“It is all like a dream now…” I stand in the thicket and look over the board to read an article written about my grandmother. The bulletin is full of clippings on the great Mrs. Bhandari. For some strange reason, the journalists who had the opportunity to meet her ended the article in the same way. Poached eggs, tea, toast, and marigolds…a repetitive reference to the past. People always wrote about her youth and failed to see her in her old age.
Mrs Bhandari opened her guesthouse in the 1950s, catering to the diplomats of the High Commissions of Delhi and what is now Pakistan. Rumour has it, people paid to sleep on her floor and use her American style bathrooms. Her house had amenities that were uncommon to most households in Punjab at the time. Amritsar is situated along the Grand Trunk Road. It is the centre of Sikhism and is most known for the Golden Temple. The guesthouse gained a favourable reputation with overland travellers-where they could park, plug in and camp safely in its vast grounds. With four children, widowed twice, she managed the place alone, fending off criticism from the male-oriented Punjabi society. The famous people she met, living through the partition and numerous wars, makes one wonder of the yarns that could have been written about her life. I was too young to ask.
My grandmother Tahmi was the second child in a Parsi family of five sisters and a brother. Her father, Adeshwar Boga, was the owner of ice factories in Amritsar and Ludhiana in the early 1900s.
She was a teenager during the Amritsar massacre at Jalianwala Bagh in 1919. She was perhaps one of the first women in India to own and drive a car-a 12 cylinder Lincoln in the mid-1930’s. Elegant and outgoing, she watched movies in Lahore, shopped at the markets of Anarkali, had coffee at Fallty’s (which still exists today), and drove back to Amritsar before sundown. During the partition in 1947, together with her staff, she stitched clothes for refugees who arrived in Amritsar. In 1948 a few months after the partition, she was honoured by Lady Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the first Viceroy for all her relief work.
Nana as I often called her, grew up with friends like HFJ Sam Manekshaw, India’s first and only Field Marshal, Surjit Singh Majitha- India’s then Deputy Defence Minister and writer Mulk Raj Anand. When she was more lucid, I would tease her on her many admirers. “They loved me more, “she would laugh.
She is an overpowering, strong-willed woman, well ahead of her time. Despite her diminutive frame, she holds her own in a crowd. The staff cowers to her demands. Her wit shocks. People laugh at her dry, cutting humour and colourful choice of words.
She married a Hindu for love, which was unheard of at the time. She met my grandfather, Padam Chand Bhandari, while she was studying for her Masters in English at the Khalsa College, Amritsar. He was an executive officer in the Improvement Trust, who helped build a bridge that linked the walled city to the civil lines. The Bhandari Bridge was named after him in 1954. He died young, and at just 48 years old my grandmother had a large house and 4 children to care for. Undeterred, she rose to the challenge and converted her palatial red bougainvillaea home into a guesthouse. She remarried an engineer, DD Kaila, and they expanded the guesthouse together. He died in 1971, before the Indo-Pak war.
Her graciousness left a lasting impression. Charlton Heston sent her a holiday card every single year until his death- with an undisclosed amount of money, after staying with her twice. Guests make the pilgrimage to the Golden Temple and to her doorstep. You hadn’t been to Amritsar if you didn’t stay at Mrs. B’s.
The gardens, the main house, its art deco interiors are all intact. Time has stood still and my words to describe it will never do justice.
Ratan my aunt was groomed to continue my grandmother’s legacy. She willingly decided to live in India. The rest of Mrs. Bhandari’s children have made their own lives abroad. The younger generation has little affinity for the house or India. Her children occasionally took turns looking after her through the years. However, one can’t live within the guesthouse’s four walls forever. My grandmother did.
In 2001 I was asked by my father to keep my grandmother company and assist in managing the house in Amritsar. It seemed like a decent idea. I was at a stage in my life where Manila bored me, and I couldn’t seem to find a job that could keep me for long. The Philippines is where I was born and call home. It is my mother’s country, but it is always good to come back to my Indian roots.
I arrived in Amritsar with no expectations. I suppose it is the way to travel. It is liberating to come to India. It is also a challenge to deal with the filth, noise – and the chaos of Punjab. Your life is an open book, your existence is everyone’s business. I did not speak a word of Hindi or Punjabi. The staff a little over 20, barely spoke English.
The staff took pride in my stupidity. It infuriated me to not know where things went. The routines in the house are not meant to be broken; you follow her orders to the hilt. Each flower, carpet, cushion cover, and fan blade, exists for a certain season. Labelled, covered, knotted and kept. An entire system, day by day, planned by her. The manner to uphold it constantly with great dedication was a challenge.
Until the age of 98, my grandmother remained strong and managed to go about with the help of Kamlesh, a lady who has cared for her for the past 30 years. We shared our love for American Wrestling and she would cheer heartily at wrestlers being tossed in the air. Conversations became non-existent. “What is the time?” she’ll ask before she covered her eyes with her handkerchief. Her white hair braided and tied with pretty red bows. She would remain quiet for the rest of the afternoon. Her days and nights flowed from one to another, a never-ending cycle, like the chores in her house.
She was frail from age, but she knew my name well. My recollections of her are vivid and we all lived in her shadow. Towards the end of her life, she became childlike, but her eyes continued to hold a spark as she looked into mine. I felt she understood why I had come.
I travelled in between my time in Amritsar, to get away from the guesthouse, a rest despite the declining health of my grandmother. Caring for the elderly can take its toll on any person. Six years of my life I sacrificed to serve her. Year after year, any given chance, I would spend a night or two in Dharamsala to gather my thoughts and recharge before going back down to Amritsar and wait for the inevitable.
There is one place, The Church of St. John in the Wilderness which most tourists overlook.
The 19th century Church is situated in a scenic valley, directly facing the Dalai Lama’s monastery. St. John’s suffered a massive earthquake in 1905, which killed close to 20,000 people. The structure and Belgian stained glass windows miraculously remained intact. The bell tower was destroyed and was later replaced in 1915. A cemetery is located around the church.
Ironically, the air of death that I was so desperately trying to escape brought me there. I could sit in solitude and think. Dharamsala, in Hindu usage, refers to a shelter for spiritual pilgrims. It lives up to its name.
My grandmother died at the grand old age of 101 in 2007. I was by her side. She chose the Hindu rites of passage and we cremated her at a temple near our home. She is deeply missed by her family, her devoted friends and the tens of thousands from around the world who enjoyed her hospitality for more than 50 years at the guesthouse.
It is a privilege to learn how she lived. Since her passing, I resettled to Manila. On my last visit to Amritsar a few years ago, the halls of the guesthouse still reflect her absence. I know in time I will return there for good.
Her ashes and a stone marker in her honour rest in the Church of St. John in the Wilderness, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Mrs. Bhandari’s name lies peacefully among those who once lived in the majestic mountains of the Himalayas.
Shirin Bhandari is a writer who splits her time between India and Manila, Philippines. Her work has been featured in publications like Roads and Kingdoms, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, CNN and Slate.
Visit her portfolio on https://www.clippings.me/shirinbhandari
or follow her on Instagram @shirinbhandari