The city of Dharwad lies east of the Western Ghats and is surrounded by hills and lakes. The town had the honour of being crowned as the centre of education even during the British regime.
For centuries, it acted as a gateway between the western mountains and the plains. The home of Hindustani classical music, many eminent musicians like Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal, Basavaraj Rajguru, and Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi - one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century - hail from this place.
There is a saying that if you throw a stone in Dharwad, it will hit a poet. Right from D R Bendre, we have any number of poets who have contributed to different genres of the poetic muse.
The Karnataka College was a synonym for excellence in teaching and research in the basic sciences. It was well known for eminent professors like V K Gokak, Correa Afonso and Dr Armand Menezes.
Poets, writers, researchers, scholars, who have spent two or more years in Dharwad, always feel nostalgic about the place.
Seven hillocks, seven tanks and seven villages around Dharwad, made the old township. Alas! No more! The tanks have disappeared; hillocks are bereft of vegetation and have made way for a concrete jungle. Villages are the suburbs of a dry city called Dharwad. Water-scarcity is acute. Despite all these factors, it has retained its reputation as a place of learning and music.
Our bungalow nestled at the foot of the hills of Saraswat Colony. The garden bloomed with seasonal flowers - roses, white and lavender cosmos, colourful dahlias, jasmine creepers and the sunflower - nature's ultimate tribute to the Sun God. Bathroom and kitchen water was recycled to a vegetable patch of cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and bell-peppers.
Bathwater was heated in a copper boiler (bumba), a few yards away from the bathroom. Wooden chips supplemented with coal were used as fuel for the boiler. In the absence of servants, Mummy carried buckets of hot water to the bathroom. She maintained that animals care only for their offspring. As human beings, endowed with intelligence and compassion, it was our duty to care for every person. At any given point of time, there were 12 of us in the house - cousins, uncles and aunts - as there were no facilities for higher education in Sirsi, the family's ancestral city
When I look back on the domestic front, the retinue of our household help was a model of national integration. Kalicharan, the cook with his pigtail hailed from Bihar. Raju, our typist, in a mundu with a naam on his forehead, traced his roots to the South. Pandu, the light-eyed driver with a white cap, spoke Marathi. The gardener communicated in Kannada. Laxmi, our coquettish maid, spoke the local dialect. We had two live-in helpers.
Bungalows were constructed in colonial style; the annexe, where the servants lived, was known as the ‘outhouse'. The area of work was clearly defined. There was an unspoken code which prevented any unnecessary interaction with helpers/servants. We seldom spoke to servants. A distance was maintained - probably a colonial legacy.
Five-year-old Tara. 1935
From an early age, we were taught to avoid drinking water, unless it was filtered and boiled. Almost a ritual with Mummy, it was a compulsive, obsessive activity. She boiled huge pots of water before she retired for the day. Not an impure drop got past our lips. An unspoken code of ethics prevailed. The family continues the practice. After I set foot on American soil in 1980, the first thing I did was to boil a pot of water and waited for it to cool!
Daddy believed in the ‘good-life' - food, cars and a retinue of servants. He returned from work to a spic-and-span home. An aesthete with a refined palate, he enjoyed a well laid out table with starched linen, forks, and spoons lined up. His home office-table was a massive teak specimen on wheels. He had an office in Line Bazaar, a street known for young and promising professionals.
Mummy had an unbounded enthusiasm for life. A change in clothes with a jasmine string or a rose in Mummy's hair was almost mandatory. Later, she wondered why her daughters continued to be in the same attire all day.
I grew up in the midst of grown-ups. There were no toys in the house. A cherry red teddy piggy bank shared limited space in the showcase with a mechanical white celluloid elephant in blue red and gold trappings that swayed its trunk.
The teddy was endowed with a round bottom. At the slightest touch, it moved from side to side to gradually regain its vertical position. Perhaps the underlying message was the mercurial nature and, therefore, the careful handling of money. These ‘toys' were preserved for decades. We learned about the virtues of saving. Occasions to handle money seldom arose.
The spirit of nationalism instilled in Mummy as a child, explained her dedication to Hindi, the national language. She studied late into the night for her Rashtrabhasha Visharad, a graduate degree in Hindi.
A deep-seated desire for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake permeated all areas. There was a constant need to achieve and add to the quality of life. Her children and theirs inherit a drive to achieve laurels in intellectual attainments and the arts. Although not actively involved in politics, she attended meetings of the Indian National Congress whenever possible.
After his election as President of the Indian National Congress in 1937, Subhash Chandra Bose was expected in Dharwad. He was the fierce and popular leader in pre-Independence India who gave the country its most evocative political salutation - Jai Hind (Victory to India).
My parents attended the Indian National Congress meetings. Daddy bore a striking resemblance to the leader in stature, features and complexion. He also used horn-rimmed spectacles. Clad in a khadi kurta, white dhoti and cap, he was mistaken for the leader! He returned home with a couple of hand-woven khadi garlands!
Daddy took up a brief in the Bombay High Court in the last week of January 1935. ‘I will go with you', I announced. ‘My Bunda (a pet name for me which only he used) will go with me, wherever I go,' he said. I was in St Joseph's Convent in Dharwad. The final examination was a couple of months away. Mummy was not happy about the trip. Daddy cut the Gordian knot by speaking to the headmistress for a leave of absence for 10 days.
We drove to Poona to board the Deccan Queen. Passengers in the first class were allowed to sit in the restaurant car. We were served an English breakfast at 8 am, when the train reached Lonavala - a magnificent spread that included scrambled eggs with fresh cream and fresh honey. A solicitous butler in starched uniform was in attendance. There was an invitation to consume a slice of papaya. Porridge, followed by a couple of fish cakes and a boiled egg or two were washed down with coffee and topped up with relays of toast and excellent bitter orange marmalade. The ambience and the fare appealed to Daddy.
The most beautiful part of the journey was from Lonavala to Karjat, a distance of 21 miles adorned by as many tunnels. The sound of iron-on-iron resonating through the tunnelled walls was a thrilling experience. The train chugged through the tunnels. We were enveloped in a cloak of darkness for a few minutes.
I clung to Daddy as it emerged into bright daylight. He held me close. Gorgeous ridges and valleys were a delight. In the monsoons, it was doubly enjoyable as the breath-taking scenery was interrupted by slivers of silver waterfalls. The entire landscape turned a luxuriant green. After Lonavala, the journey was through the Western Ghats. Hills rolled in and out of vision. They were clad in verdant foliage. Wispy rills flowed down the hillsides culminating in a spray of water.
The marshes and wetlands were mottled silver and green. The hills wore numerous verdant shades. No other colour met the eye and, strangely, one would not want to see any other. Karjat, at the bottom of the Ghats, was a longish stop. Vendors sold spicy batata wada, the perfect accompaniment to a beautiful train ride. Fleet-footed hawkers moved from one compartment to the other to sell brittle chikki - sticky jaw-breaking toffee and delicious fudge that melted in the mouth. Hawkers ran with the train as passengers fumbled for change.
As the train approached Bombay, its dirty suburbs appeared. It got humid as we approached the metropolis. Turbaned porters in red shirts and white dhotis invaded the compartments to place their claim on the baggage, even before the train ground to a halt with a lurch at Victoria Terminus (VT). A well burnished brass badge on the porter's right arm helped to identify him.
Our attendant strode ahead, to keep pace with the porter who seemed to run rather than walk. I was surprised at the man's agility and capacity to balance a trunk and a holdall on his head with handbags in either hand. A sea of humanity tumbled out of the compartments, scurrying towards the exit gates. I stared in wonder at the metal trellises of the Victoria Terminus station. The ceilings were vaulted. There were several ornate towers, facades and gargoyles at strategic points.
We stayed with the Rajadhyakshas in their flat at Girgaum. We were family friends right from the time of my grandfather, Pundalikrao Pandit. After Daddy returned from the High Court, we rode in a Victoria, an open carriage, drawn by two horses. The clatter of the hooves on the cobbled pavements was music to my ears. In the twilight of dusk, we approached Marine Drive. The twinkling shimmer of street lights of Marine Drive, known as the Queen's Necklace, swept across the vision. Viewed at night from an elevated point anywhere along the Drive, the street lights resembled a string of pearls, forming a necklace. It was also the world's largest viewing gallery and, hence, has been a host to a number of events that took place along the promenade.
The next day, we rode a double-decker bus. Holding on to the handrail, we clambered to the open upper deck as the bus moved on. I clapped joyfully as the wind blew in my face.
A telegram awaited our return to the Rajadhyaksha flat. The news was about the birth of my sister, Savita, in Sirsi on 8 February 1935. My status as a grown-up was confirmed. I was five and reminded sometimes subtly and often in so many words that I was the eldest, with the primary duty of being a role-model to my siblings. I was now akka, an elder sister, with a host of responsibilities.
Savita was a bonny baby. Mummy liked to dress her up in a shirt and shorts, perhaps trying to compensate for the baby boy she looked forward to.
I must have been eight when I rode the family car, a Baby Austin. Driving the family tonga, a partially covered horse-drawn carriage, was an exclusive privilege I enjoyed.
The reading habit was fostered by my parents - an enjoyable and educative experience. I wonder whether it has been lost to the modern generation. My appetite for fantasy was whetted by Grimm's Fairy Tales and stories from the Arabian Nights. Enid Blyton initiated us into the realm of fiction - a make-believe world. While the stories encouraged children to believe in the possibilities of magic and adventure, they also routinely provide moral lessons. Characters were rewarded for being virtuous and punished for telling lies, stealing things, being rude, greedy, selfish or unkind. The punishments were rarely permanent and never cruel or violent.
The transition from Blyton to Jules Verne was smooth. Books like Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea kindled a passion for travel. Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Moby Dick fired the sense of adventure. I lost track of time following the investigative skills of the famous detective in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collection.
Daddy often recounted his visit to Baker's Street in England, the haunt of Sherlock Holmes. Marie Corelli, the most widely read author of fiction of her times, wrote torrentially. Her novels had a highly moralistic tone and were written in flamboyant prose. Thelma, Vendetta, and The Sorrows of Satan were devoured as fast as they came.
My cousins had access to their college library; they lent me copies of Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables - voluminous works that did not allow the reader to put them down. Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea left a mark. Most of these novels were filmed and viewed by us. Pleasure was, therefore, twofold.
Two memories of my childhood stand out with startling clarity even after a lapse of seven decades - both about experiences with the medical fraternity. I needed a tooth extraction. The prospect of a visit to the dentist those days was enough to cause an adult to break into a sweat. Nothing was as loathed and dreaded as tooth extraction. Until the last decade of the 20th century, few individuals went through life without suffering the pangs of toothache at some stage. Extractions were carried out by all kinds of people - from blacksmiths, cobblers, barbers and, of course, dentists. I was eight then. Sympathy poured in from all quarters. The dentist did a reasonably good job but the memory of that fear and pain lingers.
The second was a severe attack of tonsillitis accompanied with high fever. When I had a febrile seizure, one of the servants maintained that the fever would go down if a piece of red-hot glass bangle was applied to the area between my eyebrows. My mother would go to any length to bring the fever down. Strangely enough the bizarre remedy worked. Was it sheer coincidence? Did it have any rationale? The relief was so tremendous that nobody ever bothered to find out the why or the wherefore. I carried the scar for a number of years.
After a while, the fever recurred. The family doctor was at his wit's end. It was at that moment that Sri Kapali Sastriar - a Tantric scholar and devotee of Sri Aurobindo - visited us. He lifted me in his arms and prayed. A few minutes later, I revived. Divine intervention, the power of mantra ... How could this be explained? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of.
© Tara Bhadbhade 2016
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