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Abdullah used to often ferry the entire family in his tonga to the now-famous Gwalior Mela (Fair) which used to be one of the most important and perhaps most exciting events of the year in the somewhat sleepy town. As the family would cramp into the tonga I, being the youngest and a mere child, would often jog along on the lap of Abdullah. In the December cold his warmth was reassuring. I would mostly be engrossed looking at the black shiny and muscular croup of the horse and the occasional swish of its tail. I would also keenly watch its ears which would be sticking up and out and would constantly twirl from left to right and right to left –to catch various sounds.
Held in the winter months of December and January every family would try and visit the mela at least once. The hype for it would gradually build up and children and their families would plan visits and shopping in advance. The mela grounds, currently spread over around 100 acres, were ahead of the Race Course which was around 7 or 8 kilometres from our house. The grounds were created in 1905 by that far-sighted Maharaja, Madhav Rao Scindia who ruled over the State in the early years of the last Century. Apart from built-up structures for shops there were open grounds for tented temporary selling points. All amenities and services would be provided by the State. No wonder, businessmen and traders from far flung areas of the then undivided country would travel all the way to the fair to display and market their wares. It was also considered by far the biggest cattle mela in the country where all kinds of animals from camels to goats would be bought and sold. The inevitable food section would have north Indian cuisine served from numerous shops – especially chaat from Haridwar and Lucknow and pethas and pedas from Agra and Mathura, respectively. I do not remember having ever come across south Indian stuff as it was not then as popular in our parts as it is today.
During the mela days all roads would seem to be leading to it. Young men would cycle down, others would take the scarce city buses then run by the Gwalior Central India Transport or a tonga. Some even took the Gwalior Light Railway (GLR), the narrow gauge train that would run from Kampoo. Near the Gwalior Potteries, to Gola ka Mandir – a little ahead of the mela grounds. The fare couldn’t have been more than an anna or so (1/16th of a rupee). On occasions, father took us to the mela by the train which we would catch from the Elgin Club station situated on what was known as the Private Road, close to Victoria College where father used to teach. It was a tiny little elegant looking station with a small foyer and a room for the station master with a window facing the Private Road for sale of tickets. The journey of half an hour or so to the mela at a speed of a cyclist pedalling leisurely was most interesting. As the toy-like carriages swayed along on the tracks, the train would take us through the Jiwaji (Maharaja’s) Club where we could see people playing tennis. It would then puff along, hugging the Palace walls for a kilometre or two to reach its main station which used to be different from the broad gauge station.
As the train took off from the main station after collecting more passengers there would be excitement all round as it would soon pass through an underpass created below the broad-gauge lines for the trains of the privately owned Great Indian Peninsular Railways (GIP) that ran from north to south of the country. As the train went into the underpass there would be a roar of excitement in the carriage. Soon it would halt at the Race Course where the famous, now more than 70 years old, Scindia Gold Cup Hockey tournament used to be held during the same season. Even polo matches used to be held around the same time. The train would then reach the Mela station and halt in front of the main gate and one had only to cross the road to get into it. The Race Course and the Polo Grounds were much later given away for opening the College of Physical Education.
I recall Japanese toys on display at the Mela. We used to have three such toys that had probably been bought for elder brothers. They were all wind-up type. Among the two aeroplanes we had one was a fighter plane – somewhat like a spit-fire with a gun mounted on top in the front. It would really spit fire as it moved after being wound up. The other was smaller, a trainer kind that would go round and round. The third toy was a motor cycle. I don’t remember whether it was a miniature version of a Harley Davidson. Such Japanese toys became unavailable sometime later because of the Second World War.
And, then of course, there used to be numerous shops of saris including the ones from Dhaka, famous for their fine weave and designs. A very fine sari from a shop from Dhaka was forced by my father on a very reluctant mother because it cost a fortune those days – all of Rs.60. She had it for all her life using it very seldom, only on special occasions.
The Mela has been much enlarged today and is known as the “Pragati Maidan of Madhya Pradesh”. The government announces discounts on purchases made there and those discounts, curiously, would also be made available to those made in Bhopal and, presumably, elsewhere too. Now even cars, TVs and cell phones are also on offer as indeed a veritable cultural fest. That the legacy of a farsighted Maharaja has been found to be good enough for being continued and vastly amplified by the democratically ruled successor state is a great tribute to its feudal progenitor.
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