The Old Man and His God, p.6Sudha Murty
The man looked unmoved. In a firm voice he replied, ‘You are an Indian and therefore a foreigner.’
The words struck me deeply. I realized, in spite of the similarities in our dress, language, food and even love for Bollywood movies, Partition had divided us forever. It had made us strangers in each other’s lands and even in a place like that ancient university town, the Buddha’s words of love and tolerance were not enough to bring us together. The Rs 200 ticket brought me crashing back to reality!
The Line of Separation
During my trip to Pakistan, I was part of a large group. Each person in the group was keen to visit one place or the other in that country. Some wanted to see Takshila, others Lahore, Islamabad or Karachi. One day, we were having a discussion about this and everyone was voicing his opinion loudly. I noticed only Mrs Roopa Kapoor was sitting quietly. She was a seventy-five-year-old lady from Chennai and did not speak much unless spoken to. So I asked if there was any place she wanted to visit.
Without any hesitation, she said, ‘I have to visit Pindi.’
‘Where is Pindi? Is it some small town or village? I don’t think we will have the time to make a detour like that from our packed itinerary.’ Roopa smiled at my ignorance and said, ‘I meant Rawalpindi. It is called Pindi for short by those who stay there.’ I was intrigued. ‘How do you know? Have you ever stayed there?’
‘I was born and brought up there,’ she replied, and then slowly she told me the story of her life.
She had stayed in Rawalpindi till the age of nineteen, when she got married and settled down in Chennai. Now Chennai was her home and she could speak Tamil and make excellent Tamil dishes like puliyogare and rasam, as well as any natural-born Tamilian. But she had always yearned to come back and see her childhood home if she ever got the chance.
Soon we reached Islamabad and I was surprised to find it surrounded by mountains, as cool as a hill station. Roopa saw my surprise and said, ‘Islamabad is a new city. Rawalpindi is a sister city, but it is older. Islamabad was built after the Partition with wide roads, shopping centres and rose gardens. Pindi is only twenty odd kilometers away from Islamabad.’ By now the soft-spoken, introverted Mrs Kapoor had become quite garrulous. There was a spark in her eyes and she spoke non-stop. Many of us wanted to see Islamabad first, but she insisted on going on to Rawalpindi.
She needed a companion for the trip and I volunteered to go with her. She was now quite excited, and told me, ‘I want to see the house I left fifty-seven years ago.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ I said. Then I remembered the lovely bouquet of flowers I had been presented on landing at Islamabad which I was still carrying. ‘I will present this to whoever is staying in your house now.’
She was touched.
As the car left Islamabad airport behind, Mrs Kapoor started pointing out the sights to me like a tour guide. She showed an old building on the left side of the road in a crowded area and said, ‘That used to be an electrical goods manufacturing factory. Its owner Kewal Ram Sahani was my father’s friend. My friends and I would come to this house for Lakshmi pooja during Diwali.’
I told the driver to slow down a little so that she could cherish the journey. The car passed Sadar Bazar and looking at an old building with many shops, she said, ‘Here my father’s cousin Ratan Sethi owned a jewellery shop along with his partner Maqbool Khan. It was known as Khan and Sethi. My wedding jewellery was made here.’
She continued pointing out various buildings, each holding some fond memory for her. But many a times the buildings she was looking for had changed to new skyscrapers and she got disoriented. Suddenly the car stopped. A tyre was punctured, and the driver said it would take him a while to fix it. Roopa Kapoor was restless. She did not want to wait even a minute more than required. So she said, ‘You change the tyre. In the meantime I will go and visit some of the old places. We will join you in the next main road. To go to the main road, you take a left turn and the first right turn. You wait for us there.’
She behaved as if she knew every inch of that area and I followed her quietly. We walked into a small lane. She explained, ‘I have been here many times with my friends Fatima and Noor. This used to be known as Tailor’s Road. My neighbour Mehboob Khan’s wife Mehrunnisa Chachi was an expert in designing new embroidery patterns. We used to come and give the designs. Come we will take a short cut . . . that is where my uncle lived.’
By now she was talking more to herself and making her way with ease through the narrow lanes. We went to the next road. There were old houses on the road and she went into the first huge bungalow. She said, ‘This was my uncle Motiram Rai’s house and the next house was that of Allah Baksh. They were great friends and loved each other. I still remember whenever Allah Baksh Chacha planted a tree in his house, my uncle would plant the same. This mango tree here was planted on a Basant Panchami day. There was so much of joy in both houses. My grandmother prepared kheer and sent me to Allah Baksh’s house with a jug full of it. While I was carrying that jug, I bumped into a young man and the hot kheer fell on his feet. I was so scared and embarrassed.’
‘Did you know him?’
‘Not then but later. I married him!’
She then looked up at the tree and said, ‘This has become so old now.’
We walked in through the gate. There was no one around and I was afraid we would be stopped by someone for trespassing. But Roopa was least bothered. It was as if she was in a world of her own. She walked to the back yard while I stood hesitating in the front. A couple walked in and were visibly surprised to see a stranger standing in their garden, that too in a sari. It was also just then that I noticed a board hanging in front of the door. It said ‘Dr Salim and Dr Salma: Dentist’.
I started apologizing and explained about Roopa to them. Their faces lost the look of suspicion as soon as I finished my story. Roopa was meanwhile still looking at all the trees and remembering her childhood. The couple welcomed us in courteously. ‘Please sit down. Do join us for a cup of tea.’ They pulled up two chairs.
By now I was feeling very awkward, disturbing them in the morning. But Dr Salim said, ‘Please sit. We are glad you came. Our grandparents too were from Surat in Gujarat. They emigrated to Pakistan and I was born and brought up here. My parents talk with great nostagia about Surati farsan, parsi dhansak and khakra.’
Just to make conversation I said, ‘It must be difficult maintaining such a large bungalow now.’
Dr Salim replied, ‘We moved to this house some years back. You see this house happens to resemble the one my parents lived in in Surat, and they made me promise that I would not break it and make apartments as long as I stayed here. Allah has been kind to us and we don’t need the money. Our neighbour Allah Baksh’s children sold their property long back and now there is a commercial complex.’
By then Roopa had finished wandering in the garden and I formally introduced her to the couple. She asked if she could see the house from the inside. Dr Salim agreed happily. ‘After we purchased this house ten years ago we made very few modifications. It is perhaps in the same state as you last saw it,’ he said.
I walked in with Roopa. She looked into the main room and said, ‘This was where my grandfather used to sit and control the house.’ Then she pointed out a coloured glass door and said Allah Baksh’s wife had painted it for them. ‘That was the window through which she would send dry fruits to my aunt’, ‘That was where we used to fly kites.’ Every brick, every wall held a memory for her. Finally I reminded her that it was time we left. We walked back to the garden and said our goodbyes to the couple. Dr Salim handed us a packet. ‘There is no time for you to eat, but I cannot send two elders away without offering anything. Please take this and if god is willing we will meet again.’
We came out of the house and when we reached the main road the car was there, having followed Roopa’s directions. Now she wanted to see her own house.
She told the driver, ‘Take a right turn from t
She talked on and the driver followed her directions. She was mostly right. Yes the red brick building on the right was Al-Ameen School for girls. The Jesus and Mary convent was now a Loyola College and the government boys’ school had become a degree college. But the Idgah maidan was not there. Instead there was a shopping complex. The five beautiful bungalows she described were also missing. Instead there was a mass of shops, hotels, video libraries piled next to each other. Roopa became upset.
‘Madam, are you sure it is the same road?’, the driver asked politely.
‘Of course I am sure. I was born here. I spent nineteen years here. You were not even born then. How can I make a mistake?’
She told him to stop the car and got off to search. She was sure the house was still there behind the new buildings. She was possessed, as if searching for a lost child, or a precious jewel.
‘My house was yellow in colour and there were two storeys. It had an entrance from the right side. From my house I could see the Idgah maidan. Two years back a friend of mine who also stayed here came to see the place and she told me the house was still very much here.’
She turned to me and continued, ‘You know, once I had unknowingly walked on the wet cement floor near the entrance of the house and my footmark stayed there forever. My father wanted to keep it as a reminder of me after I got married and went away. I can recognize my house without any trouble.’ But there was no house of that description in that area, with the footmark in the entrance. I knew by this time that the house was not there. But Roopa was reluctant to accept it.
We stood in front of the building where she said her house used to be. It was a hotel and a chowkidar was sitting at the entrance.
I asked him, ‘How old is this hotel?’
He got up and replied, ‘It is only a year old.’
‘How long have you been working here?’
‘Ever since the old building was demolished and the construction started.’
Roopa was quiet now.
‘Was there a two-storeyed yellow building here with the entrance on the right and footprints along the portico?’
‘Yes. There was a building like that but I don’t remember the footprints.’
Now I knew that Roopa’s house had been demolished to make way for this hotel. I looked at the chowkidar and told him, ‘That was my friend’s house.’
‘Oh please come inside. So what if your house is not there? The hotel stands on the same land. I am sure my owner will be happy to receive you. Have a cup of tea and a samosa.’
I looked at Roopa but she was not listening to our conversation.
She took a handful of soil from the little patch of garden in front of the hotel and said, ‘This is my land. This is my soil. My ancestors made this their home. They were born and burnt here. The land, the trees, the air, the water everything was ours. We knew the customs, the culture and the food. One day, some person drew a line and created two nations. And suddenly we became foreigners in our own land. We had to leave and adopt some other place whose language, food and culture were alien to us. A single line made me a stranger to my own land. People who have been uprooted have a special pain which no one else can understand.’
I was quiet. I could only imagine her agony. I held her hand and suddenly realized that the bouquet of flowers I had meant to give to the owners of her old house was lying on the front seat of the car, withering slowly in the December sunshine.
A Buddhist on Airport Road
One day, I had to take an auto to get to some place. These days in Bangalore, like other big cities, one is held completely at the mercy of the auto drivers. It is up to them, whether they want to take us or not. And even if we do get one, we have to keep all our fingers crossed till we reach our destination safely. It is rare to find a driver who does not drive his auto like a race car, or has a meter which gives the correct reading.
Anyway, that day I had asked various passing autos but none was ready to take me, so I was standing by the roadside. Suddenly a car stopped a little further ahead and someone rolled down one of the windows and waved at me. Looking carefully, I realized it was my friend Saroja. She was gesturing to me, indicating that I should get into the car. But I was hesitant. I said, ‘I’m going towards the airport, it will be too far for you.’
But Saroja was firm, ‘Please get in first. This is not a parking area. I too am going towards the airport to my hospital. It will not be out of my way.’
Saroja and I have been friends for a long time now, though our ways of looking at life are completely different. However, we have always maintained a transparency in our views, which has kept the friendship alive. It also helps that Saroja is an open-minded person, and does not hesitate to tell me her opinions. Sometimes we get into arguments, but talking frankly with one another helps to patch things up.
‘What are you doing without a car? Why were you waiting for an auto?’ Saroja was clearly astonished to see me near an auto stand.
‘My drivers are on leave, and I don’t like driving on Bangalore’s roads these days, so I thought I’ll take an auto.’
‘You could have taken a taxi!’
‘What is wrong in taking an auto? Many people in this city don’t own a car.’
‘But autos are dangerous.’
‘For that matter travelling by road is far more dangerous than travelling by air.’
‘That is true, though these days planes never stick to their schedules. I feel sick of travelling.’
‘Then you are lucky you don’t have to travel too often, given your work at the hospital.’
Saroja and her husband run a small hospital that has been quite successful. Both their sons are married. One stays abroad, while the younger one stays with them with his family. They have a big house, and Saroja is well settled with few worries. Or so I thought!
Without replying to me, Saroja stared outside, frowning.
‘What is the matter? You seem unhappy,’ I asked.
‘To be honest, I am unhappy in the hospital and at home.’
‘Why? Everything is so good for you.’
‘That is what you think. But at home, my mother-in-law expects me to do everything. She forgets that I am also growing old. My daughter-in-law wants me to look after the grandchildren and manage the home, while she goes out to work. No one understands that as we grow older, we lose the patience to manage everything like we did in our younger days. I am caught between two generations.’
‘Saroja, all of us go through this dilemma at this age. We are neither as old-fashioned as our parents, nor as progressive as our sons and daughters-in-law.’
‘Besides that my relatives keep bothering me. They come to the hospital for treatment and don’t pay us a paisa. I wouldn’t have minded that so much but they never even have a word of thanks for us. They behave as if it is their right. If I complain about this to my husband he gets upset.’
‘How is your practice?’ I tried to change the topic.
‘Don’t ask me. There is so much competition in Bangalore. It is very difficult to have a private practice and even worse if one’s children are not doctors. Often I think it would be better if we just sold the hospital and kept the money in the bank. Nowadays even the patients are so inquisitive. The other day one asked me a dozen questions while I was examining him. They think we can perform miracles with the latest medicines and surgery. If they don’t respond to treatment they start complaining that we are exploiting them.’
Saroja was in full flow. ‘How is Milind?’ I interrupted.
‘Oh, life there is not easy. There is so much of retrenchment. He is always under the threat of unemployment. His wife is also working. And there is no domestic help in the US you see, so the children go to a creche. They have not learnt a word of Kannada. I feel sad.’
It was taking us almost half an hour to travel a couple of kilometers, as there were traffic snarls all around. I was scared Saroja would start complaining about the road and the traffic situation as well, so I quickly asked, ‘How is your friend Vani?’
‘Don’t ask me about her. Now that they are doing so well in life, she looks down upon me. How can I continue to be friends with her?’
‘How is Vimla?’
Vani and Vimla were Saroja’s friends for many years. But now she seemed to have developed problems with both.
‘Oh I hardly meet Vimla. She always has either health or financial problems. Who has the time to listen to her complaints?’
Finally I asked the question that was on my mind after hearing her endless worries. ‘Saroja, according to you, what is a happy life?’
Saroja looked at me and laughed, probably at my ignorance.
‘A perfect life would be one without any worries. Daughters-in-law would be obedient and friendly and mothers-in-law without any expectations from us. Older people would not be demanding and friends would be understanding. Relatives would appreciate our work, and patients would realize that the doctor always tries his or her level best, but are not gods. Everybody would strive for a better life.’
The Old Man and His God by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes