She smiled and said, “You know a cup of Nimish would cost from one anna to two annas (16 annas made one rupee). Along with Nimish, came the vendors with golden crispy ‘Jalebis’ full of sweet syrup and these were sold on fresh green leaves, 10 to an anna. At times this could be our breakfast together with a glass of milk which the milkman brought in over-sized containers. My mother came to meet her father every year in Lucknow and it was here that I was born.”
Suddenly there was silence. I turned and looked at her. She had slept off with smile on her face while she was telling me how she was born. It was a special day and she had many a visitors. She looked tired but she was smiling. An hour later she woke up, looked at me and asked, “Why are you sitting here my dear? Want something?” I smiled and said, “Yes you were telling me about your childhood.” She laughed and said, “It was long back and I don’t remember. Can you make me a cup of tea please?” I smiled, “Yes.”
She held the cup in her hand trying to balance it with my help and said, “There were no buses or cars in Multan and the only transport was the ‘Tonga’. However, within two years a bus came and we used it for going to school. Amy, the girl next door would also come with us. One day she told me her young aunt had died and would I care to see her when she was being taken away. I went, they made her look like a bride who was going to be married. Her face looked so pretty.”
She continued and asked me, “Tell me why are all these people here with flowers? I said, It is your birthday. They have come to wish you.” She looked at me… “Am I this much?” I said, “Yes you are.” Then she went back to sleep.
The above conversation happened few years ago.
Sheila Kaul, born on the 7th of February 1914 to Rajeshwar Nath Kaul and Saraswati Kaul, turned 100 this year. She spent her childhood in Lucknow, Multan, Ferozepur and Lahore. In her youth she was driving, her father had a Willy’s Knight and eventually a Sedan Chevrolet. People in those days around 70 years back had not seen many a cars so they would gather around her car and see velvet seats and the glass windows going up and down the door of the car.
As she completed her matriculation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had come to Ferozepore. They all went to hear him speak. When they came back they made a bundle of all non-khaadi clothes and discarded them. New khaadi sarees were bought and khaadi blouses stitched at home. By this time, Bhagat Singh along with Sukhdev and Rajguru had become her heroes.
She graduated for teachers training from Sir Ganga Ram Training college, taught for a while and then got married to Kailas Nath Kaul. In 1939, for the first time, she attended the Congress Session, along with Jawahar Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit and met Subhash Chandra Bose. The same year she sailed for London on the July 1 in the S.S Strathmore. Her husband was in-charge of the India Section at the Royal Botanical Garden, Kew.
The second World War had started and she moved to Gloucestershire and gave birth to her first son in 1941. In 1944 her second child was born in London after which she moved to India. Then she moved to Kanpur had her third child there and shifted to Lucknow in 1953 where she started her social work with the Red Cross. She was elected as a Sabhasad and later became the Member of the Legislative Council of U.P.
She won the Lucknow seat in 1971 an entered the Parliament. Then she worked hard and travelled to Paris, USSR, Copenhagen, the U.S. and Yugoslavia from 1971 to the early 1980s with the Indian Delegation. In 1980, Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister and she won from Lucknow and looked after Education and Social Welfare Ministry.
Her husband died on 21st of February 1983. What a coincidence, they were married in the month of February on the 9th and both were born also in the same month. He loved the month of February and did not know that the same month would take him away.
In 1984, she was the Member of Parliament from Lucknow and a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet when a few minutes past 9:00 am she received a call at her office at Shastri Bhawan when a voice on the other side said, “Indira Gandhi has been shot.”
Rajiv Gandhi made her the Chairman of the centenary celebrations of the Congress Party and she travelled all over and in 1989 she won the elections from Rae Barely. In 1991, she became the Urban Development Minister till 1995. And then, the small girl who was running in the by-lanes of Rani Katra entered the Raj Bhawan as the Governor of Himachal Pradesh.
A dynamic lady who always had undying love and devotion for people and an honest lifestyle is what can be said about her, today. She is the oldest living member of India’s Congress Party.
As I recalled her life on her 100th birthday this 2014, watching her …as we all celebrated, cut cakes, blew out candles, she could be seen smiling as everyone sang for her. I’m yet to see a person as awesome as she, who once said – Preserve Your Youth While You Are Young.
Happy Birthday Nani on this 100th Birthday! Cheers!! Stay young and make me even younger!!!