Photographs are potent portals, to times and worlds that are fast disappearing. This Republic Day, we decided to dig into our own family albums, to look for glimpses of an India that’s long gone. And because we love a good story, each photograph is accompanied by deeply personal memories of that trip, dating as far back as the 1930s. Together, they paint a vivid picture of what travelling through the country was like, but also of the ties that bind us as families.
Puri in Odisha is synonymous with the call of the sea, and a perennial favourite with every self-respecting Bengali family. So when my maternal grandparents and their brood wanted to take a month-long summer vacation, Puri was pretty much a no-brainer. Travelling with them was my grandfather’s good friend, Mr. Dasgupta, his wife and child, two nieces, and his sexagenarian mother and aunt. Plus there was one cook and about half-dozen overstuffed suitcases. Quite the party—but Puri with its vacation homes, seafood markets, temples, and local nulia lifeguards was the perfect holiday destination for the motley group, whose ages ranged from 6 to 60.
My mother who was all of 12 years old at the time, was one of the older kids of the pack. Her memories of this holiday are filled with sunshine and seashells. “Imagine a picnic that goes on for a month… that was what this holiday was for me,” my mother said when I asked her about this trip. “All of us, especially the kids, would wake up in the morning, gobble up our breakfast, and run straight to the beach. We’d compete against each other to see who could gather the most seashells, the biggest, and the ones with the prettiest colours. I don’t remember the winners, but I do remember all of us went home with a bagful of shells that we proudly displayed on our desks.”
My mother who has sworn off most meat and fish since then recalls the mindboggling variety of seafood they consumed. “They were brought in fresh from the market by our cook and were in all kinds of colours and shapes. That summer we ate so much fish that I was sure that we smelled like those poor creatures by the time we returned.”
Fifty-five years since she took that holiday, she still remembers clambering up temple ruins, playing hopscotch amid the waves, and slinking away from the parents to peek at the forbidden “adult” sculptures on the walls of the Konark Temple. “As we grew up, holidays like this became rare,” she tells me, which makes me wonder: Perhaps the very idea of a large raucous family holiday is dying, mothballed into the same steel cupboard that holds sepia-toned photos like this one. Still, they are potent portals, capable of transporting back in time. As my mum says, “When I turn the pages of this album, I am once again back with my parents, brothers, sisters, and friends on the Puri beach, a sunburnt little girl with two pigtails, staring at a sunset by the beach and having the time of my life.”
This photo is one of several that record a trip to Delhi, sometime in 1963. Though my mum—just four or five years old in this picture—doesn’t remember this particular trip too well, she recalls many like it. During summer, when the older kids were off from school, the entire extended family would gather at her grandparents’ home in West Delhi. My mum remembers making the trip down from Mathura: They’d board the train early in the morning, my mum still sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired, and by the time they played a few cards games and ate the packed snack of puri-sabji and mango pickle, they’d have arrived in Delhi.
One of the first things everyone did was to walk to nearby Karol Bagh for their favourite goodies. The kulfi at Roshan, Frontier’s pastries, and the chaat from Gafar Market always featured on the menu. The days, she says, were a series of small adventures. Trips to Delhi’s landmarks—Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Connaught Place—peppered by visits to relatives. They’d usually pile into rickshaws or tongas to travel to their destinations.
I love the polka-dotted and floral summer dresses my mum and her sister have on, and the snazzy sunglasses my nana is wearing with such flair. My nani looks so much taller than she is now. When I told my nani that my mum remembered travelling through Delhi in buses on these trips, she quickly replied. “No! That would have been too tough with children.” I imagine though, that things were much easier in that Delhi, with few cars clogging the roads. Or maybe it’s just the pleasant blurriness of these old photos that makes it seem so.
In May 1974, my grandparents, dad, and aunt went on a month-long (30 days!) holiday in the Nilgiris—a “tour” of the Nilgiris as my thatha (grandfather) says. They boarded a train in Bombay with enough curd-rice, idli, and pickle to last until Madras, though this was supplemented by kindly relatives who would show up at stations along the way with dabbas of ghee-laden pongal and more idlis. From Madras, they took a bus to Madurai where they borrowed my grandfather’s brother’s Ambassador car and then headed for the hills.
Their first stop was Ooty, where these pictures were taken. My grandfather said they visited the famous botanical gardens every other day during their week or so in Ooty, packing a lunch and making a day of it. I can see my grandmother and grand aunt wearing woollen caps in the pictures. “Was it that cold?” I asked my granny. “Illai,” she said in Tamil, “we wore it just like that.”
It was a time when holidays weren’t a production. There was no detailed itinerary that budgeted for every hour of every day, no museum tickets that needed to be booked online in advance, no reservations to be made at fancy restaurants two months before you got there. Everything was much easier. It all came down to three questions really: Got the kids? Yes. Filled dabbas with sambar-rice, flasks with coffee, and a giant Amul cheese tin filled with murruku? Yes. Made sure there’s a film in the camera? Yes. Okay, let’s go!
While I was admiring the now-vintage cars in one of the photos, my grandfather told me about another trip he took to Ooty, sometime in the mid-1930s. He was about 8 or 10 years old at the time and was visiting the hill station with his parents. They stayed in a home perched on a hill, just outside the main town. “It was very quiet,” he remembers, and the views of the surrounding hills and valleys were incredible. One day, the silence was broken by a loud bell and someone yelling incoherently in the distance. As the sound drew closer, my grandfather ran down the hill to the main road to see what it was—a man riding a bullock cart was advertising the latest Tamil film that was playing at the local theatre. A bullock cart-billboard!
It sounded outlandish, hilarious, and adorable to me. But then I remembered my treasured Sony Walkman and the stacks of cassettes I have no use for anymore, and it made me wonder: How bizarre would my stories sound fifty years from now?
The year my parents got engaged, Nana—my mother’s father—began planning a family holiday. Nani was nonplussed: there was no wedding to attend, no relatives to meet, and “we never travelled just like that” she told me last week over the telephone. But Nana insisted, saying the family would never be the same after the marriage of my mother, his eldest daughter. A trip, he declared, was the need of the hour.
A new camera was purchased for the grand occasion, and suitcases were filled with the best clothes. With four impish daughters and two shy sons in tow, Nana and Nani took a train from Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus to the cool hill station of Lonavla.
My grandmother, sounding wistful and delighted, says they rarely met another tourist, and it felt as if they booked not just guesthouse rooms, but the entire hill station. They had picnics of homemade chutney sandwiches and store-bought wafers by a pond, and took walks in forests filled with birdsong. “I hadn’t experienced a silence so deep, or seen clifftops shaped like modaks,” Nani tells me, referring to a rock formation called Tiger’s Leap.
When their time in Lonavla was up, they made their way to Pune, where Nana graduated from the College of Engineering, Pune (CoEP). My mother remembers ogling at the number of women riding scooters on the bus ride to their hotel from the railway station. She wished she could do that too: tuck her sari’s pallu at the waist and smartly buckle a helmet..
For Nana, the trip was about sharing his college years with his family.
“He was his college’s champion rower,” Nani tells me, remembering the time he showed her the Mula River, where he practiced.
“What!” I squealed. You never said anything!”
“Well, I’m telling you now,” she shrugged.
I savour every detail about him like candy. Nana passed away when I was one, and his stories are doled out slowly, in parts. He rarely smiles in his portraits, but I trust my mother when she says he was a softie at heart.
For my mother and Nani, this photograph is about their first and only family trip they took, one where they treasured both solitude and each other’s company. For me, this is another sepia piece that fits in the jigsaw in my mind about the Nana I am still getting to know.
Every summer in the 1980s and ‘90s, our family left the dust and buzz of Mumbai to spend three weeks visiting both sets of our grandparents in Kottayam, Kerala. Kottayam was sleepy, idyllic, a lush land that seemed straight out of storybooks to my sister and I. For my parents, those summers were a chance to touch base with their hometown that was inexorably changing. Below is my mother’s memory of a trip we took nearly 30 years ago:
“I wanted my daughters to enjoy the thrill of getting into a canoe. In Kottayam, the backwaters are connected to a network of rivers and canals. A canoe is traditionally made of a single piece of the thambakam tree (Malabar ironwood), an evergreen tree, and slathered in fish oil so it can slip easily through the water. While the backwaters can get choppy in a storm, the water in a canal is calm.
“The waterways were the most important medium of transport in Kerala only a few decades ago. You took a boat not for pleasure, but to visit a nearby town, go to the market, transport paddy from the fields, or attend a wedding in church. People had homes beside a canal, like they do today flanking the main road. Steps led to the water, used for washing clothes or as a jetty. There were slim canoes in different sizes, often owned by families, and large boats with a shelter made of bamboo and thatch for hours-long rides, similar to the houseboats that are popular with tourists today.
“A canoe is narrow and light so balance is key—passengers can’t stand up or move when it is in motion. Luckily, our kids were quite disciplined. We had a peaceful ride past paddy fields, brightly painted homes, and tiny islands that were just large enough to hold a few coconut trees, dipping our hands in the water and caressing water lily blooms.
“Most people have sold their canoes today because travel by road is faster. You can still find a canoe in the canals of Kottayam—call out if you’d like a ride—sometimes it still is the quickest way to cross a canal or get to a paddy field.”
Back in the days before the internet, planning a trip required a lot more consideration. It wasn’t something one did over a cup of coffee, and it took more than a few clicks of the mouse to make it happen. To begin with, you had to consider everybody’s likes and dislikes, generally starting from the eldest to the youngest member of the family. And it was always for two to three weeks, sometimes even a month. Holidays were not considered a break from routine so much as a chance to bond with the family, to really get to know each other, in an environment that wasn’t home.
On this trip, we travelled from Kolkata to Chennai, then onwards to Bangalore and Mysore, and finally ended in Kanyakumari. It’s strange, the things one actually memorises from trips gone by. My sister for instance, tells me that while in Bangalore we stayed in a guesthouse, next to which there was a hospital. And apparently Amitabh Bachhan was admitted in that hospital for a minor injury while shooting for his hit film, Coolie. She remembers the owner of the guesthouse boasting about this. And she remembers how, in Kanyakumari, I screamed all the way from the shore to the Vivekananda Rock in the ocean, sitting on my mother’s lap in a boat. I was scared of the sea and she teased me throughout the trip saying I was a cat in my previous life. I actually started believing her and after coming home, I petted three of them.
This picture was taken in Mysore, back in the day when you could actually stand and pose for a photograph without ten other groups being in the same picture.
In the winter of 1997, my parents took a beach holiday to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from Mumbai, where we lived at the time. There were two ways to get there: You could get on a ship leaving from either Kolkata or Chennai and (hope to) reach Port Blair a few days later. Or, you could splurge on a flight, which was far more expensive, more convenient, but not necessarily more reliable. They decided to fly.
Baba remembers the office travel agent warning him that she could give “no guarantees they would return the day they had planned”. “There was none of this complicated online booking things,” Baba said when I asked him about the trip. My mother remembers the flight as “interesting”. At the time, people were usually quite well-turned out for an airplane ride. It had a certain “kind of crowd” thanks to the airfare. But their flight had travellers with large jute duffels mostly stuffed with groceries, especially flour. The long sea route that groceries took to travel to Andaman meant that the flour was musty. My memories are more specific: I remember the excitement when the tickets were mailed home. The envelopes had a cheque-book like thing with multiple pages, one of which was the ticket.
The Andaman Islands were very different back then. Jolly Buoy island was a near empty stretch of sand and sea—there were hardly any eateries, save for two small restaurants—but we always had food parcelled from the hotel. I remember Om Puri’s booming voice at the Cellular Jail’s light and sound show, a dinner of only three flavours of ice cream, and an incident with fire ants that involved a lot of jumping up and down. But my most vivid memory from the trip was sitting on the restaurant deck, watching the roving lighthouse beam skim over the ocean, and light us up intermittently too.
More than anything, this trip was an adventure of sorts for my parents. For me, it was the start of a long and deep love for the ocean that endured to this day. Perhaps that’s why I will always pick the seaside over the mountains.