With every Amaltas tree lit up by dozens of bright chandeliers of sun-yellow blossoms that put the sun to shame and with every Gulmohar offering you, with a dainty smile, bright red parasols to shade you from the scorching sun on a hot summer noon – it is summer in this part of the world where I live.
It is summer – the perfect time for indoor homely pleasures – for a glass of violet colored drink of phalsa berries and for thick fresh curd beat with ice and milk cream and sugar called ‘lassi’ that I remember my grandmother was so fond of making. I still have faint memories of my summer vacations, when all schools and colleges would close and we would all pack up for a long stay at our grandmother’s old riverside house. Closing all the old windows and doors of our room and drawing all the thick green curtains and blinds on hot afternoons when burning gusts of ‘loo’ beat against the windowpanes outside, we cousins would enjoy in our dimly lit rooms cooled by wet ‘khas’, a game of cards or carom or chess and wait for the evening when grandmother would come in with the daintiest “mattha”, salty curd blended with ice, pepper, and mint leaves. And yes, how can one forget “panaa” – sourest unripe mangoes blended with green cool leaves of mint and black salt, cumin seeds and green chilies and, of course, delightful ‘thandaai’ made of ice milk, saunf seeds that grew in our garden, almonds and rose petals that my nani used to collect from the rose garden in winters and keep in the sun in a glass jars with sugar to make a kind of rose jam. This jam of red rose would also be used as a filling for lovely coned ‘pan’ leaves along with sweet supari and cherries.
Things have changed a lot since then – coke and synthetic drinks have replaced the traditional menus, fruits and milk have become too expensive for grandmothers to afford, and ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Bollywood’ movies and video games have replaced the simpler ones. But what is more important – those long vacations when all the family members would unite, are themselves becoming a thing of the past.
Arail road this summer
A couple of days back, I again went for a long drive on a little known and very less frequented Arail road, a little outside the main city. A long road dotted with yellow Amaltas and red Gulmohars that seems to go on and on forever. You can see the million year old Yamuna river travelling along with the road and both seem to be conversing sometimes too – old friends, of course! And on that side of the river sits a half lost old fort that once saw the grandeur of Mughal period, lost in the memories of bygone times and looking at its aging face in the mirror of the old river. On a summer day like this one, it reminds me of a painting of Amrita Shergill done in bright yellow and green and red summer hues of a simple dark eyed village woman squatting under a tree on a hot noon waiting for who knows what with her elbow resting on her knee and sun tanned face half covered with green sari. The best time to be on this road is, of course, noon – few passersby, no traffic, a well-known strong wind and fragrance coming from the river, and a shady road beckoning you to an unending journey.
I recall the summer I spent in the green campus of Banaras Hindu University many years back. As I would set out on foot with a water bottle, a parasol and a bag for the library in the quiet hours of the noon on a road flanked by huge and shady bunyan trees on both the sides, my delight would know no end. Its always cool under the grand and brooding banyan trees and they always remind me of the ancient ‘tapovans’ where hermits used to sit and contemplate about life and God. It is, I tell you, nothing less than a great sacrilege to go rushing past these ancient monks on a four-wheeler, disrespecting their stateliness by your speed, horns, and non-contemplation. BHU campus is one of the best campuses I had the opportunity of visiting – it has been built on a dream. A chain of very quiet and clean roads runs around the campus and all have their names dedicated to a particular tree and distinct identities – ‘Peepal’ road, ‘Aanwala’ road, ‘Aam’ road, ‘Gulmohar’ road, and so on. Whenever I see such heavenly roads, a desire overpowers me – the desire to see it available for all the toiling, hard working fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters of my land. A dream grows every time more potent – of a time when every remote corner of my country would be bedecked by even more beautiful garlands of inviting roads and streets and lanes that would compel my countrymen to set out on long journeys.
Imagine for a second, a world, that my heart says, certainly lies somewhere in the future, when the four walled cage called ‘home’ would lose its charm and roads would become the home, not as they are today, for the homeless wretched billions, but something quite different . . . a time when roads would be flanked by all the beauty that our earth contains – long lines of inviting shady trees, long sunny distances interspersed with cool restrooms and sun-lit lounges and the most inviting benches and tables and juice corners for you to sit, jot down ideas that might have flashed through your mind, and you would never for a second miss the caged drawing room that you’ve left hundreds of miles back. Their flower laden roofs, huge glass casements, little book shelves and heartening music would welcome the tired travelers – shoemakers as well as the managers of their industrial units equally – to relax in the cool lounges and tell each-other their little travel tales. These long meandering roads would take you up to the misty hilltops and breathtaking heights where ageless devdaru trees stand tall, holding the sky and the clouds in their arms and down to roaring seashores that would run along with it for long distances with waves crashing against its stone walls, and you would see seagulls fly past you on their journey to far off lands and hear their wild cries drown in the roar of the azure waves. Roads would no more be the way to a certain limited destination, but the unending destination itself . . .
despite the wretchedness and the unending misery, our plundered land still holds another treasure, lost to the denizens of sprawling cities – summer nights. I am myself one of those cursed millions who pass their nights watching the ceilings of four-walled locked rooms. What a shame to live in mortal fear – not of wild beasts but fellow human beings!
My political mission took me this summer to a small village of Pratapgarh, which is yet to receive the benefits of electricity or even a local health centre or hospital. It was election period. I was shocked to see how the media propaganda had engulfed even the remote villages and turned in one night the most corrupt and anti-people candidates into heroes and supermen and role models. A handful of us stood against a massive fascist propaganda wave. As the mercury reached 45 degrees, the difficult fight began. After a tough, daylong campaign, the evening would descend bringing much-awaited respite from the heat of the day and the bloodshot sun would vanish behind the tall line of eucalyptus trees. I would lie motionless on my little cot made of jute ropes and wood, under a fragrant Neem tree, feeling the healing balm of the cool star-lit summer night. And trust me, all your air conditioners and the best and coziest beddings and luxuries cannot give you that comfort and pleasure. Only a few hours of sleep used to be so refreshing that I would find myself awake in the dead of the night, feeling a little cold, and fumbling for a warmer sheet in the moonlit darkness. I would often lie awake for hours gazing at the far far away world of countless silent stars. And there, high above, in the heavens, a blinking ship sometimes slowly crossed the sea of the night sky with a dull droning sound carrying a few dozens of human Gods and Goddesses to another part of the earth. Will these Gods ever know the darkness and the misery that still envelops most of their poor land? I was once a part of that community high up there – and today as I lie awake watching the starry sky – I see them high up there, unconcerned, ignorant, unmoved by how their mother, who went to sleep empty-stomach this night with her half-fed, half-clad children, is facing the scorching sun this year.