Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Annual Homecoming

As I try to fight the mosquitoes away, I am reminded of our old ancestral house in a suburbia village in Rajasthan, of the name Raamganj Mandi. A village/town so small that most trains would swish past its rather forlorn and empty station, so cramped that you had to squeeze your way into the by lanes contesting space with motorcycles, cows, goats, and little children fooling around the streets. A visit to this place was part of our customary yearly visit to Kota to where the rest of the family (other than my grandparents of course) had moved to in the name of progress and development. However, none of our trips would be over without getting an attendance check at our grandparents’ abode. Although we loved our grandparents and they doted over us, it is still difficult to convince children from urban metropolis to live in a suburban semi-village-setting for a whole week. My grandfather being strictly old school, we didn’t have a running television, the one that was available would be lying in one corner eating dust as if it were an article from Arabian nights, almost ancient, archaic to say the least. I am not sure if they still own it, but if they do I am sure it would be a collector’s item, like those 19th century Rolls Royce cars adorned in the palaces of Rajasthani princes, much less in worth though. Despite, the protests from our grandfather we would still put it on in his absence. The fact that it even showed the screen covered with a zillion black-white dots, was no less than a wonder. Then we would fiddle the knobs of volume and channel tuner as if rubbing Aladdin’s lamp (yes, the Arabian Night trope continues). Then suddenly the DD channel would show up, with the characters swaying to and fro to perhaps to some inaudible platonic tune of spheres. And for some ill play of fate they’d always be showing The Ramayana, and our grandmother, otherwise pretty dormant and droopy would be instantly alerted, in fact almost inadvertently and much to our displeasure, our tirade and adventure with the tv had to be given up for her to watch the ‘Holy’ show. As if the Lamp had its own will. Not that we were not religious enough or were averse to the bemusing tales from scriptures, but for kids of the age of 8 to 10, religion is fairly in the deep abyss of the immediate conscious.
On some days we would visit the neighbours who had the privilege of a cable connection, which seemed like an oasis in the desert. However, paradoxically we would go to their place to watch tv and end up doing everything else but that. We’d chat with the women of the house, play with children of our age group and make boats and sail them in the open water lanes running outside the house. And we would notice how our grandmother had devised a unique setting where she would socialise with almost everyone from the village sitting on the porch of the house. From the daily vendors to maids to neighbours to relatives, everyone was greeted from the alley of the porch.
Having nothing better to do we would run to the kitchen to see what our mother was doing, which was being invariably busy in her share of household chores. There was no point looking for our father, he had way too many old cronies and relatives to attend to. These trips would always be made in the summers and Rajasthan is sweltering and scorching hot in this time of the year. And with no generator in the house, the coolers were as good as mere blowers. The electricity would come and go as if it were mocking us, making us realise indispensability of luxury items. It is here we learnt that watermelons can be cooled in the kitchen sink and that hand fans are multipurpose, they fan in air and fan out mosquitoes. Since electricity played peek-a-boo now and then, even the tv would be inaccessible every few minutes. Me and my brother would lurk around the house aimlessly, me, with mostly a copy of Tinkle in my hand and my brother busy with a rubber ball or a catapult that he might have picked up at some odd station, trotting along with our father who often got down at stations in order to fetch some munchies to cope with boredom. There was also an old carom board in the house, and we’d always need to hunt for it; for the set of cousins who had visited before us would always hide it before they left, and there was also an old pack of playing cards. Now the ace in the deck of playing cards and the striker in the carom game would be perpetually missing. So we would wait for our father to go for a market trip for groceries and other items so that we could tag along and make arrangements for the frugal means of entertainment at our disposal.
However, the trips wouldn’t be all that bad, we had our share of fun times too. In the afternoons when our mother would get free, she’d play a round of carom or a pack of cards with us. When she we got tired she’d put us to sleep with her stories, stories of rabbits and squirrels living in secret burrows, with lots of munchies like cakes, muffins, ice-creams, chocolates sneaking theirway in and out of their boarding trying to escape tigers and lions. She would create an alternate world and we would always have appetite for more until she’d scold us and forcibly put us to sleep. Also since our grandfather had his own farms we would visit his ‘khet’ on his bicycle and the enthusiasm and alacrity with which he would show us his crop would make us want to leave everything else and become farmers ourselves, there’d be tractors bullocks, cows, buffaloes. Daadi would make makkai and saag for us (all from the ‘khet’), she’d bloat us with milk and butter, and there’d be no dearth of gud and ghee and lots of love poured into all of this.
Then there’d be the excitement of bathing from the huge cemented tanks that were filled up with tube wells, and the several stories that us cousins would pass each other that the tanks had no abyss and we could drown in them if we fell into it. Surprisingly, our trips never coincided with that of our cousins, it would have been much more fun otherwise; in fact I sometimes even wonder if the trips were strategically designed by our parents to avoid the rancour that we might create as a group. Anyway, the trip made us realise the importance of our lives in the cities and the comforts that we usually take for granted, it made us aware of the fact that alternate means of entertainment could be sought when tv wasn’t an option. It exposed our mother’s creative potential to us, her ability to make her own fables and create a world out of her imagination, more beautiful and vivid than any story book with pictures. It showed us that new friendships and affinities could be formed even at the most unknown places and lastly it gave us a home to go back to for us diasporic people who’d have to constantly keep moving by virtue of a transferrable job.