The Surmayidani of Shrimati Uttamdevi

I've grown up listening to my Nana's (maternal grandfather’s) mother's, Shrimati

Uttamdevi, stories. Her long face, smooth skin, and the calm colour saris she took to in the last years of her life, they all come together in my mind whenever I see her silver surmayidani (a small box for keeping Kohl), an item, an article, a remnant of separation— Surmayidani of Lahore, Kohl of Delhi.


The surface of this surmayidani is etched with faded flower designs, delicate petals and leaves, thin vines. On the top of the opening sits a little bird. It was during this Diwali, after reading Aanchal Malhotra story about kohl made from Diwali diyas and preserved in these daanis that I revisited some memories of my great grandmother's— through remnants, a remembrance.


During the 1947 partition, the Dhawan family, my Nana's family, crossed the border and reached Shimla. With many things that crossed the border with them this surmayidani was one. Nana's family had a huge haveli (mansion) in 'bacchhan wali gali' in Lahore, they were known jewellers there. In India (border-paar) life had to start from scratch. Months and years passed by, one by one those precious belongings were sold to survive. Even when permits to revisit old houses to get back buried belongings were open, my great grandmother (chaiyiji) refused to look back. Her family not only survived because of her valuable belongings but there was enough to even get her three daughters married.


But she kept the Surmayidani close. My Nani (maternal grandmother) tells me that that surmayidani was the only constant in her life even when everything around her was changing. The kohl making rituals were the same. Their preservation was the same. Their application was the same. The beloved surmayidani was the same. 'Sab kuch toh chord aaye the, kuch reh reh k bhi nahi chord sake,' Chaiyiji used to say. (We left everything behind, but in spite of walking ahead, somethings, some feelings couldn't be left behind).

While going through the old photo book of Nana's family, I pause at chaiyiji's portrait. Long face, wrinkles are settling in, long nose, deep black eyes, and the surma, the kohl kissed eyelids, making Chaiyiji's eyes look bigger. Her deep, silent eyes...

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