Trunk Call From the Land of the Queen  




Alice dipped her Khari biscuit in the teacup. She willed her shaky hands to retrieve the Khari before it disintegrated into innumerable diaphanous sheets. Her 104 years old palate found comfort in the buttery aftertaste. She glanced at her great-granddaughter curled up on her cane chair, smartphone in hand. “Zoyi dikra, your tea is getting cold. Khudai will never pardon you for ignoring your Khari biscuit.” Zoyi instantly looked up. Humour was her Maai’s middle name. She walked absently to the tiny foldable table in the kitchen.  Maai, seventy-six solo pictures, and not a single photo worth putting on Instagram!” Zoyi sounded flustered, skimming through the photos from her college graduation ceremony last week. “How would I know? I graduated long after I turned seventy-six!”  Maai, how did that come about?” Alice rubbed her hands, freshening her memories. The year was 1938. I had just finished my Masters in English literature from Cambridge University. In India, a woman graduating from college was a rarity in those days. And studying abroad was a feat few could boast of.  I had a fascination for the gingham skirts, coiffured buns, and the tea rituals that the British were so fond of.   In those days, women were not publicly awarded degrees. There was a rising tide of women fighting for equal rights to attend a convocation ceremony. I witnessed the uproar from a distance. While I sided with these women in the confines of my mind, I did not burn in their fire. I was engulfed in the warmth of love and security that my doting family provided.  I marveled at my good luck when my degree was delivered to my doorstep. I graduated with my eyes shut to reality. Most of us do that. And then I proceeded with spinning a cocoon of my own. I had children. Our country attained independence from the British Raj. And the devastation that accompanies a rebirth taught me lessons I had never been receptive to earlier.  I realized women had invisible wars to fight. That women back in Cambridge were fighting for their efforts to be recognized at par with their male counterparts. That independence was a distant dream even in Cambridge, right under the nose of the Queen.  But things were changing, gradually. I got a trunk call in 1998. “Ms. Alice Drumwaala? I am speaking from the University of Cambridge. We would be delighted to award you your graduation degree at our next convocation.”  “And then, Maai?”  “And then I flew to Cambridge, sixty years after I passed out of college. This time I proudly donned my Parsi gara. My husband and children cheered in the audience. I smiled back at hundreds of women alumni who had come to claim the respect that was long overdue, as I heard the cameras click. We waited a fortnight to receive the photograph. And what did I see? I was flashing my dentures, posing with my degree…with my eyes closed.”

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Glossary  Khaari: A flaky biscuit made from pastry sheets Khudaai: God Maai: matriarch, great grandmother in this case Parsi gaara: Signature exquisitely embroidered saari, worn by Parsi women on special occasions. Trunk call: In the UK, and in India, local as well as long-distance telephone calls were chargeable to the caller and the term trunk calling was adopted for long-distance calls. This story is a fictional account, drawing inspiration from the life of Mithoo Coorlawaala. She did her masters from Cambridge University’s Newnham College in 1938-39 when it was rare not just for Indian women but for women anywhere to be doing so. The idea of women’s colleges being set up caused such a furore that women graduates were given degrees by post without convocation at least for the next decade. Decades later, in 1998, as that college celebrated 50 years of formally awarding women degrees, Coorlawala picked hers up publicly.    Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!