Simla Sustainers: Khans, Chaudharis and Coolies

Amma would send us on errands at all odd hours of the day and why she would not as Simla of my days would be such a place where whole of the Lower Bazaar seemed like an extended neighbourhood to us all.

I would love to tread away to anywhere at mere wish of my Amma , her wish would be a command to me, but when she would ask me to go to Pandit Ji’s home, I would be a little hesitant. Pandit Gangasagar lived in the middle bazaar just below the stairs near Beekays adjacent to the Scandal Point on the Mall. Whenever Amma would have any query regarding whether it would be Ekadashi or Sankrati the next day, she would say, “go and ask Pandit JI.” Though I loved to go  to Pandit Ji’s home at any time of the day as he would always fish out from hid big Jhola some sweet for me so it was the greed that led me to his home jumping and running but going to his home during late evenings would give a shiver to my little heart. The reason was that I had to cross two alleys to reach his home and just near to the stairs leading to his home from the Lower Bazaar side, there was a dahra (accommodation) for the Khans. As Amma had instilled a fear in my heart that the Khan would pack me inside his big Pheran, I was so afraid of coming across a Khan during late evening hours.

I would be in a dilemma. On one hand the eateries that awaited me at Pandit JI’s home would be a great temptation and on the other hand the similar big pheran of a Khan would be a great detrimental! But greedy as I was, I my salivary glands would win over my adrenaline secretions and chanting Om Namah Shivah vigorously I would rush past the dahra of the Khans. I never treated them close enough to talk to them. Neither did any of the Khans living in a nearby neighbourhood made any attempt to befriend anyone. They were different. I would watch many of them lying in a room that was their night shelter. Many would be sitting outside to have some fresh air as the number of Khans that lived in that small room would not leave any space even for some air!  Some enterprising among them would have a transistor and listen to filmy songs on Vividh Bharti. Some would be washing their utensils after having taken their meals. The utensils would be a big copper plate and a big copper bowl. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of very big Chapatis cooked on firewood chulha and some liquid curry in the bowl. I would wonder how many chapatis would a khan eat. The number would be exaggerated all the time when we discussed the same at school.

I would wonder who cooks the food for them when all of them go during the day for the labor work. Pandit JI, the nearest neighbor to the Khans would be our source of information. It would be a wonderful sight to see Pandit Ji in his Dhoti and Janeu, complete with a tilak on forehead,  standing at his door and talking intimately to the Khan standing at the door of his dahara. So most of my information about the Khans would come via Pandit Ji. Like all Pandits, he too, loved to talk and talk and found in me a good listener! He would say that these Khans take turns to stay at home and cook. Cooking for such a big number of persons with a very heavy appetite must not have been an easy job.

And sometimes during day time I would watch the Khans on cooking duty busy in preparing the vegetable, The aroma of the cooked vegetable would be no different from the one that emanated from my Amma’s kitchen and I  would wonder why would they take me in a back pack if I would be naughty and troublesome to my Amma. I would sometimes watch the by-turn-caretaker to mend clothes with needle in his hand and I would look at his big rough hands, so big that needle would just not suit them! Sometime he would sing in alien language some song while mending his old and torn away clothes. Music does not need any language and the very tone of the song would make me feel close to the Khan. At such a moment, my feminine curiosity and compassion would overtake all  the feeling of fear and I would make some small talk about their women folks, who, I was told, live back at home in Kashmir! Pandit Ji’ talk had instilled feeling of faith for Khans in my heart and I could now see them not as someone to be afraid of but someone who had same feelings as we had. But I would be afraid of my Amma finding me talking to a Khan as I was told to keep away from them. Amma had her own fears which I could never understand. And the Khan’s big hands, still bigger feet in sturdy leather sandals would substantiate her fears and mine as well.

But when it was time to get a quintal of coal from coal companies situated near the Bus stand, these very Khans would be the ones to carry our loads and keep the fire burning in our hearth. With sweat drops trickling down his forehead, the khan would bring the heavy load of coal and would take the wage decided upon. I don’t remember my Amma offering him anything to eat which she would offer to other collies when they were hired to carry some other load! Did Amma discriminate? Perhaps she did or to be true the Khans never did become a part of social life that existed between the masters and the coolies in Simla. The Chaudharies, the turbaned and bearded hefty Sardars, monopolized the Gunj market the same way as Khans were the sole coolies of the Coal market. The Chaudharies would load and unload big sacks of grain in the grain market. Speaking chaste Punjabi and wearing a cotton Lungi they, too, were alien to Simla populace but still seemed much closer as compared to the Khans. And the third were our very own Pahari coolies who would love to sit by road sides mostly around the vegetable market waiting for sundry jobs. They would carry much less weight as compared to Khans and Chaudharies.

Khans, chudharies and coolies were so commonplace in Simla of my days that their existence had become a part of life for Simlites. So integral to life in Simla that no one gave them a second look. It is with a sense of shame that I acknowledge today how insensitively we took them for granted, everywhere and anytime!

Lady Irwin School for us: My take on it…

Dayanand Public School: Some Interesting Facts

I wonder why my father decided to send us to Lady Irwin Girls School when there were a number of schools at stone’s throw away from the house that we lived in. As we lived at the western end of the Lower Bazaar, Arya Samaj Girls School was a few steps away from our home. This school had a creditable reputation and strictly followed the precincts of Arya Samaj ideology. The girls of this school in light ochre colored school uniform looked beautiful.  Everyday it would be the Manta recitation from the Arya Smaj Mandir that would wake up from our deep slumber. And those days it was not the pre-recorded cassette or a CD that would be inserted in some machine to play but real human beings would chant the Bhajanas and mantras in the very early hours of the morning. Perhaps Bauji thought that his daughters would turn into mantra chanting women if they were sent to this school though  it was barely two minutes walk from our home.

At some distance was St. Thomas Girls School with white and green small checks  uniform of its students, The morning assembly of the  students would be held in the open visible from the road above. Many would watch the assembly to find out what kind of prayer these girls sing, whether to Hindu Bhagwaan or to Jesus Christ? I am sure my Bauji wanted us to imbibe something of free thinking spirit and so neither did he send us to Arya Samaj Girls’ School and nor to St. Thomas Girls’ School!

This was a period when Singh Sabha had school for Sikh students, Arya Samaj catered to mainly Hindu philosophy. The Arya Samaj with its Shuddihis and havans at the Arya Samaj Mandir was more in conformity with spread of Vedic education. I think Bauji thought much above these sectarian divides. Though, sadly, I never happened to discuss all these issues with him at any point in time. As Bauji had joined General Post Office Simla as a clerk in March 1947 and he must have wanted his children to be kept away from caste politics he, in all probability, chose Lady Irwin School for us.

But the question as to why Bauji selected only this school over others for us remained an enigma for me though I loved the school and its small blue and white checked uniform! Even this school worked in co-ordination with the DAV Lakkar Bazaar but there were no Havanas and Mantras to be chanted in the school. Though I remember whole of the girl students once being taken to  DAV Lakkar bazaar Boys’ school for some Havana. But that was it and nothing more. We got values, the best of it, in moderate manner. But Bauji never knew of the inside  functioning of the school at that time but then why did he prefer this school for us?

It was while reading a book recently that I came across a very interesting fact about this school, and I got an answer to all that might have led my Bauji to select this school for us.

The Indian clerks in Simla represented a cross-section of English educated men who on one hand assisted the English Government to run smoothly and on the other hand developed an attitude and way of thinking that their proximity to the power hubs helped develop. As Sir Harcourt Butler School for boys opened in 1916 and Lady Irwin School for girls were “popular English-medium schools where Indian clerks sent their children”, Bauji also must have wanted to send his daughters to Lady Irwin School!

I remember some of our relatives commenting on this choice of school for us as for them it was sheer wastage of money to spend a good amount of school fee on girls when they would go to some other home later on. But Bauji persisted despite pressure from many relatives and refused to enrol her in sarkari schools which, too, were very close to the place where we lived.

I think these must have been the reasons that we were not sent to many other school  though they were  in close proximity to our home.

One for sorrow two for Joy…

Old habits die hard and the habits formed during your childhood never die at all! This great truth has dawned upon me when I saw a single black bird. Instinctively I started searching for a black dog as a remedy to forestall the tiding of a bad news as sighting a single black bird always foretold bad luck. We chanted religiously the rhyme during our childhood and believed in it from the core of our heart:

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One for sorrow Two for joy. Three for letter, Four for boy. Five for money, Six for wealth….. I hope someone would complete the poem for me or correct it if it is wrong. Even today when my glance falls on a single, seemingly harmless, black bird my fingers automatically cross over one another and my eyes start searching either for a Red Cross sign or a black dog! 🙂 Interesting isn’t it? During our school days if and when we would sight a single black bird( in facts the birds were brown with a sprinkling of black at some parts) it would be plane disastrous for our little hearts! And the antidote was to cross your finger and wait for some good sign so that you could uncross your fingers. I would search for sign of Red Cross and would wait for ambulance vehicle to ply on the Mall road so that I could uncross my tiny fingers which would become numb of the awkward position they were in!

It would be funny to watch many of our class fellows with crossed fingers waiting for the right antidote. Another antidote to fix the problem was to see a black dog. And if by chance anyone would sight a black dog the girl would shout at the top of her voice and all of us would rush to have a sight of the much awaited relief. Oh my God what a relief it would be to my tiny thin fingers. Even now I can feel and enjoy the sense of relief that I would feel!

And when one would sight a pair of black-brown birds, it would portend joys and happiness! How we would shout with happiness when we sighted “Two for Joy” and would seek some wish fulfillment and believed sincerely that the wish would be fulfilled. How small were our wishes at that time. “I may get good marks” or “Amma may allow me to play for more time” or “the teacher may not punish me as I had not put blue ribbon in my hair”! The list was simple but long and “Two for Joy” was a panacea for all the ills!

“Three for letter” would make me wait for the postman to bring a letter, any letter for that matter. And I would look expectantly at his Khaki bag to bring out a letter for me. What kind of letters would I wait for? We had simple life and simpler demands. The chewing gum that we enjoyed would have some stickers inside it and we would go on collecting them till we would come across the lucky mast which when posted to the address of Chewing Gum supplier would get an album through post where we would stick all those stickers thus collected. Such albums would be a craze and a precious treasure along with giving us edge over others in General Knowledge! 🙂 I would wait for the lucky mast to unfold in my chewing gum so that I could get the promised album through post! Such was my small simple world and its demands and desires!

But when it came to “Four for boy”, all the girls would open their mouth with a longish howwwwwwwwwwww and put their hand on the mouth in a shyful manner though with a twinkle in eyes! “Four for boys” would be a special prerogative for the pretty girls of the  class who would get an admiring look  from some boys of the local schools! And I, the ugly and the reed thin girl, would observe all such developments very keenly! We would discuss which boy has interest in which girl and who is always nearby at the time of school closing. Which group of boys would follow, keeping a safe distance, which group of girls! It would be talk of  the class during the free periods! The black birds “Four for boy” would again get credit for this development! How I would wait to sight four black birds together but it seemed as if two or three of them would fly off whenever I would put my eyes toward them. It seemed such a loss at that point in time and today I can laugh about it heartily.

“Five for money” would not result in much return as money was not something which we would get easily during our childhood. I would wait for some guest to drop in at our home fro staying for the night and would be so happy as the guest would surely put some money, may be a rupee, in the hands of the kids as a good will gesture. I would roam and skirt around such a guest and would be within his/her reach especially when it would be time for the person to leave. I didn’t want to miss the momentous occasion for any matter.And if I was lucky to have some money the three  black birds that I must have seen sometime would get all the credit for it!

Whatever may have been the belief system that we catered to but it was much relief to sight “Two for joy” and when I saw a pair of black birds in my neighbouthood I could not stop myself from crying in relief “Two for Joy”!

Hindu Marriage Ceremonies: Invaded by Photographers

We are by nature easy-going persons and not very meticulous planners. This attitude reflected during the first marriage in our family when we regretted having overlooked many a details. During the marriage of my eldest daughter in February 2006, we came across many a situation where we seriously thought, “Oh, we should have taken care of this.”

One such situation was that we were not able to find a good photographer for her marriage as it literally over slipped our mind that we need one at Palampur. The local photographer at Hamirpur showed his inability to escort us to Palampur as he had planned to cover so many marriages on the same date.  So we had to take a last minute decision and that was to use the handy camcorder for video recording and to use our newly acquired Sony digital cam for still photography. As it was the first marriage in the family and also because we had to manage everything on our own at a new place, it was decided that pictures would be shot by whosoever would be free at that moment. I have been feeling guilty for not having a professional photographer at the marriage of my eldest daughter. But the recent marriage season has made be healthier (by eating free food), less wealthy (by gifting a lot) and wiser by learning a lesson or two.

Having watched closely the nosey interference of the professional photographers at marriage ceremonies and having seen the marriage ceremonies taking place at the sole direction of the photographer, I no more feel guilty that we didn’t have a professional photographer at the marriage of our daughter.

The pictures we have clicked are light years more authentic and real as compared to the make-believe pictures taken by the so-called professionals! As there was no outsider photographer to record moments, the marriage ceremony was conducted in a homely ambience where only relatives and friends gave us company. Later looking at the pictures I find how original and how spontaneous they are. My son did a wonderful job clicking the right photograph at the right moment. But being a naughty child he had captured some such moments which I would have kept a well-hidden secret from the outsiders! J

Looking in retrospect and at the positive outcome of not having a photographer I am glad that we didn’t have to dance to the tunes of a photographer and the marriage of our daughter remained a family affair the way marriages should be! There was no taking direction from the photographer to move this way or that way, to smile while looking at the lenses of the camera when the occasion was solemn and personal! Some of the best pictures are before the marriage ceremony. They are wonderful indeed as my son used to capture some very interesting pictures that show the real situations in a family where the marriage of the daughter is at hand! Some are really hilarious!

Kitchen of my Amma and her Rituals…

Angithee and the Agni Dev

During my childhood, in early sixties, in Shimla, for my Amma, a routine job like, cooking food was not less than religious ritual. Amma would  cook food on a Angithee which would have coal in it. Old iron buckets would be used to make this Anghithee.  The ironsmith would cut a hole on one side of the bucket and would fit an iron grill at the center of the bucket. Mixture of fine clay and shredded drass would be used to line the inside of the Angithee and the top would have three round projections to hold the cooking vessels and also to let the air and fire flames pass from below!

The last kitchen chore that my Amma would do was to give this Angeethi a fresh coating of clay. Even this was a ritual worth explaining. The used coals, still hot and buring, would be put out from the Angithee and the Angithee would be prepared for the morning use. Amma would give a fresh coat of clay to the Angithee. The liquid clay would at once dry as the angithee would be so hot even when there were no burning coals in it. The vapours would fill our small kitchenette with a smell which no perfume today can compensate for.

And why did Amma do all these rituals! For my Amma, and most of the women of her generation, Angithee was the abode of Agni Dev. Amma would purify her Angithee every time after cooking food. When she would cook food, the first offering of the food would be made to Agni Dev! Such was her belief that Agni has to be fed the first thing before serving food to anyone else. The food had to be pure! Nothing could or should defile food while being cooked.

During my recent visit to my Amma, I saw an old Angithee lying in the storehouse. No one ever uses it. It lies discarded lamenting, perhaps, her golden times.  I thought of all the ritualistic performance that this Angithee had seen and paid my obeisance to it for having been instrumental in feeding us.

I wanted to peep through relics and memories of my childhood—some old paraphernalia, books, papers and yellowed black & white photographs! I thought of annual issues of Purana, published by Gitapress Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. I craved to find them.

“Amma, where are the old Puranas?” I shouted while searching for the old heap of books and paraphernalia that seemed so out of place in the marbled new construction that is my Amma’s proud home now. I had asked her as I was not able to locate the old books that during my childhood had made a small abode in Shimla, our home! I was searching for a part of my childhood that still was alive in the yellowed papers of the old books.

All those Puranas lay peacefully in a steel trunk lying in a corner of a room that had all the old unusable paraphernalia spread in it. I opened the trunk and scrambled through so many old papers, each of which had something or the other to remind me of. And then I came across Agni Purana. Now this was a Purana that I remembered only glancing at during my childhood as it didn’t have any stories in it! I loved reading anything and everything that had a story  but AgniPurana had description of many of the tricky religious practices. So this is the Agni Dev that my Amma fed everyday during her daily ritual.

But now when I had reached an age where such religious practices and methods interested me a lot, I picked up this Purana and went through some of its pages to have a look at it. The Purana had Agni Dev as the recite of various Akhyanas of the Purana and I found tits and bits of the Purana very interesting. The Purana was in a very bad shape. Its pages had yellowed, the paper cover had come off but luckily the inside was intact and in good shape. I wanted to carry it back with me to Hamirpur to read it and to find why my Amma religiously fed the god of the Angithee, the Agni Dev. And what I found in the Purana was nothing less than a miracle to me.

To be continued…..

Missing my three musketeers on Holi…

Today while going through the old pictures, I came across many among my treasure. I looked and looked at this picture and was able to relive those days when all three of you would tire me to death because of your hyperactive lifestyle. Kids in those days used to be real kids and mothers the real mothers unlike the ones that I see around these days. Howsoever small a demand of yours may have been, nothing came to you easily. You had to earnestly demand it and then the decision would be ours whether to grant your wis or not. Even this small, seemingly, cheap toy truck  would seem to like a much sought after item as it never came to you easily. You learnt to value money and the material that money could get. It is for this reason that I am critical of new-age kids and new-age mothers who get anything and everything that their child may put his hands on, at the drop of the hat. Not that I am critical of anyone but looking at this picture with fond memories of the golden past (the past always seems golden), I am grateful to you for giving me something to remember, something that sustains me today. It may be as simple as this plastic toy truck!I can vividly remember the blue and white check shirt and nickers that Ashu is wearing and the army-green colored plastic toy truck in his hands that he would constantly ply on any, preferably, smooth surface.

The smile on the faces of all three of you in the rays of the morning Sun is deeply etched in my memory! Nidhu and Anshu are so excited to go to school though they walked themself to the school. The new school bags that they put on their back the previous evening and ran around the neighbourhood would still be in their memory though the numerous Reebok backpacks that they later bought and discarded may never have been registered in their memory. It was my Click III camera that I had used to take this picture. The picture turned out excellent and so have you!

I am happy that I have a treasure full of memories and of old pictures that fill my, otherwise, placid life to excitement and happiness. Today, on Holi, my life seems to be full with colours of pleasant memories of the past that you have lovingly filled with. Do I need any other colours of  Holi that I would try to wash off the moment someone would apply them on my face? You have coloured my life with true colours.

I remember all three of you today and need I say that I miss you as well!