Miriam James

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Miriam was born in 1900, in a small town in Punjab. Her mother, a widow, had converted to Christianity before her birth. I do not recall her mother’s name, but since Miriam went as Miriam Shaw, I guess I’ll just call her mother Mrs. Shaw!

Mrs. Shaw must have been a forward-thinking woman, an exception in that era when girls, in India, in most cases, were not allowed a formal education. Although she was illiterate, she was intelligent. She had a family to support and while she wasn’t poor; she was not a lady of ample means either.

To augment her income, she lent out money; loaning money at a fixed interest. She kept meticulous accounts although she had never been to school. Miriam was fortunate to be born to such a woman.

Mrs. Shaw decided that her daughter would have a good education. She sent her to study at a boarding school in Andrew’s Ganj in Delhi. Miriam completed her Matriculation there. Having studied in Delhi, she learned English too. This was an asset as her children learned the language even though they studied 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 those days, were highly respected members of society, especially in small towns. (And Bernard went on to become a senior teacher).

Their position as teachers also ensured that their larders always overflowed with the offerings and gifts of grateful parents and students. It would have been very rude to refuse the gifts of grain, ghee (clarified butter), fruit, farm-fresh vegetables which they brought to the home of the teacher. This was “Guru Dakshina,” a gift of gratitude from a student to a teacher and not a bribe for favors 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 had a sound education too along with their brothers. The eldest daughter joined the Army; Women’s Auxiliary Corps – India (WACI) in the forties. Two younger ones became teachers, and both retired as Headmistresses. One died young, and the fifth didn’t work opting to marry a Naval officer and be a housewife.

After Bernard became a senior teacher in the Government High School, he moved to Mission Schools. He rose to the post of Inspector of Schools (mission 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. To understand how progressive she was and how adept at adapting, I will have to recount this story I would make her tell me over and over again when I was a little girl.

Grandpa would be out of town often when he was on an inspection tour. This left Grandma alone with the children, and not safe and secure as their house stood by an 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. But Grandma didn’t scare easy. She didn’t fret and rose to the occasion.

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 a tour, that night, Grandma would wear his “pagri” (turban), light the “hookah” (hubble-bubble) and sit up through the night until daybreak, smoking the hookah.

She hoped that the glow of the embers and the silhouette of a turbaned person would mislead anyone peering over the wall into believing it was a man. However, one day, some daring men decided to take on the ‘lone man’. Bad idea!

Grandma, ever alert, heard the sounds of furtive movement and whispered voices behind the wall. Thieves! Before they could get a hold on the top of the wall and heave themselves up, she was waiting and ready, armed 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 (stout sticks used for self-defence in India) hurling warnings and threats of dire consequences at the 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!

 

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This is an Arabic hookah and not the kind my grandparents smoked. Theirs had a clay cup for tobacco and a brass water compartment at the bottom to hold the water. I couldn’t find a pic of the ones that were in Punjab at the time.

 

From then on, it became 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. I had the privilege to see them like this when we moved from the city and returned to our town. I was just a girl, but it impacted me.

It was such a wonderful sight to see. So much of togetherness oozed out of these moments. That grandma never felt the need to smoke the hookah in hiding and indulged in her newly formed habit with undisguised enjoyment, speaks volumes about her zest for life.

In pre-independence, rural India, Miriam was a rare gem in her class.

“To all those who care, You can’t forever. 
Time steals the years, And your reflection in the mirror.
But I can still see the story in your eyes, And your timeless passion that’s never died.
While your skin became tired, Your heart became strong,
The present became the past, And your memories like a song.
And though the moment at hand is all that we have, 
You’ve taught me to live it like it is our last.
Since two words don’t say ‘thank you’ the way they are meant to,
I’ll try all my life to be something like you.” -Crystal Woods

 

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