An Old Town

I had no intention of spending my time here at the coffee house. I hate nostalgia, it makes me miserable as hell. I am pulled by opposing emotions. I am happy and sad.
I am happy because I am once again at a place where I had spent some time of my life and I am sad because that time is not going to come back ever. I am relieved that no one now knows me, but I still keep looking for a familiar face in the crowd like a lover looks for his beloved. I look like a madman lost and then someone asks.

"Are you new to this place?"  She looks like she is the owner of the café. She is young and fresh and looks a bit bored.

I say "Yes" 
"You are here for work or vacation?"  She is trying to keep the conversation polite but I am in no mood for niceties thus I give her my laconic replies hoping that it will discourage her.

"Neither" I say

"You look like you are lost"

"I am" 

"Where do you want to go?"

To stop the barrage of questions I say - “Can I get a cup of black filter coffee?"

"Sure, sure come in"

All the while she is intently looking at my face and as my coffee arrives she probes again 
"You look familiar"

"I get a lot of that. Just a common face I guess"

"Are you a ghost?"

Now her question intrigues me. "Do you believe in ghosts?" I ask.

"Not as a rule. But I can make an exception in this case. You look like one, like you are possessed. Like you are from the past" she says with a chuckle.

"Oh I am very much here! Only I am sitting on that table 30 years back with my wife and sipping coffee, she was my girlfriend then. This place was different then; much smaller. The place looks new like I don't know it anymore. I am sure you weren't even born then"

"So i was right. You are possessed by the ghost of the past" she says triumphantly.

"Ghost? - No; a Soul - Yes.  What you call it in urdru - ha yes! – रूह "

"What is the difference?" she asks pulling a chair to my table.

"जो सुकून दे वह  रूह है" I say evoking the shayar in me (One that gives peace)

"And Ghost?"

"शायद, जो बेचैन कर दे” (one that perturbs

She looks at me with questioning eyes. I realize I must have given her a bouncer. I quickly finish my coffee in silence and as I am getting up from the chair I say -

"So this is my curse. I am overtly emotional about past and stupidly philosophical about it. And now as I am nearing 50, a constant nostalgia always jingles in my pocket"

"Would you like to tell me your story?" she asks looking me in my eyes. I am surprised by the confrontation. It is more of a demand than a request but the lady looks like she really wants me to talk.

I have nothing else do but I am not open to being vulnerable today, at least not to a stranger. Thus I shrug my shoulder and say "There is no story. I have nothing to tell"

"There is always a story. In the end that is what we really become……..A Story. Please…." she says squeezing my hand. This time she is gentler.

I sit down. She gestures to someone and two black coffee and some brownies are delivered to the table. I realize that the café is almost vacant and thus I begun
My Dad was a government servant which meant transfers were inevitable. It took me 5 schools and 2 colleges to complete my graduation and took me to 8 different places in a span of 21 years of my early life - some towns, few cities and a village. To some it might be a painful experience to leave one's school, friends and a set routine and start it all over again; but I liked the whole exercise. Partings were always painful but the excitement of something new was equally alluring. I always liked the newness of things and that included the smell of the new raincoat and of the new school bag, the new text books, new uniform, new shoes and  above all - New friends. So new place meant letters to friends in old towns describing the new school, the new colony and new friends and lots of comparisons. Almost always it was the old place that was voted better in such exchanges - past memories are always better than the present. While the old friends told us how much they missed us all (us 3 siblings) and how the new family that is now residing in our quarter is a bore. So in all these years I have met, seen and befriended many. Some are still friends, a lot have been forgotten and some others do cross roads once in a while - at least in memories.

The frequent transfers have taught me to treasure memories because that was all that I could carry with me. Oh! How much I would have loved to carry some friends, trees and roads with me. But I have no qualms about the physical limitations. My vivid memory serves me just the same.

Let me pull out a year from my time at a beautiful place where I and Dad were alone. The place was Barham Wadi a small British Cantonment town down south of Wardha in Maharashtra. The water works department quarter was situated at the outskirts of Wadi and I and Dad were alone at the beautiful hillock area near to where the filtration plant was situated. He was summoned as the Chief Engineer to overlook commissioning of a modern filtration plant that would multiply the existing capacity by 20 times. Those were the 70's decade and the post-independence day of vigor and hope were all lost. But dedicated engineers like my father were giving all they could in the process of nation building. This meant that he was transferred to far off places and we would gather our meager belongings and reach new places every once in a while. But this time around the posting in Wadi was meant to last for a year only and my sisters were due to go to college. Thus my parents thought it would be wise to let us three, along with our mother, to stay at our Nani’s place in Bhopal instead. Bhopal was a bigger town and offered better education. I was but adamant and wanted to go to Wadi. I was still in 8th standard and I argued that father will need some company and after all it was just a matter of less than a year. Thus it was decided that me, dad and Sitaram, my grandparent's man servant and cook, will go to Wadi.

Sitaram was a short, baldy guy with a pot belly that looked like a hydrogen balloon. He wore a white dhoti and a white shirt all the time. He spoke crude Awadhi, cooked pleasant Awadhi and was always vigilant about my actions - direct orders from my Nani. I liked him for his cooking and hated him for being a constant watch over me. But I knew well to evade his watchful eyes. All my life I despised authority and rebelled at the first sign of resistance. Wadi was my first taste of freedom and I was not going to let Sitaram spoil it.

Wadi was different than any other place I had been before. It was secluded and beautiful.  The town had a sleepy railway station that came to life at 5 am and 4 pm with only two trains passing at those two hours. The cantonment area was a good distance away from the main town. Exquisite Victorian architecture like a church, a post office and a court room that dotted the single major street of the town gave it a very quaint look. But as like any other town, Wadi too had the new tinned and concrete structure that mushroomed like wild vegetation with each passing year giving it a look of a lady that once was beautiful but now was suffering from some terrible skin ailment. Father's quarters, were further north of the cantonment area making us the people who stayed farthest from the main market near the station. The colony had only 2 officer's quarters and 6 worker's quarter on a small hill adjacent to the old filtration plant. This was a high point and you could look down at the running railway tracks, the sleepy dusty town and all its myriad people and the cantonment area from up here like a hawk. The hill at the back descended into a gorge and then rose again into another one that was almost double the size of this one. This bigger hill was rumoured to be haunted and thus had a dense forest growing a top it. A small steam ran in between the hills during rainy season.

I liked Wadi but I terribly missed any human company for a friend. The trees and vegetation and the thousands of birds and animals were my new friends, all because there wasn't a single sole in the colony I could play with. School too was a far off affair and almost all students stayed near the main market.  All boys and girls at school were nice and friendly but none were to be my friends. I had to travel on feet 2.5 kilometer every day to reach the St. Lawrence Convent School which was located inside the cantonment area. The school was a built in 1904 and was inaugurated by the then Governor of the C P and Berar Province Sir John Prescott Hewett. Everything about it was huge - the classrooms, the prayer hall, the library and the ground. And since the number of pupils were thin it looked even bigger and the red brick structure and a bust of King Edward VII in the middle looked condescending. 

Wadi offered me unrestricted access to my hearts will. With dad missing for a good part of the day and school getting over by early afternoon I had a huge day to kill my time and explore the adventure on the hills. When we reached Wadi the monsoon had just begun. I roamed all around the town and the containment area and the colony and the hills with my freedom and the new found carefreeness. But without any fellow to partake in my fun it all became mundane very soon. But then the rain finally stopped and in came the huts of the construction workers.

One day while I was returning from the school I noticed a lot of tents being set up on the open space near the filtration system. The  dirty mud soaked canvasses, worn out tin sheets, the ropes, the bamboos and a whole lot of men were busy putting up their new shelter in place. A week or so hence there were families, dark looking ladies and girls and naked small boys. The construction of the new water plant was about to commence and suddenly there was a lot of movement and noise in the peaceful colony of ours, much to my relief. I looked at the new people with amusement. They were really different. They spoke a very different language and their attire was strange. The men all wore loin cloths and nothing else while the ladies wore colourful dresses and adorned large circular ring as necklaces and nose and ear rings. The small babies were mostly naked. There was but one thing common that they all wore despite their hard life and it was a beaming smile. The striking poverty was very visible but strangely it wasn't pitiable. All along the day the men were busy at work but as the evening descended the gathering at the huts grew thick and clamorous. The men played games while the ladies sang song and prepared simple but nice smelling food on the smoky chullhas. They possessed nothing and they ate and slept under the sky but they behaved like they owned the stars and the moon and the river. From the perspective of a modern life they had all the reasons to be worried but they were blithe. If a famine struck they would be the first casualties but they were opulent in sharing. I think that is what drew me to them and though I remained an outsider I very much became a part of them in some small sort of way and their presence was a new learning for me. That year I learnt more from them about the world than at school. They taught me to make simple and useful weapons to catch snakes and as protection from the intruders - like a wooden sickle. I learnt to play Gudu, Kabadi, Kelibadi and  Nadia Phinga (Coconut Throwing) from the Bhainas. I learnt to eat and like Pakhala, Dalma and Besara and even had my first taste of Mahua, a freshly brewed liquor made of butter tree flowers, with them.

Sitaram didn’t like me mingling with the workers. He was a firm believer in the caste system, and though we were not the high caste Bramhins, he firmly believed that we were superior to the workers. He had his own doubts that they were untouchables, but the fact that my father never stopped me mingling with them made him believe otherwise. My father was a liberal and belonged to the new generation of Indians who valued education and equality. He was never the strict type and would never stop us children from anything as long as we were open to him. But that did not stop Sitaram from complaining to my father, who was getting more and more busy at office and started coming late in the evening.

Thus I started spending more and more time with the families of the workers. I believe that I owe my predilection to folk music to them. With nothing but an ektara and a small dholak they created magic. They danced in formations and moved about in circles raising the dust and the spirit of an onlooker. They gave me my wealth of music, my culinary skills and my spirituality. I never saw them fight or treat anyone (be it a woman or a child or a dog) with disrespect and thus they also gave me a new meaning for being educated. They had a very earthy way of living, one that was in sync with nature. They were hardworking, honest and responsible men. Time flew fast and they completed the work of the water plant on time and then it was time for them to leave.

Just days ahead of Holi the huts and the workers were gone. While they were leaving I cried. Never in my entire life had I felt so abandoned before. I guess the feeling of helplessness was what caused my inner upheaval. Helplessness that this is last time that I am going to see them - that I was never going to meet them again nor would I be able to be in touch with them through letters. That day I realised what an evil thing hope is - if you have it, you suffer now looking at tomorrow and if you don't have it, you suffer now knowing there is no tomorrow - thing is you suffer anyway.

After they left I felt a sudden empty cavity in the pit of my stomach. They had taken every sign of their existence with them. The tent, the chullhas, and the laughter- all was gone. It was as if they were never there except in my mind and hence it was upsetting. Each time I looked at the vacant plot where once the huts were my heart filled up and trickled down from my eyes. Parting with those workers stirred something from deep within me. This was definitely not the first time I was saying goodbye to someone but it definitely was the last time when I said a goodbye with a happy face. I reckon that was the day when I began suffering from Perennial Nostalgic Syndrome - you see I am hypochondriac too, I create my own ailments.

The workers left without any farewell and I felt really miserable till I too finally left Wadi a couple of months later. I have never sent any letter to anyone in Wadi and have never been to Wadi again after that. I am not a psychologist but I think the time I spent in Wadi and the separation I experienced has got something to do with why I don't like nostalgia.

I reckon, it was my first experience with death. But this realisation came decades later when I lost my partner of 20 years. That day I again felt the empty cavity return but this time it never went away. Since that day I started looking more often than necessary in the past; questioning if God truly has any plans for us. All my life, as I look it from here, seems like a series of random incidences and I have lost any faith I had in anything good in the world. Then when I thought I had lost it all I got my poetry. Strange is his ways. He takes away what we want and gives us whatever he thinks fit and since we can't do anything about it, we - the resilient human make the best of whatever we get and then people come along and tell us - See he takes care of everything. But my beliefs keep changing these days and if we were to meet again some other day who knows I might be praising God and his ways but as of today I don’t think we live a plan, we simply follow a custom of living and the habit of breathing till …….

And I hear her say

ज़िन्दगी जीना भी क्या रवायत है
सांस लेना भी क्या आदत है
चलती रही साँसें और मैं ज़िंदा रहा
मैं ज़िंदा हु - मैं ज़िंदा हु कहता रहा
फिर एक दिन जब डॉक्टर ने कहा -
"इनका बचाना मुश्किल है "
तब एहसाँस हुआ
थोड़ा मरना अभी और बाकि है

And we both laugh and laugh and laugh.

"See i said you look familiar" she says smiling at me.


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