VIJBHUCANDAS ATMARAM was from the Modh Vaniya community of Surat. He was very young when he came to Bombay in the mid-1800s to seek his fortune.
His rise was meteoric and he soon became the owner of the coveted Century Mills. When his brother died young, he adopted his brother’s son, who later became Sir Purshottam Thakurdas, the famous Bombay industrialist. Vijbhucandas had four children of his own. The sons were Sir Chunilal and Sir Mangaldas (who were knighted), Ranchordas, and a daughter Motiben.
They lived in a beautiful, graceful mansion called Malabar Castle at 42 Ridge Road, in Mumbai’s tony Malabar Hill neighbourhood. It was said that the house had once belonged to the Bishop of Bombay. It was surrounded by lush lawns, clipped hedges, peepul, banyan, mango, and coconut trees. There was a greenhouse with seasonal English flowers grown in immaculate flowerbeds. The porch held Chinese porcelain vases and tall Greek statues holding lamps. The grand house had five terraces, two longer than a cricket pitch. The ceilings were high and adorned with chandeliers, the rooms were cavernous with long verandas, all facing the splendid gardens. Most rooms had wooden parquet floors and the house was filled with elegant furniture. Vijbhucandas and his sons regularly went to auctions and purchased chandeliers, old carved Parsi furniture, Chinese chests, Greek marble statues, porcelain vases,sculptures, intricately carved silver bowls, and bronzes, some of them from the Chola period.
Sir CV inherited the house from his father, while his siblings inherited other sprawling properties. Sir CV was distinguished looking, slim and tall, with a face of chiselled granite. He was as comfortable in dhoti, white dagla, and cap, as he was in a three- piece suit with a gold watch and chain. He was an intelligent man and is said to have stood first in his M.A. exam in Bombay. He was a member of the Governor’s Executive Council and also inherited the very prestigious Century Mills, which made huge profits during World War II. He was also a director in many top Tata companies and highly respected in the business world for his abilities. He was amongst the first Indians to be given membership of the Willingdon Club and Cricket Club of India.
He was married to Taraben, a short, fair lady, always bedecked in diamonds and emeralds. Taraben was scared of and dominated by her husband. But when he was away at work she asserted her authority on and commanded her large staff. She kept a meticulously spotless and neat home. Sir CV (often called Kakaji) and Lady Taraben had many children. The first three were daughters—Kusum, Ratan (who died young), and Champavati. Then came a son, Bhagwan. As was often the case in a patriarchal Indian family when a son arrived after several daughters, he was thoroughly pampered. Several miscarriages and two daughters (Lily and Jaya) later, they had another son Prahlad.
Taraben and Sir CV were very religious and did their daily puja in a special puja room where a large intricately carved silver temple was placed. Sir CV had a passion for holy men and was something of a guru hunter.
In Poona, Sir CV had another enormous and beautiful bungalow called Dunlavin, with its own ballroom, though no one ever danced there. A stream flowed through the grounds and there were chikoo and guava orchards as well. The property was once the Government House and was decked in stunning French furniture. Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata and his French wife Sooni later owned it. Sir CV bought this house, including all the delicate French furniture, from the Tata family. When he was in Poona, every morning he would head to one of the wadas where devotees of Marathi poet and saint Tukaram gathered in a room, playing cymbals, singing loudly, and chanting “Tukaram, Tukaram”. The ramrod straight-backed Sir CV, who was austere, serious and foul tempered otherwise, would raise his hands and twirl round and round in devotion.
In his leisure time, Sir CV was preoccupied with the need for spiritual succour. He had large, framed photographs of those he considered holy placed around his house: Vivekananda, Mirabai, Raman Maharishi, Dilip Kumar Roy, and Jiddu Krishnamurti, who he claimed (at least in the 1940s) was the “greatest of the great”.
Sir CV himself chose grooms for his four daughters. Wealth-wise they were not of the same status, i.e. they were not from rich or prominent business families. But they were all well-respected and highly regarded in their areas of expertise. Kusum married Sir Harilal Kania, the first Chief Justice of India, Champavati married an FRCS doctor Dr Shantilal Mehta, and Lily was married to Dr. Marphatia, the doctor who started the first psychiatric ward at J.J. Hospital. While the conversations at Ridge Road seemed to be centred on money and business, Sir CV thought of culture and social respectability when it came to choosing partners for his children.
Sir CV received Vinayak’s reply saying that Pupul was spoken for, and asking if he would like to get his son Bhagwan married to Nandini. The two renowned Gujarati families, of Sir CV Mehta and Vinayak Mehta Esq. in a strange way glamourised each other. Sir CV was well regarded for his business acumen, his Malabar Castle home, his titles, fleet of cars, and dazzling jewels. Worldly- wise Iravati had wanted enviable matches for her daughters, and was taken in by Sir CV’s credentials. Sir CV for his part admired Vinayak as a brilliant ICS man who had by then become the Prime Minister of Bikaner.
Bhagwan was an extremely eligible bachelor and had many proposals. He too had made a name for himself in the textile industry. Though Bhagwan never excelled academically, he had a sharp mind. In his youth he loved reading the classics and made copious notes. He was a good sportsman, playing tennis, golf, and badminton. Like his father, in private he had a foul temper. To outsiders however, especially to Parsis and foreigners, who he loved, he was utterly charming. The moment Bhagwan first saw Nandini’s photograph, he was determined to marry her and reject all other prospective brides.
Nandini, however, was initially not impressed by Sir CV and showed a great reluctance for marriage. But her parents Vinayak and Iravati gently persuaded her to agree. Vinayak would say, “I was just like you Nandini at your age, but see how happy I am now with dear mama”.
Sir CV wrote back to Vinayak to say that Bhagwan was visiting a few places on work, and proposed to visit Bikaner as well. The reason he was coming to Bikaner was pretty obvious. Later, the family learned that Bhagwan’s tour of Delhi, Cawnpore, Agra, Bikaner, and Ahmedabad, was solely to see the various girls who were lined up as potential spouses by his father.
Bhagwan was a guest of Vinayak’s family for a week. He gushed over the family, bought presents, and seemed very keen on marrying Nandini. Until then, the teenaged Nandini had taken it all as a big joke. She was also rather flattered at the thought of Bhagwan chasing her and making much of her. With his presence in Bikaner, for the first time she realised that the matter was serious, and it was expected that she should make up her mind one way or the other.
Her family was very keen on this match and they tried to persuade her to approve. Vinayak explained to his daughter that since she was rather introverted, and not exactly the type of girl who would go out, make friends and find and choose her own partner, this was the next best thing for her. He suggested she listen to her parents and agree on the arranged marriage. Nandini’s parents pointed out that the family of Sir CV was excellent, that Nandini would be comfortably well-off, that she would surely be very happy. Nandini wasn’t keen, but she drifted with the situation. She didn’t realise how life-changing a marital relationship can be. Her only exposure to such a relationship was that of her parents. She naively assumed that all relationships were like theirs, based on mutual trust and deep love and caring for the other—and finally agreed to consider the proposal.
A few months later Nandini and her mother travelled to Bombay, where she and Bhagwan were engaged. Sir CV was jubilant. He told Nandini’s grandfather that his family was indeed lucky to have got a Brahmin girl, a daughter of V. N. Mehta. Bhagwan and Nandini were engaged for a few years. During this time there was no romance or intimacy. Whenever Nandini visited him in Bombay, she went to his home. On one occasion, she recalled how he held a Dr. Nelson’s inhaler to his nose and paced up and down the veranda discussing his adenoids and sinuses in minute detail.
The wedding was held at Madhav Bagh in Bombay, on 8th February 1939, amidst great pomp and splendour. Many national luminaries attended. Two days later, Nandini’s younger sister Amru married Jayant Mehta, Bhagwan’s cousin. After the ceremony, when Nandini entered the portals of Malabar Castle and stood before the towering statue of Shiva in the foyer, he appeared forbidding and angry, with garlands of skulls around his neck. Bhagwan announced to her in a stern voice, “Now forget your family. This is your family.” Nandini was stunned; her heart froze when she heard those words, wondering what kind of situation she had landed herself in. She was filled with trepidation as she was utterly devoted to her family, and couldn’t imagine a life without any contact with them.
After a few days, Bhagwan and Nandini left on a ship for their honeymoon in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Amru and her husband Jayant joined them later.
During the honeymoon itself Nandini realised that this was a marriage of excessive physical demands, without a hint of tenderness and caring. Initially she resisted the pressure to give in to Bhagwan’s needs and demands, but she soon accepted it as her fate and succumbed to him silently.
From the early days of their marriage Nandini
understood that her marital home was a Vaishnav Gujarati household steeped in uncompromising rituals, far removed from the liberal value systems in which she had grown up. Twenty-one-year-old Nandini had never managed domestic chores in her parent’s home, and the rigid culture, rites, and mores of her new home proved quite a surprise. Her mother-in-law Taraben took it upon herself to teach her new daughter-in-law how to execute household duties, and Nandini was made to start her day sitting with a large thali, separating the wheat from the chaff. Taraben’s training included running Nandini down verbally in front of the house help, lecturing her on morality and good behaviour, and telling her that she had been poorly brought up.
Two months after her nuptials Nandini became pregnant with their first child. Early in her pregnancy, she and her sister Amru visited their parents in Nainital. It was an idyllic time, and they felt loved and pampered. While in Nainital, Nandini began suffering morning sickness. Her indulgent father immediately said to his daughters: “I will rent a flat for you in Bombay, and send Souza my best cook there. He can cook whatever you want and crave. And you can have a space of your own.” This was the kind of father, husband, and man Vinayak was—always thinking about the comfort and well- being of his brood. No surprise then that his family doted on him in equal measure.
Nandini and Amru stayed with their parents for about a month, during which time Nandini asked Bhagwan to join them, but he declined. He was extremely angry that she was away for so long and wrote to her threatening dire consequences if she did not return soon.
On 13th December 1939, Nandini and Bhagwan had their first child, a girl they named Devyani. An excited grandfather Vinayak wrote gushingly to Nandini welcoming his grandchild into the world. He visited the mother and child soon after, and was thrilled to spend time with the baby and shower her with affection.
A few days later, he left for Allahabad. At the railway station in Bombay, Vinayak leaned out of the train and continued to wave until the train had pulled away. It was a memory that Nandini held onto for decades, for it was to be the last time she would see her father.
Less than a month later, in January 1940, Vinayak passed away in his sleep, probably from sudden cardiac arrest. It was a shock to all who knew him. He was just 56 and had seemed so hale and hearty. His beloved Iravati was by his side when he died. Not only had he been a doting father and husband, and a man with a promising career, but he was also the pillar of strength for his family. Overcome with grief, Iravati moved to Bombay, where most of her children lived. The entire family was shattered by the reality that the towering figure, the light of their lives, was gone. Nandini held her tiny baby to her heart and wept quietly, away from the eyes of her in-laws. She found it hard to accept that her darling Daddy was no more. Who would love and protect her the way he had? Who would she talk to of her problems? She worried about how she and her siblings would console and take care of their mother, who was completely broken and enveloped in grief.
Iravati rented a house a short walk from where Nandini lived in Bombay. Pupul too had an apartment at Himmat Niwas, just across the street from her mother, while Amru lived nearby at Breach Candy.
Nandini visited her mother’s home often. Though they faced many emotional and financial problems, the atmosphere there was joyous and caring, and everyone was supportive of each other.
At Malabar Castle, Nandini sank further into the chores of domesticity, which included doling out the daily ration to the staff. Her little daughter became the centre of her life, and that helped her slowly accept her father’s demise. Bhagwan led a very busy life. He played golf in the morning. Then he made the rounds of Century Mills and went to his office. In the evenings he liked to go to the Willingdon Club to play bridge. When Devi was around four or five months old Bhagwan started insisting that Nandini come with him to the club. Though she secretly disliked having to accompany him, she joined him at the club most evenings, sitting beside him as he played cards. He told her that he expected her to mix freely and entertain his friends, and that she needed to start drinking alcohol (but never eat meat), otherwise she looked like a fool in the company he kept. Bhagwan was a domineering person and extremely possessive about Nandini. Upon his instruction, she wore mostly white chiffon saris with zari borders and high heels to the club. In public, he liked to walk with his arm around her shoulder, and proclaim to others that she was his. He liked that men stared at her beautiful face, her lean form. He rather liked to show her off, and if a media photographer took a picture of her, he was flattered. Her photographs, as the beautiful wife of a Bombay industrialist, were taken by Vogue magazine in 1948.
With Nandini’s family living close by, and her mother inconsolable after the death of her husband, there was increased interaction between them. Bhagwan began to express his dislike for her family. He gave them all unflattering nicknames, criticizing them regularly to Nandini. Only Kumi was spared, perhaps because he was a mild, quiet sort who was somewhat in awe of Bhagwan’s wealth and position.
Bhagwan would get angry and wildly jealous if Nandini praised her sister’s husband in his presence. Meanwhile he didn’t hesitate to continually berate her and tell her she was useless as a wife. Though Bhagwan’s words hurt Nandini deeply, she remained silent, rarely retaliating. Resigning herself to the fact that this was her life, Nandini settled into the routines expected of her at Malabar Castle. She performed the religious rituals and ceremonies required of her and did the daily puja, though it was completely alien to her.
In the following six years, Nandini had two more children: Ghanshyam born in July 1943 and Vikram (nicknamed Kaka), born in August 1946. Her whole existence became her three children. She was physically very demonstrative and hugged and kissed them a lot, showering them with love and affection. This did not go down well with the rest of the Sir C.V. Mehta clan, who believed showing affection was a sign of weakness. At 42 Ridge Road, there was never any show of physical affection or tenderness even towards the children.
Inasmuch as he was able to enforce it, Bhagwan tried to stop Nandini from interacting with her mother and sisters. If any of her sisters touched or kissed her he would say, “There is something unnatural in this show of affection. Please tell your family not to kiss you. If you don’t, I shall tell them to keep their filthy hands off my wife.” Nandini tried to reason with Bhagwan that because he had not grown up with physical affection from his parents, because they had never petted or caressed him, perhaps he couldn’t understand that it was actually quite natural and normal for siblings to be affectionate to one another.
Nandini was very keen on doing social work. At different points, she wanted to volunteer at a maternity home, help edit a children’s magazine with her sister, and assist with refugee relief, but Bhagwan forbade her from any of it.
Occasionally Nandini indulged her love for painting, and when feeling particularly happy she would laugh aloud and sing for her three children. This too was frowned upon. In fact her mother- in-law believed that it was immodest of women to show their teeth. On the rare occasion Taraben allowed herself to smile, she would hide her lips with her palm. She was well dressed and wore fine jewellery, and always maintained a stoic seriousness. She would criticise Nandini saying: “You laugh too much, and show your teeth.” Though Nandini did not for a moment agree with her mother-in-law’s advice on joy and laughter and its expression, she seldom spoke up against it.
Despite all the splendour and material wealth of the family, there was an air of gloom at Malabar Castle. Nobody laughed or cracked jokes, there were no parties or special dinners, and guests (including relatives) were forbidden from entering the imposing gates. It was a sombre, quiet place and everyone was nervous and frightened of Sir CV’s outbursts, for he had a notoriously bad temper.
While the rest of the world admired the palatial home in which the C.V. Mehtas lived, and thought them modern and liberated in outlook, the reality of it was quite different. Nandini was made to dress the children exclusively in whites. She had to look after all Bhagwan’s personal comforts. If, while dressing, he found one of his shirt buttons missing, he would rant and hurl abuse. He liked to say that he was badly neglected because his wife was always with her mother and sisters. Nandini absorbed this daily dose of psychological abuse quietly, without any outward indication of annoyance. If she so much as betrayed a small sign that she was upset, he would fly into a rage.
Nandini wanted very much to fit into her marital home and do what was expected of her. After the birth of her third child, she made up her mind to try to adapt more. She started going to the club, races, and cinema with Bhagwan on a regular basis and even learnt to play golf, joining him on his morning rounds.
There were rigid rules that Nandini had to follow when she went out with Bhagwan. If she bumped into her family, she could not talk to them. She could only speak with those Bhagwan approved of. Only he could invite people to his box at the racecourse, only he could ask people to lunch or dinner with them at the club. He never gave up repeating and emphasizing that “Once a girl is married she becomes one with her husband, and must forget everything but him.”