Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Love, Lonliness and Lodhi Gardens

It was wonderfully cool after the nightlong showers in Delhi. For long, we couldn’t decide where we should go in such a pleasant weather during that rare idle afternoon. Finally we zeroed in at Lodhi gardens. We laughed out loud thinking how odd we would look there. The place after all is known for being the hideout for couples and not for same-sex duo. We even considered how the newspaper headline would read tomorrow if we are spotted by a reporter. –“Lesbians spotted at Lodhi garden” or may be ‘Love in the times of lesbianism’ . We cursed our lack of imagination and vocabulary for we could not fit the most preferred adjective of Delhi newspapers -“sexy’ in any of these headlines. But we forgot about these things once we crossed the stone bridge to enter the place which is a curious mix of history, landscaping and well, loneliness. From snobbish bureaucrats to fretting Colonels, from cozy lovebirds to casual on-lookers, everybody flock to this garden to spend quality time.
Once described by Time magazine as Asia's best urban oasis ,today it may have become the Mecca of all the lovers, without places to go and extra money to spend in Delhi but its original purpose was hardly that . It was designed over two dynasties – the Sayyids and Lodis (15-16 th century) – to be a sort of everyone-take-one graveyard for their families. The scenes and sounds of the place offered amazing variety.
And there we saw her. She must be around forty five - a smart Delhi lady , must be a resident of one of the affluent neighbourhoods nearby . Her purpose of being there in the garden was different from anyone of us-us, watchmen and the lovers included. She was also on a date and as we could guess from the reactions it was a regular one too. She was not there for meeting a boyfriend or a girlfriend, neither for a healthy and fashionable walk. She was there to feed some 10-12 stray dogs who stay in the garden. She was calling them by names and they were obediently following her. The two of us agreed that however, eccentric some may find her ways, it is anyday better than whiling away time with tear jerking soap operas which most other women would be doing in her colony .
It is difficult not to fall in love with the place at once. The neatly manicured lawns make it difficult to believe that once it was a congested bustee surrounding the Tombs. How did the British managed to clear the land in 1936? Our very own Archaeological Survey has been trying to vacate the Clive’s house in Kolkata for donkey’s years. How could then the foreigners convince the villagers to move for preserving a forsaken burial ground of bygone dynasties? May be there was no persuasion, just plain and simple coercion. They even changed the name of the place to Lady Willingdon Park . but the change was not long-lasting .After the Independence it was reverted back to being good old Lodi garden. In 1968, the gardens were spruced and re-landscaped by JA Stein and Garrett Eckbo.Good that at least in Lodhi garden , we managed to keep it beautiful….green and clean. As there is little architecture from these two periods remaining in India, Lodhi Gardens is an important place of preservation too. We walked till the Tomb of Muhammad Shah, where except for some pigeons and a watchman or two , no one accompanies the tomb of this third ruler of the Sayyid dynasty . It is a typical octagonal tomb with the central chamber surrounded by a verandah having three arched openings on each side. There were several graves inside the tomb but the brief stone board could not enlighten us about the identity of the persons buried with the king. As always a ugly looking blue board was declaring it as 'protected monument' ...the protection however was either absent or was done in the most careless way. Ugly cement patches on graves and brush strokes of pinkish paint can be hardly taken as 'preservation'. Another octagonal tomb located in this complex is Sikandar Lodi's Tomb . Then there was a Bara gumbad also but the entrance was locked for some strange reason and all we could glimpse form outside was the beautiful red-stone wall surrounding it. But history is just the background of the place not its reason anymore. People do not visit the place for its historical importance. In fact most visitors will be in total oblivion of the facts related to the place.

Public parks have always doubled up as private spaces for romantic couples who cannot seek the joys of physical intimacy in any other place.. We smiled at the desperation to be together .It was funny how couples were making most of the few minutes of togetherness. It was equally sad too. In a country where there are no secluded and safe places for couples to meet and in a society which disapproves of such meetings, where can they go? They came from all strata of society-students from hep DU colleges, voyeurs , sex workers, homeless and middle class . We could see that at least some of them were married too. Probably small family homes crowded by family elders do not give them space to be cosy. Not that this haven was without the fear of Delhi police or the self appointed moral police. Rani exclaimed , how weird it is that people are penalised for being in love. There was a headline in the morning newspaper about another honour killing in Gurgaon. A father killed his daughter and her husband for marrying without his consent. The mother of the victim supported her husband’s doing. How strange that these social taboos can overcome the much glorified parental love too! We discussed about that but soon changed the topic to naming the majestic tall trees around us. There were ashokas, poplar, jamun, Chinar, Neem and Eucalyptus too. From bamboo to bonsai and from rose to water lilies the place has all the charms of flora of the region. But the medal goes to bright and sunny amaltas-which is at full bloom these days. It is after all, a portent of the season. Summer seems incomplete without the alternate colours of red-gulmohar and yellow-amaltas. We spotted beehives on some of the tallest trees, found a family of squirrels , green parakeets, black n’brown mynahs and finally a swimming training school of mama duck followed by her obedient daughters . The background music was provided by Cuckoo (koyel) ….as usual.
It was after good two hours of walk and discussions on world around us that we came back to the urban jungle usually recognized as New Delhi and were lost immediately as anonymous figures in the crowd of people and vehicles.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

On Allahabad I knew not!

I have come to believe that you can live your entire life in a city without knowing much about its character, its history and its people. We often judge people and places as per our own prejudices and limited experience with them. Perception like beauty, after all, is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder. I lived for about three years in Allahabad. That was when I was doing my graduation from the University of Allahabad- which, if history books are to be believed, was once called 'Oxford of the East’. Well, my life in that city was limited to my University campus and my house. It was much later that could understand the historical importance and glorious past of places I used to frequent in those days.(They looked so ordinary in those days).Then it so happened that after all these years, last few days led me to another eye opener when I found that there was still much more to learn about the city , I thought I knew . I was reading “The Last Bungalow: writings on Allahabad” edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and I was enlightened about many aspects of the city’s past and present which were unknown to me.
The typical images of Allahabad are associated with the Kumbh Fair- the largest fair of Hindu religion which takes place on the confluence of river Ganga and Yamuna every 12th year.(The book informs me that it is after all , not as ancient as it is generally believed ) Then there are images of Swaraj Bhawan and Anand Bhawan – two houses which gave three prime ministers to India and which played pivotal role in Indian Freedom struggle . Then there is a galaxy of stars associated with the city- journos, film actors, poets and politicians. I thought I knew about these things , places and persons and I was proved wrong. I also assumed that since ‘my’ Allahabad was basically the University campus , Balsom Ice cream parlor ,El-chico and Civil Lines , at least about these places I knew with confidence - I was again mistaken.
When you set your watch to Indian Standard Time (IST), you could call it Allahabad Standard Time as well. Because the time zone of India is calculated based on 82.5°E longitude that runs through Allahabad. This is exactly five-and-a- half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). To many, Allahabad is known as one of the sites of Kumbh Mela. But not many would know that it was here in 1910 that the first airplanes flew in India as a part of demonstration and exhibition. Allahabad is a city of many histories.
It was interesting to learn how a woman came to Allahabad in 1990s in search of Barnett's a bakery run by her grandparents in the Colonial days or about Nayantara Sahgal's reminiscences about her growing up days in AnandBhawan .
Since the city features in the history books continuously since 6th century BC , it is dificult to categorise its existence in parts. But if I have to divide the past of this city in categories the division would be roughly like:
-Prayag the Ancient Pilgrim
-Allahabad a Mughal City
-Allahabad a colonial city
-Allahabad during freedom struggle and
-The city since independence.
There are remains of each of these in the buildings and traditions , places and customs of the city. To quote one example each- there is sangam, Akbar’s fort, University , Anand Bhawan and the present citmodern malls . During my 3 year stay , I found Allahabad a dull city of beautiful buildings . For those who preferred the atmosphere and comforts of a modern Metropolis, it was an uninteresting and conservative place. Its charm, after all ,lay in its tranquility. I was often disappointed by the city and its folks- who lacked both the tehzeeb of lucknow and fast pace of Delhi . It was therefore interesting for me to find another famous man condemning this city uncharitably. Mirza Ghalib in a letter describes the city as “ Oh Allahabad! May God damn that dissolution where neither such medicine may be had as befits the ailing nor regard for those of rank. How unjust to call this fearful place a city, how shameful that men should reside in this trap for fiends. If one compares this land to the plain of hell, hell would burn in anger; if one compares the icy winds of Zamharir to the winds that blow through this dank region, Zamharir would be insulted.” Though I was amused to read this description, I don’t fully agree with it. It was probably poet’s own misery and circumstances that coloured his views about the it did with mine . Perhaps by then the city was more of a Raj town than a Mughal one...and thus difficult for an old court poet . For Fanny Parkes, who was in the city few years before Ghalib, it was a welcoming city. She arrived in India (Calcutta ) in 1822 as the wife of a Bengal Civil Service administrator .After four years when her husband was transferred to Allahabad as collector of customs , she spent 11 happy years in Allahabad and Cawnpore. Her recordings of her stay in Allahabad are second to none in its completeness and variety except may be poet Harivansh RaiBachchan a century later . Her diaries reveal the life of the British in the city .Like she writes somewhere in 1832 :
“Allahabad is now one of the gayest and is as it always has been , one of the prettiest stations in India .We have dinner parties more than enough; balls occasionally; a book society; some five or six billiard-tables; a pack of dogs, some amongst them hounds, and (how I could have forgotten!) fourteen spinsters!” In another place she lists out the number of servants required for a party at home. The number reached upto 80-100 with daily wages of Rs.290-330 .She also writes about the Burra mela of Prayag and the sacred peepul tree in her backyard.

Another interesting account was of Rajeshwar Dayal , a former foreign secretary who was a student at University of Allahabad when the Civil Disobedience movement was gaining momentum. He writes about the times when students were " torn between joining the agitation and abandoning their studies or trying to qualify for a living.” The student community watched with fascination and sympathy the frequent protest meetings and processions led largely by the Nehru Family, but not many joined the movement as the prospect of being submerged in an anonymous mass of processionists and braving police beating and spells of prison was less than alluring . But I know of a young law student of Holland hall hostel of the University, a contemporary of Rajeshwar Dayal, who was offered a job of Munsif in a court but refused it to follow Gandhiji and rest of his life remained a poor but proud English teacher at National School of Lucknow. He was my grandfather J.M.Sinha , who later narrated me the tales of his days in the city with much fondness and feelings.
Coming back to my impressions about the city, there are few places I remember particularly. First is the All Saint Cathedral (called Pathar Girija- the stone church, by the localites) which I passed through every morning and evening for about a year. .

This Cathedral is certainly the handsomest Anglican Church in India. It stands imposingly at a major crossroad of the city in a verdant compound which was originally set aside for a garden, but apparently was never used as such. The church has an interesting History too . Much before the building of the Cathedral, the Holy Trinity Church was the only civil church in Allahabad and was at one end of the city. The thought of a new Cathedral started when in 1864 Bishop Cotton of Calcutta visited Allahabad and found that the growing British and Anglo Indian community of the city had no adequate pastoral oversight. However it was not until 1867 that a definite scheme for building a railway Church was launched and the decision to build a really handsome Church was taken . In 1869 Sir William Muir, Lieutenant governor of the North West Provinces granted the present site, and the well-known architect Sir William Emerson (who was also the architect of Victoria memorial Hall, Calcutta) was instructed to draw up plans. The foundation stone was laid by Lady Muir in 1871. A generous grant by wealthy American, Mr. A. C. P. Dodge, as a memorial to his wife, made it possible to expand the church with arrangements for about 1000 people . But I believe the original plan of William Emerson could never be completed as the two towers were not built in the revised plan due to paucity of fund. For me this church was the refuge for hot afternoons. I remember going to the compound with my sister/two friends almost every other day.
The other was of course, my Alma Mater, the Muir Central college – which was by then the science faculty for the University. It was in this beautiful stone building, designed by William Emerson, that we had our mathematics and statistics classes. The stairs of magnificent Vijaynagaram hall was usually our address during the free periods.

When I entered the university, the glorious years of famous professors and the IAS-churning hostels were already over . The annual mushaira at Muslim hostel and Holi milan at Hindu hostel were still there but the days of well known poets and thinkers participating in them , were history . The university was marred by caste based politics . The dirty politics enveloping the state of UP was encroaching the sacred grounds of university as well. But as I realize today , even in that corrupted form , the city and the University were still better than many other big names in the two categories. It was not until I saw the shabby buildings of Calcutta University ,that I could appreciate those huge expanses of my own University.( I always assumed that all universities are supposed to be like that…till then after all, I had seen only AMU,BHU and Lucknow Univ) .In my university days, it appeared as if the life of the city revolves around the University. Other parts just seems like the extension of a primarily University town. It was probably because the University and its colleges are spread over a large part of the town and students , many of them coming from nearby small towns are the largest community of the city.
Another unforgettable experience of my life at Allahabad is that of Magh Mela. The fair takes place on the confluence of two sacred most rivers of India in the month of Magh (Jan-Feb) every year. It is also the time when migratory birds from siberia visit the site .Boat ride in the river in those winter days used to be great fun- even for a person like me who had least religious enthusiasm fairs and sacred baths.

After reading this book , I decided to search for some places like the old office of The Pioneer (where Kipling worked as an assistant) and the Branett's Bakery (which is Hotel Harsha now) on my next visit to Allahabad .I know, there is not much point looking for the anglo Indian families living in the railways colony about whom Syead Jaffery discussed in his autobiography . Neither there is any sense to search for Telier saheb's bungalow in the Teilier ganj (cavalary lines in those days). ....those people and those moments are gone with their times.
For me Allahabad turned out to be a classic case of going around the world in search of beauty only to find at the end that the best of beauty was always at your backyard.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Golden Afternoon of the Life

She was definitely the most charming soul in that small neighborhood. She must have been very pretty in her young days as the sweet smile and the twinkle in the eyes was still intact when I first saw her in her fifties. I used to envy her cooking skills, was amazed at her always beautiful house … her well manicured lawns and extra large roses. It was difficult to pass through her gate without being called in for tasting a new dish…or having a look at the new rose bud. She always knew how to clean that ugly mark on the linen or to decorate the dingy corner of the room . She was a perfect homemaker in my eyes. I was not alone in her fan-list. Most growing up girls of the neighbourhood were charmed by her presence. Her husband, a retired defence officer, was a perfect companion for such an accomplished woman. He would narrate funny tales of his army days and auntie will respond by telling her side of stories about life of an army officers’ wife. They lived a happy contented retired life which was full of colours and flavours of all types . Together the duo added so many colors and wings of imagination in my teen age days too.
Last night I started counting how many traits and tips of comfortable living, recipes and managing household chores , I owe to her .The list was a long one. In my growing up years, auntie was nothing less than a style diva for me. And then one day I left home for my career. I remained in touch with them through occasional emails and once in a while telephone calls. I was aware that they were growing old but as G.Marx said-“Age is not a particularly interesting subject."..until perhaps you find wrinkles on your own face … in my imagination she and uncle remained as full of life as ever. Last year I took my husband to be introduced to them. He was equally fascinated by the old couple. But somewhere without my noticing, clock continued ticking….something was changing for me and for them. “Even when we are young, we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads when a grandfather dies," writes Donald hall in his poem "Affirmation." The it he refers to is, of course, age, and its attendant sense of mortality. Last month when I was in train on my way to Delhi, I got the message. Uncle was no more. Things changed rapidly since then. I met her yesterday in a hurried 20 minute visit . She was here for some work related with passport and family pension. Smile was as sweet as ever …so was the grace and affection. But now age was taking away her independence. Probably she would be living with sons and daughters in a far away country for rest of her life. They can't leave her alone neither can leave their well settled careers abroad. It is same for many other Moms and Dads. Even my mother feels very uneasy at times living outside her ‘home' . I can relate to the feeling. Whenever I am out of home for more than 3-4 days I start missing my room, my bathroom and even my kitchen. When this feeling of ‘having things my way’ or rather ‘the usual way’ is so important for me at this age , I can understand its value for them . But there isn’t a way out. It’s not like developing countries where you can buy services and products to work for you when you are physically incapable of taking care of yourself. We don’t have friendly policing, health services and other facilities for them- even if they are capable of buying them. After all, old age after all comes with a bagful of complications too. Old age on the one hand makes one itching for things one is used to and on the other comes with the symptoms of benign forgetfulness. Putting it romantically in a poet’s words -it is
“as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain...
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart”
But perhaps, it is not so romantic in the real life. It is fearful for many that they are unable to do the most ordinary things they were used to doing all their lives. These days you hear about various tips and techniques of playing this second innings well .There are movies on this theme and I hear of websites and blogs about aging gracefully. They even have some old age homes for the elderly. But I wonder if any of these can lessen the pain of being uprooted from familiar surroundings by ‘caring’ children and living life in a passive mode. Perhaps this is also patial will be unfair if I portray such a sad picture of this phase of life. I have seen many golden girls enjoying the family life and settling well in the role of grey haired grandma too .There are some in my own family who depite being alone are not lonely . There are also men , fitting this portrait from twelfth-century Chinese poet, Lu Yu’s poem :
Old man pushing seventy,
In truth he acts like a little boy,
Whooping with delight when he spies some mountain fruits,
Laughing with joy, tagging after village mummers;
With the others having fun
stacking tiles to make a pagoda,
Standing alone staring
at his image in the jardinière pool.
Tucked under his arm,
a battered book to read,
Just like the time he first set out to school.
Then one does hear of an eighty year old winning video game championship or a seventy year old grandma climbing the mountain …. But such lucky ones are rare. In most cases, times and ways of life change so fast that they fail to get tuned with them….or may be they still prefer their old ways . Family members- kids and their families, despite heartfelt affection and good intention, are unable to give time and company. More so if the time takes away one spouse much before the other. Some resort to religion for passing the time. Others to reading and many turn very bitter, itchy and uneasy. Experts suggest 'Keep yourself occupied'- well, it is easier said than done. Till yesterday they were the prime movers and earners of their families and today no one has time for them . Till yesterday things were rotating around them and today nothing matters. I can’t blame anybody for this . I have no solution for their loneliness or their boredom. But I feel that taking away their independence just because they are no longer as strong physically as they used to be, is cruel. The trouble is that the other way round is not very convenient either. I have a grand uncle pushing ninety who still lives alone. He takes active interest in politics and society, reads everything from jokes to poetry and still manages his affairs very deftly - all on his own . But every now and then, we have our anxious moments. My aunts and uncles worry about him. Thy run to his place if he fails to pick up his phone or sounds ill. I do not wish immortality for anybody, 'cause that can be a curse in itself. But a happy long life- a life well lived and enjoyed till the last breath ,is what each one of us pray for our loved ones.
I really don’t know what the way out is for such elderly men and women , may be social security, may be barrier free living, and may be something else. Meanwhile, at least we – the sons and daughters, can be bit patient with them. They did bear up with our unreasonable demands when we were young, now it is their age to go unreasonable and ours to take it without cribbing.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kipling's Contradictions

In the latter part of the nineteenth century an American girl Edmonia Hill, married an Englishman who had been appointed by Lord Salisbury to fill the chair of Science at the Muir Central College, Allahabad University wrote in a letter to her family back home : “I've met an unusually interesting man with the uncommon name of Rudyard Kipling….. Mr. Kipling looks about forty, as he is beginning to be bald, but he is in reality just twenty-two. He was animation itself, telling his stories admirably, so that those about him were kept in gales of laughter. He fairly scintillated, but when more sober topics were discussed he was posted along all lines. …..I am surprised at his knowledge of people and places. He is certainly worth knowing, and we shall ask him to dinner soon.”
This description I find very near to what I imagined Rudyard Kipling would have been in his times.Its not that I am very fond of Rudyard Kipling as a writer. I have read his poems and stories sevaral times but my feelings towards him and his writings can at best be described as -confused. At times I marvel at his imagination, his witty way of describing people and events and the variety of his experiences which he sketched through his characters…from life of a vagabond to that of a ghost. On other occasions I feel such deep felt hatred for his views on many aspects of his times. When I was in Shimla, I read a lot of literature about him …I visited his school, his house and places which he described in his poems and stories. Once again I found Mrs.Hill confirming my views about him. She writes in another letter to his sister in England about Kipling , who was then working in the editorial staff of The Pioneer at Allahabd “Young Kipling is certainly all things to all people. He talks equally well to High Court Judge or to a scientist, and I hear he can make first-class love to the latest belle in Simla……..and what a life he leads, all among the babblings of the Chamber of Commerce and the unsavory detail of the days among the dockets, departmental orders, and the queer expositions of human frailty, vanity, greed, and malice that a newspaper offers. With it all he watches for suggestive ideas for his tales.”
Kipling indeed lived a very interesting life. He was an Englishman born in British India. The father, John Lockwood Kipling, an architect and designer, was sent to Bombay by the English Government to take charge of the art school(J .J. School of Arts) , and Kipling's mother was the oldest daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Reverend George D. Macdonald. When the Kiplings were married they spent their honeymoon beside a little lake in England called Rudyard, and so when, on December 30, 1865, a son was born to them they called him by the name of the place where they had been so enchantingly happy.
Rudyard Kipling was , as a critic noted “Man of Permanent Contradictions” . Its interesting of note that I am not the only one who finds it difficult to frame an opinion about him . Even when he was alive he was crtisied and adored by almost equal number of readers. After his death as in his generous and beautiful elegy for William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden affirmed, "Time that is intolerant," nonetheless "Worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives." Putting this poetic faith to what he evidently regarded as a strenuous test, he asserted,
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
But the relation between time and tolerance turns out to be more uneasy than that. When he was alive many critics thought Kipling to be a bad writer, and also a bullying and jingoistic one, and many readers today agree. Moreover, much of Kipling's work, inarguably, was hasty and poorly written. Dick Heldar, in The Light That Failed (1890), says, "Four-fifths of everybody's work must be bad," and one feels Kipling speaking more truly than he knew when his character adds, "But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake." A great deal of his fiction is still a chore or an embarrassment (never mind the "politics"); and he overproduced verse in a quite promiscuous manner, often for the most short-term and propagandistic motives. The shock effect of some of Kipling's compositions has actually faded; they now afflict the reader more with a sense of faint amusement than with horror or disapproval. And when I was thinking about him this time, I found that Kipling's most successful and polished prose, Kim is also dependent on the idea of a double life. The boy is an orphan, raised to believe he is half-caste, and is "passing" for Indian. The whole action of the story hangs on dissimulation and duality.
Something I owe to the soil that grew—
More to the life that fed—
But most to Allah Who gave me
twoSeparate sides to my head.
This is drawn from a Kipling poem titled "The Two-Sided Man." As if to underline its message, Kipling added,
I would go without shirts or shoes,
Friends, tobacco or bread
Sooner than for an instant lose
Either side of my head.
Now that I have benefit of retrospection if I were to assemble a profile of Kipling it would include his staunch Anglo nationalism, and his feeling that England itself was petty and parochial; his dislike of nonwhite peoples, and his belief that they were more honest and courageous; his love-hate relationship with the Irish; his contempt, and deep admiration, for the United States; his respect for the working class, and his detestation of the labor movement; his exaltation of the empire, and his conviction that its works were vain and transient.
The contradictions interestingly are not limited to his writings only. Or probably the genesis of these contradictions lie in the life the writer led. From childhood he was both repelled and attracted by cruelty. Ultimately, Kipling's two greatest literary and emotional attainments—the ability to evoke childhood and the capacity to ennoble imperialism—contradicted themselves too flatly and painfully .
Kipling, it could be argued, did not like it when other people patronized Indians. But that did not inhibit him from patronizing them himself. He drew many an unkind picture of the ways in which educated Indians tried to ape British customs. And, though he reserved to himself the right to praise Indians as equals (Gunga Din is the best-known example), he was always a ferocious and intemperate foe of any talk of self-government, let alone independence. To his ineffaceable shame, he even applauded General Dyer's Jalianwala massacre of 1919.
But with all contradictions, he still charmed his readers (and still does) . I read his books not only a fiction of a particular time but also as chronicle of that age. Like all other accounts and narrations, these also include the author’s views , his biases and a reflection of his personal experience of living in his times.
NB: If you are wondering why suddenly today I am thinking, and therefore writing ,about Rudyard Kipling I must add that the chain of thoughts was started by two factors. One, I was reading a collection of articles on writings on Allahabad and found Edmonia Hill’s account there . Two, I found a collection of Kipling’s stories about Shimla in the Campus library and enjoyed remembering about a city we both- me and Rudyard Kipling ,loved - for very different reasons and in very different times .

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Days of Khus scented Seista and Mango blossoms

“I am glad, I live,
Where seasons change
I like my world
To rearrange….”

I read these words in the Airlines’ magazine during a flight to Kolkata last month and I smiled. The rearranging of the world with changing seasons ,it brings back so many memories. Be it the beginning of winter in October and taking out of woolen clothes or the anticipation of rains in June-July, checking out the first winter roses in December or the comfortable sunshine of march …every season has so many memories , so many daily ritual associated with it. Today when I boarded train for Lucknow , my mind was full of expectations for viewing familiar sights of a typical North Indian summer on the way. O yes, it is already May .and the time is ripe for preparing the combat against the blazing sun and irksome ‘loo’…..the dusty storms and rituals of beating the heat in the traditional ways - the freshening Neembu sherbet or melons, thandai served with homemade potato wafers in the evening or gulps of sour-sweet aam-panna before you step out of the house . The delicious Aam-panna -even as I write these two words- I can feel the scent of raw mango around me. It is a portent of summer- it’s arrival is eagerly awaited in my land . Mango blossoms with their acrid scent are usually visible by march and as soon as the mango fruit is big enough to be eaten raw , preparations start in a big way for making mango chutneys, pickles, panna and many more delights of this king of summer .

There is still time for the fruit to ripe and savored as a dessert . My train will pass through Malihabad, a region near Lucknow which is so famous for its Dussehri mango that few year back authorities started international flights from Lucknow to the gulf countries exclusively to export this mango . It is a great favorite in India as well. You travel from Lucknow by train or by air in June –July and you will find every other passenger carrying boxes of mangoes .
But summer is not all about eating. It also reminds me of those khus scented afternoons when a siesta was a must. However much we pleaded , mother would not allow us out in the sun . Huge coolers will be installed in the bedrooms and these will be dutifully filled with water twice a day . Today we don’t get real Khus grass easily . The Cooler perfume has replaced it in most houses . Ironically when the sun goes at its brightest best India decides that it is time to move out of house. It is a period of summer vacations after all. And as Kalpish Ratna wrote in one of their articles -“ Every summer India escapes into itself. Every May it burrows deeper into the labyrinthine warren of friends and relatives whom it loathes for the rest of the year. May brings a mad caper to reclaim family. Demented uncles, dying aunts, cousins long since gone to the dogs, nieces strictly unmentionable, nephews better not recognized, princes, pauper, drunks deadbeats, the detritus of genetic mishaps several times removed- how come we didn’t know , even as recently as April that they were family? But now we have all the May and half of June to correct that.”
So the trains were full . Special summer trains also ran on tracks to ensure these family re-unions, where aunts always exclaim (with almost genuine) delight : how kids have grown up since they last visited her…how so and so has thinned down and why this and that has not come with us etc etc. Then the next ritual of formalities would start with exchange of gifts from the two sides( each taking it while saying : what was the need to bring all these?)
Evenings were be very pleasant, very homely .After sunset plants would require watering . With scented bela, jasmine, chameli and other creepers in the background, lawn chairs were taken out and this used to be the venue for the evening family get together. Summer months also have pleasant memories of sleeping out either in the lawns or on the roof – with mosquito nets on and sometimes table fans too. In the age of centrally air-conditioned houses , I still miss those lively antaksharis which we used to play before going off to sleep . Most of the slokas, dohas, urdu couplets and choupais I remember now were learnt in those days only. (Film songs were a complete no-no for the game ).
There are so many things I miss about those happy summer days. More than the ‘things’ I miss the emotions associated with the season- mother’s anxiety when we ran barefoot in blazing sun to get some kulfi from the kulfiwala, my maternal grandmother’s delight to see us after one year, our embarrassment to be introduced to so many unknown ‘close relatives’ and many more . I think, Ghalib must have felt somewhat similar longing for the days gone by when he wrote –
Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehmaa'n kiye hue
josh-e-kadah say bazm charaagha'n kiye hue
ji dhoondhta hai phir wohi fursat, ki raat din
baithay rahay tasavvur-e-janaa'n kiye
I guess it is the excitement of witnessing the changing colours of the season that makes this rearrangement so memorable. Seasons may be part of the cycle of the year but each one of them is complete in itself. Or should I put it the way Khalil Gibran did when he says-

But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.