TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANAMIKA SINGH
My paternal grandfather, Dadaji, Bhanu Pratap Singh, purchased this mantle clock from London back in 1959. It is a mantle alarm clock manufactured by Kienzle Uhren, one of Germany’s oldest watchmakers. Round in shape with a black frame, its circumference is studded with 12 golden petal shapes, one of which has broken off. The frame of the clock used to rest on three legs, but one of those broke a few years ago as well. The dial, which has now greatly discolored, has undifferentiated hour marks and the hour, minute, and second hands.
Dadaji was a Metallurgist with the Durgapur Steel Plant, situated at a distance of 158 kilometers from Kolkata, West Bengal, and was asked to work in the UK for three years. When he first visited London though, he realised quickly that his son (my father), Anup Singh, who had contracted the polio virus at the age of two, would receive a better treatment in a developed country. And so before they knew it, my Dadi, Leelawati Singh, and my father took off to live in London with my Dadaji for the next two years.
During the course of his treatment and their time there, my family met an old couple who wanted to adopt my father, so that he could have a ‘better life’. My Dadaji, being the practical man that he was, was reluctant but could be persuaded. However my Dadi was sternly against it; she wasn’t a woman to be defeated in argument, and certainly not one that would have lost her her son. In retrospect, Britain might be a more disabled friendly place, as compared to the situation they faced in India. But they came back and my father grew up around the best people in Durgapur, even becoming the undisputed champion of sports like Table Tennis and Swimming, despite his apparent ‘physical shortcomings’. He lives life on his own terms, which leads to a love-hate relationship between us at times, but I aspire to be like him.
I remember my Dadaji well, reading the newspaper each morning, teaching us Math, scouting for sweets and chocolates in the refrigerator, falling and breaking his hip at least four times in a span of two years, and sticking solely to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass during his final days. I remember my Dadi, hogging fried fish, sitting on a rickshaw to go to the canteen for the monthly rations, hiding the biscuits in the cupboard so that we could not eat them up in one go, and finally resigning to the bed only after her cancer reached its final stages.
This clock reminds me of them, it is a tangible part of the couple that survived the years. Besides it, since they sailed back to India, my grandparents could afford to bring back a few other things from their time in the UK- a refrigerator, gramophone, toys for their three sons, boxes of clothes, and few artefacts and souvenirs. A lot of these things could not face the test of time, and withered over the years. What remained were only a few things – a beautiful pink saree, which I wore for my graduation ceremony, a lovely cream coloured winter coat, a wristwatch, and this mantle clock.
My father tells me that this clock found its place in a showcase at their house in Durgapur, among various other objects and artefacts. It serves as a physical reminder to my father of a trip that he probably barely has any vivid memory of. And in some trailingly unconnected way, it also embodies my grandmother’s resilience and strength in standing up for her right.
The stories of my Dadi’s bravado and my Dadaji’s honesty have been recounted to us on a lot of occasions over the years. But, this morning I sat with my father, holding this clock in my hand, and he told me the story of how Dadi travelled to London alone, with a baby in tow, and not knowing a sentence of the English language. And I knew for sure that I am a headstrong daughter of a headstrong father, who inherited his brave and unyielding personality from his mother.