Sleep had eluded me the night before due to sheer excitement, but a light tap and I was wide awake. The summer vacation had begun. Today, we were going to Nargol, my Mum’s native village. This was a yearly ritual and my two brothers and I looked forward to this outing. The excitement would begin from the time the huge tin trunk was pulled out from beneath the bed, dusted and readied for the packing, and would keep on mounting till our Dad put us all in the train. In the 1950s an annual vacation meant visiting relatives, either the grandparents’ house or visiting an uncle or aunt. There were many advantages to this exercise. Family bonds got stronger, the mother had rest at least this one month due to the extended family taking over the welfare of the children and most important, the children had time away from the routine of school and studies. No extra classes learning a new ‘skill’ – just pure unadulterated relaxing time-pass.
From time to time we invite readers to contribute. This article is by Havovi Govadia.
Mum would count and recount the various bags and trunks that accompanied us. After all, besides Granny and Grandpa, there was the extended joint family of uncles, aunts, cousins, cousins’ cousins ET all. Mum always carried various goodies and gifts for everyone, especially since we were coming from Bombay. Once the shrill whistle of the steam engine sounded and the train started, we would bid goodbye to our Dad, standing forlornly at the station platform. The usual fights for the window seat began as soon as the train chugged out, heaving and panting like an old person.
The journey to Nargol took 4 hours and our eyes would be glued to the passing scenery outside our unbarred windows. Mum would keep coins ready for us to throw in the Vasai Creek as was the ritual in those days. The brief halts at various stations were made more interesting by the shrill cries of the vendors selling drinking water in earthenware pots, summer fruits like jamun, pears, targilli in leaf containers or hot spicy dal laced with onion or sometimes coconut water. This would immediately start the clamor from us to buy something. Mum was never in favor of eating fruits without washing so all our pleas fell on deaf ears. ‘You can eat all this to your heart’s content at Nargol’ would be her refrain.
The halt at Sanjan, from where we would be going to Nargol by tonga, was just a minute and my Mum would be worried that all of us with our numerous trunks and bags will not be able to get down in time. But the ever willing co-passengers, happy to get some sitting space, would pass us down through the unbarred windows, in the waiting arms of our ‘Puppaji’. The retinue of servants would bring down the trunks, bags, parcels under the watchful eye of my Mum and a quick second count would begin. Satisfied, we would troop out of the station, talking, chattering all at the same time. The tonga would be waiting for the 7 miles journey to Nargol, the horses snorting and stomping their feet, their tails swishing to ward off the flies. It felt so good to see the familiar rolling fields, with the thorny cacti hedges dividing them into neat blocks. The khajuri trees swayed gently in the breeze with little pots hanging way above to catch the sweet toddy. On the way, little villages would break the monotony, with people sitting in clusters whiling away time or women in colorful saris filling water from the wells.
Soon I spy the pond, now mostly dried due to summer, with patches of slush, where buffaloes were seen cooling themselves. The drone of the flour mill made me crane my neck and I realized we were at last in Nargol. We pass the 4/5 shops dispensing the basic daily needs, Doctor Wadia’s dispensary with listless patients, the library with the wide Verandah, where the usual bunch of oldies was sitting and discussing about worlds beyond their village, either arguing about politics of the day or simply reading yesterday’s papers. Our tonga momentarily halted the animated discussions. There were shouts and waves and a taste of the first welcome. My grandfather was a well-known figure in the village, a broad handsome man with a moustache, who all the time laughed and played practical jokes on unsuspecting people. The tonga kept on rattling on the cobbled roads, past the deserted bus stop, and after a turn on the road, we spied Mum’s school. It looked as majestic as ever with huge playgrounds. ‘The Agiary, the Agiary (the firetemple, the firetemple)’ my brothers shouted. The tonga had slowed down since the road from the Firetemple to my grandparents’ house was not paved but sandy.
The house was a mammoth, three-storied structure, with 2 sets of semi-circular steps, leading to a wide verandah which stretched through the breadth of the house. There were 2 separate entrances to the house, and my granny came running out of one. Her head was covered with a white cloth with wisps of grey hair lining her forehead, and sari draped haphazardly. I was seeing her after a year and felt great happiness and love to see her at last.
The huge structure housed many families all related to each other, but with their individual kitchens and living quarters. My aunts from other parts of India would also be there with my cousins and so also second and third cousins. In the summer, the house teemed with children. In the evening, after the day’s work, the women would gather in the courtyard or verandah. There was a lot of chatter and frequent bursts of laughter. Living in a nuclear family in Bombay, this gave us a sense of security and continuity. All the children too kept on hovering around these adult groups, trying to understand the jokes with their double innuendoes, the philosophy of life spouted by the older women, the different ways of cooking chicken and plenty of other inane talk. But it was not just time whiled away. Vegetables were chopped for the next day or rice and pulses cleaned and may be some stitching or darning done or the chakri spun to make the thread for kusti weaving. Since my Mum and her sisters were meeting after a year, there was a lot of exchange of news and gossip.
My grandfather had been adopted by his eldest brother and so my grandparents had inherited a larger share in the house. The kitchen was huge with wood burning stoves, huge trunks with vessels and plenty of pots and pans hanging from hooks. The bedrooms were large and we slept in the first floor bedroom where the sea breeze and cross ventilation made it cool.
Over the kitchen was the loft, the most enigmatic place for us. The huge earthenware jars stored with grains and pulses, the smaller ones stored with various condiments, the massive dried, salted fish hung out to air them, all reminded me of the tale of Alibaba and the forty thieves or some scene from the Arabian Nights. The mixed aromas were heady, the creaky
wooden floors creepy, and many times I would vicariously imagine that the hidden thieves will jump out and carry us away to a far-off land.
With so many children there would be a lot of hustle bustle all the time. We had a lot of activities and distractions to keep us occupied and amused. The only time we got a lot of attention from the adults was the time spent at the beach, which happened to be 5 minutes walk from the house. The beach was beautiful, open and stretching for miles. The coast was lined with plantation of sarovar trees to preserve the coast line. We ran to our heart’s content, rolled in the sand or went for a swim during high tide, accompanied of course by an adult. Sometimes when the fishermen came back from their catch, my Mum and aunts would bargain with them and buy the fish there and then. The fact that they knew each other and maybe had studied or played as children helped in getting a good bargain. On Sundays, there would be more than the usual crowd of holidaymakers. The locals would then come to sell their wares and make a quick buck. There was the usual balloon seller with his colorful balloons hanging from the rod, Laxmi selling Khajuri or the fresh dates, the chana-singwallah. In those days, the simple pleasure of just being out in the open, enjoying the fresh sea breeze and meeting up with all kinds of people made our day. Since there was no piped running water, after our swim, we would all be herded to the well and given our bath. We tried to chip in to draw water from the well, but our efforts drew up half empty pots! We also learnt the valuable lesson of not wasting any water when we saw the effort required to full up those drums and buckets.
One would think that all these activities would exhaust us, but no! After breakfast, we would explore the house, go to various kitchens and sample whatever was offered or simply roam in the village. We especially enjoyed visiting the “mangela quarters” where the fisher folk stayed. The women would be out salting and drying out the fish and the men repairing nets and boats. Then back to the house for lunch. Like locusts we would all pounce on the food. But what we all looked forward to was eating the mangoes. One outhouse was stacked with mangoes laid out on the floor to ripen. Whenever, we passed from there, the heavenly aroma would waft out. I would close my eyes in glee with the thought of eating them after lunch. Washed ripe mangoes in huge baskets were ceremoniously brought out, and then would begin our race to devour as many as our bloated stomachs could manage. In our greed to eat as many as possible, we would leave some half eaten and grab the next, till they all vanished and huge piles of mango core and skin were left!
When the elders took their afternoon siesta, it was time to indulge in our favourite pastime. We would race barefoot in the hot sand, between our house and the Agiary. Our feet and faces turned red with the exertion, the hot sun and the hotter sand. Children can be sadistic and my chubby cousin, who had problems moving fast, was the butt of our devilish plans. We would call ‘get set’ and either not run or run real fast to the other side and stop her from coming into the shade, till she howled with pain.
Evenings were exciting with a daily trip to the bazaar. A motley crowd of women sat near the dried lake, their wares spread out in front of them. Fresh vegetables, fruits, fish were all piled in little heaps. There was a lot of shouting and haggling, the buyer and seller trying to outwit each other. We would dart in between the various rows, sampling the wares, pickingthe runaway crabs, trying out the colorful ribbons and beaded necklaces. Laden with various bags we would all head home but not before various stops were made to buy roasted chana or drinking the locally made ice-cream soda.
The night time ritual was different. The loose fowl had to be rounded up and tucked away safely in huge cane baskets, away from the eager paws of dogs or the occasional night-time prowlers. There were lots of squeals and flutter of wings as we all pitched in to help. As the night descended, lanterns were lit. The readied kerosene lanterns reminded us that the big house where we roamed at will, would soon be transferred into a mysterious place – a place where imagination ruled the roost. Imagination runs wild when darkness and light create dancing shadows, which the flickering lanterns did. Some days unknown ghosts came to torment and other days, the fairy wand would transform the high wooden ceilings into unknown territory to be explored at leisure. This was also the time when Mum and her sisters would tell us stories. We would all pile on one bed and raptly listen to the stories. When the high tide brought in the cool breeze, the dream merchants would at last take over.
Sometimes my grandfather would arrange picnics in the fields or trips to Sanjan for provision shopping. The days would thus merge into each other. The summer vacation was nearing an end. At last it was time for us to leave and bid good-bye. We would all be sad at the prospect of leaving each other. I especially hated to leave my grandparents behind, knowing that I would not see them for months and sometimes even a year. The ritual of saying good-bye to various aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins would begin. We would go around the house bidding good-bye to all our favorite places too. On the day of our departure we were all woken up early morning, dressed and barely awake put into the waiting tonga. On the journey back to Bombay, we were all subdued. There were no fights for the window seats, no chattering or joking – only a deep sadness and introspection of what had been.
Those were simple but happy times. There was no electricity, no telephone in the village, but we never felt the lack of it. Human interaction was the important aspect in people’s lives. People amused themselves with whatever way they could. The expectation from life was limited to the simple needs of daily living. Children in those days did not need any gizmos to amuse themselves. They invented ways and means to keep themselves occupied and amused. And even today, when I get the aroma of fish being fried, I just have to close my eyes and imagine I am in Nargol !!
Havovi Govadia is a 65 years old grandmother of 3. She was born and brought up in Mumbai and shifted to Nagpur after marriage. Was working in Empress Mills (first Tata enterprise) till it shut shop in 1987. Working now as an independent financial adivsor.
Havovi wrote scripts, directed and staged plays and various tableaux on Zarthushtra, Parsi fashions through the ages etc. mostly to acquaint the younger generation of their rich heritage from 1980 till about 2000 for the Nagpur Parsi Gymkhana.
Havovi started writing these little anecdotal stories at the insistence of her niece who is now 10 years old and living in USA and who was keen to know about her grand parents whom she would never meet and those days when “you and my Dad were little”.