“Once this whole place was a buffalo pasture”; Alpeshbhai informs me. We were nearing the suburbs. He was one of our office jeep drivers. A Gujarati, who grew up near Ahmedabad. The year must have been 2006; He was dropping me home; in the borderland of two districts in Gujarat- Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar.
Buffaloes, yes, I thought. And now, this is suburbia- this dull brown and dusty earth. Middle income, working class people live here. And earlier? An outpost of the Indus valley civilization? Lothal, one of the southernmost cities of those people, is not far from Ahmedabad.
And even before that, this was dinosaur country. Central/ Western India was the second largest nesting sites of dinosaurs in the world, including Tyrannosaurus Rex. Studies estimate that at least thirteen species lived here, possibly for 100 million years or more. One of largest carnivorous dinosaur species carries the name of the mighty river Narmada- Rajasaurus Narmadensis- the regal dinosaur from Narmada. The fossilized dinosaur eggs found in Gujarat are among the best preserved ones found across the world.
In the mid- 2000s, buildings were slowly coming up in the former buffalo pasture, which was rapidly getting citified. The landscape of Gandhinagar was lush and verdant with many species of trees. There were still four lines of trees spreading their dappled shade on both sides of the Highway, planned and planted by some long forgotten visionary. A lone mall was under construction right besides the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar Highway. “ Mall” was a new word for me then; I wondered how it would look, finished and occupied.
In summers, Ahmedabad being in the West coast of India and the time zone being what it is, we get daylight till almost 8 p.m, IST. Each evening, when dusk fell and the scorching heat subsided a bit, my two small children and I would walk up to the half built mall, now empty of construction workers, and sit on its cement steps; talking, eating potato chips, watching cars speed along the Highway. We spotted ministerial cavalcades occasionally, jetsetting in convoys with the accompanying wail of sirens, travelling between the happening city of Ahmedabad and the lush green, but laid back Gandhinagar, the state capital. The present Prime Minister of India, was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State in those days.
Slowly the tree cover started to thin; the highway was broadened. Progress came marching to our suburb, taking the form of more buildings. Each day, to and from office, I saw majestic trees being felled and carted away; at least a good percentage of them unnecessarily. Today, walking along the highway, I see the stumps of those long dead trees, and remember, a tree once stood here; and inexplicably, tears sting my eyes.
We walk regularly now, my son and I, a throwback to our North East Indian days at Agartala, when we used to walk long and then sat watching the starry sky, an inverted black bowl over our heads, warily looking around us for snakes- silent and deadly, and monitor lizards- with their distinctive Koki-koki call.
The monitor lizards in Tripura are feared but elusive creatures, rarely spotted outside, even though I have heard stories of them sneaking into houses, scaring the unsuspecting inmates half to death. One evening, we saw a dead monitor lizard, a road kill victim, and stood around, examining it with morbid curiosity. Khokhan, another driver- this time a Tripuri, came up to investigate. “ Pity it is dead” , he said. “ Had it been caught live, you know, how much it would have fetched?” Saucer eyed, we shook our heads in the classic Indian head bobbing gesture. We have no idea on the going rate of live monitor lizards. “Deyd Lakh Rupya” , he says, enjoying the ignorance of the mainlanders. One and a half Lakh Rupees! For a live monitor lizard! To probably find its way to China, I suppose, like the horn of the Rhino. I suspect aphrodisiac properties are falsely attributed to this poor creature too.
Our evening walks in Ahmedabad once used to be along the Highway, but that was many years ago. Vehicle population has multiplied many times in the past ten years. Even worse, Amdavadis do not care two hoots for traffic rules, which only losers follow, anyway. At any major traffic junction, one has to grow at least four pairs of eyes. All this resulted in a sad goodbye to those long highway walks.
Still, we are fortunate. A public space has been created nearby, at the center of which is a huge empty cemented pit, which was originally supposed to be a lake. There is not enough surplus water available with the city waterworks to fill it and actually create a lake, so it is still at the aspiring stage. There is a walking track, bordered with shrubbery around the “lake”. The track is layered in red laterite soil, finely powdered, which is not indigenous to Gujarat. We walk along the red track, mother and son, along with similarly inclined souls.
There are young parents, with their babies in strollers and toddlers running ahead. Old ladies, walking slowly and with difficulty, accompanied by daughters. Fitness freaks contort their bodies into unnatural twists. A man goes through his rounds of Pranayama under a tree. Ladies of a certain indeterminate age, sit on a cement bench, engrossed in (what I unilaterally and somewhat meanly decide), what must be gossip. Two young men, attired in shorts and loose Tshirts, with earplugs glued to their ears are focused on their run.
A young couple, school age- if my eyes are not deceiving me- sit on an isolated bench, hidden (or so they like to think) by shrubbery, talking animatedly; he with such an expression of adoration in his eyes, that it breaks my heart. A young woman talks passionately, but in hushed tones, on her mobile phone. Two men, walk- discussing their office and co workers. A man argues on his mobile, with someone who could only be his boss. “ I have been flying for eighteen years”, he says in an annoyed but controlled voice. He must be a pilot; the Sardar Vallabhbhai International Airport is close, which means that we have a fair share of pilots, flight attendants and people connected to the airline industry in our suburb.
I overhear a young woman’s anguished voice; in conversation with perhaps her mother or sister- “… but my ovaries are normal”. Her voice is sad and defeated.
A babel of languages- Hindi, Gujarati, English, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam.
A variety of clothing- sarees worn in traditional Gujarati (pallu back to front, over the right shoulder) and Bengali (pallu front to back, over the left shoulder) ways, Salwar-kameezes- complete with demure dupattas, occasionally old men in dhotis- worn the Gujarati way. And then the universal attire of younger people, who have rejected their traditional, cumbersome (to be honest) regional wear in favour of the uniform of trousers/jeans/ Tshirts/loose kurtas.
Ordinary people, going about their lives. Each with their private world of joys and sorrows- barricaded behind normal, everyday, public faces.
Dusk falls; a large orange moon rises from behind multistoried concrete buildings.
The lanky teen, who was once a little boy, with pudgy little legs which tired easily, who used to force his mother to hoist him on her hip and then walk, now looks back at me with barely concealed impatience. “Walk faster, Mummy”.
I remember his teetering first steps into my waiting hands. And then the joyful practice of this new skill, like forming complete sentences with new words; walking like a drunk, weaving from side to side- then collapsing into a surprised heap on the floor.
Further back in time, two other people- a girl and her mother- walk home from church on Sundays. Walking for them was not for fun, relaxation or fitness, but because it was the only form of transportation. A country road, no traffic, few people. The hot sun beats down on their heads, despite the unfashionable black umbrellas they carry. The girl walks ahead, then stops, impatient; “Walk faster, Amma”.