No End to the Circle

“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.

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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.

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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”.

Full circle.

 

 

 

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Passing On…

For as far back as I can remember my mother, she wore gold bangles on her left hand. They are at least as old as, if not older, than I am. There were five of them to start with- thin and hand made, but hiding an unbelievable strength. The cuts are not in perfect synchronism as in case of modern ornaments; imperfections are clearly visible.

She never got gold ornaments replaced periodically to match the current fashions. So the last two survived intact; the other three having gone on to become thinner, fashionable and more elaborate avatars for her daughters’ marriages.

And she continued to wear these last two bangles, till she no longer had any use for them.

They are not glittery; gold does not tarnish, they say- but these, they are old and do not shine brightly like their younger, more modern cousins; nor do they call attention to themselves. They are self-effacing, like she was.

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There was a time when her voice used to be my personal news bulletin every Sunday- who died, whose son or daughter got married and to whom, what the wedding was like. Babies born. Whose child did well at school and whose did not. What the rains were or were not like that year. How the summer temperatures kept increasing (in her opinion) each year. How the weather was becoming unpredictable, like people themselves. Enquiries as to my children and how they were performing at school.

Being very less educated herself, she set a great store on education. “What is Malu doing now?”  she would ask. (In those days, my daughter was studying at her Plus Two levels and was glued to her text books.) “She is studying, Amma”, I would reply- a response which met with her approval. “And the little one?” “He is playing”- would be the standard reply. (Which is the truth even today; he has just moved on from toy cars to CoC). “Always playing, whenever I ask. Doesn’t he have anything to study?”, she would retort. I would mumble, “Amma, he is young.”

She never wavered from the faith of her ancestors; finding peace and solace in the familiar prayers, intonations, rituals and hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

As dementia claimed more and more of her memory, the range of those conversations kept shrinking. I trembled inside- what would this be like? this loss of brain cells, loss of identity, loss of perspective? She also lost weight; yet her skin remained amazingly soft to the touch.

Those last two bangles- I wear them today on my left hand- barely distinguishable from the skin tone of the wrist; they are tarnished, flawed, imperfect- like their present owner.

Have a safe journey, Mother.

Standing outside- Looking in.

This is a long post, so be forewarned!

My first journey to the East of India was in November 2011, to IIM-K, attending a short management course. The next one, further  East, this time not a visitor but a transplant, was to Agartala, one and a half years later. After the large, modern, busy and confusing airports of Ahmedabad and Calcutta, the Agartala airport seemed welcoming in its laid back remoteness. Compared to the sweltering heat of Ahmedabad, the fading sunshine of Agartala at four in the afternoon felt gentle. It had probably rained in the night, which explained the small puddles by the roadside.

Birdsong and sunshine outside the windows woke me up the first day, groggily wondering whatever happened to my alarm; only to be confronted by the disorienting fact that the time was four thirty a.m. but actually more like? Six?

But the very first feature that really grabbed my attention was the red laterite soil and the lush foliage- from the lovely ferns, grass and soft carpets of moss to the giant Jackfruit, Mango and Teak trees- so reminiscent of my childhood days spent in the diagonally opposite corner of the country. As I was to discover later, the resemblance did not end there! Saucer sized black spiders, kin to the Kerala ones, a nightmare I imagined I’d put behind me, lurked in dark corners. The house we were allotted was built at least forty years ago at a time when only the really rich could afford cars (therefore no car parking space; just a tiny ramp running up to the small verandah so that bicycles or perhaps a scooter can be wheeled up, out of the rain), plenty of land was available (wide courtyards planted with mango trees and parijatas) and cool cemented floors marked with the patina of age and wear by treads of countless feet (smooth and polished to an extent quite unthinkable today).  There are glass paned ventilators near the ceiling- a feature that has all but disappeared from modern houses, a verandah running along the entire perimeter of the house and quaint wooden door stoppers (my children were seeing all three for the first time in their lives).  I had indeed stepped back in time.

The second thing I noticed about Agartala was the cleanliness- a certain attention and care by the civic authorities as well as the public, which drastically reduced the degree of pollution and solid waste which are trademarks of many an Indian city.

And the third- the profusion of red CPM flags, posters and flyers with the good old hammer, sickle, star insignia!

For a state, which has democratically elected a CPM government to power for the fourth consecutive term, the only state ruled by the CPM in India as on date, Tripura (variously styled  Twipra, Tippera, Tipperah at different times) is a study in contrasts. Almost all Bengali households worship at the three junctures of the day- morning, noon and evening. Durga Puja Pandals are veritable works of art and life literally stands still during the Puja days. In the winter months, the night air resonates with the music from temples, ashrams and even households  – I fall asleep and wake to it. The dips and rises in the landscapes ensure that given the right circumstance, sound travels far, bringing with it a dreamy quality that comes only with distance. How do you explain this disconnect between believing in an ideology which accepts no God and at the same time sharing such a personal and intimate relationship with God?

My house has an old rose bush just outside the front door. For almost all of the seven months that I have been here, it has never failed to delight me with its delicate pale pink roses. Sometimes there is a wild profusion; sometimes just a few; but always at least one bloom, even in the gray winter days of December and January, when the white mist comes creeping up from the west. I am filled with gratitude; I am also grateful for my son’s school friends in his new school, who welcomed him into their midst- he has friends who are Tripuris as well as Bengalis. Middle school is a tough time for any kid, but to undergo a change of this magnitude must have been hard on him, a small and thin eleven-year old. I feared for him but find my fears are baseless- he actually enjoys school, wonder of wonders!

My son is also the one who introduced me to the joys of bird watching; Our Ahmedabad house was fringed by Ashoka trees in an L shape, in which every year Bulbuls and sparrows used to nest. He used to bring the featherless Bulbul chicks who fell out of their nests to me for safekeeping and putting back into the nest, which I had to do balancing precariously on our rickety ladder. Here in Agartala too his interest in birds continues; we  live in the outskirts of the city- the township, which was built at a time when land was plentiful and cheap, has lots of open spaces and trees. The trees in our present backyard too are home to many birds; mynahs, sparrows and bulbuls, two spotted pigeons who move around together , cooing softly.  Oriental magpie robins, the male cutting quite a dashing figure in comparison to the washed out looking female. Drongos, the policemen of birdland, who sit on the fence, scolding each other soundly. And occasionally, if I am lucky, Woodpeckers and a sole Treepie bird. (Treepies used to be plentiful in Kerala while I was growing up, but now rarely seen).

Guess it is too much to expect to spot the resplendent Kingfishers!

Busy squirrels keep me company in the backyard. These squirrel families seem to have missed out participating in Sree Rama’s ocean causeway construction project from Rameshwaram to Sri Lanka (too long a way to go?) and consequently lack the three white lines, lovingly marked by His fingers, on their back.

I was told that  Agartala was a small city- capital of the third smallest state of the country, difficult to travel to, with  a disturbing history of violence which had claimed many lives, evident even today in the gun-toting young men in patrol vehicles who accompany site visits to troubled areas where drilling and pipe-line laying are ongoing . But what no-one had pointed out was the former glory and culture of this princely state- the beautiful palaces adorning the city which are at par with other palaces conveniently located at more accessible  parts of India. I gaze at the pictures of the long gone rulers of this state, looking out sternly from fading portraits, their Oriental features a mixture of Burma and Mongolia, and marvel at their sense of symmetry, beauty and foresight.

The Manikya kings of this small hill kingdom were second only to the Mikado dynasty of Japan in their unbroken lineage, making the Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovers and Windsors look like Johnny-come-latelys. Despite not being filthy rich (remember the Nizam of Hyderabad?) these kings have left a legacy, which is both graceful and enduring.

It is a well-documented fact that Tripura was not a wealthy kingdom; the revenue came mostly from land holdings in Bengal and probably also from strategic marriage alliances to the Princesses of Manipur and Nepal. But they utilized their wealth, not in maintaining harems, not in hiding it away in sealed chambers and certainly not in squandering away on wine, women, race horses and vintage cars, but to create infrastructure in education and civic reforms and also in building monuments which survive over centuries.

The roads to Palatana, Rokhia, Monarchak and Sonamura wind through hills and dales and tea and rubber plantations. All interspersed with rice fields. The natural beauty of the state is astounding! If only the post partition history of this small state was not so violent, if only it were not so landlocked by Bangladesh, if only it were more accessible by road and rail… The wish list can go on and on.

I have yet to see -or perhaps recognize- the Aguru trees (Aquilaria Khasiana) which grew abundantly in and around Agartala, and which have given the city its name. But what I do see is the abundant natural beauty and the simple people- women invariably fair skinned and with large, lustrous dark eyes, men generally thin and wiry; a villager at heart myself, both the land and people have become close to me. Love of literature, music  (hauntingly sweet ) and an endearing guilelessness seem to be inseparable from these people, regardless of their ethnicity.

I still miss my old home, water which did not taste of iron (salty instead), the daily supply of  fresh pouches of Amul milk (not long life UHT in tetra packs), the non violent Gujarati lifestyle (I am unable to look at the glassy fish eyes of the dead fish in the fish market nor at the skinned dead animals hanging in the meat shop) and so many other small insignificant things. But adapting -slowly.

The deep divide still existing in Tripura between the indigenous Tribals (outnumbered hopelessly) and the Bengalis (who have contributed so much to their adopted homeland) saddens me- another outsider. I stand on the periphery, listening to the intonations and lengthened vowels of the musical Bengali language. Communicating via my limited vocabulary Hindi and broken English and when all else fails, with the single complete Bengali sentence in my repertoire and an apologetic smile – Ami Bangla jaani na.

On Coffee Blossoms…

The aroma of coffee is a much advertised one. A lovely hot cup of coffee wakes one up, energizes; one faces the day all set to make a success of it. Café Coffee Day outlets in India are tastefully decorated and offer an idyllic setting to catch up with friends or a loved one. I guess it would be the same in any other country too, with variations in the names and themes of the chain.

But I am not marketing coffee;  just sharing a memory.  I was lucky in that I grew up in a small village in Kerala. I was also lucky in that in my childhood, in the season when the few coffee bushes we cultivated were in bloom, I would wake up to the sweet scent of coffee blossoms. It would permeate my dreams- the gentle, happy and innocent childhood ones – and would slowly wake me up with its sheer sweetness. And I would run out to witness this yearly wonder.

Coffee blossoms are small and white; they bloom in the early mornings and are really not much to look at. They form in clusters on the branches of the plant. But how does one describe their perfume? Sweeter than roses or jasmines- poignant, reminiscent of long gone times.

For obvious reasons, no one picked the blooms, which later transformed into clusters of green berries and later ripened into cherry red ones. They would then be picked, dried and sold.

The coffee bushes are no more-   I am no longer the eager child who jumped out of bed and ran to them. But somewhere in a corner of my heart, the now-non-existent village, bushes and the child remain!

The weather of Kerala is highly suitable for growing spices. There was a rich trade as early as 3000 B.C in spices, which were famed in the Western world. My parents grew coconut, pepper, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa in our land. Our lives, my entire education, were paid for by these exotic spices, which found their way to foreign lands from the Cochin port.

The Cinnamon tree, which brought forth the most wonderful pink young leaves in spring, sacrificed the most. The spice cinnamon  is not the berry, but the bark. The tree would be shorn annually and the twigs would be dried in the sun and then the bark removed carefully.

Today the demands of urbanization have transformed my village beyond recognition. Like many Indian villages, mine too continues to live only in cherished memories. Important as progress and development is, despite the strides made in the quality of living, sometimes the nostalgia for things gone by, falls over me like an old, worn and soft blanket.

 

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