Friday, June 17, 2011

Life out of a suitcase

In the span of the 20 or so odd years of my life, I have taken many a trips with my family to various places around India. I have never had the opportunity to visit any place outside of India and although I’d have loved to do I hardly find myself regretting it. My father’s job with his various transfers and the LTC’s he is entitled to every 4 years have facilitated an eventful life which other than the hardships of a life on a move have also made it possible for us to visit different places and not only live there or observe it, but to imbibe and inhale the various customs and idiosyncrasies particular to a certain place. I am not denying that some of these trips have proved to be failures and have ended up disappointing us bitterly but they have not failed to reveal to us a part of India that would not be made available to us but for these various planned or unplanned and impulsive trips we have taken. So I dedicate some of the following blogs to the places I have visited and the impression they have left on me while I just splattered through their streets not knowing that these fleeting moments of glee or dejectedness could actually stand the test of time and be as fresh in my memory as if it were just from yesterday.  
I may not have been to all the best possible and sought after places in India, but to those I have been to have been etched in my memory and my conscious forever. And it might sound poetic and lyrical but it is indeed true that every city has its own life breath and fingerprint, peculiarities, distinctive places to visit whether or not a tourist city. Every city will have a quaint temple, mosque, gurudwara or church which the city people swear has its feverish following and is significant in one mystique way or another. In a country like ours where mysticism is not a taboo but a celebrated preoccupation we can never run short of it and it is wondrous to see how almost every city thrives on it and would have accompanying stories that amend to the mysticism aroused. Besides all this mystic charm, every city harbours a set of people that are characteristically distinct from those in other parts of the country. Being a multilingual and multicultural society this discrepancy within even similar religious beliefs is not a thing of surprise. We have made trips to certain places where few would have considered going to, one of them being a suburb town/village called Khambhat, Siliguri in West Bengal where we had to escape to when there was political turmoil in Darjeeling, to Ratnagiri, place more remembered for its mangoes than being my birthplace and several such cities that don’t even mention in people’s bon voyages.
I’ll begin with a city that will most unlikely feature in any tourist catalogue or in the anecdotes of people who have visited several cities. I remember the modest house and simple attire of Hasib Bhai in Khambat, it was difficult to believe that he had been an exporter. He had three sons all of whom engaged in their father’s business, all married with wives that were both modern and yet subtly so. All his sons had been educated and had had a taste of the city life and yet chose to take refuge in the weighty tranquillity of their hometown. He introduced us to his business in polished stones and how Khambat was famous for natural stones dug out from the pit of the sea and had a huge demand in international market for home decor, as jewellery pieces and for several other ostentatious purposes for which the West has a fancy due to the oriental and exotic feel that is associated with them so that they are adorned as carefully collected relics in the systemized European houses. As we visited the marshy beaches which were highly unsuitable for anything other than salt cultivation because of the uncanny saline deposits, he told us how, Khambaat was one of the biggest salt suppliers of the western coast. He then took us to the cottage mills of the city to show us one of the oldest occupations that had stood the test of time and had been passed on from ancient times to the modern, viz., the art of making handmade silk and in that remote village/town of Khambat we were surprised to find south Indians who had housed themselves there centuries ago and were now meshed with their surroundings making you wonder with disbelief if they could really be called south Indians at all.
 The government guest house where we were put up was a lone colonial squander that stood out amidst the placidity and the murky ordinariness of the rest of the city, looking nothing short of a haunt from the past qualifying itself to be the stage of some nerve wrenching horror flick with its measly staff of two odd looking senile men. I’d be lying if i said that i didn’t feel freaked out sleeping in that old rickety place even while with my family. This eerie looking staff however was very efficient and industrious and attended every complaint whether it be of the fan making squeaky noises, to the A/C that puffed more than it cooled or to the disoriented and dislodged geyser in the bathroom that needed immediate attention with utmost urgency and alacrity. Despite or maybe because of its remotedness the people in that town had been given to a warmth and hospitality that is rare in the urban cities. One is treated not with servility but with an air of familiarity that is more becoming and comforting than pretentious deference. The morning breakfast and the late evening dinners were met with a geniality as if these men were grateful to us for bestowing them with human company in that otherwise shanty vestige of the British, perhaps the only building other than the deserted and rather ignored wobbly church in the city square. Sitting in its cosy rooms as we snuggled in the blankets me and my brother squealed with excitement about the quaintness of the city and its potential to be the site for a racy thriller or a queasy morbid horror masterpiece, its Gothicism inspired both awe and terror. Maybe that’s why I could never get the picture out of my head despite the fact that we have no photographic memoir from that place, if it exists in my head it does by virtue of its distinctiveness that engraved itself into my memories so that i don’t have to even strain myself to remember the picture almost 8 long years since we took that 2 day trip.
The other thing that was noticeable in that romantic other-worldly town and about the people over there was that you could never tell what caste or religion the various people belonged to. Despite the horrendous and disastrous riots that gripped the state into a bloodbath in 2006, the town showed not even minor signs of religious animosity or bitterness. The city was an exemplum of communal harmony, its people just thankful enough for their daily bread than care for rooting out each other’s guts for difference in religious loyalties. These people were not atheists because, other than the sorry church, the mosques and temples were flooded with people in the mornings and evenings and both commanded equal visits from the forlorn tourists who’d visit the city by mere chance or fluke.
So we came back with several stones. Stones to be used as showpieces, stones to be set in leather threads and worn around the neck, stones to be worn as bracelets believed to control blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and behold, even AIDS (how, is still mystery to me), stones carved in perfect spheres believed to have soothing effect by lulling you to sleep if you rolled them consistently over an hour and stones that had no specific use but were brought because of the charm they exuded. And besides these also with the knowledge that life existed out of the racy conundrum of the urban cities in which we have entangled ourselves, that one could be at peace and be content with whatever one has like Hasib Bhai and that one could retain their basic nature despite the adulteration and the corruption of the world that chooses to see itself as more modern. The visit gave us several stories, various souvenirs and a memory that still holds itself as I pass it over to my readers.