Plain Tales from Doon
In which there are some Exchanges
Between Garhwalis and Kumaonis
Between Garhwalis and 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 inquires ‘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.
In Which there are some Telephonic and other Exchanges
The enumeration of the eccentricities of the Ghyldiyals was received rather enthusiastically by those in the family who were ‘half-and half’. Most of the full-blooded Garhwalis reacted by a studied silence or by retrieving superior anecdotes from their own store of tales worth telling. My father, from his Kumaoni vantage point of an objective onlooker, was the most appreciative.
“But you haven’t written about our Ghyldiyal”? he encouraged hopefully.
Our Ghyldiyal, is of course my mother, Aruna - or ‘Urhna’ as she complained her mother-in-law, my Dadi, insisted on calling her. The youngest of Nani’s three daughters, the family traits are not immediately apparent in Mummy. Her brief and acute comments bear little resemblance to Saroj Mausi’s detailed drifts from corruption to Chaucer. Or to Guni Mausi’s enigmatic utterances, darting between gardening lore, unusual recipes, child-rearing, and much else. Mummy’s adamant adherence to a clockwork schedule, come rain or shine, is also rather different from the untrammeled space and time-cycles of her elder sisters.
It takes the privilege of proximity to realize that in Mummy, the Ghyldiyal connection manifests itself more in deed, rather than in word (though she has not entirely escaped the particular family feat of carrying on a conversation quite independent of the listener’s response). Having apparently inherited all her seven siblings’ share of my grandmother’s legendary order and neatness, as well as the clan’s ‘do-it-yourself’ motto, she is akin to an extraordinarily efficient whirlwind. You have only to say something. Like Maggi Noodles, Mummy has already done it in what seems like 2 minutes. You need not say it either - and she will still have done it.
“Chotti didi bahut jaldi karti hain”, Nani spluttered with laughter as she remembered the resigned comment of a harassed family servant in her father’s house years ago. My mother, all of perhaps nine years old, had passed through the room on her way out to play. With an already characteristic quickness of eye and hand, in the short interval that the servant returned with some matching thread, she had tidied away the special buttons lying around, destined for the coat of Pandit Haridutt Shastri. This was Nani’s father, the head of the household, the Rajguru of Tehri Garhwal, and from all accounts a stately and stern personage. Then with a useful ‘out of sight-out of mind’ philosophy, she forgot where she had put them, or even that she had put them away.
Mummy’s energetic efforts at ensuring neatness in her neighbourhood often leave me at a loss too. Within the space of the half-hour that it takes me to pick up my daughter from school, I return to a sparkling and unfamiliar kitchen bereft of its usual merry mix of organic dals, herbal teas, powdered orange-peels, and dried neem leaves. Mummy - instead of reading the many interesting books that I have pointed out for her edification and entertainment, or admiring the squirrels on my terrace – has been ‘clearing up’. The empty bottles and jars which jam my cupboards (owing to my reluctance to add them to the garbage heap, and my ambition of someday using them to make interesting ‘bottle-walls’) are now suitably stuffed with useful things – or packed outside to be thrown. The kitchen is wonderfully clean, but it takes me rather longer than usual to find what I need. And since our notions of necessities don’t really match, where and when I find them is often a surprise.
Such as the one I got on a damp morning several years ago. My brother and I were about to resume our progress on Delhi’s roads, after unsuccessfully sheltering under a bougainvilla bush during a brief burst of rain. It took me an instant to realize the identity of the blue bundle, with which Vivek was briskly mopping up the seat of his mud-spattered motor-cycle. By then, it was too late. Dust and grease stains had joined together to render my much cherished T-Shirt emblazoned with the memories of NASA – National Association of Students of Architecture - unfit for wear. Which, it always had been, according to my disdainful parent. I feebly drew attention to it, whereupon Vivek turned surprised. “Oh is it something you use? Mummy gave it to me to clean my bike.”
I therefore, like the rest of her family, regard my mother’s skills with admiration tinged with trepidation. One of her self-imposed tasks is to bring some order into her busy sisters’ houses whenever she is visiting Dehradun. The methods she uses to transform an untidy room into a marvel of neatness at lightning speed, are direct but effective. The results are a bit like a conjuring trick. She simply bundles unsightly things into bags, under beds, and inside cupboards. From where, as my cousin Manishi giggles, they roll out when least expected.
Naturally enough, it is in combination with her sisters that Mummy manages to make most of her memorable moves. As on a visit to DehraDun a summer ago. We were at Saroj Mausi’s digesting a lunch of delicious Garhwali dishes accompanied by her quintessential turns of speech. It was then that Guni Mausi called up in a state. She could not find her phone anywhere – either in her own house or in the one across the lichi trees where Nani stayed with my younger uncle’s family. Had any of us seen it? We diligently scoured Saroj Mausis’s overflowing house to no avail. Sometime later I heard a low buzzing in the background. Recollecting my frustration at getting through to Saroj Mausi on the phone, I firmly directed her attention to it. But, both hers and Onial Mausaji’s phones were lying decorously silent on the table.
“It is coming from Sarojdi’s bag,” observed Mummy. We fished out Mausi’s black capacious bag, which she contrives to fill, like Mary Poppins, with an array of surprising articles. After some delving, we discovered a phone, ringing insistently. A visibly astonished Saroj Mausi, expressing wonder at this Mystery of a Strange Phone, tentatively answered it. “Hallo? Who??”
Audibly excited tones carried to us. “Your phone?”, said Saroj Mausi. “But how did it come inside my bag?”
Almost immediately, an indignant Guni Mausi arrived in person down the two short lanes and little length of road that separated her house and Saroj Mausi’s. “Everyone knows how absent-minded you are - but to put my phone in your bag and to not remember it even when I ask whether you’ve seen it, is really the limit”!
They were still trying to reach a satisfactory explanation, when Mummy who had been exclaiming with us over the discovery, was struck by a possibility.
“Sarojdi, I put a phone inside your bag in Guni’s house. I spotted it on the divan when I was tidying up at the time that the maid was sweeping the floor.” she explained.
“Since you say it isn’t yours,” she added wisely, “then it must have been Guni’s.”
“Though really, I did not expect Guni to be as careless as you.” By the time her sisters could collect their answers and their bags, Mummy was on her way out of the room, pausing to point out thoughtfully in passing - “Just as well that I kept it away safely. What if the poor maid had been tempted to take it?”
And Some Further Exchanges Between Garhwalis and Kumaonis…
My father, belying Onial Mausaji’s general pronouncements on the differences between the Kumaonis and the Garhwalis, fits in quite contentedly with the vagaries of the Ghyldiyals. His military training may have something to do with it. But it seems to me that his motto of “Quick march”, (without any attendant fear of where he is marching to!) is only partly due to his life in the army. For it seems to have been his creed even before he joined the NDA. As a fairly little boy, Papa was once on his way home with Bhawani Chacha - his slightly younger brother – when he spied a ladder-seesaw contraption. It was hanging from a tree, part of an obstacle course for training soldiers. Before Papa could finish his very natural investigations into its possibilities, Chacha’s hold gave way. From his position half-way up the swaying rope-ladder, Papa found himself whizzing through the sky. Landing a great distance away with a nasty cut over his bleeding lip, he needed the imperative attention of several surgical stitches. That, he explained disarmingly, was the reason for his attractive lop-sided smile.
Since, neither that experience nor others that followed have ever shaken Papa’s impatient fascination for the new and the curious, he continues to have varied and exciting experiences. His nonchalent optimism rivals and occasionally complements Mummy’s characteristic concern for cleanliness, to produce some interesting situations. One recurring object that he never ceases to tire experimenting with, is the cell phone. His cell-phones retire sooner rather than later under the pressure of his random punches or their outdated technology – depending on Mummy’s interpretation or his. While drawn to their mysterious charms, Papa resolutely refuses to take them seriously – or indeed take at all, whether on his daily walks or his round of golf. Conversely, when he is in the vicinity of his phone, it is generally switched off. So, the family knows better than to call him on his cell phone – which is just as well. He also changes the phone companies he patronises, adding greatly to the custom and confidence of salespersons.
Once, we all went to visit Deepa Chachi - Bhawani Chacha’s wife - after her knee replacement surgery. She was at my cousins’ house, 25 kilometers away from ours, a fair distance in the NCR. We all sat without worrying, since my father, as the more frequent visitor to that house, had assured us that he would direct us. As we neared our destination, he casually said that he did not know the house number, but that was all right. He remembered the route perfectly.
After we had circled the colony a couple of times, Snehanshu at the wheel tersely requested that we call up my cousins’ so that we could check the sign-boards announcing the house numbers. Mummy dug out Papa’s phone from her handbag and handed it to him in the front passenger seat. A couple of hasty tries later, Papa declared there was no answer. Luckily, I had in the meantime, managed to get through from my phone. We drove up, amidst my parents’ animated discussion on the proper way to use cell-phones and directions.
Halfway home in the evening, at the conclusion of an afternoon of much conversation, tea and dosas, Papa suddenly enquired, “Aruna, have you got my phone?”
“No,” answered my mother. “You took it from me just before we reached. Remember when you tried to call - but couldn’t - for directions to the house? What did you do with it?”
“I kept it in my pocket…and then on the table next to where I was sitting. I thought you would have picked it up,” remarked Papa in an imperceptibly aggrieved tone. “Never mind if you didn’t. It is safe enough there.”
After a minute, he added “Just call and check. It is there of course, but just let them know”.
I called again. My cousin Vimal, promised to look for it. He found it almost immediately, reposing quietly on the table, and asked if he should come down to give it to us. We were nearly at Noida, and considering my father’s frequency of using the phone, I firmly declined to let him come so far on a smoggy winter’s evening. Anyway, as Papa reminded us, Bhawani Chacha was going back to DehraDun in a few days time. He could carry it there with him, from where Papa could easily collect it since he was planning to visit DehraDun as well.
We all agreed that this was the best thing to do. Almost immediately, he thought of another idea. Arvind Bhai, Papa’s sister’s son, who also lived in Noida, was planning to visit Deepa Chachi the next day. “Arvind can get it back. He is just a few kilometers away and we can arrange to pick it up.”
I duly called up both sets of cousins to inform them of the handing and taking over of the bag. “You can switch off the phone,” I told Vimal. “No, I’ll keep it on – that way Tauji will have a record of his missed calls.”
“Don’t bother”, I told him. “He doesn’t”.
He obviously did not believe me. In due course, the phone came back, still switched on, just in time for my parents’ forthcoming visit to Dehra Dun. I advised my father to keep it handy, and answer phones, to enable coordination of station-dropping and picking. “Don’t worry, I have it with me,” he said brightly. “Yes, the charger too.”
I finally tracked my elusive parents in one of the numerous houses at Dehra Dun the next day, after many phone calls to the houses of aunts and uncles from where they had just left or were just expected to reach. “Why don’t you switch on your phone,” I demanded, justly irritated. “Oh you know, the battery had drained off, and I found the charger I was carrying did not fit,” was the equable answer.
Two days later, we arrived at DehraDun as planned. “Of course, I don’t really need it now that you all are here and we will travel back together,” Papa said, after he had thanked us profusely for restoring his charger to him, retrieved from its hideout inside the cabinet in his study. “Your mother, as usual, must have tidied it away - you know she can’t bear to see anything lying around”.
“Indeed? You must have got mixed up with the charger of one of those innumerable phones that you persist in buying.” Mummy countered.
And they steadfastly stuck to their individual explanations.