JH Phrydas

genre: memoir

Chapter 1

When I was young, the city of Patna was loud and hot. Rickshaws and street peddlers clamored in the dust. Crowds of Biharis bustled past small shopfronts with no sense of order, weaving in and out of the street as buggy drivers shooed them away like farm animals. Sometimes, I’d marvel at an automobile honking its way through the throng. Cars were rare in the ‘40s in India—most arrived by boat from Britain. That long and expensive trek made them status symbols of that rare Bihari who left our country and became wealthy, successful, and modern. To keep up with all the traffic, city officials installed stoplights at busy intersections, but the blinking lights failed to calm the chaos. Instead, they hung as bright and useless as a piece of jewelry above the crowd.

I remember walking these streets with my brother H— and feeling utterly lost in the melee. I was six, and the city felt strange to me, like I didn’t quite belong. It was always a relief to turn my back to the bike horns and desperate cries of women selling household goods in the shade of tamarind trees and re-enter my house. Closing the great wooden door behind me, the street noise hushed. I relished the silence before it was filled with another kind of noise—the shouts and cries and pan-clacking of an Indian family of ten. 

My father L— ran the household as best he could. He was a well-built, energetic man whose face was kind but showed, along the creases around his eyes, the strain of hustling to make ends meet for his wife and eight children. My mother S— was a beautiful woman with soft, smooth skin. I remember her in the kitchen making meals or rushing out the door to haggle with the produce vendors down the street. We were middle class, my family and I, but with so many mouths to feed, my parents were constantly worried about getting food on the table. Sometimes, my mother would come home, and we’d ask: “Bhabhiji, what are we eating tonight?”

“Reach in my pocket,” she’d say, “and if there’s money, we’ll eat well. If not, we’ll find a way. We always find a way.”

Luckily, my father was well-trained to care for a family of this size. He himself was the eldest of seven, and, as is customary in Indian culture, was responsible for caring for his six younger brothers and sisters growing up. He was born and raised in Sialkot, an industrious suburb of the city of Lahore in the Punjab region of what is now Pakistan. Back then, it was still a part of India. His father A— was the headmaster of a public school. This was a prestigious position in the late 1800s, and my grandfather earned such distinction because of his sincerity and integrity. There was no public transportation back then, and I heard stories about how he walked to and from school every day like clockwork, even though it was a trek of several miles. I imagine the neighbors could tell the exact time of day by seeing him pass—that is how principled he was.

As soon as my father was old enough, he found work in order to expand his household income. Sialkot was—and still is—known as a hub for high quality wood and leather goods. The city became famous all over India for their sporting equipment, such as tennis and badminton rackets, field hockey sticks, and cricket bats. The British would send their broken sports items to Sialkot for repair, and entrepreneurs started businesses to produce goods for India’s obsession with sport. My father jumped into the local fray as a teenager by borrowing money from family friends. He quickly built a reputation like his father’s—he was honest and respected. These qualities made him one of the most successful businessmen in Punjab. With his good looks and disarming smile, he traveled all over India and made enough money to build a beautiful home for himself and his family, including all of his siblings. He didn’t mind the travel—India was rapidly changing in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and he loved meeting people from different corners of the country. However, he was always happy to return home. He loved Sialkot and didn’t once think of living anywhere else.

One of his regular business trips was to Patna, the capital city of Bihar state, where a British regiment was stationed. Patna was a bustling city on the banks of the Ganges River. In fact, it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. For over 2500 years, the city has passed from Gupta kings to Mughal emperors, and under each ruler, no matter their religion or ethnicity, Patna thrived as a mercantile city, a crossroads of international trade and culture. Wanting to take advantage of this, the British opened a factory here in 1620, and other European nations came in droves to make their own trade posts in the lucrative market. In the mid-1700s, the East India Company took control of the region and set up a British Raj, effectively giving rule over India to the British Empire. Over time, the British built several universities, such as Patna College, Patna Science College, Bihar College of Engineering, and the Prince of Wales Medical College. The city became famous as the cradle of education in India, and soon, other British and American institutions followed with their own schools and English programs for locals and foreigners alike.

Those institutions, with their teams and regional rivalries, opened up a large market for sporting goods. My father provided them with his usual array of high-quality equipment, and soon, he was in high demand. His British customers loved working with him, and as they chatted over new orders for cricket bats, my father would complain about the arduous 1300-kilometer journey back and forth between Sialkot and Patna. He’d light-heartedly grumble about the slow trains—“Slow,” the officers would joke, “if they show up at all!”—and they’d protest whenever my father had to leave again.

“Get a house here in Patna,” they told him. “Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if your family lived here? We’re most of your business, anyway. Plus, your brothers and sisters could get a top notch education here. We know the admissions people at the universities, you know…”

My father never wanted to move away from Sialkot, but on the train ride back that evening, he began to think about the possibility. Patna’s schools were unmatched, and the officers weren’t lying when they praised his robust business status in town. Back home, he discussed the possibility with my mother, and in 1942 decided to make the move. The entire B— clan, led by L—, started a new life in a new city in a new state in what would soon become a new fractured and devastated country.