Under the Same Sky Part VI
In my six-year-old mind I absorbed a collage of images of Allahabad. I recollect that there was home and school. At home we had simple activities closely supervised by our parents. When guests came to visit we were brought in to greet them, answer a few questions and leave the room. When friends came to play they salaamed our elders and when we went over we did the same to their parents, before proceeding to play. Socialising was a monitored area in which parents reviewed the friends we made at school, so that we mixed with families, with similar values and norms. Parents guided us to stay sway from those who had different lifestyles, or did not have good reputations and were socially avaricious, acquiring money through ill means. The evenings in Allahabad were spent with the sound of the radio wafting the baritone voice of Melvin Demello and Suronjit Sen giving the news, or catchy vocal music of those times, which Akhteri Bai Faizabadi, Jutika Roy, Shamshad Begum, Noorjahan Mohd. Rafi, and Master Madan were the favourites.
On hot humid evenings and in cold winter nights, the howl of jackals would sound eerily from afar as we would huddle round as Mummy would recount the tale of English ghosts who walked along the fences, in nearby bungalows where they had died mysteriously. Once we were allotted a house in Lukerganj Colony which was said to be haunted, but my mother who was courageous and even enjoyed tales of the occult, decided to stay on. At dinner time, which was around 8 o'clock, when we gathered for the meal and glasses were filled it was invariably seen that one glass would topple over. We would ask each other who pushed or knocked the table and everyone would say "Not me". The bearer would quickly slap up the spilt water and we would resume eating. After several weeks of such incidents my mother said "Someone may be thirsty, so I'm going to place an extra glass on the table". From that evening on no glass ever toppled over. The thirsty ghost was assuaged.
Sometimes when my parents dined out the old cook would gather us on the veranda, overlooking the dark grassy compound, and tell us not to stray far as English people's ghosts roamed around in the mist and fog. One other story was about a young English lady whose husband died suddenly of typhoid soon after reaching Allahabad. She used to place two glasses of water each evening on the lawn table and pretended her husband was alive. After a while the drink in one glass would start assenting, till the glass emptied. The old cook said the Sahib would return each evening to drink with his wife!
There was another story about a strict no-nonsense Englishman who lived alone with his very ferocious hound dog. One day, robbers broke in to steal money and murdered him, killing the dog too. Since then the Sahib's ghost was seen after dusk walking with his hound dog at his heels as if nothing had happened. We were terrified and our servants would carry us to bed, tuck hum lories, lullabies, until our eyes closed and sleep overcame us.
Another flash image I remember was about the day my mother taught us a lesson on honesty, for the future. My sister Cuckoo had been paying at a friend's house and she had fancied a celluloid baby doll and had tucked it under her flouncy skirt and brought it home. My mother hugged my seven-year-old sister and told her that this was called stealing, no matter how much she liked the kewpie doll, and just wanted to play with it. "Go back right now. I will not go with you, give it back to Aunty and say sorry".
Allahabad was a city of quaint charm, located on the Jumna river with a treasure of rich folk lore, folk songs and the art of story telling, so much a part of the people's culture. The common people spoke purabi a loveable dialect of Hindi-Urdu mix. A street scene on any summer morning would be heralded with the sound of the horse carriage called ekka garhi clopping by, in which tiny children went to school under the care of the ekka wallah, the clatter of the milk man's cans and measuring mugs as he herded his cows along and supplied milk by milking the cow in the compound of the house. Yes, that's how it was, believe it or not! With typical purabi humour the calls of vendors selling cucumbers called ‘Laila-ki-pasli' or Laila's ribs, and Majnu-ki-unglian, or Majnu's fingers in the blazing summers, when temperatures rose to 106°F, drew customers to smile and chat. People did not bolt and bar their houses at night, and one even slept out on the lawns under the starry sky!
Services in the Colony were institutionalised. In those days house keeping was interlinked with a number of professional home services, closely woven with the Hundu caste system. The dhobi and his wife the dhobin were of the washerman's subcaste, and provided laundering services on a weekly basis. Clothes were stacked up in most houses in wicker baskets or wood and cane closets, and were counted and handed over to the dhobi/dhobin who brought along bundles of washed clothes on donkey-back. The washerman or washerwoman would come weekly to collect our used clothes, which were counted by them and written down by my mother in a book called takada. The clothes came back in neat layers, washed, starched and sprinkled with something that sparkled in the sunlight. Those were mica chips, like in sand. There were three categories of items, small, (vests, hankies, napkins), medium, (shirts, pyjamas, blouses), large, (saris, pants, bed sheets, table cloths, curtains). A whole month's laundry for five persons used to cost Rs 12 to Rs 15.
I remember the image of our washerwomen Savitri, and Ganga Ram the dhobi, her husband who wore very white clothes. Savitri's saree, having a solid coloured blue or green border; always wore silver earrings, bracelets and anklets adorning her slim body. She had bright black eyes and flashed a lovely set of teeth when she finished counting the clothes and got her money. The dhobi was talkative and would skilfully fold over the clothes which had any stain remaining, so my mother could not catch him while he counted over the lot!
To be continued…
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008