ROOTS – 6
It needs no Magus to discern that a tangible possession is more readily acquired by inheritance than an intangible quality, she thought, and passed in review a parade of unworthy children. Yet a remarkably gifted child might be the offspring of unlikely parents. And, of course, there was the kinship of the spirit, much more reliable and enjoyable than the hazardous kinship of blood, which too often brought forth a venomous toad.
But what was one to make of the fine women and men one would wish to see replicated but never would, because they had no children, or were kept from marrying? There might be a larger pattern invisible to her mortal eye that explained such things, but to her it seemed only another of those melancholy mysteries of human life.
And so, from generalities her mind passed to the particular, from which passage emerged two bright memories of her early years.
Clara Peres, born circa 1912, was eleven years younger than her good friend, Eugenia Alvares of Margão, and twelve years older than her very good friend, Eugenia’s daughter Susana, married to Clara’s ideal human being, Senhõr Fred.
Clara was plain in appearance, but she had much intelligence, a craftsman’s skill, fortitude, willingness to work hard, seemingly unquenchable liveliness, boundless generosity, and a most loving heart. She effaced herself so completely that, of all the many times she came to stay, diligently stitching clothes and embroidering linen for the family, only one photograph accidentally captured her in a corner of the image, her face almost in profile.
Clara could have married. There was once a man who desired that. Her father, who begrudged his three daughters the expenses of marriage, packed her off to her friend Susana in India, with dire warnings. Clara did not consider board and lodging that might be lost through disobedience, but she loved her mother, and never again thought of marriage, she who would have been such a fine wife and mother.
All three Peres daughters were dressmakers and seamstresses. Clara earned a living in Bombay, and from time to time, following the call of her yearning for family love, she came to visit the beloved family wherever FJH was posted in Bombay and Ahmedabad. She was welcomed as visitor or as guest, always cheerful, always kind, a shrewd observer of humanity; willing to lend a sympathetic ear but never betraying a confidence. “Aunty Clara” she remained to the children long after they knew she was no kin to them by blood. Yet she was more nearly, more dearly tied by bonds of love.
The loss of Clara Peres in April 1982 was a severe blow. Her bubbling sense of humour, her girlish laugh, the twinkle in her eye, her warm embrace, the glee with which she took gift upon gift out of her bag, were long remembered after the Shepherd had lifted his sheep in his arms and carried her to his home.
In 1954 her father was posted to Kaira, a district undesirable to his colleagues but welcome to him and to her mother. Almost his first act was to become acquainted with his staff as individuals. That was always so in any office all through his life, and served him well.
One bright-eyed young man caught the Collector’s attention. He had a long, narrow face and a look of alert intelligence.
It was a look that did not deceive. Alert, intelligent, and what is invaluable, trustworthy in every way required of a ‘personal assistant (PA) and camp clerk’ - which was the designation of Natvarlal Brahmbhatt.
As “Natubhai” he became known to the Collector’s family, remaining so for the next half century and beyond. After he married, even his shy wife, poor lady, came to be addressed as “Mrs Natubhai”, overwhelmed by the strength of her husband’s personality.
Natubhai came into Bombay Government Service from Cambay State Service and he was promised that his earlier service would count. The promise was broken. There came a GR to state that seniority in Bombay Government Service alone would determine pay scales. This was followed by talk of retrenchment, the latest recruits to be let go first. Natubhai presented a petition to the Collector who had preceded her father. The officer said he could do nothing. Madhavlal Shah, a local politician who would later grow in power, also declined to use his good offices.
A GR is not lightly rescinded, if indeed it ever is, nor easily side-stepped. It was knight-errantry to even try. But FJH was never afraid to try. His previous post had been that of Motor Transport Controller and Director, Government Transport Service, Bombay State, and his Minister was Babubhai Jasbhai Patel of Nadiad, one day to be Chief Minister of Gujarat. FJH had made a crowd of friends in Gujarat, which region he had to visit on duty. Many of them were Congressmen, local leaders, politicians of a quite different stamp from those that followed after. He was certainly on excellent terms with the Minister, as he was with a large number of colleagues in the civil services, ICS and IAS. The Collector of Kaira wrote to persons in Government, with a copy to his Minister, drawing attention to the injustice that Government was dealing out. How the affair was managed she did not find out, hearing this story only after her father’s death, but managed it was. Natubhai was confirmed in his employment, with his former service taken into account.
In April 1956 her father was transferred to Kolhapur to do some trouble-shooting. (This was during a period of turbulence across Bombay State, with two simultaneous agitations, one for Mahagujarat, the other for Samyukta Maharashtra.) Natubhai remained in Kaira. The new Collector of Kolhapur managed a very tricky situation with his usual mix of excellent intelligence work, winning ways with influential local leaders, and brilliant, inspired improvisation at a climactic moment – matter for another tale. Meanwhile turmoil in Ahmedabad had boiled over to bring forth a crisis. Time for the man known to be capable, fearless, tactful, clever (wily, said some), sympathetic to the injured, formidable to those who transgressed the rules which govern a civilised society.
In the third week of October 1956 FJH was informed by telephone of his immediate transfer to Ahmedabad, a State Government Beechcraft flying him next day to Bombay en route to his new post. (Her mother was left to pack up and prepare to move!)
It was evident at once that with a demoralised staff and loyalties under strain – for this was a sort of civil war – the Collector would need an exceptional PA. Natubhai’s transfer was contrived by the resourceful Divisional Commissioner, D. D. Sathe ICS, and he was given lodging in a room at the top of the inconspicuous stairway leading from the Collector’s offices below to the residence above. There he remained for six to eight months until living quarters had been built for him, and for Sathe’s PA, in the grounds of the Commissioner’s small palace.
So continued a long friendship between the Collector, his family, and Natubhai, which endures to this day. Clara Peres and Natvarlal Brahmbhatt - their like is not to be found any more.