SHAHJAHAN PUR LIFE (III)
(Chapter III, following “Shahjahan Pur Life and Shahjahan Pur Life II) i.e.
The railway station was hardly a kilometre from our house and every morning we would know it is 10 a.m. from the howling of the engine horn of the super mail train from Calcutta going to Amritsar. The train was called ‘toofaan’ mail. In the night about 10 p.m. a train arrived from Lucknow going to Delhi, called ‘Janta”. I was fascinated with intricate and ingenious way the rods, wheels and steam box in a locomotive were arranged. I would spend considerable time studying the engine each time I had the chance. Railway platform was for us teenagers a place to meet and we liked to sit under the shade of the trees on the platform. In the evening each tree would host a thousand birds (sparrows) the noise of which was deafening for an hour or so. [Now I hear that these birds are all but vanished] There was a bridge joining two platforms and at one of the ends of the bridge some tree branches were accessible. I could reach and pick a sleeping bird and gently put it on my palm and examine its beauty for few minutes before transferring it back to the branch, the bird never knowing what happened. One of the main reasons for us to visit the station was to have a free ice cold drink when it was very hot season. A kiosk, called ‘piaau’, was established by the station authorities where a man would pour half a litre of cold water to the drinkers’ cupped hands using a stainless steel cup with a meter long handle. The handle being long made it possible for him to reach the drinkers’ hands over the counter. Pre-bottled mineral water and disposable cups were unknown. The facility was actually for travellers but they never asked for a ticket for water.
Someone in my house needs to go to a relative 3-5 miles away. Our women observed strict purdah (not be seen by strangers) and never ventured outside the house, if ever, without a burqa (upturned shuttle cock shaped cloak with meshed holes for the eyes). On such occasions I will have to go out to the riksha (man cycled) /tanga(horse pulled) stand some 200 meters and hire a vehicle, negotiating the fare after stating the place from where the passengers will have to be picked, number of passengers and the destination. I will ride the vehicle back to our home. The vehicle would be reversed right to the door of the house and before the women are given a signal to dash one by one from behind the door to the waiting vehicle, a sheet has been wrapped around the vehicle and another stretched by two persons to shield the view from strangers’ eyes in the market. Not that any one was keen to look at the women. In fact it must be stressed that common people in the bazaar would strain their necks in order to avoid any chance glance on any women from respectable homes. Fashionable women wearing tight pants or expensive sarees, sporting goggles and trotting on high heels were not seen around yet. Similarly teenagers and young adults wearing fashionable outfits, impossible haircuts and audacious attitudes, going round openly harassing girls were yet to be born. The only women you could see in the market were those from low cast and/ or from the villages, selling titbits or doing odd jobs. Women from respectable families, be it Hindu or Muslim, never ventured outside unveiled.
The month of Ramadan in Muslim calendar is of particular significance and it was clear that every one respected the holy month. When the month falls during hot season, it was especially hard for the people who fasted, for the thirst was terrible. I personally remember doing mouth wash repeatedly after the usual three times while performing wudoo (pre namaz ablution) for the afternoon prayer, or taking several showers during the day. The wrist watches had not become so common, the time of the breaking of the fast was announced by beating a huge drum (diameter at least 1 metre) placed at a raised platform in a mosque. The sound of the drum could reach a circle of at least two miles radius. Three or more mosques in the whole city were thus able to notify the aftaar time. The fast is usually started by having food in the early morning, some two hours or so before sunrise. These drums would not only be started three and a half hour before sunrise to wake people up but also would later give indication that the time to stop eating is reaching. This they did by robustly beating the drum first and then gradually bringing the intensity down, only to increase it again. Finally they would bring the beating of the drum slowly to a complete stop. When this is happening you could see many a fast starter who was late in getting up stuffing food at a great speed to beat the dying drum.
If I say I am not a thief then it will not be very much off the mark. I consider myself among 2% of all the people who are NOT thieves. It is said that 98 % of the people are thieves, or have been at least once in their life. 2% who deny that they are thieves are lying.
But I am not lying here. Again I am among the one percent that claim that they have never lied.
The fact that I did steal a guava once in my childhood (and this incident never leaves poking my conscience) can hardly make any one a thief. It was evening rush hour in the little market that used to sprawl on each side of the road in front of my house. All kinds of vendors of fruit, vegetables, toys etc were busy trading. One was selling guavas and on his stall there were a horde of people three deep, each one trying to get him to serve. I was about 10 years old and could exactly reach the edge of the stall. The stall being about 1 m from the ground and the guavas were staked to a total height of 1.5 m. As I wormed myself to the front wriggling between legs, I grabbed a guava from the bottom row. It was as big as a large apple. I was lucky that the removal of one did not make others above it tumble and also that the act went unnoticed. I got myself out of the thick of people and then, to my dismay, realised that every one around me knew exactly what I had just succeeded in doing. The size of the guava grew to that of a water melon so it became impossible to hide below my shirt, and I saw even there were eyes on the roof tops. With my heart pounding at record speed, somehow I managed to slip in a side lane and with great difficulty reached the back of my house from back lane. By this time I had consumed about half of the fruit and was very much puzzled that I had reached the stage where I had no more desire to continue eating it. I was full so to say.
I threw the remainder and went home. The sadness that followed at the unnecessary stealing and also at the wastage never left me.
But this act has told me exactly how a thief feels after stealing.
Every now and then some wedding would take place. It was invariably the boy’s parents who would approach the girl’s parent with a proposal, and if it is accepted the date of the wedding would be set. (No mention of dowry is ever made, although the expectation from boy’s side could never be denied). (Unlike the Hindus where the girl’s parents would approach the boy’s parents and negotiate the amount of money in cash and other things in kind they are willing to give as part of the wedding arrangement)
The local barber (family courier/ cook) would be handed over a list of names and the addresses for getting the invitations to the wedding to relatives and friends. He will appear at the door, show your name in the list and tell the name of the person who sent the invitation. You will then make a mark against your name to certify that you have received the invitation, using the pencil the barber always carried with him. The barber will indicate the place where to make a mark if you are illiterate and can not read your name. He will also tell the date and the place where the wedding will take place.
On the wedding day, if you are a guest of the groom, you will join the baaraat (wedding procession) walking in droves along with the groom who is riding a horse behind a brass band playing popular songs. The groom’s face is hidden behind garlands hanging from his turban. (Occasionally the groom is on top of an elephant).
If you are a guest of the bride side you wait for the arrival of the baaraat. By the boom of a gun or of an explosion the procession will be announced well before time. Its actual arrival is a great event with pomp, brass band chores and by this time the bride side guests have lined up both sides of the street to greet and welcome the Baaraat. Guests are soon settled mostly on the mat on the ground, only groom and his near and dear are given better seats on charpoys. The groom’s charpoy has a rug spread over it before he arrives. Every one receives a glass of sherbet dispensed from a tub in which float ice blocks. (It is tea in cold season). (In some weddings in the villages, one whole sack of (raw) sugar, 40 kilograms or so, would be poured right in to the village well to make water sweet for the guests.). Before long, new clothes for the groom and his father, uncles etc would arrive from the bride’s home and they would be asked to change. Of course it is impossible to do that in the full glare and stare of the whole congregation, so the groom would be made to change his shirt, turban and will be given new sehra (head garlands). The others would make do with new turban on old clothes. It was not uncommon to see a guy sporting new kurta (loose, long shirt) on old and worn out dhoti (lower clothe wrap) or on old payjama (thin loose pants). Before the nikah ( groom’s verbal wow in front of witnesses to accept in marriage so and so for such and such amount as bride price) the elders had been to brides quarters to take her consent to her marriage to so and so on this amount. Soon afterwards batashas (sugar puffs) are distributed (some times lunch is offered after the nikah). After the guests have departed and a series of lively ceremonies over, time for rukhsati (departure of bride) arrives. Two sets of kahaars (men carriers) are needed. One set of four sturdy men are to carry the bride and few other ladies in a palanquin, the other set to carry the jahez ( house hold items given to bride by her father). The palanquin is invariably covered with maroon coloured thick cloth and the jahez is displayed on a huge cot which hangs on ropes tied to a long and thick bamboo and carried on shoulders by men. The cot would serve as the bed later. The return journey is also a sort of procession, minus the pomp and the show. The same brass band which took hours to move a distance of a mile would be now walking briskly as if in hurry, followed by the groom on his horse, then the palanquin (his prize) and the jahez. His garlands now lifted and wrapped up on his turban, the face of the groom is now visible. As he rides on his horse, a triumphant smile on his face, the groom makes eye contact with ordinary men on each side of the road he is passing and salutes them by raising his hand to his fore head. They respond with a prayer: be happy. If the father of the groom is rich, likely he would also shower handfuls of coins over the doli (palanquin carrying the bride) every few yards on the way and we children scrambled over each other to salvage these from the dirt or from wherever they landed. A piece of two paisa (adhanna) in my hand is still alive in my memory. I purchased roasted grams with it and half ate and half fed to the monkeys in cages near the police station called ‘chauki Ashfaq’. The monkeys in those days were captured in their thousands and exported (it was rumoured) to America for experiments.
The day after the wedding a feast was organized by the groom’s family. The neighbour’s house was generally used for cooking and feeding the guests.(Rooms locked, veranda and the courtyard available for use). The local naayi (barber) usually did the cooking helped by his sons etc. A huge copper pot called DEG was placed on three make shift brick pillars each 1 ½ feet high. Under this pot wood fire would burn and the pot could cook pulao (rice with meat) for about a hundred people. A similar deg nearby would cook quorma (royal meat curry). In another corner a tandoor (furnace) would be prepared for making naans (flat bread).
Catering, buffet, bearers, tables and decorations were not yet in fashion. Guests would arrive and occupy their places on string cots or whatever was available. In a veranda, or in a clearing a boria (reed mat) 1 ½ metre wide would be unrolled and above it a white cloth would be spread for the entire middle length of about 3-5 metres. The guests would then be invited to come and sit on each side of the central cloth. About 30-50 people will thus be seated and most would wash their right hand in a silapchi (metal mobile sink) which is being pushed along the length of the cloth with a man pouring water from a lota (pitcher). Each person now receives a plate (no spoons or forks etc). Food would then arrive. There is a chain of people from the degs to this eating place and dishes are passed freely and quickly to ensure that the food remains hot. On a signal, each person is now free to dish out a portion on to their plate and start eating. Similar arrangement is done for the women guests in women quarters which is nearby and could be served from the same degs.
After one set of guests have finished, others would be invited after the bones and other leftovers have been cleared from the central cloth and it has been spread again.