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Remembering ‘Badi Nani’

This is a brief chronicle about our nani (maternal grandmother) who passed away recently at the age of 87. Hers is an inspiring narrative for Indian women. Till the age of 85, badi nani (as all seven of her great-grandchildren would call her) single-handedly ran the ‘Card Shop,’ in New Delhi’s, B Block, Connaught Place.

In the Connaught Place of the 1970s, besides the Card Shop, in C Block, my grandparents also ran the ‘Madras Café’, one of the first of its kind to specialise in South Indian food at a time when restaurants of the kind were not around in Delhi. Last year badi nani recounted how on Independence Day, people who would be roaming around Connaught Place would be offered free dosas — which it was known for. Many would also come to watch the Republic Day parade from the café’s rooftop.

The Card Shop, which was nurtured by badi nani, was initially named, ‘Nath Stationers’. It was adjacent to Balujas, Volga, Footsteps and the elegant Book Worm. Badi nani started this venture with the aim of selling basic items of stationery. Subsequently the shop underwent a transformation. Badi nani only began to keep artistic cards, calendars and decorative wrapping paper. If customers would ask for stationery, badi nani would direct them to her competitor, the New Delhi Stationery Mart (A Block), with a polite, ‘sorryji, we don’t have that.’

The veneer of the Card Shop has remained unorthodox and attracted a great deal of curiosity. It has a simple, old-style sign board of a kind that is rapidly disappearing from Delhi’s urban landscape. The walls in the shop were usually covered with quirky posters and miniature paintings, which customers often fell for. Whenever a person would walk in, badi nani would jump up and ask, ‘May I help you please?’ She would wrap sold items in brown, plain paper envelopes, and all receipts would be hand-written. Most of the time her calculations was done on the brown envelope itself and if customers asked for better packaging and billing, she was frank in admitting that she liked doing things ‘her way.’

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the run up-to festivals such as Diwali, there would be no place to stand inside the shop. In 1989, I would catch a bus from Delhi University to help my grandparents and mother in handling the pre-festival crowds. Customers would zealously purchase large supplies of cards for festivals and other important occasions. Parcels of cards were ordered in advance by companies and from people who wanted to keep in touch with their loved ones over Christmas and New Year. A decade later, the advent of the Internet turned cards into a slowly dying breed. We began to notice that many of nani’s faithful suppliers, for example Archie’s, were visiting the shop less frequently. Text messaging, Internet cards and Facebook have become the primary ways to send greetings. Badi nani did everything to preserve and promote the craft of card-making. She kept ordering handmade cards and retained the interior and unique atmosphere of the Card shop, despite most other Connaught Place shops burgeoning and turning fancier and more commercial.

Her morning ritual of setting off to the shop will remain in our memory. Badi nani’s basket (thela) had to be readied with packed lunch, homeopathic medicines and all her keys. There would be a puja on arrival in Connaught Place. In the space of the ‘Card Shop’ which was her ‘home,’ our unassuming badi nani connected vibrantly with the rest of the world. She would chat with tourists and those who loved cards and handicrafts. There were admirers who took pictures of her, returned to see her smile and kept in touch. Badi nani epitomised a stoic generation that got on with things. And after all, look what they have seen and been through?

My grandparents, like so many other Indians and Delhiites, lost all their possessions during Partition in 1947. They fled from Lahore to Shimla and then to Delhi. With amazing luck and with their entrepreneurial spirit and grit they were able to rebuild their lives, which translated into so many gains for us, two daughters and sons-in-law. More than anything, badi nani is a source of inspiration, and thus this brief chronicle of some of her modest, everyday achievements. In a decade where we are rightly debating women’s empowerment and gender equality, badi nani was an independent, self-assured, confident and smart business woman. Till her dying days she lived a full life and was remarkable at preserving her craft.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 10:25:05 AM |

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