Plain Tales from Doon-
Some Exchanges Between the Garhwali and the Kumaonis
No one can deny that Onial Mausaji tells a tale well. And that he can do so on almost any subject on earth and at the slightest provocation.
Or so we thought as children with little patience and manners to listen appropriately to him. We could not sit still long enough to savour the slow spinning out of his stories, especially when there was the ripe lure of the lichis from Nani’s orchard that could trickle down our mouths. The orchard also held other attractions. One of my more intrepid cousins has been known to explore the ways through its large twisted trees on the back of the galloping domestic buffalo, ostensibly to entertain a train of younger cousins. Considering such pursuits that interested his nephews and nieces, Mausaji’s persistence with us is commendable. Looking back, I wonder if this was due to an incurable optimism, or his experience as house-master to boisterous boys in Punjab Public School at Nabha, or a particularly whimsical streak of humour.
Each year we - my parents, my brother and I - would descend on Dehradun from whichever cantonment in the country my father was posted, to spend the long summer holidays with my grandparents and our numerous cousins, aunts and uncles. We would generally stay at my Dada’s house right next to the East Canal, five or perhaps ten minutes walking distance from Nani’s house. Once she was at her mother’s, my mother would leave us to our own devices to our mutual delight. On warm afternoons in Nani’s house amidst Mausaji’s measured and leisurely tones, we would slip of quietly into sleep or out of the room. All, except our eldest first cousin. With irreproachable manners then, she more than made up for the absence of the rest of us, smiling and nodding with reasonably wide eyes. Mausaji obviously did not mind or notice his dwindling audience. He sportingly embarked on some other story the next afternoon. I cannot actually remember what they were about. I probably did not follow either his impeccable English or his seasoned Urdu, both of which he was wont to use with equal felicity.
Now it is a different story. Mausaji is more discriminating in his choice of listeners. Not just his reminiscences about big cats and elephants, and the Dehradun, Rajpur and Mussoorie of yore, these days he needs to be cajoled to enact his favourite anecdotes, most of which deal with the eccentricities of his wife’s clan. The best time to get him to elaborate on this theme is when he has warmed himself on a crisply cold winter evening with a whisky.
According to Mausaji, the individuality of the Ghildiyals - the family into which my Nani was married – is the inevitable result of their being true Garhwalis. They, he has deduced, “are like their landscape, craggy, unpredictable, and tortuous”. “Now Kumaonis”, he beams, “are gentle, soft, yet sharp – like their landscape”. My father, as one of the few Kumaonis inducted into the Ghildiyal clan by marriage, disparagingly strokes his well-shaped nose, and grins modestly at this praise. The mountains of Garhwal and Kumaon border each other, and Garhwalis and Kumaonis, like all good neighbours, disagree on most things. But, to be a Garhwali and a Ghildiyal, seems to not just add but heap, in Mausaji’s opinion, insult to injury. ‘Jaise karela aur neem chara, vaise Garhwali aur Ghildiyal’! As one of the few resident males in a family full of females, he feels particularly strongly about the Ghildiyal women.
The story which animates him the most features Guni Mausi, my mother’s middle sister. Guni Mausi is a most fearless and spirited person. Also most bewildering. Like God, she moves in mysterious ways her wonders to perform. Not just her very proper elder daughter, Manishi, but even her less conventional younger one - my buffalo-riding cousin of yore – cannot quite comprehend or contain her. Mausi’s conversations start off midway or towards the end. They often leapfrog into action before one has quite grasped that she has finished speaking whatever she had started on. Phone calls to her rarely find her at home. She may be in the local market, seizing upon an acquaintance next to the old Tonga stand. Or on a rattling bus to one of her many relative’s weddings in a distant mountain village. Or at the carpenters assessing the quality of wood. Or on the way to the airport with 70 kilograms of baggage including tamarind and coconuts to make delicacies for her grandchildren in England. One never can tell with Mausi.
That is Mausaji’s grouse too. ‘I can never understand,’ he asks, shifting comfortably from one foot to another, “why Guniji - after specially calling us over for tea - peers at us suspiciously each time through the wire-mesh with her hand on her eyes, when we do arrive, and asks ‘Kaun’?” Mausaji is very proper. He dresses up in crisp blazers, old school ties, and shining shoes and I can comprehend that it can be a little disconcerting for him to be invited and then regarded thus by a close relative. “But,” he adds, “what I understand even less, is why when she comes over to our house and we answer the doorbell, she peers inside through our door mesh and enquires ‘Kaun’!”
“Restless and incomprehensible”, he continues. “Your Nani, and your Mausis. If they come into the room, they can never sit or stand peacefully. They will twitch the tablecloth awry; yank the curtain to one side, beat a tattoo on the light-switches. Then, having succeeded in putting on all the fans in winter or all the lights during the day and having made the room look even more unpresentable than usual, they will deign to sit down!” “And papers”, he adds, “your Nani never throws away any old letters. Every few weeks she causes a commotion by picking up one from the pile on top of her fridge, and then calling out distractedly “oh no, Damayanti has fallen ill again”. ‘As for your mausi”, he continues bitterly, “she sleeps with papers under her pillow”.
Saroj Mausi, my mother’s eldest sister (and Mausaji’s wife) taught English at the Scindia Girls School and then the Mahadevi Kanya Pathshala College in Dehradun. She is quite literally a woman of letters. She is also a social and environmental activist. Her house has an abundance of books and papers, peeping out from under the table, balanced precariously on the stairs, stuffed in closets, under the mattress. She is one of the few people I know who can simultaneously peel potatoes and propound philosophy.
Like Guni Mausi, she is also rarely at home. And if she is, Mausaji complains, his drawing room is taken over by half a dozen women from her organization drinking endless cups of tea, interfering with his mealtimes and ruining his health and that of his wife. After retirement, her portfolio of jobs outside the house has expanded. She writes letters to the District Magistrate to install lights for pedestrians, holds ‘green’ workshops in her garden for local children, lectures the Mussoorie and Dehradun Development Authority about fields of basmati rice being taken over by building agents, encourages her maids to stand up for their rights in property-disputes, promotes a women’s organization that works with children’s education, and as Mausaji points out, colonises the family car for her altruistic agendas. ‘Everyone recognizes our car. When Saroj rolls up in it, she causes a stampede! All the children scatter and shout, “Run, the Red Maruti’s coming”.
Mausi smiles at most of Mausaji’s pronouncements, only occasionally being provoked in her turn into a discussion on the Onials, the Garhwali clan that Mausaji belongs to. Surprisingly - or then perhaps not - Mausaji is a Garhwali too