March 21, 2017

Through the Lanes of Chaura Bazaar


The work of a Despatcher in the D.S.P.’s office calls for but little intelligence or analytical ability. It certainly does not require the kind of rigor in thought and analysis that I drew upon during my course of study at the Punjab Engineering College. All it requires is a willingness to spend long hours at the desk performing simple repetitive tasks.

Seated in a cosy corner of the Superintendent’s office I seldom need to interact with anyone; my only companions are a bottle of glue, pen and inkstand, a tiny weighing scale, a box which is replenished with a supply of postage stamps each week, and a sullen looking register to keep a record of correspondence. The volume of mail handled each day is variable; today I have addressed and affixed stamps to over fifty letters, which to me seems to be an incredible achievement.

I was back home by 5.00 p.m. today. Faced with the prospect of spending a dreary evening by myself, I had a quick shower and a change of clothes and picking up my bicycle, I took to the streets. A twenty minute’s exertion brings me to Chaura bazaar, the main shopping center of the old town. Nothing new here. The crowds are here as always, men, women, cycle rickshaws, fashionable ladies, bicycles trundling along. And the brightly painted signboards :  The Imperial Watch Company...  The New India Radio and Gramophone Company...  Lahore Cloth Merchants ... These and a hundred other names dazzle the casual visitor. The term New India is common enough these days and seems to have taken the country by storm. Now barely ten years of age, India is truly new, and seems to be on the threshold of a new economic revolution.

But I am not here in the marketplace to amuse myself; nor do I have anything to purchase for myself. I am here to call on Harminder and his family. Leaving behind the dazzling show of merchandise I turn into a lane and ride on. Poorly lit and dingy in appearance, this is the old city where tiny double storey homes are set against each other in narrow lanes with open gutters running freely on either side. A glance upwards reveals little galleries with decorative iron railings from which peer womenfolk curious to know what is taking place on the street below. The area is dark, crowded, cheerless, with barely any space between one home and the next. This is where Biji lives with her son and daughter. Biji, the frail old lady with hair white as snow. Biji, the gentle eyed creature mending  clothes under a bare sixty watt bulb.

As the train races across the plains of Punjab, great shimmering fields of wheat meet your eye. A brief halt at a little station, and the train is on the move again. A turn, a rumble over a girder bridge, then again fields, fields, and fields as far as the eye can see. Here and there you will find a tiny home which like a flash of lightning appears momentarily, and disappears forever. It is but a tiny dwelling—the dwelling place of those who toil with their hands. The farmhands are out for work, but ever so often you may spot a little boy or girl standing in the doorway gazing wonderingly at the train as its speeds across the countryside leaving behind a trail of smoke. It is in such a home that Biji grew up. She grew up watching trains from her home out in the open. Who would ever think she would go on to have a son who would work on a locomotive footplate?

Times have changed now. Biji no longer lives in her tiny village near Abohar. Those days are long past. She now lives in a two room tenement in the big city. The wooden staircase creaks as I ascend the steps. These quarters are far more dismal than the place where I myself live. And yet I look forward to meeting the family. I look forward to the warmth and the welcome. I have known the family for over two months now. I know old Biji will be overjoyed to see me today. I know she will make me comfortable on a chair, and fuss over me. She will offer me tea and biscuits as though I were a member of royalty. And when she retires to the kitchen she will send along the young lady to keep company. To chat, to talk over things, to laugh, and play, and sing folk songs.  Harminder himself approves of this. That young Harpreet should spend hours with me. I know the damsel will come to me with bright eyes, to show me a watercolor she has worked on. Or she will bring an exotic bit of cuisine she has made, and is proud to show off. She sits beside me for hours and talks. Talks about her life, her disappointments, her friends in the gully, the game of hop-scotch she had longed to play but could not, her days in school. At other times she will laboriously descend the stairs and limp along to the marketplace to get me sweets. I hate the idea of the girl descending the stairs for my sake, but she will have her own way.  

I know that Harpreet finds me an agreeable companion. At twenty one, she is like a kitten who has taken a liking to a puppy. Both mother and daughter are pleased when I drop into the home. The love and caring and sharing are beyond words. Life itself seems to be a stream that is carrying me along, and if the waves and ripples evoke a sense of pleasure and well-being, you don’t care much about where the current leads. You drift along with the boat. Where the boat is going to lead, it is too early to say, but there is a growing feeling in my mind that Harminder’s mother has something on her mind. That she has plans concerning me. Plans concerning Harpreet and me.
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