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At The Street Gate…

Rajshree Trivedi

Anything can really  happen  here!
Here, amidst   the   sounds of  the distant   drums, cymbals,  tambourines and  shehnais,  the human choral chants   fill the air with a mystical fizz  heralding  processions – not  taken  out with a specific  cause or a case but often for the spells of cursory  solidarities that the dwellers of this small city would rinse themselves off as soon as they were dispersed.  And for sure,  the street dogs and cats; the cows and  donkeys let loose by their masters  would also  revel  along  with  the human medley dipped  in  euphoric frenzies!

 Here,  the children – the fully grown  lads as well as the tardy ones-  rush in excitement to catch the first glimpse of a news breaking event!
Here,   the young, unmarried  girls  meet their beaus while  on their way to  the temple, the grocer, the grinding mill  or  the only  Lovely Ladies Tailor in the area - the only possible  pretexts  for which they could step  out of the house!

Here, the small and not-so-big traders  buoy up  a  makeshift rendezvous for  dealing in an impromptu  wholesale transaction of  coal, kerosene,  clothes, scrap, vegetables or sand or bricks!

 Here, the right turn corner becomes  a gossip point for women sharing the weal  and woes of their existences, intertwined within   the fringes of  joint or extended families!

Here,  m­­­­ales- the young, middle-aged,  grey-haired  and for that matter, the bald ones, too–  hang out  being  sure- if you want to just pass your time for a while- that some or the other  from  your  pol  would be dangling around there!

 Here, a temporary brawl  burps up and subsides within a minute!

 Here, the ‘good for nothings’  conduct a high level discussion   on the ways of  tumbling the present  governing ministry!

This is our street gate- the most happening place in our small city.

The city that has more black smoke than the blackness of the moonless nights.  The newspapers call it at times- ‘the Manchester of India’.

 Dhim Dhim Dhimak Dhim! Dhum Dhum Dhumak Dhum!  Here comes the sound of the beating drums.

 Kooooooo! Koooooooo!   Here blows the conch heralding the arrival of a procession!

And lo! Each and every one - the ever inquisitives, the dawdlers, the dandies, the most stoic, the ‘good for nothings’  as well as the downright  ‘no-nonsense-ones’-  rushes  to the street gate. The ones in slippers, the ones without them. 

***

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

There was an uncontrollable excitement in the air that day! The dull, quiet morning of Shree Ramji’s Street   tore into pieces with a burst of  drumbeats that were first heard  followed by the sounds of  clanging  metallic discs.  It was advancing at a snail’s pace . As the sound of the drums and conches became  louder, children raced, the youngies ran and the old ones toddled – all towards   the street gate.

 Bhagat   Kaka was always  the first to catch the glimpse of  the  jamboree  albeit, he  would go there  limping and lurching, with his walking- stick dangling on his  elbow,  his dhoti unfurling and  shouting  at the racing ones.

“Hey….Stop! Give me a hand….…,,,,,,O Naniya….You donkey ... Wait! Oh God! Look at the world made by you…  how   has  it changed! No one really  cares nowadays  for the old.”

 “O Kaka…Why don’t you sit at home…?  Rushing at this age   to  view the processions- be it a marriage, taaziya, rathyatra  or  the sound of a political tom tom, you want all the fun. Bhagat Kaka, why don’t you learn to   folds your legs  and sit quietly in a corner. Eh Gotia!  Look there,  how  constantly he  stares; without a blink,  at the poster of this new film Julie. Look there! At this age, the oldie -sans teeth, sans hair…..  Never does he  miss  an opportunity to gaze  at the women  passing by….“

“Aiey! Aiey! Gotia and  you…..yes…..you, Nania. hold your tongues, you wretched ones!  I   heard it all…..that  you murmured. Do you think I am totally deaf?  At eighty, I can hear well, I can see well and…….you rascals,  I know  what you all  are busy doing  these days…. During  the hot, scorching afternoons….Both of you and that Munio…. all three of you….haven’t you been writing messages on those  paper planes and  darting them off…… where…..eh?  At the three young daughters of that widow Bachudi….Shame  upon you! At your age, at sixteen I was married. I am going to tell Bachudi about your tricks…..and then, see the show…… ”

“No….no. Kaka, will you please…..I mean, we mean.   Does it really  suit  you to worry about all these  things at this age….?  Shouldn’t you  be  engrossed in your   puja-paath and not keeping an eye on what we, the youngies are doing. Kaka, now don’t crib like a crow. Come with us, let me hold your  hand now.”

“Hmmm! That suits you better, Naniya! Hold this stick, too! And one more thing-  your Kaki has asked me to get her a bunch of fenugreek leaves from Kaanniya,  the green grocer at the street gate. Take this one rupee coin. Go and do that errand for me …. Run along before the procession arrives…..”

 “Kaka, Kaka……….  Why me?  Do I have to get it? Err……”

 “Hmm..…Ok. So you don’t want to go…….”

 “Na..na..na.  Kaka, when did I refuse…..? I agreed to do that, didn’t I?.  Aiey Gotia,  hold my bat…..I’ll be back in a moment.” 

The procession was now only a hundred feet away.

 The  sound of the musical instruments and the chants were  now growing louder,  losing its clarity, evolving  itself into  a cacophonous furore.  The road that separated the Lakhia’s pol and  Shree Ramji’s  Street    was  quite  narrow making  it almost   difficult to distinguish the crowd of the onlookers and that of the procession. An unfathomable  excitement  was catching up in the air,  with  the onlookers  metamorphosing into a sea of the euphoric waves  dragged by the tom toms.   Only after the procession would march further from the vicinity of the street gate,  that the wondrous  human  assemblage would restore their  senses and turn around to go back to their homes.

The  hanging wooden balconies that protruded from the  old buildings on both the sides  of the roads were fully  crowded.  People stretched their necks to capture the sight of the movement  down  on the road. Shops, big and small flanking on both the sides of the road    patiently stalled their business proceedings with the shopkeepers allowing the crowd to  perch upon the  raised platforms on the other side of the  temporarily structured  glass or wooden counters.

By now Bhagat  Kaka had  settled himself on an otla  outside Raja’s  shop. Pressing his knuckles hard, he moved his impatient eyes  around the balconies, the otlas and across the road, registering the presence of each one. Quickly did he work out a list of names not present,  who were generally seen hanging around the street gate almost all along the day.

“Aiey Gotia, why didn’t you call me…. where’s  Naniyo? How much did I miss?  I was  in the last room, studying for tomorrow’s exams……I heard this hullabaloo….Why didn’t you call me? Eh…can you see her anywhere? I mean that Ghatudi……Oh, Kaka  you are also here…..Ram! Ram! Bhagat Kaka!” Munno aka Munio  came rushing in,  panting heavily for he had  missed quite a lot of fun because of his bossy mother locking him for studies  into a room on the third floor of his  old house.

“I called you, Munia. Your  mother  shouted at me and drove me away. Ghatudi was here with her two sisters….She’s in a green frock.  They were walking towards the Lovely Tailors….err…..towards  Sarangpur Chakla.  Let Naniya  return, we will then follow them.”

“But where is he ….? Why has he yet not ……” Munno’s words were left incomplete as Naniyo appeared from the  crowd.

“Eh Gotia,, who’s going to leave me back home? You, sons of ……. I’ll see you all.  I saw Bachudi right there. I am going to tell her that  all three of you have been following her daughters…..”

 “Arre Kaka, what makes you worry so much? You know very well we are always there to help you, aren’t we?. Look  there,  Naniyio is back! He’ll drop you back home. No tension! See, he’s also got this bunch of leaves that Kaki  had asked for.”

 
     
 

“Yes, Kaka. Don’t worry….Can we go now?  We’ll soon be back. This is  Naniyo promising, gentleman’s promise. Please wait here on Raja’s otla  till we return. ” Naniyo handed over the bunch to Kaka and  winked at Munno.

 “Huh! Come soon…..your aunt will be waiting for me  for the  lunch.”

  Bhagat Kaka  saw the three boys disappearing in the crowd.

Two young men  in white,   with  long black beards and hair,  held  the two sides  of a banner with the name of the religious sect written on it. In bold, big fonts, it flashed the words ‘PEACE MARCH’ on it. They were followed  by  drummers and  fifers who seemed to be oblivious of anything or anybody around barring the existence of their instruments and themselves.   A group of saffron-clad sadhus  with beads of rudraksh  tied in a string   around their necks had their bodies covered with  ashes. They  walked with tridents in their hands, chanting  verses that were almost inaudible. They were followed by a herd of  cows  walking slowly  in well defined  rows and columns, with their heads dangling down. Loaded with brass  bells around their necks, they were  saddled  with mauve,  silk garments  palisaded with   gold  and yellow  lace. How much were they tempted  by the sight  of the mounts of  the  cabbage  peels that lay  dumped aside  by the vegetable  vendors! Yet,  they neither skipped  the row nor swerved from the regulated route of the procession.  Behind them walked a  platoon of  sadhvis  clad in  yellow saris playing  the single-stringed harps. A squadron of  sanyasis  wearing white clothes  marched  after  them  in neat rows  holding  orange, triangular  flags  and      blowing conches  in air. Then followed the  young Kar Sevaks  who were distributing  sugar lumps and groundnuts to the onlookers. At the end of the procession was a  large group of volunteers in white  pyjamas and  jhabhaas with saffron  scarves tied in a knot around their necks   distributing  pamphlets to people around inviting them to join an  upcoming  religious festival. Towards the end, the procession  left a trailing  line of  a few marchers who followed the profession with  a lethargic disinterestedness.

The crowd   started  dispersing  slowly.  

The boys had not yet returned.

 Bhagat Kaka  became restless. His old,  ravaging eyes now became more impatient. These three boys- Naniyo, Gotio and Munno- had always  brought pleasures and pains for him. He shared with them  a strange  relationship- “Is it  friendship or  just an  endearing neighbourhood; a seeming grand child-parent knot  or  a human bond? I don’t know what. Haven’t  their humble background  made them grow up faster than their age  yet, how full of mischiefs   are the trio!  A few  months  back, how they  tied a firecracker at  one of the  loose ends of my dhoti!  Why? Just because I didn’t allow them to play cricket that afternoon. How the three boys are unfailingly found loitering at the pol entrance during evenings, chatting and teasing  the passers by! How they play  pranks upon Ravji Patel and cobble  around themselves to  tease him as late as till last Sunday! Every evening Ravji    passes  by the  pol entrance and stops to talk to me in his low, squeaky voice. As soon as he would  leave, he three boys made the sounds of a mewing cat.  Last Sunday, it was only Munno present there and  somehow, he missed out seeing Ravji passing by . As usual, Ravji came in his signature  starched white sadra  and pyjama holding the newspaper in his hand.  He  read   out the headlines  to me,  chatted with me for a while and left. When he did not hear any mewing sounds from the boys, he turned back to Munno and said,  “Where are your cats today? Aren’t they meowing tonight? Is everything fine?” Saying that  he quietly walked ahead, leaving Munno absolutely  dumbfounded and placid, as pale as a ghost and soon bursting into a riot of laughter.

Raja’s tap on the shoulder broke Kaka’s  chain of thoughts. It was almost 11.30 am. Raja  had been  stuck in the traffic.  “The  customers will soon start pouring in and I haven’t yet, opened the  shop,” Raja fumbled for the keys in his pocket. 

His customers mainly comprised of women who  gossiped, shared and  discussed almost   about everything related to  their dull lives. By now Raja could  very well predict  who would discuss what with whom. His daily visitors like Bhagat Kaka, Ravji Kaka and others spent a fixed time at his shop and gossiped with the fleeting women. He liked his shop being thronged around  by  the passers by  outside his otla.

 “Ram Ram, Kaka.” He was surprised to see  Kaka alone there.  The procession had long back  moved away from the street gate. The crowd had already dispersed.

  “Ram Ram, Raja. Those three, Munno, Gotio and Naniyo  promised me that they’ll soon be back to take me home. But they are…..”

“Arre, Kaka, I saw them going towards  Kapdiwad. Perhaps, they were following the procession  on its way to Halimni Khadki…..Shall I lead you…….? ”

Raja’s last  words almost went unheard.  

 Bhagat Kaka recalled the event that had  taken place before a year. It was the eve of Makar Sankranti. The whole city  had thronged itself inside  the walled areas of  Manek Chowk and Kalupur. People were madly shopping for the essentials for the next day-kites, thread reels, lanterns, gum tapes, dark glasses, caps and whatnot. The thread reels  of thousand, five thousand and ten thousand metres were  being handed over to the artisans skilled in the  job of colouring and coating  the  strings with glass particles. “How the three boys had taken the responsibility of taking me along with them to Kalupur! We  had just passed by  Halimni  Khadki and the trio  stopped at ‘Lucky   Omlette Centre’ pestering  me to shell out money for the hot fried omelettes. ‘Oh you half-witted ones! What if your mothers come to know that you all are eating eggs and  I, this eighty year old man is sponsoring  the feast? Hari! Hari! Hari!. Not only they,  your Kaushalya Kaki  will also eat me raw for polluting the young boys………. Hesitatingly of course,  I spent money  that night. The kind of pleasure I saw on their innocent faces while relishing the taste of those steamy, spicy omelettes on that cold, wintry January night was something that I would not bargain for Lord Kuber’s wealth in this world…..”

 “Kaka, Kaka, where are you lost? They must have gone back home  by now. Come, let me take you…..”
 
 “ No. I shall go only  with them. They’ve always kept their  promise. I am sure they will  soon ……...” Before  he could finish the sentence, their conversation  was disrupted by the  blowing  sirens of the  speeding police vans announcing that  an indefinite  curfew was being  imposed in the area  and that people were  required  to remain indoors. In no time,  the shutters  of the shops  came  down, offices closed   and the roads  evacuated. Within a quarter of an hour, a terrible silence prevailed in the air with    all sorts of  rumours spreading like a wild fire about  the fresh violence that had broken out in the inside  areas of the  walls of the city. The residents were   left  lurking under the dubious spell of an unidentified fear.

***
It has been more than a  month now. The city  is returning back to the state of normalcy.  Under Section 144, of the National  Penal Code, the police  department has imposed a ban on holding unlawful meetings, gatherings or  processions   in the  sensitive areas of the old walled city.

The  seven o’clock  siren customarily  blows  for the workers to wind up for the day  at the  New   Cotton   Spinning and Weaving Mills  outside the Sarangpur Gate. It is time for Ravji Kaka to pass by the pol entrance  on his way  to the temple.  He stops to read out a few lines to Bhagat  Kaka  from the newspaper, this time  not the  headlines but the  ones on the third page in the column “City News Digest.” It says: “The death toll in the city following the communal  riots that broke  out after the  attacks on a religious procession last month has  reached to fifty. Most of the injured victims have now been discharged from the city hospital. The state government yesterday released the compensation amount  of Rs. One Lac   to each household of the bereaved families and Rs. Twenty Five Thousand each to the injured victims. In a statement issued by the Police Commissioner, the law and order in the city  is absolutely under control.”
 
No chats, no discussions, no mewings,  no arguments now follow Ravji  Kaka’s news lines. His hearkener’s silence breaks into a  crazy passer-by’s song :   
                              
                              O, bird of the  blue  skies!
                              Why don’t you return?
                              How perturbed I am 
                              In your absence!
                              We played together, we roamed,
                              We swayed together on a boat
                             Till you were dragged by a strong wave!
                              I  have been waiting for you till date.
                              There’s no news from your end.
                            
Glossary :

Chakla- market-place.

Dhoti- an Indian garment for males
Kaka/ kaki  -Uncle/ aunty

Otla- a raised platform at the entrance of a house
 Pol-  a housing cluster in Ahmedabad and many other  small towns of Gujarat in India

 Puja-paath- rituals performed as a part of daily prayers to god

Pyjamas and jhabhbhas­ – A Gujarati pair of  lower and upper garment,   respectively

Rudraksha- the seed or berry sacred to Lord Shiva

Sadhus / sadhvis/sanyasins- saints and nuns.

Sadra- a short upper garment with short sleeves worn by the Gujaratis.

Taaziya  and rathyatra- - religious processions