House of Dreams

On a recent visit to the heartland of India, I went back to the house of dreams. The landlord was no more and his descendants occupy it. The house is in good condition: the wooden beam ceiling, the rough stone floor and the thick brick walls were as they were. The only sign of modernity inside was a large LCD television in the bedroom. As I walked through the freshly white-washed premises I tried to pick up the vibe, the energy that had fuelled the passion of its residents half a century ago, making them aspire and persevere.

In the summer of 1950, a tonga stopped at this house, newly built in what was then a nondescript neighbourhood. It was a hot and humid night, a tiny detail which the travellers still remember because their luggage got drenched in the rain. Four young boys and their mother had moved there from a village in pursuit of education and a better life. They had rented the premises for fifteen rupees a month, a princely sum, considering that milk was fifty paisa a litre and their father’s salary as a headmaster in the village school was just eighty rupees. A monthly contribution by the boys’ elder brother had made this move possible.

As they brought their wet belongings into the house they noticed that the landlord had still not hung the doors. They were further alarmed to find someone sleeping in the backroom. They nudged him awake and he left quickly saying that he was merely looking after an empty house.

The house was chosen for its location. The government high school was a short distance away. The water source, a well, was at the end of the street. A lake further away was used for major water-consuming activities such as washing linen. A street lantern just across the road that was filled with enough oil to last the night served as an additional light source. The house was built like a train, one room leading into another, at the end of which was a kitchen that opened into a small courtyard. The well-ventilated front room was the study. The rest of the house filled with smoke when food was cooked but this wasn’t a matter of concern. A bed sheet hung on the doorway sufficed till the doors were finally installed. The house remained their humble abode until the boys moved away for higher education. The youngest stayed the longest, for two decades, till he completed his doctorate and started teaching in the university. By then running water and electricity had arrived, making the well and the lamp post redundant.

But this story is not about the four brothers who went on to become, respectively,a district collector, a veterinarian, a paediatrician and a professor. It is about the five sisters who lived with their grandmother on the floor above them. Incidentally, the veterinarian fathered me and I grew up listening to the inspiring tale of the gritty girls in free India.

Their father, a landlord, lived in a nearby village and looked after the farmland. He had no formal education but had the wisdom to educate his daughters and the resolve to face the inconvenience it entailed. This, at a time when less than 5 per cent of all girls attended high school. Hardworking and intelligent, the girls grew up to become well-placed professionals.

The elder three chose what were then unconventional fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering, took their doctorates from Indian Institutes of Technology and retired as professors and deans. They achieved this feat despite many social and cultural barriers, often being the only girl in the class. They continued to use their maiden names and collectively brought more honour to the family then their two, less illustrious brothers. Students where the three sisters taught often joked that the name of the institute stood for Madame Agnihotri, not Maulana Azad! (The sisters retired as professors from the Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, Bhopal, where they used their maiden name, Agnihotri.)

These two seemingly similar tales of urban migration have vast differences. He having been a headmaster himself, it is easy to understand my grandfather’s predilection for education, but what drove the father of the girls remains a mystery. Never having attended school, perhaps, he felt its necessity more acutely. In any case it is commendable that unlike the average son-crazy Indian he saw potential in his daughters. This story comes as an inspiration at a time when the sex ratio and female literacy rate refuses to show significant improvement in many parts of the country despite the chants of Beti bachao, beti padhao. The perception that educating girls is a waste of resources as they would leave for their marital homes is the main reason for this disparity.

We need to change this mindset of the people. For this we have to move beyond the handful of Laxmi Bais, Indira Gandhis and Kalpana Chawlas and honour the lesser-known women achievers amongst us. There are millions of role models and the common person will easily connect with them.

While leaving the home where I took my first footsteps, I wondered whether it was as inanimate as it seemed. Nine professionals strived for excellence living here, sheltered from the elements, drinking from the well. It is hard to dismiss its role in the scheme of things, for it may have been very basic but it ably housed dreams.

(published in The Hindu on 14/5/2017 with the addition in parenthesis IMG_3152

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20 thoughts on “House of Dreams

  1. S.K..R Iyer says:

    On international mother’s day today your story in the Hindu “revisiting…” Is very apt and simply beautiful. It’s very heartening and emotive. The language is very lucid and powerful. I am 78 yrs old. I enjoyed your story. I pray God to bless you with good health and long life. Skr.iyer.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks for your blessings sir. Your appreciation means a lot to me. It would be an honour if you could go through some of the other stuff i have written and post comments. You can find them on my blog
      Warm regards

  2. Megha Jain says:

    Hi Madam,

    I read the article today, It was very Inspiring , I could go back to those days mentioned in the article and could connect very well with the article. I needed this positive energy most for now.

    Thank you so much for the wonderful article.

    Megha Jain

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks for your kind comment. I am happy that you could identify with it. I write a blog Peruse at leisure. Looking forward to your feedback
      Sorry for the delay in reverting

  3. Kumaresan K.S says:

    Dear Madam,

    This is with regards to your article that featured in the Hindu. Sharing few thoughts

    A nicely written article based on your own experience spreading awareness on education to the girl child. This also brought out the good aspect of grooming at our younger age which does matter a lot in our over all personality development leading to success

    Thanks for sharing


    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thank you for noticing the message in the story. Thanks for taking the time to write in

  4. Atul Bhide says:

    Dear Dr. Manju Gupta


    ‘Revisiting the House of Dreams': Loved it!!

    Thank you for a fantastic start to my Sunday.


    Atul Bhide

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks for the huge compliment. And thank you for a fantastic start to my Sunday. Sorry for the delay in reverting


  5. R. Venkatraman says:

    Thanks for sharing this great story madam. I am the son of a college professor and hence do realise why he decided to encourage me to go for higher studies. But I still do not understand how he managed to escape the clutches of his father%2c a purohit%2c who wanted my father to be his successor. Instead%2c my father ran away to a college 30 miles from my home town to be under the tutelage of his elder brother and become one of the most respected teachers in the local college. If he had not done that%2c perhaps I could have ended up performing funeral rites for a living. We all need to be thankful for the good things that happen to us.

    From: DR.R.VENKATARAMAN Venkataraman

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks for your appreciation and sharing your inspiring story….yes we should be grateful of all the good things that happen to us

  6. sunita singh. says:

    Read the article without blinking my eyes .loved it.. . God bless.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks Sunita….God bless you too

  7. Imran Khan says:

    Whenever I read ur memoirs / articles Manju Gupta it seems I am reading khushwant Singh How beautifully u drifted from one story to other , the minute details and ending to Beti bachaoo beti padao campaign , I was reading this story so keenly that I didn’t respond my better half conversation (no prize for guessing what happened next)

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Khushwant singh must be turning in his grave…..but your comment, undeserved as it is…..did make me very very happy
      Thanks for noticing the small details…..of course i know what happened next

  8. Anita Jain says:

    Every girl who dared to live her life,is because she had a father who supported her and her dreams…..may we have more of these men in our life…..excellent read,inspiring and emotional…loved it.thanks…keep sharing such wisdom….

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks Anita….got talking to one of the daughters and found the story worth sharing….i am glad that you thought so too

  9. anjali bansal says:

    Dear Dr Manju
    a beautifully written article with so wellspun interwoven life events. your words make past live as present.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks Anjali

  10. Shivani Gole says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am Shivani Gole, a student of engineering from Vivekanand education society’s institute of technology, Mumbai. I came across your article in the open page on Revisiting house of dreams. It is an amazing piece of work.
    I have been doing internships based on content and creative writing for quite a long time. However I now wish to write something in the newspaper as well. My humble request to you is to share about how did you get your article published in the open page. What is the criteria that we need to satisfy to get an article published in the open page?
    Any kind of relevant information regarding submission and publication of articles will be of great help to me. Your cooperation will be appreciated. Thank you.

    Shivani Gole.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Comment: Hi Shivani
      Thanks for your letter. I really don’t think there is any criteria to fulfil to get published in the Hindu. Just send it to the right address and wait!! It can take a while. I am fairly new to this myself. Got my first article published ( also the first I sent!) two years ago. This is my tenth. They have a cooling off period so don’t carry the same contributor for 8-10 wks. You can go to my blog and get an idea of what is acceptable.
      Send your writeup to
      Best of luck

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