Monday, November 6, 2017

My Grand-Father’s Russian Family by Chandana Dey

While the biography cum memoir I’m researching is about my Russian grand-mother, née Kotya Jonas, a lot has now come to light about my grand-father, Nitai Gopal de Sarkar. This year- that is also the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917- that was to have such a momentous impact on the life of my Russian grand-mother and her family- is the year I decided to ‘retire’ from pressing engagements and devote myself ‘entirely’ to research on family history and archives. I planned to write mostly from my rural idyll in Santiniketan (Bengal, India) where my grand-parents acquired a plot of land from the Visva-Bharati University and built themselves a small house.
Irene and Mamlu
Photo Credit: Laurent (husband of Irene)
Two meetings in 2017 have proved fortuitous in shaping the direction of the book: I discovered an ‘aunt’ who is a photo-archivist and anthropologist and who lives in Paris. Irène Jonas is the daughter of my grand-uncle, my grand-mother’s youngest brother, Serge. Irène and I not only exchanged letters and photographs but we also met this summer in London and found so many things in common, while trying to unearth our joint family history. The photograph of the Jonas family taken in the summer of 1934 (my mother looks about three years old) is from her family collection.

My Grand-father's Russian Family
Standing: Kotya, Zyga (Kotya's older brother), Maya (my mother), Tina (Kotya's older sister),
Serge (Kotya's younger brother and father of Irene), Nitai
Sitting: Varvara (Kotya's mother), lady in white hair (unidentified), David Jonas (Kotya's father)
Photo Credit: Irene Jonas Family Collection
Later this summer, I met a charming young Swiss couple- Sophie and Diego who had come to Santiniketan for a few weeks on a community-health survey of Santal villagers and their food habits. Sophie is a Doctor of Opthalmology and Diego makes specialized microscopes for surgery.

I found them both to be extremely willing to help further my research into unraveling my grand-parents’ past life, part of which was spent in Switzerland in the 1920s and 1930s. Diego recommended I look into the digital holdings of the Swiss newspaper, Le Temps that has recently digitalized its 200 years of archival materials. Sophie wrote off to the Archives of the University of Geneva asking whether they had any information regarding a student who would have graduated from the University of Geneva around 1930.  

Archives, as other things, are most punctiliously kept in Switzerland. Sitting in my cottage in Santiniketan, I was able to delve into my grand-parents’ past, recover documents I had thought lost forever, and piece together some part of their life’s journey. My grand-mother, Kotya Jonas, would have come to Switzerland in 1922, along with her family from Russia. My grand-father did his first degree in medicine from Kolkata and then went to Paris for three trimesters. He then asked to be transferred to the University of Geneva where his final degree was conferred on him. He also wrote his thesis in French. He even applied to Edinburgh to do an FRCP (Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians)- but since I only have an application letter dated in 1929, I assume that he did not manage to follow up with this decision. I think my grandparents met in 1930 and married soon after, and my mother was born on 19 June 1931.

The documents, diligently collected by the Archivist at the University of Geneva were sent to Sophie who sent them onto me. I think I was so stunned that I could not even thank her properly- so moved at seeing these letters written almost nine decades ago.

Nitai and Ketaki Sarkar (Dadu and Dida)
Photo Credit: Anil and
Rani Chanda Family Collection
My grand-father not only acquired a Russian wife; he also gained an entire family. The photograph only speaks of good times- but there must have been heartbreak when Kotya decided to leave for India with her five- year old daughter and make India her home. This family photograph might have been one of the last occasions when Kotya wore a dress. At this time, my grand-father was practicing as a rural doctor in the Canton de Vaud with my grand-mother doubling up as his nurse. It seemed to be a satisfying life. What then made my grand-father decide to come back to India?

My grand-father returned to his home country after a decade outside India. He brought his Russian wife, a Mem’ (Memsahib), and his five year old daughter, Maya. Unfortunately, his doctorate from the University of Geneva was never recognized in an India that valued only degree holders from the UK. My grand-father had chosen not to study in England, because this was a colonial power and India was governed, not free. Ironically, he returned after a decade abroad, to find this colonial mentality unchanged. This did not embitter him. He retained his ‘joie de vie’ and family photographs invariably show my grand-parents, side by side in quiet contentment. My grand-father was such a good man, a brilliant doctor who had mastered a foreign language sufficiently to write his thesis in it. In India, where academic qualifications matter so much, I just wish that family lore would have included his achievements en par with other illustrious family members.                                                                                                                ~ Chandana Dey

Chandana Dey is a Founding Member of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network on Gender, Culture & People-Centered Development; and Former Editor, Social Science Press, New Delhi