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An Affair to Remember in Pre-Independence India

Feb 14, 2013
Originally published on February 15, 2013 3:05 am

For Valentine's Day, Morning Edition commentator Sandip Roy shares a family love story from 70 years ago.

I always knew that my mother's aunt Debika was the most beautiful of all the great-aunts. I didn't know that when she was young, she jumped off a moving train for love.

She is now 90. Bent with age, she shuffles with a walker. But she's still radiant, her hair perfectly dyed.

It sounds like a typical Bollywood story. Boy meets girl in pre-independence India. They fall in love. Her family says no way. The boy came from the same clan. That was regarded almost as marriage between siblings. And there were far more suitable boys for such a beauty, like the son of a top-ranking civil servant. Debika says her uncle and brother kept two guns handy to shoot over-eager Romeos on sight.

So one night in 1941, she decided to escape. She packed a bundle with everything she needed: a couple of blouses, a petticoat and two albums — one with family photos, the other with postcards of Hollywood movie stars like Norma Shearer and Claudette Colbert.

She put a roll of false hair on the pillow so it looked like she was sleeping. There were dozens of servants to be evaded, big dogs patrolling the yard and many locked doors. She retraces her steps for me more than 70 years later.

She left barefoot, in the kind of sari housemaids wore, to look like a young woman going to work in the breaking dawn. Her fiance was waiting to take her to the train station, but she panicked when she realized the taxi driver recognized her. She was afraid her powerful uncle would show up at the next station with guns. So the runaways decided to jump off before the station. Guards came running, but they nonchalantly strolled away as if they jumped off trains every day.

Back at home, her younger sister Alaka says she bore the brunt of the escapade. "Where is she?" they asked her. "You played the go-between."

"Oh," she laughs, "how they slapped me."

Now the two old ladies, both widowed, chuckle, their great adventure turned into sepia-toned memories. But the rift in the family was real. Debika became the scandal of the city. I ask her if she was scared jumping into the unknown like that.

"Nothing like that," she says.

She was determined in love. And the marriage lasted more than 60 years. But she still wishes she'd had the blessings of her elders.

Years later, her son wanted to marry a neighbor's daughter. The girl's family balked. He was from a different caste and made too little money. So Debika swallowed her pride and went to the young woman's parents and said, "Please don't let them go without the blessings of the elders, like I had to."

They accepted. And they all came to the wedding.

And thus my great-aunt Debika got for her son the wedding gift she never managed for herself — an ending no less fairy-tale than jumping off that moving train.

Commentator Sandip Roy is the cultural editor for FirstPost.com in Kolkata, India.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

India has long embraced breathless romance and poetry and Bollywood movies. But even today, most marriages are arranged. This morning we hear of a girl in 1940s India who made a risky decision in the name of love. For Valentine's Day, commentator Sandip Roy got his aunts to tell a legendary family story about a rare marriage born of passion.

SANDIP ROY, BYLINE: I always knew that my mother's aunt Debika was the most beautiful of all the great aunts. I didn't know that when she was young, she jumped off a moving train for love. She's now 90, bent with age, she shuffles with a walker but she's still radiant, her hair perfectly dyed.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: It sounds like a typical Bollywood story. Boy meets girl in pre-independence India. They fall in love. Her family says no way. The boy came from the same clan. That was regarded as almost marriage between siblings. And there were far more suitable boys for such a beauty, like the son of a top-ranking civil servant. Debika says her uncle and brother kept two guns handy to shoot over-eager Romeos on sight.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: So one night in 1941 she decided to escape. She packed a bundle with everything she needed, a couple of blouses, a petticoat and two albums, one with family photos, the other with postcards of Hollywood movie stars like Norma Shearer and Claudette Colbert.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: She put a roll of false hair on the pillow so it looked like she was sleeping. There were dozens of servants to be evaded, big dogs patrolling the yard and many locked doors. She retraces her steps for me more than 70 years later.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: She left barefoot, in the kind of sari housemaids wore, to look like a young woman going to work in the breaking dawn.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: Her fiance was waiting to take her to the train station, but she panicked when she realized the taxi driver recognized her. She was afraid her powerful uncle would show up at the next station with guns. So the runaways decided to jump off before the station. Guards came running but the couple nonchalantly strolled away as if they jumped off trains every day.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: Back at home, her younger sister Alaka says she bore the brunt of the escapade. Where is she, they asked her? You played the go between. Oh, she laughs, how they slapped me.

ALAKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: Now the two old ladies, both widowed, chuckle, their great adventure turned into sepia-toned memories. But the rift in the family was real. Debika became the scandal of the city. I ask her if she was scared jumping into the unknown like that?

DEBIKA: Oh no, nothing like that. (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: She was determined in love. And the marriage lasted over 60 years, but she still wishes she'd had the blessings of her elders. Years later her son wanted to marry a neighbor's daughter. The girl's family balked. He was from a different caste and made too little money. So Debika swallowed her pride and went to the young woman's parents and said, please don't let them go without the blessings of the elders like I had to.

DEBIKA: (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: They accepted and they all came to the wedding. And thus my Great Aunt Debika got for her son the wedding gift she never managed for herself, an ending no less fairytale than jumping off that moving train.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Sandip Roy is cultural editor for FirstPost.com in Kolkata, India. To see pictures of his great aunt and the love of her life go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.