2. BACK TO ROOTS – TAJPUR (March 13 – 15, 2000)
My niece, Melo’s three daughters fall in the same age group as my daughter? All three are doing university degrees from home and give private tuition to students and help in a school. This was my first contact with them and I found them all very charmingly affectionate and communicating. The youngest (18 years) impressed me because she could recite from memory nearly two thousand verses of “Sukhmani”, the Hymn of Peace as well as the five long daily prayers.
Melo and her husband, Ranjit, were convinced that attending university fulltime was not good for girls; it “spoils” them. I decided to remain silent on this issue. I knew that in the Punjab there are not only more graduate girls than boys but more are better educated. Times have changed. Parents value daughters almost as much as sons. Breaking away from dependence on male! A social revolution accomplished!
Ranjit and his three brothers operate a small engineering workshop in a narrow dusty crowded street. In line with the workshop each brother has his own house. Two of them and their sons operate various types of machines and the other two handle marketing and accounts. Some twenty years ago they transferred the workshop from Jagraon, a small rural town, to Ludhiana, a sprawling dangerously polluted industrial-rural city. A cutthroat competition has not permitted them to expand much. But they all look happy and contented.
At mid-day I had phoned Ranjit from the rail station to come and pick me up. On reaching home before I sat down I found myself surrounded by members of four families. They all knew me. I spent the afternoon getting to know them. I am still unable to associate correct names with faces. Yet, in no time, I felt as if I had never lived elsewhere all my life. I looked back at my thirty years of comfortable life in Switzerland and could not sense much feeling of “belongingness” there; it is totally missing. After dinner the entire family thronged into a small bed-sitting room. Someone produced a harmonium and a dholak (drum). We sang all types of songs until midnight. I slept in the same room, which was shared by three others. Absence of a mattress did not bother me because I am used to sleeping on the carpet in Geneva: good for the back.
Next morning (Tuesday, 14 March) Ranjit and Melo were going to take me to my village. Ranjit was delayed because he had to prepare some product delivery. I explored the narrow street, its dust, unsanitary drains, pollution and smells. I noticed that human- bicycle- and scooter-traffic respectfully accommodating children playing cricket in the middle of the street.
Opposite the workshop I saw a big arched signboard with neatly painted “Florence Nightingale Public School”. Does it train nurses? I was curious. Nervously I pushed the corrugated iron-sheet gate. Before it was even open a foot, a woman guard daunted me in Hindi, “What do you want?” Before I could complete my fidgety explanation, a gorgeous slim young lady wearing an off-white blue sari came towards me and smartly greeted me with joined hands in the Indian way with a knowing smile. Promptly she directed me to her office. “I’m the principal of this primary school. I heard that you are around and I wanted to meet you”. When my nervousness was turning into stunning shock I saw two of my grand nieces running towards us, all excited bearing broad smiles. That explained; they were helping the school and have been talking. Behind her table, Amarjit Gharyal looked intelligent, knowledgeable and correctly projected the image of a headmistress. “Uncle, I’m related to Ranjit’s family”. No wonder the two girls were feeling so at home in her office. That put me at ease. A handsome young man also entered and sat down quietly on a bench on my left. In no time a glass of milk-tea was served. We talked rather freely on school children, their background, school systems, fees and facilities in Europe. I was greatly impressed by her knowledge of educational and funding issues at home and abroad. When a student’s parent came in, I reluctantly proposed to go. “Please stay; don’t worry, you do not have to go”.
I stood up and offered to shake hands. But she folded her hands the Indian way. I apologized for my impoliteness. “When you return from your village drop in again”, she said when I was dissipating my hand shaking energy with the quiet young man. The girls accompanied me out and told me that he was her husband!
Ranjit and Melo were waiting for me. Their Indian Jeep drove me to my family roots some 25 miles away in a small village, Tajpur. Six years ago my uncle died at the age of 96 survived by four sons who form the link to my roots. It was an emotional reunion. My cousins all older than me looked in good health. They and their sons were occupied in small-scale saw milling, flour milling, farming, house-building and providing technical services to farmers. For me they have been models of simple and honest living. For over 50 years they have selflessly looked after our interests, an uncommon trait. Fifteen years ago they sold our part of farmland and a building in the nearby town of Raekot. We decided not to sell our small village house which will remain as a signboard should our Swiss, Kenyan and British children and grand children might be inspired one day to look for their roots. Hope is slim. Our contact will be reduced to almost zero in a decade or two when most of my generation would have died. With new roots established elsewhere, is the idea of roots in India still valid?
My father, Hari Singh, died in Tajpur in February 1980. I arrived two days later just in time to accompany my uncle to pour the ashes in the Satluj River. A few years later the village committee built a school near our house. One classroom is dedicated to my father.
Milk-tea accompanied with Indian sweets is the usual welcome offered to guests. After breakfast I was entertained with a second cup in the factory while I was waiting Ranjit to finish his affaire followed by a third a few minutes later with the school principal. Half an hour later our Jeep landed us in a small village, Burj Naklyan, where I met my nephew, Melo’s younger brother. I was obliged to enjoy another cup of milk-tea, much fattier than all previous ones. A late lunch with one cousin in my village was followed by a visit to the eldest cousin and more milk-tea.
We drove to the neighbouring village hardly a kilometre away to find out if our family friends from Canada had arrived. They had gone to visit relatives in Ludhiana and would be back soon. While they were being contacted by mobile telephone milk-tea was served again.
I decided to jog back to Tajpur. Ranjit and Melo grudgingly accepted my request to take the Jeep without me. Did I insult them or their Jeep? I noticed a peculiar expression on their faces. I had hardly started to breath in fresh evening air blowing over lush green wheat fields when I turned into the main street and I had another two hundred metres to run. There the Jeep was waiting for me. Meekly Ranjit said, “Uncle from here it is better to go in the car, it is not “dignifying” to run in the village. What will people think?” I have got the reply to my question: it is downgrading for the hosts to see their visitor jogging in an Indian village when they have offered a car!