21C

Naanii, the mom’s mom, has always enjoyed a special place in the fraternity of grandparents. The child’s naanii, figures in innumerable poems, songs and fables across cultures and time. Every kid of India would recall having learnt the seemingly silly rhyme ‘Naanii ke ghar jaoonga, main doodh malai khaoonga …’ or singing the all time antaaqshari favourite, “Naanii teri morni koh mor leh gayeh …’ When Jagjit Singh decided to lament the loss of childhood in ‘Kaagaz ki Kashti’ it’s the naanii, her kahaaniyan, that he recalls. The Little Red Riding Hood was surely heading for her naanii’s house when she encountered the big bad wolf. Central to this fixation with naanii, has been the special attachment with the idea of ‘Naanii-Ka-Ghar’. A very special, home-away-from-home. A place where one is supposed to have the ultimate chill-out. My naanii’s house was no exception. Or ‘21C’ (Ikis Si) as everyone in mom’s clan called it.

‘Ikis Si’ seems a weird name for a naanii’s house or any house for that matter. But that’s what it was nevertheless. It was located in Block C of Sector 21 of Chandigarh. Come summer vacation and mom’s entire clan would descend upon 21C. Naana-naanii had seven children and fourteen grand children! Any joke about the number of aunts and uncles would draw a fiery reprimand from my maasi who considered such references inauspicious. Both my parents were college teachers who had the luxury of sharing the summer vacation with their children and no budget to go to any place other than the naani’s house! The bags would be packed even before the vacation had started. At the first instance we would be off to Chandigarh. The enthusiasm of the start of a holiday would not be dampened by the three hour journey in the hot and humid weather in the State Transport’s overcrowded bus. We would be occasionally accompanied by my maasi (mom’s younger sis) and her children and we would chuckle with delight when she would hurl colourful invectives at the ubiquitous ill-mannered loafers that populate the Indian buses. Her famous temper inspired much awe and laughter in the family. Awe when you got caught in her line of fire. Laughter when somebody else bore the brunt. A warm and affectionate aunt, who was always game for travel and partying. The bus journeys ended after she bought a cute white fiat car with a red roof that would be airborne from the word ‘go’!

On alighting from the bus at the Chandigarh Bus Stand one would be greeted by a boisterous horde of rickshaw pullers who would descend upon the hapless passengers and compete with one another to forcibly grab the baggage of the protesting passenger in order to deny him the opportunity to cross check the fares or bargain. We were, however, regular visitors to the City Beautiful and pros of sorts. We would make our way patiently through the sea of crooks to the rickshaw pullers waiting with their rickshaws parked at a distance as these guys knew that there was no point in trying to cheat the old timers. We would then start haggling with the rickshaw puller over the fare. ‘Ikis si chalnah hai bhaiyah? Scooter market ke ekdum pichhe.’ ‘Market peh utro geh- ke sector keh andar jaanah hai?’ he would want us to clarify. ‘Market ke saath hi hai’ we would lie glibly. The house was close to the scooter repair market located on the road dividing blocks B and C but in the summer heat even the extra few hundred yards were unwelcome. The guy would discover that the house was not ‘ekdum pichhe’ as he anyway suspected and would grumble loudly to register his protest at having to pedal that extra distance. A distance too short to pick up a quarrel about, yet long enough to want to protest about out of irritation. We would congratulate ourselves for having struck a hard bargain and having cheated the poor bugger of his legitimate extra 25 paisa or whatever it was. Strange things one does in one’s life.

The rickshaw would roll to a stop in front of a 1000 yard house with a green lawn and trees, a driveway and an annexe, a garage and a white Ambassador. My naana had retired as a district judge. An honest man with a huge reputation and no money. His own dad, a money lending farmer, had bought the ‘Judge Saheb’ the house and the car. The car was stately but rarely saw the road. It was usually a minor event in the household when the Ambassador was to be rolled out of the garage. The car battery in those days of obsolete technology would be invariably discharged- largely because of disuse. Naana would try the self starter expecting a miracle every time and then finally give up and grumble as he went to fetch the mechanic from the filthy scooter market. The market had repair shops and spares shops for all kinds of vehicles but for reasons not understood was called scooter market. The head mechanic would detail some loutish oil soaked apprentice who would waste the mandatory half hour trying his hand at finding a solution and eventually shrug and inform us that the battery was discharged. The housing would be unscrewed and the battery would be removed with much ceremony and carried by him on the under-repair noisy scooter that he would be unashamedly using without the knowledge of its owner. Hours later a semi-charged battery would be returned. Once it was reinstalled we would wait patiently until Naana tried the self start. The old lady would eventually oblige. And a bus load would happily clamber aboard!

On occasions, the radiator or some other part would give way and the car would get stalled on some busy road with its tightly packed load of passengers (aunts and kids of all sizes and hues) creating a fuss because of the sweltering heat. Naana would be clueless. But he would make up for his lack of knowledge of auto mechanics by summoning all the authority that his long years as a judge had given him. He would hail his would-be-saviour with an ‘O bhi nalayak, zarah idhar aao!’ He would feel free to requisition help from any unsuspecting prey. It could be the rickshaw-puller lounging in the shade of the tree. Or the taxi driver waiting for a passenger. Or any bystander who committed the folly of having accidentally cast an inquisitive look in the direction of the stalled car. Anybody who had the misfortune of catching naana’s eye would have to answer to the call of ‘Nalayak’ and be expected to fetch water for the overheated radiator or help in push-starting the relic or at least offer directions to the nearest road-side mechanic. Somehow nobody ever protested. It was either the respect for naana’s white head or his natural air of authority or the association of Ambassador car with authority or just the goodness of the days. He got away with it every time.

We would invariably land unannounced in the middle of the afternoon and ring the front doorbell. Naanii would appear at the wire mesh door. A small statured, slightly built lady, with a kind heart and the energy to smile and greet her large band of guests. The kids would race into the long narrow gallery that ran through the centre of the house to the rear verandah and the annexe beyond, where my youngest maama’s room was located. He was a hot favourite with the children, a friendly, cheerful maama, twenty years younger to my mom. In fact he was more an elder sibling for the older kids than an uncle. His room was full of knick knacks to fascinate any kid. Enough to make even Tom Sawyer jealous! A magnet. A mouth organ. A stapler (it was a novelty in those days). Glass paperweights. A transistor and later a stereo system. Imported Colognes. All kinds of fancy stationery items. He did not seem to mind the ruckus we created but would shoo us off all the same to save his valued possessions. We would then rush back to the front lawn at top speed banging the verandah doors on the way out of sheer excitement at the start of the holiday.

Naanii was called ‘Mummy’ by all and she violently objected to being addressed as mataji or beeji, that was common for her ‘tasteless’ and ‘rustic’ peers. She liked clothes with bright cheerful colours and disliked the fawns and greys as they were meant for the ‘elderly’! Naanii’s family had migrated from Lahore. She would tell us about the family’s mango orchards. The channelized irrigation system, the horses and the bagih (horse-carriage), the attendants, the distribution of baskets of mangoes to the servant families. The horror of the creeping nags (cobras) that the men folk would shoot down. The acid tongue of her bhabhi, whom she blamed for her lack of formal education. Her name was tattooed on her forearm and this fascinated the kids. She would sigh as she remembered the days of lost glory. We only half believed her tales until she shocked us years later when she effortlessly rode a pony on way to the Vaishno Devi shrine despite her frail health. She had been indignant at our surprise and had reminded us of the days when she rode horses. She would rue the setbacks on account of partition and eventually get up with resignation to return to the endless chores that any mother of a large family has to handle.

Her taste for gardening set her apart from her generation of women. She had a huge collection of beautiful potted plants. The front lawn was lush green with a well grown hedge and lovely roses. There were four mor-pankhi shrubs at the corners of the lawn. These strategically placed ‘arsenals’ bore a green, fleshy fruit with small spikes, the size of a marble which would serve as a readymade projectile. The kids would mercilessly pluck these fruits which would be rained on the ‘enemy’ during the pitched battles fought on the 21C lawn. The garden hose was invariably pressed into service to turn the tide and this invariably got us a helling for wetting our clothes and wasting water. She would be managing her plants with virtually no help apart from the gardener who would be engaged to the mow the grass.

Naanii’s passion for her garden and her exotic potted plants was matched by naana’s dedication to his kitchen garden. He would be tending to his vegetables and fruit trees with patience and attachment. The house had lemon trees, litchi, mango, guava and papita. We were told that he had always grown vegetables for his family and had always a kept cow in the backyard of the large official residence. That he would himself tend to the cow despite the busy court routine. He believed that kids who ate too many rotis and drank buffalo’s milk grew up to be dull. But we rarely talked to him and generally steered clear of him, overawed by the aura that surrounded him.

TO BE CONTINUED

Good Wood

My father loved the hills. He could feel the romance of a hill station. He would have loved to own a little ivy-covered stone cottage on a pine hill. To have walked down its cobbled pathway through the morning mist, sporting a masculine overcoat, the broad brim of his stylish felt hat pulled low over the brow and the gloved hand tight on the polished wooden staff. Headed for work, that afforded meaning and dignity. To have retired in the evenings with a book, to a wooden study, by the fireplace. To have shared his scotch with gentlemen. To have debated on the issues of the world with men of substance. A modest ambition by certain standards, but it was a far cry for the gentle village boy of Daad.
My father was brought up by his grandfather, a devout Sikh, who had settled down to farming after having retired as a Subedar-Major from the Indian-British army. He would sit on his lap learning the hymns and the prayers, which were a part of the old man’s daily routine. The grandfather was well regarded by the entire village. He had donated land for the village school. He would make occasional donations to the Gurdwara. He had had the guts to go against the tide and had afforded protection and shelter to the hapless Muslim families of Daad and had saved them from being butchered in the genocide that accompanied the Partition. My dad loved his Grandfather and was by his side till his last breath. He learnt the value of quiet dignity and grace from the man. Though he spent his entire childhood and early youth in the village, yet the village life never really caught his imagination. The typical concerns of his rustic peers, their love for the daily fracas, the highs of ‘santra’ (cheap country liquor) or the peasant’s pride in getting a good harvest, were completely lost on him. He would be ridiculed for ironing his pajamas, for his pretentions at being more cultured than the rest and for the framed picture of Kennedy that was a part of his permanent possessions. He yearned to be away from it all. To a place and a life that had grace and style.
He got himself an education. He studied literature and got a job as a college lecturer. He rued missing out on a more dignified and manly profession but there was optimism in the heart. He successfully wooed a city-bred colleague, beating better placed suitors by his innocent charm and gentle style, got married and settled down at Amritsar. He lived beyond his means as he was convinced that a gentleman must have his dignity and he had no fear of the future. His children had to study in the best of public schools, wear the best of clothes. The couple’s twin salaries could barely meet the lavish lifestyle. But it was a happy family. The colleagues found the couple cheerful company, their parties warm and their manner endearing. My dad had settled down to the simple yet tasteful life of a middle class householder.
But the hills were calling him all the time. He studied for a course as a company secretary and landed himself a job in Shimla. The colleagues advised against the career move as the new job would not pay enough to offset the loss of my mother’s salary and the benefit of free Government accommodation. But nothing would dissuade him. He felt it was his destiny to live a life of quiet dignity inspired by all the literature that he had read. He landed in Shimla and scouted around for a good house befitting a gentleman’s family. Shimla has always been an expensive town. But he was not going to be deterred by rentals. What was the fun of living in a hill station if you did not have an open terrace overlooking a wooded valley? So he settled for a pretty little house which was a part of Good Wood Estate, a mere half hour walk from the ridge. While he was running around getting things ready for his family, we kids were going crazy with anticipation. We would imagine the snow covered slopes and the snowmen. The housemaid, who was a constant companion for the kids, was equally excited at the prospect of living in a fairyland, called Shimla. Finally the D-day dawned and we were all off to Shimla. The maid was to be left behind as we would not be able to afford the luxury of a full time help any longer. It acted as a spoiler and the poor girl was heart-broken, but our excitement made every other thing pale into the background.
It was probably my first train journey and we switched trains at Kalka. The sight of the small blue compartments of the hill train took our breath away. The quaint compartments swayed gently behind the chugging steam engine as we began the ascent. I looked out at the mesmerizing hill views, feeling the pine scented hill breeze. The goats, grazing idyllically, on the slopes along the rail-track. I was six and I fell in love with the hills. On reaching Shimla the porters carried our luggage piled high on the back and we walked through Shimla to our new home.
The scenically located Good Wood Estate consisted of a huge building with separate portions built on terraced slopes that were rented out to different families. It was a small community with lots of kids. We shared a huge open terrace with another family and it overlooked a fascinating valley. A white haired lady lived alone in a tin roofed house down a slope and we kids used to throw pebbles on her roof and scamper for safety before the lady emerged. Her lonely existence and cranky temperament fed our fertile imagination and we half expected her to come after us flying on a broom. Shimla of the mid-70s was everything that a child could wish for. The ponies on the ridge. The toy shops on the mall that fascinated me. The ‘Ashiana’ restaurant with songs of Kabhi-Kabhi. The book stores that my brother could not resist. The long walks. The snuggling against my Dad to stave off the evening chill as he carried me home from the Mall, while my older siblings trudged along. The picnics under the pines. The view from the fence of the Auckland School. The monkeys. The chanas in paper cones. The skating rink and its loud music. The first raincoats and the duckback shoes. The torrential rains. The sunny afternoons on our terrace. The 25-paisa apples I had as tiffin. The ‘Triple Taste’ toffee wrappers that we collected and exchanged for albums that were used for pasting the new wrappers! The thorns of bichhu buti. All this and more. Shimla was a fairyland. I was decided that we would never ever leave Shimla and would live there happily ever after. But our luck ran out. My dad’s romance with life ended. He realized that being a middle order functionary in a large bureaucratic organization afforded even lesser dignity than being a college professor. And we could no longer afford living at Good Wood on a single salary. The family was under debt and hard economics put an abrupt end to my dad’s dreams. We left Shimla without having seen the snow. My dad returned to his earlier job only to realize that he had lost his posting in a decent city and had to join in a rural college. The Government accommodation was lost. The style withered away and so did the optimism and the dreams. He never recovered fully from the shock. I cried for days when we came back from Shimla. I hated my new school. The new town. I never forgot the hill station.
Later, whenever I would visit the hill station with my wife and kids, I would try to recall the first train journey to Shimla, the sounds and sights of childhood, but they were buried far too deep in time. I tried remembering where our house had been. The path we took to the cloud-covered ridge. But it was all too vague in memory. Then a couple of years back, I was deputed to attend a conference at Radisson, a newly built swanky five-star hotel. The Radisson Hotel is a beautiful wooden structure built on several levels. As we broke for tea and came out on the terrace I looked out into the open valley. And the hills beyond. I suddenly had the uncanny feel of having been there before. It was weird as I can count the number of occasions I have visited a Star Five hotel. But the deja vu feel would not go and I asked the manager what area it was. ‘It’s the Good Wood Estate and it belonged to some lady. There used to be houses here earlier,’ informed the manager cheerfully. Here I was 32 years later standing unwittingly at the same spot where I had spent the happiest days of my childhood. I wanted to hug my father and tell him that he may not have had the money but he always had taste. Our Good Wood Estate now housed a 5 Star Hotel. But he’s gone long back. He went when I had just about begun to understand him and his romantic view to life. Quietly, without a fuss, like the gentleman he was. Leaving his dreams for a house on the hills buried deep in my heart and soul.

Daad Diary

I feel that the memories of the bygone days are largely defined in one’s mind by episodes having special emotive significance. When one reflects on one’s past the everyday and the mundane generally pale into the background. One can remember only the emotive milestones. The ugliness of the times gradually fades away in the bottomless depths of mind and only the sweet and the fragrant remains.
I had turned eleven when we landed, bag and baggage, at our ancestral house in Daad, my parental village. The family had moved from Chandigarh on exhausting its stamina and finances after a series of abortive attempts by my Dad for finding a vocation true to his heart. He had finally given up and had decided to be discontented with his job for the rest of his years. The grandfather felt cramped by our urban lifestyle and our exaggerated sensibilities on issues of hygiene and he made no attempt to disguise his discomfort. The house had been built by my great grandfather around the time of the First World War. The front gate was an unpretentious iron sheet that swiveled on hinges fixed into the outer wall. It opened by the side of the foul and stagnant waters of an apology for a village pond. It was a virtual cesspool, into which the dirty water from the adjoining houses got drained. A narrow pathway ran alongside the pond that was later lined with Eucalyptus trees planted by my father to make the entrance slightly more cheerful and to screen off the ugly site and the smell. A much bigger haveli style wooden gate opened on one side into a congested and squalid village street into which opened the houses of our not so distantly related clansmen. Their abysmal levels of hygiene and profane language made that side of the house out-of-bounds for us. Papa would be horrified at any attempt on our part to socialize with the ill-bred village louts! The house itself consisted of a series of rooms arranged unimaginatively in a single column like railway compartments. The rooms had been added at different times over a period of 50 years and had little commonality by way of design or build quality. Towards the end of the serially arranged bedrooms was a small courtyard with a kitchen and a storeroom at the far end. An open to sky staircase led to the terrace and a solitary room on the first floor. The dank storeroom dated back to the early 20th century, was sans any windows and had a dark, melancholy, stale, decaying feel to it. It was probably the earliest part of the construction and it housed the junk collected over three generations besides the huge iron drums used for storing the wheat kept aside for domestic consumption. My great-grand father had offered refuge to some Muslim families at the time of Partition and they had hidden in this room while their brethren got massacred in the madness. As a child, I always had an irrational fear that the room was haunted.My grandmother suffered from a mood disorder and her manic swings scared the wits out of me. I somehow connected them to the dark brooding room that I dared not to venture into. The wheat drums attracted an abundance of rats and this did not help the situation. The rats would invade the adjoining kitchen at night and my mom would get the entire kitchen utensils washed in the morning undeterred by the glare of my Grandfather and the loud protests by my granny. I was afraid of the rats like any eleven year old city-bred kid. My sister who was four years older to me would get hysterical on spotting one!
I have always believed in burning the midnight oil. Even as a kid I was a master at procrastination and invariably would be saddled with the entire syllabus on the examination eve. I would try to achieve the impossible and study in a day what actually needed a month. My frantic efforts to cover the lost ground would time and again prove inadequate and it would be midnight before I had finished even half the quota of syllabus. I would then demand to be woken up at four in the morning as I could not hear the sound of the alarm clock ring over my exhausted sleep. As it was a regular feature, and as I apparently refused to learn, my mom eventually refused to undertake the task of waking me up with a glass of tea at unearthly hours. All her earlier advice to me for studying on time had been ignored by me term after term. My Dad slept even more soundly than I and he had enough on his plate without him being asked to take on such ridiculous responsibilities. I was after all a student of class four. My brother was three years elder to me and the idea of studying for any kind of exam was completely incomprehensible to him! That left only my sister. She was, however, the soundest sleeper of us all. I would not let her take the chance with the alarm clock, so she would be coerced into reading a novel till four-in-the-morning, forcing herself to keep awake until it was time to wake up her spoilt kid brother! But that was not the end of the ordeal. I just could not wake up without my cup of bed tea. Now ‘Didi’ was an imaginative teenager who imagined supernatural spirits prowling around in the dark court yard and inside the menacing storeroom. Even more petrifying was the sight of the well fed rats that she would have to confront in that ghostly kitchen in the dead of night. She would invoke the benevolence of all the Gods and the holy spirits that she actually did not believe in and would somehow brace herself and enter the kitchen. And she would emerge triumphant from her silent, lonely battle with the cup of tea for her brother. All this for a not-so-grateful brother who would promptly forget the good turn once the exams were over!
But I never did forget. These are those happy moments that are etched in my consciousness forever. Moments that define my childhood for me.