The motor tank is full; kindly switch off the motor. The motor tank is full; kindly switch off the motor, the motor…. Finally, someone got to it. This new mechanised alert that indicates that the water tank is now full is a recent addition to our family alarm. After a few recent incidents of water overflowing from the tank, Mom thought it was best for the machines to take over the human duty. And just like any other winter morning in Amritsar, the holy city of Punjab. Everyone was waiting for the water to warm so that they could proceed for a shower.
But unlike any other day there was an urgency in everyone’s tone, as today we were to visit the village and the house my grandmother gave birth to my mother. There was an unseen excitement in my grandmothers’ tone which was to sting me when she forced me to leave my bed. On any given day if I was asked, do I enjoy visiting villages or any new place with culture and history? I would agree in an instant but if you were to shrug my shoulders on an early winter morning and ask the same, I would deny it unequivocally.
Even though democracy is a sound instrument where every voice is heard equally, not all get obeyed, as in the end, it too, like most things in life, is a game of numbers. Which is why even though my mother had to cancel her visit last minute because of an emergency case in our hospital, she voted in compliance with her mother that the trip should not be postponed and that I should accompany her at all costs. Which was nothing less than a nightmare. Even though there is an incessant flow of love between us, we still share an age gap of two generations. Which meant that during our entire trip there would be only one voice dictating everything, from the music to be played in the car to the actual speed of the car. In hindsight, I knew it wasn’t her fault, for my grandmother grew up in an army family and then, at a young age, was married to an army officer. Discipline and order were not just embedded in her DNA but were now part of her muscle memory. Which could be one of the reasons why, even as an octogenarian, she is still healthy enough to manage her farmhouse all by herself. But it was impossible for a young mind like mine to comprehend and put such a view in perspective on an early winter morning.
With hesitation and discontent in my voice I walked and joined the chorus of noises bursting through my house. The breakfast was being placed, food was being packed for our journey, clothes were being ironed by the house help and the driver was cleaning the car with loud music being played on his phone, and my mother kept pointing at me while instructing the nurse on her intercom.
At quarter past eight, we all stood at the gate of our house, mom placing some sugar, which according to Indian mythology was essential whenever someone left the house for a journey. On the other hand, my grandmother, who wore a white salwar kameez with a thick brown sweater and a shawl wrapped around her, stood in the prayer room, looking at the photo of her husband that mom had placed on the wall next to the rest of the departed souls of our family. After giving a few instructions to the driver and an exchange of warm hugs, we finally started our journey.
Even though my head was still sleepy, especially after my grandmother instructed me to play religious hymns, my interest in the journey piqued after my grandmother instructed me to keep all the packed food and fruits in one basket and then placed it on the empty co-driver seat in-front, claiming “once you ate the food of our village, you will never be able to rejoice your Even though my head was still sleepy, especially after my grandmother instructed me to play religious hymns, my interest in the journey piqued after my grandmother instructed me to keep all the packed food and fruits in one basket and then placed it on the empty co-driver seat in front, claiming "once you ate the food of our village, you will never be able to rejoice your fast food," and then like a well-knitted thread she started to narrate stories, from partition to when my grandfather, with just a dagger in his hand, fought a Pathan who was on a horseback with a sword. Her stories engulfed me like a wormhole, and even before they could be concluded, we were on the outskirts of her town, Saidowal.
Saidowal, a village in Nurmahal, which is a sub-tehsil in the city of Jalandhar, Punjab. Yesterday we had first planned to ride a train from Amritsar to Gumtali which is about 4 km from the Saidowal village and the only nearest railway station to it, but there were hardly any private taxis available at the station, which is why we chose to drive down ourselves even though the nearest main road, which runs between Phillaur and Nurmahal, ends almost 2 km before the start of the village. After that, you are riding on a road of dust and most certainly at your own risk. Even though the road throughout had a beautiful, serene view of trees and endless farms, we could not afford to let down our windows. It was unbelievable to see how many different vehicles—buses, bull carts, tractors, etc.—were using the same road, creating a whirlwind of dust all around. I lost my back to the cracks in the road, which mirrored the broken and hollow promises of the state politicians.
Unlike other small villages that we crossed on our way,
Saidowal turned out to be a much clean, neat and smaller as compared to the surrounding villages. The first sign of life as you enter the village is that of a faded red building made of bricks and cement depicting the post office which was first installed and opened in early 1970 and till date all the letter to the neighbouring villages are routed via Saidowal.
My grandmother held my hand, and as we walked around this town, which even Google hadn’t registered on its maps. The air was dusty, and there were no roads or traffic lights. Animals and humans sat under the same shade and shared the same bonfire made of twigs, newspaper, and some wood. People walked carelessly, and kids kept playing in the mud. The temple was kept cleaner than the hospital, and in the school, the broken blackboards had turned white with chalk residue and their walls were filled with student graffiti, and only one bench was kept for the teacher.
Before much I did, a passerby stopped by as though stuck by a lightening bolt. He ran and touched my grandmother’s feet, a mark of respect in India. My grandmother rose to the occasion and had an elaborate smile on her face. Some people gathered and looked at me with wide smiles, shook hands, and offered respect. This unknown province now reflected a sense of familiarity. Even on this cold winter morning, I felt warm as my senses had dissipated, overlooking this overwhelming situation.
I walked into a yellow-coloured, two-story corner house. There was a huge open square veranda where, on one corner, the clothes were kept for drying, along with a parked scooter. There were stairs exiting from the right that led to the terrace, which was used to wash clothes, sleep during the summers, and fly kites. Their walls were cracked, and every corner was marked by a spider’s web, as if they were kept as pets. After you crossed the veranda, there was a small passage with another gate that led you to the main house. On the left corner was the kitchen, where the food was being cooked using cow dung, and behind that, the women of the house were washing their utensils. There were four rooms, two on each floor, and one prayer room on the ground floor, right adjacent to their master bedroom. There were no architects there, yet the rooms were warm.
My grandmother stood next to this small Tulsi plant, which was situated right in the middle of the house, where the sun's rays settled. A tear dropped through her aged face as she saw the name of my grandfather still minted on the slab. She held my hand tighter and then turned towards me. This was our house. Your mom was born here, pointing towards an area that has now turned into a storeroom. The cracks on the walls are from the partition, which I believe still hasn’t diffused.
The city lights have overshadowed the past, but this is where we belong. The new owner, who was not even part of our family tree, had maintained the plant to reminisce about my grandfather, who fought in the war. The owner asked his wife to offer us some fruits, she whispered back to him. After showing us the house and sharing the recent affairs of the village, we all sat on the charpai, for lunch. To my surprise, even their neighbours had joined us by now and brought with them some cooked food. All the ladies of the house kept cooking enthusiastically. A small buffet was set up; there were pulses, roti, lady finger, brinjal, and turnip, all of which were cooked in organic cow ghee, along with lots of salad. The young kids in the house kept serving us and asked questions periodically about my work and life in the city. I don’t know whether it was because their ingredients were organic, because of the organic ghee, or simply because they cooked with so much affection that even the simplest of the dishes melted in my mouth. There was no control on the number of rotis we had, and it was then that an elder lady of the family, while I was complaining about the city food, shared their age-old secret: “We let the pulses heat overnight in their heating oven made of mud. We don’t heat the food at high fumes instantly; we start by preparing a night in advance for the next day and let the food warm slowly, which makes sure that no nutrient is lost in the process and the food is properly cooked”. Patients were their key.
Everything was in abundance, but had it not been for my grandmother’s eye I would have never known that that year the season for the farmers was not promising, yet they offered us whatever they had. It was an unsaid ritual to treat guest with utmost love and to divide the responsibility. Which meant if anyone in the village had an event, everyone would contribute whatever access they had. For example, the milk man would leave extra milk, the one who has extra sound equipment would leave his instruments with them and the same followed in grief. Which now explained why the neighbours had brought food along with them without any invitation. They were called villagers, but they were more civilised than the one under the city light.
Their faces were getting dark as the rays started to scatter and in that scattered dust laid my scattered past. As we all got to our feet, still heavy from the lunch my grandmother requested the couple to walk with her, she gave them the basket of food and fruits we had packed with us and an envelope full of cash which the couple refused with an elaborate gestures but my grandmother used the seniority of her age and the respect of her late husband in the village for them to comply with her request. On our way back no music was played, my grandmother was lost in her memory, and I was overwhelmed by their hospitality. The taste of their food and the essence of my own culture reverberating through my senses.