My Great-Grandfather: A British Subject by Birth

Kolkata, India

This is the story (albeit incomplete) of a person who was unconventional. I employ the term ‘unconventional’ because it was not usual or routine practice for many people – specifically, those subjected to colonial rule – to take trips abroad, in the initial decades of the twentieth century, let alone cross the ‘Kaala Paani’. But such were the travels of my great-grandfather, Deba Prasad Chatterjee. In the century preceding his birth, travelling overseas, or crossing the ‘kaala paani’ was taboo, for it implied that one would be transported to the land of ‘mlechhas’ or barbarians after crossing the aforementioned waters. The act of crossing the black water was therefore considered to be detrimental to one’s religious purity, according to Hindu culture. However, the taboo may have died down by the twentieth century, as there was an increase in the number of people from India who had started taking trips to the forbidden lands. At least the passports found from the era bear testimony to this fact.

Deba Prasad Chatterjee, was born on 30th November, 1901, in Barasat, North 24 Paraganas but brought up in a village called Muragachha in the Nadia district of West Bengal. He went on to become a lawyer, or a ‘vakil’ as his passport certifies, and specialised in laws related to the dissolution of marriages. However, I do not have the answers to questions such as “how many people were getting divorced in India in the first half of the twentieth century”, or “who were the people who opted for divorce” at that point of time. Were they Indians, were they Anglo-Indians, or British people? There are quite a few possibilities in this regard.

I write about the dissolution of marriages in accordance to the statement given by his nephew, Justice (Rtd.), S.K Mookerjee of the Allahabad High Court. He recalls a man who was very disciplined and particular about etiquettes. Much of the description regarding my great-grandfather’s demeanour and life can be gleaned from the oral narratives gathered from his family members, many of whom have passed. There is considerable difficulty in putting all the pieces together, which can be attributed to factors such as sour relations between family members and a lack of conversations that would have shed adequate light on the past. To put it briefly, nobody in the family thought the need to document their personal history. But as fate would have it, one fine day, my uncle handed me a packet which contained some old photographs of my grandfather and some belongings of my great grandfather, D.P Chatterjee.

These included his British Indian Passport (dated 1932), a letter (dated 1931) written to his wife, Smritimoyee Devi from Broad Street, London, and his wallet bearing the initials, D.P.C. In addition to that, I also received a provisional certificate from the University of Calcutta which certifies that he passed the examination to obtain a B.L (Bachelor of Laws) degree. What was interesting to note is that Calcutta University’s stamp bore the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. When I received these precious objects, it felt like I’d stumbled upon a casket of treasure; I inherently knew that these objects were precious. Additionally, I felt a sense of greed, wanting to see and know more, to lay my hands on other things that belonged to him; perhaps diaries and photographs, although I’m not sure if they existed in the first place.

In the letter addressed to my great-grandmother, Chatterjee inquires about the well-being of his children and other family members back home in India. This particular letter was in response to one sent by Smritimoyee Devi, who, to test his affection towards her, had sent a photograph of herself dressed in a different manner (I am not sure of how it was different), asking him if he found the lady in the photograph attractive. The letter specifies that he had caught on to the joke and declared that he was not as naive as she had assumed him to be. He also mentioned that he liked the photograph very much and had kept it on top of a fireplace from where he’d been admiring it frequently.

The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 required that a “person entering India shall be in possession of passports, and for all matters ancillary or incidental to that purpose.” It also established controls on the foreign travel of Indians, and foreigners travelling to and within the Presidencies and Provinces of British India. Though the British Indian Passport was based on a format agreed upon by the 1920 League of Nations International Conference on Passports, it had limited usage and was valid for travel only within areas governed by the British Empire, Italian Empire, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden and Dutch Empire. The text on the document was in English and French. A British Indian passport could be issued to persons who were British subjects by birth, or naturalisation, or the spouses or widows of such persons. Passport offices in the provincial governments could issue the document, which was valid for five years. Records show that the price of a new passport was raised from 1 rupee in 1922 to 3 rupees in 1933.

Debaprasad Chatterjee’s British Indian passport was issued on 30th June, 1927 and the navy-blue booklet is 14.8 cm x 10.5 cm in size, with the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom engraved on top, in golden. His national status is ‘British subject by birth’, and although the passport does not specify a space for ‘caste’, it is mentioned nevertheless as ‘Hindu-Brahmin’ – a detail no longer required in the modern-day passport, but issues related to casteism were far more rampant at the time. The document gave away other details that helped me visualize the ‘stature’ (pun-intended) of my great grandfather. Standing at 5’5, he seemed to be doing well professionally.

During the Second World War, ‘scrub typhus’ emerged as a dreaded disease among the soldiers who were sent to the Far East. A scrub typhus epidemic broke out in India, and the geographical regions of the present-day states of West Bengal and Assam were hit first. The symptoms of the disease included rashes, enlarged lymph nodes, headaches and body aches and Debaprasad Chatterjee fell prey to this deadly disease. The rashes caused by it were quite dark, and so was Chatterjee’s complexion, and therefore it became difficult to spot them. Therefore, the doctor who came to examine his condition ended up overlooking the rashes and could not diagnose the problem accurately. He died an untimely death at the age of 44, in November 1945.

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