Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mustard Fields

*On the occasion of my late grandmother's 75th birthday, my first blog, originally written a few years ago, is dedicated to her memory 


I had wanted one for a while now, a bicycle. My younger brother had got one for his birthday a few months ago. A shiny, red one with side wheels so he wouldn’t fall off. That had made me want one even more. My parents finally succumbed to the dinner-table begging and pleading and decided to buy me one for my birthday.

I turned eight that Wednesday in November. I woke up bright and early, eager and anxious. Come evening, I was all dressed up in my new birthday frock, with matching hair clips in place. The guests started trickling in. Soon, my mother’s immaculately pruned garden, with its sweet-pea creeper climbing over the wall, was teeming with people. The uncles who pinched my cheeks. The aunts who gave me red- lipsticked, sloppy kisses. The fat, chubby cousins who stuffed their faces with samosas. I was always secretly scared that people wouldn’t turn up for my birthday. I still am.  

All the presents were piled up on a table under the peepul tree in the far corner of the garden; the heart-shaped leaves casting flickering, rustling shadows in the evening light.  There were round presents, square presents, blue presents, silver presents, big presents, and small presents. Most of them though, I knew from previous birthdays, would be highly inappropriate for a little girl. ‘Pass-me-ons’ accumulated over the year, waiting to be passed-on. But I wasn’t quite interested in any of that then. I was still waiting for THE present.

Everyone gathered around as my mother brought the birthday cake. Two Victoria sponges put together to make a teddy-bear, covered in chocolate icing with Cadbury’s Gems for the eyes and a wide smile.

‘Close your eyes and make a wish’, said my grandmother, as she lit the candles lined along the teddy-bear’s rotund chocolate flavoured face. I knew what I wanted to wish for. I’d known and wished and wished and known for a while now. I squeezed my eyes shut and breathed in all the air my little lungs could hold. Just as I blew out all candles on the cake, that’s when I saw it. My father had brought it in through the back door and was now standing with it under the peepul tree. Everyone was looking at me, smiling, waiting for an exuberant reaction. They never got one. I just said ‘Thank you’, trying bravely to hide my disappointment.  

The rusty, second hand bicycle stood under the shed in the backyard for three years till my father decided to sell it off. I never rode it.
I’ve never had a bicycle since.

The years went by swiftly, or perhaps they do now in retrospect. We moved houses; peepul trees and sweet-peas exchanged for bigger rooms and a drive-way.  Some things stayed the same, though. Like the summer holidays. Always as per the usual, this year wasn’t any different.
Three return tickets on the Shatabdi Express.
Departing at 0720 hours from New Delhi railway station.
My grandmother, my brother and I.
We were off, like all the past summers that I could remember, to visit my great-grandparents; off to Amritsar.

For miles, all you could see from the window in the train carriage were fields of yellow. Little kids often waved at the train from the distance, jumping on each others backs to get a better view above the tall mustard harvest with its bright yellow flowers. I’d wave back, wishing I was there, waving at the train, standing in the mustard fields.

Amritsar derives its name from Amrit-saagar, meaning ‘ocean of ambrosia’, and was founded in 1574 on land bought for 700 rupees. That would now be roughly equivalent to £7. History lurks here in ordinary things: in the names of restaurants, in chinked china cups in crockery cabinets, in black and white photographs hung on walls.  A sordid history at that--of the imperialistic Raj, the partition and the warring faction--which has flown like blood in the gutters and seeped into the ground. 
I was born here, while the country celebrated Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday, independent India’s first Prime Minister. And in that, I too became a part of history.


18, Lawrence Road.
An heirloom of an address testimonial to British legacy, this was my grandmother’s maiden home. A narrow gulli led up to the ancestral bungalow which sprawled over 2 acres. The huge metal gates opened onto a verandah, with white pillar-beams on either side. A wide passage on the right led to a large orchard at the back with fruit trees. The walls in the house were lined half-way with bright, florid tiles. I spent hours over the summer running my little fingers over the tiles, feeling the outlines of the flowers. Only now, the house was heaving with extended family, extending beyond the grasp of the social connections my mind could make. The rest of the week saw much more of that, with my vocabulary running out of words that would secure a familial tie with ‘the lady in the pink sari or ‘the man with paan-stains on his shirt’ and I eventually resorted to calling them all Auntie or Uncle. The fervour subsided eventually, leaving us to pass the lazy summer days with just each other for company.


Amritsar always meant lots of food. And good food at that. From the famed fruit cream at Gaylords on the mall road to the halwa-puri from my great-grandmother’s kitchen to the mangoes.  
Ah, the mangoes.
The mangoes were a ritual. A large tub filled with blocks of ice and water was set out in the shade in the backyard with the lovely yellow mangoes swimming in it, and chatais were laid out for all of us to sit on. Everyone got to pick their own mango, and soon we were all digging into the sweet, succulent flesh; the adults managing to show some degree of sophistication, while the children had sticky juice flowing all the way down their arms. The summer was never quite complete without mango stains on clothes. This particular summer however, something else was added to the agenda as well.


My grandmother in the early days of her marriage. She was carrying my father at the time.

We strolled in the landscaped lawns as the day cooled, me tailing behind my grandmother, clutching the end of her dupatta.  She stopped next to a large plaque and read out the message on it to me and my brother:
‘Two thousand Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were martyred here at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, when General Reginald Dyer of the British Army open fired on a peaceful gathering.’ 
Further ahead, a perfectly preserved wall dotted with small, square frames read--‘Bullet Marks.’
‘This happened on your birthday, Dadi!’ exclaimed my brother. ‘Where were you!?’ 
‘I wasn’t born until 17 years later, buddhoo!’ she laughed.

My grandmother had never liked celebrating her birthday. I always thought it was because she believed the number 13 brought bad luck. But sharing an anniversary with a gruesome massacre may not have made things any better.


My grandmother passed away nine years ago. Visits to Amritsar over time became few and far between. When I went home to India last summer, I realised I hadn’t been there in over eight years. So I decided to visit.

One return ticket on the Shatabdi Express
Departing at 0720 hours from New Delhi railway station. 
Just me and my backpack this time.
For miles, all I could see from the window were fields of yellow. And there they were still, the little kids waving at the train from a distance, jumping on each others backs to get a better view above the tall mustard harvest with its bright yellow flowers. I waved back, wishing I was there, waving at the train, standing in the mustard fields.

--April, 2008.