Ms. Jewel, a British treasure in Chandigarh

Samrita Kaur Gill

Samrita Kaur Gill was born in Delhi and raised in Chandigarh. She is an M. Phil. (Hons.) in Zoology with and L.L.B. from Panjab University, Chandigarh. After clearing the Union Public Service Commission (U.P.S.C.) examination in 1998, she joined the Customs Department and is presently Deputy Commissioner.

Choosing amongst your mentors is no mean task. As I sat back and ran the rewind mode to list my teachers one by one, the memory of Jewel Ma’am stood forth prominently. Being our next-door neighbour she entered my life early enough. In fact in the true spirit of a mentor she guided my family on our schooling, beginning with primary school education. We were residents of Chandigarh which was a new post-partition city having a limited number of schools. She chose for us, my brother and me, to begin our formative years in Vivek Nursery and Preparatory School where she taught the nursery classes and played the piano. While for us she was just Ma’am, for all the other students in school she was ‘singing ma'am’.

Jewel Ma’am was no ordinary person, she was a British lady who married a devout Sikh, Mr. Surjit Singh, in 1937 when he was studying for his Bar-at-Law in London. After stepping on the shores of India she became Indian in every sense of the term. She adopted the Sikh tenets and the Indian way of life, always dressing in sarees. During our primary school years she groomed us on the nuances of pronunciation and public speaking. Every morning our journey to school in the quintessential cycle rickshaw, which epitomised Chandigarh of the early seventies, was dedicated to a specific topic ranging from etiquette to general knowledge, appreciation of nature, critical reading, creative writing, elocution and public speaking.

Once we entered middle school she became a senior friend seeking our advice on a range of issues and our opinion on contemporary situations - this was her way of helping us develop a perspective on all matters concerning personal and professional life. As she grew older she stopped teaching on a regular basis and gave personal tuitions to pre-teen kids, at times she knew more about the child than the mother. When we wondered how she managed she would smile and say ‘its no magic you just have to be a child with the child’.

She was amongst the most accepting grandmother that I have come across. She did not believe in ‘spoiling’ her grandchildren by indulging them. Instead she stressed on the importance of developing a hobby to channelize our energies; one of the hobbies she suggested included rearing butterflies. Once when we were standing terrified of a shiny black and orange striped caterpillar she helped us store it in a dark coloured wide bottle (the Ferrodol variety) with cauliflower leaves secured with a perforated lid. Watch it everyday she said and do not scare the wits out of the poor little creature. The day the pupa turned into a butterfly we ran to show it to her. ‘Let it fly away,’ she said, just as all adults do one day! Today, writing this piece, I realise the wisdom of her words.

My piece on Ma’am would be incomplete if I did not mention her influence in improving our culinary and other household skills. Every time I see a bottle of marmalade I am reminded of the endless bottles she prepared for us and her special recipe for home-made jams. She taught us the intricacies of transforming the tiny tangerines in her garden into delicious marmalade. Worn out bed-sheets turned into table cloths and embroidered napkins; wide-jar bottles turned into vases for money plants, to name a few things that we learnt from her.

A parting anecdote: one evening while discussing Marc Antony’s famous speech ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears’ she offered at least two others intonations to the manner in which it could be delivered. That evening stands out with me till today. Thank you Ma’am for being a part of my life.


The little lessons learnt would most definitely have included that plumber is pronounced without the 'b' or marmalade should not be made more formidable with the 'r'.

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