After I stepped into my ninth decade I increasingly realized the distant past of my life was fast receding away from me. My days in Gwalior, from my childhood to adolescence and adulthood all were becoming a blur. The years in service were relatively recent yet many of the facets of my experiences in several parts of the country have been lost to a kind of amnesiac. Some basic features relating to my rather extensive travels, especially at home, I have tried to record in my travel writings.
Mine has been a very ordinary life. Yet my life and times, particularly of more than several decades ago would perhaps be of interest as they would be evocative of life in that era that now seems so distant. It was an era of innocence, truth and simplicity, largely untouched by crookery and crookedness of the current times. Things have changed since then: we think differently, we speak differently, we behave differently and interact with people differently, worship our gods differently, we dress differently and we even eat differently. There has been a sea-change in these more than 75-odd years. As I see it, in many respects there has been a slide and in many others we seem to have gone up a few notches.
I have been scratching my brain to remember those by-gone days and have been only partially successful. My effort, after all, is that of a man, advanced in years, to peep into his growing-up years. That it was spent in a lower middle class family which was perennially haunted by want and scarcity is another matter. It was my parents who by their doggedness and hard labour kept us afloat and did not allow us to feel the sting of want. Sometimes these memories startle me and make me ponder over how wonderful my parents were in embracing their changed uncomfortable ctrcumstances after uprooting themselves from their very comfortable environment in far away Bengal only to lead an austere life in a land that was alien to them. I suppose only those times could produce such amazing people with formidable levels of fortitude.
Without beating about the bush I would rather unfold right away whatever I remember of those very early days:
My earliest images are of the house in which I grew up and lived till I left Gwalior for Mussourie to join the civil services. It was a rented house – which would be called a flat these days – and we had the first and second floors with open terraces on top of them. Covered balconies ran right along the house’s inner and outer sides on the first floor. The inner veranda overlooked a square courtyard, surrounded by four houses including ours, the ground floor being used as go-downs for grains in which our landlord, a bania, used to trade as a middleman. It had a massive neem tree that used to keep the courtyard shaded and cool in summers. The outer balcony overlooked the junction of four rather broad lanes. The lane in front ran from north to south branching off the main artery of the town known as Indragunj about a couple of hundred yards away with the beautiful structure of the high court on the other side of the road. Right in front of our house was a walled up huge property in the fields of which maize used to be grown after the rains. At the far end of the property an old fashioned building sat overlooking Indragunj. It housed Miss Hill’s School, acknowledged as one of the better private schools of Gwalior. Its Principal, Mrs. R Hukku used to live on the premises and was very close to our family. Clearly, with the vacant lands being cultivated the area was till then in the outskirts of the town.
Sitting on the junction as the house did, one could see all the four lanes. Our lane originating from Indragunj ran for a furlong or so after the junction towards the South to end up into narrower lanes and alleys heading in two different directions. It too had a walled-up property of a Maratha feudal with houses only on one side with newer constructions of numerous flats right in front of our flat. Only the third lane that took off from the junction towards what was known as Lohiya Bazar in the west separated it from our building. The fourth lane ran eastwards between the two walled up properties and met the road that was known as the Daal Bazaar, the Grain Market. These two bazaars were named after commodities – pulses and iron and steel. Most of the traders in these two bazaars who were banias by caste would trade in them.
Located on the cross-road the front veranda gave us unrestricted view of all the four lanes. Not that there was much to see as there was hardly any traffic or movement during most of the day. The vehicular traffic was restricted to a few cyclists or an occasional tonga. During my childhood even bicycles were unaffordable for the middle classes and nobody would hire a tonga unless he had to go far with the family or had to carry some baggage.
For me, when I was very young the corner of the veranda provided a ring-side view of whatever little action took place in these lanes. Since early mornings, come rain or shine, cows used to assemble a little distance away on the lane running south. Later in the morning they would be collected together and herded along by one herdsman by the name Lachchha, or one of his children, to the pastures out of town. The cows used to be of all shapes and sizes and would either come on their own or were left there by the owners. With them around, there used to be always some commotion. The children from the neighbouring basti would run around collecting dung. Cow dung used to be, and perhaps still is, a very useful resource in the villages. Not only would it provide energy, it would also be used, mixed with clay, to plaster floors and walls by poor people.
Children from basti would compete with each other for collecting as much dung as possible and in their anxiety to collect the stuff they would place the vessel they carried under the tail before the cow in question could evacuate. In the process, fights would frequently break out among them. For a child of three or four like me it was absorbing and I would keenly watch the proceedings. Quiet and peace would resume as the cattle were driven away by Lachchha and after the children had collected the last of the dung from the dusty road.
In the evening cows would trudge back towards home raising clouds of dust and mother would promptly shut the doors and windows to prevent its ingress into the freshly swept rooms. It was that typical “godhuli” time (time when cows come home raising dust diffusing the sunlight) of the evening I still wonder where exactly the pasture was how far the cows were taken to graze as both, the cows and Lachchha seemed to be tired.
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