Friday, July 17, 2009

Scenes from a Punjabi Childhood

It was around four ‘o clock in the afternoon that my grandfather used to come home from the courts. We would eagerly await his arrival since he always brought home fresh sweets from the Bengali hunchback’s shop. As he approached the wooden gate of the house he would clear his throat, and this was a signal of sorts. His daughter- in- law would quickly cover her head; my grandmother would go to the kitchen and put water on for tea; we, his grandchildren, knew that it was the last round of dice in our afternoon game of Pachisi before the scores were tallied. This family routine persisted right through the 1940s.

My grandfather had other uses for his harsh, grating cry . When he cleared his throat in his office, his client knew that the interview was over, not unlike the government officer who signals the end of a meeting by noisily pushing back his chair. Occasionally, my grandfather would strike terror in the witness’s heart with the same piercing sound in the middle of an interrogation.
As we settled down to tea, my grandfather would ask, ‘So, what’s happening?’
‘Nothing much’, my uncle would reply nonchalantly, ‘Gandhi and Nehru were arrested again today ’.

My grandfather would grunt and the conversation would move on. We were a professional, middle-class family, not particularly given to patriotic enthusiasms. We were more interested in the latest scandal in our neighbourhood that had been uncovered by my uncle. Men like my grandfather were typical of a new professional middle class that had emerged in the late 19th century in the Punjab with the introduction of western education. It consisted of lawyers, post masters, railway engineers, medical and forest officers, and of course, bureaucrats and clerks.--all the new professions that were needed to run a province. Since passing an exam was the only barrier to entry, its members came from various castes and backgrounds. Although opportunities were open to all, the upper castes were the first to seize them. Once you learned English, cleared an exam, rewards and prestige were showered upon you. You became the new westernized urban elite whose rise matched the decline of the landed gentry.

My father was a civil engineer with the Punjab government and he spent his days building irrigation canals and bringing water to the parched land. I shuttled as a baby on the lap of my mother between canal colonies and my maternal grandfather’s sprawling home in Lyallpur. Most of Punjab was arid, but over three generations, the vision and toil of engineers like my father had created a network of canals that irrigated the land and turned it into a granary. The lower Chenab canal was one of the first to be built in the last quarter of the 19th century. With it came the orderly and planned town of Lyallpur, named after Sir James Lyall, the Lt. Governor of the Punjab. My grandfather proudly moved there in the early part of the twentieth century to start a law practice. And it was where I was born soon after Mahatma Gandhi challenged the British to ‘Quit India’ in 1942.

In the middle of Lyallpur was a brick clock tower from where eight roads emanated and a town spread out in concentric circles. Our house was off one of these roads called Kacheri Bazaar and the district courts were located there. Our road connected the tower with the sumptuous gardens of the Company Bagh which sprawled over forty acres. Since it was hot in the summers and cold in the winters, our daily life varied considerably with the seasons. We spent most of the day in our open courtyard where most of the business of the house was transacted. In the summers, we moved from the courtyard to the covered veranda before the sun rose too high. By midday, it was very hot and we went deeper into the cooler rooms inside. The bamboo shades came down after lunch as the house prepared for sleep. We returned to the courtyard in the early evening after the mashkiya had sprinkled cool water on it from his bag of goatskin. We even slept in the courtyard on hot summer nights and watched the brilliant stars high above. In the winters, this process was reversed. We slept inside and came out gradually with the morning sun. We spent most of the day in its luxurious warmth, shifting our chairs and charpais according to the sun’s path, and only returned inside at sunset.

Grandfather’s house was one of the first to come up in Kacheri Bazaar. He had been young and ambitious in the early years of the century with all the confidence of a man on the way up. He was filled with hope, thinking that the British were doing some good in India. Their railways had bridged the country and their canals had made a huge difference to the economy of the Punjab. But their best contribution, he felt, was the rule of law. As a lawyer he had experienced English justice first hand, and he reminded us more than once that English magistrates were mostly fair and decent.

As we sat drinking tea in the courtyard, grandfather would tell us of his latest case in court. My uncle would sometimes interrupt with an appreciative remark about the quality of the hunchback’s sweets. Conversation was the great pastime in our house. If two persons were together they would not read or work, they would sit down with a cup of tea and talk. And they could talk for hours about people they had never met. One day to our dismay, grandfather did not back bring sweets. He brought fruit instead. The house immediately rose up in revolt. Grandfather explained patiently that sweets were bad for us, and in the end he had to pull out all his lawyer’s tricks in order to persuade us. So, we switched reluctantly to eating fruit, and the air began to smell of mangoes and leechies in the summer and oranges and maltas in the winter. But for months we talked nostalgically of the hunchback’s sweets.

Grandfather valued routine, and at five o’clock his friends would arrive to play bridge. Some of them smoked the hookah while they played. Soon afterwards the family barber appeared and he gave give each bridge-player a shave, and would even oblige with a haircut if needed. After playing a few rubbers, grandfather would get up, ask for his cane and leave with his friends for the Company Bagh. As they walked, they talked about the politics of Lyallpur and of India, and in particular the growing distance between Hindus and Muslims.

In the gardens, grandfather was drawn to the odours exhaled by the exotic plants. Although his friends preferred the colourful beds of English flowers neatly laid out during our brief spring season, he was pulled by the fleshy, erotic scents of the magnolias, the jasmine and other decadent vegetation. He told us one day how he had been filled with nausea on learning that they had found the corpse of a Hindu boy in the carnation beds. The innocent boy had been stabbed by a Muslim youth and had come here to die all alone amidst the fragrance of the magnolias. They had found him face downwards, his face covered in vomit, his nails clinging to the soil. They had turned him over and he had covered the handsome face with his white handkerchief.
‘What did he die for, this poor boy?’ grandfather exclaimed when he returned home.
There were increasing incidents of violence between Hindus and Muslims throughout my childhood. One day when I was four my aunt had pulled me away from the window, and closed the shutters because a Muslim mob had begun to throw stones at our Hindu neighbour’s house. Grandfather talked about the madness of Hindus and Muslims killing each other ever since Jinnah had brought the possibility of a homeland for Punjab’s Muslims. Who would have thought, he said, that this would be the consequence of India’s struggle for freedom from colonial rule? His bridge friends reassured him that Hindus and Muslims had lived together for hundreds of years and they would continue to do so for hundreds more. It was merely a temporary insanity. After all, they were the same people--Indian Muslims were mostly converted Hindus. But we feared the worst.

After returning from the Company Bagh, grandfather would sit in his cane chair and watch the fading summer light in the courtyard. I sometimes joined him. We would watch my grandmother lead the women to the roof of the house in order to perform the sandhya. With lighted earthen lamps the women would chant Sanskrit verses in praise of the evening and the setting sun. Listening to them from below, grandfather had once observed with a smile that not a single one of them understood what she was saying.

My grandfather’s status had risen gradually over the previous decade as he had gradually married off his daughters, one by one, to Class I officials of the colonial bureaucracy. The eldest had married an official in the Indian Railways, who had impressed us with his luxurious salon-on-wheels in which he once came to visit us in Lyallpur. The second girl had married a professor of English in the prestigious government college at Lahore. He was an accomplished tennis and bridge player and this gave him an entry into a social world denied to the rest of the family. When he came to visit us in Lyallpur, he did not fail to drop important names casually in his conversation. The third, my mother, married a civil engineer in the Punjab government’s department of irrigation; and the fourth an officer in the Indian army. By marrying his daughters shrewdly to high-ranking professionals rather than to landlords, who were in fact wealthier than these officials, my grandfather bought social status and security for his family. And so we rose from the middle to the upper middle class within a generation.

As he rose in the world, grandfather became more finicky about his clothes. I would watch him change before he went out in the mornings. The servant would bring him polished shoes and helped him to put them on. Then he assisted him with his coat. Finally, it was time for the turban, an important moment, when all conversation was suspended. He wore his turban in a particular fashion, which he had learned from a stylish lawyer who had recently returned from Lahore, the capital of fashion. He made one, two, and then three turns around his head with the starched white cloth, and it was done. The servant offered him a silk handkerchief and his gold watch. He saw himself in the mirror and twirled his moustache. He looked a man of substance as he opened the gate and strutted off to his chambers.

After he left, my grandmother would get ready to do her social rounds in Lyallpur. She would be dressed in a starched white sari and she would often ask me to join her. We would set off at ten or eleven in the morning in our horse-drawn carriage, sometimes to mourn a death and other times to celebrate a birth or even an engagement. On the way we had to sometimes go through Civil Lines where the small British community and westernized Indians lived. The avenues would become broader and the bungalows more spacious. We passed the imposing Government House where the District Collector lived. It was a dazzling white building surrounded by colonnaded verandas set amidst acres of green lawn. Against the boundary wall there was an occasional splash of red or white bougainvillaea. The overall effect befitted the dignity of the district’s highest official. Next to it was the equally imposing government college surrounded by playing fields.

As our carriage went along the geometrically laid out roads and past the curving gravel driveways of the lesser officials of the Raj, my grandmother observed that the smells in this part of the town were different from ours. I once asked her why we could not live like this, in a stately house with green lawns amidst these splendid avenues shaded by trees. She replied that she would feel lonely here. She liked the bustle of the town, and she had got used to the high walls of her courtyard. My grandmother felt sure that she would feel naked in these ‘inside-out’ houses where the verandas and gardens faced the outside. It was not natural to live like this, she added

It was unnatural in another respect as well, and I understood this many years later. Civil Lines certainly had an unmistakeably different atmosphere from the chaotic part of the town where we lived, but it was not English either. Years later I visited England when I was grown up. I searched for our Civil Lines there but I did not find it. Our sun is too strong, our land is too flat, and these buildings were too imposing. Our alien rulers may have tried to create a bit of England, but they had not succeeded. Civil Lines was an imperial, intrusive, and antiseptic imposition and it was alien to both races.

During our journeys about town my grandmother would sometimes tell me a story from the Mahabharata. I would listen in fear and pity to her account of the epic’s great heroes. She had no doubt that the events actually happened. They had taken place before our degraded age. In those days, gods used to mingle with men, and human beings were more inclined to adhere to the highest ethics of dharma. Grandmother had a sense of cosmic time and she believed that the epic was a true account of the deeds of her righteous ancestors in the Punjab, who with the aid of the God, Sri Krishna, defeated unrighteous foes. For her the Mahabharata was not merely an epic—it was a divine work.

I was born a Hindu and had a Hindu upbringing. My grandfather belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect that had come up in the nineteenth century. Our ancestors did not have a living memory of their own political heritage and this must have been difficult. We had lived under Muslim rulers since the 13th century and had regarded political life as something filled with deprivation and fear. After the Muslims, we saw the rise of the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, and with its collapse around 1850 came the powerful British with Christian missionaries in tow. Thus, three powerful, professedly egalitarian and proselytizing religions surrounded us--Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. And so I can understand why my ancestors were eager to receive the Gujarati reformer, Dayananda Saraswati, who established the Arya Samaj in the Punjab in the second half of the nineteenth century. He advocated a return to the Vedas, a diminished role for Brahmins and vigorous social reform. He ‘modernized’ our Hinduism.
‘Arya’ in Sanskrit means ‘noble’ among other things. European scholars in the nineteenth century took this ancient word from the Vedic texts to propagate a racial theory of ‘Aryan’ origins of Hindu culture and society based on a common Indo-European language system. We embraced this idea enthusiastically for it related us racially to European Aryans. Arya Samaj had the positive impact of helping to create a nationalist sentiment among the new Punjabi middle classes for freedom and independence from Britain. The invention of an Aryan race in nineteenth century Europe had tragic consequences for Europe, culminating in the ideology of Nazi Germany. Half a century after the Second World War, the word ‘Aryan’ evokes repulsive memories of Nazism and is thoroughly discredited in the West. In India, however, it has been revived, curiously enough, with the rise of Hindu nationalism and the ascent of the Bhartiya Janata Party.

The Arya Samaj started many schools in the Punjab and my father went to one of these, the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (D.A.V) School, in Lahore. After completing it, he passed the entrance examination to the coveted Roorkee Engineering College, which had been set up by the British in the mid-nineteenth century to train civil engineers who were to build the growing network of irrigation canals and roads in the Punjab and the United Provinces. By the time my father went to Roorkee in 1931, there was a growing Punjabi middle class. Roorkee was a fine place. It not only gave my father an excellent technical education, it also fostered intellectual curiosity and introduced him to modern ways. He learned to ride, to play tennis and to think for himself. Oddly enough, it also made him deeply curious about the spiritual life.

Two years later, my father came home triumphantly waving a coveted degree. This was in 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression when the Punjab government had stopped hiring irrigation engineers. But he was patient. He bided his time, and eventually he got into the government the following year. During the year of waiting, he embarked on a spiritual quest. He found a mystically-inclined Guru who had an ashram on the banks of the Beas River; through him, he developed a lasting passion for the spiritual life. The Guru was a sant of the Radhasoami sect, descended intellectually from medieval bhakti and sufi traditions that gave him about the possibility of direct union with God through devotion and meditation. His modern mind appealed to my father’s rational, engineer’s temper. So, my father turned away from the Arya Samaj.
My maternal grandmother in Lyallpur remained a traditional Hindu when everyone was rushing to join the Arya Samaj. Her dressing room was filled with the images of her many gods, prominent among them Krishna and Rama, and she would say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. Her eclecticism did not stop there. She would visit the Sikh gurdwara on Mondays and Wednesdays, a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays and she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when anyone was born, married, or died. My grandfather used to jest that she had taken out lots of insurances—at least someone up there might listen to her. My father’s mysticism, my grandfather’s Arya Samaj and my grandmother’s traditional Hinduism seem to have coexisted in a chaotic sort of way without causing disharmony in my mind. Amidst this religious pluralism, I have grown up with a liberal attitude and temper that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for the Hindu way of life.

Our family in Lyallpur had a hypocritical attitude towards money. Officially, we did not accord it a high place, but, in fact, we loved it. Although we professed a low opinion of the bania commercial castes, grandfather was not above money-lending. Belonging to the Arora sub-caste, we thought we had descended from ruling families from mythical times. Aroras and Khatris were the dominant castes of urban Punjab, although Khatris thought they had a higher status. Both of us, however, engaged in commerce and were also functionaries at princely courts. When the British came in the mid- nineteenth century, both were among the first to embrace western learning and the modern professions. Although Brahmins were superior to us in caste hierarchy, they lost their social position because they were slow to learn English and confined themselves to studying Sanskrit and to religious duties.

I remember my grandmother used to admonish our bania grocer for manipulating his weighing scale. It was the same with the family jeweller, but she treated him with more finesse. She would also scold her son for wasting his pocket money on “adulterated” ice cream. Each commercial transaction, it seems, was a challenge in our lives. It was always a case of us—educated, honest, middle- class citizens—versus them—tax dodging, street-smart banias. We may have looked down on banias, but we loved the bazaar. The most famous bazaar in the Punjab was Lahore’s Anarkali, and to shop in it was the fondest wish of every Punjabi. People came from all over the Northwest to taste its fun, gaiety, and laughter. All of Anarkali’s women, they used to say, were beautiful, and all its men handsome. And if something could not be had in Anarkali it was probably not worth having. For this and other reasons, they called it ‘paradise on earth.’

The great event of the year was our annual visit to the orchards of my great aunts who lived in Gujranwala district. It took weeks of planning and co-ordinating and there was much excitement and bustle in our Lyallpur house before we left. The entire family went by train from Lyallpur to Gujranwala, and along the way, at different stops, other relatives would join our train, and by the time we arrived, we had become a great big clan party. At the railway station at Gujranwala, we piled onto sad-looking tongas, and amidst much merry making, we headed for the prosperous orchards of our country cousins.

Their prosperity as landlords was recent. It had come with the canal. With water available in plenty, they began to grow fruit that was transported by agents to far away places like Lahore. There was a sharp divide in attitudes between our cousins and us. We were from the town and we considered ourselves superior even though they were wealthier. They owned lands but we were better educated. We felt squeamish about their bathroom and lavatory arrangements but they were more generous and their big-heartedness always won us over. My grandfather once observed that more than anything else it was the English language that divided us from our Gujranwala family. They had the money but we held the status. When Punjab was partitioned in 1947, they suffered far more than we did. All of us became refugees--both Gujranwala and Lyallpur went to Pakistan. But they lost their lands, and they became poor. We were educated and we could get jobs and get going.

My stay in Lyallpur with my grandparents came to an end when my father found a house in a canal colony in the Hisar district of East Punjab. We went by train and stopped en route at his Guru’s ashram. My father wanted to receive the Guru’s darshan, which he believed held the power to protect us and give us spiritual moorings. My father’s mother had also accompanied us to the ashram and she impulsively placed me at the Guru’s feet and asked him to give me a name. She suspected that my mother had given me my name, Ashok Kumar, because she thought my mother was secretly in love with the movie star of the same name. His film Achhut Kanya, produced by Bombay Talkies, had been a big hit in the cinemas of Lahore, Lyallpur, and in the rest of Punjab.

‘Since you have placed him at my feet, let us call him ‘Guru Charan Das’, he said with a smile. Thus, I was transformed overnight from the ‘prince of happiness’ to the humble ‘servant of the guru’s feet’. The Guru must have known that this child needed to be reminded about the virtue of humility every day. The first two parts of my name became gradually condensed into one, but it did nothing to make me humble or spiritual.

My mother was visibly unhappy in the canal colony. She felt lonely and the vast, unbroken horizon on the dusty, treeless plains of Hisar added to her sense of isolation. She missed her family, her friends and the comforts of Lyallpur. She was also anxious because I got diarrhoea soon after we arrived. Her only comfort was the continuing monotonous sound of the running canal behind our house. My father was a quiet and shy man and at first his silence also troubled her, but she got used to doing all the talking. As a sub-divisional officer, he was the most important official of the Raj for miles. His job was to maintain his portion of the canal, making sure that the water flowed efficiently through smaller distribution channels to the farmers’ fields. This was difficult at times because some farmer would invariably divert his neighbour’s water, and this led to a quarrel - and even murder. In such a situation, he became the judge.
The few buildings in the canal colony were of brick. They had flat roofs with wide verandas, all white washed inside as dictated by the Public Works Department. My mother tried to make friends with the wives of the overseers but she found them uneducated and could not resist a feeling of superiority. She liked being the wife of an important official. The farmers overwhelmed her with gifts of grains and vegetables from the fields, but my father invariably returned them. They were a bribe and he knew that the price he would have to pay, and it would be to look the other way when the farmer illegally widened the water channel to his field.

After eighteen months in Hisar my father was transferred to a desk job in the government’s irrigation department in Lahore. After the canal post, my mother was thrilled to be in the capital city of Punjab where she had been to college and had many friends. My father got a modest house in a middle-class area, not too far from the sprawling Lawrence Gardens, presided over by a statue of John Lawrence, the ‘Lord Sahib of India’. It was our first real home and my mother furnished it with pride and care - but within my father’s limited means. She was overjoyed to be young and alive and living in Lahore. She was under the spell of its enchanted streets, its vivacious bazaars and its beautiful women.
Our idyllic life in Lahore was short-lived. In the late afternoon of 20 August 1946, there were urgent steps outside. My mother was sitting at the dressing table. She held a bottle of coconut oil in her hand and she was combing her hair. I was watching her in the mirror when my father burst in and announced that Lord Louis Mountbatten had been appointed Viceroy and he had declared that the British would finally leave India. My mother dropped the bottle.
‘Look what you did!’ she exclaimed accusingly.

Eight months later, Mountbatten announced that Punjab would have to be partitioned to make room for the Muslim state of Pakistan. Our happiness over our country’s approaching independence turned to fear and uncertainty, and a pall of gloom settled over the Hindus of Lahore. We wondered if Lahore would go to India or to Pakistan. In those months before the boundary line was drawn, everyone was in a panic. We no longer felt safe. Large-scale violence broke out in early August 1947. While the Muslims were in a majority in Lahore, the Hindus owned eighty percent of the property. When our neighbour's house was burned in early August, we realised that we might be trapped on the wrong side of the new border. The next day a Muslim mob came and threatened to burn us alive if we did not leave. We escaped that night to the home of a Muslim friend of my father's who hid us in his storeroom. On August 8 we fled. My younger aunt's husband, a major in the army, brought us to safety in a military truck, and deposited us at the Guru’s ashram at Beas. On August 9, 1947 occurred the ‘Great Killing of Lahore’ in which 10,000 Hindus were slaughtered.

At midnight on August 14th the British Raj came to an end. On the same day Pakistan was born, carved out of Punjab and Bengal. Sir Cyril Radcliffe did the actual carving in five weeks and the demarcation on the map came to be known as the Radcliffe Boundary Award. The Guru gave asylum to thousands of refugees like us. He set up tents and make-shift kitchens. To our good fortune, according to the boundary line drawn by Mr. Radcliffe, the ashram found itself forty miles inside the Indian border. My mother cried continuously for she had heard no news from Lyallpur and she was afraid that her family was trapped. In his last letter, my grandfather was reported to be stubbornly insisting on staying on even if Lyallpur went to Pakistan. My father had been to Jullunder, the nearest town, to enquire after their whereabouts, but he had not succeeded. On the historic night of the 14th, dozens of people were huddled in our ill-lit tent glued to the radio. Despite the suffering and the uncertainty about the future, the refugees were filled with emotion as Nehru began his historic speech at midnight. For the first time we heard the new nation’s anthem but few recognised it. Someone stood up. Then, one by one the others also got up until everyone in the dark tent was standing up, and many had tears in their eyes. When the reference came to ‘Punjab’ in the anthem, the refugees looked at each other, helplessness in their eyes.

In the end, my grandfather had no choice. On August 9, a train filled with half-dead Muslim refugees arrived in Lyallpur. They told a harrowing tale of murder, arson and rape on the other side of the border. The Muslims of Lyallpur vowed revenge. On the morning of the 10th, the Muslim clergy called a meeting in Lyallpur’s main mosque and called upon God fearing Muslims to kill non-Muslims. Sikhs were singled out to pay for the crimes in Amritsar, Jullunder and Ludhiana. On hearing this, Sikhs began to cut off their hair and shave their beards. The barbers of Lyallpur were unusually busy that day. But it did not help. Two thousand Hindus and the Sikhs were killed on the 10th. Grandfather’s family escaped miraculously. My uncle, the major, showed up at their door without warning on the same afternoon with a military van. He gave them an hour to pack. As they piled in, my grandmother said, ‘O wait! I forgot to lock the front door’. My grandfather shook his head, ‘she’s locking the Muslims out’.

A week later, my father learned that he had been transferred to Simla, which had now become the temporary capital of the new, truncated state of Punjab after the loss of Lahore to Pakistan. We left the ashram the following day but found only chaos at Jullunder’s railway station. No one knew to what schedule the trains were running. On both sides of the railway platform, crowds of refugees were huddled together, believing that they would be safer in groups. As soon as a train approached, the refugees would get up. Pushing and shouting, they would rush for the train. But the last four trains had not stopped.

We did finally manage to get onto a train which was going east. But it did not move, and seemed to stand still for hours. My father went to check with the station master. From the window of our compartment, I watched him go past and I saw a tall Muslim police officer standing erect on the platform. Suddenly, there was movement. A train was coming from the opposite direction—from Delhi going to Lahore. Activity increased on the platform, but the policeman seemed unaffected, and continued to stare straight ahead. Then two very young Sikh boys emerged from nowhere. They could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen. They came from behind and thrust a dagger into the policeman. He did not cry. He just fell and died. My mother pulled me back and tried to shut the window, but it would not close.

We heard screams as the incoming train slowed down. There were sounds of bullets. My mother pushed me down. We lay on the floor of the carriage. They were shooting at the incoming train. There were more shots followed by more shouts. The train full of half-dead bodies did not stop. Minutes later an old Sikh forced his way into our compartment. Full of fear my mother screamed. ‘We are Hindus, don’t kill us!’ Then she saw her husband come in after the stranger. My father had found him at the ticket window when the shooting began and the old man grabbed hold of my father’s shirt. Both had hidden in the toilet of the First Class Retiring Room. Eventually we began to move. We reached Ambala, where we changed for Kalka, and from there got on the hill train for Simla.
The view from the tiny window of the miniature hill train was enough to refresh the most exhausted emotions. On each bend of the winding route, we saw green slopes with tiers of neatly cultivated terraces, which looked like gardens hanging in the air. Belts of pine, fir and deodar punctuated the terraces. Masses of rhododendrons clothed the slopes. Towards the south, we could see the receding Ambala plains far below. Sabathu and the Kasauli hills were in the foreground. Northwards rose the confused Himalayan chains, range after snowy range of the world’s highest mountains. The stench of death was left behind at Jullunder station.
The train stopped at Barog where a white car on rails went speeding by. ‘The rail car’, the Anglo-Indian ticket collector explained, ‘carries the rich and the busy who don't have luggage and who want to reach Simla in a hurry. Until a week ago it was the only white sahibs rode in it, but now it seems everyone is doing it. Amazing, how quickly the brown sahibs have slid into the shoes of their departing masters!’

At Shogi, we glimpsed the first wondrous vision of Simla. From afar, it looked like a mythical green garden dotted with red-roofed houses. Our excitement mounted. We passed Jutogh, crossed Summer Hill, turned into tunnel number 103, and finally reached Simla's Victorian railway station. The town of Simla occupied a spur of the lower Himalaya and ran in an east-west direction for six miles. We settled in a little cottage which was situated in an unfashionable part of town known as Chhota Simla, at the southeast end, sloping directly south towards Jakhoo hill. The government provided us a house that was tiny and icy cold at night. But we loved our little house. It was situated in a handsome grove of deodars and from our veranda we had a spectacular view of the next ridge and many ridges beyond. From the narrow veranda, we stepped onto a little lawn; from the lawn, there was nothing to step onto except fresh air for the ground suddenly dropped beneath our feet.

My earliest memory of Simla is of waking up suddenly on a frosty morning. It was just after dawn and I was only half awake. It had been raining and along with the wet there was a rawness in the air. I could hear the wind blow. I ran to my mother’s bed. She stretched her arm and I nestled by her side. With her warm hands she felt my body and pressed me closer to her.
‘Did you have a bad dream?’ she asked.
I did not answer. I was content to feel her warmth. In her big bed with her soft arms around me, I felt protected. I cuddled against her and in a moment I was blissfully asleep.

I was put into St Edward’s school soon after we arrived. I cried on the first day when I was taken by the headmaster to the first grade. I stood shyly behind the door, not daring to go in. I was shorter than the other boys and my hair was cut square and parted in the middle like a peasant’s. I was ill at ease in a new shirt which pinched me under my arms. My new shorts braced up tightly. I sat down at a desk at the back, not daring to cross my legs. When the bell rang in the afternoon I did not get up. I would have kept sitting there had the teacher not returned to the class to pick up her bag. The daily two mile walk to school along Cart Road framed my new life. In the mornings I would be rushed and nervous, my hair wet, as I hurried to school, In the afternoons I would dawdle back home, usually with other boys. I would linger, eat wild berries along the way, and arrive kicking a pine cone with my new Bata shoes.
In the evenings, everyone in Simla went to the Mall no matter what the season. Between five and seven o'clock the thing to do was to get dressed and take a stroll from the Ridge to the end of the lower Mall in order 'to eat the air’. It was a wide, winding stretch of about a mile along a gentle slope with glamorous shops and smart cafes. One went there to be seen and to see others, and every evening you found a veritable fashion parade where men, women and children vied with each other in the elegance of their clothes.

We had never seen anything quite like Simla: the Tudor belfry of Christ Church cathedral with its massive brass bells; the elegant Victorian villas with their gardens bursting with dahlias and pansies; the imposing architecture of Viceregal Lodge. Simla had been, after all, a grand bouquet to the Englishmen's fondest imperial dream. For five months of the year, from mid-April to mid-September, it used to be the imperial capital from where the British Viceroy ruled the Indian Empire (extending, administratively speaking, from Burma to the Red Sea). Every English man and woman in India used to yearn to be in Simla for 'the season', when it was one of the gayest places on the earth. The refugees from West Punjab were so happy to be alive that they embraced Simla with reckless abandon and tried to make a new life; this helped them to forget the one they had lost in Pakistan.

My father earned a modest salary, and my mother ran the house on a tight budget. Her biggest expenses were on school fees, uniforms, and milk for her growing children. She worked hard to get us into an English-medium school although it cost more than she could afford. It had a long waiting list because of the recent influx of refugees and she had to apply “influence” to get us in. She made sure that we worked hard at studies, got good marks, especially in English and Mathematics. At the end of the month there was little money left for anything else.
A shy mid-level government official, my father was a man content with his own company. But my mother had a great and unrequited desire to be a part of Simla’s fashionable society. She wanted ‘to see and to be seen’; she wanted to mix with the elite; she wanted to be a ‘somebody’--and she lived in fear that her own world was insignificant compared to the grand world beyond us. The natural solution was to join ‘the club’, the ADC. Although it had begun as an Amateur Dramatics Club, a sort of extension to the Gaiety Theatre during the British days, it was now mainly a social club and, more importantly, the meeting place of the fashionable in Simla. Unfortunately, we could not afford it.

She must have transmitted her anxieties to me for I grew up with an acute concern for status. I compared myself to those who had things that I did not possess; to boys who were more attractive to girls than I was; and especially to those who made it to the school cricket team. I must have been twelve when a bachelor friend of our family’s saw me hovering outside the ADC one day. He put an arm around me. ‘Come, my boy, let’s go into the Green Room for a cup of tea,’ he said.

We were greeted by the hall porter and we walked past smoke-filled card rooms to another room full of young people and laughter. I looked around me with awe. Bearers in starched white uniforms with green cummerbunds and sashes and tassels were gliding between the tables. ‘So, this is where the smart people of Simla meet’, I thought. As my host hailed a group of young people to join us, I was intoxicated by my first encounter with an inaccessible and forbidden world--the glamour, the clothes, the sophistication of language and manners. I imagined these people dwelling in big houses, with tall hedges and high gates, leading a life quite unlike my own.
Among them I recognized a girl who was a few years older. She looked utterly beautiful. I kept looking at her, hoping she would recognize me. But she looked through me. Even when I smiled at her she ignored me. My head was spinning when I returned home. I was excited by my first encounter with a forbidden world. I tried to recall her thin face. I could visualize her shining brown eyes, her long dark hair, and the unusual way she tilted her head. The more I thought about her, the more inaccessible she seemed to become. I would lie awake for weeks thinking of her.

My discovery after a few days that I knew where she lived left me breathless. I had recognized her because I used to pass her house daily on my way to school. I had seen when I had accidentally peered through their hibiscus hedge. What had been an impersonal landmark on my daily trudge to school now seemed to acquire a special character. Even before the bell rang in the afternoon announcing the end of school, I would begin to think of her. I would hurriedly gather my books and run out before any of my schoolmates decided to tag along. A red, round post-box—a proud symbol of the British days—stood a hundred yards from her home and it announced the pleasure that awaited me. When I reached her gate, I would slow down my galloping pace, take a deep breath, and walk with measured steps.

My heart beat would quicken as I looked thorough the latticed gate, which gave a view of the side of the house along with the winding path leading up to it. From this angle I could tell if they had company. I could observe the servants moving back and forth to the lawn with the tea service. As I walked along the road I could see the front of the house. I was grateful for the hibiscus hedge that was cut low for I could see the lawn but I had to be careful not to be seen. I became skilled at hiding behind a giant deodar tree that was on a slightly higher level. The house itself had a long gabled front of red brick but years of Simla’s weather had mellowed it.
They always seemed to have company and on my ‘lucky days’ I would be able to spot her. She would sometimes be talking to her friends. At other times she would be playing badminton towards the side of the house. I saw her one day up close. She was in light blue and sitting on the lawn a few yards away from the hedge. She was speaking with two boys and a man of indeterminate age. Her head was unmistakeably tilted as she listened to the man. Suddenly she looked up and she saw me. Her lively eyes seemed to mock me. A shiver ran through my body and I quickly moved away. A few minutes later I heard a voice. It was the same man who called out to me from the hedge. He told me that it was not polite to stare at people. I was mortified and I walked away quickly. When I reached home I was depressed by the contrast of my drab life with the brilliance of her world.
Some years later, I met the object of my dreams properly and discovered that she was a snob, and like all snobs she had an enormous capacity for inflicting pain.

bhakti : love or devotion for a personal form of God
charpai : a bed with a wooden frame, interwoven with rope
darshan : seeing, beholding, vision of the divine; to see with reverence
dharma : duty, law, virtue, doing the right thing
mashkiya : a person who pours water from a goatskin bag
pir : a Sufi teacher, spiritual leader
sant : saint, guru
Sufi : inner, mystical dimension of Islam
tonga : light horse drawn carriage

This account forms a chapter in Remembered Childhood, Oxford University Press, Nov 2009. Some of the incidents have appeared earlier in a different forms in my autobiographical novel, A Fine Family and my non-fiction narrative, India Unbound.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Like honeybees collecting nectar, (Outlook, July 20, 2009)

Ever since 1991 we have come to expect a vision of the economy’s future in the Budget speech of the Finance Minister. This did not happen on July 6, 2009. The day before, the Economic Survey had raised the hopes of real reform. Those hopes were dashed. Pranab Mukherjee spoke like an accountant, not a statesman, and the stock market fell by almost a thousand points. The new government lost an opportunity to spell out its program and win over domestic and foreign investors.

Ultimately, the nation needs private investment to pull us out of this economic downturn. Because of the failure to articulate the long term, investors worry that the big spending stimulus of this government is here to stay and it will crowd out private investment. A large deficit is understandable in these recessionary times, but we needed a commitment to return to fiscal responsibility once normal times return. Deficit spending on this scale risks a re-rating of the country, which would mean a higher cost of money, higher inflation, and bad consequences for the Indian rupee.

Nevertheless, there are many positives in this Budget. In our bad old socialist days, Finance Ministers would have raised tax rates to cover fiscal deficits. This time the FM actually decreased tax rates for individuals (from 34% to 31%) while holding them for companies. This was courageous and it is strongest indicator that Pranab Mukherjee has changed and believes in growth. Many countries suffering from the global recession have increased tax rates. This FM also showed guts in scrapping the irritating and ugly Fringe Benefit Tax. The major negative was the raising of the Minimum Alternative Tax for companies from 10% to 15%, and this will hurt our fastest growing companies and those in infrastructure.

The best thing the in the Budget is a re-commitment to a dual Goods and Services Tax (GST) from April 2010. This is a wonderful idea which has been championed for years by Vijay Kelkar. India is not a common market where goods and services move smoothly. Anyone who sells a product lives through a nightmare of excise, state and central sales taxes; entry, turnover, and service taxes; and the terrible octroi which keeps trucks waiting for hours at check points. GST will integrate all these indirect taxes into one flat tax, which is IT intensive, offering frictionless interface between taxpayer and collector. Like the VAT, it taxes only the added value at each stage, lowering the overall tax burden. Those who persist in selling without a bill will lose credit on taxes already paid, it will force them into the tax net. It will improve compliance and make us a more honest nation. A lot of work needs to be done to make GST happen but the Finance Minister’s re-commitment to GST will now galvanize the centre and states to work hard and move to the most important tax reform in India’s history.

Another positive feature of Pranab Mukherjee ‘s speech was his commitment to changing the attitude of tax collectors. P. Chidambaram, in his well-intentioned zeal for taxes, had let loose the tax departments on the taxpayers and this had created fear, bad blood, and the loss of some of the goodwill created during Jaswant Singh’s time. Mukherjee wants tax collectors to be “honeybees collecting nectar from the flowers without disturbing them, but spreading their pollen so that all flowers can thrive and bear fruit.” This is the right attitude. Despite many honest and hard working officers in income tax, customs and excise, these departments continue to give India a bad name. In successive surveys, foreign investors cite them as the reason why India is not a good place to do business.

The Congress Party was re-elected in May on the promise of economic populism. On July 6 the government delivered on that promise. This is bad news for India because populism is a temporary palliative and does not lead to long term prosperity of the poor; it is also something that our country cannot afford. The nation waited to hear about the reforms that would create precisely those enabling conditions for the poor to pull themselves up. India’s tax payers are not against a safety net for the poorest, but they want the benefits to reach the poor. When the FM announced handouts in the thousands of crores, it was his duty to reassure us that the money would not be lost once again in corruption. We waited in vain to hear what government was doing to improve delivery. Without the overhang of the Left, there is no excuse for the UPA taking the country backward. If it persists in this it will lose the goodwill of so many who voted for it.
Gurcharan Das is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma (Penguin 2009), which interrogates the Mahabharata in order to find the answer to ‘why be good?’