At The Street Gate
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 it has 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 when 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.”
“Arrey Kaka, what makes you worry so much? You know very well we are always there to help you, aren’t we? Look there, Naniyo 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 omelets 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.