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Memory Speaks

Dec 01, 2003
A dip in the river under ‘cloud cover’

Mrs. Usha Sharma is into her seventies and is a great story teller. She traces her roots to Chainpur in Siwan district of Bihar. Here she is talking about her grandmother’s times, so we are probably peering into late nineteenth century. Take a look:

“My grandmother loved telling us about her childhood,” begins a relaxed Usha Sharma, “and often, in the evening, she used to gather all her grandchildren around her, and regale us with one tale after the other.

“She would sit on the bed, her paan box next to her, and all of us would sit waiting with bated breath for what was to come. I remember the evening she told us about the ‘ghatatop’. 

“As you may know, in earlier times, women from rich families had to live in ‘purdah’,” she began. “They never came out unless invisible. You may find this hard to believe but this was so.

“One would therefore think that they did not go out. Far from it! Our ladies did go out. Not only within the same town, but took long train journeys to distant places as well. To leave their home, they would use a ‘doli’, a sort of chair carried by two men. The doli had curtains all around it. When the ladies had to leave the house, the doli was brought into the ladies quarters, and the bearers would then leave the room. The ladies would sit in the doli; maids would draw the curtains and then call the bearers. At the destination, the same drill was repeated. If they were to travel by train, the doli would be placed at the level of the door of the ladies compartment, which of course had its own curtains!

“But there were times when the ladies had to walk. And they had to walk without being seen. How on earth does one manage that?  A veil no matter however concealing would have still meant that their feet would be visible. The solution was the ‘ghatatop’. A literal translation would be: ‘cloud cover’.

“The ghatatop was an ingenious invention. It was a wide umbrella with drapes all around it, a sort of moving tent. It was held high by a maid and the ladies who had to walk would get inside. Every one would walk together in sync, and outsiders would only see a colourful mobile tent. Needless to say this was only used for short distances.

“Ladies even took a dip in the river, using their ghatatop. They would walk into the river under it, and take their dip under it. When they had finished they would walk back under the ghatatop to the waiting automobile or doli. Granny told us that under the safe ghatatop, ladies would have a lot of fun. Just imagine the sight of a moving tent, with sounds of laughter and giggles emanating from it. 

“So you see, the purdah did not deter our grandmothers from going out wherever they wanted to. They had a sound invention and pairs of ready hands to hold it aloft.”

-- Anuradha Bakshi

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