It was gloomy, dark, wet and cold winter evening like most late December evenings are up in North. It had been raining for most of the day and dark thick clouds had ensured early demise of whatever was to be left of twilight. Melancholy and deafening stillness was looming large all around and seemed to have engulfed everything, like the winter fog which appeared to born out of river below the town and spread rapidly but silently all around it. I somehow managed to carry my unwilling body from warm bed to bathroom to take a quick shower. As I put on my clothes and checked my appearance in rather unflattering mirror, I suddenly felt uneasy about what lied ahead in evening and I wondered if the gloom in weather was a mere outward projection of gloom inside of me.
Ever since I had left my small hometown in hills to pursue my higher studies and later job in cities far and beyond this place, I ritualistically returned home once very 6 months or so and every time I came back I would do it . I would go and visit Bobo’s house. Every evening, I would trek down from house my father had built in one of newer colonies of town, perched on hillock adjacent to the main road leading to Bobo’s house.
Bobo’s house was in one of oldest areas of town, located just above the foot of the majestic Bandla dhar (hill range), above the river bank and what once used to be a fertile valley. The colony was first built when entire old town was uprooted from river bank and the valley and relocated higher up on the Dhar . Bandla Dhar was one of the many Dhars in region and one of numerous such Dhars which made up most of lower Himalayan geography. It rose in rather meager elevation from valley around river bank before it suddenly gained height to make its upper portion almost uninhabitable. From a distance, it looked like some Giant engrossed in deep meditation on a river side, generous enough to allow human activity on its lap but keeping its head unreachable so as not to be distracted by human presence and its daily mundane, unending theatre of life. Old town was moved from valley a good 50 years back when a slender, agile river was tamed and turned into a bloated and slow body of water engulfing fertile and beautiful valley it had created and nurtured assiduously over countless centuries. Some of surviving temples of submerged town which were partially visible when water in river receded during certain months of every year, stoically reminded how they were deserted on alter of modern day temple. New temple built to produce electricity for numerous towns and cities which were located downstream around river’s way into Arabian sea through the plains. Bobo’s house was located almost on a cusp of Dhar and river. Rear of the house was a constant spectator to the river and many remaining temple spears of old sunken town which could be seen peeking out of water, stubbornly resisting decimation by years of water and silt attack. Front of the house towards the eastern side, opened to overwhelming view of the Dhar. Bobo’s house was one of the oldest house in new town and it was as if it had consciously turned its back on its past to look ahead just like its denizens.
Bobo was a constant of the house like the old wooden bed (Takhtposh) she would invariably be found sitting on. Takhtposh was kept in Verandah which was main entrance to house from across main road through heavy, perennially rusting Iron Gate which was rather mysteriously covered by ever enlarging and shamelessly encroaching Bouganvalia tree. Gate opened into a large open ground, half of which acted like kitchen garden with a smattering of Guavas and Anar trees and other half as playground for all sorts of games from Cricket to Badminton, depending upon seasons. This was also the place where guests during marriage or religious ceremonies were seated and dined in nicely put up Samianas. From open ground, approach to Verandah was through an uncovered, stone floored patio which had the common kitchen of house on one side and its other side was flanked by wall with a huge “Shivlinga” kept in vicinity. Shivlinga, which was so huge that it took 5 people to lift it and which was constantly kept wet from water-drip contraption installed over it and made with a small hole drilled in bottom of bronze pot softly plugged with bunch of grass leaves. Verandah was the most interesting and eventful place in entire house. May be, because it was the main access point to entire house. That is where people came visiting, that is where you came if you wanted to go to room located on upper floors of house or if you wanted to go to common kitchen or pooja room . And it was right in front of Bobo's bedroom. Verandah was a fantastic place. It was busiest place in entire building which must have been quite palatial and grand in times when it was built. Verandah was the place to sit in idle summer evenings watching people pass by on road as one sipped on cups of tea perennially being served for some or other visitor or for any of seemingly innumerable denizens of the house emerging from their rooms from extended afternoon siestas. Many a story were told and retold in gatherings in Verandah. In winters, this was the place to be since that is where you could sit and enjoy much welcomed but rather infrequent winter sun whenever it emerged from behind the Dhar. Or, in evenings and nights you could huddle around the Angeethi kept there and warm your chilled bones while munching groundnuts and exchanging some gossip and familial banter. The untold rule was that if there was nobody in Verandah then there wasn’t anybody anyway which never happened in Bobo’s house.
When I used to visit Bobo's house during my school holidays I used to find Verandah an incredibly large place. First of all, the concrete sidewalls on the staircase leading from first floor to verandah was ideal place for us kids to play many games like jumping from the stairs or sliding down the sidewall. It is interesting how things in childhood are always bigger than they actually are. Or perhaps they become smaller later because we grow bigger. Then there was this forbidden entrance to a cellar which was probably scariest and mysterious place in building like all cellars usually are. I and my cousin had once ventured into cellar while playing hide and seek when in excitement of game and not wanting to be caught we could for a moment let go of our fear of the place. We had discovered that there were two rooms in cellar. First room was used to store various provisions for kitchen and second was always inaccessible as it had a big fat lock on its door and I always thought that it was perhaps never opened and probably by now its key had been lost. It was only much later when I went to room and saw the treasure in form of one of heaviest sword and biggest rifle I had seen. It had perplexed me why anybody in house ever wanted to use them or even used them.
Bobo was a very religious lady. Lots of her time was spent in pooja room with innumerable pictures of Gods kept there. There was a picture of Goddess Sarswati with Gayatri mantra written on it, picture of Sai Baba with mysteriously appeared honey and holy ash dripping from it, picture of Lord Ganesh with his huge trunk, large belly and a mouse nibbling on sweets in its feet, picture of Lord Shiva with his one hand resting on a two pronged twig and other raised to bless. In the centre of all these was a small miniature bed made of silver and on it was kept a small idol of residing deity of house. I don’t remember what God was it but it was accorded special privileges in every morning bath and change of its clothes made of fine silk. Everything cooked in kitchen or any sweets brought by anybody were first offered to this deity. In evening, Bobo would without fail sit on her Takhtposh and would make Shivlingas and lord Ganesh’s idols of sand, sand which milkman Madu used to fetch for her from old Bamis (ant hills). Every morning these idols were bathed summarily while Bobo recited incantations, offering milk and leaves of some holy tree. At end of every month entire lot of these sand idols were put in a sack which Madu would then immerse in river. Bobo followed this routine everyday without fail for many years that I remember until she was perhaps not able to do so due to being grown too old. I don’t know if she stopped this daily ritual because Madu died of old age and his sons were reluctant to continue their father’s strange profession of supplying door to door milk and leaves and sand.
Bobo's was such a magical place. Thats where we cousins would meet during our school holidays. Thats where we Would play hide and seek cause it was such huge house and thats where kitchen would keep making sweet paraths all the times. There was never a dearth of kids in Bobo's house. An entire generation of us, may be 2 dozens of us were brought up in some respect or the other in Bobo's -house. Many of us were born in Bobo's room and I always thought that there was a smell in room which must have come from the fact that it was inhabited by so many preganant women and their new born. It didn’t semll bad at all, but it was smell of warmth, comfort and nurturing which just lingered on there permanently. And nurtured she did. Every single new born baby in family passed through Bobo's caring hands. She would oil their delicate limbs, place them upside down on her stretched legs and massage them, elaborately bath them in scented water and make them sleep singing lullabies which only she knew when their mothers didn’t know how to do this or were too careless and wayward in ways of newly got motherhood. She knew something about babies which nobody else did, not even baby's mother.
Of all the children in family, I probably had a special bond with Bobo, or so I believed. One of my earlier childhood memories are when I would visit her during my school holidays. I would sleep with her in her room and I remember very often for no apparent reason I would wake her up, start crying in middle of night and pester her to tell me story right at that unearthly hour and it was not important what story she told me but just that I could have her tell me story would make me peaceful and happy. I enjoyed asserting my power on her for some strange reason. I enjoyed the fact that I was important enough to wake her up and demand a story and that she would comply. She was treasure of stories, stories from Ramayan, Mahabharata or scriptures or other stories which ended with a moral. Stories which taught goodness, honesty, and glory of god. Stories which created a magical, mythical and glorious world which was to linger in my consciousness until I became suspecting, questioning and rational adult. I used to be hugely excited when it was time to go visiting her. My father then worked in a far off, small village and summer holidays were chance for me to go to Bobo’s place which in my childhood imagination was a very big city. It was a city for me since it had rows of lights on streets which would switch-on on their own, a bazaar which was open in night and where I could get small chocolate toffees sold in small fancy plastic container which once empty could easily be turned into a toy bus without tyres. I would collect vegetables which we grew in our kitchen garden to gift her and I would be miserable, fretting and reluctant when summer holidays were finally over and it was time to go back. And every summer vacation I invariably returned for more stories. Even when I grew younger and passed the stage of listening bed time stories, my bond with Bobo remained intact.
Times change and people change. As my livelihood took me to faraway places, it also took me away from Bobo. Every time I came back visiting during my vacations, I knew that I had grown a bit distant and unattached from Bobo and her world. But she was still the same. She never changed. She had stopped changing a long back I guess. I don’t think she even thought that it was necessary to change in any way. For her everything was still the same as it was when her husband, that’s my grandfather, had died a good, 30 years ago. It was not that she was ignorant or didn’t know what was happening in her immediate surroundings. She was fond of watching those religious serials after cable TV invaded the house and occasionally she would discuss even an old Hindi movie. And she liked to have ice creams and cold drinks along with kids. But I knew somewhere she was still living in world she has seen and known 30 years ago. That was the time when her husband was an influential person of society as a judge of high court and as a local MLA. In those days that must have been a heady thing. Those days society must have been so very different that it is today, with set, defined roles for woman of the house. As a young wife of high court judge, she probably would be looking after a rather busy household with frequent visitors and guests. I would never know for sure how her relationship was with my grandfather. She was married when she was probably 10 or 11 but it was not unusual for those times. I had seen picture of hers with my grandfather with if I remember probably a studio painting of Taj Mehal as background. My grandfather prematurely bald and Chanderkanta her real name, sitting close to him visibly young, shy and demure. She must have been proud and happy of the fact that her husband was such an influential figure and so educated for those times. She often told me stories of Bauji ,that’s how she referred to him never taking his name, of how he had studied in difficulties in Lahore and how he used to help people as an MLA. She would also tell me about her father who was a Jamadar in police and how people use to respect him everytime he ventured out in village. Another story which she told me umpteen number of times was when she had visited Bomaby with Bauji and her tarvel in train. I often wondered if that was the only place she had ever visited, since I had never seen her going anywhere. She had stopped going out of house for quite some time ago as she had trouble walking and climbing and she did not enjoy going in car either.
In my subsequent visits, I started realizing that Bobo’ house was disintegrating slowly but surely and she was trying to keep it together for that was all she had. Her house was her world and it was dying , in front of her eyes.
That cold evening when I reached Bobo's house, it looked haunted, the Verandah which was converted into a rool some years back was deserted and Bobo's room door was closed. I pushed the door opened, a strange smell of deacay made me nauseated. I stepped hesitantly almost in trepidation, part of me wanting to run away. How it must feel to have your body weathered away with your soul and spirit still trapped in it. How would it feel to waste away in a corner of your room with light of life slowly but painfully fading. How would it feel to know that everything is soon to be over. But I knew that these were all my thoughts. They were my thoughts emanating from my worldview of seeing the suffering . For Bobo, it was not the end but start of next journey ............................................... to be continued.........