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.