The Girl From Lahore
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
I’m standing on a rooftop in Calcutta watching armies of storm clouds tumble across the western horizon – gunmetal grey and full of threat. Birds of prey loop on updrafts ahead of the advancing ranks, the wind tussles with the treetops and mosques burst suddenly into azaan. Drama in the air, drama across the world - this is 2020, the year of Covid. Every generation has it’s definitive apocalypse.
73 years ago in 1947, proverbial storm clouds rumble across a country, politics circle in updrafts and millions of people march from their homes. A girl of 18 leaves Lahore on a train bound for Delhi. Behind her fade familiar faces, her father’s beautiful home on Fane Road, and everything in it. She’s lucky to be leaving with family and a few possessions. More family will follow. Everything else parked in expectation of a return, never will.
In 1949 she’s walking Mall Road in Shimla with her aunts and cousins; they pass a familiar face from Lahore. Conversation turns into evening cards at the Cecil Hotel. Weeks later, a bear of a man joins them, smartly dressed, sporting a thin moustache sharp as wit. Eyes meet, gossip crisscrosses and approvals are given.
It’s October ‘49, Swaran Kapur is marrying Om Prakash Puri at the York Hotel in Delhi. He’s been posted in Calcutta with a prestigious hotel group these past few years. He’s Rai Bahadur Oberoi’s point-man for fixing troubled properties.
Postings now take them to Chandigarh in 1952, Gopalpur-on-sea in 1953, the hills of Darjeeling in 1956, then back to Calcutta...
Calcutta of 1959 has a colonial hangover. It’s heavy but slowly evaporating. A city with an educated cosmopolitan populace balances against teeming masses. Winds of change have been sweeping India as Europeans leave and Indians go into business for themselves. There are opportunities everywhere across the length and breadth of the country. Swarni and Omi absorb the vivid excitement of the times. They want self-reliance. Fortune favours the bold and the foolhardy.
With their close friend Ellis Joshua (then manager of the Oberoi Grand), they’ve been collecting funds for months. They’re about to chase a wild dream - to open a restaurant. There’s a bakery and tearoom for sale on Park Street – it’s called Trinca’s.
Swaran is instrumental with her contacts and persistence. The numbers fall short. She persists, and the trio finally has enough money to buy in!
Over the 1960s, a rising Trincas becomes one of the most important cultural manifestations of an aspirational India. Swaran’s primary contribution will go unnoticed as she involves herself with the minutiae of the business –food, uniforms, small successful ideas, the bakery…
In the 1970s, she connects her husband to her brother JK. Together, they’ll build Copper Chimney in Bombay. The Trincas influence will travel and ensure success in a different guise and in a different city.
In the 1980s, she’ll travel from Calcutta (often solo) to the interiors of Bihar to rescue a business deal gone awry; salvaging profits out of a sinking offshoot of Trincas in a town where men rule by might and gumption is the order of the day.
Bad decisions have interesting outcomes. It’s a huge learning experience. From then on, she’ll always have track of numbers and figures… of Trincas, of it’s spinoffs and of her various endeavours.
Over the years, circumstances have been pushing her to work for herself and find her own. She’s been designing and selling clothes, investing savings in property and dreaming of the future. One small plot on the outskirts of Delhi turns into a school and decades later into a successful boutique hotel.
But wide arcs of colourful ideas will always lead this lady from Lahore to the end of her rainbow and the original dream - Trincas. She invested herself in it when it began. This is what pulls her attention. She’s been saving the dream, always, and at the opportune moment; keeping a watchful eye, nudging gently at the forces-that-be to ensure the legacy continues…
Born in 1928 my dadi, would be 92 this July. That would make her a Leo (a lion) and her birthstone a ruby (which stands for passion). Her name was Swaran, which, of course, means gold. Being Punjabi, I can’t imagine a more alarmingly apt name, birthstone and starsign combination!
They say behind every successful man is a strong woman. What do they say about icons and businesses? There’s never enough credit given.
When I imagine her life now, it’s as a collection of short stories unfolding across the country as a black and white musical.
Every morning, walking into dadi’s room, you’d hear a scratchy radio playing golden oldies. The music conjures up images of a pastoral India. It sets the tone for the movie - of had-and-lost, of a romance in the hills, of hard work, of ingenuity in the face of odds, and of success on one’s own terms.
In Lahore, she was a headstrong girl, daughter of a renowned barrister; impeccably dressed in salwar suits she’d made herself; riding to school in a horse-drawn carriage in a country where most girls were barely educated. She held her own in a family of 5 brothers and 2 sisters, demanding respect and fairness in a time well before women’s rights were advertised.
In Calcutta, she was a hidden force behind Trincas. She supported Omi and Josh’s dream, and the dreams of her siblings, but ensured her own too. That’s not just an admirable quality in a woman, it’s a universally desirable trait.
A few months ago, while adding small touches to the restaurant, I found an old picture of the three of them from 1959. I’ve put it up at the entrance to remind people that Trincas is a legacy of three. The establishment’s colour scheme is evolving too - into red velvets and old-gold, with more to come. Dadi once told me “give more, people will appreciate it”, and so we shall…
—- This story is part of the Trincas Timeline Project - an exciting community-based memory project aimed at collecting stories, photos, and anecdotes going back almost a hundred years.
It aims to cover not just Trincas’ storied history, but also provide glimpses of ‘the Park Street Scene’ and Calcutta/Kolkata as it has evolved over the last century.
The project focuses on history, culture, music and food by connecting with patrons, musicians, celebrities and historians.
Anecdotes, photos and interviews are converted into short blog posts documenting the personal connections that so many Calcuttans past and present have with this iconic institution.
The goal is to collect a living history of sorts under one virtual roof and create a cultural treasure-house for present and future generations.