2nd part of a GUEST POST by my aunty Dr. Bindu, where she reminisces about her trip to Simla in 1960. Read the first part here.
In May of 1960 my sisters Pritiben, Sita and I went to Simla for a month. We stayed at the YWCA where besides us tourists several women who worked at various offices in Simla also stayed.
Nearly all were Punjabis with husbands in the military, but one was a strikingly beautiful woman from Bengal who worked at All India Radio’s (AIR) Simla station – Sunanda Bose. Elegantly dressed in hand woven cotton sarees, impressive, understated, she quickly struck up a friendship with Pritiben. She gave us all sorts of useful tips – where we could get puris and aloo sabji – a necessity as the food at the YWCA was rather awful.
Over the next few weeks we (rather Pritiben) got to know Sunanda quite well. She confided in Pritiben that she was in love with a Mr Mukherjee who lived in Calcutta. Theirs was an inter-caste relationship drawing the ire of relatives on both sides. I forget who was of the ‘higher caste’. Nonetheless Sunanda and Mr Mukherjee were determined to marry. He was expected to come to Simla soon.
Each day Sunanda checked her post box with eager anticipation. One day flush with excitement she waved an Inland Letter (remember these?) in front of us. It was from Mr Mukherjee. He was arriving in a week, first taking the Howrah-Kalka Mail, a train habitually late by several hours taking 32 to 36 hours to complete the thousand miles. He would then take a narrow gauge train to Simla.
All 4 of us followed Mr Mukherjee’s progress, he had boarded the train at Calcutta, he must have reached Mughal Sarai by now. His train from Kalka is on its way. Sunanda dressed in a blue saree with a big red border and a huge chandla on her forehead literally glided out of the YWCA and floated down to Simla Railway Station. At tea that afternoon she was joy unbounded as she chatted away – the topic of course Mr Mukherjee! I do not believe I was ever told nor do I remember his first name.
Sunanda was very keen for us to meet him. Indeed she planned a picnic lunch on a scenic spot up a hill that had a panoramic view of the snow covered ranges of the Upper Himalaya on the horizon. Sunanda insisted on getting the food for the picnic as also hot coffee in a thermos. Back in the 60s thermoses were fragile to say the least. The bottles were made of glass and shattered often. They also did what they were meant to do erratically.
The day for the picnic arrived. We met Mr Mukherjee. He was a gentle, quiet man exuding calm, dressed in grey slacks and a dark pink sweater. We trudged our way up the hill, Sunanda cheerful and talkative. Mr Mukherjee carried the samaan for our picnic. She spread a shetranji for us to sit on. The picnic meal was eaten, Mr Mukherjee occasionally adding a word or two to Sunanda’s happy torrent. We were a contented group on that hillside. Now Sunanda poured the coffee out, steaming hot delicious South Indian coffee before the word barista was known in India. We sipped it slowly.
Sunanda, who spoke English with a heavy Bengali accent, could contain herself no longer. She burst into song – Tagore’s ‘Pagla Hawa’ (crazy winds in English). Her voice soared and carried down the hillside into the valley below. To this 12 year old it was a magical afternoon. Pritiben joined Sunanda as she knew this song.
I watched Sunanda and Mr Mukherjee. Even in my awkward preteen years I could absorb the love I felt around me, I do not know whether Sunanda and Mr Mukherjee ever got married. We lost contact with her. But that afternoon picnic on the mountain remains a vivid memory 57 years later. Etched so deeply in my mind because it represented something so special. Two people cared for each other intensely and deeply and thousands of miles were not too far to journey and meet. Through Sunanda, my sisters and I were included in her world and her joy.
As she sang I was enchanted, and can hear her voice even now. Sunanda will never know how a preteen shed all her cynicism that day and while she sang, all seemed right with the world and perfection was everywhere…