Basant Kumari Ghildiyal
29 July 1918 - 10 February 2016
Twenty Ninth July 2018 would have been Nani’s hundredth birthday. She passed away a year and a half ago. ‘Almost a century’ is a long time, but till the last few years of her life, Nani was mentally as sharp as ever, and physically as active as she could be.
Perhaps this was because she was a woman of few words for most of her life, and concentrated her energy on doing things rather than speaking about them. That did not mean that she couldn’t express herself with vigour or volume!
I remember a winter that she spent with us in Janakpuri in Delhi. We’d always stayed in cantonments, and it was daunting for my mother to be transplanted to a civilian colony in a new city, with two school-going children—and in a house that had a reputation for being broken into. Nani, sallied forth to bear us company in this strangely designed dwelling. The living room (in the front) and the bedrooms (at the back) were separated by a tiny courtyard, with an open invitation to potential burglars in the form of a ridiculously low wall next to an un-built plot. One night, we were woken up by loud clanging sounds from the backyard. My mother, my brother and I were petrified into silence, but Nani immediately let out a resounding bellow: “Nar Bahadur, Khukri nikalo’! This was followed by some blood-curdling yells and thumps from above, barely recognisable as emanating from Nar Bahadur, our batman, who slept on the terrace. He leapt around to the accompaniment of Gorkha war-cries, till we were convinced that any burglar would have probably collapsed of heart failure.
We never found out if the intruder was a stray cat or a cat-burglar. Nani’s vocal chords and her presence of mind, were reassurance enough for us to face the prospect of any such future incident, and we stayed there with equanimity till we were finally assigned accommodation in the Delhi Cantonment.
In fact, her regal and fearless presence made one forget how physically diminutive Nani was. I’ve wondered how she would have looked alongside my grandfather, who I’d heard was unusually tall. He passed away when his own children were very young, and for all of us, it was Nani who was the undisputed head of the household. She always wore white and light-coloured cotton or silk sarees, though some of my mother’s cousins would talk of how she was wont to be clad in chiffons and pearls during my grandfather’s time. After she was widowed, she brought up seven children, finished her graduation and post-graduation, taught Hindi and Sanskrit at St. Thomas’s High School, managed the Bhubaneshwari Devi Trust instituted by her father, Pandit Haridutt Shastri, and did much more. All this I gleaned from elsewhere, since she was never one to dwell on her work or her troubles.
When we were very young, it was in the summer holidays that we spent time with her and the rest of our uncles, aunts and cousins in the house they lived in at Dehra Dun. A game that we played with our cousins unfailingly every night was hide-and-seek in a dark room. Nani was apprehensive that someone would get hurt, and would repeatedly tell us not to play ‘Dark Room’, explaining why we shouldn’t do so. We’d nod in unison, but find it impossible not to resume the game as soon as she left us to go to another part of the house. Back she’d come to check after a little while, and again firmly switch on the lights, tell us to play something else, and explain why we must do so. This routine would go on practically every night that we were there, and I don’t remember that she ever lost her temper at us or raised her voice at us, reputed as she was to be a disciplinarian. It was always with a hint of disbelief that I received news of this reputation of hers, such as the time at an army dinner at Jaislamer, when a young officer introduced himself to her, recalling his awe of her as a student at St. Thomas.
Achieving the difficult balance of being firm without being fearsome, she also combined her great sense of responsibility and independence with a love for travel. So, just as she came to us when were living alone in Delhi, she would go to any of her children wherever they were, even after they were grown up, if she felt they needed her. She told me how she refused to budge from the gate of Scindia Girls’ School in Gwalior, where she had rushed to, on hearing that her eldest daughter, there on her first teaching assignment, had developed stomach ulcers. The guards, who initially did not agree to let her in without a valid entry pass, had to capitulate and the management did not merely allow her to meet mausi, but let her stay on to look after her!
Later, when she came visiting my parents on their postings all over the country, it was in Nani’s company that I visited many spectacular places, since my parents were generally busy with official duties. One memory that is etched in my mind is of both of us at a magnificent evening arati composed entirely of bells and drums, one glorious sunset in a temple atop Chittorgarh Fort. In her later years, she was happiest when I would ask her about the town of Tehri, which she left as a small child of ten. She would speak of the Shivalaya near the house of her father, the Rajguru of the Tehri King; of her haughty eldest Bua, used to routinely entering the King’s palace with its many courtyards reached through ramps; of the Ghanta–ghar, the tall clock tower below the palace; of the Ganga flowing at the foot of the town, where she was taken to bathe; of the animal-sacrifices on Durga puja which were stopped by Manmantji; of the goddess fashioned in mud and laden with jewels given by women devotees; of the seven-pulse sprouted prashad. Those days, she said, now seemed like a dream.
Nani saw many generations of her family pass away and a world that, as she said, slipped away like a dream. But, that only rarely made her depressed or despondent. She was a remarkable lady. Eager, curious and interested, she would not just quote Sanskrit shlokas to me in telephone conversations, but often fill me in on current affairs and news of the world. She saw much in her long life, and combined a host of distinctive qualities in her person. She passed these on, in some measure, to her children and grandchildren. Though none of us can claim to have even a fraction of her indomitable will, we are fortunate enough to have shared in Nani’s life. And one of her great-grandchildren is fortunate enough to share her birthday, giving us one more reason to celebrate and remember Nani on her hundredth birthday.