The House of Jumerati

The Jains’ old house in Jumerati is a significant site, not just for the family, but also for the old city of Bhopal. Its blue-green wooden framework is a landmark that has been referenced in several books, and it remains a tourist attraction for its striking facade in a typical Bhopal milieu.

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House of Jumerati

Said to have been built in 1900 by Murlidhar Jain, its actual beginnings have been long forgotten, save for a few stories. At the time it was built, cement was not manufactured in India and so, was ordered from Japan. The wood carving across the facade features sunflower blossoms, buds and leaves, and is embellished with mirrorwork. It is said to have been done by the same craftsmen that worked on ornate tazias, and cost fifty paise a square foot, expensive for the time. Seven small, square windows define the mezzanine floor, while ten larger windows line the two upper floors, fitted in a way that makes it appear as though there are twice as many. These would have let plenty of light into the front rooms when opened.

The ground floor of the structure consisted of a store front and back rooms where gunny sacks of rice and sugar were stored. Above this was the mezzanine floor, used for office work. On the first floor were the kitchen, pantry and four bedrooms. The second floor boasted a large drawing room, called the badaa kamraa, in the centre of which was a concrete slab fashioned to look like a carpet, with a patterned border and ‘Welcome’ written across it. Babulalji’s personal wardrobe was fitted with the finest quality Belgian glass, which has since then been repurposed in the puja space at Sunil Jain’s residence in Kohefiza, Bhopal.

In the beginning, there was only one floor, but as the family grew, it was clear that they would need more space. However, Gomti Devi was very reluctant to move out of the old house, wanting to keep everyone close, and so rooms were gradually added to the existing structure. The mezzanine floor was considered part of the business area and at first, had no access to the first floor. To climb up, gunny sacks of sugar that the store dealt in were used to form makeshift steps to reach the upper floors. It was only later that proper stairs were built leading to the upper levels. As the years went by, each new generation made changes to the house to accommodate their growing families. A telephone was installed in the 1950s, and the family recalls that their earliest phone number was 131, one of the first lines in the area.

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The house itself now lies empty and it is used as commercial godown, but once upon a time, it was a hive of activity, with a flourishing business below and a full household above.

Hygiene was of supreme importance in accordance with Jain values. The children would be expected to change every item of clothing, including their undergarments when they got home from school each day. All the women would be expected to bathe and change their clothes before entering the kitchen. Food was cooked on a wood chulha, and a gas stove would only be used to heat milk or make tea. The children’s lunch was made fresh every day and delivered to their school, and they would eat it sitting in the grounds of the temple next door. Most sweets and even all kinds of sherbets were made at home, as well as hand-pounded ground spices, chutneys, condiments and snacks. While the cooking was all done by the ladies of the house, for all other housework, help was employed, a privilege which was unusual for that era, as housework was usually expected to be done by the womenfolk of the house. There was a sense of closeness, and the current generation nostalgically recalls how, in the 80s, everyone would gather for the Sunday movie, and to play cards together. Meals were eaten not at a dining table, but sitting on the floor in the hall as a family.

“It was a lovely time,” Dr. Anjali Jain says, wistfully. “We children would play outside in the street without the fear of strangers. The area was a harmonious mix of Muslims and Hindus, and everyone knew each other. The patriarch of the Rai family who lived opposite us was a former freedom fighter. On flag-hoisting days, we would all be out together as a united community. The road outside our house was wide and all the neighbourhood kids would play gilli-danda and even hockey on it. It was always alive with the laughter of children. I remember the peepal tree down the road – we would collect the fallen leaves and make purses and pretend paans out of them. It was such an innocent time.”

The area between Chowk Bazaar and Jawahar Chowk was also a popular place for the city’s prominent to assemble.

“The men would lay planks or patiyas down underneath the street lamp, usually late in the evenings, and use them as seats at meetings,” recalls Dr. Jain. “We would look down from our windows and see them deep in discussion in the lamp’s glow.”

Although it was the fifties and sixties, the bazaar roads around the house would be quite crowded, with the wholesale kiraana market right below. Shoppers would throng the streets, and tangas, carriages pulled by men on bicycles, passed to and fro, carrying passengers much like the autorickshaws of today. Gomti Devi was very protective of the girls and was determined that no harm should come to them. They had strict curfews, and rules of behaviour were clearly drawn out. No males were allowed to come up to the house from the shop other than the family.

The house had a front and a back entrance. The former was through the store, and was usually used by the family to come and go. The latter however, was used only by Chandrakanta and her mother to sneak out whenever they wanted to avoid the din of the front street.

“Despite these rules,” Chandrakanta Jain recalls, “we girls still had more freedom than most women of the day.”