(Those of you who have read the previous chapters in the series would know what this is about. Those who haven't, you can take this as a simple, standalone short story as well. From here on in, the chapters of this series would take the similar structure as in this one: some little, eventful and simple stories of my charming childhood in Udaipur. Since this is the first one of those stories, I wanted it to be a special memory related to my late Nana. This one is among the earliest and the most memorable ones that I had of him. Hope some of you enjoy it.)
May 1991, Udaipur, Rajasthan
“Maati baandhe painjanee, Bangdi pehne baadli,
Dedo dedo baavdo, Ghod-mathod baavdi…”
My eyes fluttered. Trying to adjust to the searing sunlight coming from right above me.
“Maati baandhe painjanee, Bangdi pehne baadli,
Dedo dedo baavdoooo…oooooooooo
Dedo dedo baavdo, Ghod-mathod baavdi…”
The voice came from the streets below. From the voice – that of a male – and the various musical instruments lending support to it, I could gauge that there was a group of Rajasthani tribals who were performing the song. The combined sound of different instruments that came along with the song made it sound beautiful. There definitely was an ektara and a pair of khartals being used. Perhaps there were some other instruments too, but my brain did not have the energy yet to decipher them. I just wanted to lie there and enjoy the song; even though I did not understand a word of it (it was in Mewari).
He seemed like a well-trained singer, the man. And even as his voice faded away slowly into the distance, traces of his raw melody still lingered in my mind.
Somewhere in the distance, possibly in a temple, a bell began clanging, followed by the rhythmic murmuring of some Sanskrit shlokas which I was unable to comprehend. I finally sat up and checked the little, blue digital watch on my wrist for the time. It said 09:03 A.M. Yawning loudly and stretching my hands, I looked around the terrace. At least 15 white beds were spread on the massive terrace floor of my nani ghar. About ten of them were now empty indicating that their inhabitants had moved on to perform their morning ablutions. I, being on my annual summer vacation here, did not feel the need to get up early at all. But the May sun was already beginning to beat down hard and lying around on an open terrace was becoming impossible.
To my right lay my elder brother who, like me, was on his vacations and was merrily sleeping away. The way he was letting out his light snores, (which were like a horse’s snort as my mother would say) it seemed unlikely that he would be getting up anytime soon. To his right were Himanshu, Maruti and Paritosh, my cousin mamas, all in their late teens, also sleeping without a care in the world; just sprawled on the beds like a bunch of rag dolls.
Last night had been fun. All of us – about 15 of my cousin mamas, my brother and I – had hung out at the terrace; gossiping, teasing each other and enjoying the fresh night breeze before finally dozing off, tired and exhausted. It was kind of a ritual that we followed almost on a daily basis and I always looked forward to it.
A snort by my brother brought me to the present and I realized that it was 9:10 A.M. now. Time was precious in my summer vacations in Udaipur and hence I did not want to waste away any more of it. Giving a last look to the remaining members on the terrace, I finally left.
It was warm today. Really warm. With not a trace of a breeze anywhere. I realized unhappily while brushing my teeth on the stone platform facing our open field. It was kind of like the backyard of the house, only the field here was massive - about 40 yards on either side. The field would generally be used by the young members of the house for playing cricket or for letting the cows roam around for a while. Yes, we had cows as well.
To the right end corner of where I was standing presently, on the stone platform, there was a small cowshed with two adult cows in it: one white and one light brown. The shed was very cozy; covered with a tin roof, and filled with big buckets of water and huge containers of grass for the cows, while the walls were covered with dry cow dung. It would usually emit a very pungent smell due to the mixture of three odors: the smell of the grass, the cow dung and the cows themselves.
This was my favourite area of the colossal house. Since this was the back portion, it generally remained deserted; women of the house would occasionally come by to feed the leftovers to the cows. I came here often in the afternoons or late evenings when nobody would be here to bother me. The cows fascinated me. I loved watching the nonchalant way they went about their business: just munching grass all day long or just relaxing under the cool shed. No worries about any studies or tests. Just eating and defecating all day. Despite the fear of their big horns, I often fed them the grass myself while patting their head lightly. It was something that gave me great pleasure.
I spit out the toothpaste right on the small mound of soil which lay at the bottom of the stone platform and which led to the beginning of the field. This was the area where most people of the house came to brush their teeth in the morning, despite having a huge wash basin inside. Brushing right in the open was sort of comforting, I admit. And it gave me a chance to accumulate my thoughts peacefully and let my brain get recharged for the day. I did feel odd for spitting the paste on the soil, initially. But realized later that the paste would merge with the soil or would get washed away with the occasional rain.
“Arre, Chiku Bhai! Where were you?”
I turned around to see my Nana smiling at me. He had just entered the backyard from a small, wooden gate behind me, which led to the inside of the house from this end. About 72 years of age, my Nana was a very simple and jovial man who ran a small snacks shop in a busy market of the city. He had been working tirelessly in the shop for more than 50 years and even at this age, never skipped a day of work.
Presently, he was clad in his usual off-white half shirt which was always tucked out and blue trousers along with brown sandals. He looked absolutely spick and span with his white hair combed right back and light moustache trimmed neatly. I must have missed him when I came down from the terrace to my nana-nani’s room – the place where all my belongings would be at on my trips to Udaipur – to get my toothbrush as he was taking his bath then. Now, he was all ready to go to his shop and usually took the backyard gate as it was closer to the place.
“Um…I got up late, Nana. We gossiped till 2 AM last night,” I told him.
Nana chuckled. He just loved it if I was having fun whilst at my stay in Udaipur.
“Want to go to Gulab Bagh, today?” he asked
“Yes,” I replied immediately. Gulab Bagh was a renowned park of the city which also housed a small zoo. I loved it dearly and never missed a chance to visit it.
Nana chuckled again and patted my back.
“Be there with Mammu (my elder brother) at my shop by 4 pm. I will treat you to some tasty snacks and then we will go to Gulab Bagh, okay?” he said with his usual benign smile.
“Okay,” I replied delightedly; already imagining the various delicious snacks I would get to gorge on at Nana’s shop and about the prospect of getting to stroll around the awesome Gulab Bagh again.
Patting my back again, Nana walked away, towards the small grilled gate which led to the street outside. He paused before the cow shed and bowing slightly, gave the cows an earnest 'namaste' before moving away. He waved at me after reaching outside and I returned the gesture. I watched him walk away, slowly yet assuredly: beyond the stone walls of our massive field, beyond the tiny kindergarten school, beyond the dhobi shop; until he finally turned right and disappeared from sight.
The old, broken-down fan seemed to be wheezing at the effort of trying to provide some respite to the inhabitants in the shop. But the oppressive May heat of Udaipur seemed to have intensified inside “Ram Bharose” – Nana’s snacks shop. It was a quaint little eatery located right in the heart of Udaipole, a busy market area of the city.
From what my mother had told me countless times, Nana had been operating this eatery for close to 50 years now. Initially, it used to be a full-fledged restaurant and had such massive footfalls that another shop was opened up just to segregate the customers. However, with time, Nana, who used to manage the shops almost single-handedly, had to sell away one shop and decided to overlook just Ram Bharose, which was now reduced to a small snacks shop: selling tea, ganthiya, mohanthal, and a few other snacks.
It was 4:30 PM now, I checked on my watch again. I and my brother were sitting at one corner of the shop, overlooking the counter where Nana was at. Both of us had a plate of Mohanthal in our hands; made by Nana himself in the shop. This was my favourite sweet and I could never have enough of it. We had been served four pieces of the tender, brown square delicacy in our plates. I had already gobbled up three of them swiftly and was now eyeing my brother’s plate jealously who was just into his first one.
As I munched on my fourth piece, I looked around at the insides of 'Ram Bharose'. The shop had quite the dingy setting: old ceiling fans, old cupboards, old wooden chairs and tables and old-looking bulbs. Even the kadhai (cooking pot) beside the counter, where some ganthiyas were being fried at present, looked a hundred years old. There were a few customers seated out in the front section; one was sipping tea and munching on ganthiya, while reading a local newspaper; one was talking animatedly to Nana about the current political situation which I did not understand at all: I could only grasp words like “Narsimha Rao” and “BJP”.
Many of the shop’s customers, in fact, just visited the place to chat with Nana about the current hot topics. Nana had a way of talking about things and he would generally make people laugh out loud with his regular quips or other hilarious anecdotes. On several occasions, I had seen people gathered around his counter and guffawing after every few minutes, while Nana went on narrating some incident or the other with a twinkle in his eyes.
Bored with the proceedings, and uncomfortable with the stuffy weather, I turned my attention towards my brother who was now talking to Hira, the head labor of the shop. In his late 40s, Hira was an obedient worker and a very simple-looking lanky man with wiry hair and a warm smile. I had always seen him wearing the same clothes: beige colored half-shirt having two pockets on the chest and matching trousers. Presently, he was narrating some incident about Nana and a customer who was not willing to pay for the food he had had. From my brother’s muffled snickering, I could gather that this must have been a really funny story. But currently, all I wanted was to be inside ‘Gulab Bagh’ and was getting increasingly impatient. I kept looking around and kept checking my watch: it was 4:55 now.
Getting irritated with my brother’s constant snickering, I turned to look at an old man, who, apparently, had just entered the shop. Wearing a traditional Rajasthani safa, the man was sitting right at the corner table of the shop; away from the hoopla at the counter up front. He had thick white beard and moustache and was wearing a plain blue shirt and a white dhoti. With wrinkles all over his face, he appeared very tired and sat with his right leg curled up on the chair and his right hand resting lightly on it. He took a sip from his glass of tea and then took a small piece of ganthiya from the plate in front of him. Seemingly uninterested in anything, he just kept gazing at the street outside, looking at the cows and cycles passing by, while munching his ganthiya very slowly; almost like a cow: in a side-to-side motion. This reminded me of the cows back at the house. I wondered if he was sad about something or was just a plain boring person.
A snap of fingers near my ears broke my stare. It was Nana, smiling down at me.
“Should we go then?” he asked with the usual twinkle in his eyes.
It was a question both of us knew the answer to.
It felt wonderful to walk beside the vibrant rose bushes and the tall, green trees in ‘Gulab Bagh’. Not just because of the pleasing sight. But because of the overall coolness the greenery provided.
‘Gulab Bagh’ (also known as 'Sajjan Niwas') is the largest garden in Udaipur and was extremely popular among its denizens as was evident from the numerous people merrily strolling around the place along with us. People usually came in here early in the mornings for having a jog or in the late afternoons to cool off among its pleasant surroundings. Built in the 1850s by Maharana Sajjan Singh, the place was filled with an array of beautiful flowers – mostly roses – and countless green trees. It was situated right beneath the banks of Pichola Lake on Lake Palace Road and was about 15 minutes walking distance from our home and about the same from Nana’s shop.
It was 5:15 PM now and the warm weather had simmered down, giving way to a cool breeze. Being surrounded by greenery on all sides, made the breeze all that more pleasant. Up above me, there was incessant chitter of birds, hundreds of them. While I enjoyed the scenery, what I really wanted was to visit the small zoo which was also a part of the place.
A Toy Train suddenly went past us with screaming kids inside it. Yes, Gulab Bagh also had a Toy Train which took visitors on a small (and very slow, I must add) trip throughout the 100-acre park. Holding Nana’s hand, I kept looking back at the Toy Train which had slowly moved past us and disappeared into a turning. I had always wanted to take a trip in the Toy Train but somehow never got the chance to.
A sudden and ferocious roar pierced through the surrounding. So fierce was it that I almost jerked around completely, thinking that a tiger had been let loose. The other people too had been shaken completely. For a second, everyone laughed nervously and craned their necks towards the direction of the noise: the zoo nearby.
Then another roar. This one was sharper and more menacing. The other, heavier roar too followed immediately.
After a second, people began scampering in excitement towards the zoo area.
“The tiger cage…The tiger cage...Let’s go…Let’s go…” said my brother excitedly and began running towards the noise.
He was fascinated with wildlife, my brother; especially tigers and lions. Back at home in Calcutta, he had a habit of watching various nature documentaries on television very minutely. He would watch them for hours at end and make me watch them too. Although they used to bore me initially, I was slowly beginning to take a keen interest in them. My brother would excitedly tell me what the documentaries were about in detail as my six-year-old brain was too young to grasp them entirely. Listening to his stories, my interest in wildlife was now peaking steadily.
Presently, he was dragging Nana and me towards the zoo. His broad spectacles couldn’t hide the gleam in his eyes. The roars were now increasing in velocity and he was now literally running; past the enclosures of the birds, the monkeys, and the bear.
“Won’t you be scared?” Nana asked me with a smile.
I shook my head and quietly walked ahead, trying to catch up. But to be honest, I was a little scared. Some of those nature documentaries about lions and tigers had given me nightmares. But I was intrigued as well and did not want to miss out on this moment.
There was a huge crowd gathered outside a couple of enclosures and I could understand this was the place of action. I could already spot my brother in the crowd, his eyes wide in wonder, his mouth hanging open.
I and Nana finally made way through the crowd to stand at the end of the group and saw that this was a fight between the inhabitants of two enclosures: an adult tiger in one and a fully-grown Indian lion and lioness in the other. Both the enclosures were built side by side and only a steel mesh separated them. Apparently, the lion had been irked by something that the tiger had done and both he and the lioness were furiously roaring away at the tiger. Not one to cower down, the tiger was giving it back with full might; roaring with his entire mouth open, his nostrils flaring dangerously and tail moving angrily.
It was a fascinating scene and it had us all rooted to the spot. My heart thumped madly and I could literally feel the ground reverberating with the noise that was being created by the three animals. There was absolute pin-drop silence in the crowd which kept building up with every second and every roar. The birds above in the trees were all making a great cacophony while the three big cats went at each other. I realized that I was clutching Nana’s hands very tightly now. He hadn’t noticed this, though, and was transfixed by the scene in front of us.
Suddenly, the tiger stood up upright and began banging at the mesh separating the two enclosures furiously. It seemed that he wanted to break open the barrier between the two and have a real go at his neighbours. The lion and lioness seemed to be taken aback at this. And although they continued their roaring, one could feel that they had been matched.
The lion’s pride was obviously hurt and he too got up and pawed at the net for a while. But the tiger’s eyes seemed to be possessed. He continued banging the mesh with force and continued to outroar the lion and the lioness combined.
After what seemed like hours, the lion finally gave in and turned his back. While both the lion and lioness continued roaring, their velocity had certainly lessened. Both of them now moved to the corner of their cage and sat down: their backs to the tiger and ear twitching slightly. The tiger, after having asserted his point firmly, now finally came back on all fours and nonchalantly moved away to his shed at the corner of the cage; not giving a second glance to the hundred eyes that were fixed on him.
The crowd began slowly dispersing. Everyone had been amazed and was murmuring among themselves about the incredible fight they had just witnessed. My brother came running towards us and still had that awed expression on his face; his curly hair appeared to be standing at an end.
“That was an amazing fight,” he said in amazement.
I realized that I had been holding my breath and finally let go.
We now began walking away. Nana thumped my back and asked, “Did you have fun?”
I nodded: still too awestruck to mutter anything. My brother, meanwhile, kept recounting the fight several times as we headed towards the exit. He was literally bouncing on his feet and kept giving us minute details of the tiger and the lions’ expressions through the fight. It seemed that he was not likely to forget it in a hurry.
I could hardly concentrate on what he was saying, though. Even as I held Nana’s hand tightly and even as the skies above turned a beautiful mix of orange and pink, I could not get the menacing roar and the frightening eyes of the tiger away from my mind. It seemed that I was not likely to forget that in a hurry.
I shifted uncomfortably in my bed. I felt restless and could not sleep.
Looking around at the terrace, I noticed that all my cousins had peacefully drifted to sleep. No one had any images of a ferocious tiger troubling their minds, after all.
Not even my elder brother. Lying absolutely straight on his bed, he was peacefully snoring away beside me; his glasses still intact on his nose. His face looked so relaxed. Perhaps he was replaying the incredible fight he had seen at the zoo today in his dreams, I assumed.
I, meanwhile, was having a torrid time. The roar of the lion and the tiger kept echoing in my mind and the moment I would close my eyes I would see the angry face of the tiger growling in fury at me. Even the clear, open sky with the shining moon and the cool breeze did not help.
Despite being surrounded by no less than 15 people, I felt scared. Perhaps it was because my bed was placed right at the end of the terrace, just close to where the railing was, and with no one to my right. What did not help was that the terrace felt really eerie at nighttime. Looking at the opposite end of the huge terrace, I felt that the tiger would spring up on me any moment from the darkness and devour me alive.
I shuddered and turned myself sideways, facing my brother. Although I was five years younger to him, I already reached his shoulders now. He was still snorting away peacefully, just like a horse. I moved a little closer to him and felt a little better. I then quietly tried to hold his hand. Back home in Calcutta, where we sleep on the same bed, I had a habit: I would hold his hand, without him ever noticing, whenever I would feel scared at night. On several occasions, whenever I had felt frightened or was unable to sleep, I used to quietly hold any part of his hand; arm, wrist, palm; and then go to sleep. This gave me an assurance that I wasn’t alone : my brother was there, right by my side. That realization would make me feel calmer again. He never knew about this, though, and I never dared to tell it to him either.
As soon as I tried to touch his hand now, he suddenly moved it to scratch his nose a little, before putting it back down and resuming his snoring. I smiled and after waiting for a couple of minutes to ensure that he was deep in his slumber, I quietly held his arm and closed my eyes.
I felt lighter almost instantly. Yes, this was much better, I realized. The horrific images in my mind did not scare me now. For I knew that even if the tiger did come charging at me from the darkness, I had nothing to worry about. I wasn’t alone anymore. My brother was with me…