Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
Freelance writer and film critic based in Mumbai.
I should not have returned to my past, I should not have gone back to Junagadh, the land of my forefathers, my birth, my first love. And yet, after a 25 year absence, I turned around and headed back to my 200-year-old ancestral home, to rest awhile, or perhaps to lick my wounds in the relative security of a return to the womb?
The plane arrived on time at Keshod airport, where the family car had been sent to meet me. As I came down the steps the very air seemed different, probably because I knew I was on home territory once more. In the car, the kilometres went by fast enough until, at last, I recognised, rising from the mist of distance, the Girnar hills range; Junagadh was rising before my eyes.
Nearer still, crowds, new buildings, shops, where once there was nothing. I searched for familiar faces but there was none. I thankfully identified Bahuddin College still standing on its spacious grounds. Thank goodness Moti Baug had been left untouched by carpetbaggers; closer to home was the state guest house, once called Rasul-e-Gulzar, where the Viceroy stayed when he came on a lion shoot as the honoured guest of the Babi-dynasty Nawab of Junagadh. It was re-named Manoranjan after the Nawab fled to Pakistan with several of his beloved dogs.
I entered the once-walled town through Shapur Darwaaza. More crowds, more carpetbaggers. I recognised nothing until, in the middle of the vegetable market arose the white-washed walls of my home, where the massive, carved, teakwood door was open, welcoming me.
At the entrance, there used to be a swing where Tapu, our pagi or watchman sat, guarding the open door. It was a tradition that the ancestral home was never closed. Some rooms may have been locked, but never the main door. Tapu was a tribal, handsomely fearsome with an impressive moustache and he sat all day long, lazily swinging himself with one leg, while the other rested on the swing under a bended knee.
In the morning he would keep a large pot of wheat flour beside him and Brahmin mendicants would stop by, calling out, "Daya prabhuni," and Tapu would empty a fistful of flour into their proffered bowls, and they would say "Swastik" as they rushed on to the next home that busy morning.
I must have been seven on my school holidays once and I was given permission by my father to sit with Tapu to mete out largesse. My small hand couldn't grasp a generous amount, I thought, so I scooped out flour with both hands joined together to give to the pleased recipient. Tapu was aghast, "You'll ruin your father," he scolded, "if you pour out so much flour to these no-gooders . . . and your father won't be the nagarsheth anymore." That frightened me a lot and I ran up the stairs in tears to my mother who was upstairs in the living area, where she comforted me.
At the top of those stairs was a large chowk which led to the verandahs, the divankhana, the treasury room and the birth room where I was born, like most of my siblings and probably those ancestors whose mothers had not returned to their maternal homes for the impending births.
In the middle of this first-floor chowk was a built-in square under which was a pillar that reached the earth through the basement floor. My father enjoyed arranging the occasional yagna at home, but the havan fire had to touch the earth, so he had this pillar built so that the chowk touched the earth for all intents and purposes.
We lived around the corner from Haveli Galli which lead to the Vaishnava haveli, one of seven in India, where the maharaj held daily services. Once a year, while we holidayed in Junagadh, my father would arrange a service to honour my grandfather's birthday. The Hindol was my favourite service, at which time the family would sit in the front seats while the haveli maharaj gently pushed the elaborately-decorated swing with Krishna's image placed in it. He would wave an attractive fan (with the other hand over the swing).
It was an impressive occasion as the fountains played in the background and Babubhai, the local musician, sang kirtans to the sound of his own pakhwaj. At the end of the service the maharaj would come forward and drop prasad into my father's outstretched hand, careful not to be touched by him. Then later in the day, bearers would bring trays of the haveli's ankot to our home. Trays and trays, but we children were not allowed to eat any of the delicacies for fear of the oil or ghee used, except for the thor, thick, crisp, biscuit-like chapattis with the most mouth-watering icing that we children adored.
I stood in the chowk on that return journey, and then walked from room to room, touching, feeling, remembering. The caretaker followed, unlocking room after room, regretting the dust and lack of care. No one from the family lived there any more and the servants begged me to return.
That night I slept in my father's four-poster bed with the mosquito net comfortably tucked into the mattress. In the distance I could hear the roar of the Gir Forest lions in Sakkar Baug's zoo; the forest was once part of Junagadh state in princely India and we were exceedingly proud of our lions. Below my window, donkeys brayed and dogs howled as the vegetable market closed for the night. At noon, of course, all was quiet, even the dogs wouldn't go out in the mid-day sun, and shops were closed until 4 p.m. One of these shops I remember from my childhood belonged to the local kandoi, Dama maharaj, the sweetmeat maker and milkman. He would send up to us the most delicious sweets made from the milk given by our own cows. These cows would be sent to us from our small farm in the compound of our mills in Shapur, seven miles outside Junagadh, and they would remain with us through our annual holidays until it was time for our return to Bombay .
The kandoi also made sweet muramba for my mother while she spent the holidays making other pickles to take to Bombay and for my brother who lived in Junagadh. My mother made the best chhunda pickle in the world and her papad and fur-fur were to die for, as they lay drying in the afternoon sun in the chowk. She always gave us little pats of raw undad dal batter soaked in oil, to nibble while she and the maids rolled out the papad. I shudder at the thought of raw batter today!
The next morning of my return I went to Bhavnath temple which was always my family's favourite. Nestling at the foot of the Girnar hills, this was an unadorned Shaivite temple where sadhus descending from the hills would rest. Temple bells would occasionally ring at their behest or the few worshippers who braved the rough road from the distant town. It was quiet and peaceful (except during the famous Shivratri mela) and I longed for that rare communion with the temple and the neighbouring tank in which fallen flowers and leaves floated.
This was the temple then. It had changed beyond recognition and instead of the solitary lingam there was a garish overflow of decoration and I saw no sadhus there. Only fat women in gaudy saris accompanied by their equally obese and newly prosperous husbands. There was a huge dharamshala built in the large new compound and it was wash-coloured in green and yellow and blue. Film music blared from the rooms and I found neither peace nor quiet. I shouldn't have come. I shouldn't have come. I shouldn't have come.
Shall I go to the Wellington Dam? My evening playground of happy school vacations when the forest officer cared for the dam's beautiful garden and arranged for my mother to receive forbidden bamboo stalks from the jungle to pickle?
I hesitated but finally drove up to the dam. I looked at it through a mist of tears, my memories hiding the pain of what I saw. There were no flowers, no gardeners, no love, no care. After that I didn't visit other early haunts, not to Sakkar Baug where I knew visitors would throw pebbles at monkeys caught in the surrounding jungles, and stones at lions to make them roar.
I returned home to familiar rooms and furnishings even though in disrepair, and in my pain I climbed up to the terrace to look at the Girnar range on which, if I borrowed my father's binoculars in my childhood, I could see pilgrims go up the steps either on foot or in dolis. I looked up and in the neighbouring house the owners had put up a very high wall, denoting, I imagine, their acquired FSI. The Girnar range and its pilgrims were forever lost to me.
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