Thursday, February 5, 2009


At dusk we had to stop playing and return home. There was the daily ritual of the evening - "wash your hands and feet, light a lamp at the gods, say Shubham Karoti...., do your homework", while Aai put dinner together. After dinner though, there was often this yawning emptiness, before one had to get to bed. So often during those days, the family would go out for a walk, for no reason in particular.

The routes were often repetitive. Often on the street, we would catch the bread-vendor on his bicycle. "Narmada Bread" - there was only one brand, and I remember distinctly when they introduced something called milk bread. Later we had a choice when Kwality came on the market. The bread-wallah had a metal carrier on the back of his bicycle, which contained not only bread, but sometimes cakes and biscuits as well. Usually that encounter held the promise of a treat - the promise of toasted bread and omelettes for breakfast on Sunday - got me and my sister all excited and drooling.

We would eventually walk past some friends' houses, perhaps chat for a while, or go to the store to get some minor grocery item. In summer, being outside was a relief, as the concrete houses needed time to dissipate their heat. Fortunately, we were in the Malwa region, and its cool evenings in summer were famous. I do not remember us taking many walks in the winter though. Looking back, I wonder how we managed without any kind of heating in our homes.

Yet, this particular memory seems embedded in one of those cold, chilly nights. The air would usually be thick with low-hanging smoke from wood or coal fires, that drifted throughout and blanketed the colony. The already dim yellow street lights would look even more pale and hazy. Wrapped up in shawls, heads covered with monkey-caps, we often could not see well nor were we very visible to passing drivers.

Not very far from our house, near the boundary of the factory wall, there was an open-air storage yard for construction material. Usually that meant pipes, bags of cement, neat rectangular piles of bricks, and piles of sand and gravel. The security guard, who lived on the yard with his family, had built a small hut, with asbestos roofing and tin sheets or empty tar drums. I think they had seven children. The lady of the house, I think her name was Jamila, but I cannot remember now. We never used her name any way. We all referred to her as 'andewali' - the egg-seller woman. In her enclosed yard she had a dozen or so hens, and she sold some of the eggs they laid, the reason for our visit. Not sure how we found out that she had eggs to sell, but I feel happy, even today after all these years, that we did.

Most evenings when we went over, she was usually in the midst of cooking the evening meal, on a coal-burning stove in the open. Her children would mostly be playing around in the sand piles. The youngest would be on her lap and the oldest daughter helped with chores. I do not think any of the children went to school, but that is just an assumption now.

We would linger around the warmth of her stove, and the delicious earthy smells of her cooking. My mother watched her roll chapatis with fascination - recalled just last week, how andewali made the thinnest and softest chapatis she had ever known. Perhaps, I owe some of my skills in that domain to what my mother might have learned from watching andewali those days.

We knew they would have to leave that little home of theirs some day - when the construction project was completed. I remember thinking then, how they seemed completely reconciled and comfortable with the thought that they would have to dismantle their home and move, and not know where to. I think I felt concerned and insecure for them. I cannot recall the precise moment when it happened, but eventually there were regular grocery stores, and then even we built a coop on our terrace. (That was very unusual, but we loved the copious supply of fresh eggs).

We thought of her often and missed her for a long time after they moved. It could not have been just for the eggs, or the pleasure of that post-dinner walk, for there were times when she did not have as many as we needed, or had already sold all she had that day. I do not recall us being terribly disappointed in that case. After they had left, however, I do not recall us going out after dinner as much.

It is nearing 50 years now, since that time. My mother still distinctly recalls those thin chapatis, and I recall the image of this genial woman, her head often modestly covered with a scarf, so completely rooted in her flimsy and temporary world, with a smile warmer than her stove on a Bhopali winter evening.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


When I started writing this blog, I was not quite sure what it would be about. Somewhere at the back of my mind I had been thinking of all the interesting and unique people I had met in Bhopal, and how much they had touched me and perhaps influenced me in some subtle way. 

I have always dreamed of writing something more substantial, perhaps a work of fiction, based in the city, but dealing with more complex issues. The BHEL township experience was particularly unique, since we were part of a very large experiment in social engineering. Just the melting pot it created, bringing people from all over the country, many of whom had never stepped outside their own states. was of tremendous interest. 

The uprooting from their own milieus must have been difficult if not traumatic for some. I think more of what it might have done to the generation that grew up in these places - people like me. There was no way you could stay back, for you had to leave with your parent's retirement, which essentially snatched away any hopes of having roots. All the places you knew, all the people you knew, would never be found there again. Just the way they came to this place,  they would disperse again.

On the other hand, that very rootlessness, makes one a part of a mixed identity, blended, new and uniquely Indian. Perhaps in that sense the experiment was a success. Wonder if all who had to ride those centifugal forces feel the same way.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Chimiti-man

It is hard to believe that when they built the C3's which we moved into around 1960, the assumption was that people would use wood for cooking fuel. The houses all had chimneys on the roof for the smoke from wood-burning stoves.

The company had started perhaps around 1957 or 58, and the township was rather new. The early 'settlers' who initially lived in Piplani, sometimes in houses bigger than they were entitled to, did not use wood, at least to my knowledge. We used kerosene stoves then. Cooking gas would become widely available in a couple of years and most people we knew switched to the convenience of that medium almost immediately. Perhaps, in some convoluted way the architect was building to hold on to the past rather than what was already on the horizon.

Needless to say the kitchen was poorly conceived and completely inappropriate for the new technology. It would need a complete reinvention to be usable. That however was easier said. If you needed any kind of repair, you had to go to the Civil department's field office which was responsible for your neighborhood. You filed a complaint, it went into a queue, and someday someone would show up to attend to it. It was no surprise that often the handyman, could not fix the problem because he did not have the right materials - The mason did not have cement, or the carpenter needed something which would need to be ordered. We were living Soviet life in the Indian heartland.

So when my father conceived this brilliant modification to the kitchen, it was way beyond the scope of maintenance, and not even in the purview of what was permissible. We got an early introduction to the second economy. When the official bureacracies came in the way, you could always rely on personal contacts to fulfill your needs.

We got to know Anna, through the small projects he did for us. There was a gap of about an inch under all the doors inside the house, more than wide enough for nocturnal visits from mice, snakes and geckos. We needed to put a cement barrier to block that gap. In the days when cement was always in short supply ( in fact it would remain so for several decades afterwords, creating a flourishing black market), this petty project took on the dimensions of a major remodeling effort. Even though, we did a lot of little projects ourselves, this was something we needed a mason for.

Anna, who worked in the Civil maintenance department, was from Tamilnadu - tall, dark and wiry. He spoke little Hindi, almost none in fact, and even if he had, I don't think that laconic man would have said much any way. Still somehow we managed to communicate with him, explaining mostly through gestures what we needed, and I think it was quite amazing, how in the end, we almost got what we wanted, or rather, we often settled on liking Anna's interpretation of whatever it was we had in mind. Anna, would mull over the project, run some estimates in his mind, and invariably tell us to wait till he had the 'chimiti' (Cement). And, sure enough some time later, he would show up with leftovers from other 'official' projects, or perhaps something he squirreled away.

I think he liked working on the remodeling projects my father came up with, for the word of the improvement would spread, and then the neighbors would want it too, and soon the entire neighborhood would be getting the same changes made. Word would then get to the Civil department, and they would make the modifications official, ending Anna's stream of side income. Till that happened, Anna was in great demand, and I am sure it streched his creativitiy to come up with all the materials he needed for those projects.

We never knew his real name - we just called him Anna. He had the authoritative bearing of a father figure any way. We never learned much about his personal life either, since language remained a barrier. Anna never learned to speak Hindi even after several years, and our Tamil vocabulary was pathetic at best.

But when it came to the language of projects and ideas, our conversations had achieved growing fluency over time. I think he must have liked us too in his own way. I am sure there was much he did not have to do.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hairy experiences with The Emperor

It must have been 1961 or 62. The township was growing and the first houses had come up in Berkhera. The c3's we moved into... eight apartments to a building.... were seemingly at the end of civilization.... if you ventured any farther out... there was construction... more houses being built for the township.... and perhaps some villages.... needless to say there were no conveniences of any sort... no stores...  You could perhaps get something in an emergency.... but the choice was limited.... why do I imagine a small stand alone shop with petromax lamps? dimly-lit with long shadows....

I remember how we had to go to the city some 20 kms away to get our monthly groceries... which now that I think of it was a wonderful experience in itself... more of that some other time....

It is hard to believe now how quickly my hair grew those days... the mop was thick.... and when washed with Shikakai...( the idea of shampoos would come some years later).... it would look even bigger and fluffier.... not that it mattered to me... but I remember my mother's desperate struggle to bring a semblance of order to it....

Winters were cold.... without a liberal coating of coconut oil... the skin would be like water starved earth... parched and flaky.... if it had only itched... that would have been fine... but it hurt too... 

if there was any competition among us in the family those days... it was to grab what little sunlight one could....upstairs the strip of sunlight on the verandah floor was narrow.... and sometimes it was hard to get two people into it at the same time...

 on the weekends.... we would lay small colorful striped cotton dhurries in the verandah... and douse ourselves from head to toe with warm coconut oil... a hot water bath followed.... (no showers.... not in winter.... no piped hot water... 'geysers' would come much later....)

I father had rigged this contraption.... a heater coil wrapped around a round piece of wood with a spiral groove in it to hold the coil... you plugged the contraption in but had to make sure that the coil stayed under the water in the bucket... also careful you did not touch the water.... for that would have been one sizzling experience.... every now and then.... it popped over the surface of the water and the coil burned out.... you had to wait to get another coil unless you had a spare at home.... there was an art to stretching the new coil just enough as you wrapped it around that wooden form and fixed the ends to the screws at both ends... I eventually got quite good at it....

every now and then though... we would have to hold off on this oil massage ritual.... and look out eagerly for 'Badshah'.... yeah that was his name (The emperor!).... 

"Badshah".... people would call out...."come by today OK?"... "sure Sahib... let me finish a couple of customers in this row and then I will come by...".... and then one waited.... down the row of houses.... there were others who waited their turn too... and everything was held up till he had come and gone.... you could not bathe.... you always did that after the haircut....nor could you go to the Sunday market for the fresh vegetables, mutton or fish we bought every week... (no fridges! .... they would come much later... in fact I do not think we ever had one till I left Bhopal).... and as we waited.... the elders would step out into the street to gossip while the children took the opportunity to gallivant around....

When he did visit the neighborhood.... usually every two to three weeks.... Sundays... .for we never cut hair in our house on Saturdays.... Shani Maharaj (Saturn ... not the easiest of gods to please)....would not have liked that....he would ring the bell on his bicycle while he was still at a distance..... He was not very tall... dark-skinned... clean-shaven.....I think he wore white pajamas and kurta.... perhaps not a kurta but just an untucked shirt... not sure... at the back of his cycle on the carrier.... he had this little box... painted in some darkish color... red or maroon maybe.... it was one of those things that opened like a lawyer's reveal this cavernous dark insides.... and in there .... were combs and scissors and all the instruments he would need to tame the wide variety of hair he might encounter on a given day.... swivel-blade razors for shaving.... little wood-handled brushes... shaving soaps... sticks of alum.... bottles of dettol.... a steel cup for the shaving water.  

The mirror he could not accomodate inside the box.... it was much bigger yet not so big that you could not hold it in your hands... for that is what you had to do.... we would set this wooden chair in the middle of the verandah on top of a spread of "The Hitavada" or "The MP Chronicle"... in retrospect that is all those papers were good for... but in those days life would have been poor without them... Badshah brought the aprons with him... they were scratchy around the neck... and I know the grown ups worried about hygiene.... but then... we would all be taking a nice hot water bath later.

Badshah would put his kit down somewhere on the floor or on a stool.... then take out all the implements he would need.... the combs... the scissors... the dreaded machine.... and then he would hand you the mirror to hold.... then away he would go.... all he had to do was hack.... it just had to be made short enough so that a month could pass till he could get his hands on it again.... 

Badshah told wonderful was about his name.... which was not really a story... that just happened to be his name.... I think we taunted him about the incongruity.... I don't think he minded.... he must have got used to that question.... he seemed equally amused....

no... the stories that were really fascinating were of the trips he took abroad as the royal barber to the nawab.... in those days when going abroad was such a distant and impossible dream.... almost a fiction...for people in our class that is.... (our neighbors had been to England for a year.... but that was not usual).... we were awed that he had had that opportunity..... and also that he did not seem to think of it as any big deal.....

we never found out if there was any truth to them.... always teetering on the edge of belief and disbelief... we were still eager to ....we still wanted him to tell us..... perhaps it just made the whole haircutting experience bearable.... when you came out of that trance ... you had not noticed all the nicks and the little cuts ... or how the 'machine' had yanked some hair on the nape of the neck.... the apron came off.... he dusted your face and neck with talcum powder... ( he had that too in his box).... then brushed off all the hair.... and then came the dramatic finale... he would walk around and go behind the chair and hold up a smaller mirror... so you could see how it looked from behind.... not sure what purpose that served.... for we never seemed to not like what he had done....we would nod our approval.... and that was it.... 

The water was perhaps hot by then.... you had to get going.... it was the next person's turn.... who had probably already heard all the stories..... since they were standing around in the verandah soaking up the sun while you were being tonsured....they had perhaps already heard the stories before several times.... we all had... but I think refreshing our memories every month was as rejuvenating as the haircut was.... or more....

perhaps Badshah sowed the seeds of desire on those Sundays... and made it all seem very possible.... even if it meant you had to be a barber to royalty.... or we would have to dream up our own reasons... like working for NASA...

When it came to cutting our hair.... Badshah ruled.... just like an emperor!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Lord of Love

We used to often say in India that a person tends to be very different from what his name suggests. I remember a comic poem by Kaka Hatharasi that was on that theme of mismatched names. However, just as there must always be one, Premnath, literally 'the lord of love', our company bus driver was an exception to that rule.

Before I write more about Premnath, I have to write about other buses. I suddenly remembered the buses that preceded the ones BHEL started providing, for the children from the township to attend school in the city, 14 kms away. 

When we arrived in BHEL (those days it used to be called HE(I)L – BHEL came much later) in 1959, there was not much of a township. There obviously were not many children who needed to go to school, particularly all the way to St.Joseph’s Convent on Idgah hill. (Think about it the irony of it all – mostly Hindu children being bused to a Christian school on Idgah hill. That perhaps was what was so beautiful about the Bhopal experience). Back to buses now. So since there were not many children, and there was no regular city-run bus service that I remember, we had a privately operated one – 'Thawani bus service'. It was the memory of those buses that made me digress. 

These buses had spouts in front where the engines were,  which of course you rarely see now. One of them had a red spout and the other was black. The children appropriately named them the ‘red-faced monkey’ and the ‘black-faced monkey’. That was how we knew which bus we were supposed to take. The windows had no panes – all you had were tarp covers which you could roll up and hold up with a band. If you let them down, they flapped in the wind, and when it rained they were a nightmare. Ah,  I might have not remembered them had it not been for Premnath – The lord of love who is the protagonist of this post.

Premnath, drove the company-owned buses, mostly meant to drive children to and from school. If there was a star in our lives in those days before TV, outside of the world of Bollywood films, it was Premnath. Perhaps he was the personification of those stars. He did dress like them - at least not like the other drivers did.  He regaled us with stories, sometimes from the films, and often sang songs from them. I cannot seem to recall if he sang well. All I remember is that he lived Big.

Now, however politically incorrect it might sound, and however much the India of the 60’s had started on its path of social reform, being a driver was not yet then, neither is it  today, a position of much status. So, it was amazing, how much he had endeared himself to us, and how important he was in our daily life. The day would end badly if he was not there to pick us up, and we would consider ourselves lucky if he showed up when we were not expecting him. For that would be one joy ride for sure. When later there were several more buses, we would be jealous of the kids who got to ride on his route.

Your own status depended on how close you were to him. If you were his 'friend', you earned the privilege to sit on the engine bonnet on a cold day, right next to him, listening to his banter and jokes, while he raced the other buses, egged on by the cheers of the children, and kept up with film gossip when he was not. 

It must have taken some growing up for us to become sensitive to and aware of his lordship over the domain of love. As the girls started becoming real in our lives, we realized how poorly we fared in competition with him. When one realized that it was not only the girl you were interested in, but the whole lot of them, it most certainly caused a serious crisis of confidence among all us young boys. The budding sociologists among us would struggle to fathom the mystery of this phenomenon, and while we all had our eplanations, we had to live with it with mixed emotions.

Then, one day, Premnath disappeared. For several days we speculated – maybe he went back to farming, maybe he took another job and so on. While on the one hand we should have been happy, we were mostly heartbroken… we felt he would have told us if this was planned. 

Then, the rumors began – and then the truth came out - he had eloped with one of the high-school girls. Now, that was an absolute shocker. The whole township murmured and protested - surprised, horrified and now in much anguish. The parents all knew of him of course, after all which kid did not come home and tell them of the reasons for their elation or gloom, so there was a reason for the widespread emotions. But, for all the goodness this man had brought to their children's lives, here was a boundary they would not permit crossing.

The gloom that spread among the children was compounded with more mothers showing up at the bus stops. Perhaps there even was stricter oversight from the company. Perhaps from now no driver who had any remote possibility of being a charmer would ever be hired. There would be no singing, no jokes and no stories of the latest films. There would be no more racing the other buses. The ride to the school would now have to be occupied with memories and other poorer substitutes.

Several years passed. The  girl that had eloped did come back, shortly after the incident. Premnath did not. We had moved to another schools with its own buses, and later grown into college. The girls had outgrown him. Atleast now that he was not there, they had reason to notice what else the world had to offer.  And the 'men' could now talk about those days, fondly, without any pangs of jealousy to spoil the memories.

Then, one day, just as suddenly as he had left, out of the blue, he was back. The company had reinstated him. Perhaps all was forgotten. We never learned about what transpired. 

He, however, was the same – boisterous, flamboyant and ever so charming. The days would be just that much brighter when he showed up with the bus.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Koi baat nahin!

I do not know what his real name was. We all called him baaiji, which would have been appropriate if he had been a woman. This is the story of our milkman, who remained a part of our lives all the while we lived in Bhopal (BHEL).

I do not think we had him when we lived briefly in Piplani. However, ever since we moved to Berkhera, Baaiji was our milkman. Every morning, he would call my mother and all the other ladies of the families he served with the call “Baaiji” from outside the gate. On his rickety bicycle at the back hung the two cans of galvanized steel.

The ritual was always the same. My mother or one of us kids would step out usually with a gleaming clean stainless steel vessel. Almost without fail, my mother would complain about the water in the milk. “We do not get any butter any more”… you have been adding more and more water”… and the last one in that string of complaints would be… “We will stop buying from you if you go on doing this”… Very very rarely was there a compliment - “The milk was really nice Baaiji… I have been getting a lot of cream”.

Whatever you said, Baaiji would grin his wide smile and say - “koi baat nahin baaiji”… (no problem or whatever), then would dole out milk from one of his cans using a measure. After he had measured whatever quantity we were buying from him that month, he would always add some more on top. Then he would move on to the neighbors.

And so it went for years, the same ritual the same statements. At the end of the month we would pay his bill. I never remember him questioning or counting what we gave him.

We could as well have called him “Koi baat nahin”. We would buy less and less from him over time, but never stop completely. There was a time when we stopped buying from him. He would still show up every morning, stop by and give some milk for my dog at no charge.

He had become a permanent fixture in our lives and we in his.

Sometimes if it was a weekend, we would chat with him, about the crops. He had some land on which he mostly grew wheat, which bought from him occasionally – a quintal (100 kg) for a year. That was another interesting ritual – some other time. We would talk about his family, and he would share in his usual shy manner.

During the later years his smile became progressively toothless, as times became harder. The water in his milk kept increasing. He would give us all kinds of reasons - “What can do saahib, the buffalo went and sat in the water”. I think he had trying times at home, with the farms, family, health and so on, but his smile never faded, just like he never stopped saying “koi baat nahin”.

There are no pictures of him, just like there are almost none of anything else from those days. All that remains is an image in my memory - the smiling toothless face, the rickety bicycle with the cans, the soiled loincloth, and the shy bent head.

Bhopali Salaam

I just realized that considering how important Bhopal has been in my life, I should write a blog that somehow relates to the place. May be I will mostly reminisce about the things that happened to me and the people in my life during those seventeen wonderful years of my life. Somewhere in there are stories I have always wanted to tell, quirky, touching, interesting for sure. So here goes.