Monday, December 14, 2009

Travelling in a palenquin.. - II

This essay featured in Palki magazine, in the October 2009 issue.

Autumns and eulogies
     The ink on the paper is fresh and vivid, carrying with it fragrances of summer. Soon however the green leaves would turn and bring with it an invitation to winter. It was at such a time a while ago that a doyen I knew passed. The last of that generation in my family...the generation that participated in a passionate revolution that shook the subcontinent, the swaraj struggle. As is the fate of many of her peers, my grandmother, a feisty, petite, fair lady with green eyes and black hair even at the eighty five odd years lay down her life to a mixture of Alzheimer’s, paranoia and plain old age. Not one that befits the soldiers that they all were, but one that awaits a full life.

Married, as was the norm, in her mid teens to a freedom fighter, Amma had stood alongside her husband in his ahimsa struggle against the British rule. Well educated, and extremely independent, she taught herself among other crafts, the use of the charka which was a difficult feat in itself. Setting up the spindle, spinning the cotton, and soaking in the essence of khadi and what it stood for, became second nature to her. Then my grandparents set about teaching the craft to young women of the villages. The initial investment was huge in terms of time and money but it was all a youth driven fervor. Those were the people who knew what it meant to be independent. There were different philosophies preached to attain freedom but a great patriotic zeal commonly flowed under all.  Though, inherently followers of Gandhian principles the young couple was so impressed by the passion of Subhash Chandra Bose that they named their firstborn after him.

     It was at the home of most of my childhood summers that I was to see the climate that reigned during the Quit India movement. Breathing free air, it is indeed a difficult to imagine a time when such was not the case. For me, being born in a dark corner room at Amma’s home, post independence, my grandparents were my real connections to history books that I had to reluctantly study.

The train from Bombay would arrive at around 4 am at Trichur, Kerala.  My grandfather would meet us at the station and take us home before the sun rose, past coconut palm dotted river banks and dancing paddy fields. My grandma would rush to open the massive wooden door and welcome us in for the summer, eyes twinkling. She would hug me and I would sink my head deep into her soft cotton mundu, and breathe in the fragrance of sandalwood paste. After every meal, she would pull out one animated story after another from her never ending bag of tales. Scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana would come to life as easily as the times of her youth. My grandfather and I would argue about the clashes between science and religion, and debate Gandhian philosophies, into late nights, by an oil lamp with the air heady with jasmine scent.

     I would revel in the tales, vanity about my family seeping into my juvenile head. My grandpa wore khadi until the day he passed and to this day, people in the nearby villages know about him. Oh how special my family was! It was later, that the realization struck me that all my friends’ grandparents belonged to that special time of ardor. And I wondered what it might have been like to be living in the mid 1940s. People responding to the call of Karo ya Maro and the romance and patriotism of the time can only be imagined.

I walked into Bela’s living room, and plonked myself onto a couch, waiting for kaku’s tea, when in walked her grandpa. Ajoba was a simple man, with whom I had not exchanged many words. He looked at me and smiled. “How was the meeting yesterday?” he asked. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I looked at him with a question on my face.

“You were there, weren’t you? I thought the morcha was great!” he quipped. “I think this satyagraha will work!”

     That was my first meeting with the Alzheimer’s condition. Ajoba did not recollect very well, the events of the recent past. The fiery lady who was my grandma, also, in the end of her days succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Someone who could recite complicated Sanskrit shlokas did not remember if she ate her breakfast or not. All her children and relatives had faded past recognition.  But she remembered the days of her youth. The memory of those days, the excitement, the passion could not be buried.  The disease could not take that away from them.

     Since aeons, India was the place that attracted others like bees to a pot of honey. After centuries of being ruled by people not born on Indian soil, it took a lot of character, struggle, zeal, and lives to gain freedom and self rule. The generation which fought that battle for the rest of us millions of Indians today is dwindling in strength. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And I don’t speak of the politicians of the day or the people in the eyes of the media. I speak of the people who are erroneously labeled the common man. We who were born into democracy and freedom, to whom any other style of life would be alien, merely watch the footprints of that age fade.

     The breezes are getting cooler.
     The gold in the aspen will soon creep in.
     The breath of the earth awaits winter.
     An epoch slowly goes by.

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