In fact, it was specially built for Dadaji by the British coal company “Mac and Marry”.

 

The huge courtyard of the bungalow was famous for its daily durbar. It played host to the bigwigs from all over the city. My father tells me that after returning from the mine every evening, Dadaji would take a bath, spray a generous amount of itr—perfume from Afghan or Basra, brought from Calcutta―and donning a white, yellow or blue silk kurta-pyjama would enter the durbar in great grandeur.

 

The evening durbar was attended by every individual who was affluent or had any social standing. There were coal merchants, administrative officials, coal mines’ officials, politicians, brokers, lawyers, moneylenders or even jesters—everybody would make it a point to pay a visit. They were, indeed, the high and mighty in that place. Besides these bigwigs, people from various other villages and towns who were employed by Dadaji in the coal mine, would also often come to pay a visit. Hearing the reputation of Dadaji, many people from remote villages of North Bihar would undertake long and arduous journeys on foot, carrying small bags of corn flour or rice flakes, in the hope of getting employment.

 

Right in the centre of the Veranda, a majestic cane chair would be placed which looked like a throne. The ‘throne’ was surrounded by twenty to twenty-five smaller cane chairs. Dadaji would sit on the royal seat while the smaller chairs would be occupied by the who’s who from the town.

 

All these cane chairs were made by the carpenters who were specially called from Mughal Sarai by Dadaji. It is said that the carpenter who made Dadaji’s royal seat was rewarded with five gold coins. The image of Queen Victoria was inscribed on them. While giving him the coins, Dadaji had warned him, “Dare not make a similar chair for anyone else, or I will shoot you irrespective of whether you are in Mughal Sarai or in Etowah.” The carpenter fell at his feet and vowed that even the next seven generations from his family won’t think of making anything similar for anyone else.

 

Dadaji was extremely possessive about his chair. It was an unwritten rule that nobody except him would ever sit on it. Not even my grandmother, or my paternal aunt or even my father. On an ill-fated morning a newly recruited young officer came to our bungalow to seek Dadaji’s blessings. He didn’t know the law of the land. He casually sat down on Dadaji’s royal seat while waiting. When the Gurkha watchman saw this sight, he shuddered thinking about the impending catastrophe. By the time he could reach the veranda and warn him about Dadaji’s wrath, it was already too late. Dadaji had already dreassed and reached the veranda. When he saw the young man, his eyes blazed with anger and there was a stern look on his face. At once, he unleashed his leather belt and kept on lashing the poor man till he fell unconscious. Later, when he came to his senses, he was told about his terrible mistake. He fell at Dadaji’s feet and apologised profusely.  Dadaji pardoned him and offered him sweets and badam sherbet, a cool drink made with almonds. Since then, the officer became a devout disciple of my grandfather. The story spread like wildfire and no one ever dared to sit again on Dadaji’s chair. 

 

Like all the other rooms in the bungalow, the veranda was also lined with a red carpet across the floor. The carpet was a gift to Dadaji by Mac Sahib who had bought it from district Bhadohi in Uttar Pradesh. All the people who were employed under Dadaji, and were his trusted lieutenants, recieved the privilege of sitting on the carpet. They were always ready to act instantly on his commands. All those people who had  left their villages, travelling hundreds of miles on foot, hoping to get some favour or odd jobs from Dadaji would sit outside the veranda, on a bare platform.

 

Ramashish Kaka, a native who had been hired by Dadaji, once told me, “the age of sahib was altogether different. How good were those days, alas! Those days will never come back.” Kaka lamented the bygone era. Whoever came to Dadaji for a job was asked only one question, “Do you know how to wield a stick?” If the answer was ‘yes’, the applicant would be immediately hired to work in the coal mines.

 

In the evening, Dadaji would spend a long time sitting in the durbar and deliberate till late night upon events happening in nearby villages, the nation and even the world. Bahadur, Sona Ram, Jang Bahadur, and Kisna would promptly run from the veranda to the courtyard serving snacks and sherbet. Dadaji was appointed on a high post in 'Mac & Mary' in the same year in which my bua (paternal aunt) was born. Five years later, my father was born. Usha, my bua, was considered lucky by her father. Out of the six cars in his fleet, three cars, red, blue and white in colour, were bua's choice.

 

She had furnished the bungalow and it was ensured that everything bought was according to her taste. This include things all and sundry like the gramophone, the refrigerator, the large metal flower vase, the deer-antlers, the silver pen stand, Monalisa's life-size portrait, carved teak tables, the recliners, and even the king-size bed. Everything had bua’s stamp of approval.

 

Just like bua was lucky for Dadaji, he was lucky for his boss, Mac Sahib. From the day he took charge, Mac Sahib’s business started growing by leaps and bounds. Due to his persona and leadership, Dadaji was given charge of all the mines situated in the eastern region. As long as Dadaji remained in charge, there were no strikes, or any trade union protests. His influence grew in the prosperous district of Santhal Pargana known for its forest tribes.

Mac Sahib lived with his mem Mary in Calcutta, but also owned a sprawling bungalow in the town which later came to be known as Dhanbad. He would come there with his mem to stay for a few days, at least once every fortnight or month. 

 

Whenever Mac Sahib came to Dhanbad, Dadaji would adjourn his durbar for a few daysand go punctually to his English boss’s mansion in his red car. Dadi told us that mem Mary was an extraordinary beauty. Picture perfect! Her complexion was so fair that it looked like a divine miracle or a great mystery. She had deep blue eyes, as beautiful as those of the fairies. Many were stunned to see her breathtaking beauty. When she opened her lips, such sweet melody would flow as if the air had become fragrant with fresh blossoms. Her laughter resembled the sound of a flowing cascade. Her body emanated such a magical aura that her presence intoxicated everyone. It was difficult to deicde if she was a goddess descending from the heavens or someone from fairy land.

 

One day, she came to our bungalow to meet Dadi. Clad in a sleeveless white T-shirt and a blue skirt, she looked like a fairytale princes. She gifted my grandmother a gold perfume box which was especially imported from England. While she was leaving, Mary hugged my Dadi as Indians do. As they embraced, Dadi felt as if she was hugging a soft rabbit. Dadi could still feel and remember that magical fragrance even when she had grown terribly old. 

Just when mem Marry was saying goodbye to Dadi, Dada ji clicked her photograph with mem Mary with a camera that Mac Sahib had gifted him on his birthday. The picture is still in the album in my mother’s cupboard.

 

I was a die-hard fan of the pop diva, Britney Spears. A large picture of Britney adorned the walls of my study. Dressed in a spotless white T-shirt and blue jeans, blue-eyed Britney looked so beautiful beyond imagination. To me, she was an epitome of beauty and love even in a picture.

 

I had marked the bottom of the poster with, “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” with dadaji’s vintage Parker pen. But when I saw the black and white photograph of the 50-year-old black-and-white Mem Mary, clicked by Dadaji in 1932, I was stunned. Unbelievable!

Colouring over Dadaji’s memories, I filled blue colour over Mary’s skirt in the black and white photograph. I could also feel the old magical fragrance of Mem Mary.

I struck off the remark, “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” using the same Parker pen. Dadiji usually avoided talking about Mary. Whenever mem Mary’s name was mentioned, her face reflected strange anxiety and pain. Some say that Dadi had felt Mary’s fatal magical fragrance emanating from Dadaji’s body.

 

Whenever Dadaji used to meet Mac Sahib in his mansion, he returned very late at night and in a drunken state. Without talking to anyone, he would quietly disappear into his room. Later, Dadaj would spend the entire night drinking the English wine gifted to him by Mac Sahib and listening to an old English song on his gramophone. It was the popular song ‘For God’s Sake Hold Your Tongue & Let Me Love.’ It was all the rage in Britain then.

 

Mac Sahib often gifted Dadaji British watches, suits, ties, bracelets, Parker pens, perfumes and much more. Dadaji would keep all those gifts carefully in a teak cupboard.

 

Rumour mills were abuzz that it was not Mac Sahib but mem Mary who had given him all those gifts. Dadaji’s half-brother, Jagannath Prasad Singh, had spread these rumours about his alleged affair with Mary. He claimed to have seen Dadaji and Mary in an intimate position at her mansion. In a fit of rage, my father, despite being young, had showered filthy abuses on his step-uncle Jagannath.

 

But Dadi neither broke her silence on such rumours, nor did she ever care to listen to such anecdotes about her husband. I remember that my mother had told me that Dadi didn’t speak kindly to Dadaji for as long as a month when he returned home after spending an entire week with Mac Sahib and Mary in Calcutta.

 

It continued to be a mystery for the rumour mongers and those who vehemently denied such rumours alike. Also, if Dadaji was really having an affair with Mary, why did Mac Sahib find him so affable?

 

Another rumour started doing the rounds that Dadaji was the biological father of Mac Sahib’s only child. His face, his eyes, his nose, everything had a striking resemblance with my grandfather. It was nothing more than a cooked-up story.

 

Michael was born exactly five years after Dadaji had joined Mac & Mary firm. He was born in Calcutta. Mary had visited Dhanbad only once or twice during the interim. Michael visited our town with his mother only once when he was five or six years old. After that he neither returned to Calcutta nor to out town. He was enrolled in a British school in Delhi and after completing his education from Delhi’s British School, he obtained a degree in business management from Oxford University. When he returned to India, our country had gained independence; Mac Sahib had sold his mines to an Indian coal firm; and returned to England, leaving all his property to his only son.

 

Michael started a textile mill in Mumbai. Later, he set up a multinational company with diverse interests in automobiles, petrochemicals, telecom, and information technology. Today, he is counted among the most influential businessmen in the world.

 

When I got to know about Mac Sahib, I was a student of sixth grade in a government school which was situated in the same region which also had the coal mines owned by Mac Sahib. The place was, in fact, inhabited by the workers who came from different place in search of employment. My Hindi teacher Janardhan Jha once dictated an essay on the country’s freedom struggle, “On August 15, 1947 our country gained independence and the British returned to England.” After coming to know about Michael, I removed the sentence ‘The British returned to England’ and added a question mark at the end of the opening line ‘Our country gained independence?’

 

I was shocked to see Michael when he was invited for a TV interview during a fashion show in New York. Dadaji’s image came to my mind. Michael had the same eyes, nose and thin lips! Later, I tried to convince myself, that maybe Dadaji and Mac Sahib looked similar but therein lay the problem. I have seen the picture of Mary with Dadiji. The very one which forced me to strike off ‘the most beautiful woman’ tag from Britney’s picture. But nobody has seen any picture of Mac Sahib. This was my dilemma. There is not much difference between fact and fiction. And whatever difference there might be, it would be difficult to unravel.

 

“Was Dadaji really in love with Mary?” this was my dilemma as I went to the ‘trash quarter’ (this used to be the servant’s quarter in Dadaji’s time) to dispose off old newspapers. I stumbled upon some of Dadaji’s old books in a neglected wooden cupboard. While sifting through the books, I found an old English pocket book. It was the American poet Walt Whitman’s anthology, Leaves of Grass. As I opened the first page, I found something written in Dadaji’s beautiful handwriting, “Madam Mary, from the epitome of love”. I restlessly began to flip through the book until I reached the last page which read “Madam Mary, love incarnate”.

 

My joy knew no bounds. It felt as if I had found a treasure, only to find myself in a state of shock the very next moment. How can a tough man like Dadaji fall in love? I was unable to differentiate between fact and fiction.

 

The evening when I told Dadiji about the remarks in the book, she was silent for some time but soon burst into tears.

 

No one, including my father would have believed what Dadi said that day. She said that Dadaji used to drink a lot and listen to English songs on his gramophone after returning from Mac Sahib’s mansion. She had often also seen him crying helplessly like a child. Many a times, he would talk endlessly to Bua about Mac Sahib and Mary but she never disclosed their conversations with anyone, not even Dadi. Neither I nor my mother had seen Bua. This was because when my father married, Dadaji and Bua had already passed away. My father and Dadi told us often that Bua was very graceful and judicious since her childhood.

 

Bua had passed away at the young age of fifteen after battling a mysterious illness. Father said that the blood of the person, suffering from that illness, changes into water. Dadaji left no stone unturned to save his daughter. He even spoke to Mac Sahib and took her to England for traetment. Alas! She didn’t survive.

 

Dadaji was shattered after Bua’s death. It is said that irrespective of whether she was in Calcutta, Dhanbad oe in her homeland, Mem Mary used to call him every day to console him.

 

The durbar was adjourned for several months after Bua’s death. It was quite possible that at that time, even if someone sat on his chair, Dadaji wouldn’t have minded. But such was his terror that even after his death, no one ever dared to take the seat. Later, one of the legs of that chair was broken but instead of repairing it, my father dumped it in the trash room. Within a year after Bua’s death, Mary too died in a plane crash while returning from England. When Mac Sahib informed Dadaji about the shocking news, the latter disconnected the call without a word. He neither spoke nor ate, eventually falling seriously ill.

 

Dadaji wanted to quit his job, but he had to change his decision after being coaxed and persuaded by Mac Sahib. Coal production in eastern coal mines had declined substabtially due to his absence.

 

Dadaji was an iconic figure and there are several stories surrounding his death. Some say that he had consumed so much of opium that he couldn’t smell the gas leak. Bhuvneshwar Ravani, the mine overman, claims that Dadaji tried his best to run out to save his life after the gas leak but couldn’t do so because a heavy trolley blocked his way. Another theory doing the rounds among his junior officers is that Dadaji was intoxicated on expensive scotch and so lost in an English song that he couldn’t detect the gas leak. A.K. Singh made a startling claim that at the time of his death, Dadaji was singing a popular English song which was all the rage among the British. The song was “For God’s Sake Hold Your Tongue & Let Me Love”.

 

Bua, Mary and Dadaji died in successive years but on the same date―August 15.

 

After Dadaji’s death, the mines in the eastern belt suffered huge losses. Mac Sahib sold them to an Indian company KCT and handed over the reins of his other businesses to Michael who had returned to India after completing his education.

 

Since then, nobody has heard about Mac Sahib. Only his son Michael knows whether he is still alive.  Michael is a renowned industrialist in the country. Whichever party comes into power either in the Centre or the State, the actual power lies with Michael. Another story claims that Michael literally rules over almost every third world country in the world.

 

But I don’t have any access to the person controlling India and the entire Third World region. Otherwise I could have asked him where Mac Sahib is; whether he is still alive. It is said that people don’t lie on their death bed. Before she took her last breath in 2004, Dadi had said, “Sahib (Dadaji), Usha (Bua) and Mary have died but Mac Sahib is still alive”.


Should we call it fact or fiction?


This is actually Mac Sahib’s story, not my grandfather’s.

 

Translated in English by Asmat Jahan and Aryan Prakash