Miriam was born in 1900, in a small town in Punjab. Her mother, a widow, had converted to Christianity before she was born. Her mother must have been a very forward-thinking woman, an exception in that era, when in India girls were generally not allowed a formal education. She was illiterate but intelligent. She had a family to support and while she wasn’t poor, she wasn’t a lady with ample means either. In order to augment her income, she began lending money; loaning money at a fixed interest. She kept meticulous accounts despite the fact she had never been to school. Miriam was fortunate to have been born to such a woman.
Miriam’s mother decided that her daughter would have a good education. She sent her to study at a school in Andrew’s Ganj in Delhi. Miriam completed her Matriculation here. Having studied in Delhi she learnt English too, which was the main reason why her ten children learnt the language fluently even though they were studying in small town Government schools in Punjab. Miriam’s education also served in getting her an educated husband. She married Bernard James, a teacher in a government school. Teachers in small towns, in those days, were highly respected members of society and their larders were always overflowing with the offerings and gifts of grateful parents and students. It would have been very rude at that time to refuse the gifts of grain, ghee (clarified butter) fruit, farm-fresh vegetables etc, which were brought to the home of the teacher. This was “guru dakshina”(gift of gratitude from student to teacher) and not any kind of bribe for favours of any kind. It was unthinkable to attribute any such base motive to these gifts.
Miriam and Bernard had ten children, five boys and five girls. Owing to her mother’s precedent, of not discriminating against the girl child, all of Miriam’s daughters were given a sound education too along with their brothers. Bernard went on to become a Senior Teacher in the Government High School and from there he moved to the Mission Schools. He rose to occupy the post of Inspector of Schools. Their second child, Jason, was my father.
Miriam was a woman of substance. She had grit, determination, strength, perseverance, and all this coupled with her pragmatism made her one formidable force. In order to understand how progressive she was and how adept at adapting, I will have to recount this story that I would make her tell me over and over again, when I was a young girl.
Grandpa would be out of town quite often, as an Inspector of Schools. This left Grandma alone with the children, and not very safe and secure as their house stood beside a huge orchard on one side and fields on the other. Times were a-changing and petty crimes like thefts were on the rise. Grandpa had already dealt with a few attempts of thieves to scale the boundary wall on the orchard side. In order to protect the home and family she devised a plan to have Grandpa always at home. Since keeping him back physically was not possible, it had to be a ruse. Whenever he went on tour, that night Grandma would wear his “pagri,” (turban) light the “hookah”(hubble-bubble) and sit up through the night till daybreak, smoking the hookah. The glow of the hookah embers and the silhouette of a 'turbaned man' would be misleading to any one peering over the wall. However, one day some daring men decided to take on the lone 'man.' Grandma, ever alert, heard the sounds of furtive movement and whispered voices behind the wall, and even before they could get a hold on the top of the wall and heave themselves up, she was waiting and ready with a big, thick “lathi.” The moment the first head appeared over the edge of the wall, she struck with all her strength and let out a full throttled war cry. This sudden ferocious attack not only took the men by surprise but also woke up my father and his elder brother. Although they were in their early teens, both were tall and had robust physiques. They were quick to gauge the scene. Both were on top of the wall in a jiffy, with lathis (a stout stick, used for self-defence in India) in hand, shouting warnings and threatening dire consequences to the quickly retreating backs of the thieves.
There were two outcomes from this strategy... There were no more attempts at theft and Grandma became a regular ‘hookah’ smoker!
From then it was a common sight to see her puffing away at her hubble-bubble, not only in the night but in broad daylight too. She and Grandpa always had their lighted hookah between them and would take puffs alternately, while they chit-chatted or shared their silences. It was such a wonderful sight to see. So much of togetherness oozed out of these moments. That Grandma never hid the fact that she smoked the hookah, and indulged in her newly formed habit openly with undisguised enjoyment, speaks volumes of the kind of woman she was. In pre-Independence rural India, she was a rarity...a true woman of substance.