The man wearing the shades had no legs. As I returned from my morning walk, the small figure half way up the bridge sat on the side-walk performing his morning ablutions with the stumps of his arms. The dark-skinned man nodded and moved to an inaudible tune as if keeping time. From a distance his round face appeared much younger. With a white rag wrapped around his head, his leonine face appeared content or even happy. That was an absurd thought! But how could I think of happiness? This was a tableau, very different than what I remembered from my childhood. For over forty years I had lived abroad, and once a year got a chance to visit the ancient hometown for a few days. Several years ago I had started to go for a morning walk.
In my younger days I would go for a morning walk with my father during the summer holidays. My father would wake me and my older brother at five in the morning. Then he busy himself with his morning routine of washing up and preparing a cup of Enos fruit salt on the tiny spirit lamp. As he drank the bubbling whitish drink, we would pull on our sandals and be ready. It was still dark when we left home.
My father always carried a highly polished knobby walking stick. He actually owned several walking sticks, many presents from his friends who had visited hill stations and brought him unique walking sticks. A tall handsome man over six feet, he would be dressed in walking khaki pants or occasionally in a Punjabi lungi. For someone who wore a white starched shirt and dhoti or pajamas during the day, he looked quite impressive in pants. He would trail the stick along the road humming an incomprehensible tune and use the walking stick to scare away the stray dogs.
I remembered the time when our pet dog had gone rabid and bit my father. My father had to have fourteen daily painful injections in his abdomen. He never complained about it, though an aunt who was also bit by the pet complained for many years. Now, on the roadside, dogs were as plentiful as ever but they rarely bothered you. In the winter chill of December morning, I saw them crouched on the side of the road or sleeping in the small potholes. I noticed that now it was the noisy traffic of trucks and buses spewing diesel fumes that made crossing a road so much harder.
As I climbed up the famous Bhandari Bridge of Amritsar, I remembered a long time ago when the bridge was first built. There were huge mounds of earth moved over months to link up the old city with its suburbs. It was a monumental task.
Prior to the construction of the bridge the only connection the old city had with the cantonment and civil lines was over the ancient Rigo Bridge, which spanned the railway tracks. After the bridge was completed, one could see the strange figure of Bhagat Puran Singh on the city side. The old Sikh wore a burlap garment shaped like a poncho and begged the folks to get down from the rickshaws. For months the outraged fat wives of the city businessmen felt cheated that they had to walk up the bridge! As if the scrawny bicycle rickhaw-pullers were fated to die hauling the fat women!
The old Sardarji with the flowing white beard started a charitable organization, Pinglewara, which took care of the helpless, deformed wretches on the streets of the holy city. The black wooden collection boxes with crude white lettering became familiar to the citizens. I recalled this was a long time before humanity was aware of Mother Theresa's similar task in the mean streets of Calcutta.
Now you were likely to step over the sleeping figures next to the small dead fires. These were mostly beggars or day laborers who came to the city from poor states of UP or Bihar because there were alms or work to be found.
On top of the bridge, there was the roundabout with the statue of Subhash Bose in the middle. From the back, the statue reminded you of a pudgy businessman incongruously dressed in the fascist Nazi uniform! If the crows were perched on the head of the statue, the thought did cross my mind as to the fate of mortals. Here stood the great leader who the Indians refuse to believe till this day had perished in an airplane accident.
I descended the bridge in the direction of the railway station and headed towards the cricket grounds. At the turn from the Court Road, a fruit-juice vendor washed and peeled the carrots and stacked them industriously on his handcart. I watched the man work swiftly but steadily handling a long knife effortlessly.
Passing the Alexandra School and the Gandhi Ground, I noticed the stadium like appearance. The walls of the stadium were plastered with advertisement for cell phones. More than fifty years ago, in the 1950s, when I had come to watch three-day matches against visiting teams from England or West Indies, the majestic grounds were not so built up. A pitch in the middle and brick-stands at the boundary for spectators were all that used to be there. The pavilion into which players and umpires used to disappear during tea and lunch break was so unapproachable. The high school finals would also be played at Gandhi grounds but on a secondary pitch.
Opposite the cricket grounds were open fields where I had played in school soccer tournament. For some reason, the master and coach, Gulab Chand, in sixth grade had decided to make me the captain of the lower school soccer team though taller and stronger Harbhajan Singh was a better player. I can still recall the cross-field pass I made running on the sidelines hoping that the other forward would kick a goal. But of course, it was intercepted by the opposite team. We were trashed and I cannot forget it.
I realized how distances in childhood are magnified. I remembered how these grounds used to appear so far away from home, and how my friends and brothers would be dog- tired returning home after the game.
As I reached the Mall Road, I noticed a number of banquet halls and show rooms. The old Mall Road used to boast of only residential buildings. The majestic bungalows were set far from the road. Now you mostly saw the closed gates and signs for doctors' services and other commercial enterprises. The high walls were covered with jagged glass, a reminder of changing times and fears of the inhabitants. The Lawrence Road itself was crowded beyond recognition. The broad boulevard had a lot of eating-places beyond the intersection.
At the intersection of Mall Road and Lawrence Road for a while, there were policemen living in tents. In the early morning they used to clean their tents, picking up the string cots and using the water taps to wash up. Left over from the early eighties when terrorists briefly dictated the daily life of the city, the policemen had taken over a small corner of the Company Gardens. Now even they were gone.
Walking along the Mall Road, I noticed the sanitation workers with long-handled stiff brooms that appeared to raise clouds of dust. The men and women worked desultorily. The sidewalks were wide and inviting except for the dust. The bishtis of my childhood who carried water in huge animal skins and sprinkled it over parched roads to settle the dust were gone forever. The ancient trucks, which sprinkled water from a large reservoir, were also gone.
At the entrance to Gardens I noticed a stall dispensing tea and milk for the early risers. This would have been unthinkable in my childhood. A large number of scooters and cars were parked inside. It was now a fact of life that in order to get some exercises you first had to travel a few miles!
Gone was the famous Thandhi-Khui opposite the gardens. The cool water and poori-chole were famous. Summer-evenings saw small crowds gathered around the balloon-sellers and ice-cream vendors. The handcarts were lighted with petromax lamps.
Hakim Sahib, a Muslim friend of my father, had migrated to Lahore but had started to visit the city when visa restrictions between Pakistan and India eased in the fifties. He may stay at our house for a month. But he was so nostalgic about the city of his birth that he used to come to Thandhi-Khui every evening to eat poori-chole. Hakim Sahib would come back at dinnertime and beg my mother's indulgence, "We don't have a single poori-chole shop like it in Lahore!" His wife would berate him for his lack of manners but Hakim Sahib never changed his routine.
Suave and soft spoken, Hakim Sahib was an industrialist and still had many friends in Amritsar. Along with my older brother, I had spent a week in Lahore in 1955 courtesy of Hakim Sahib's family. As a fourteen year old, I got to visit all the famous places like Anarkali Bazar in the city that was the stuff of our elders' stories. This was the welcome result of cricket diplomacy.
Now in place of the well and the shop were the big houses of the businessmen who had moved out of the congested narrow bye-lanes of the city. Strangely enough a garbage dump sat near the expensive houses. How did the people of Amritsar whose language included phrases like Thandi Khui di Sair cope with the change?
The rose garden now had a large equestrian statue of Maharajah Ranjit Singh at one end. The walkways were much better paved. The large crowd of city dwellers crowded the path, some flinging their arms in windmilling motion, others performed bends and body stretches. Near a water tap, a group picked up the twigs they chewed for brushing their teeth. The hacking noises men made were loud and ill-mannered but no one seemed to mind.
In a small dark plot, I saw a group of men standing in a circle and making strange noises. This was the improbable contribution to healthcare by India! The 'laughing clubs', which had sprouted all over, India, asked their members to laugh in public places. So these men stood in circles and made all kinds of laughing noises. One by one a forced laughter, followed by a 'guffaw', many times of the hyena type of 'haw-haw' sounded forced. But the public display was supposed to keep the members healthy, bring down their blood pressure and add to their life.
In an adjoining lot were a variety of flowering plants. My father used to enjoy walking in this lot, sometimes bending to smell a gardenia bush. My favorite part of the Gardens used be where the swings and see-saw were. The children gathered in this lot and my father would allow me a few minutes to climb the wooden arches. When I tired of climbing I would rejoin my father. If I met a schoolmate or a friend, I didn't dare acknowledge him.
Even now there were few women who joined men in the morning. I noticed that the height of sartorial splendor was the polyester ‘track-suit'. Some curious men would literally thrust their face into mine as if to guess what I was listening to on my Walkman. There was a proliferation of groups of kids or youth playing volleyball or badminton. They had cordoned off the roads that crisscrossed the grounds for their ‘courts'. Many of the players were inept, ungainly, and lacked athletic grace.
At the outskirts of the Gardens were some of the club buildings, which looked run down in the morning light. They used to look magical and mysterious in the evenings with outdoor fans and whiskey drinking patrons. A relic of the Raj, with improbable names like Lumsden Club and Services Club, prosperous businessmen and high officials who often sponged off the traders now inhabited them. I had visited one of these places at night and found the waiters serving greasy kabobs to traders trying to entertain civil servants. The dark mahogany furniture and sepia-framed pictures evoked memories associated with regiments and deputy commissioners of the yore.
I remembered the phrase Paul Scott had used to describe these clubs in ‘Jewel in the Crown'- old-fashioned shabbiness. The State Tennis Association maintained a building but the men hitting the balls in the morning seemed to be novices. Those returning back to their homes and jobs lingered at the handcarts heaped with fresh fruit. The fruit sellers had obviously made the early morning trek to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market outside the Hall Gate and bought the produce.
I walked back past the ancient VJ Hospital, which had been turned into some kind of a mental institution. The drug stores opposite the Hospital were shuttered at this early in the morning. So was the Crystal Restaurant where I used to go for a cup of coffee with my friends when I had the money.
I had spent years roaming the wards of VJ hospital as a medical student, trying to learn from the poor, illiterate villagers who sought health-care. I was reminded of the awkward, uncomfortable feelings of a novice pretending to be a doctor in a long white coat. This decrepit building had been the training ground of so many well-known doctors that a feeling of sadness was inevitable. Single story, barrack-like wards used to have dim lighting, no air-conditioning, torn and smelly red blankets for the patients. The wards used to have almost proprietary names of legendary doctors, Dr Malhotra's Ward , Dr Santokh Singh's Ward and Dr Karam Singh's Ward.
Climbing up the bridge I noticed a crowd of young men sitting on their scooters or plastic chairs sipped tea in thick tall glasses. Across the road a group of old men did the same and went through Urdu and Hindi newspapers. Heated discussions of the world events were the norm.
The pastry shop Bakewell sold bread in the morning. I remembered shopping at Bakewell for pineapple pastry and sconces.
A young boy diligently peeled buckets of potatoes as the shop-owner fried a mound of kachories. Large slabs of paneer (Indian cheese) sat on the counter in their pristine whiteness. On Saturdays I noticed the black pots full of mustard oil that sat on the side of the bridge on tripod stands. In the middle of the pots were stick- figures covered with marigold petals, which struck terror in the heart of the Hindus. The coins and oil as alms were generously deposited to propitiate the gods! The men wearing unusual kind of head dress with a peacock feather stuck on the side smugly sat on the side smoking bidis. They kept an eye on the ‘take' in the pot.
Now I took a different part of the bridge, which descended to Hall Bazaar. There were army trucks parked outside the vegetable market. The soldiers were there to buy vegetables for the entire regiment. Outside the huge arch of the Hall Gate now stood the bronze statue of the revolutionary Udham Singh. The youthful bent figure was carrying a revolver. Garlands of marigolds had dried around the neck of the statue. It stood on a round raised cement platform.
The waist-high iron railing protected the statue of the revolutionary who had gone to England, determined to kill General Dyer, the butcher of Jalianwalla Bagh. Most people did not remember that he had ended up killing the wrong Dyer, not the general but the governor of Punjab! The figure barely evoked the dangerous and delicious feelings I used to have about the youthful, violent bomb throwers who fought the British in the early part of the twentieth century.
I remembered that while returning with my father and brother we took the road going down to the bus stand and would come across vendors selling ripe shahtoot -berries or jamun (Black Plum). My father would silently reach inside his pocket and reward both of us with a Diwani coin for the purchase. The routine of the jamun seller was to weigh the appropriate amount of the dark purple fruit and then tilt it in an earthen utensil, put some black rock salt. He would cover the small container with an aluminum katori, turn it upside down and thoroughly shake it. On a paper torn from newspaper, he would pour out the glistening and bursting fruit for us. We would greedily eat the ripe berries and were left with stained fingers and lips.
At the bottom of the bridge we would head towards home, passing the truck drivers. As the burly men washed themselves on the roadside, their assistants would be washing the vehicles. Crossing the grounds outside our house, we would see more neighbors and friends. My father would stop to say namaste to some acquaintances.
As we entered the house my father would wordlessly pick up the Urdu dailies Partap and Milap, and head to the verandah where the servant had set up his shaving gear. First he would sit cross-legged on the carpet, and finish his milk, which was brought to him in a tall brass glass. As he read the paper, no one was allowed to touch even a page of it. But as soon as he finished I and my brother would be ready to grab the sports sections. In that time before the advent of TV, our connection to Vinoo Mankad or Polly Umrigar's exploits were radio commentary or newspapers' sports section.
Our mother had by now had her bath and even been to the temple. She would go to the special room where pictures of gods and small clay idols were set up, and read a few pages of the sacred texts undisturbed. She smiled as she came out, and looked at their berry-stained fingers and lips. Meanwhile my older brother and I would run upstairs to be the first to get to the cheap detective novel -Jasoosi Duniya -that we had rented with pooled money. We never wanted to pay extra for the delay in returning the book to the pavement-based book sellers outside Hall Gate.
As the years passed and my father's health deteriorated, he started to go for the morning walk outside the house in Goal Bagh. Then he would go for a daily shave to the barber. He would meet several of his friends and return home with more news than anyone else.
© Vinod Puri 2012
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