My mother, Nergis Dalal, a multi-faceted person and a well-known writer, was born exactly 100 years ago on 13 June 1920. On this occasion, almost eight years after her death, many memories surface.
She was born Nergis Ghandy at Panchgani, and grew up mainly in Pune. The youngest of seven children, she began her writing career at the age of 17. Her first article was published in the newspaper Blitz, and after this there was no looking back. Seeing her writing in longhand, her father gifted her with a Royal typewriter, that she used for the next forty years. She married Jamshed Dalal in 1943, and reached Dehradun soon after her marriage. My father, Jamshed, had first come to Dehradun in 1938, when he had been selected for the Survey of India. In 1942 he received a war commission and joined the army in the Corps of Engineers. He remained an army officer, and was seconded to the Survey of India, his parent organisation, in 1951.
Nergis had three children by 1952, and I was the last. At the time of my birth, in the approaching winter in Mussoorie, she was reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, a long and highly philosophical novel, indicative of the kind of person she was; and a book that probably led to me becoming philosophical too! Somehow she managed to continue writing, even while taking care of her children, the house and home, and the requirements of her husband’s career. She could with equal ease cook a delicious meal, participate in the Survey of India womens club, where she was always in demand for demonstrating a recipe, and at the same time write both light and funny pieces on her children, profound philosophical articles, short stories and novels. In her long writing career, extending over six decades, Nergis had written literally thousands of articles published in various newspapers and magazines, more than a hundred short stories, five novels, a book on desserts, one on yoga, and a children’s book. Her first novel, Minari was published in 1967 and explored life and love in a small hill station. Minari was a fictitious place, but the descriptions were based on Mt. Abu, where we had stayed for a few years. This was followed by The Inner Door, which looked at the world of gurus and of yoga. This book originated in her study of yoga, as she had begun practicing asanas and pranayama under the guidance of a guru because of backaches and spondylitis. The result was a total cure, and she continued this practice which kept her fit till almost the end of her life. Her next novel was The Sisters followed by The Girls from Overseas. Of all these The Sisters was closest to her heart. She rewrote and expanded this into her last novel, Skin Deep, a psychological study of non-identical twins, with a Parsi background. The novel explores how societal perceptions of beauty influence attitudes, and how the ‘beautiful’ twin is favoured. Her children’s book, The Birthday Present, is based on the true story of a dog rescue.
Some of her short stories were selected and published with the title The Nude. They include two prize winning stories, and others that were earlier published in newspapers and magazines or broadcast over the BBC. Her story The Connoisseur was included in a BTech English syllabus, and is thus widely known. Several theses have been written on her novels and stories, analysing her place in Indo-Anglian literature. Nergis Dalal was perhaps best known for her ‘middles’, the light articles that appeared in the middle of the paper, and that she wrote under different names, including Aries. A small selection were published with the title Never a Dull Moment. Numerous philosophical articles were published in The Speaking Tree column of the Times of India and elsewhere. There were also articles on writing, writers, ageing, death, the environment, Tibet and Tibetans in India and other themes. Her versatility and wide range of interests are reflected in these. Her articles on Tibetans led to an invitation to meet the Dalai Lama and she and my father were privileged to travel to Dharamsala for a personal meeting.
While everyone recognised her as a writer, few people knew how widely read she was, familiar with all the classics of Western literature, and with modern works too. She had a good memory and narrated stories to me, both from what she had read, as well as many she invented. She knew a vast number of poems, and when I was going to school would often wake me with a verse from some poem, and in fact recited apt verses at every opportunity. For instance, when returning home from somewhere with my father, while waiting for me to open the door, she would sometimes recite from Walter de la Mare’s poem, The Listeners: ‘ “Is anybody there?”, said the traveller, knocking at the moon lit door’, or from Omar Khayyam, ‘Open then the door, you know how little while we have to stay and once departed may return no more…’, or when requesting me to join her in the garden in the evening, it could be verses from another poem, for instance, ‘Let us walk in the garden and gather, lilies of mother of pearl, I had a plan that would have saved the state, but mine were the thoughts of a girl…’ Actually, my father had an equal stock of poems, though of a different kind, and would quote from Shakespeare and other poets. Growing up in this atmosphere, all three of us children too were widely read and knew a vast number of poems. In those early days, it was a form of entertainment to recite poetry to one another, particularly when we were all at home and there was no electricity.
When I was around 17 Nergis began reading and studying the Bhagavad Gita, and therefore I delved into it too. That led me to the Mahabharata and then to the study of ancient Indian history, and its vast and varied texts, which further enriched my reading, and which remain my main focus today.
Nergis also cared for animals, fed stray dogs and cats, and spoke against experiments on animals. In addition, she was a talented singer, and a good artist, but she dropped these to focus on her main love of writing. My elder sister, Shahnaz, perhaps inherited her artistic talent, and became an artist. My brother, Ardeshir, became a professor of economics.
On Jamshed’s retirement in 1975, a decision was made to settle down in Dehradun, which was the headquarters of the Survey, where we had often stayed in the past, and where they were staying since his last posting in 1969. Between 1938 and 1975 he had 28 transfers to different places. Nergis had accompanied him on all his transfers, even though this meant moving home and family, sometimes within a short space of six months. In fact, she wrote in one of her autobiographical ‘middles’ about how she loved travelling and experiencing life in different places. During these years, they had lived in large houses with extensive gardens, but also at times in tents. After his retirement my father wrote a number of articles on Dehradun/ Mussoorie, based on the explorations that he undertook on his many long walks. Unfortunately he died in 1990 after an accident.
Nergis continued to write, many of her articles focusing on Dehradun. Her articles on Dehradun’s environment and the deforestation caused by mining were used in the Supreme Court and helped in reforestation and the closure of mines. She received two citizens awards in Dehradun, including the Pride of Doon Citizens Award in 2004.
Right from the beginning of my life, I wanted to be a writer like her. But with The Magic Mountain looming over my head at birth, I was more philosophical and academic, and came to writing late in life. Now, my twelfth book will be published this month, and that too, on a philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti.
(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored more than ten books)
Saturday, 13 June 2020 | Roshen Dalal | Dehradun
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