Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Isn't it amazing how some conversations lead to hypnotic revelations about times & people we're not too familiar with? Granny & I often have them around tea which I have christened "Granny's tea-time stories" (they happen around meals as well, but let's not get too technical here). Some of them are meant for personal consumption only, some make it here to the blog, others get committed to memory but not to paper owing to many distractions. Some grab me by the horns & I'm compelled to write about them as soon as possible. This post is about one such conversation & where the train of thought leads to from it. It becomes the third one in this series that I've posted on my blog. Funny it should start with something that occupies most of Granny's time & attention: television!

Even though I detest the tripe that Indian television regurgitates in the name of content, I inadvertently end up watching a lot of it, thanks (or no thanks) to Granny who's a big TV buff and usually gets a good laugh out of my misery. On the occasion of Makar Sankranti, the festival was being covered on all news channels. Aimages of the traditional kite-flying accompanying it flashed across the screen, she randomly remarked that kites were first invented by the Chinese. A heartwarming conversation ensued over a cuppa piping hot tea which began with the story she'd heard from her parents: a man so fascinated by the flight of birds that he sought to create something that could mimic them, thus inventing the first kite which was bulky & bigger than a full-grown man and if the winds were overtly favourable, it could probably give flight (but no control) to the person holding it. The Internet, however, credits the invention of the kite to two Chinese philosophers. Whatever the truth may have been, flying it soon became a favorite past-time and its manufacture a side-income for many. Kite-flying is still very popular in China & the country has its own annual international kite festival at Weifang, widely considered the birthplace of kites. I'd love to witness this gala celebration of elaborate kite designs some day, and probably learn more about the elaborate history of kites & kite making.

Image courtesy : http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/
What came next opened portals of my memory & organically connected some dots. The proficiency of the Chinese with silk & paper products is obviously well documented. Granny tells me that many migrant families (including our own) continued this tradition in India & eked out a living making kites, lanterns, paper flowers & decorations. Over the decades, this work was delegated to or taken over by the Bengalis and the Indian Chinese moved on to other businesses. The last I saw of these alluring traditional decorations was as a child at a relative's place in the then inappropriately named Japanese Building in Kolkata (since it only housed Chinese residents at the time). The reams & reams of multihued streamers, flowers & stacks of raw material occupied more space than the sparse furniture in the room and the rage of colors stood out in stark contrast to the spartan surroundings housing them. I remember this relative well; old & bent over, he only spoke Chinese & always had a beatific smile on his face. And while I could never understand a word of what he said to me, it’s a testimony to the times & resilience of his kind that survived & flourished in India. 

(Update: this relative was the Chinese equivalent of the Hindu Brahmin; a learned & religious person who did not eat meat. Now that's rare; a vegetarian Chinese.)

Image courtesy: www.cutcaster.com

Image courtesy: YouTube
Image courtesy: www.cultural-china.com

Image courtesy: www.englishvisitbeijing.com.cn

My grandparents were part of a big joint family and granny remembers how all of them, including my mother & uncles would sit from morning to night to make these decoratives too. They stopped doing this backbreaking & not so lucrative work once Grandpa started practicing dentistry (a profession that would be passed down the generations) in his mid-30’s at Grant road, Mumbai, two years before the Indo-Pak war. There were already quite a few Chinese dentists in the extended family to learn the craft from, and his keen eye, faultless memory & good hands (the hallmark of many a Chinese dentists) made him successful even though he wasn’t qualified according to today's standards (that is, he didn’t have a formal dental degree or education to back him up). Here the details are sketchy but from what I gathered from our conversation, one didn't necessarily need to complete the Bachelor of Dental Surgery course to practice. Rather, an easy to procure Dental hygienist/technician certificate was all that was needed, the qualifications & criteria for which are suspect but many dentists functioned on the basis of this document alone back then. I can't even imagine such a scenario in today's times. Although one can still risk practicing illegally without a dental degree, they run the danger of scrutiny & permanent disqualification from all forms of practice if caught. 

Since Dentistry was pretty much a family business & the personal domain of the Chinese back then, even the extra-clinical work (mostly making dentures) was done within the family, sometimes even by the lady of the house! Here, with a chuckle, Granny reminisces that she would often help Grandpa in his clinic and even had her own certification qualifying her to work as a dental assistant! So much for not bringing work back home! Mind you, this was an era without the convenience of reliable dental technicians or laboratories. My father was probably one of the first in our family to get a valid dental education & degree from Manipal. He too, made dentures by himself (which explains why home was full of dental impressions, plaster models & casts) and gained a repute for his good handiwork. Meanwhile, mom was raising me & would later start her own beauty parlour. Two decades later, I followed in dad's footsteps by procuring my dental degree in Bangalore. Thereon, our professional paths have diverged but I know that I have his support, because he too, is a creative & musical person at heart.

Where destiny & passion took me :)
What I studied to become...

This refresher course in my family history has renewed my respect for my grandparents & parents who created careers in spite of immense financial & academic handicaps and admirably handled domestic duties as well. They stand out as beacons of resilience & integrity for me. Mom often tells me how hard they have worked in their lives shorn of luxuries, and how we the youngsters have it so much easier. Even if that claim were incorrect, I would agree with it. We live in a more convenient world where the mortality rate is lower, economies are stable, most of our demands are met and barring some roadblocks, we do have a much better life.

As Granny & my conversation came to a close, my mind was afire with our absorbing family history & her robust memory! May she continue to live a long, happy & content life. If you have an elder relative at home, talk to them more often. Not only will it make them happy, it will also teach you so much and fill you with wonder, stories & miles of smiles. Maybe, you too will write about it then :)

If you'd like to read previous Granny's Tea-time stories, you'll find them here.



By the way, here's an actual conversation I had with two little girls when I was returning home the same night. Enjoy!

Girls: Chang, we lit some Chinese lanterns today. It was so much fun!

Me: Yeah, I see a lot of people lighting lanterns instead of flying kites. I guess it's because today is...


Me: Errrr... I was going to say Makar Sankranti, but yeah.

Girls: Yeah, must be. We're doing it because it is Rapunzel's birthday.

Me: I didn't know this. My school textbook never mentioned her birthday. All I know about Rapunzel is of her exile in the tower & her long, lustrous hair.

Girls: We learnt it from the animated movie Tangled. On her birthday her parents would light lanterns in her memory, so we did so too.

Me: Aaaaaaah okay. I must watch Tangled too to update my knowledge about her.

Girls: (eyes rolling & with a disgusted expression on their faces) Uhhhh... why would YOU watch Tangled?

Me: Ummm... for the great animation & to see how Disney has tackled this fairy tale?

Girls: It's just that... it's a girlie movie... and boys don't like girlie movies. They should NOT like girlie movies.

Me: Hey, that's not true. I...

Girls: (as if I've suddenly fallen in stature, dismissively) Ok bye!

Me: ......

Bitch please! Image courtesy: Disney


  1. Anonymous11:53 PM

    Love the story

  2. Anonymous6:09 PM

    This is the third series of your cool conversation with your grandma's tea-time stories over hot cups of tea posted in this blog. Interesting and refreshing....Hopefully, not the last. I look forward to many more that can be shared out here for reading pleasure. I read the previous two stories when posted then; big like to your posting of links here for those who missed them to read or re-read again.

    I first saw pictures of your grandma from days of your participation in Indian Idol 3 as a contestant. Since then, on and off, I have seen some updated pictures of her from your blogs and Facebook, she still looks healthy and aging with grace. You should have posted another updated picture of her here for us to see.

    So glad to see your followers and supporters growing from strengths to strengths. And to be honest, you have broken many difficult and rugged barriers, walking those extra miles many would not dare to thread, to pursue your dreams. Also, continue to dream big and venture into many other bigger challenging feats as your first ever. So proud of your charm, charisma and creativity in all spheres of your activity in events and otherwise.

    As someone with similar background, Chinese-Indian or Indian Chinese, it does not matter, we commonly share the curiosity for answers to questions as to when, why and what our forefathers did as settlers in early British India as aliens then as Indians after Independence.

    Within Hubei (Hupeh) community, the men were traditionally skilled professional dentists or paper decorative products craftsmen then. The latter was labor intensive, but commanded a fair market share in its heyday during pujas, celebrations and festivities. While now a dying trade, I understand at least the family you mentioned in Kolkata still thrive in the business. Also, during those days, all dentists were not required to be dental degree qualified practitioners ( some other certificates suffice ) and the Hubei community produced some of the country's prominent, respected and highly skilled dentists that were highly favored, trusted and sought after by all fellow citizens to meet their dental needs. They still do today but the skills are now topped up with a professional dental studies degree with relevant practical experiences.

    On paper kites trade and flying kites, Indian cities are not short of this activity as it is a passion for many till today. As a young boy growing up in Kolkata, that was a frequent after school activity in terraces with friends. On one of my last visits to Jaipur, returning to India after 40 years, I was fascinated to find paper kites of all sorts tangled in a big tree that made that scene so unique, spectacular and nostalgic. Since then visiting Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Sri Nagar, I also made it to Mirik, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, some outskirts of Nepal and then towards the South in Bengaluru, Otty and Mysore. India is truly enchanting.......

    Best wishes to you in all your forthcoming projects. Continue to excel as a well rounded celebrity in the entertainment industry. Keep up your writing, too.

    1. Thank you anonymous. That comment was blog length in itself & very informative too. I agree with you that the curiosity of the how & why never dies away and every conversation seems to tell you more about the past.

      As for some of the things you mentioned, while it is true that Chinese dentists remain as skilled & in demand as ever, many are now veering towards other professions either as a conscious or unconscious choice of career. As for that particular paper-decoration making family in Kolkata, I'd reckon they stopped that line of work decades ago (I was just a child then, and that ageing relative was one of the last few people still going at it). I'm Hubei too, and I love to travel. And yes, I should post an updated picture of Grandma on the next post in this series.

      Thank you once again for your kind words. Take care.