Vignettes from the Past: Standing Strong

A Republic Day Special

Nishi Pulugurtha reminisces about a past where India had emerged after the independence struggle as a republic with a strong belief in inclusiveness.

A group of young men were recruited to work at the newly set up laboratory in Bhubaneshwar. The laboratory was set up in 1961 by the Scottish geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. They had made India their home. The institution brought together myriads of people from various parts of India who made it their workplace and home.

Hari Pulugurtha, my father, joined this laboratory as secretary to Haldane. He had been recommended by his childhood buddy Ramshastri Mangipudi who by then was already working at the laboratory. The job entailed a move to Bhubaneswar from Vizag, Visakhapatnam that is. Till then, Appagaru (that is how we addressed my father) had been doing all kinds of odd jobs. Appagaru always believed in the idea of inclusivity, the idea that however different we might be, there is something that binds all human beings together. He would tell us stories of how they were such a myriad group of people at the laboratory and the fun and camaraderie that they had celebrating life in its various aspects and of all the great work that went on there.

It is here in Bhubaneshwar that the gardener at the laboratory brought his nephew one afternoon. The young lad came dressed in a pair of shorts and a shirt and could speak Oriya fluently and some Telugu too. I forget the name of the gardener who had brought him, highly recommending the lad for a job in the laboratory. He had turned wayward and his parents were concerned for his well-being. That was how Lakhsmikanta Sahu came into the life of my dad and some years later, into ours too. Sahu did all kinds of jobs at the laboratory and soon won the hearts of all. After Haldane passed away and his wife, Helen Spurway moved to Hyderabad, my father decided to move to Calcutta, a city that he travelled to before, mostly on work during his tenure at Bhubaneswar. He had once also toyed with the idea of moving to Hyderabad, spent some time there but did not like it. Calcutta, he always said, seemed to be a better place to live.

So, Calcutta it was. It also entailed a new job, one that he did not have much difficulty finding. We soon moved to the northern fringes of the city, close to his new place of work. When he moved in the mid-sixties, there were two other people who moved him. His dear friend Shastri and Sahu. The three shared digs till Appagaru married and moved to a new home. Both friends had joined the same institute in Calcutta. It was now important to help Sahu find a job in Calcutta.

Lakshmikanta Sahu belonged to a village in Orissa. I do not recall the name, but I do remember the way he spoke to us about where it was. He went back to his home frequently and I clearly remember him telling me that he had to alight at Ichhapuram station after an overnight train journey from Howrah and then take a bus to Tippanapattu. His village was somewhere close by, located on the border of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, in Ganjam district of Orissa. That was the reason why he spoke Telugu and Oriya and as he started living and working in Calcutta picked up Bengali and Hindi as well.

Sahu soon got a job at the same institute and though he now lived in a place of his own, he came home frequently. He would speak to my mother, my Amma, and Appagaru in Telugu and to us too in the same language. Appagaru was very affectionate towards him, chided him when occasion arose, advised him, listened to what he had to say and trusted him completely. He addressed my mother as Amma and often stayed back for a nice Andhra meal. Sahu loved sambar. I remember him telling us that when work took him to the Esplanade area in Calcutta he went to the South Indian restaurant in that area just to be able to have sambar, bowls of them.

Sahu lived alone in Calcutta, his family lived back in his village in the Ganjam district of Orissa. He often came to our home after work, on Sundays and holidays, and spent time talking to my parents. I remember Amma always telling me that he loved carrying me as a child, played with me and took great care of the baby me. He hoisted me on his shoulders, danced and sang. I guessed he missed home and his family. We were his family in Calcutta. I have no idea what his age was, neither did my father know his exact age, I assume he must have been some years younger to Appagaru.

Amma tried her hand at cooking in Calcutta, something that she had never done earlier. As she held a job and studied simultaneously from a very young age, Ammamma, my maternal grandmother, made sure that my mother was kept away from household chores. She read up and learnt how to cook after she moved to Calcutta. As she started trying out various dishes, she said that she had a great admirer who at times would be around in the kitchen watching her at work and even get jubilant when the puri fluffed up in the boiling oil, nice and crisp. She said Sahu would be jubilant at the sight of that puri all fluffed up.  Sahu would then go on to tell her stories of Appagaru’s cooking – he was a moderately good cook, tried his hand at a lot of dishes, but then Sahu said, his puris never fluffed up, hence his delight when he saw that they did.

Sahu would get us goodies from his trips home, cashewnuts from the trees in his family home and lots of coconuts too. He made sure he got them each time he went home. And, yes stories about his family members, his home and village.  As children we loved listening to his conversations as he spoke to my parents. He also got frequent letters from home. His wife could not read and write, so she went to the post office and got someone to write letters for her. That gentleman who wrote down the letters for her did so in Telugu, so Sahu would come to our house armed with the inland letter and sit as Appagaru or Amma read them out to him. Not just that, they would have to write the replies out for him. Sahu wrote only in Oriya and the man at the post office could not read the language, hence it had to be Telugu.  Those letters would be his connect with home and his family back in the village till he got leave to travel. Those were the days in the late seventies and eighties when we were writing out letters to cousins in Kakinada and Hyderabad and the thrill of seeing that blue inland letter always remained.

During our school vacations most of our playmates went off visiting relatives in the city. We had none in the city and it would become difficult for my working parents to keep us engaged. Often when we wanted to go for a movie and my parents could not find time. It was Sahu who chipped in to take the two young girls for a movie. With him, it was mostly a Hindi film, usually one starring Big B*. And yes, there would be food after the film was over, anything that we wanted to eat. This movie time with Sahu was something we did for years till we grew old enough to be on our own.

Sahu passed away on a trip to his village in 2003. He went home in the usual way and never got back. His wife and son came back to Kolkata to get his stuff. I remember them showing Appagaru and Amma a picture of him on the funeral pyre. That was not the way we had known our Sahu. A short, dimunitive figure, who spoke Telugu, Bengali and Hindi with an accent, one who had been our childhood companion, a grown up man who loved being with us, who made sure we had fun all along, someone my parents trusted completely, a member of our extended family.

I am always reminded of Sahu — we called him just the way our parents did — in times such as now. I am not sure if he belonged to times that were uncomplicated and/or simple. I was too small then to even think along these and such other lines. I would rather like to think that such people like Sahu are surely still around these days.

In a world that has become so full of people who are self-centred, so full of hate and mistrust, with back stabbers, the Janus-faced, the selfish and the insensitive who are absolutely oblivious to the pain and hurt that they cause to even their own family and friends, I would still like to believe that there are those that still care, that still make a difference somewhere.

I see hope in the young man who helps a family find a lost child; in the neighbour and dear friend who, despite having to deal with personal problems, stays on, talks and comforts a friend fighting domestic violence and tries to help piece her life all over again;  in the friend who lives miles away but reaches out and even wants to be there to help out physically taking leave. I still admire the young student who decides to stand with what is right,  the school boy who thinks that anything that causes divisiveness cannot be good,  the octogenarian who decides to join a rally to stand up for what he believes, the strangers who decide to help in whatever way they can – these and many such people make me believe that there is still hope and that all is not lost.


*Amitabh Bachchan


IMG_20190810_095255Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. Dr. Pulugurtha has presented papers at national and international conferences in India and abroad and has published in refereed international and national journals. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online — Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).



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