As the evenings grow cooler and the leaves begin to turn colour, as afternoon sunshine begins to lose its glare and the air conditioner’s thermostat adjusts itself, I, extremely susceptible to the cold (I don’t use the air conditioner in the car. Even in this weather, I sleep with my air conditioner off and with the fan spinning at two. But then, I use an AC quilt), find myself mourning the summer. The heat, dust, pollution, the billowing loo, but also, mangoes, panna, shikanji, ice cream, lazy, sweltering afternoons and an odd sense of nostalgia, of longing, for the vacations.
I have always claimed to be a Delhiite. I have, after all, lived in the city, within a one-kilometre radius, since I was three. I have seen the crowds that throng the Sai Baba Temple get larger every year. I have watched the shops at Khan Market or Meher Chand Market or Khanna Market or Lodhi Market change hands and get trendier (and more and more impersonal) with every new owner. I have literally watched the Habitat Centre rise out of the earth. I have watched the shadows lengthen at the Lodhi Gardens as dusk falls. I have driven through the India Gate Circle, every day, for thirteen years and still remember a time before the radial had traffic signals. I remember a time when visiting relatives in Ghaziabad or Gurgaon or Faridabad required extensive planning and Noida was just an extension of Okhla and Dwarka was still considered land’s end. For two decades, this city has given me home, a family, friends and memories. My entire education, all my experiences, essentially, my entire existence has revolved around this city and around Lodhi Road, to be precise. Unlike most bureaucratic children, I did not experience ‘nomadic existence’.
Yet, there is something about the balmy afternoons of May that has made me nostalgic about a city where I spent, at most, four days a year, and even that, not very regularly. Allahabad, my father’s hometown. Not my grandfather’s, not mine. Just, my father’s. My grandfather, originally from Azamgarh, after a long, successful career in the U.P. Police, settled down in that yellow house, surrounded by orchards, on Mayo Road.
The house is double storied, but I have no memories of the ground floor, except for playing in the lawn. It is the first floor that resonates in my mind. I can still picture it, the rooms in the centre, surrounded by terraces on all sides, one additional room at each corner. The bathing area and the toilet at one end of the house. The kitchen, where, for many years, the gas stove sat on the floor. My most abiding memory is of dadi sitting next to the stove, applying alta (or nail paint, or lipstick, essentially, adding finishing touches to her toilette) as whatever was on the menu that day was cooked and ready. Baba frequently sat in one of the central rooms, going through the budget, while chacha fed the dog and the fourteen cats that swarmed the orchards. Our German Shepherd could usually be found lazing under, or on, a charpai.
Since I spent all my time upstairs and since I was, in dadi‘s words, “hamaar ekai poti aur wo bhi itni gori”, I was frequently admonished to not go out on the terrace. During the day, the sun could burn me. At night, there were more sinister causes. Dadi was highly superstitious. An enormous peepal tree overhung one of the terraces and it was dadi‘s eternal belief that a chudail lived on it. The moment the sun set, I was hustled indoors and told to not go out alone. The upshot of this was that when I had to answer nature’s call after dark, either one of my parents or a cousin went along with me to stand guard outside the door – fodder for many embarrassing stories, as you can well imagine.
The other restriction placed on my movement was also due to a supernatural factor. The house was old and had, about a hundred or so years ago, belonged to an old maulvi ji. The peepal shaded terrace had a raised platform, a chabootara, where all the children, except me, played and dadi dried her achaar and paapad. The reason my access to the chabootara was restricted was because, on the chabootara, maulvi ji offered ‘fajr ki namaz’ and many in my family claim to have seen him in the early hours of the morning when dawn would begin to break through the inky darkness of the night. The maulvi ji was, in dadi‘s words, “bhale aadmi” and ought not be disturbed, by, “gaer ladkiyaan”, of all people. And so it was, that despite the room I lived in being next to maulvi ji’s chabootara and one of the room’s three doors opening directly on to it, it remained out of bounds to me. I could never suspend my disbelief long enough to catch a glimpse of him, but even today, when the muezzin at my neighbourhood mosque calls the faithful for namaaz, I automatically think of maulvi ji on his chabootara.
Sometimes, I wonder, what did he make of dadi‘s Diwali pooja conducted on his chabootara. Even more baffling was that my dadi, who kept seperate utensils for her ‘Muslim guests’, frequently told stories where the villain was usually Muslim and generally bemoaned the fact that I had very ‘Muslim features’ (I have no idea what that last one meant. As far as I knew, in our pakka Kayastha family, there had been no inter-religious marriage in at least four generations. And in any case, how were facial features Hindu or Muslim?), had no problems in living in a house haunted by a namaaz offering maulvi ji.
I remember other things too. The long walks down the leafy road to Katra at one end and the Boys’ High School and Hindu Hostel at the other, with my little hand, tucked into papu‘s much larger one. I remember the dinner at Elchicko, the cold coffee afterwards at Ambar Café in Civil Lines, where the proprietor still remembered my father as, ‘A.N.Jha Hostel waala ladka‘. I remember the crisp, clean mornings, still cool at seven, when chacha took me out for a breakfast of dahi-jalebi. I remember the lassi and Hari ke samose in the Chowk. The broad, tree-lined avenues, the large houses with manicured lawns, the imposing façade of the Allahabad University Library, the Planetarium at Anand Bhawan, the cannon in Company Bagh and the tale of Chandrashekhar Azad being shot to death in the shade of those very trees. And, I mustn’t forget, in the event of an occasional winter visit, the sigri in the room, the amrud from Khushru Bagh and kachoris and mutton for lunch. Sitting in the city I call home, I’m nostalgic about that beautiful, idyllic city of my childhood vacations.
I have not been to Allahabad in close to five years now, but the last time I was there, I didn’t recognise it. The streets were dug up, there was an ugly mall in Civil Lines and worst of all, the large houses surrounded by orchards were gone. Or, rather, the houses were still there, but the orchards, standing on nazul land, or land leased from the municipality for hundred years, were gone, sold when the leases were up. In their place had come up matchbox like multi-storied buildings.
The story was no different on Mayo Road, which, incidentally, is no longer called Mayo Road. The sinister peepal of my childhood was gone, but I was still kept indoors because rising from the same spot as the peepal, was a boys’ PG, five storeys high, whose windows looked right down into our aangan. In chacha’s words, I might have been safer with the chudail on the tree than with those boys peering at our terrace. Playing on the lawns with my younger cousins was ruled out despite, or perhaps because of, my father’s escort parked at the gate. There were no more leisurely walks down the road, partly because there were no more trees and partly because the PGs and the University hostels sat right at our doorstep. The power cuts were still there, however, instead of the bamboo, haath waala pankha, the inverter swung into action. The stove was no longer on the floor, but on the kitchen counter, water came out of an Aquaguard instead of the suraahi and the utensils were no longer washed in the aangan, but in the sink, where water did not have to be drawn out of a bottomless drum. The days of bathing in the aangan were long gone too.
The city I knew, is gone. The orchards are gone. The wide open spaces are gone. The chudail is gone, displaced by the young boys studying at AU and living in the PGs of Sheo Ram Das Gulati Marg. One thing that had not changed was maulvi ji‘s chabootara, which still remained out of bounds to me. Recently, however, chacha suggested tearing down the old house and building a modernistic block of flats in its place. The house was too large for four people, he said, and in any case, the neighbours could see into the house at all hours of the day. I suppose, change and progress are inevitable and really, the utter lack of privacy, once offered by the long gone orchards, is grating. But I wondered, where will old maulvi ji go now? And then I realised, he and the peepal ki chudail and I had something in common. Our sense of the familiar was gone, relegated to the domain of memories. The difference is that I am the keeper of those memories and they, displaced by the march of time, live on in them.