I am sitting at my desk, in Mumbai, in the early hours of the morning. The words in my head play havoc. And I must follow their command and rise even as the rest of the family continues to sleep, tired after the holidays that took us home.
Its 5.45 a.m. The sun is yet to rise.
‘The sun’s lazy in Mumbai. Maybe because the people here are so active anyways; it doesn’t feel the need to rise early,’ my younger daughter reasoned only yesterday when we were in Mangalore and the sun’s rays streamed into her bedroom at 6.00 a.m. waking her up. Here in Mumbai,the sun rises only after 6.30 a.m. and its Spring.
After the excitement of the last few days, the silence here is deafening. Back in grandma’s ‘village,’ despite the fact that the three members of the household are all over sixty, the house was abuzz with activity when we were still stirring in our beds. And this isn’t peculiar only to their house but ‘getting into action,’ much before sun-rise is the norm in this village. Before I continue, let me clarify on the ‘village’ bit, lest someone from there reads it and takes offense. I have never been able to make up my mind if this place is still a village or has now been conferred the ‘town’ status. Villages , as per my understanding are supposed to have thatched roof houses, kachcha roads and people with little or no education involved in agriculture. But again the ‘villages’ in places like Italy had none of that but were still deemed as such based on the size of their population. If this be so then ‘Jeppina Mogre,’ the place I am talking about, where my grandmother’s home is, where I spent every summer holiday as a child and where I stayed for 3 years during my graduation is not a village- it has a road that takes you to and from it, a bus that goes through it, and it has educated people. Houses has a television set and water running through pipes (they no longer need to draw water from wells). Yet, in many ways, it still feels like a village- its probably the simplicity and the warmth of the people. Houses have doors, but these doors are shut only at night. People call next door neighbors simply by giving them a shout through open windows even though they have phones. And if you have a visiting family member, it isn’t strange to drop into every house in the neighborhood to say, ‘hello.’ Everybody knows everybody else here. They know their parents, their grand-parents and so on and so forth. They even know your visiting friends! There are no secrets here. Its all an open book.
In Mumbai, now its 6.20 a.m. and the sky has a tinge of crimson. The morning quiet is broken by the chorus of birds. They call, sing and whistle in sync, but it is the cawing that dominates, just like in Mangalore.
Mangalore, a coastal city on the Western coast of India is best known for its Port, Iron and Steel plant, Petrochemical industries, cashew factories and educational institutions. Despite the many industries, the city has managed to retain its ‘small town charm.’ Jeppinamogre is a ‘village-town’ in this city. While a lot seems to have changed in the last 2 decades, it is still the slow moving city that I moved away from a quarter of a century ago .A city where my roots are. A city I loved as a child. And a city I couldn’t bear to remain in once I completed college.
Love of family can be stifling, when one is in one’s twenties. I felt the same…
As I got out of the flight on the ‘Ides of March,’ my eyes darted in search of the familiar. The small shack of an airport into which I’d fly in as a little girl with mom had gone and in its place stood the ‘Mangalore International Airport’ (one of the few in the South of the country) – a two storey glass building, a few conveyor belts (earlier there had been just one), a shiny tiled floor and spotlessly clean washrooms. Outside the airport, taxi drivers stood in a disciplined huddle, unlike the past -no more haggling or running up to the passengers to get the ‘best customer.’
‘ Why is everybody in white here? Is it the uniform?’ my daughter observed looking outside the airport’s sliding glass doors. It wasn’t something out of place, not for me, because that’s how it had always been in Mangalore. Most men wear a white shirt and many even pair it up with white trousers. I think its something that began with Gandhiji, the Khadi movement or following the Congress party which has gone on to become a way of life here. Its unmistakably different from any other city in the country – ‘Men in white!’
Like my sister and I, towed behind mom in the good old days, the girls’ followed me to the awaiting taxis’. The suns’s rays scorched more than ever before or maybe living away from the sea-side town for years, had made me more sensitive. The red Mangalore soil glowed like burning embers in the noon sun. There was truly nothing remotely beautiful about the terrain on the way from the airport. Dusty trees, dug up roads, buildings with paint peeling off…When I was a little girl, the ride home from the airport, never failed to take my breath away. Perhaps it had something to do with the season – visits to Grandma’s home in the past were always during the Monsoons; when the trees, buildings, roads are bathed by the rains, the paddy fields are a lush green and the smell of wet soil and salt fill the air . Now, in the middle of March, the land was parched and the air had a ‘fishy’ smell.
As the taxi made its way home, I hoped to find things of interest, that I could draw the girls’ attention to. It hadn’t been easy to get them to come here for 6 days of the 9 day school break. They had wanted nothing more than to stay back after the exams and enjoy the pleasures provided by the couch and the idiot box. The sweltering Mangalore heat was not helping.
Here and there, as I looked I saw signs of progress- a few tall buildings, unheard of in the past; restaurants with chic names boasting a menu of burgers and pizzas, a 24 hour pharmacy- the size of a super-market, cemented roads in place of the old tar roads had ended the notorious pot-holes that the town had once been famous for. I remembered as college students, we often joked that if a pregnant woman had to travel on the roads, she would deliver mid-way, thanks to the innumerable pot-holes. I shuddered now at the thought. It was good to see that that the joke had become redundant.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the driver takes a wrong turn because of which I am able to point out my college, my Uncle’s college and my father’s house to the girls’; all in very diverse directions. It is only after he has committed the mistake, he decides to ask me for the direction. However, this does not frustrate me. For one, the taxi is pre-paid – the driver cannot charge more and secondly, I do not have to get home at a particular time. I am no longer the child I was when I left home who had to answer if she was late.
A left turn from the highway and we are on the road leading to ‘ Jeppina Mogre.’ The name means ‘Sleeping Rabbit.’ Don’t ask me why. People here have answers to every question except this. Change has touched this place too. Its no more the sleepy village I left. Small shops line both sides of the road. A men’s salon, a laundry, a grocery, the old club house remains(which serves as a place for young men to meet and discuss politics, football matches and play carom)…the car zooms past the shops and houses that I once recognized and I finally see the familiar – a two-storey sprawling white house standing defiant and tall in front of the village school.
‘Mamu,’ mum’s brother was waiting at the gates, a warm grin that says it all- ‘nothing has changed,’ but the white hair on his head, the receding hair line, a few fallen teeth and the deep furrows on his forehead tell a different story.
The car enters the paved driveway in which the holy Basil stands. Every independent house in Mangalore has a Basil plant in the center of the courtyard and every night a lamp is lit and kept at the foot of the plant. ‘Amma,’ (my grandmother) followed the ritual unfailingly every night and I did it on a few occasions when I lived there. Now, Mamu (the atheist) does it for Amma’s sake. The plant is as tall as bamboo shoots, quite unlike what I have ever seen. Apparently its a lucky charm, if it grows tall and therefore has not been pruned. I have yet to check out if this premise is indeed true or is one of Mamu’s concoctions. The red and black bricks in the courtyard have replaced the green lawns. A neatly tended flower bed lines the courtyard. The outside grounds are spic and span. Increasing age, a nagging pain in the ankles and an aching back have not deterred Maasi (mom’s sister) from sweeping the falling leaves everyday and burning them.
Maasi is at the door, lips stretched from ear to ear, eyes dancing. ‘Oh you’ve come home finally. What took you’ll so long?’ she says, in her characteristic high-pitched voice. Behind her is Amma with her new walker gifted by a neighbor who works in a hospital and who Maasi had helped in the past. Eyes wet, an infant’s toothless smile, grey hair tied back into the thinnest of plaits, wearing a cotton night-gown, slightly bent is my best friend, Amma (my mother’s mother). She smelled like she always did- of ‘Ponds dream-flower’ powder.
The marble floor inside the house, felt cool to the feet. If it had a mirror like surface that could reflect, it would. It had always been shiny and clean. I remember detesting the excessive cleaning when I lived there, as I felt compelled to participate in the activity and I was a normal lazy nineteen year old. Now, I could not help being appreciative. It was Maasi’s efforts of-course. She too had followed in Amma’s footsteps. Dad would often joke that everybody in the family had a obsessive compulsive disorder when it came to cleaning. Massi explained that work had lately been segregated between her and Mamu (Maasi’s brother). It was his job to clean the cobwebs, dust the windows and polish the brass-ware. Well, let’s say, he did whatever he could and Maasi couldn’t push him to do any more. The cobwebs on the very high ceilings and on the fifty-odd window railings, were proof .
‘Look they have curtains,’ my older one observed, grateful.
When I had told my sister that I was planning to stay over at grandma’s place with the girls’ so that they could bond with the family and experience the slow life there, she had laughingly reminisced, ‘Oh they will definitely have an experience- with 50 windows around the house and no curtains! Sun’s rays streaming in at 6.00 a.m on their holidays, when all they want is to sleep…’
The curtains were the biggest development in grandma’s house. All 50 windows had curtains, some even had 2 sets – the inner thin veiled one and the outer thicker one to block out the light ! In fact, there were curtains between the three living rooms, at the beginning and end of doorways and there was a cupboard which had a second set too. It was hilariously surprising. Apparently, a hawker from Rajasthan had come home with the curtains. A door to door salesmen. I must say, he must have been one smart cookie to be able to sell not one set of 50 curtains but two to my very stringent Maasi. Maasi explained that it allowed them to wash one set and hang the second so that they did not have to go a day without curtains. They had got a good deal and everybody was happy. So there were no complaints and we visitors, were only too happy with the new addition.
A lot had changed, other than the curtains. And it seemed better off. The three senior citizens in the house were part of a community that cared.
The neighbors were a literally call away; by that I don’t mean a phone call. All Maasi had to do was to go to the side of the courtyard adjacent to the neighbor she wanted to talk to and shout out their name in her trained ‘teacher’ voice (something she had acquired as a result of her profession of 40 years); and they would appear at their window. On one side there were even two bricks (can you spot it in the picture?) to make it easy for the neighbor to jump the wall and step down into the courtyard. It was all very functional.
The current generation of the working community in the village were those who at some point in time had been taught by Maasi. And though she had been an extremely strict disciplinarian (during the 3 years I was there, I had kept my distance, never quite approving of the level of discipline required in her classes), her ‘once-upon-a-time’ students made it a point to stop by at the gate or drop in if time permitted and speak to her and Amma, on their way to or from work. I guess they felt, in some way, that they owed their achievement, to her. I suppose it was true.
I realized that though we were away from them, they were not alone. People living around them truly cared for them and almost everybody in the village knew them, except a few newcomers.It was obvious the three of them were reaping the fruit of years of labor and good-will. What was nice was, that they were still sowing the seeds, by being a part of the village school in front of the house. Maasi spent time teaching the government children folk dance and Amma had a scholarship given to the best student in her name. In coordination with the Rotary club, Mamu and Maasi had even managed to get wash-basins fixed, cupboards and computers sponsored for the school children. Being part of the school no doubt helped the school children but it also helped Mamu and Maasi. It gave them a sense of responsibility after retirement.
This ‘change for the better’ had not only affected the three of them but the neighbors too. Houses with tiled or thatched roofs had been replaced with cement roofs (a sign of prosperity), the next-door neighbor had even started baby-sitting for around 25 kids ( meant the children’s parents were employed and needed somebody to take care of their child) and women had started walking in groups on the new cemented roads, in the early hours of the morning to keep fit (an activity unheard of in the past). Even the idol of ‘Koragajja’ (a holy spirit considered to be the Spirit of Luck, the finder of lost things and the Spirit who makes wishes come true), once on the road-side, now had an enclosure built. Everyday, the people of the village stopped by, bowed their head in reverence, made an offering, said a quick prayer, rang the bell and went on their ways.
The dark side of change was that there were barely any fields left. The open land behind grandma’s house was now covered with single-storey houses. It felt claustrophobic. I remember in the past how I’d stand on the terrace staring out into the green paddy fields and how I enjoyed every moment doing it. While the rest of India had seen a wave of professionals returning to farming, people here had moved away. But it wasn’t surprising. Mangalore had always been slow to change. The change here was what had touched the rest of the country in 2002-2006.
We spent six days in a world where we were known, loved and had been missed. Everybody had a story to share with us; of us, of our childhood – both mine and the children. Listening to those stories reminded us that this is where we belonged, that this was a part of us. We weren’t strangers or guests and though this was the first time we had stayed at home after 13 years, nothing had really changed. The holidays passed by like a beautiful dream- one with good food, visits to the temple, reunion with college friends and family get-togethers. We – not just me but the girls’ as well, returned nourished and happy, to our temporary home in the city.
A plant is as strong as its roots are. And we were but branches.
It had taken me 13 years to find my way back, to return home to the people who loved me unconditionally. I had needed the time away, to learn to fly on my own. But I am immensely grateful that on returning, neither the love nor the bond that tied us in the past, had changed.
To my readers, let me know if you can relate to any piece of the above writing in terms of the place or the relationships or the experience of returning home; or if it seemed like an entirely different world to you. Is there a beautiful good relationship that you left behind? If yes, do you think the time has come to pick up those threads again? Looking forward to hearing from you.
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